21 January 2009

The rites of springbok

[table mountain obscured]The truck shows no signs of stopping. In fact, it might be speeding up. A horn blares. The right wheel is aimed directly at me, the left at Theresa’s glasses, which are still skipping and swirling over the pavement, buffeted by the howling gales that cyclone around us. There’s nothing to be done except save myself, and I leap back onto the sidewalk…just as the glasses are given their most violent wind-whipping yet. They sail skyward, hurdling the truck and crashing to the ground right at my feet. I reach out to grasp them…

…continued here.

18 January 2009

Still no closure

[screwcap, reproduced under the GNU Free Documentation License provided by Wikimedia Commons, from user wnissen]Thanks to comprehensive note-taking, one of the things I’m able to do is note trends in my personal wine experience. None of which anyone else should care about, except for one:

I calculated the percentage of corked wines I experienced over the past year. As expected, it went down, and the current identified taint rate (I’m far from the most sensitive TCA-detector) is about 2.5% or so. That’s still too high, but much better than the 7-9%, even occasionally pushing 10%, failure rate I regularly experienced a half-dozen years ago.

Or is it? Those old numbers were generated in the near-complete absence of screwcaps and the only anecdotal presence of other alternative closures. So that, too, needs to be factored into the new percentage. Subtracting screwcaps, glass closures, both kinds of synthetic corks, and crown caps (I had several this year, on a bottle of California sparkling wine and some Italian sparklers as well), the number goes up. And it goes up again when I eliminate barrel samples, which obviously can’t show cork effects.

So what’s the real number? The number, it must be remembered, that comes after the cork industry’s much-heralded (unfortunately, mostly by themselves and their bought-off journalistic shills) attempts to, at long last, address their taint problems with technological solutions?

It's better than one might expect: just a shade over 4%. Much better than it used to be, for sure, but still not good enough. I’m not yet at the point where I can express even cautious optimism, given the cork industry’s decades of lying and obfuscation on this issue, but we’ll see what the new year brings. At least the numbers are headed in the right direction, and obviously it will take their efforts a while to catch up to the older vintages in everyone’s cellars.

Meanwhile, two related numbers seem worth considering. The oft-discussed reduction issue with screwcaps did occasionally rear its head this year, but I still don’t see the problems that others do, which makes me wonder if I’m simply insensitive to the phenomenon. I identified four reduced wines this year, for a total reduction rate of .35%, but one of those was (somewhat surprisingly) under synthetic cork – the very last closure that should be able to preserve reductive characteristics – rather than screwcap. Restricting the data to screwcapped wines alone, the reduction rate – and this includes some aged wines, which are what those beating the anti-screwcap drum seem to fear most – was 1.6%. Not very high, and certainly far below the percentage of wines tainted by natural cork, but still not ideal. As I’ve said before, more research is obviously needed, but remember that the vast majority of the stories on this issue are being generated by a single journalist…which doesn’t make him wrong, but should at least lead to some healthy suspicion.

The most worrisome number is the physical failure rate for extruded synthetic corks (for those confused by the terminology, those are the spongy ones that look like a real cork, not the stiff plugs of multicolored plastic that strip the Teflon off corkscrews and are often impossible to remove). It’s important to note, however, that my number will be a bit of an outlier, as this past year included a number of wines that I inadvertently aged without realizing that they were sealed with artificial corks. The ability of synthetics to seal bottles for more than a few years has long been doubted, even by the people who invented them, and my experiences bear this out: the failure rate for extruded synthetic corks was a rather shocking 9.7%, and that’s only wines that were completely or very nearly dead, not those that I thought were inferior to their expected states.

In sum, my previous recommendations (not that anyone necessarily cares what I think) stand: there’s no reason for wines made for youthful consumption to be under natural cork. Synthetic corks must not be used for wines that have any aging ability at all. As for the longer agers and which closures are best, the questions remain: 1) how much oxygen ingress, if any (and from where?), is necessary for wine to age, and 2) what adjustments to wine chemistry, if any, are necessary to guarantee optimum performance for different types of wine under each closure? We need to answer the former first, however.

17 January 2009

Funky, cold, & Medina

[qantas]It has actually come to this? So many great experiences, so many wonderful people (except for that one), so many unforgettable memories. And yet, New Zealand’s final farewell for us is this: for the second time in three opportunities, Air New Zealand has failed to put our bags on the same plane as us. Even with a three-hour layover in Auckland. How does that happen? Have they employed tuatara to handle luggage and cargo? Three hours is usually enough even for Heathrow, for heaven’s sake, and Auckland’s not exactly the world’s biggest airport.

“They’ll be on the next flight,” assures the man clicking away at a computer with the sleek lines and processing power of the eighties. The early eighties. It’s got a green screen, it’s slower than Air NZ baggage handling, and the printer issuing my lost luggage report is a noisy old dot matrix model. Dot matrix. And yes, the paper is the appropriate relic, which I wasn’t even aware was still produced: alternating green and white stripes with perforated holes down the sides. What sort of bizarre time warp have we entered? Have all the country’s IT consultants gone walkabout?

…continued here.

16 January 2009

Ski patroll

[ski troll]The problems start at the Oslo train station. I’d bought our tickets to Bergen the day before, and we arrive at the station with our bags and plenty of time to spare. But when we finally reach the giant schedule board to figure out where to go, our train is the only one without a departure track. This continues until said departure is close enough that we’re in danger of missing the train should it appear on one of the more distant tracks.

I approach the ticket desk with my questions, but am greeted with possibly the only person in all Oslo who doesn’t speak very much English. Eventually, she writes some things down on a piece of paper and gestures emphatically. If I understand her correctly – and there’s reason to suspect that I don’t – we’re supposed to get on a different train, get off that train and onto a bus, and then get back on the train that was supposed to take us to Bergen all along.

Um, OK.

We head for the indicated track, and seeing our destination town – Asker – mentioned on the side of an arriving train, we board.

It’s not the right train.

…continued here.

09 January 2009

Clivi wonder

[i clivi bottles]We’re sitting around a table, debating politics. Which we’ve been doing for…oh, about four hours now. Technically, we’re having lunch. But it’s quite dark outside, the dinner hour – even the late Italian one – has already arrived for many in the neighborhood, and neither the wine nor a regularly-replenished supply of hearty, crusty bread has stemmed. The crusty remains of a rich, Friulian style bean soup solidify along the interiors of our bowls, long since abandoned and forgotten amidst an occasionally heated conversation.

…continued here.

05 January 2009


[crystal ball, created by user EvaK and used under the terms of a Creative Commons license]English wine writer Jamie Goode, whose progression from online wine forum bomb-thrower, through webby groundbreaker (albeit with dodgy site design), to authoritative and respected author is surely some sort of sign of the apocalypse1, has published a list of predictions for 2009 (short version here, longer version here. Since this is something I’ve done in other venues and years, I figure: why not? I couldn’t possibly be more wrong than everyone else trying their hand at a game of oenological prescience, could I?

Don’t answer that.

1) The number one story will be, as everyone knows, the economy. The dominoes have already started to fall, with some wineries going out of business, others on the block, and many, many others in the production and trade realms poised on the brink of disaster. According to friends who watch such things, however, the real carnage is going to be in the restaurant world…not just closings, but people scaling back on their extravagance when they do go out to eat. And what will be the first thing these customers drop? Wine, of course. It’s going to be bad for restaurants (who make most, and sometimes all, of their profit from beverages), it’s going to be really bad for sommeliers, but it’s also going to affect that previously choosy set of wineries who’ve demanded that their wines be represented only on the best wine lists. Some of them will just shift the product onto their mailing lists, if they can, but there’s not a market for all of those wines.

2) Diversity is in danger. Some wineries will just go out of business, but others will be gobbled up by avaricious giants. Perhaps more importantly, the same will be true for vineyards, which will start falling under the umbrella of the megacorps, permanently lost to the artisan farmers and winemakers who’ve previously shepherded their grapes. Small, philosophy-based importers will struggle to get their wines recognized in an increasingly price-oriented market, especially because the small, alternative-minded retailers who’ve supported their products will not have an easy time of it. Again, the purveyors of mass-market plonk gobbling up the spoils will benefit. It’s a vicious circle, and it’s hard to say when it will stop.

3) As Jamie notes, this is indeed South Africa’s golden opportunity, but one that might very well slip through their fingers. What they’ve got: a) a very wide range of quality wines…certainly one much more diverse than New Zealand, whose arduous agricultural quarantines and tiny size make for an exceedingly un-diverse vinous output, b) neither an impending agricultural disaster (see Australia) or an oversaturated market of identical-looking and identical-tasting wines (again, see Australia and its ubiquitous “cute animal” labels), and, c) their own form of an economic disaster – a currency that’s absolutely crippled (even against even the dollar) – which could potentially make for some rather spectacular bargains. That is, if they can get their wines to export markets. And then, sell them.

What South Africa most obviously lacks is a coordinated marketing effort. There’s no will (or money) on the part of the government, so the producers will have to do it themselves. That costs a lot of money, especially given the essential task of being physically present in any target market, and the very thing that makes South African wines especially attractive on the world stage – low cost – means lowered profits for the wineries, and thus tight marketing budgets.

4) There will be no closure on closures. The studies will take many more years, but even the research that we are doing doesn’t answer the most crucial question: how much oxygen does a wine require to age in the way to which we’ve become accustomed? Without knowing that, we can’t know what effect the alternatives to cork will have over the long term. That said, for the vast majority of wine that’s meant for near-term drinking, there’s very little reason to even consider using a bark cork.

5) Whither wine writing? A very good question. As advertiser-supported print publications continue their long-predicted drift into oblivion, the opportunities for aspiring young writers to hone their craft are growing thin on the ground. It’s not that higher-end wine-specialist publications will cease to exist, though some of them will, it’s that Jane Doe isn’t going to be able to step into Jancis Robinson’s shoes without a little preparatory work at the Smalltown Pike & Gazette. But the few such publications left to us aren’t much interested in wine coverage. So, the blogs, then? So far, they’ve been tough to monetize. A few will make it big, a few will struggle through, but most will simply not be able to support a serious self-education in the art and practice of wine writing unless there’s a serious shift in the willingness of advertisers – and maybe even readers – to support high-quality content. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

6) Despite the economy, entire wine regions and styles are, essentially, permanently out of reach to all but the mega-wealthy. Individual bottles here and there will continue to be enjoyed, whether through the generosity of another or as the result of an occasional splurge, and no wine lover should rigidly eschew the necessary expense, once in a while. But the days of being able to build a broad and deep appreciation for the top classed-growth Bordeaux, grand cru Burgundy, and many other ultra-luxury producers, appellations, and cuvées has probably come to an end for most people. If there weren’t so many interesting alternatives, it would be a wine-lovers’ tragedy. As it is, it’s a great shame. These wines carry their reputations for a reason, after all.

7) More than the current handful of nuts and cranks will finally get serious about alternative grapes in California…grapes that are better-suited to the various vineyard climes than the famous but ubiquitous stuff now planted…but of course it’ll take years before the results are available. What will drive this shift? An economy where the permanence of demand for ultra-pricey wines from just a few grapes no longer seems assured.

8) Posts at oenoLogic will grow longer and more intricately-argued, but even less comprehensible to the passing reader. Of all these predictions, this is the one I’m most sure about.

1Just kidding, Jamie.

02 January 2009

How to lose friends & influence no one

[bungee jump]In 2008, I tried an experiment. I attempted to post a note on every single wine that I tasted that year. Every single wine. You can see the results over on the tasting notes blog, oenoLog.

How’d that go? In terms of completing the task I set before myself, about as well as can be expected. In the backlog of travelogues and tastings, there are still quite a few wines (especially from the jaunt to South Africa) that remain un-noted, and so the listed 1143 wines – itself a bit lower than the real total, because identical wines often get grouped together on that blog – should really be more in the 1400-1500 range, probably closer to the latter.

Now, before I get a flood of email concerned about my liver and desperate to get me into AA, that’s “tasted,” not “drank.” And yet 2008 was a fairly light year, for me. 1500 wines aren’t that much. That’s only 125 wines per month, 29 per week, or just over four per day…which any working wine critic will tell you is a rather paltry average. I didn’t attend many press or trade tastings, for various reasons (some of which I’ll get into in a moment), and so this is probably less than a third of the total I would have amassed in my earlier, more fecund years.

But whether or not I could have tasted more wines isn’t particularly interesting, nor is the total itself. What’s interesting is what this project entailed, and the results of the experiment.

Obviously, taking and then posting notes on so many wines requires a sort of discipline, and that’s something that isn’t always my strong suit. But I did try to apply some diligence to the task, and – with the above-mentioned caveats noted – got most of what I wanted to note up on the site. The good, the indifferent, the bad, and the ugly…it’s all there, in black, red burgundy, and some sort of nasty cream sherry color. (Maybe it’s time for a new blog template?)

So was it a useful thing to do? It’s certainly useful when hunting for wines to include in print or more thoughtful online work, so it’s a valuable resource for me, if for no one else. And in some ways, that’s enough; I used to keep a personal database of my notes at home, and this is just one more way to keep that database…one that won’t disappear if my computer does. But there are some drawbacks, as well, and I think they’re worth talking about.

To my knowledge, this is not something that any major critic has ever attempted. And I’m not sure most minor critics or writers have tried it either, though I’m sure there are a few – more likely in the self-published blogosphere than from the ranks of those who write for print or online publication. Even the most prolific tasters tend to focus mostly on the best (or, if they have a mind, the worst), rather than the entirety of what passes their lips.

And with good reasons. The for-public-consumption reason – which has the value of being true – is that, especially in print, space is money. One can waste that space writing about wines that no one should drink, just for the sheer glee of it, or one can use what space is available to be useful to the reader/consumer. Space restrictions don’t really apply online, but other restrictions do: who has the time to taste and write up all those notes in a given day? Who has the time to read them, or the interest in doing so?

But there’s another reason not to work without an internal editor, and it’s not much talked about, because it tends to drive a certain segment of the audience into paroxysms of ethical pontification. Noting, for public consumption, every single wine will necessarily entail writing about a lot of bottles that the taster doesn’t so much like. Now, not everyone will employ as colorful and abusive language as, say, me – some people still adhere to the “if you can’t say anything nice…” dictum – but there’s no getting around the fact that most wine writers taste a lot of really lousy wine.

They taste most such wine (who would voluntarily buy wine they won’t like?) in the presence and at the behest of people in the trade. Free samples in the comfort of one’s home, perhaps, or at portfolio tastings, or over lunch with an importer, or in a producer’s cellars. Whatever the source, these are wines that haven’t been tasted in distancing isolation, but instead were bundled up with personal relationships…relationships that are often a regular (and easily-severed) source of a broader tasting experience than most under-funded writers can afford. And as I’ve written before, the majority of people in the wine trade are lovely people, no matter the quality of their products, so even aside from considerations of access, it’s not the easiest thing to trash the lifework of someone you like.

(And that’s just within the trade/press relationship. Friends and family, too, can fall victim to the unedited critic’s bloody pen. If the motivation to avoid confrontation occurs between those with whom one has an inherently adversarial critical relationship, imagine offending your in-laws by savaging a wine they poured you over the holidays.)

As a result, the critic willing to employ their poison pen finds themselves rather frequently uninvited. They drop off PR lists, sample lists, guest lists. They find doors closed where they were once open. They find their contacts in the trade suddenly less than helpful, their local retailers less glad to see them, their attempts to set up tastings rebuffed by producers with long memories. And it’s not just the peon-level writers who experience this. Even the most powerful critic of all, Robert Parker, has run afoul of producers, importers, and even entire regions that have attempted to limit his access. If Parker can be asked to talk to the hand, what hope for those with less star wattage?

Now, one may say that this is short-sighted on the part of those in the trade, and I tend to agree. So would some of the better tradespersons, who recognize that they too pay a certain price for burning bridges, and that the inability to promote a wine through a hostile critic doesn’t mean that another wine might not benefit from that relationship. One is more likely to hear the objection that none of this should be the critic’s concern. That, too, is correct, albeit from a position of rigid ethical purity, but it does negatively affect the quality of the work most critics can produce. (For an expansion of this controversial point, pull up a chair and a few spare hours, and read this and this.)

So has there been blowback from my year of full disclosure? Yes. The worst of it was actually at the end of the previous year, but that little contretemps continued into 2008. And though I don’t attend many press events anymore (partially due to travel, partially due to having fallen off some people’s mailing lists without an attempt to get back on, and partially because a long history of antagonism between me and the trade has led irrevocably to this point), the invitations are thin on the ground these days, and getting thinner. I don’t expect the next year to be an improvement, either, though some of that will obviously be attributable to the economy.

So if you’re crazy enough to consider your own version of this project, now you know the cost. Post all your notes – every last one of them – and there will be a price to pay in your relationship to the people who make, ship, and sell your wine. Not to mention your free time, and the health of your fingers, wrists, and liver. Are you willing to pay that price in a recession?

Oh…and in case anyone is wondering, the answer is: yes, I will be continuing this project in 2009. Hey, who needs friends?