Corked: A Tale of Wine Woe

I went to a winemaker dinner a few months back.

I jotted this anecdote down shortly after the event that I'm about to reveal, but ever since, I've been wrestling with whether or not to relay the tale.  While I won’t name specific names involved, it is still a rather sensitive issue and reveals something of the internal machinations of the wine industry. 

In the end, I've thought over and over, that at the very least, this is a story worth telling.

I attended a highfalutin' affair in a hotel grand ballroom, catered by a prominent local chef, and filled to the brim with some of the wine world's luminaries.  A collection of the biggest winemakers, proprietors and sommeliers were in attendance.  This was not a dinner of ignorant wine newbies or braggadocios wine collectors; these were the knowledgeable workers, the seasoned makers, and the crème de la crème of the wine world, in all its various facets, which made this situation all the more perplexing.

As is customary at many of these industry events, the winemakers will often bring along special bottles to share with the group.  Typically these "special bottles" are older vintages of their best wine or an obscure bottling that is hard to find.  Whichever it happens to be, it's always a treat. 

So, at my table, there happened to be two winemakers, a couple of proprietors, and three or four wine directors of well-known restaurants from various cities around the country.  These people knew their wine.  Two seats down from me was a very big name in the American wine scene.  He was the winemaker and heir to a Legendary Winery, and was regaling the table with stories of the early wine industry, prior to the fame or high prices that his wines now commanded. 

For context, it was a bit like sitting next to Steven Spielberg relaying tales of his early days with George Lucas and John Milius in the mid-70s prior to Jaws, Star Wars or Conan hitting the cultural zeitgeist.

After the appetizers were served, and we'd been sipping on a single-vineyard Syrah and a Chardonnay, Mr. Legend unmasked a bottle he'd been hiding under the table.  My jaw literally dropped as he revealed his surprise bottle.  It was a 2003 Reserve Cabernet.  It was the top bottling from his winery and had 13 years of age on it. 

For us wine geeks, the wine meant a bevy of butterflies in my belly like seeing your first love.  I was about to drink the "Mona Lisa" or, at the very least, Warhol's "Campbell's Soup Cans."

It took every ounce of restraint inside of me not to drop kick the guy next to me and leap across the table to siphon off a glass.  I sat patiently, sipping the 2012 Syrah in front of me, imagining what was about to slip past my lips, while Mr.  Legend slowly unfurled the capsule, dipped his corkscrew down into the neck and popped off the cork, perfectly sounding like a smacking pair of lips. 

He poured off a sample, smelled and finally tasted it, nodding his head in approval.

Only then did he offer the bottle around our table, pouring short glasses into each person's wine vessel, one by one.  I was second to last in the line, and as each person took their splash, they appeared as if they might as well have been taking communion from Jesus himself.  I felt the same.  One by one, I watched each of the others smell the special wine, taste, and smile like it was the elixir of life.

Finally, Mr. Legend deigned me worthy of having a taste and I offered my glass to him, trying not to tremble.  The dark purple, almost black, liquid poured out like a dense waterfall.  I smiled my approval and nodded my thanks. 

"This is a treat," I told him as a whispered orison.  "Thank you."

He already knew that it was a treat, his smile told me.  He winked.

I could feel my cheeks flush with excitement as I thrust my nose deep into the tipped glass, my heart daring to run into attack mode.  With a deep inhalation, I took in all of the dense, mouthwatering aromas of black raspberries, cassis, and--old cardboard.  I stopped, confused.  That couldn't be right.  I stuck my nose past the glass's rim again, inhaled.   Rich, black fruits, chocolate, a touch of charcoal and the overwhelming aroma of a closed-off attic filled with old boxes.  Musty mothballs

The bottle was corked.  Clearly corked.  What should have been the wine of the night was absolutely corked.  Really bad.  Not the worst corked bottle I'd ever experienced, but bad enough that I couldn't look past it.  If I could have plopped it on a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being a faint, barely registered flutter of corkage and 10 being like slurping back the liquid form of moldy cardboard, this was a 6—clearly corked, but not totally overwhelming the wine.

I looked back over to the winemaker, about to utter my judgment, but then I noticed something incredible.

A different winemaker, sitting to my left, with slicked back, shining black hair, called out to Mr. Legend, “Wow, thanks for this.  This is quite special,” just before he gulped back a mouthful of the juice without an adverse reaction.

Across the table from me, a jovial sommelier from Boston cooed loudest as if he were on the verge of singing, “This has held up soooo well.” 

On and on, around the table, each and every person was talking about how great the wine was—and to be clear, this was a great wine typically, to be held up in circles with the very best of Napa and Bordeaux—but this sucker was horribly corked and all of these wine industry professionals were unabashedly gushing about how great it tasted.

It was an Emperor-Has-No-Clothes moment and I was the unfortunate commoner that had to speak up about the truth.  It was up to me to speak about how this, capital "G", Great Winemaker from the Legendary Winery had no clothes…but I didn’t have the courage.  I couldn’t get the words out.  Although I felt absolutely certain about my calculation that the wine was indeed corked, listening to these other wine professionals praise the magnificence of this wine drove me to questioning my sanity. 

Was I crazy?

I picked up a different glass to taste.  It was perfectly fine—a 2012 single vineyard Syrah, deep and brooding with licorice, blackberry and pepper.  Delicious. 

Then I returned to the legend—Musty Cardboard.  It was amplified by that point, screaming at me.  Clearly corked.  The 6 had been cranked up, all the way to an 11. 

I looked around the table once more and the same proclamations were offered about the Legendary Wine as they dove back into the '03 Reserve again and again.

This was utterly perplexing.  I went back and forth, growing more and more conflicted about what I could say or if I should say anything at all.  I couldn’t.  I couldn’t do it.  I continually circled back to the unrelenting feeling that I couldn't possibly offer a critique to a Great Winemaker who, by every account, knew far more about wine than I did.

Eventually, Mr. Legend left, needing to make it to another appointment, and the rest of the table continued the drinking and partying.  I pushed the Legend Wine away from me, attempting to forget about it by partaking in the other available wines and conversation with my neighbor.

Of course, my mind continued to linger on that elephant at the table and minutes later, another sommelier from a different table passed by ours, and like a moth to flame, grabbed up the Legend bottle.  He was a hipster wine guy, handlebar mustache and all, and poured himself a glass.  I watched this with great interest.  I spied on him, waiting for his telling reaction, as he brought his glass to the tip of his nose, which immediately crinkled.  My eyes went wide.  The hipster's entire face twisted with disgust and he pulled his glass away from the foul smell.

"Isn't this corked?" he asked the table yet no one, except me, noticed.

I almost leaped up from the table, but I contained my glee.  Instead, I nodded with him solemnly, agreeing that it was a bad bottle.  He shrugged his shoulders and poured out his glass into a waiting spit bucket before moving to another table.

I was correct in my assessment, but I was the loser.  I felt vindicated, but still wanted to tasted that 2003 Reserve in all its glory.  Perhaps one day.

This situation has caused me to question varying aspects of the wine world on several, different levels.  I've wondered if the entire wine industry is just full of itself, ready to proclaim a wine great solely because of its assumed clout and acclaim rather than its particular merits?  Could wine professionals even be trusted on a good wine even though they weren’t able to spot a corked bottle that was plain as day?  And how did this Great Winemaker from the Legendary Winery miss a clearly corked bottle although his knowledge of winemaking was, no doubt, immense?

And the most perplexing question for me of all:  Was I just as bad—or worse—since I didn’t even say anything about its being corked?

I have no answers, so I guess I'll have to mull over these deep-seated queries with a bottle of '82 Petrus.  Hopefully it won't be corked.

A Post-Fact Era

Following Trump's historic win on November 8th, billionaire investor and prominent Trump supporter, Peter Thiel cut to the core of the media's inability to understand or even properly report on the President-Elect and that profound disconnect came down to the idea of taking his rhetoric literally versus seriously.

For a specific example, Thiel provides Trump's promises on deporting 11 million illegal immigrants using a gestapo-type, door-to-door approach and constructing a "Great Wall" along our southern border.  Those in the media reported on these promises "literally," taking them at face value that Trump intended to do those very things, but Thiel explains that he and other supporters took those words "seriously," rather distilling those specific actions down to the basic idea of just being "tough on immigration."

Moving forward, this poses a problem with not only journalism, but facts themselves.  A new label for this time period around the most contentious Presidential election in recent history has cropped up:  The Post-Fact Era.

Two individuals on the polar opposite ends of the political spectrum have used the term.  Liberal commentator and talk show host, Bill Maher, disdainfully called it out recently on his HBO show while alt-right banner man, Milo Yianoppoulos, almost gleefully toasted to it after Trump's victory.

This idea begs the question of how we can judge those in the future that will seek out our most high office.  If we are not able to judge a Presidential candidate at the face-value of the words he or she speaks, then what do we judge?  How can we possibly make an informed decision of a nominee when the promises pledged are not literal, but require Thiel's idea of a serious translation?

Further confounding this problem, is the question of whether cold, hard facts even matter anymore at all.

With all the various social media sites, from Facebook to Twitter to Snapchat, political "facts" are passed around like baseball cards.  No one truly fact-checks the numerous articles, merely taking the split-second it takes to "like" or paste an angry visage to the headlines that match up with the preconceived notion of their political persuasion as they tumble by like a speeding highway.

If facts don't matter any longer, what does?  On Yianoppoulos' Facebook page, one telling article perfectly sums up the coming wave of "Post-Fact" information.  The headline reads:  REPORT:  ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS CAST MORE THAN 3 MILLION VOTES IN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION.

Sounds legitimate, right?  It's scary, surprising and if true, it's completely unacceptable.  The most important question to me, though, is whether or not it is true.

Judging by the comments, very few had actually taken the time to read the article or had followed a provided link within the article in order check the supposed source of this information.  In short, no one seemed to be checking the facts.

I did.

I clicked on the hyperlink to Votefraud.org, which automatically redirected my search to a page called "Election Night Gatekeepers."  This was already suspicious and then upon first glance of this vote fraud group, the page appears to be a vestige from the mid-1990s.  I almost felt as if I suddenly had dial-up internet.  Beyond this, there is no information about these 3 million illegal votes.  No stats.  No data.  Nothing.

Basically, the "confirmed 3 million illegal votes" was anything but confirmed.  It was nothing other than a made-up number and Milo's headline merely played upon preconceived notions and fears of a "rigged election," which had been propagated by the now President Elect.  Anyone quickly passing by who already believed in mass voter fraud or rigged elections--despite the outcome on November 8th--would find fuel for their already brightly burning fire.

Despite the absolute lack of facts, this article will live on, receive thousands of "Likes," be shared hundreds and thousands of further times, and live a long, happy life, all through it's click-baiting, baseless headline that only serves to sow seeds of fear and further divide our country.

There are numerous examples of this all across social media and already there are calls to social media's top site, Facebook, to reign in the fake news being propagated by these vampires of journalism.  I personally doubt that anything can possibly be done about this massive wave of fact-less news or just plain fake, somewhat satirical news.

One key, very telling point is that Steve Bannon, an executive of Breitbart.com (also the employer of the aforementioned Milo Yianoppoulos), has assumed a high-level position within the Trump Administration.  If Thiel's perspective of Trump's rhetoric wasn't enough, then this job assignment perfectly articulates the direction our country is headed in:  a fact-based story is not as important as the click-baiting, attention-grabbing headline.

Here are just a few of the worst headlines from the Bannon era at Breitbart.com:

--BILL KRISTOL:  REPUBLICAN SPOILER, RENEGADE JEW

--THERE'S NO HIRING BIAS AGAINST WOMEN IN TECH, THEY JUST SUCK AT INTERVIEWS

--GABBY GIFFORDS:  THE GUN CONTROL MOVEMENT'S HUMAN SHIELD

--BIRTH CONTROL MAKES WOMEN UNATTRACTIVE AND CRAZY

Through these hyperbolic, click-baiting headlines and bully tactics, these baseless, offensive stories, Steve Bannon has turned Breitbart.com into a media titan.  For better or worse, throughout this election year at least, Breitbart has become one of the most popular news sites in the country.

In this brave, new era, facts don't matter as much as the provocative nature of the headline or how a story matches up with your ideology.

Wherefore art thou, Evangelical?

This is the year of cynicism.

Just look at the two candidates for public office, which is in large part a reflection of us, the citizens of the United States of America:  Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

The Democrats were burdened with a candidate embroiled in accusations of corruption as well as being seen as rather shifty on important causes to liberal voters.  The Republicans were straddled with a candidate who, prior to a little over a year ago, didn't even self-identify as a Republican or Conservative at all and can easily be viewed in numerous interviews praising both Bill and Hillary Clinton over the years.

Neither were perfect candidates from the start, but the Republicans had it worse.  A subset of the RNC, the Evangelicals, had it worst of all.  How could they possibly reconcile a man that denigrated immigrants, women, veterans, Muslims and so many other groups with their closely held values?

How could the Evangelical populace even begin to excuse a man famous for his massive ego, volatile rhetoric, and loose morality? 

Oh, Evangelical leaders and voters, this was a massive opportunity for you even though you took it as a curse.  This was your chance to stand up as one and show the rest of the nation that you are not a hypocritical group, that Donald Trump does not--and could not--ever represent your ideals.

Just think, if the nation's Evangelical pastors--Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Ed Young, and so many other prominent leaders--had stood as one, and resoundingly rejected Mr. Trump as their candidate, and perhaps even turned to one of the third party nominees or even proposed one of their own, just think on how powerful that message would have been to not only the Republican Party, but to the entire country?

At almost 30% of the population, the Evangelicals are one of the single biggest voting blocs in the country.  Those numbers, at close to 92 million people, and possible voters, could sway an election!

That means, you could have easily stood up to Donald Trump and the Republican Party as a whole, and said no, that you would not go down that path.  If the Republicans still didn't change, the Evangelicals could have rallied behind a 3rd party contender like an Evan McMullin and propelled him toward the White House.

You didn't do that.

As Donald Trump maligned John McCain's and all Prisoners' of War military history and delivered a barrage of insults at the Gold Star family, the Khans, you stayed silent even though you have been in the party that boasts unnerving support for our nation's military and veterans. 

As Donald Trump called for the total ban on Muslim immigration, you stayed silent, even though this religious based ban could come back to haunt you as this is a clear slippery slope for the 1st Amendment.

As Donald Trump's voice was heard on the infamous audio tape talking about how he could force himself upon women or when he rejected several women's allegations of sexual assault by saying, "they weren't good looking enough," you stayed silent even though you believe in a Bible wherein men are instructed to treat women as Christ loved the church.

Even as these devout Evangelical pastors stayed silent on these horribly immoral utterances of Trump's, they still provided reasons as to why their followers could feel okay about voting for the Republican nominee.  Or some even admitted that they voted for Trump although they couldn't officially endorse him as if that wasn't an endorsement in itself.  Like a "Get Out of Jail Free" cards, they paved the way on how to cast ballots toward a megalomaniacal tyrant and still feel good about your morals.

I've seen almost all of the arguments.  Or, as I call them, the excuses to vote for Donald Trump. 

The most prominent among them is that the Supreme Court is possibly on the line.  Evangelicals have to vote for Trump in order to keep more Conservatives on the bench and therefore obliterate the horrible decisions made under the Obama years.

To that I ask, what has unnerved you so over these last eight years?

Was it the controversial Obamacare decision that opened the gates of healthcare to millions of uninsured people across the country?  That cut the uninsured percentage in half?  That outlawed the denial of healthcare to citizens with preexisting conditions?  Even with premiums rising, the central tenets of the Affordable Care Act would be enough for the Christian Evangelicals to heap praise on, but nary a whisper of affirmation has been heard.

Or was it the decision on Gay marriage that cut you so deeply?  Because that would be the one thing that would unleash hell on earth:  Gay Marriage.  And after all the LGBTQ community doesn't deserve the same rights endowed to you by your Creator, right?  In my opinion, the way to display Christ's love would be to rally around the expansion of rights for EVERYONE rather than champion against them, even if it might be against your personal beliefs.

Or, let me guess, is it the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade that has convinced you to cast your vote for Trump?  This is the most difficult because I would argue that even pro-choice advocates are not, I repeat ARE NOT, pro-abortion.  This is a vexing thing to argue to a pro-lifer because they are so accustomed to lump the two ideas together even though they are separate.

Interestingly, and I'm sure much to the chagrin of Republicans, statistics clearly show a dip in abortions under Democrats and a rise of them underneath control by Republicans.  In fact, under Barack Obama abortions are at the lowest number since the Roe v Wade decision. 

One can decipher this reality in two parts quite easily.  Under Democrats, there is much more assistance to single mothers, which leads to less abortion and there is also more progressive sex education.  That is to say, if there is a clear avenue for a worried, young pregnant woman to have a child, they will do it and in places where sex education is taught, there are lower rates of teen pregnancy.

This is all a long way of telling you, my dear Christian Evangelicals, that you are nothing more than hypocrites.  Despite all of your talk of restoring God, Jesus, and morality to our nation, you have opted to promote a man that is anything but those ideals.

You had an opportunity to show the world who you purport to be and you have failed miserably.

The central idea that I hear over and over from Evangelicals, even now, with the choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, is how the nation needs to turn back to God, and if  we continue to turn away from Biblical teachings, the darker our days will become.

I say to these Evangelicals that if you feel the American people turning away from something, then I believe you are right.  We aren't turning away from the Bible or Jesus or any religion for that matter.

We are turning away from YOU.

We are turning away from your hollow silence while Trump's hate speech rings loudly in our ears and we are seeing that the ones you demonize are not the demons. 

For once upon a time, there was no social media, no LGBTQ folks featured in pop culture, and mass entertainment only featured Middle Easterners as terrorists.  You have been able to make up any myth you wanted about these various people.  You could have said they participated in Satanic rituals or that Jesus hated these ones or any other perverted, twisted story you wanted create.

With the advent of Facebook, Twitter and so many other social media platforms, their voices grow stronger, joined with mine and so many others--we are seeing not demons, but our own brothers, sisters, friends and our family.  We are discovering that these are only people, just humans, and they have been shouting for decades to be heard and seen.

As the Democrats become more inclusive while the Republicans--the Christian Evangelicals an extension of that--become more divisive, the latter's power will be drained further and further.  We are stronger together and weaker the further apart we separate.

We have lifted the curtain and all we see are false gods trying their best to intimidate us with the largesse of the gospels.  You are hypocritical fools and you are being discovered.

Dear Donald

Dear Donald Trump (or a retort to the “Dear Hillary” letter),

 

I really hope you do not become the first billionaire, “outsider” president.

I write this not because I am some crazy, left-wing, anti-free market conspirator; I hope you are not the first billionaire, “outsider” president because it would be a disgrace to that title and a disgrace to all of the billionaires and “outsiders” who aspire to actually do some good for our nation.

Many people believe you the best candidate for the position because you’re doing this for the working class and you promise to “Make America Great Again”—but when were you ever able to relate to the common American?

You grew up incredibly wealthy in New York and were afforded the opportunities to attend a private school as a child, at which your father was on the governing board, and eventually received an Ivy League education based on family connections.  Any true, self-made businessperson would look at you and see you as a fraud.

You get on your soapbox and claim that you are so great at business, but what about all of your failed ventures?  Trump Airlines?  Trump:  The Game?  Trump Steaks?  Gotrump.com?  Trump Vodka?  Trump Mortgage?  Trump Magazine?  United States Football League?  Tour de Trump?  Trump University?  The list of your many failures goes on and on.

Despite your long list of absolute failures, you continually claim that your business skills are unparalleled, that no one is better than you.  This sounds like an incredibly narcissistic, delusional type of person.

If you were as independent and business savvy as you portray yourself to be, then why did you ever take money from your father?  Why did you accept his help?  Because you needed his funding and business connections to get your foot in the door.

All that aside, the sheer fact that you took advantage of thousands of people through your fake “Trump University” scam proves to me that you are nothing but a con artist with a national stage and don’t care about American lives.  Those were thousands of real people with real dreams of making it big like the Trump they’d seen on TV and in movies that invested their savings.  They hoped that they might be as wealthy as you one day.

A few thousand, or even a few hundred dollars, that were spent on your fake university “education” might not seem like much to you, but to us middle- and lower-class folks, that is our savings and months worth of paychecks.  And that should be a big deal to our next president, too.

            Not to mention that you want to expunge millions of immigrants and build a wall along our southern border as soon as you’re elected.

            Don’t get me wrong:  I understand the need for comprehensive immigration reform.  But the idea of building an actual wall along the border of Mexico in this digital age seems too ridiculous to even imagine. 

And the cost would be inconceivable, especially when so much of that money could go toward much needed repair on already existing infrastructure.  Oh, but you’re just going to have Mexico pay for it.  That’s right.  You’ve given no indication on how you’ll do that, so I assume you’ll just send them an invoice and wait for a check.

On top of that, you’d like to go door-to-door, arrest every illegal immigrant inside the country at an estimated cost of $1.6 trillion.   Ignoring the astronomical cost, more than anything else that has been mentioned, this idea truly rings of Hitler-type tactics.  It’s scary to even think about. 

It isn’t decent.  It isn’t humanitarian.  It’s UNAMERICAN.

You also want to block the Syrian refugees from entering the country and continually claim that no back ground checks are being done.  Not only is this wrong, but it is also cruel.  These are people that have nowhere to go and have suffered the most demonstrable effects of a tyrant waging war on his own country.  The entire world must help these people and America, as she always does, needs to lead the charge.

Would Syria do the same for us?  Maybe not, but that is just one aspect of our country that makes it so great:  We do the work that other nations will not, and even if you or supporters don’t understand this, most Americans do.

            Your use of the Trump “Foundation” to buy lavish gifts for yourself as well as donate money to the political campaign of the Florida attorney general that just happened to be investigating Trump University as a scam.  It’s nothing but a shell foundation to make you appear to be charitable.

Which, by the way, is a wee bit illegal.

You complain about all of the jobs being shipped overseas, but your own clothing line is manufactured in China and Mexico.  You even recently bragged about selling one of your apartments to a Chinese businessman at a “HUGE” profit, but why would do that when you’re so against globalism?  You need to keep your business in America!

You claim to be a friend of the black community while you and your father were sued in 1973 by the Justice Department for racial discrimination against black people, which was rampant throughout your apartment buildings across New York.  Rather than face the music, you settled out of court after two years of legal battles and finally agreed to work with local civil rights groups to ensure fairness.  Despite this settlement, though, you were sued again only three years later.

In the mid-1980s, you also inserted yourself into the very high-profile case of the Central Park Five.  Five young black and Latino men were found guilty of assault and rape of a woman and you decided to take it upon yourself to sway public opinion toward giving these guys the death penalty by purchasing four newspaper cover page ads calling for the most extreme consequence.

Luckily, your seedy tactics didn’t work because through DNA evidence, the five were exonerated and found innocent of any wrongdoing.  If you’d gotten your way, these five would be dead.  This not only shows your bad judgment, but also your lack of remorse.  You’ve never once apologized for what you did.

Despite these egregious examples, the worst was yet to come.  Even after his administration released the birth certificate of Barack Obama, you continued on a one-man crusade for eight years to question and undermine the legitimacy of the first non-white President in the history of the United States.  Racism is indeed alive and well and you are its poster child.

You claim to respect woman, “more than anyone else,” but this couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Your rampant abuse of women is well-documented and has been seen throughout your campaign from your treatment of Megyn Kelly, Alicia Machado, and the many women that have accused you of sexual assault.

You claim to respect the military, but what about the Gold-Star family you continually insulted after the Democratic Convention or how you questioned John McCain’s military record or how you undermined the sacrifices of all Prisoners of War or claimed that you understand more about war than our highest-ranking Generals?

You’re not a friend to anyone, quite frankly, and are only in the business of making Donald Trump richer, bigger, and better than anyone else.

In the end, Donald Trump, you don’t know financial struggle.  You are the epitome of “white privilege.”  You were born rich.  You were loaned money by your dad to start your business.  You inherited your daddy’s hundreds of millions once he passed away.

What makes you think you can help fix our national debt crisis?  You’ve bankrupted so many businesses and have always been bailed out through your business connections.

            I am not some left-wing conspiracy theory lunatic.  I simply look at the facts.

            These facts tell me that I wouldn’t let you look after my pet rock, much less our great nation.

 

Yours truly,

 

A Real American

Pursuit of Perfection

"Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence."
-Vince Lombardi

For my 6th wedding anniversary, I opened a bottle I'd been saving of Russell Bevan's 2012 "Ontogeny" Red Blend, which garnered a 99 Point rating from Wine Advocate.  I only state the rating as a means to communicate the headspace I inhabited as I opened and drank this bottle.

To say the least, I expected quite a bit. 

Sure, it wasn't technically a "perfect" wine as it only garnered 99 points, but I thought I'd at least fly close to the sun without melting my wings so I bought a bottle a couple of years back and its been sitting ever since in that special section of my wine cellar (aka, my tiny fridge) where my nicest wines rest in wait. 

So, on that hallowed day of celebration, I cooked a gorgeous meal with my wife and decanted the wine all day, finally sitting down in the evening to dive into the meal and the secrets of my wine glass.

It was big and gooey, stuffed to the brim with dark, heady fruits and alcohol...it was...it was...too much.  Over the top. Suffice it to say that I didn't prefer the wine.  It was just too marred in trying to please the sugar-craved palate that it struck me more as a soda than a wine.

There will be those out there that will shake their heads at me, uttering, "What did you expect?  Parker was the one to rate it 99 points, after all..." to which I would say, "I'm not sure what I was expecting.  I just wanted a great wine--a special wine--with which to celebrate."

This quandary led me more into the question of what can be expected in a perfect wine.

Since that moment, I've been thinking quite a bit about the pursuit of perfection, the idea that somewhere out there is an untainted, ideal version of...fill in the blank.  Whether it's art, food, a vehicle, or even wine, we, as a society, are obsessed with perfection. 

I am.  You are.  It's a plague.  "If you're not first, your last..."

Let me be clear that I do believe it's possible to distinguish between a good, well-crafted wine and a wine that one likes, but I truly wonder if it's possible to herald a wine as "perfect."  If each wine is a representation of a particular plot of land, or of the terroir (a combination of soil, sky, and vintage), how could a wine not be perfect every year?

In other words, if a vintage was rained out or too cold and the fruit couldn't attain the ripeness we've come to typically expect, would it still be possible for that wine to attain perfection? 

Or how could a wine assembled from various plots all over a region--in this case Napa Valley--every be truly "perfect" as it is assembled from many parts?

"Have no fear of perfection--you'll never reach it."
-Salvador Dali

Perfection indicates that its perfection is indisputable, doesn't it?  That the object of whatever you want to call perfection would be perfect to everyone, otherwise it wouldn't be perfection, right? 

In the wine world, it's rare to have any kind of consensus on anything, especially when it comes to that coveted 100-point rating or the wine scorer's equivalent to calling a wine perfect.  I mean, just look at the well-known talking heads of wine and you see an enormous disparity of palates from the fruit-soaked, headiness of Robert Parker to the spokesperson for "balance," Rajat Parr, or the crusader against high alcohol levels, Randy Dunn.

There's rarely agreement of what makes a great wine so how could it ever be possible to find or make a perfect one?

I recall at one point, famed New York Times wine critic, Eric Asimov, going so far as to suggest that we shouldn't even attempt to write tasting notes at all because so many wine drinkers taste such different things in the same wine.  One person's taste of tart strawberry is another's raspberry for instance.  His solution?  Only call a wine sweet or dry, but then after mentioning a plethora of examples, he fell into a new quandary when it came to labeling certain Rieslings or Vintage Ports that are a bit of both.

I'm reminded of one more quote:  "Believe Those Who Are Seeking the Truth; Doubt Those Who Find It."

Just switch out Perfection for Truth and we might be on to something...

 

Tasting Stars

"Come quickly, I am drinking the stars," or so the quote goes upon sipping his creation of the wine known as Champagne, attributed to the monk named Dom Perignon. 

Indeed, his quote is a perfect description to the iconic effervescent beverage from its namesake home in Champagne, France.  Most folks don't think of it this way, but Champagne is really just wine, at its roots the same idea as Napa, Mosel, or any other wine region, only something about its terroir makes capable of something different.  Unique.

So, in turn, Champagne has become something else entirely.  A thing to be revered.  A bubbling wine with which to celebrate momentous occasions.

And so it goes.  So it goes.

I once heard a story.  It was broadcast on NPR.

The story aired a few years back, so I can't remember the exact details, but it involved the birth of children and wine and I never forgot the broad details.

Two wine professionals, New York based sommeliers, were being interviewed about the wine business or some other topic involving the world of wine.  I don't recall specifically.  These two happened to be husband and wife.  They were laughing and joking about experiences in the wine industry, speaking about customer experiences, favorite wines, and visited regions...and then the interview became a bit more personal, about home life and their children.

They spoke of the birth of their children and how they celebrated with a bottle of Champagne.  I'm sure that aspect was nothing new.  Millions of folks each year, I'm certain, pop bottles of Champagne or some other bubbly to celebrate the births of their newborn babies.

However, this husband and wife somm team spoke of a small town in the country of France--they couldn't remember the name--and how in that village, the locals not only popped Champagne, but they also rubbed a dab of the bubbly across the infant's lips, a way to anoint their tiny new life outside the womb and welcome them into the world.

I loved the story.  I loved the idea and I never forgot it.

Now, just two days ago on May the 4th, I welcomed my second son into this beautiful world.  I anointed him with two different bottles.  I did not take any notes--being rather distracted by the life-changing event--but I've written down what I recall from the toast.

2002 Mailly "Exception" Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, Mailly, Champagne...$80

Mailly comes exclusively from the Grand Cru village of Mailly and is a co-op formed in the 1940s, owned by the various farmers around the town.  This is a rich, yeasty style of Champagne, filled with notes of baked apple and buttered brioche.

NV Nicolas Maillart "Platine" Premier Cru, Champagne...$50

A blend of 85% Pinot Noir and 15% Chardonnay hailing from the villages of Villers-Allerand, Ecueil, and Bouzy, this one is clean, crisp and lively with notes of sliced nuts, pears and chalk dust minerality. 

These were very different, stylistically, but both gorgeous.  I've tasted Champagne many times, too many times to count, but I've only tasted the stars on two momentous occasions.  Cheers to you and yours!

Washington Wakes, Part 2

(The Accidental Visit, and other Wineries)

This is a compilation of thoughts from a road trip taken across Washington State in September, 2015.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, Canoe Ridge Estate

Through the inadvertent mistake of a wrong address, we found ourselves outside of the Canoe Ridge Estate vineyard rather than the planned Cold Creek Vineyard.  Although it was close to two hours in the opposite direction, everyone was having such a wonderful time, sharing open bottles of wine from previous appointments or staring out at the sun-tinged brush of the Horse Heaven Hills blowing in the wind, that no one even noticed the incorrect detour until we pulled up to a building that stated, in elegant, cursive script, "Canoe Ridge."

Mimi Nye, the estate's vineyard manager, sped over to meet us at the winemaking facility, ready to lead us on an impromptu tour of the vines.  Minutes later, we were about one thousand feet up in the air, at the vineyard's highest point and the prime spot for their Merlot and Malbec vines, looking over the watery ribbon of the Columbia River and were able to peer into the Northern reaches of Oregon.  It was a bright, sunny afternoon by then, but the wind was crisp and cutting, causing us to shiver underneath our coats.

Speaking from between the vine rows, her face partially obscured by a green, leafy vine, Mimi instructed us to pull a grape from the vine and pop it into our mouths. 

"Bite into it," she said.

We did.  It was sweet juice, dark fruits flowing onto our tongues until our teeth crunched into the large seeds, offsetting the sweet with a harsh bitterness that stung our cheeks, which was followed by a texture similar to sand paper--the tough grapes skins against our tongues.  It wasn't my first time to pluck grapes off the vine, but Mimi talked us through the process of knowing when to harvest for the season by taste alone.

I thought the grape tasted wonderful, ready and ripe. 

Mimi said, quite decisively, "Two more weeks," and I nodded in assent, deferring to her expertise.

In my first post, I spoke of the concept of a wine's story, of seeking out wines that are not available in every grocery store across the nation.  So, what gives?  Why speak about Chateau Ste. Michelle?

Two reasons...one, I absolutely believe that, similar to Robert Mondavi in Napa, Chateau Ste. Michelle's history is so intertwined with the history of Washington State, and their influence on the wine industry as a whole is so consequential that it would be a mistake to ignore their wines.  It would be like a beer aficionado scoffing at the idea of Samuel Adams, totally ignoring their overwhelming influence on the popularity of craft beer.

And the second is their ability to bring lesser known varietals to the forefront.  Many years ago, their goal was to bring prominence to Riesling, going so far as to jointly produce "Eroica" Riesling with Germany's Dr. Loosen and today, Riesling is the top-grown varietal in the entire state, outshining Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Now, they have set their eyes on Syrah, the grape widely believed to be Washington State's calling card varietal, the signature for the wine community.  It will be exciting to see what they do with it.

-2013 CSM "The Pundit" Syrah, Columbia Valley...$25-

As they did with Riesling and enlisting the help of a famed producer from Germany, CSM has done a similar thing with their Syrah program, partnering with wine consultant, Philippe Cambie Michel Gassier of the Southern Rhone to help in this new venture. 

With that said, "The Pundit" is a fantastic addition to Washington Syrah.  At the 20ish price point, it's an attractive bottle for the average consumer and it certainly over delivers on the quality.  It's a bright and attractive Syrah, co-fermented with a touch of Viognier, Grenache and Mourvedre, and shows off rich raspberry, tea, and floral notes on a medium-bodied frame.  This isn't one to cellar, in my opinion, drinking very well now.

*In addition to "The Pundit," CSM is also producing a Costieres de Nime Syrah called "Le Fervent" at $20 and a Chateauneuf-du-Pape-inspired GSM blend called "The Tenet" at $60.

-2012 CSM "Canoe Ridge Estate" Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills...$25-

This is a solid wine.  CSM's Canoe Ridge Merlot spends 16 months in a blend of partially new American, French, and neutral oak barrels, so you get quite a bit of varying flavor on the palate.  Just enough tannic structure to indicate that it can age a bit.  Medium-bodied with ripe, dark fruits, a touch of pepper and a nice, smooth finish.

A couple of days afterward, I did see Cold Creek Vineyard off in the distance as we drove by on the highway.  It was about ten or fifteen miles away, a wild flick of green nestled at the base of the Horse Heaven Hills.  My drifted there, wondering what it might have said to me from between its vine rows, but then I thought, perhaps the mystery is better.

Mark Ryan Winery

Mark Ryan's winery is located in a nondescript office park that was once filled with regular businesses, I'm sure for shipping various office supplies and other endeavors, but is now flooded with garage wineries.  Prior to this trip, I'd never been to a winery that wasn't the preconceived notion of what a winery "should be," all of my visits being to beautifully rendered buildings set in a vineyard, and the picturesque ideas that we all dream about with owning a winery.

Not so with Mark Ryan.  It was barebones.  Raw.  A dream in the process of its ultimate fulfillment.

Metal vats were set in rows of four or five down the expanse of the warehouse.  Mesh-like cloths covered them, except for one, which had a young man wearing a bright yellow trucker hat perched over the top thrusting a long metal rod down into it, performing the first of two daily punch downs.  The punch-down serves as a way of keeping the grape skins by churning the fermenting juice over their tops, thus continuing fermentation and extracting deeper color. 

There were actually three warehouses connected to one another through enormous roll-up doors with a small strip of a break room and offices running along the side of the building.  Stainless steel tanks stood like shiny soldiers waiting for the call to battle.  A forklift sat quietly in a corner.

It was a strange feeling being in a winery like this one.  It wasn't impressive on its own.  It was enology pared down to its necessities, the winery appearing that it was meant more for shelves stacked with reams of paper rather than metal vats filled with fermenting wine.

To some extent, that's what made it one of my favorite visits I've had to a winery.  It caused me to realize that the rest was just pomp, the lovely wineries set in a meadow were built on extraneous details (not that there's anything inherently wrong with that) and that visiting the Mark Ryan winery showed me that wine doesn't need any of that to be great.

Strip away the pomp and circumstance and hopefully there is truly wonderful wine being produced.

-2013 Mark Ryan "Dissident" Red Blend, Columbia Valley...$35-

Much has been said about the high quality for the price point when it comes to Washington's wines and Mark Ryan's "Dissident" is a perfect example.  This would put to shame many bottles coming from other notable wine regions at double the price.

It's a blend from several vineyards from around Washington from Ciel du Cheval to Red Willow and is a Bordeaux-style of 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc, and a touch of Petit Verdot.  It's just an immensely drinkable wine that is loaded with creamy dark fruits, a flutter of espresso, and smoky embers.  It's built to age a bit, but I wouldn't wait. 

-2013 "Crazy Mary" Mourvedre, Red Mountain...$48-

When I spoke of Washington being adventurous, this is a perfect example.  Ryan's "Crazy Mary" Mourvedre has about 21% Syrah built in.  A Mourvedre is hard enough to find in France let alone made in the States, but this winery is not only daring enough to attempt it, but also trust that there will be an audience for it.  In my opinion, it paid off.

There only 220 cases produced of this deep--almost black--red wine.  It's so dark, it almost seems that it will stain your glass.  I loved this wine.  It's deep and rich with layers upon layers of flavors revealing endless black fruit, smoke, pepper, and gamey meats.  There's fine-grained tannins that support the immense body.  I highly recommend this bottle for your next meal of braised short ribs or pot roast.

Woodward Canyon

We meet Rick Small, proprietor of Woodward Canyon, at his tasting room on the road leading into downtown Walla Walla.  Although the city is only a few miles away, there's a feeling of remoteness here.  It's a small room, looking as if it was formerly a homestead in the wide open West a few decades back, with the prerequisite squeaky floorboards to match.

Rick is lean and wiry, with a muscular frame that seems built from working in the vineyards rather than pumping weights at a gym.  He's a live wire, constantly excited by the subjects he covers whether it's his new wine or soil composition, and his subjects jump around a lot.  His mind seems to move faster than his mouth can keep up.

He takes us to his Estate vineyard site, a short drive from his tasting room into the rolling hills to the East of downtown Walla Walla.  If it felt remote before, the vineyard seems to be in the middle of nowhere with nary a car in sight.

It's mainly wheat out there, Rick being one of the first to plant with grapes three decades prior.  The hills that make up the vineyards almost feel like ocean wave frozen in time, rising and falling in great curves and small valleys.  One feels small in a place like this one as you can look out for miles in every direction, a chain of mountains rising to the South while the East and North reveal acres of unused land.

It's easy to imagine planting roots out there, a short distance from the Woodward Canyon Estate, and building a winery that produces bottles that folks across the world will taste.  It's easy to imagine, but hard to actually do.  Rick is a pioneer.  He was the first of a kind to envision a place rooted to so many other crops and believe that Walla Walla could be a wine destination one day, a wine valley to rival Napa and Bordeaux.

His dreams are becoming truer every day and you only have to taste his wines to understand it.

-2007 Woodward Canyon "Artist Series" Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley...$90-

I find the Artist Series Cabernet to be consistently Small's most Washington wine in character, perhaps because he blends from several vineyards across Columbia Valley rather than just his estate in Walla Walla--a little of this, a little of that.  It just has that perfect balance between California fruit and Bordeaux elegance, which to me, represents the state's wines most accurately.

I was able to purchase this through the tasting room at the winery, so there may be more available if you contact them directly.  This was performing excellently.  This full-bodied Cab contains just a touch of Petit Verdot and displays an array of fruit and savory spice.  Currant, mineral, herbs.  The fine-grained tannins suggested that this will continue to age very well.

-2006 Woodward Canyon "Old Vines" Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley...$90-

I find the Old Vines Cab to be delicious, but the alcohol--at a whopping 16.5%--seems to sap the wine of character.  I don't get a sense of place off this wine.  It's dark, and deeply brooding, loaded with very lush dark fruits, chocolate and espresso.  It is sourced from--of course--older vines in Washington, specifically two vineyards planted in the 1970s:  Sagemoor and Champoux.  3% of the blends is from Petite Verdot and then aged 22 months in French Oak.

Red Willow Vineyard

Mike Sauer believes in Syrah so much that he built a chapel at the peak of a hill within his vineyard to emulate Jaboulet's "La Chapelle," which overlooks the Rhone River in the appellation of Hermitage, a renowned site for some of the best Syrah in the world.  Now, Red Willow's chapel has reached almost the same acclaim, at least in the state of Washington.

At the top of this peak, we tasted through some of the best Syrah harvested at the site:  Betz, Owen Roe, and Eight Bells.

You see, Mike isn't running a winery, but a vineyard and Red Willow is a premium source for many of Washington's best wineries.  On the back a trailer, pulled by an old tractor, we stared out the open sides as vineyard rows passed by, at the end of which were little dangling white tags written with black Marker, denoting the winery for which the fruit was headed--Efeste, Mark Ryan, Owen Roe--while ten-foot high pickets nailed with a sideways piece of wood announced the grapes planted to each block.

Next to the Chapel, looking out on the expansive Yakima Valley, Mike sampled us on three different pieces of his vineyard, bits of juice inside nondescript black bottles with hastily printed labels that stated "East Block," "South Block," and "West Block."

Essentially, these were separate, fully-produced wines supplied to us by the Owen Roe winery.  Each one was different.  One block had richer fruit whereas another had higher acidity and then third had bigger tannins.  I couldn't pick one that I liked most, only able to enjoy each block for its own qualities.

And that's where the skillful job of a great winemaker comes into play.

It's perplexing enough to taste wine from one, tiny micro climate such as Red Willow Vineyard and compare it to another vineyard miles away, but instead, to compare two particular blocks of the same vineyard, only inches away, is much more vexing.  If a bottle of wine is a book, then each row makes up a sentence, and stringing them together into one epic tale is the work of the winemaker. 

Red Willow contains many good stories, enough to fill a library.

-2012 Betz "La Cote Patriarche" Syrah, Yakima Valley...$55-

Produced from some of the oldest vines in Red Willow Vineyard, Betz's "Patriarche" exudes an elegant personality with heft.  Deep flavors of plums, minerals, and crushed flowers flow out with richness, but with amazing acidity for support.  It's a perfect mix of Old World/New World sensibilities.

-2012 Owen Roe "Chapel Block" Syrah, Yakima Valley...$55-

There are only around 400 cases of this 100% Syrah from Red Willow Vineyard, comprised of three specific zones of the aforementioned Chapel Block.  It's another great example of that Old/New style of wine.  Big, plump fruits with the right amount of savory components to keep it interesting.  Chocolate, prunes, violets, and black olive all flow forward on a sturdy frame of tannins.  This drinks as if it will go through the next decade, maybe 2025.

 

 

 

Washington Wakes, Part 1

Bleeding Thoughts on a Wine Country State

This is a compilation of thoughts from a road trip taken across Washington State in September, 2015.

If I were a betting man, I'd wager that most folks would describe Washington State as cold, rainy, and very, very green and technically, they would be correct--for perhaps 30 or 40% of the state.  In reality, the state of Washington has an almost bipolar personality with the immense Cascade Mountain range providing a distinct barrier between its two dominant moods.

The Western side of the Cascades, home to the state's most recognizable city--Seattle--meets those aforementioned expectations, the type of place where you can cozy up in one of its numerous coffee bars, stare out at the hills blanketed with the greenest pine trees you've ever seen and actually believe that you could write poetry to rival Thoreau.  The wines made on this side are very different from the East.  Most wineries are ones you haven't heard of, utilizing unique varietals that favor the cold, wet landscape of Puget Sound, grapes like Zweigelt, Muller-Thurgau, and other oddballs.  Sure there's Woodinville, just northwest of Seattle, and home to the iconic wineries of Chateau St. Michelle and DeLille Cellars, but those guys are mainly making the wine there, preferring to grow their grapes over in the Columbia Valley area.

For the predominant grape-growing areas, you have to make the trek through the Cascades over to the Eastern wing of Washington, which is a bit like stepping through the looking glass into a different world, leaving a place of tall pines and rock-strewn beaches for an arid, sand covered landscape littered with single stoplight towns.

It. Is.  A.  Desert.  Plain and simple.

Directly from the mouths of numerous winemakers and winery owners, they'll admit that without the advent of irrigation and other modern cures, grape-growing would not be possible, at least not at the quality level most consumers would expect.  

From the Cascades, across the Columbia Valley and all the way to Walla Walla, the majority of wine country is not what one would expect for an important grape-growing region.  The broad expanse of golden sand is oddly offset by numerous random green splotches as if a painter was distracted and his brush dripped across the deserted canvas.  It doesn't seem real.  The Horse Heaven Hills rise and fall like the deep humps of a camel's back while Red Mountain rises up as an omen over the small town of Benton City, its reddish hue a stark contrast to the landscape around it.  

Despite the overarching differences between the East and West sides of the Cascades, a main unifying theme I found throughout Washington wine country was that of a deep spirit of adventure, of a wine community discovering itself.  Like the pioneers of Napa Valley in the mid-1800s, the Washington wineries are assembled as the modern day trailblazers, those fearless few that dare to try something different.

While other wine regions have largely been decided, what grapes work best and where to plant them or the typicity of its finished wines, Washington is anything but decided.  It is burgeoning with possibility, in an adolescent phase of discovery, harsh acne and all.  Syrah seems to be the varietal that most wineries are rallying around as the calling card for the state, but even that somewhat decided truth is still up in the air because it's such an alien varietal to most unless it says "Shiraz" and "Australia."

No one knows the limitations of what can be produced yet.  The most exciting aspect for Washington wine is that the varying climates seem to suit almost anything from wildly racy, acid-driven Rieslings to deep and brooding Bordeaux blends that are completely different from their Californian brethren, yet different still from those of Bordeaux.  The wines are unique.  They taste of Washington.

In a place like Napa Valley, millionaires and billionaires dig into deep pockets to fulfill a dream of wine perfection, but across the Columbia Valley, you will encounter farmers learning on the fly about the varietals that perform best on their fields which were formerly sown with cherries, wheat, or apples.  You will drive into former office parks that are now converted into garage wineries and see the fermenting tanks crowded into a space that once was populated by desks.  You'll come across restaurant wine directors whose hands are rough where they should be smooth and notice the gritty soil that just won't quite wash away because they've been toiling away on their days off to bottle their dreams.

It's an exciting time for these ones.  It's a time when consumers are finally realizing the high quality wine hailing from those obscure regions, the unknown areas with otherworldly names like Walla Walla and Yakima, and the enthusiasm of the producers gets under your skin and puts a smile on your face.  It's history is being written now, on the road ahead of you as its vineyards fly by and its juice is flowing into barrels.

I'm not the gambling type, but if I were, I'd place a bet that the Washington wine scene's future is very, very bright.

Bottled Memories

Wine can be unexplainable at times.   Even illogical.

The more we attempt to put wine in a box (no pun intended), whether we dole out ratings and create charts in order to somehow quantify a particular wine's quality, wine always defies that attempt at reason.  Wine is an illusive thing, as art typically is, because as consumers, collectors or lovers of the arts, we all have different tastes and disparate perspectives. 

Even in the case of following a certain critic and agreeing with his or her tastes, there will always be a time that you and that critic will differ.  Your common path suddenly forks and you have to choose which direction to go.  There will never be a time that we all agree, and if there was, it would all be much less interesting.

No matter how much you explain what has gone into a particular bottle, the painstaking process, the hand-picked grapes or precise oak selection, there will be those times when someone just doesn't click with it.  There are bottles that stand out in one's life that you go back to again and again, and despite your attempts to branch away from it in order to try something "new" or "different," you always go back to that bottle.

Wine is an emotional experience and the bottles that accompany momentous occasions in a person's life become tangible memories.  I can tell you personally that there are a few bottles, some good and some not so good that stand out in my life for various reasons.  Some I will go back to, others I will not, but they are all special in very unique ways to my life.

Coppola "Diamond Label" Pinot Grigio, California

This was my first wine purchase.  I blush a bit when speaking of the initial wine that stoked my interest with understanding more about the wine industry.  It's funny now, thinking of how foreign it all was to me at that point.  Reading the labels of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and all the rest might as well have been written in Arabic.

Nothing made sense.

Too embarrassed to ask for help, I scrambled for a different way to make my decision.  Another passion of mine is film so, in looking across the wine shelves of my local Tom Thumb, Coppola wines stood out from the rest.  It couldn't be that Coppola, but sure enough, the Coppola of The Godfather and The Conversation was the same Coppola on the wine bottles.  So, that's how I made my very first wine selection.

Krupp Bros. "Black Bart" Syrah, Napa Valley

While Coppola's Diamond Label Pinot Grigio might have been my first wine and the wine that urged me to discover more, "Black Bart" Syrah was the first high-end wine that informed me that wine could have depth and complexity.

I was working at a steakhouse at the time and the Wine Director held tastings in one of the private rooms to teach the servers about wine.  On one occasion, he invited the rep from Krupp Brothers to speak to us about their wines off Stagecoach Vineyard on Atlas Peak.  We tasted through their entire line-up, but it was the Black Bart that hooked me. 

It seemed to sparkle, alive and roiling across my tongue, speaking of plummy dark fruits and pepper.  That was my next wine purchase.

Far Niente Chardonnay, Napa Valley

About six months into our dating relationship, I surprised my (now) wife with an expensive dinner for her birthday.  This was also the occasion that I decided to reveal to her the love I was feeling so soon in our new relationship, but I didn't care because I was true to the feelings I held.  Luckily, she felt the same way.  We toasted to our newfound love with a bottle of 2006 Far Niente Chardonnay.

And there are many more wines--many, many more, such as the Krug "Grand Cuvee" with which we toasted our engagement or the "Cuvee Julienne" Champagne from George Vesselle that we popped in the hospital room and dabbed my first son's lips with to coronate his entrance into our lives. 

These are important wines for seminal moments in my life and my love for these bottles cannot be quantified on a scale for their individual importance.

These bottles exist as more than just a passing taste or a score on a reviewer's sheet.  These wines are memories for me and it only takes a passing glance or a single drop to transport me to another time, of when my wife and I ate macadamia nut crusted Mahi Mahi along with a Napa Chardonnay and nothing had tasted better in our lives or that period when an insignificant Pinot Grigio from a filmmaker could have been the window into a lifetime passion.

This is just a start.  I can't imagine how many more bottles that will be opened or how they will mark new chapters in my journey.  And that's just it.  Sometimes it isn't the wine that's important; it is the moment they mark for us like an entry for a journal of our lives.

Wines are no longer wines.  They are bottled memories.

 

Wine, in context. (or how I think about wine.)

 

In wine, as many things, context matters.  At least it does for me.

Allow me to propose a test:  let us say that you could drink two wines at the same price, grapes sourced from the same general area, and both happen to have a very similar taste profile.  What if, though, the first wine came from a tiny, family winery that was produced in a few hundred case allotment whereas the second is the creation of a wine committee employed by a multinational wine group and is available at every major grocery store. 

Which of the wines do you choose?

I can tell you honestly that although both wines might taste equally good, my taste buds would naturally sway in the direction of the first wine, the family winery.  Then, you might ask--if it tastes good, why does the background information matter?  Does the enjoyment of a wine really depend on the story of the winery?

The short answer is--YES.  The WHY takes longer to explain.

The late, great film critic, Roger Ebert said at one point that, "It isn't WHAT a movie is about, but HOW it is about it."  This was stunning insight.  I recall reading this quote many years ago as an eighteen-year-old college student and it turning my ideas of evaluating film, art and anything else on its head.

This concept, of thinking critically on a film on how it came together can easily be applied to the world of wine.  Rather than thinking about a filmmaker, translate that to a winemaker.  Instead of a producer, think proprietor.  Rather than an actor, consider the grape or swap out script for the background story of the winery.

  • How was the wine produced--was it organic, sustainable, or traditional growing methods?
  • From where does the wine hail from--did it speak of its place or did high alcohol overwhelm any subtleties?
  • What is the winery's end goal or message--producing great wine or producing great scores?

These are all important questions to think about as we sip over a wine and mull over its answers, but believe me, there are so many more.  So many more considerations and questions, and then answers that lead to many more questions.  And that's what makes wine so fascinating--it's endless possibilities.

One aspect that holds very true is that we all love to support something small.  Deep down, whether we realize it in a conscious sense or not, we want to give our hard earned money to a family business.  I can tell you that my family tries to seek out farmer's markets for the food we'll eat throughout the week or attempt to eat our meals out at small, local restaurants.  Why is that?

There was a recent scientific study that concluded the fact that dopamine was actually produced in the brain when people came into contact with new objects, ideas, or places.  This is part of the reason that we feel so good on our vacations.  It's a break from our day-to-day lives, but we are also unknowingly drugging ourselves.

I believe if a study were to be done on the knowledge of the background on products, the same stimuli would be found to be stoked.  I think our enjoyment is stimulated, in part, by what we find out about a product.  That is, if a product is good, that's fine on its own, but if it's made in an ethical, small way--bonus!

It is, to some extent, a similar reason that farm-to-table restaurants have become so popular.  Farm-to-table has become something of a mockery of itself with shows like Portlandia that ape the idea, but the ethics of its meaning still hold true--the concept that products matter and the method of how things are produced matter.  It's important to know that you could look at a menu and know both where the ingredients are coming from as well as that the chef cares about the preparation.

I am convinced that knowing that passion and love went into the making of a product leads to the better enjoyment of that product.  The wine's story is as important as the wine itself.  Wine is so much more than just fermented grape juice.  If that wasn't true, then we'd all be guzzling our Uncle's hooch being made in the basement, but most of us aren't doing that.  We're traveling to our local wine purveyor, searching the bins for wines from around the world, asking for advice on the best pairing or the perfect gift.  Even if we aren't vocalizing it, we all think of wine as something above, something special, and a thing to be revered.

It's alive.  It evolves.

Much like Ebert's favorite medium of film, wine is also a story, but we have to listen even closer to hear its secrets.  It's our job to be there as it whispers.