14 December 2011

Go away

It’s moving day.

A site and a blog are bad enough. A site, a blog, and another blog are unworkable. And it’s worse when only one sees new content over any given period, as so often happens here.

So, everything’s moving to a single-family home, albeit a large one. I’ll soon set up the proper redirects and such, and on some future day all the retrograde content will go away.

The new digs? They’re still called oenoLogic, but they’re at thoriverson.com, where they should have been all along. What can I say? The oenoLogician fears change, except perhaps for the spare kind.

Almost all the content that was here is now there. Essays and rants, yes, and also what used to be oneoLog (the place where the tasting notes lived). What’s yet to shift geographies in their full form are the travelogues, which were written in the HTML equivalent of Sumerian and will need to be moved by hand. My joy is…hard to quantify.

But meanwhile? Get the heck out of here. Go. Go. Go!

05 December 2011

And all is silent?

No. Oh, no, no, no.

I'm a little bit on fire with some things that need to be said. Not the least of which is a full recounting of the worst wine service in the universe, received just two weeks ago in San Francisco at a restaurant that apparently has aspirations towards Michelin stars in triplicate. But there's so much else, too.

The fact is, though, that the three site format isn't working. The blogs and sites need to be offshored downsized rightsized. And they need to move, now that Google has helpfully announced that they're asserting their branding rights. In any case, Blogger never achieved its potential.

So, since everyone's addresses are changing, why not move to a better neighborhood? Things will be happening, at the most obvious location imaginable. Soon. Very, very soon. Stay riveted. Well, tuned. Check in occasionally. Oh, hell...I'll let you know.

07 November 2011

A O no

[suckling rome]A few weeks ago, the oenokerfuffle of online story and song was the Olivier Cousin debacle, and it had most of the naturalista wine world talking about it. I read along with a good deal of sympathy for Monsieur Cousin, but a fair bit of dismay at the tenor of the post-hoc debate.

In brief: Cousin, an iconoclast in the purest sense of the word, makes wines that don’t receive the officially-designated appellations they’d otherwise warrant. This is, more or less, by design. What he does, instead, is use various semi-confrontational means to indicate place of origin that run afoul of the humorless French and local wine bureaucrats. In response, they’ve decided to punish him for doing so, and the punishment is almost parodically severe: the freezing of his bank accounts, making it virtually impossible for him to continue to do his work, and the threat (a very real one) of jail time.

They take their bureaucracy seriously in France.

That the punishment is grossly disproportionate to the crime should go without saying. Cousin knows he is deliberately flouting the rules, yes, and a sensible response would be to force him to stop doing so by less abusive means (e.g. “do what we say or you can’t sell your wines in France”), not putting him out of business or behind bars. One hopes something similar will be the actual resolution, and that said resolution will come speedily enough that his livelihood will not suffer irreparable damage. There are, or were, even petitions (French and English) to assist in convincing the French authorities to come to their senses.

That’s all clear. What’s less clear is the path forward, once the current unpleasantness is behind us. Since Cousin is a darling of, and primarily known among, the natural wine set, most of the proposals were fairly predictable, and more or less amounted to “blow up the INAO” (not literally), or at least “do away with the appellation system.” I think this is woefully misguided. But I think the core problem is that the appellation system itself is woefully misguided. Or at least, woefully misapplied and mischaracterized.

I’ve written about this before, but all the problems stem from a division of opinion as to what a legally codified appellation system represents. At the legalistic level (at least as practiced in Old World wine regions), it’s a guarantee of geographical origin, ingredients, and practices in attempt to codify and highlight both terroir and tradition. Certain of these categories are more or less important depending on the appellation under discussion, but they form the foundation of the idea behind associating place, product, and name within the confines of the law.

It’s my belief that this remains a worthwhile structure. The customer can only benefit from a system by which information is communicated via labeling, and that’s what a properly constructed appellation system does. Yes, there’s a certain threshold of knowledge required to make good use thereof, but that’s true for any labeling nomenclature. Nonetheless, knowing the ways in which a Sancerre is different from an Hermitage, or a Roquefort from an Osseau-Iraty, is essential to knowing how and when to utilize those ingredients at the table or in the kitchen.

Of course, this is not what the appellation system represents to any number of entities. To many consumers, it represents some sort of promise of replicability (like a fast-food sandwich) and, inevitably, price point (which is why the very best Muscadet can’t sell for more than a wretched premier cru white Burgundy, even though this state of affairs is ludicrous). To critics, it represents a nebulously subjective paradigm to which aspirants must adhere or be judged as lacking. To some winemakers, especially the industrial ones who represent both the majority and the scourge of any appellation, it is a tool with which to secure their market advantage at the expense of those who would expose their mediocrity. And to bureaucrats, it has somehow come to suggest not just identity, but quality and the attempt to legislate a definition thereof.

All of these external expectations are damaging in one way or another, but it’s the last that’s the source of this particular controversy. The argument goes like this: the granting of a defined appellation (the top of the legalistic heap, in terms of officially-sanctioned labels) is a promise to the consumer that the wine will meet certain expectations, some of them qualitative. As such, we cannot allow wines that do not meet certain qualitative criteria to receive the appellation, for by doing so we would devalue the worth of the appellation system.

And so does a system become self-sustaining and self-justifying for all the wrong reasons. For who decides on those “certain qualitative criteria?” Usually, the majority faction of a given appellation’s producers. And who are they? Of course: the cooperatives and the industrialists. At a stroke of the legal pen, the deck is stacked against anyone who would, via the quality of their product, demonstrate the widespread mediocrity deemed to be representative and thus “typical” of the appellation. And given this system, iconoclasts know they don’t have even a glimmer of hope…which is why so many opt out before they’re forced out.

But the rot goes deeper than externalities. For the worst possible purpose of the appellation system is self-preservation, a recursive and thumb-sucking whirlpool of bureaucratic onanism. And yet, this is what it has devolved to. Like so many other bureaucracies, its interests have all slowly but inexorably become self-interests. But haven’t I previously argued that the appellation is a good thing, at least in theory? Yes, I have. Properly-applied, it’s incredibly valuable.

In France – this is less true elsewhere – the obsession with the qualitative baggage of the appellation has created a system in which working outside it is immediately and often fatally damaging to one’s bottom line. But even in the absence of such rigidity, those who choose to follow their own muse are disadvantaged at every turn; a Sancerre will always sell to more people, more reliably and for more money, than a vin de table, and this is true despite whatever cult fandom may have developed around the latter. Only a high-profile critic’s point-laden and hyperbolic approval can change this…and outside the internationalized, Latin-named super-whatevers in Italy, this is something that can talked about only in theory, not in practice. Outliers must succeed on marketing alone, yet their avenues for doing so are deliberately curtailed by their own governments and neighbors. This is profoundly unfair.

So let’s fix it.

Cousin and his fellow iconoclasts should not, if they produce something grossly atypical of the appellation, be able to use the appellation. They should have to call it something else. The appellation should mean something useful to the consumer, and the existence of extreme outliers diminishes that meaning. But if such producers also want to make something within the expected guidelines of the appellation, they should be able to do so without consequence or legally-enforced disadvantage.

Qualitative leaders within an appellation must be protected from the mediocracy. The very last thing that should be allowed is producers voting on whether or not other producers with whom they are in direct competition are “typical” or not. Give this job to an external authority…say, panels of wine professionals tasting single-blind and within the narrowest possible peer groups…without the built-in financial incentive to act dishonestly. This will never be a perfect solution – no human judgment can be – but it will be less foundationally compromised than the current system.

Remove the barriers to commercial success that exist for those working outside the appellation codes. This requires more than fiddling with the law or label nomenclature. Wholesale and official enthusiasm must be accorded to the idea that such products are not definitionally better or worse, but merely different, than their in-appellation counterparts. The mindset must be created that both an appellation-endowed wine and a table wine from the same site are both authentic representatives of that place. This won’t happen overnight, but the foundation can be laid.

And for goodness sake, leave Britney Olivier Cousin alone.

If this doesn’t happen, the appellation system really will fall into irrelevancy, as it is already in danger of doing in so many places. Both iconoclasts and top producers will flee the system, rendering it not only far from the qualitative guarantor that it has mistakenly been asked to be but a vastly diminished reservoir for conservatism and mediocrity. And thus, a useful tool for the consumer will disappear.

Presented without comment

[elizabeth spencer]

[de villaine]

31 October 2011

Slowly awakening

Why the continued barrage of notes (far from finished) over on the other blog, and nothing here? Because writers' block is an ugly, ugly thing?

No, really just because 34 pages of wine notes can, it turns out, "break" a popular word-processing program. Who knew?

On the way: why the AOC is worth preserving, and how the recent wrongs perpetrated by and in its name are actually one of the strongest arguments in its favor. And also, yet another finger-wagging rant about false claims to objectivity. What, you thought this blog could emerge from quietude and not return to that subject when the opportunity arose?

12 August 2011

This is the end

[moldy bottle]This is the last Thursday. The very last one. Here, I mean.

There will be a hotel my next namesake night, my home abandoned and swept clean of Me and Mine as it awaits its future partner, but it doesn’t count. It’s a hotel. It’s only a transition.

“Have you stopped blogging?” one correspondent asked. “Are you on hiatus?” queried another. No. I have definitely been bouchonné, in a sense (I love the broad utility of the French word for “corked”), because there’s a post I want to – no, need to – write, but I just can’t get through its abdomen, though the head and tail are long-finished. And in any case, I’ve been a little preoccupied.

Because the thing is, I’m leaving. Boston, you (and your dirty water, and your Charlie-swallowing M[B]TA) are no longer my home. As of eight days from now. And most definitely counting, as the ever-expanding, never-diminishing “list of things to do before…” stares back at my packing-reddened eyes.

Everything is, of course, fraught these days. Many decades of reminiscence. But I’m most struck, at the moment, by what cannot be reminisced. Places. People. Events. Things. Dishes. Drinks. None of them the path taken. All of those moments that I didn’t have in defiance of opportunity. And now, likely, won’t. Ever.

It’s not any given noun that’s set me on this path of…well, it’s not regret, exactly. I’m not quite sure what I’d call it. Reflection? It’s packing up bottles of wine, as any oenoanorak must do in preparation for a move.

Each bottle tells its own stories, long-acknowledged as one of the glories of the pursuit. But one of them – often overlooked – is the tale of its acquisition. The reason, the circumstance, the monetary pain a then-special bottle might have caused, the preferences – long-developed, or perhaps long-abandoned – that led to its companionship. So many years of browsing, of traveling, of savvy deals and what-was-I-thinking errors of quantity or quality. I could write an exceedingly poor-selling autobiography with just these bottles and their history.

As I said, everything is fraught. I can’t pack away a bottle without remembering then. Or there. Or why. Or who. The danger of being overwhelmed by something loitering at the intersection of Nostalgia and Proust is ever-present in these moments.

But this is what I wanted to say: these memories, these snippets of history, these moments that made me as much as I made them…they’re getting boxed up. Shipped. Reinstalled in a new setting, one in which new moments will be made starting from that very first installation. These bottles, heretofore ignored, will play a role in those new tales. And this is, I think, a fitting destiny for wine.

The story of a bottle is inseparable from its land, its grapes, its maker, and its history. It passes to a buyer with this story intact, whether the narrative is known or not. But then, a new epic is written. A story of an enthusiast and his or her wine. And that is a very, very different tale. Yet both make the wine what it is, and also what it will be.

So, Thursday. You’re actually Friday, now, as I finish this, and while I mourn your passing, I have hope. For downstairs, in more boxes than I care to count, are stories upon stories. A library of history, but also a library of the future. Each story familiar, each story new.

And some future Thursday – I don’t know when, but it will be soon – will not be a last. It will be a first. And the stories will begin anew.

04 May 2011

When push comes to chèvre

There exist more ways to get what one wants, in the mercantile realm, than ever. For many – especially in the most electronically developed countries – this is the lifting of a burden. One can have almost anything, from almost anywhere, free of the time-consuming friction of face-to-face interaction.

Elsewhere, this is viewed less positively. French feet rest heavy on so many cultural brakes that it’s sometimes difficult to see how, amidst epic and often completely arbitrary contrariness about just about everything, these deliberate pressures can lead to desirable outcomes.

Please forgive the tangential subject-skipping in those last two paragraphs, but there’s a point to it. For I am now going to talk about cheese.

At my Parisian apartment’s nearest supermarket, which is generally dismal and harbors a persistent odor of garbage, cheese is behind a rope and requires the beneficence of staff to acquire. Meat? Fish? Sure. But cheese? The stuff is, mostly, already boxed and wrapped. Why must there be a person between me and my brie? I suspect it’s because, to the French, cheese is too important to be left to the proletariat. Also, because that’s just how cheese is sold. Remember: “arbitrary.”

And if one seeks good cheese – the wheels, wedges, and three-dimensional polygons on which the fame of French cheese is justly built – one must go to a specialist. A merchant and affineur, yes, but also a guardian of tradition, a hyper-knowledgeable guide, and a meddling interferer with consumers’ best-laid plans. The thing is, one does not just buy cheese at such an establishment. One enters into a storied negotiation, the outcome of which is not certain until one is standing on the sidewalk, holding a parcel that emanates lusty aromas of biologically active dairy products. Which might be entirely different from what one intended to purchase at entry.

It’s possible to purchase food and drink from French merchants with minimized interpersonal interaction, but the qualitative sacrifice is enormous. To get the good stuff, one must build a relationship…and I use that word deliberately, because the process is not unlike dating. The complexity of the interaction goes well beyond the boundaries of an “I would like”/“we can sell you” exchange of supply and demand. There are interrogations for which one must offer explanations (“when are you going to eat this cheese? for how many people?”) and catalysts (“the bleu d’Auvergne last week was excellent, but I’d like something a little more aggressive”), there are force-feedings (“this is the cheese that you will buy, and this is how you will serve it”), and as a result the simple act of sectioning and wrapping a few pieces of cheese can take the better part of a quarter-hour. But woe betide should this relationship fail to get off the ground, or develop in difficult ways, because product quality will suffer as a result. It is essential to build a positive rapport with a merchant who has consumable goods one desires, and the burden of that interaction is – contrary to American practice – almost entirely on the consumer, not the purveyor.

Here follows a tale of merchant dating failure. And of success. A multi-year love story that has come to full, and gloriously stinky, ripeness.

Marie-Anne Cantin (2009) – The aroma of fame hangs over this rue Cler shop, lingering thick and nearly tactile in the air to either end of its block. Or maybe that’s just the chèvre.

A famous affineuse, a beautiful selection of cheese…why, then, am I about to complain? Because even after a half-dozen visits, each query as to what’s fresh, what’s interesting, what’s seasonal draws the identical droned reply from the tall, patently bored young man that is always – despite my attempts at identifying his off-day – here: “brie, Camembert, Roquefort.” Yes, OK, and a first purchase demonstrates that versions thereof sold here are superlative. But there’s a whole room full of cheese, some of which are as yet untasted legends from my reference books. Can’t I try something else?

“Brie, Camembert, Roquefort.” Apparently not.

Marie-Anne Cantin (2011) – A year and a half later, the only holdovers on the staff appear to be Madame Cantin herself and her husband (who, on my first visit, scolds me for threatening a pyramid of ash-covered chèvre with the uncontrollable arc of my allegedly wildly-swinging murse). And so, a new attempt at relationship-building is initiated.

This time, it pays off. Suddenly, there’s a lighted and signposted pathway through an oozing world of terroir-specific brie. “Sec” in reference to a goat cheese now actually produces a semi-hard version, not just whichever cylinder or pyramid the shopkeeper happens to put his hand on, and always something different than was offered last week. A full range of creamy rounds and squares, bloomy and washed – the very cheeses that are impossible to acquire legally in the States, and are inevitably past prime when they are available – are systematically offered over the course of two months’ visits. Best of all, a deliriously complex four-year-old Comté, previously extant but not for sale to just anyone (“anyone” being me) suddenly becomes available. Each week, each exchange, is a new adventure in not just selection, but also in escalating warmth. My only regret is that when I come back, I might need to start all over again with a brand new blind date.

There are other sources, as well. One does, on occasion, leave the comfort of a marriageable affineuse for the excitement of a lactic dalliance; this is France, after all. Most of the action on the side comes from a purveyor at the biweekly Grenelle open market that offers a selection of his own goat cheeses from the Loire. His fare tends towards more youthful freshness than is my personal preference, but it’s still a fine and varied array of chèvres. The best is probably his Selles-sur-Cher, which is sold in a range from birth into a creamier era of development, but the ash-dusted fresh rounds and logs are impressive in their own right.

But again, cheese is only part of the act. The rest is his banter with the mostly female market crowd, with whom he relentlessly and shamelessly flirts. (Sometimes unsuccessfully; on my first visit, a middle-aged woman stalks off in anger at his unexpected use of the familiar form, hissing “animal” at him as she harrumphs away. By week four, the familiar is all he’s using in my presence, but then I’m not French and don’t really care about such things.) A good 90% of any commercial transaction with this gentlemen is, thus, unrelated to the actual exchange of money for cheese, but rather the chatter than precedes and follows that transaction.

And so, that’s a French cheese transaction. You might not get what you want, exactly, but if all goes well, you’ll get more than you knew you wanted.

Every country has its white zinfandel. A sticky, too-sweet, unstructured, synthetic-tasting Kool-Aid™ wine. France’s is often made from one or both of the cabernets and carries the Anjou appellation, though there are plenty of blushing contenders for the role made elsewhere. I notice, as a frequent renter of apartments and gîtes in various French locales, that when there’s a gift bottle, it’s very often something of this stylistic ilk. Why, I wonder? Perhaps as a result of a guess that it has the broadest potential appeal to all, but especially sundry? Perhaps – though this seems hard to believe based on the evidence – people actually like the stuff?

Well, I don’t. And yes, it’s rude to look a gift horse in the mouth and decide to withhold the lurid neon pink refreshments. But I would love to, landlord by landlord, shift attention to something a little more interesting for both novice and geek tastes. Sweet and fun, sure, but clever as well. A Bugey Cerdon in every pot, maybe? It couldn’t hurt.

Emb. 49125D 2009 Cabernet d’Anjou (Loire) – Sweet synthetic strawberry syrup. It’s wine, but I know this primarily because the label says so. And you have to love the romance and revealed cultural history of the winery’s name. (3/11)

Les Fouleurs de Saint Pons Vin de Pays du Var “Réserve du Cigalon” Rosé (Provence) – Candied berries, a bit hot, thin, and not very interesting. (11/09)

Bernard-Noël Reverdy “Domaine de la Garenne” 2008 Sancerre Rosé (Loire) – Actually, not bad. (I know…lead off with the lavish praise, right?) Dry, with some flattish minerality exposed – something planar and uniform – and a little patina of raspberryishness. Nothing to think about, but quite drinkable while well-chilled. And had I not written this note hot on the drinking’s heels, I’d never have remembered drinking this at all. Meanwhile, that Reverdy family sure is fertile, isn’t it? (11/09)

Renardat-Fache Bugey Cerdon (Ain) – Intense strawberry, with one of the best balancing acts between acid, fruit, and sugar I’ve encountered under this label. Fresher for the lack of a trans-Atlantic trip? A better vintage? Or just an artifact of the environmental bonus multiplier of drinking it in Paris, rather than in a Boston suburb? Well…does it matter? Whatever the cause, this is the best bottle of this wine I’ve ever tasted, and I have consumed a lot. (11/09)

Rondeau Bugey Cerdon (Ain) – Pure strawberry lifted by raspberry/cranberry volatility. Fun, fun, fun, and no one’s T-Bird is getting taken away. (4/11)

Same post, more photos: here.

02 May 2011

Corse grind

This and untold essays to follow are a Parisian travelogue…in a sense. Neither an event-by-event diary, as most are, nor a bare-bones food-and wine accounting, as more recent others have been, but something different.

Food and beverage are the foundation, and no entry will be without one or the other. But does anyone need me to tell them that they should visit Sainte-Chapelle, and why? I don’t think so. Then again, Paris deserves more than a guide to consumption. Besides, there are already sites that do exactly that, and brilliantly.

Oh, and this: while the occasion of this travelogue is a two-month stay during March and April of 2011, it will also include wine, restaurants, friends, and more from a one-month stay in 2009’s autumnal decline. The only case in which this really matters (wine notes) are – as always – dated for clarity, but where necessary commentary on restaurants, shops, and so forth might also carry date specificity. Usually, however, the same thoughts apply to either time-frame. In Paris, even the temporal is eternal.

So…that’s probably enough introductory essay, and in fact enough idle musing for one entry. Why not jump right in? Because that’s how I start my stay: night one, hour one, very shortly after arrival via Eurostar, and still chilled to the roots by an icy week in London. Shopping options at this hour range from a dismal Monoprix to a downright depressing Franprix, and in any case the owner of the apartment I’m renting wants to have a quick dinner in a nearby restaurant. Sounds good to me, especially since I get to pick.

Villa Corse Rive Gauche – In the United States of a slowly-disappearing era, this space might have been labeled a “supper club.” It is swanky and club-like, but in neither case akin to, say, a starred establishment. Maybe more like faux-Vegas hipster? I don’t mean to disrespect the bookishly masculine interior, which I actually like, but it’s very obviously both restaurant and gathering place.

My dining companion needs to catch an overnight bus back to her cross-channel home, and so our dining hour is far in advance of anything even remotely typical by Parisian standards. But if they’re surprised, they’re happy to seat and serve us anyway. The menu is, as the restaurant’s name promises, Corsican. The wine list even more so, with a breadth (though not depth) that’s extremely impressive. Perhaps by-the-glass options could be a little less reliant on the island’s internationalized offerings, but that’s a quibble, and it’s unlikely that most will fail to find a wine they want on this list..

Our food is mostly well-prepared and served with brevity (a correct reading of our early-hour dining needs that may not apply to more temporally acceptable dining). My chop, from some Corsican breed of pig, is flavorful despite overcooking (I’ve become acclimated to the persistent French and Italian preference for this meat to be less pink than I’d prefer), but my companion’s gargantuan assemblage of noodle and mushroom is the superior dish.

My only complaint is about price. This is not an expensive restaurant, exactly, but it’s a little more expensive than its ambiance, quality, and (especially) ambition warrant. I think the bifurcated and somewhat clubby intention of the restaurant adds a certain surcharge to what, elsewhere, might be the same cooking presented in a more direct manner and in less luxe surroundings.

Leccia 2008 Patrimonio “Petra Bianca” Rouge (Corsica) – Dark fruit. A little wild. And very, very heavy. It’s not thick, precisely – there’s a reasonable amount of space in the middle (too much, perhaps) – but it’s like a Christmas tree with its outer limbs over-draped and sagging with weighty decorations. Most of that weight is structure, and time will tell what it tells of that structure’s development, but right now it really needs the counterweight of intense animal flesh, or a reasonable equivalent. (3/11)

Same post, more photos: here.

29 April 2011

The utility of "natural"

In the comments to the previous post, Thomas Pellechia makes the following assertion:
The word "natural" is the problem. "Natural" to apply to a movement or to a way of production was likely selected (by whomever, I don't know) for its connotation and not for its accuracy. Maybe good marketing, but certainly useless information.
It's not useless information. It means something. As much as "pinot noir" or "Chambolle-Musigny" mean something. None of the three terms tells you exactly what has been done and what you are going to get; far from it. But they're useful, and helpful, and descriptive to the extent of their ability to be any of those three things. And they are all also, in their own way, "marketing." We deal with this sort of definitional and intentional ambiguity all the time in wine, as I believe I just wrote a few weeks ago, and there's no good reason other than sheer obstinacy that "natural" should be required to submit to unprecedented scrutiny in this regard.

When a winemaker utters the (in)famous "my wine is made in the vineyard" cliché, and putting aside the cases in which that phrase is used either cynically or with premeditated deception, what's the most sensible reaction to an honest use of that phrase?

1) Start objecting that wine can't actually be made in the vineyard, that there's no fermentation vessel, that there are no bottle trees in the vineyard to catch the miraculously-fermenting grapes, and so forth.

2) Understand the conversation for which the phrase is long-standing shorthand: that the qualitative influences on the wine in question are preferentially agricultural.

I submit that the non-Asperger's answer is #2. Anyone using the phrase honestly already agrees that, yes, they have to actually get the grapes into the winery and do stuff to them, or there's no wine being made in or out of a vineyard. There's no need to revisit the entire history and science of wine every time someone is trying to signal their intent with a helpful shorthand phrase, examining each assumption to make sure it doesn't indicate wobbly doctrine. They know what they mean by the phrase, I know what they mean by the phrase, and I cannot conceive that any knowledgeable observer doesn't know what they mean by the phrase.

The same is true for "natural." I think, with the body of work and theory that exists, it's three sensorially-deprived monkeys on a t-shirt to keep insisting that people who make and drink the stuff don't know what's being signaled and shorthanded.

Would I prefer to go back in time and Napoleonically order them to use "anti-interventionist" or some other similarly-questionable phrase? Probably, though I don't think it would have saved much grief in the ensuing arguments, a rather large number of which are disingenuously presented by those whose economic interests are highly interventionist. There are some other terms I'd like to get rid of while I'm busy being the Emperor of Wine Terminology.

But that unbagged cat is already riding the barn-fleeing horse into the sunset. It's the term we've got. And if you show me a Riffault Sancerre and a Bourgeois Sancerre and tell me that the former is a natural wine and the latter is not, what I expect based on those descriptions very much matches up with what I will actually get. The same is true for many such contrasting pairs, and I would love to hear from anyone familiar with both wines that thinks they do not have similarly differentiated expectations, because I suspect such a person doesn't exist. That's a demonstration of utility right there, and thus the term is not useless information. Insisting otherwise is baseless.

28 April 2011


“Why don’t you,” suggested an email, “offer your own definition of ‘natural wine,’ if you’re so sure everyone else has it wrong?” It’s possible that slightly different and marginally more aggressive words were used, and thus I’m paraphrasing for the sake of clarity, but this is a family blog I’ll stop at nothing in pursuit of a joke the paraphrase will have to do for now.

In any case, I pretty much already have. But OK: here’s a short* version. Laminate it if you wish. (Biodegradable laminate, please.)

*Why are people laughing?

Natural wine is the result of a winemaker given a chance to intervene and always choosing otherwise, except as necessary* to achieve a drinkable product recognizable as wine.

*And sometimes, not even then**.

**On the other hand, bad wine is bad wine, and incompetence is incompetence, and neither really invalidates the definitional divisions between natural and other types of wine. After all, a freely-intervening hand does not preclude biological instability, though it’s certainly true that that hand’s absence can make instability more probable.

What I like about this definition is that it doesn’t attempt to swim upstream against the currents of example vs. counter-example. While it’s true that I can’t think of a natural winemaker who adds cultivated yeast, the standard claim about few or no sulfur additions is rather fiercely challenged by one natural winemaker, who submits bottle after bottle of self-described naturalia to a test that finds most to have surprisingly high levels of sulfur. Thus, I can’t even adjudicate the truth or falsehood of one of natural wine’s core tenets. And pretty much all the rest is debate, argument, philosophy, and/or religion.

This definition also doesn’t require tiered value judgments. One needn’t weigh one intervention against another, trying to discern which is more deformative and which is less…an argument presented time and time again by the contrary and the disbelieving…because the point isn’t some inherently obvious anti-natural value to a given intervention, it’s the motivation behind and purpose of intervention itself.

That last bit is why I prefer a less-prescriptive definition of “natural wine.” It’s not a papal bull. It’s not even a recipe. There really isn’t a perimetered group of wines within and external to the category. There’s just a continuum between wines made with more or less intervention, and a vague and highly malleable circle drawn around the lower-intervention end of that scale encompassing what would be called “natural” by everyone, by most, and by some. There is not, it should also be reiterated, a wine at the endpoint of that continuum; insisting that there must be one is a straw man argument by the pro-intervention crowd, not something that any actual natural winemaker believes.

When debates get heated, I often think that I would prefer to talk about categories of “more” and “less natural,” rather than just natural as if it had a set meaning. On the other hand the word does mean something. To deny this is to attempt to win by semantic pedantry what one cannot demonstrate in reality. There are natural wines that are different in identifiable ways from other wines, and there are enough common denominators within that category that generalizations can be made.

And yet, the “definition” is nebulous. It pretty much has to be. Now, if someone wants to launch a Natural Wine™ certification program, they’re free to set rigid guidelines and commence purging the heretics and apostates. Until that grim day, we’re just going to choose to live with, and even embrace, ambiguity.

In other words, choose to not choose. Just like natural winemakers.

27 April 2011

Nurture, not nature

I don’t care about natural wine.

So why do I write about it so much? Good question. Masochism? Or maybe, since by blogging I’m encouraging people read those words, it’s sadism?

Many people begin and end their wine experience with taste, and while that’s important, it’s not quite enough for me. I’m interested in all manner of auxiliary matters, including what happens to cause that taste. And while it makes little sense to the taste-centrics, I do appreciate certain wines more (or less) based on what they are, what they represent, and how they’re made.

I suppose what I’m really after, in this non-organoleptic realm, is authenticity. That is: wines that speak authentically of their place, of their raw materials, and of their category. To the extent that natural wine means anything to me, it’s in its alleged potential for this sort of transparency.

Of course, some natural winemaking is anything but transparent. Some of it is patently obscurative. Certain grapes and sites seem to emerge tasting recognizably akin to those made via more interventionist methods. Others are profoundly transformed, at the extreme tasting much more of each other than of their peer groups despite wildly differing raw materials and grape sources. The set of flaws that can all too easily afflict natural wines are a contributor, but even in the absence of flaws there is, at times, a sort of asymptotic “natural” aromatic and textural profile. Anyone who drinks a lot of natural wine knows what I’m talking about.

Ennui sets in when theoretically different grapes and sites end up tasting like minor variations on a single theme. Soon, that ennui is replaced by boredom. Eventually, I find myself wanting to drink something else. Something that tastes like something else. Of what it is or where it’s from more than how it’s made. That is, after all, the exact objection I have to industrial winemaking practice. Why should I laud a product just because it’s in philosophical objection to same?

It is here that I often find myself parting ways with the most dedicated natural wine fans. It’s not just about preferring different organoleptic profiles – that’s inherent between any two wine drinkers – but that natural wine soon ceases to appeal to me, except as a gustatory curiosity, when it obscures rather than reveals. In other words, I don’t enjoy natural wine because it is natural. I sometimes enjoy it because of how it makes wine tastes (and sometimes not). But the vast majority of my enjoyment comes it when it serves the greater aim of authenticity.

So why should I care about natural wine, as a category, at all? Because it’s my experience that I tend to prefer wines made with less intervention to those made with more. Exceptions abound, but it’s a useful generalization. It’s even more accurate not as a wine moves from interventionist to natural, but as it transitions from highly-interventionist to minimally-interventionist. The very existence of natural wine as a growing and much-discussed category exerts pressure against the urge to intervene. That is, for both my palate and my preferences, a good thing.

As for my apparently persistent desire to put hands on keyboard, there’s even more to it than the exertion of palate-pleasing pressure. About natural wine is written and spoken a rather incredible amount of bullshit, both pro- and con-. I’ve probably contributed my share of both, over the years. What strikes me about a lot of it is that it appears to coalesce around positions of wild-eyed extremism about which everybody argues and finger-points, but which positions vanishingly few people actually hold.

The thing is, among the cohort of people who drink and enjoy any subset of natural wines, one finds a lot less polemical rigidity. And those are just the vocal ones; the silent are likely even less doctrinaire. But while those who enjoy a good supply of both natural and interventionist wines far outnumber the zealots, their megaphones and klaxons are set at lower volumes. What cannot be overcome in decibels must thus be compensated by numbers. And maybe the chorus can, eventually, drown out the most narcissistic soloists.

04 April 2011

Dispatches from Naturalia

A few weeks ago, an offhand dismissal of natural wine on Twitter (imagine that!) caught my eye. Paraphrasing, the tweeter mused: “still trying to decide if it’s all just marketing.”

I can answer that, actually. Yes, it is indeed marketing. So is “Gevrey-Chambertin.” So is “pinot noir.” And for the exact same reasons.

Inspired by the above, I admit continued bewilderment at a refusal to engage with ambiguity when it comes to the word “natural.” I’m glad that people have, from time to time, offered definitions, because it gives us something to argue about. But those are their definitions, not the definition. It’s quite clear that among both self-identified and externally-identified producers of natural wine, there’s little to no agreement on precise, regulatory-style meaning. And while a few ideologues are more than willing to fight about it, most are quite happy with the lack of rigidity. Alas that detractors (and advocates) can’t adopt the same attitude.

But aren’t “Gevrey-Chambertin” and “natural” different? Doesn’t the former have a specific definition? Yes it does, but it’s mostly about geography and content, a little about practice, and not at all about what the wine is actually like. “Pinot noir” is a specific grape, yes, but both a transparent blanc de noirs Champagne and an opaque hot-climate bruiser are pinot noir. The name is a datum, not a characterization.

“Natural” has no force of legal code behind it, but amongst its Gaussian distribution of producers that there’s a core set of practices that any hypothetical code would include (and practices it would exclude). And yet, this still tells us nothing about what the wines are like. A pretty little gamay for immediate slurping? A stately riesling made for (given sufficiently careful cellaring) long aging? Both exist.

In other words, there’s as much simultaneous meaning and ambiguity to the word “natural” as in many other wine terms. We embrace uncertainty elsewhere, using words that are not simultaneously prescriptive and descriptive. Why is it so hard with the word “natural?”

Perhaps it’s because the word – like so many others – gets entangled with value judgments. In this, “natural” takes up the burden that “terroir” used to carry. Some of the most passionate defenders of the concept can be regularly seen to have – maybe subconsciously, maybe not – entirely conflated the term with “wines they like.” When a wine comes along made exactly as they’d prefer, but far outside their stylistic preferences, they start protesting that it can’t be natural and looking for redefinitions that will exclude it. This is ludicrous. “Natural” is prescriptive, it has some limited ability to be descriptive, but it is not and cannot be qualitative. That’s not to say that one can’t prefer natural wines for reasons aside from the organoleptic. But “natural” is not a synonym for “good,” and it was never intended to be.

On a personal level, one of the biggest reasons I appreciate the growing presence of natural wine is the pressure it exerts on winemakers who’ve never met an intervention they don’t like. I don’t expect many of them to change, and certainly control-oriented industrialists never will. But others will. More might reconsider what they do, maybe making a little tweak here or there, perhaps experimenting outside the borders of “what they’ve always done” to see if quality can be achieved in a different way. The more important outcome, to me, is that producers are under increasing pressure to be more transparent about what they do. What did they add? What did they adjust? And why?

These very questions are themselves too often taken as value judgments. This, too, is ludicrous. I am in no way dismissive of the impulse and the frequent need to intervene, sometimes aggressively, to shepherd a wine from grape to saleable bottle. And some of my favorite wines are the result of intense intervention. But centuries of furtive meddling have served no one except the true industrialists, whose practices are thus fully legitimized. And the secrecy not only fails to increase knowledge, but leads to confusion and premature didacticism on the part of insufficiently educated wine folk…consumers, yes, but even sometimes those in the biz. If the obsessive focus on practice brought by natural wines serves to turn up the intensity of revelatory light, there’s not a single bad thing to be said about that.

Last year I penned an essay on the qualities and difficulties of the natural wine scene in Paris. I’m in the midst of another extended stay in that glorious city, and have as a matter of choice been rather immersed in the stuff. And so it’s been interesting to reexamine my former conclusions.

Has anything changed? Yes and no. There are even more natural wine bars and restaurants than before, which is a testament to their success (some of the old stalwarts have even expanded). That’s the first “yes.”

The “no” is that at such establishments, vinous apartheid more or less continues to reign. That’s a loaded term, so let me clarify that I mean it in a value-neutral sense. Natural wine lists mostly remain natural wine lists, full stop. If there’s a wine bar or restaurant that fully embraces naturalia yet allows their stock to be dominated by qualitative rather than definitional concerns, I haven’t seen it (which is not to say that it doesn’t exist; one can’t go everywhere, or at least my liver certainly can’t). And that, of course, is fine; I would no more criticize a restaurant for being exclusively “natural” than I would for specializing in crêpes. I still think an opportunity is being missed to broaden the concept, but I’m not a business owner.

It’s probably true that there’s more bad natural wine than there used to be. No surprise there. I don’t mean that the wines have gotten worse, I mean that there’s some trend jumping, and a quantity of product that appears to be more the result of fermented ideology than fermented grapes. It’s certainly true that there’s more similar-tasting natural wine than before, due to the leavening effects of semi-carbonic maceration and other asymptotic techniques. I like these cute, fresh little vins de soif, as they’re often called, but a steady diet of them across appellations and grapes gets repetitive and frustrating; I don’t want every grape, from every appellation, to taste like either gamay or pétillant orange wine.

There’s a second “yes,” however, and it’s a welcome development. It’s been a bit of a joke amongst wine geeks, over the years, that Lapierre has somehow found itself the sole representative of natural wine on hundreds of wine lists and store shelves ‘round the world. Good for Lapierre, and good for people who know and love the wines, but that’s no longer quite true. Major retailers here are now more or less compelled to feature natural wines somewhere in their square footage meterage. Good restaurants have more and more options from the natural side of things, and they tend to be the better examples of same. That’s the merging of preferences that I’d hoped for; that “natural” not be an exclusive end in itself, but just another choice among a diversity thereof. Because only then can it directly influence the conversation outside a small circle of oenophilic obsessives.

And yet, despite all the above, it remains true that natural wine is a niche. A micro-niche. Given that its practices are highly unlikely to be scalable to the mass market, that’s all it will ever be. There is so much written, pro and con, about natural wine that it would be easy for a causal observer to conclude that the market was awash in the stuff. It isn’t, and in places that aren’t Paris (or, I’m told, Japan), finding more than a token bottle is like seeking an unsulfured needle in a volatile haystack.

So to our introductory Twitter skeptic, wondering if it might all be just about marketing, it might as well be if the argument in their favor is not in rich physical supply. The wines can be hard to find, harder to transport, and even when present are often unwilling to be the lap cats of the vinous world, curling up for a few hours of familiar and unconscious comfort. They are difficult wines for (judging by some of their fans, including myself) difficult people. Their very difference can be both flaw and virtue.

Market that.

16 March 2011

The one & uni Fergus

Vinoteca – A bustling, chaotic, pretty much disorganized wine bar that, almost magically, actually seems to be organized when one is a customer. They serve people sitting, standing, bar-leaning, and shopping in what seems an utterly chaotic and random way. But serve them they do. On offer are a fairly mediocre list of wines by the glass in the midst of a pretty wide-ranging wall selection of wines by the bottle. I don’t try the food, as I’m on my way to dinner, but I suspect the trick here is to plan the liquid capacity of your group carefully, so that you may order by the bottle rather than the glass.

That said, they’re friendly and receptive to banter, even in the midst of a crushing post-work rush. Really, this isn’t a “wine bar,” this is a neighborhood bar that happens to serve wine and be awfully well-known. And that’s not so bad.

Huet 2007 Vouvray Le Mont Sec (Loire) – The oft-expressed opinion of increasingly ego-overwhelmed critics that great ageable wines taste great in youth is persistently dispelled by wines like this. It’s nice enough, with firm structure, gently chalky minerality, a lot of spine without much flesh, and a strikingly long finish that holds its poise all the way to its denouement. But really, there’s so much more to come that only those intimately familiar with the usual trajectory could even begin to divine the potential here. I doubt I would, encountering this wine blind. So is it a waste to drink this now? I’m starting to wonder if it might not be. At the very least, the demi-sec bottlings offer more early material for appreciation. (3/11)

Kracher 2008 Zweigelt “Illmitz” (Burgenland) – Oaky zweigelt. What a terrible idea. What an unpleasant wine. (3/11)

Haisma 2007 Gevrey-Chambertin (Burgundy) – Dark fruit, though far from opaque, with the slender musculature of a runner. Mushroom dust, some earth. There’s wood, yes, but it’s young Burgundy. Wood’s not uncommon at this stage. Structurally sound. I’ve never heard of this guy, but on a sample size of one, he might be worth watching. (3/11)

St. John – A place that probably needs little introduction to the carnivorous, the nose-to-tail ethos is not overwhelmingly in evidence on my menu tonight. Or maybe I’m already a quarter of the way in from each end, and it’s just the stuff in the middle that I’ve yet to 100% embrace. But to be honest, tonight’s carte is pretty staid, vs. my expectations.

And yet, those expectations include a determination that I will push my boundaries a bit. So, rather than the infamously delicious marrow that I’d usually order, I opt for sea urchins. Now, I eat their roe all the time in Japanese, Italian, and other sorts of places, but the slashed-open entirety of these spiky little sea aliens are a new experience for me. New, and delicious. All the briny liquidity that makes a carefully-shucked oyster such an exercise in perfection is, more delicately, displayed here.

After that, my cream-stew-ish dish of some sort of heirloom pork is perfectly tasty but pretty standard and straightforward. The chocolate terrine that follows, however, is stunning...and even more so with the incredibly rich Armagnac ice cream that accompanies it. There’s a vieille prune and an excellent coffee somewhere in this quadrant of the evening, but honestly I’m meated and wined into fair, albeit happy, oblivion. The atmosphere is gymnasium chic, the service is quick, the overall experience is pack-‘em-in and move-‘em-out. And everyone loves it. This is a great, great restaurant.

Bizeul “Domaine du Clos des Fées” 2008 Côtes du Roussillon “Les Sorcières” (Roussillon) – Flavorful, but with odd helixes and skews to its geometry. Red fruit mixed with earth, herbs tossed with grains, light but with a low subwoofer hum. There are a lot of tasty elements, but they never quite coalesce. It’s good, but only just. (3/11)

Same post, many more photos: here

William Henry

Terroirs – Apparently, every major city must have a wine bar carrying this name, with or without the trailing pluralization. This one was a little more groundbreaking than some of its namesakes, shaking up one of the most established wine cultures in the world with naturalia and a passel of its qualitative cousins.

The menu’s perfect for a sort of place in which one wants (or should want) to sample and graze both solids and liquids. I make it simple on myself, in conception if not quantity, by assembling an array of charcuterie from the Pyrénées, radishes with anchoiade (the only failed dish I’ll order; the sauce is gelatinous and obliterates the delicate radishes), and cod roe with egg. The bread’s good, too, and given what I’ve ordered I end up with rather a quantity of delicious cornichons, which are about as sharp a palate-clearer as one can find.

To my amusement, the guys behind the bar are both American. We chat into the wee hours of the late afternoon, at certain points including my neighbors to the right (ties over their white-shirted shoulders and highly intrigued by the opacity of the orange wines in front of me) and my neighbor to the left (a beer aficionado with an immense affection for Portland, Oregon). Wee-hour chatting encourages wee-hour bibulous addenda, and that is how the rest of the evening goes slowly but inexorably wrong. On which subject I will have nothing to say, now or in any future post…

Mathis Bastian 2008 Riesling “Grand Premier Cru” Wellenstein (Luxembourg) – Bright and vibrant. Crisp acidity, not overly sharpened, with flaky limestone minerality and ripe lemon flavors. Pretty impressive, and by a fair margin the best Luxembourgeois wine I’ve tasted. (3/11)

Il Tufiello 2007 Fiano “Don Chisciotte” (Campania) – An orange wine. What’s most interesting to me is how clearly both the waxiness and textural impact of the grape and the dust of the region shine though the layers of tactility provided by extended skin contact. The tannin here is present but quite manageable within the wine’s overall balance, and acidity hasn’t been completely lost, so the end result is something a little brighter and fresher than the orange norm. It’s not as complex as some, but it’s a simple pleasure. (3/11)

La Stoppa 2006 “Ageno” (Emilia-Romagna) – Very deep, rich, and shaded. A powerful, almost stravecchio style of orange wine (really more brown when taken to this extent), full of dessert spices, minerality, and preserved fruit. Absolutely delicious, albeit heady. (3/11)

Vino di Anna 2009 “Jeudi 15” (Sicily) – Carbonic (at least, what one imagines a carbonic wine to taste like) and crisp. Apple (skin on), raspberry, red cherry. Vivacious, irresistible. I love this. (3/11)

Les Foulards Rouge 2010 Vin de Table “Octobre” (Roussillon) – Spicy, frothy acidity with sharp, boisterous red berries. There’s more to it, thankfully, with earthier and more herbal…well, I was going to write “nuances,” but they’re more like microbursts. Nothing’s quiet in this wine. Fun, if simple. (3/11)

Navarre 2008 Saint-Chinian “Cuvée Oliver” (Languedoc) – I really don’t like this. Stale butter and the scotchy taste of wood (is it wooded? the web site doesn’t mention it if so) completely ruin whatever fruit characteristics might be present. Nasty stuff. (3/11)

de Bartoli “Vecchia Samperi Ventennale” Vino Liquoroso (Sicily) – A wine of tension. This strikes me as amusing, since I’m sure it would be characterized as a wine of meditation on many Italian lists. But it’s that settled uncertainty – is it trying to be sweeter or drier? is it a Marsala or not? – that’s this wine’s brilliance. Complexity defined. A jumble of bones, rocks, nut oils, and differing shades of late afternoon. Long. Incredibly long. Really brilliant. (3/11)

Cazottes Eau-de-Vie Goutte de Mauzac Rosé Passerillé (Southwest France) – Floral as much as fruity, with the quality of my preferred clear spirits in that it goes beyond a simple spirituous expression of the source material to achieve something a little more interesting. Those who prefer that purity might not like this as much. There’s a delicacy along with the usual heat that’s not often found, either. (3/11)

15 March 2011

Donna Summer

Hot Stuff – Exactly the sort of downmarket curry joint one wants. We, as is recommended, just let them feed us. And it’s good. Very good. And stupidly cheap (for London). We – the other party to which I keep referring is London-based wine writer and Barbera 7 co-conspirator Stuart George – bring wine, of course.

Sainsbury’s Sauvignon Blanc (Central Valley) – A whole orchard full of grapefruit, lemon, lime, with just a hint of pith and bitterness. Good flavor for the money. (3/11)

Sainsbury’s Cabernet Sauvignon (Valle Central) – Why the language switch for the appellation between this and the sauvignon blanc, I don’t know. I’m sure some focus group, somewhere, knows the answer. Sweet green pepper, synthetic and sticky fruit. I rarely think the cabernets are ideal candidates for cellar-dwelling price points, and sauvignon even less so than franc. This wine demonstrates why. An underripe festival of pyrazines would be one thing, but to add the sticky, plastic sugar element just to make things “more palatable” is triply wretched. No bargain at any cost. (3/11)

Edmunds St. John 2000 “Los Robles Viejos” Rozet (Paso Robles) – Undoubtedly much-victimized by a transatlantic voyage and then a good shaking from hotel to subway to restaurant, so when I mention the muted elements to come, they’re only partially due to a wine in its midlife crisis. But that’s a factor, as well…though the eventual signs of a more mature life can be very clearly glimpsed through the haze and miasma. Beefy, dark, scowling and broodish, with the mourvèdre taking a very prominent role (my drinking companion complains of mild brett; without lab work it’s hard to know for sure, but I feel it’s the animal stink of the grape rather than the animal stink of a yeast) and the other grapes of this southern Rhônish blend pacing around in the background. Structure is still fulsome and enveloping, and so while the fruit is well along its development curve, there’s still softening to be done. In another wine, I might caution about the future, but my experience with ESJ wines is that they always go longer – and often much longer – than my initial instinct suggests. So I’d say, more based on experience than the possibly traumatized state of this particular bottle, there’s absolutely no hurry, though given the right culinary conditions this could be coaxed into a state of reasonable enjoyability right now. I’ll wait on the rest of mine. (3/11)

Rasoi – I’ve done upscale Thai, and now here’s upscale Indian. It’s not quite as overtly striving as was nahm, until the plates arrive. This is decorative, modernized, Westernized Indian food in presentation and, on occasion, in ingredients. But not, I’d say, in flavor, which is just as rich and complex as one expects. Service is more the upscale norm, and there’s a quite fine wine list to match (if anything actually matches Indian cuisine). I had my doubts about this concept, unsure if the soul of the food would survive the upscaling, but I needn’t have worried. This is a vibrant success.

Sula 2010 Chenin Blanc (Nashik) – I’ve watched this particular bottling over seven vintages now, which is kinda fun to say about an Indian wine. Interestingly, while it has gotten cleaner over the years, it has not necessarily gotten better, which might indicate that it’s coming up against some sort of externally-imposed limit. Maybe vine age, maybe terroir, maybe something else. It’s still a bright, light-fruited quaff, still tastes less like chenin (either the Loire style or the fruit-blast South African style) than something more innocuous, still has just-bright-enough acidity, and still goes pretty much nowhere on the finish. In other words, its primary quality remains a delight at drinking a pleasant wine from India. (3/11)

Neumeyer 2007 Pinot Gris “Le Beger” (Alsace) – The label says pinot gris, there’s a little hint of pear-ish fruit done up with wintry spices, and the particular sort of (very) light off-dryness is carried in a very pinot gris-like way. But otherwise, this has about a foot and a half firmly in the riesling camp, in that its structure is metallic, cylindrical, and firm. The overall effect is to pretty much dry out the residual sugar, leaving a fine, steely minerality dominant over the restrained fruit. The finish is long and firm-fisted. While it will not be to the taste of those demanding lushness from their Alsatian pinot gris, for me it’s almost an historic resurrection of a much-missed style. A style that is, though it’s hard to remember in this era of dessert-y pinot gris, very appealing with food. (3/11)

Same post, many more photos here.

12 March 2011

Lab rinse

Maze – My dining companion is unwell. Exceedingly unwell, in fact. Against our better judgment, we go ahead and attempt to keep this (sometimes difficult) reservation, made ages ago and reconfirmed twice. It might be our only chance.

As soon as we walk in, I know we’ve erred. We order a few small plates, hedging our bets despite the increasingly green face across from me. Fifteen minutes later, we’re out the door. In an act of kind generosity, they rebook us for two nights hence.

In between the greenness and the hasty departure, here’s a bit of an aborted mini-meal on my part, which I scarf while paying the check and hastily draining a few glasses of already-delivered wine. The delicious-sounding poached duck egg with Jerusalem artichoke velouté and a persillade of porcini (which initially presents itself, somewhat unfortunately, as a giant bowl of foam) is terrific at bite one, tedious by bite four. There’s no balance here, just incredible richness. I like richness, a lot, but there’s no respite, and this dish needs one. On the other hand, there’s also tea-smoked salmon with cauliflower, radishes, and apple vinaigrette. Here’s all the spare crispness that the other dish lacks as its counterpoint. The flavors are clearly delineated, though of course a plate like this relies much more on quality shopping than it does on high-skill kitchen techniques.

Anton Bauer 2009 Grüner Veltliner Rosenberg (Donauland) – Open, but it’s a small opening, spreading tiny white petals to show the (nicely) vegetal greenness within. There’s just a touch of the lurid to the aroma, but it’s a luridness that exists mostly in a nearby room, rather than right in front of the taster. Simple, nice, not really more than that. (2/11)

Josmeyer 2008 Gewurztraminer “Les Folastries” (Alsace) – Off-dry, with its minerality delivered in a waterfall of crystallization. Sweet lychee verging into peach, but with a clementine counterpoint, even a little mirabelle as it lingers. There’s power here without overt weight, and also without relying too heavily on the common crutch of sugar. Extremely nice. (2/11)

A few nights later, take two. More small plates to start, this time starting with a rabbit and foie gras terrine with accompaniments from both the porcine and dried plum genres. It’s very good, if just a touch dry. Next are quail, kohlrabi, and cauliflower with the spice of the souq and a burnt onion reduction. The combination is extremely flavorful, but suffers from the same issue as the poached egg: too many intense flavors in the same narrow band, which ends up (due to a longer-lingering aftertaste) being dominated by the onion char. Even the kohlrabi doesn’t help. Again, it would be preferable in a smaller quantity than is offered here, and this isn’t exactly a big plate.

The only unmitigated brilliant dish I’ll have here is the next: daurade atop squid Bolognese and garlic, with some sort of citrusy counterpoint and a lump of chorizo. The squid Bolognese is a brilliant idea, frankly, bringing land and sea together, and though I’d have preferred better integration of the chorizo into the dish, everything works in both isolation and tandem. After this, the better-sounding (on the menu, anyway) pork cheek and belly mini-choucroute is a bit of a letdown. I expect the choucroute concept to be taken somewhere individualistic, but other than the meats used, it’s really not. I like choucroute, and I like this. But I wouldn’t have to come to a Gordon Ramsay restaurant and pay this much to get one I like equally well, and this isn’t exactly an Alsatian-sized portion.

Rice pudding with mirabelle finishes. It’s quite fine, but at this point I’m suffering from a bit of palate fatigue, so I’m not sure my faculties are in session.

Rereading the above, I see more carping than the restaurant really deserves. It’s good, service is attentive if a touch quick (they turn tables here, and it’s a huge restaurant with a lot of ground to cover), and while it’s expensive it’s not larcenous. But it is not, to borrow the Michelin parlance, worth a special trip. It’s more an “if you’re in the neighborhood” place…though it’s not a bad neighborhood to be in, for sure.

As for the wine list, it holds quality options for both conservative label-drinkers and wild-haired seekers of the alternative (naturalia, not so much), with the former of course being soaked for the maximum number of pounds, and the latter getting the better end of the deal. In other words, the normal state of affairs. Special note goes out to a more than decent by-the-glass selection.

Gosset Champagne Brut “Grand Rosé” (Champagne) – Simple and a little heavy, full of red-berry flavor but extremely linear and literal. Solid. (3/11)

Keller 2005 Spätburgunder “Selection” 38 07 (Baden) – Light-minded, with soft red fruit both yielding and a little plush despite an enveloping tan minerality. Just a touch of brett. Really quite beautiful and approachable, though it’s not blessed with much complexity. Maybe that will come. (3/11)

Trimbach 2008 Riesling “Réserve” (Alsace) – Sulfurous, though mildly so. Yet it does obscure. Underneath that sulfur there’s a heck of a wine…powerful, iron-cored, bracing…but I think this has been treated for the long haul, which it should have no problem enduring. Now, it’s just sulfurous. (3/11)

Disznókő Tokaji “Late Harvest” (Hungary) – Concentrated sweetness, copper, bronze, brass, molten candle wax, and amber. Some extremely concentrated apricot, as well, perhaps more as a honey flavoring than an actual fruit experience. Very clean, devoid of the style’s typical issues with volatility, and delicious. (3/11)

Ledaig 20 Year Scotch Whisky (Isle of Mull) – As broad a peat aroma as I’ve smelled in a Scotch. Not strong, just broad. Drinking this is to experience the sensation of consuming a Scottish woolen blanket. That, since it’s probably not clear, is a compliment. I really love this. (3/11)

Same post, many more photos: here.

09 March 2011

Om nahm nahm

nahm – Upscale Thai. I know this exists in the States, here and there, but I’ve never heard anyone get particularly passionate about it. The Thai that foodish ’merican people love, in its restaurant form, is downscale, or at least midscale. And there is, of course, the plethorama of goopy, Americanized Thai places with the four-color-curry pick-your-meat menus, at which everything after the coconut soup is more or less a disaster.

Not here, though. David Thompson’s beautiful boutique hotel restaurant is as classy as any joint, albeit with a bit more wood-toned warmth. (Caveat: the music is excruciating elevator world-jazz, but no one’s perfect.) As for the service, it’s efficient more than warm. Normally, I would prefer this, but part of the game this restaurant plays is that there’s no hand-holding…you’re expected to know, or to not know and guess, rather than be gently guided through a menu that will, for non-Thai-fanatics, be largely unfamiliar…and one can always feel somewhat at sea aboard the truly unfamiliar. In any case, if there’s a question of construction or detail, there’s always Thompson’s parenthetically exhaustive, obsessively pedantic, and fussily brilliant cookbook.

I’ve been warned off the tasting menu, which would be my usual choice at such an establishment, by my frequent-guest dining companion as it apparently over-relies on dessert…rarely the strength of an Asian menu. So we trade off a hand’s worth of choices (i.e. five), covering what feels like a pretty wide range of styles.

And wide-ranging is what we get. First, the crusty caramelized chicken hash (I don’t have a better way to familiarize it) on sliced fruit that serves as an amuse. Then, pigeon larp with thinly-sliced bitter melon, bracingly scudded and about as far outside Western flavor norms as anything I’ve ever eaten. It’s very difficult to eat, to be honest, and yet it’s so different that the intellectual exercise is enjoyable in its own right. (The post-larp burn, however, is a companion for the rest of the night and well into the next afternoon.) Squid with snow peas, each black with the former’s ink, is so much more delicate than what’s preceded it, and perfectly cooked to two entirely different textures. A pair of soups follow, one a rich oxtail broth that plays familiar Thai melodies in a very rich, almost French-reminiscent broth, the other a frankly brilliant gourd soup that dances a very appealing flavor tango between the familiar and the unusual. Finally, there’s a massaman duck curry rich with what I call “baking spices” in the West – this is as close to dessert as we’ll get – and a clarion combination of briefly-seared venison slices with chiles and other Thai aromatics that cleans everything up and ties off the bow with its precise, almost spare, yet intense flavors.

All that sounds good, right? Well, not so much in toto. There are, frankly, way too many flavors in this meal. It’s our fault, not the restaurant’s, but the churning confusion on the palate is very difficult to deal with; rather than the satisfaction of a frontier explored, I’m left with organoleptic disarray, bewildered and a little overwhelmed. Next time, whether or not I choose the tasting menu, I’ll ask for some help with focus and linearity.

The wine list is extensive, and appears to be pretty decent (given the sort of food we’re eating, I scan the rich and aromatic whites, make a quick choice, and ignore the rest), albeit quite expensive. What I choose is a cultish Antipodal wine that I never see in the States.

Dry River 2008 Gewürztraminer (Martinborough) – Sneaky. Starts off very shy, then gradually opens; the ideal temperature, at least from a “cold” opening, is somewhere a little higher-temp than might be ideal for most gewürztraminer. Is what appears to be a lowish alcohol vs. the gewürztraminer norm a factor? It might be. The aromatic range includes rambutan and some stone fruit, nut oils, and roses, but everything is nicely restrained…even delicate…in comparison to the weighty power of which the grape is capable. Off-dry, but just that; this is in no way overtly sticky. Finishes long and a little tingly, with the promise of minerality to come. As the gewürztraminers of Alsace get heavier and sweeter, this is a nice respite. (2/11)

Weinbach Eau-de-Vie Poire William (Alsace) – Extremely intense, round, and fulsome, as stylistically befits any beverage from this house. Ripe pear, salt, minerality, sweat (an oddly regular component of this particular spirit, across producers and appellations). So much going on that the heat, which is not inconsiderable, actually takes a step back. I like this a lot. (2/11)

07 March 2011

A narrow escape

The Narrow – Here on a Sunday, with a commanding window view of this fairly slick, newish-feeling (as much as a London neighborhood can be) stretch of the Thames, there’s only one thing to have. Sunday roast? Yes, please. The beef.

It’s Denham Vale cowflesh, and it’s really flavorful. As for the overall dish? Well, the thing is, I grew up eating beef (and pork) roasts approaching this quality pretty much every week in my chilly Norwegian-American home, so where for some culinary adventurers this sort of back-to-the-roots cuisine is somewhat of a novelty, for me it’s more akin to familial comfort that most of the locals are undoubtedly experiencing. It was for me, like it probably is for many here, the sort of meat-as-weekend-reward meal that was more special when it was unique, and is now less so in the deluge of carnivorism that makes up the modern Western diet. Though I can guarantee that my grandmother didn’t roast her potatoes in goose fat to an exquisite crunch, as they do here. The gravy’s problematic…a little too rich and reduced for the dish…the parsnips and Savoy cabbage nonentities, but between the potatoes and the mashed swede (that’s rutabaga for those who speak American English), there’s plenty of contrapuntal goodness on the plate, if one considers heavy, starchy things to be the proper counterbalance to sauced meat.

Lighthouse “Navigator” Doppelbock (British Columbia) – Dark, bitter, dark, spicy, dark, and dense. Very, very flavorful. And sorry, but I have to say it: this would be greatly improved with a little chill. The traditional ambient serving temperature does not suit this particular brew. (2/11)

Penderyn “Peated” Single Malt Whisky (Wales) – A mediocre whisky with a completely tacked-on layer of aromatic iodine. The oak is shockingly buttery, even beneath the peat. Not good. (2/11)

Crusting Pipe – An unexpected last-moment connection via social media (thank you, Mark Zuckerberg) leads us here to meet our French family, who have fallen in love with the city of London and on a whim have decided on a serendipitously simultaneous weekend getaway. There’s a somewhat worn but still interesting atmosphere inside despite the dubiously over-touristed Covent Garden location (though I don’t know about the forced entertainment in the courtyard), and a pretty dismal wine list, but I suppose one really isn’t here for the latter as much as the former. I enjoy myself despite what’s in my glass.

Mount Brown 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (Waipara) – Mineral-driven, which is to the good, with little tropicality and also no overt pyrazines. Unfortunately, lacking either and not having aught other than some rocks in their place, it’s wan. There could, and should, be more. I suppose I’d be kinder were this made from a less aggressive grape, but while I adore mineral qualities in my sauvignon blanc, it’s a grape that I think should bring some of its own expressiveness to the mix. Here, it doesn’t. (2/11)

Same post, more pictures: here.

06 March 2011

Rules are made to be broken

British Airways – Along with a typically horrid procession from English breakfast (I’d still like to know how they induce the “tomato” to become a fusion reactor) and some weird sort of pastry that I just can’t face, there’s a little stealth bubbly courtesy of the overbooked business class folks moved to the steerage seats in front of me and a charitable flight attendant, who sighs that she “knew this bottle was going to be trouble” while she pours me the rest and holds a finger to her lips. Their loss, and compensation, is my gain. Despite the frequently dismal food, I do like this airline.

Lanson Champagne Brut (Champagne) – Sprightly with deeper tones. Not complex. Just basic, direct, flavorful bubbly. (2/11)

Rules – The oldest restaurant in London, is it? The oldest restaurant back in Boston is a disaster at which no one should eat, with a reputation (earned or no) for serving inedible food followed by a complimentary dessert of food poisoning. So the fact that this establishment is not only overloaded with character, but actually good, is rather shocking.

Dining late – right off the plane – is a disadvantage in that they’re out of quite a few things. Once the preemptive menu deletions have been dealt with, there’s also a missing oyster among the three we order. Between the duo that remain, the Brownsea Island Dorset Rocks, globular and intense, are so much more interesting than the dull and slightly bitter Wild Cumbrae Rocks oysters.

A rich, rich, rich Cornish shellfish soup follows, thick with ground-shell texture (this is increasingly apparent as one reaches the bottom of the bowl, where the broth is quite frankly crunchy, though I wouldn’t wish to sacrifice the flavor just because I’m afraid of a little chitin) and made even headier by the addition of apple brandy. Then: fillets of red deer with chanterelles and a trio of roasted beets. This is delicious food, but it’s extraordinarily heavy. It does, however, help prove modern English chefs’ argument that the “problem” with English food was never that the cuisine itself was bad, only that the cooking was atrocious.

In lieu of dessert, I choose herring roe on toast. This has to be something a Norwegian would like, doesn’t it? Ah…but this, too, is absent from stockage. After some whispered discussion between our waiter and his manager, we’re offered a compensatory plate of British cheeses, with what must be at least a cup of a delicious, creamy Stilton. The rest – a cheddar, a goat, a double-cream – are mostly forgettable, but the Stilton is terrific, especially countered with quince paste and an intriguing chutney-like condiment.

Service is attentive without fawning, and the décor can hardly be surpassed for mood-setting. The walls are filled with portraits and line-drawings of people that, by their pose and their visage, must have been important in their time, or at least considered themselves so. Now? They’re just art on a wall, forever gazing across the room at someone else who has suffered their lost-to-history plight. Thankfully, the food below has not fallen victim to amberization, and though it remains extremely rooted in the past, it’s full of life. This is a pretty fabulous experience, with an omnipresent sense of eating history that’s more enveloping than it is overwhelming. I kinda love this place.

Pierre Usseglio 2000 Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhône) – Aging in a clingy, somewhat sloppy fashion, not bringing much of tertiary interest to replace a fading fruit goopfest. It’s good, but it’s decidedly not very good. Dark berries, soil, black pepper, and simplicity from start to finish. On the positive side of “eh,” but still “eh.” (2/11)

Glendronach 33 Year Scotch (Speyside) – Cream, pepper, spice, old-growth forest. An electric zap of front fades, then re-emerges to a low-level fuzz on the finish. Quite compelling. (2/11)

Same post, more pictures: here.

23 February 2011

Who are you writing for?

[que es la veritat?]A mentor, and friend, died last week.

I choose the exceedingly unwelcome occasion of his passage to mount a passionate defense of the critical, of the unconstructive, and of the negative. (Yes, this is wine-related…to a point.)

Clif Garboden was not my first boss, nor was he my first editor. He wasn’t even, as a boss, my editor for the vast majority of our time working together. My early attempts at wine writing (oh how glad I am that most of them aren’t available on the web, and oh how I wish that I could choose which of the rest weren’t) were done for someone else, who was patient and excellent in his own way. But I did, on occasion, write for Clif on subjects non-vinous.

Clif was a journalist. A real journalist, of a type that’s very nearly extinct. He was also a crusader, which is all too common these days, except that crusading’s many, many practitioners usually lack the previous skill. In the alternative press, in which he spent the majority of his career, he was a giant. A towering figure. He had history, he had passion, and he had True Belief. In alternative media, where the hours are punishing, the pay laughable, and the positive outcomes an epic narrative of disappointment, only a True Believer could thrive as he did.

Click on Clif’s name in the third paragraph. You’ll pick up the style, the skill, and the inexorable, bulldozing passion right away. You’ll notice the humor. You’ll also see the unfiltered, often seething, occasionally boiling-over rage. He wasn’t just like this on the page or screen, either. Woe to anyone who ran afoul of Clif in person. More clever, incising, and precisely-directed acid I’ve rarely heard from any tongue.

The thing is, most people who worked for or with Clif loved the hell out of the guy, and respected him even more. So did I, even when he was yelling at me (which was not infrequent), because his venom was neither spiteful nor pointless, and it was never misdirected. The target was, each and every time, someone who disappointed him. Who let him down. Who wasn’t doing their best. Who wasn’t doing the right thing…which, for Clif, was not usually separable from the previous standard.

One of the longest things I’ve ever written – and regular readers of this blog may feel a certain measure of fear at that notion – was edited by Clif. It was for a single-subject supplement to the regular newspaper, which meant even lower freelance rates than the penny-pinching norm, more attempted interference from the sales department than usual (supplements were always stuffed beyond their gills with ads, and the constant tug-of-war between sales and editorial grew muscle-straining at such times), and as a result, a less-free hand at the keyboard than was afforded within the paper’s regular areas of coverage.

I wrote accordingly. Much sweat, much toil, and much second-guessing ensued. By the time I turned over the finished product, I lacked any sense of perspective on the quality of the piece. Not even a half-hour later – Clif could read faster than Watson – my phone rang. Could I swing by Clif’s desk?

“First of all, it’s good. Really good, especially for something this long.” I started to feel a warm suffusion of pride. “But…”


“There’s an incredible amount of bullshit. For instance,” he pointed at his screen, “you spend two whole paragraphs avoiding saying that this technology sucks.”

“Well…” I paused to muster a defense. What followed was weak, and I knew it as I said it. I think I offered some mealy-mouthed sauce about not wanting to bite hands that fed and so forth. He cut me off.

“Who are you writing for? Them?” The way he said “them” carried decades of withering scorn. “Is this a job interview or a newspaper article?”


“I don’t care if they’re your friends. You’re a journalist. You’re writing for the readers. No one else. If you can’t stop bulshitting and get right to the point, if you can’t say something’s crap, if you can’t tell the harsh truth, then you shouldn’t be writing.” I wanted to argue, but I couldn’t. He was right. “Your job is the truth. You don’t go out of your way to be an asshole, but you can’t be afraid of calling somebody one.”

We spent the next two hours going over the piece. I’d say nine out of every ten comments were more or less identical to the above. I went back to my desk, chastened. After which followed a lot of soul-searching, deleting, and rewriting.

When I sent the piece back to Clif, it was so much better. Not because it was tighter, crisper, or any of those buzzwordy things that garner editorial style points, but because I was finally in the words. What I thought, what I felt. What I really wanted to say, once I dropped the filters and the evasions.

I won an award for that piece. I should have given it to Clif. I still would, if I could.

Say what you mean often enough, and someone will get angry enough to call you a name. It’s part of the package, the free-gift-with-purchase of the opinion-mongering membership card. For every name that you’re called to your face (actual or virtual), you can be sure that dozens of unheard imprecations have been uttered your direction.

This is normal. It’s how it’s supposed to work, frankly. People who cannot handle the rebounds shouldn’t be in the game, or at least shouldn’t be taking shots. Should the sting of a rhetorical slapback be felt? Yes, and even more so when a critique of a critic is on-point. Any good counterpunch, any blow soundly-struck, needs to lead to betterment. And if the damage is no longer sufferable, it’s time to cede the field.

Some writers really can’t deal with this sort of thing, and practice various methods of avoidance. For example, saying nice things or nothing at all, per the motherly advice we’ve all received. That’s a worthy, and socially graceful, way to navigate one’s life. But it should not, except in an impossible Panglossian world, be confused for telling the truth.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should be mean, or even that anyone should say exactly what they think regardless of the consequences. That’s an ideologically fundamentalist position that would result in a lot of bloodshed, both metaphorical and actual. Most people should be nice, most of the time.

But critics aren’t most people. Critics are tasked with saying what they think. It’s their job, and more importantly it’s their mission. As such, while they may prefer to be nice, that preference must submit to the necessity of being honest. While honesty does not mean one must be willfully savage, it also means that one cannot avoid saying bad things if bad things are what need to be said.

How much concern has been expressed, over the years, about the dangers of compromised judgment among critics? What most people incorrectly call bias (as if bias is avoidable, which it isn’t), but is actually an problem of entanglement vs. independence? Whether it’s insisting that all tastings must be conducted blind, or that a critic must avoid social contact with those who make or sell what they critique, there is almost no subject capable of getting wine consumers more exercised than the possibility that their critics are not giving them the straight story.

What this really boils down to is honesty. Whatever standards to which one insists a critic must hold, the shared foundational concern is that a critic is telling the truth. I’ve written, many times, that I think people get wrongly hung up on the minutiae of process when what they’re actually interested in is integrity. Does a critic have the personal integrity to call things exactly as he or she sees them?

(Even though I keep using the word “critic,” this question applies in equal measure to the writer, because bias is unavoidable and information is no less malleable via external influence whether or not one is engaging in criticism without trappings.)

If this is all really so frightfully important – and though there’s much disagreement on standards and practices, I think most of us agree that honesty and integrity are crucial – then why should we trust a critic who allows honesty to be filtered, even if it’s through politesse? I doubt many would trust a critic who took the opposite tack and held back commentary that wasn’t venomous. But because we like politeness, because we think we should be nice (and again, in most cases we should), we forgive the everything’s-sunshine-and-roses approach. Let’s be honest with ourselves, though: if we apply such a filter, if we file away at our most negative expressions, we probably don’t exercise corollary pruning of our most positive thoughts.

In other words, we put our fingers on the scale.

Where’s the integrity in that? In the real world of weights and measures, there are punishments for doing this sort of thing. In many judged sports, the highest and lowest scores are thrown out before a final tally is reached. Would those results be improved if we only threw out the two lowest scores? Of course not. So why should critics be encouraged to do exactly that?

Posit a critic who, working with an alleged point rating scale that runs from 50 to 100, only publishes scores above 85, or 88, or some other arbitrary cutoff of superior quality. Do people appear to find this to be serving their interests? Or do they complain about the deliberate holding-back of information they feel they can use…knowing, for example, whether a product was judged inferior (and why) or was simply not encountered by that critic? People are up in arms, of course. They don’t like the imbalanced scale, the unrealistic skew towards smiley-faced positivity. They want the whole picture, blemishes and all. And if that’s what they want, critics are the ones who are supposed to give it to them.

So maybe negativity is not only defensible, but necessary. Maybe it’s the only truly honest way to approach commentary. Still – some will object – do critics have to be so negative about it? Can’t they at least be a little more genteel as they slip a stiletto into the already-bleeding guts of a critical victim? A little less mean?

[pigtail]Here’s an example. A little while ago, someone in the industry accused me of expressing myself in an “antagonistic” way.

There’s a certain truthiness in that. The accusation does not go unacknowledged. It also does not pass without some regret at its applicability, because only sociopaths really like being mean. Especially…and this finds great application in the genial wine world…to people one likes.

But there’s falsehood, as well. Mostly, because it’s untrue: there is never an intent to antagonize in what I write, so anyone who sees antagonism is in error. As I wrote earlier, someone willing to dish out commentary both constructive and un- must be willing to receive same with generous spirit. Thus, I could see this very accusation as antagonistic, but I don’t. Aggressive? Pointed? Sure. But I’m not antagonized, and since I can’t read the mind of the person who uttered the criticism, I can’t accuse him of being antagonistic either. Merely wrong.

Further, for something to be effectively antagonistic, it must be written with self-assurance that antagonism will result. Deliberate untruths will usually do it, but active dishonesty is so easy to spot that this is rarely attempted. Another is to critique motives or intent (especially imagined versions of either) rather than a work, which is at best a logical fallacy and, at worst, a sleazy way to spread insinuation in lieu of argument.

The latter is something I’m sure I’ve done, at some point. It’s wrong, and I shouldn’t have. I try, as one should, very hard to make the only important pronoun in a commentary the first-person singular. I almost certainly fail, at times. But the effort and intent are there.

Do I like saying unkind things? No. I doubt anyone does (and if they do, I have concerns for them that go well beyond the ethics or practice of criticism). Do I have special sadness for relationships damaged or lost as a result? Yes, absolutely. A few seemingly irreparable breakages are a source of ongoing regret; some now linger well over a decade or more, others glisten with fresh ink.

Still, I accept this as one of the costs of offering honest commentary. “Who are you writing for?” asked the most influential crafter of my motivations. Were I writing with no hope of dissemination and no interest in response, the answer might be “me,” and then I could legitimately trump the demands of integrity with a desire to be thought of with kindness by as many people as possible. But no published commentator can do this with their honesty and integrity fully intact, and this is true whatever the subject of commentary, and whatever the grandiosity and remuneration (or, more likely these days, the decided lack of either) of the dissemination.

And yet, despite this, I and most other commentators continue to have friendly relationships with many, sometimes even most, of the subjects of our commentary and criticism. Why?


The opposite of love (goes the cliché) is not hate, but indifference. I wonder if the same might be true for respect…that its true antonym isn’t just oppositional disrespect, but the greater disrespect of apathy. The ultimate act of disrespect is thus to ignore, rather than to criticize.

This leads to another anti-negativity argument, though perhaps it could be more generally characterized as an anti-criticism argument, that hinges on the issue of respect. It claims that to be negative can demonstrate a lack of respect for a work. With this I could not disagree more strongly, and the major reason is contained within the previous paragraph: an actual lack of respect is demonstrated by deeming something unworthy of response. The very act of criticism is to, in some sense, accord respect.

To address this complaint properly, however, one must ask: respect for what? There are four entities that may be an object of potential respect: a work itself, a work’s creator, the effort behind a work, and a creator’s feelings about a work.

Respect for a work is inherent in bothering to craft a critical response to it, so that can’t be it. Conflating a work and its creator is a logical fallacy. Emotions? Well, what if the creator hates a work and I love it? Would I be disrespectful for me to say so? I doubt most would think so…in fact, I suspect many would think it an act of kindness. After all, we generally applaud the value of supportive words when a more honest assessment might be negative. Since this is the case, concern about feelings really boils down to the same old argument about whether or not we should say negative things, which has already been addressed (a few thousand paragraphs upward) and can be summed thusly: concern yes, dishonesty no.

So it’s the third entity that’s under examination, and the assertion is that it is disrespectful to criticize a work because of the effort that went into that work. Most often, the complaint is one about proportionality…that the duration or blood/sweat/tears that go into the crafting of a work are not met with a critical assessment reflecting similar effort. As, for example, criticizing a wine with a several-sentence tasting note.

It’s true that wine has a rather long temporal existence before it’s even available to be criticized, if one counts time from grape to glass. One might also consider vine age, a winemaker’s lifetime of experience, even generations of inherited knowledge to be creative factors. Viewed through a narrower lens, the production of a wine is considered “harder” than the production of critical responses to that wine, especially as most will come in the form of tasting notes.

To this there are several possible responses. One is that unless the producer of the note is a complete novice, both history and effort are no less involved. This may include decades of learning to use words in a competent and stylish fashion, a breadth and depth of tasting experience necessary to write better and more contextualized notes, actual training in the science and history of wine, and so forth. The notion that a tasting note is somehow effortless is demeaning to its author. No, tasting and typing isn’t anywhere near as “hard” as the often backbreaking work of making a wine. But do all winemakers write well? Are all wine professionals’ evaluations eagerly sought by consumers? Clearly not. Good criticism requires a different set of skills than winemaking or salesmanship, but it does require those skills. I don’t seek to elevate them above their value, but to dismiss them is offensive.

A second is to wonder if respect is really the right way to think about this. Posit an industrial wine, made with craven commercial intent from the cheapest possible materials. A critical response proportionate to the respect demanded by such a wine would be minimal, at best. (One could easily argue that to treat such a wine to a long, careful analysis would be disrespectful…not to the aforementioned industrial wine, but to other wines that are the result of greater effort, and especially to a reader who’s time is being wasted by serious consideration of a decidedly unserious effort.) By this standard, the respect due other wines would thus be proportional to the effort expended in their production.

But is this wine criticism? No, it’s not. It’s effort criticism. It’s not the letter grade on a report card wherein a student’s actual work is evaluated, it’s the secondary grade wherein the teacher rates effort, judging (by whatever purely subjective standard they choose to apply) the relationship between results and ability. Is little Johnny working up to his potential, or is Jane slacking off? And if they’re both getting an A in the class, which grade matters? Moreover, is effort vs. potential really what we want critics to be judging? “Well, Françoise, I liked your wine, but I think you could have done better if you’d just exerted a little more effort in the vineyard, whereas Michel is a complete incompetent who just made his best wine ever, so even though I like yours more I’m going to spend most of this article praising his.”

The thing is, that sort of effort- and intent-evaluation is exactly the sort of critical arrogance that drives winemakers and their commercial representatives nuts, especially because it’s oh-so-easy to say from the removed comfort of a tasting note, and far less easy to do when one’s ability to pay the utility bills is at stake. Also, it’s ultimately useless, because critics are never going to agree on what efforts should or shouldn’t have been expanded to improve a wine. More or less oak? A later or an earlier harvest? More acidity, or less? Is this climat red-fruited by definition, or is blackberry within the acceptable range? Should a Beaujolais-Villages be built to age for several decades or should it give its best at release?

This isn’t to say that commentary on intent and effort isn’t welcome. It certainly can be, if treated with the right balance of clearly-identified reportage and subjectivity. But as the object of criticism, rather than a context for it? The notion is as misguided as intuiting nefarious motivation in a critic just because one doesn’t like what that critic said.

A third response is to ask if longer-form criticism is actually more desirable. Is, for example, this an inherently superior form of criticism to this? Why? According to who? Opinions certainly vary, because people consume criticism for different reasons and in different ways.

Furthermore, how does one measure respect by length? There’s a wine book on my shelf, written by Jacqueline Friedrich, that treats noted Savennières producer and leading biodynamicist Nicolas Joly to several pages of detailed commentary, finally concluding that he’s lost in ideology and doesn’t actually like wine. Is that “respectful” at any length? Does Joly think so?

Personally, I’m much more interested in whether or not it’s right. For Friedrich it is, for others it might not be. (For what it’s worth, I agree with Friedrich on Joly & ideology, though I wouldn't wish to comment on his regard for wine.) But she could have reduced her commentary to a single line, as I just did, and still been just as right or wrong. So how did the addition of so many more words make her conclusion more respectful? Maybe there exists some objective and measurable scale of proportional effort. If this is true, a critic must first assess (or divine) the amount of effort that went into a work, and then craft a proportional response. But in that case, an author’s conclusion that Nicolas Joly doesn’t care about wine nearly as much as he cares about ideology would result in a proportional criticism amounting to an indifferently-delivered one-liner; only criticism of his ideology would deserve the “respect” of length.

Note, too, that this assumes one has correctly assessed the effort involved in a work; if one has not (or cannot), a respectful criticism is impossible, except by luck. ESP seems like a high bar to set for any critic, and that doesn’t even begin to address what happens when people disagree about how much effort was actually involved.

And here’s yet another problem. Let’s say there is counter-criticism of the original critique. Who gets to judge the critic’s effort? Critics of critics? By what standard? And must their critiques also be proportional? One can see how this reduces to absurdity in short order. Everyone’s trying to judge effort and intent, usually based on woefully insufficient data and often on utter guesswork, when what they’ve been asked to judge are works.

Then again, the possibility is that this isn’t actually about proportional respect at all. Because I think a survey of the complaints regarding same will not yield a plethora of examples in which too much respect and positive commentary, verbose or otherwise, has been expended on unworthy efforts. No, it’s exclusively about negative criticism.

Now, does this seem probable? That if the true issues are proportionality or respect, that every single example of alleged failure in this regard should just happen to be negative commentary about something beloved of the complainant? If it does, I have a Mr. Ockham here that would like to sell you a bridge in Atlantis.

And so, we’re back to no one appreciating criticism of their work, or work they admire. Not artists, not artisans, not craftspeople, and certainly not critics. But unless we’re prepared to reject evaluation in its entirety – and it’s possible some would like exactly this, though they’re in for a rude awakening regarding human nature – we can’t live in that alleged utopia. So the complaint is really no more than it was before: that we shouldn’t say mean things. Which, again, may be both admirable and a way to accumulate friends, but requires an acceptance of dishonesty if one intends to be a critic.

The assertion that work deserves respect is an unassailable one. (It can be questioned, but there’s no standard by which to adjudicate the matter.) The assertion that any given criticism is disproportionate or disrespectful to the works being criticized is by no means unassailable without more knowledge of intent and effort than anyone non-deified possesses. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s true. What, then, is the solution?

It’s not to be found by tinkering with the components of criticism. If the time span of agriculture, knowledge, culture, and effort that go into a wine can be measured in decades (which is quite reasonable), a proportional criticism of that wine might also take decades, or at least years. How is that even possible? Obviously, it’s not. And as I’ve already explained, we can’t avoid negativity without fudging numbers and suppressing honesty. So we’re going to have criticism, it’s going to be generated faster than much of what it evaluates, and some of it is going to be negative. You can fight these truisms, but you will not win. They’re fundamental to the act of criticism.

We can wish for, or even demand, certain words over certain other words. But isn’t this a just a cleverly reversed version of a critic telling a creator how they believe the latter should perform their job? It’s really no more admirable for someone to tell a critic which words they should and should not use than it is for a critic to tell a winemaker which tools they should and should not use. If winemakers object to the latter – and they have a legitimate claim to their agitation on this point – then critics should object to the former.

But this all misses the true answer, I’m afraid. The actual “solution” to the problem of critical negativity was provided by my much-missed mentor. Ask the following: who is it that’s complaining about negativity, proportionality, and lack of respect? Winemakers and the people who sell wine. The very people whose work is being critiqued, whose monetary oxen are being gored. And is it their judgment that we wish to triumph in this debate? Do we really want Universal Studios deciding which film critics can say what about their movies, Atlantic Records telling music critics that they need to be nicer, Todd English hectoring restaurant critics about respect?

If you are the creator of a work being critiqued, by all means speak up. Correct. Defend. Counter. You are as welcome to the marketplace of ideas as anyone…more so, in fact, since you have specific and relevant expertise. But understand the limits of your role. You have control over what you’ve created. You do not have, nor deserve, control over what the critic creates. They don’t work for you.

And if you’re a critic, ask yourself who you’re writing for. It’s a question that must ground every critic’s work, every word from their pen, every judgment from their mind. The answer must never be those who create or derive monetary benefit from the works being criticized, unless they actually sign your checks. The answer must always be the consumers of both the works and your commentary. If one is critiquing subject to the preferences of the targets of that critique, one has already sacrificed their integrity and their honesty.

Or just listen to Clif, who was always good at getting right to the key point: “You’re writing for the readers. No one else.”

No one else.