07 December 2010

Third place

[shadow on soil]Poke almost any subject long enough in a wine-savvy crowd, and the sticks and prods will eventually unearth a good old-fashioned terroir debate. I’m not sure how or why this happens, only that after having observed it over and over again, I’ve come to accept that it does. And while I’ve long known that there isn’t anything even vaguely approaching universal agreement on what terroir means, or even whether or not it’s important, I didn’t realize until a recent conversation the breadth of the definitional chasm.

(Clear a spare hour or two from your calendar if you choose to follow that last link, by the way.)

There are, I think, three broad categories of opinion on the subject of what terroir is: cultural, personal, and scientific. The first is, one might say, the traditional usage, because it’s how the term is often employed in its country of origin…though I should note that not all French oenophiles actually use the word this way.

Driving around the French countryside, all those produits du terroir signs mean a little more than a direct translation would suggest. Yes, “products of the land,” but also “products from here” where “here” carries a whole bunch of cultural and historic baggage in its marketable hands. In the traditional French usage, terroir means not only something transparent to the character of a place, but also representative of that place.

This is, incidentally, the reason that the oft-made charge of presumptive hierarchy leveled at terroir-endorsing French winemakers has some validity. When terroir is deployed in this fashion, there must be a history and culture, not just a polygon on a viticultural map. If a young site has only geography, then of course it has no terroir by this definition. Ill feelings on all sides would be diminished if the necessary corollary – “yet” – were appended, but I think that while Old World usage assumes that appendage, New World winemakers hear only the dismissal.

What does the cultural definition of terroir mean for wine? It means that it’s not just about site; in fact, anything but. It allows a great deal of human influence, because traditions are part and parcel of the concept. If an intervention, even a drastic one, is and has been routinely practiced, then that intervention is traditional and must be considered part of the terroir…even if, from an organoleptic standpoint, it interferes with the wine’s ability to express its site. In other words, terroir now embraces the thorny definitional dysfunctions of typicity. And terroir changes if the traditions change.

So there’s the traditional view. How about the “personal” alternative? This is the one that was new to me, until I encountered it in the above-referenced discussion. It has never been a secret that people have their own different notions of what terroir is and isn’t. What surprises me, however, is the extent to which this definitional incompatibility is not only acknowledged, but actively cherished by proponents of the personal.

An example: a definition proposed to me by one such adherent included what I would term “transient” effects. For instance, each vintage’s weather. Pests that may swarm and destroy one year, then absent themselves the next. Yeast populations indigenous to the vineyard, whether or not they’re different from vintage to vintage. Diseases and fungal infections (or the lack thereof). And so forth.

What this and myriad variations on the theme come down to, more or less, is a comfort in identifying wines that speak to one’s personal preferences as “terroir wines.” That seems dismissive, but I don’t mean it to be. There is a natural and in fact unavoidable inclination towards preference in any definition of terroir that presumes it to be identified at the point of tasting, because…well, what is the terroir signature of the Oberhäuser Brücke? Who gets to decide? Dönnhoff? Critics? Do we put it to a vote? What if we can’t agree?

Since subjectivity is inherent when we’re talking about taste, there’s a measure of coherence to this approach. If the terroir of a site can’t be pinned down, nailed to the wall, and then etched in diamond (and from an experiential standpoint, it can’t), but is instead an individuated conversation between wine and taster, then what does it matter if we allow some transience and mutability in the definition? Probably not much.

The third definition is the scientific one, and it’s the one I prefer…irritating empiricist that I am. The goal here is to extract the maximum utility from the word, such that we may say “this is terroir, and this is varietal character, and this is vintage, and this is the winemaker’s hand,” and – while acknowledging that nothing will ever be separable by clean borders in the fashion I just suggested – advance the conversation about each in bounded and comprehensible ways.

The scientific view binds terroir not to the finished wine (it accepts that terroir may be identifiable in the glass, but considers it a separate field of inquiry and not what terroir is), but to the place itself and the products that derive from that place. Ideally, terroir would be identified by the chemical signature of the grapes from a single site, which would then turn their data back on the site to refine its borders. It does not embrace transient effects, considering them to be variables or noise vs. the constant provided by the site. And yes, it is a rigid, relentlessly utilitarian view that attempts to extract the maximum objectivity from a subject inextricably bound to its subjectivity.

Which is to say: even if the scientific view is pursued to its endpoint, and each terroir is identified by chemical analysis and defined to the maximum possible perfection as a consequence, we still go on to drink the resultant wines. And taste, no matter how much science or knowledge we heave in its direction, remains subjective. For though taste is observable by science, its practice is a blend of the scientific, the cultural, and the personal.

Just like terroir.

28 November 2010

A cure for boredom

While I ready the next can't-this-guy-kidnap-an-editor? novella, a cure for your insomnia and your thirst is going on over at oenoLog. Read it and sleep weep.

02 November 2010

Varietal is not the spice

[la boqueria stall]It’s “variety.” It’s almost never “varietal.” Stop using “varietal” unless you’re absolute certain you know what you're doing, and even then consider reconsidering.

Evidence on this blog to the contrary, there aren’t all that many things in the wine world that drive me to tooth-grinding agony. I argue, yes, but I do so from a position of peace and goodwill towards all. It’s the Summer of Love, every day, on oenoLogic.

(Um, what’s that? I’m full of what?)

Anyway, the errant conflation of “variety” and “varietal” is the burr in my craw, the stick in my saddle, the hazelnut and pumpkin syrup in my charred coffee. Herein, a brief tutorial, the better to save the oenologician from the grammatical chafing caused by burr, stick, and venti latte. Pay attention, now.

(No, really. Brief. What’s that? I’m even more full of what?)

Variety – This is the word you want when you’re referring to a grape. Pinot noir is a grape variety, which you may shorten to variety. It is not interchangeable with the word “varietal.” And if you think it might be, start swapping the words in situations not related to grapes and see how far it takes you.

“Starbucks offers a varietal of dessert drinks that may, once, have been in the same room with coffee.”

“There hasn’t been a good varietal show on TV since Hee Haw.”

“I’ve eaten deep-fried whale spleen five nights in a row; it’s time to put a little varietal back in my diet.”

See? Doesn’t work. “Pinot noir is a grape varietal” doesn’t work either. Don’t say it. Don’t write it. Don’t think it. (The oenologician waves his hand.) These are not the droids you’re looking for…

Varietal – The adjectival form of “variety.” It is very nearly the case that the only times you will need to use it are to modify the words “composition” and “character.”

“Sauvignon blanc grown on fertile plains, harvested by machine a month before everyone else and at industrial crop levels, then chaptalized, yeasted, and enzymed, probably doesn’t retain much varietal character despite the desperate attempts of global beverage conglomerates to convince you otherwise by putting cute animal drawings on the labels.”

“The varietal composition of a super-Tuscan is irrelevant in comparison to the speed-to-overcompensation ratio of the modified sports coupe driven by its owner.”

There are other uses along these lines that can be correct, but if it’s not explicitly modifying a word, it is very likely that you’re using it incorrectly.

The trouble comes with the other acceptable use of “varietal,” which is to refer to a single-variety wine, and in which the word can transmogrify into a noun. That is to say: if it’s 100% saperavi, it’s a varietal wine, a varietal saperavi – note that, in both cases, “varietal” is happily nestled in its comforting and familiar position of modification – or, in shorthand, a varietal.

This is the only use of “varietal” in which a missing word-being-modified is acceptable. The only use. (Unless, of course, I’m forgetting one. Which I might be.) The Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, for example, is a varietal wine, a/k/a a varietal pinot grigio, a/k/a a varietal, made up of the fermented pressings from P.T. Barnum’s soul. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, on the other hand, is only very rarely a varietal, but is instead almost always a blend. (Varietal Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be identified, in the absence of directly-sourced knowledge, by the mass of the bottle multiplied by the number of points the wine has received from critics who live in Maryland.)

It would, perhaps, help the ongoing confusion over these terms if even those who understand the differences would attempt to limit their use of the noun form of “varietal” and stick with alternative terms, like “single-variety” or “the first strike of a dumbed-down New World wine nomenclature that’s going to destroy centuries of European winemaking tradition unless we fight it tooth-and-bulldozer, and as long as we ignore that much of Europe has been using varietal designations on their wines for some time now with no deleterious effects for anyone.”

(See what I did there?)

27 October 2010

Careful with that axe, Eugene

Baby One More Time (1)Thomas Matthews has an axe. And he is going to grind it. Observe:

Call me hard-hearted, or wrong-headed. But as I read the outpouring of admiration and love for Marcel Lapierre following his untimely death in early October, I thought of Georges Duboeuf.

Now, look: there are a lot of people who like the wines of Georges Dubœuf. And there are a lot of people who like the wines of Marcel Lapierre. I seriously doubt anyone other than Thomas Matthews has ever thought of tragedy afflicting the one and been reminded, immediately and with purpose, of the other.

Ah…but there’s the word: purpose. Matthews has a purpose. That, and an axe. And a grinding stone. (How does he have free hands with which to type?)

Lapierre [..] was an early and faithful adherent to a traditional, non-interventionist approach to grapegrowing and vinification. This made him a hero to the proponents of "natural" wine. And they, in turn, have positioned him in opposition to the wines they judge as industrial or even immoral.

Not exactly. Many have positioned him as an alternative to wines not made Lapierre’s way. Opposition is a loaded word, full of baggage that has arrived in the hands of Mr. Matthews; Lapierre was far more interested in “because” than he was in “rather than.” So already, Matthews is sliding off the track, attributing to Lapierre actions that he really means to attribute to commentators (whether they be winemakers or not). When he gets done grinding this axe, I bet we’ll be eyeing the necks of those commentators, not Lapierre. Anyone want to take that bet?

…oh, and as for his allegation of immorality: um, what? I hope he has a citation handy. I’ve heard Dubœuf’s wines called a lot of things. (I’d call them uninspired and unfortunately but consequentially popular.) But “immoral”? Really? Who said that? Whoever it was, they have a high-speed grinder and a tiny axe, but apparently a very poor sense of the target.

I’m going to edit & paraphrase for brevity here. (Hey, I can do it for others. Just because I can’t do it for myself…)

Eric Asimov: "[Lapierre] and a group of three other producers were instrumental in demonstrating to the world that Beaujolais had far more to offer than its often insipid mass-market nouveau wines." And Alice Feiring: "There are stars in the world, leading men and women, ones that make a difference. You can smell them, see them vibrate … The saving of Beaujolais was mostly his heavy lifting in his quiet way … he left behind a legacy of commitment, [that] belief + action changes the world."

Wow. Yes, just look at how many times they called Dubœuf immoral. Just look…hey, wait. They didn’t do anything of the sort.


I regret to say that I never met Lapierre. […] I don't know his wines well, either. Based on our reviews, I can tell they were exemplary […].

No one is requiring Matthews to have been fishing buddies with Lapierre, or to have consumed his wines by the truckload. But it’s not like he’s some hooch-swilling bumpkin who just fell off a navet truck and is now forced, absent knowledge or preparation, to make his first wine purchase. He has a rather major position in the wine assessment industry, with access to as many different wines as anyone on the planet, and he can certainly afford to travel. I suspect he has not lacked for opportunity in either regard. Moreover, the wines have been around, hyped, and laden with reputation and oenological importance (whether one is for or against that style of oenology) for rather a long while now. What, exactly, was he waiting for?

And also: what, exactly, are we to take from the above admissions? I mean, I’m happy he made them, rather than pretending an experience he didn’t have. But let’s try it this way: “reading musicians’ outpouring of adoration for bandleader Robert Fripp the other day,” (don’t fret, Crimheads, he’s not dead) “I thought of Britney Spears.” Well, great for you. What does one have to do with the other, other than they both make their money from music?

Oh, but see, I’m already going to be in Matthews’ ill graces here, because I’m implying all manner of insult against the brilliance of M. Dubœuf by comparing him with Mlle. Spears. Well, let’s all rest easy on that score, because I’m not implying anything. I’m stating my opinion outright: Dubœuf’s wines, which used to be manipulated in a most unfortunate way, are now merely somewhat manipulated and are qualitatively mediocre. In other words, the Beaujolais equivalent of eminently forgettable pop music. Hey, wait…there’s an analogy in that, somewhere…

[Matthews drinks a Lapierre Morgon.] Was it balanced, lively and refreshing? Yes, indeed. Was it transcendent, somehow on a different plane than other delicious Beaujolais I have enjoyed? No, I couldn't really go that far.

Among those for whom Lapierre was a transformational figure, there aren’t that many who would disagree that the wines aren’t as transformational as those of others who’ve followed in his footsteps. Once, perhaps. Now, with so many alternatives, less so. And it’s important to realize that Lapierre wasn’t precisely a trailblazer, either. He built on the nearly-lost work of others, demonstrated its value, and spread the knowledge thus gained. That there is a core of natural, or at least non-industrial, winemaking in Beaujolais is almost solely due to his knowledge-sharing efforts, and that there is a groundswell of such wines around the world is, again, somewhat attributable to his success and his generosity with this knowledge. But transcendence? Has anyone made that claim? Lapierre himself would have been the very last, even under duress.

No, Lapierre’s “different plane” was in the philosophy behind the work…in the vineyard and in the cellar. The result would, he believed, take care of itself. And it did. His legacy is not one of a specific paradigm or practice, but a demonstration that – while accepting the premise that no wine actually makes itself – a philosophy of control and outcome-orientation is not the only way to make successful wine. There’s another. To the extent that anyone has even suggested such might be codified, that’s the genesis of the “natural wine movement.” But that wasn’t Lapierre’s purpose, and while I hope he was satisfied that he made an impact beyond his bank balance, he never seemed to be all that enthused about movements and labels. He’d have been pleased that Matthews at least tried the wine, happy that he liked it, and confused at the notion that it was supposed to exist on, or even represent, some materially elevated plane.

Matthews’ inability to derive a more useful and applicable conclusion from Lapierre’s work is not due to any insufficiencies as a taster. I wouldn’t speak to those even if I could, and I can’t. In any case, taste remains personal and subjective, and Matthews will either find something in the wine or he will not; others can point to what they taste, but only Matthews can taste what he tastes. No, the failure (as such) is the philosophy that understanding is to be found in the glass, and here arriveth the full-stop punctuation. An understanding that founds Matthews’ work. An understanding that is mis-.

Within the confines of the glass, Lapierre’s goal was to make a pleasurable wine. If there was understanding to be had, Lapierre intended that to be acquired well outside the drinking vessel. And there is, in fact, rather a lot of understanding to be had and dealt with in Marcel Lapierre’s work, whether one ends as a disciple, a contrarian, or an agnostic. “Understanding Lapierre” is not sniffed, swirled, spit, and scored. It is a story of how the wine was made, and an ever-evolving cornucopia of answers to the why of the wine. If Matthews is looking for that in a bottle over dinner, he’s looking in the wrong place, and his quest is bereft of hope. To find those, one must – as Matthews does not – know the wines. And that requires more than just drinking them.

I don’t fault Matthews for not having done this, though given the growing importance of the concepts behind Lapierre’s work, it’s an unfortunate oversight. He can’t, after all, know everyone and everything in the overwhelming universe of wine. But here he is nonetheless, opining on the wine, the context, and the philosophy. I would (gently) suggest that to do so from a position of knowledge would have mitigated some of the exasperation that this paean to Dubœuf is now generating.

But, as I suggested earlier, Matthews’ topic isn’t actually Lapierre, or even Dubœuf, which is how we begin at the rather absurd leap from one to the other and move quickly on to the sharpening of hatchets. Witness:

I imagine Duboeuf knew Lapierre, too, and knowing Duboeuf, I am sure he admired the principled vigneron from Morgon. I suspect he feels that much of the praise now being lavished on Lapierre is a veiled attack on him. I suppose you could cast the two men in a morality play that pits worldly success against traditional virtue.

I suppose one could, yes. Has anyone? Other than Matthews, I mean? Straw men are pretty, especially as the corn around them browns into an autumnal tangle and the crows realize their season-long error in judgment has left them tragically undernourished. But I rather think that most of the comparison between the two – typically utilizing them as icons for competing philosophies rather than actual personages – comes down to a discussion of homogenization vs. its alternatives. Dubœuf’s flattening effect was an all-too-easy target in the days of the 71B yeast and its overwhelming banana aromas. Now it’s thermovinification (unless my knowledge is out of date), which still has a homogenizing effect, and which is still a fairly easy target. No sensible observer misunderstands the commercial appeal of homogeneity. No sensible observer thinks Dubœuf is going to convert to Lapierre-ism (even were there such a thing, which there isn’t) in the 2011 vintage. But there is a clear and identifiable philosophical gap between the two, which leads to a clear and identifiable difference in practice, and which thus leads to a clear and identifiable difference in wine character. (Note: character, not quality. Quality in this usage is subjective, no matter how many times Matthews references his publications’ scores to assure himself otherwise.) And that is the script of the play, oft written and rewritten by observers, that stars the two in their metaphorical rather than actual roles. It is about what they do, not who they are.

(This is not to suggest that there isn’t criticism of Dubœuf aside from this basic contrast. There is, and not all of it is purely academic. For that matter, there’s criticism of Lapierre as well, and some of it is as personal and hostile as that directed at Dubœuf. But both are minutiæ compared to the much more important and vastly more common debate about how wines become what they are.)

Furthermore, are Matthews’ opposites really the only two choices? “Worldly success” vs. “traditional virtue”? I’d suggest not. First of all, Lapierre had rather a fair amount of worldly success, as have many that have admired his work. And moreover, it is manifestly incorrect to call what the dedicated non-interventionists do “traditional.” It is not. “Tradition” dictates that wine be brought successfully to market, conform (at least where such things apply) to the dictates of typicity, and not unduly rock neighbors’ commercial boats. What the non-interventionists do has deep historical roots, but it is not traditional winemaking, it is a deliberate philosophical distillation of traditional winemaking to its minima.

If what Lapierre did was actually traditional in Beaujolais, Dubœuf would stand accused of turning widespread regional succulence into a faceless corporate enterprise. In fact, that is neither the case nor an extant accusation against Dubœuf. While good “traditional” Beaujolais existed and was gradually rendered irrelevant during Dubœuf’s ascendance (I find it difficult, viewing the historical record, to blame him for it; people died and no one took up their oenological sword), it wasn’t and hasn’t ever been dominant. As everywhere else, swill abounded and still abounds…whether or not the producers of the region wish to sue me for using that word…and swill is not what Dubœuf produces.

No, the knock on Dubœuf remains homogeneity and the creation, though market dominance (which he undoubtedly possesses), of the expectation of same in both consumers and gatekeepers…critics, retailers, etc. Imagine making quality, individual Beaujolais of any style – not just Lapierre’s – and attempting to bring it to a market that responds with hostility towards your banana-scented products before having tasted them. Imagine trying to penetrate a market dominated by a single producer whose wines taste more or less the same and can be resupplied in nearly endless quantities, while yours are limited, different each vintage, and transient. Imagine trying to get people to pay attention, to open their minds, when someone else has convinced them through relentless example that there’s no more to understand. Imagine trying to convince an ennui-afflicted Beaujolais drinker that a wine of individuality, quality, and limited quantity may be worth more than what someone working in industrial quantities can charge. All those and more are the hurdles that Lapierre, his cohorts, and those that sold his wines had to overcome. (And to an extent did, it’s worth noting.) But that success came by chipping away at territory not only dominated, but overwhelmed, by Georges Dubœuf. Whether by intent or inertia, Dubœuf’s wines and the philosophies that bore them set those hurdles. When contrasts had to be made (and contrasts are necessary to sell wines of character), they had to be made with Dubœuf.

That those hurdles were fair-quality hurdles was, at least, a benefit to the Beaujolais name. That is, indeed, something for which Dubœuf can be justifiably praised. The need to resurrect a fatally diseased brand, as will have to happen one of these days in Chianti, was not the challenge faced by Lapierre. But one may be grateful for the success of white zinfandel in saving old zinfandel vineyards from the plow without the requirement of admiring the way in which the ubiquity of same inhibited the success of the red version (and it did, for a very long time), and in similar fashion one may be grateful to Dubœuf for preserving some semblance of saleable wine in Beaujolais without thanking him for associating that name with a bizarre, constructed wine bearing only marginal relation to unmanipulated Beaujolais. Put another way, one may thank Disney for keeping The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the public mind, but no aficionado of Victor Hugo need praise the way they’ve misrepresented the material.

My unsolicited advice to Dubœuf – and boy, is it unsolicited – would be to drop the thermovinification, demand the greatest possible natural diversity between his own wines, and thus leave as his legacy the preservation of a region and then, at the end of his commercial reign, an enthusiasm for and encouragement of the qualitative renaissance that has unquestionably come to Beaujolais. No one is going to challenge his commercial dominance for a long, long while, unless his children decide to dismantle his empire. But there would soon come a time in which no one would remember that his was once a problematic empire. That, far more than dozens of flower-laden labels, is a worthy legacy.

And my advice – equally unsolicited, but just as heartfelt – to Thomas Matthews? Look beyond the glass if you’re searching for saviors and transcendentalists in Lapierre’s work. And don’t set up false dichotomies that are no more than your own exaggerations and extrapolations from the arguments you believe others to be having with your own icons. Your axe, pointed at accurately-described targets, will be all the sharper for it, and you’ll even be able to drop it on occasion and enjoy a refreshing glass of Lapierre Morgon. Everybody wins.

26 October 2010

Chicago is...

Frontera Grill – The promised 45-minute wait is only fifteen or so, which has to be better than the justifiably promised 45-minute at Xoco, our intended lunch destination. Fun décor, pleasant enough food, but honestly there’s as much or more interest in the cocktails than in the food. My huitlacoche torta, for example, is – to the eye – loaded with fungus but certainly doesn’t deliver as much smutty taste as is promised by that visual. The wine list seems impressive, but I don’t partake, instead working my way through a series of distilled agave exotica blended with other things.

Webster’s Wine Bar – A casual, downscale-but-not-really hipster vibe not unlike the sort of wine bars I tend to prefer (the ever-growing number of places ‘round the world named Terroir, for example), but with a more suburban ethos. While it’s not actually suburban, I do wish it was closer to downtown, because I’d visit more often. The by-the-glass options, all thematically flighted or available on their own (in multiple portion sizes), are a little timid in comparison to the by-the-bottle list, and since I can’t talk my companions into a bottle despite the fact that we will drink more than enough to have had one, some of the most intriguing wines go unexplored. So here’s a tip: bring thirsty friends. Also worth noting are the unusual number of wines with a reasonable amount of age on the by-the-bottle list, most very fairly priced. I’m pleased to see that txakoli is poured in the traditional fashion here, from spout to jelly-jar glass rather than stem, and from a great height. Nice touch. As I’m only passing through on the way to a largish dinner, I avoid the menu of bites, plates, cheeses, and so forth, but one companion who’s not pronounces the bacon-wrapped dates worthy.

Bulfon 2008 Cividin Valeriano (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – A little aromatic (pressed flowers), a little waxy (the paper as much as, say, beeswax), and a lot dry. Makes one come to it, and then still won’t give everything up, but the mystery holds a certain intrigue. (9/10)

Shady Lane 2007 Pinot Noir (Leelanau Peninsula) – Prematurely fading, very light, and a little green…all signs of a place, or at least a house, that might not quite have a handle on pinot noir. Whether I should append a “yet” or suggest the terroir isn’t right for the grape isn’t possible to know after just one sample, of course. It’s not bad by any means, and though the autumnal aromatics are already quite advanced, it’s quite drinkable. But the “…for Michigan pinot noir” tag is going to have to be appended to any positive description of this wine for the time being. Who knows what the future will bring? (9/10)

Preisinger 2008 Zweigelt (Burgenland) – Extremely aromatic, with a dark, purplish needling quality to the juicy blackberry fruit and a lot of succulent floral stuff chasing after it. Black pepper, too. A lack of density and crisp acidity remind the wine that it’s zweigelt rather than something lusher. Extremely appealing. (9/10)

L2o – In one mood, I would describe the service here as nearly perfect…and in fact quite obviously striving for that perfection. It’s certainly a quiet ballet of unobtrusive excellence, which I love. On the other hand, it’s not entirely perfect. For example, we request a tea menu at the end of the meal and it never arrives. But that’s minor. Here’s what’s very slightly more major.

The wine list is extensive, way overloaded with both reds (it’s a fish restaurant, folks) and upper-class white Burgundies (I’ll cut them some slack here; the chef is French, after all), and very pricey. Nonetheless, there’s no lack of appealing options for those of pretty much any stylistic bent, and after some online previewing and at-the-table scanning, I narrow my choices to three. One, the most intriguing, is a white from Movia that I haven’t had before. Thus, I’ve two questions: is it oaked (the problem I have with most non-“Lunar” Movia whites is that they’re pummeled into anonymity by wood) and is it orange (that is, will it be too structurally abrasive for what I know is a procession of sometimes-austere piscatoria)?

The sommelier is fetched. And fetching. She – and it’s worth noting that pretty much everyone on this floor, male and female, could work as a model in their non-restaurant time – is maybe 5’11” without the heels, draped with luxuriant blonde curls, and is quite frankly gorgeous. Do I somehow not remember Larry Stone looking like this? In any case, she’s not (according to L2o’s web site) the sommelier, but rather the floor representative of same for the night. And look, I’m still a guy…she could probably tell me just about anything, at this point, and I’d be inclined to be agreeable.

Unfortunately, what she tells me is stuff I could have read on Movia’s web site, because I’m fairly certain that’s what she’s just done in the space between my question and her answer. Yes, yes, I know the Movia story. I don’t want their backgrounder, I don’t need their bio. I have very specific questions. Can’t she answer them? It turns out: no, she really can’t, other than to tell me the wine does see some wood. And it’s sur lie. Well, great. That’s not a whole lot of help. O, lovely blonde goddess of wine, how quickly you’ve let me down. Oh well. I order the wine anyway.

The food is as extraordinary as advertised, marrying a stark Japanese sensibility for fish to the European urge to cook, season, flavor, and sauce with a different sort of precision. Blessedly, the cooking styles that come into play are not strictly Eurocentric, but rather South American, pan-Asian, North American, French, Italian, Spanish/Basque/Catalan/etc., and so forth. It’s a brilliant, nervy ride on that fine edge between punishing reverence and sloppy fusion, and while the ride is thrilling it never loses sight of its destination.

Expensive? Why yes, it is. But not, I think, overvalued. This is a truly great meal.

Thierry Fluteau Champagne Brut Blanc de Noirs (Champagne) – Delicate. Strawberry, perhaps a little clover, with a very fine bead. Initially appealing, but it sort of vanishes into itself in response to attention. Pleasant. (9/10)

Movia 2004 “Veliko” (Brda) – A blend of ribolla gialla (or, I guess, rebula here in Slovenia), mostly, with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and pinot noir as potential partners; the blend apparently varies, and I don’t know the specifics of this vintage. The mélange bring some light and shade to the heavier, waxier notions provided by the dominant grape. Lemon and molten silver, silken texture and fine-polished exterior wood, with everything in balance. I have no idea where this is on its evolutionary curve, but it’s drinking beautifully, if simply, right now. (9/10)

Metté Marc de Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – So much spice, smoked meat, and coriander whipped up by raw distillate. Very easy to hate, and I almost do…but in the end, it’s just so gloriously weird that I love it. Marc can be appealing or it can be challenging, but I think marc de gewurztraminer is the post-graduate examination of marc; so, so difficult without proper preparation. (9/10)

The Purple Pig – Small-plate dining, alternating between market-based and pre-packaged tapas (that is to say: lardo, high-quality canned tuna, and so forth), and a lot of fun. Wine, from a pretty decent list, is offered in multiple sizes over a pretty large percentage of the available bottles, which is an excellent touch that I wish more restaurants would pursue. And the food’s good. What more could one want? Well, perhaps consistency: on a second visit, near the end of the lunch rush, it’s more hit-and-miss. Not so much so as to discourage a potential third visit, but it seems the kitchen can get overwhelmed and hurried, and that appears to be when the problems start.

Lini “Labrusca” Lambrusco Rosso (Emilia-Romagna) – Sharp, pins-and-needles red fruit lashing and slicing its acidic path through the palate, cleansing everything and taking a layer of something or other with it. There’s some dirt and pepper, too. Really pretty glorious. (9/10)

Montenegro Amaro (Emilia-Romagna) – Decidedly on the sweet, mellow side of amaro, showing caramel-based complexities more like a brandy than something more traditionally bitter. A simple pleasure. (9/10)

Callabriga 2005 Dão (Portugal) – From a bottle opened a day earlier, and already showing signs of fading. There appears to have been some nice black fruit at one point, but it’s lost to history. (9/10)

Ramazzotti Amaro (Lombardy) – Pleasantly bitter, but dominated by licorice-espresso caramel. This might be the best of the commonly-available brands (my opinion changes, often based on what’s in the glass in front of me), but there’s more complexity (and, you know, bitterness) in other brands. (9/10)

Alinea – There’s probably nothing I can say about this transformative restaurant that someone else hasn’t already said. Perhaps the most important thing that needs to be stressed and re-stressed is that it’s not, and will never be, for everyone; you either like this sort of thing or you don’t. I do, when it’s done well (and I hate it when it’s not; I’m looking at you, Mr. Dufresne). But I do need to say this: for all the reputation it has as a stuffy, dictatorial establishment in which instructions outnumber dishes, I don’t find it to be anything of the sort. Yes, there are instructions, but they’re fun: eat with your hands, dump your dessert all over the table and slather it together with your spoon…and here’s your high-thread-count wet-nap, sir. Etc. Yes, the food is extraordinary, the service excellent, the technique overwhelming, the price throat-constricting. But I not only enjoy the food (and that very, very much), I have a smile on my face all night, and there are more than a few moments of out-loud laughter. Who knew Alinea was a barrel of laughs?

I never see the wine list, instead choosing the suggested pairings for the current menu. Some of the matches are inspired, a few don’t work as well, but when there’s a problem it’s usually much less the pairings than the wines themselves. And to be honest, while I appreciate the motivation and good business sense behind Alinea’s elective refill policy (in brief: empty your glass, get more; don’t and you won’t; you pay for what you drink rather than what you order or what arrives unbidden), I find it a little distracting to have to think about the consequences of the size of my sips. The wine service itself is predictably and consistently excellent, and so all this amounts to much less of a complaint than it might read, but next time I’ll order from the list.

Fernão Pires “Quinta do Alqueve” 2008 Ribatejo Blanco (Portugal) – Elusive, but deliciously so. Fades away in isolation, tasting of null space and absence, then returning with thousands of atom-thin layers of something I can only describe as succulent dryness. There are hints and rumors of fruit and nut, but they never rise to anything identifiable. The entire taste of this wine is its structure…except, not really. It’s hard to explain, obviously. (9/10)

Abbazia di Novacella 2009 Valle Isarco Kerner (Alto Adige) – Starts bracing, then falters somewhat into an unfocused sort of refrigerated fruitiness. Something like lemon, apple, tomato…in that wide realm, a palate wandering around looking for clarity. There’s good structure and certainly interest, but the wine is as meandering with food as without. I like it, but that’s as far as I’ll go. (9/10)

Lucien Albrecht 2007 Pinot Gris “Cuvée Cecile” (Alsace) – Brilliant shattered-glass minerality, the kind that one almost never finds in Alsatian pinot gris anymore, and vibrant acidity lacing illuminated pear and brittle structure. Exciting. Yes, there is a bit of residual sugar, but it’s so well-compensated that it doesn’t matter. (9/10)

Deiss 2002 Burg (Alsace) – Like drinking fruit-flavored lead. A completely limp, lifeless, neutron star of a wine, showing ponderous (and, it must be noted, not insignificantly oxidized) fruit that might, once, have lived somewhere in the strawberry realm…if strawberries were made of fissionable material. This has far more in common with the grossest offenses among New World pinot noirs than it does the sugary offenses of Alsace. So, um, congrats to Deiss? And the much-vaunted terroir-over-variety concept? Unless it’s Deiss’ argument that Burg is a shitty terroir unworthy of the respect of competent winemaking, he’s not making much of a case for it here. (9/10)

Cedar Knoll 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) – Weedy and underripe, with nasty green tannin suffused with stale cigarette ash, then treated to a burnt licorice overoaking and nasty, rancid buttering. I can’t get this out of my mouth fast enough. (9/10)

Anima Negra 2005 “An” (Mallorca) – Internationalized sophistry well-executed and warm, lush with anonymous fruit and coconut-ized into splendid tropicality. Give it a bowtie, a snazzy briefcase, and a cocktail umbrella, and we’re good to go. Not a bad wine, but – not having sampled any of the island’s other wines – I suspect it says fuck-all about Mallorcan terroir. (9/10)

Elio Perrone 2009 “Bigarò” (Piedmont) – A brachetto-moscato blend, which is kind of a goofily wonderful idea if it works. Which it does, mostly. Frothy strawberry, leaves, slushy orange blossom perfume, sweetness and foam. Nothing unexpected. It’s fun. Don’t ask questions. (9/10)

Rieussec 2002 Sauternes (Bordeaux) – If I remember correctly, Rieussec was my first “good” Sauternes. I’d had a few cheapies as a run-up, but this was the one that lit the bulb over my palate; “oh, I get it now!” Since those exploratory days I’ve learned that the botrytized and wooded style is far from my favorite way to consume liquid sugar, and so I mostly drink other things. In a way, then, this was as much a Proustian pleasure as it was an actual pleasure…though it was that, too. Good? Yes. I wouldn’t call it great, though, and that may well be the aforementioned stylistic preference at work (which is why I mentioned it in the first place). All the expected elements – bronzed and preserved fruit, caramelized apples, toasted spices, a warming mélange of bakery aromas – are in place and in balance. There is acidity, but as my preferences run towards sweet wines with a lot more of it, it seems slightly insufficient to me. And it’s not particularly deft with food, either; it can wage (and may win) a battle of richness, but it does not envelop nor allow itself to be enveloped. Still, I don’t want to over-criticize; there is almost no situation in which I would turn a wine of this quality down. (9/10)

Ferreira “Duque de Bragança” 20 Year Tawny Porto (Douro) – One of the two ways I like my tawny: not so much tawny. Still quite fruity – in fact almost primary – with dark, chewy, still-tannic berries and wild (that is to say, tart) plums. Spice, amber, and haze lurk in the background, which is how one differentiates this from an actual ruby port, but they are still not the lead actors, merely understudies. A very nice wine, sweet but with so many contrasts to that sugar that it operates well as a “table wine” of sorts. (9/10)

Quinta do Noval 1968 Colheita Porto (Douro) – The trick for colheita and my palate is finding that balance point in which the wine is no longer a simple collection of brown-hued sweetness and spice, but hasn’t yet flatlined into its long, oxidative decline. This is sometimes made trickier by the apparent fact that a lot of dedicated colheita-heads want that latter stage, or at least wish it to be more prominent than I do. So, preferential disclaimers aside, how about this one? It’s marvelous. Less spice and thinned-out molasses than a collection of molten metals…bronze, copper, iron…in whorls and gentle curls. But yes, there’s spice and sweetness as well, and lingering memories of fruit, and a confident persistence. It’s rather beautiful, really. (9/10)

Mercat a la planxa – It’s perhaps a little odd to be seeking out a Philadelphia chef’s Catalan restaurant in Chicago, but it’s proximate to where I need to be, and so why not? On a very brief sampling from the limited lunch menu, it’s good but not great, with interesting wine (available in multiple glass, pitcher, and bottle configurations) and a very casual vibe. Worth a second look to learn more, perhaps.

Itsas Mendi 2009 Bizkaiko Txakolina Txakoli “Aihen” (Northwest Spain) – Heavy. I know, it seems absurd to say that about a txakoli, and of course I mean it contextually, but it is heavy. A little heavier than I’d like, frankly. Whitewashed fruit (citrus? lime and grapefruit, maybe, but so blanched it’s hard to tell) and white-walled beachfront housing – yes, I’m aware that isn’t such an easy description to understand, but it’s what this wine makes me think of – blasted by sandstone and empty wind. But it’s just too gravitic for its own good. In a lineup of, say, chardonnays, it would be biting and crisp. But in its own context, I’d prefer a little more zip. Zing. Life. Fun. Any of the above. (9/10)

The Publican – Oh, if there was ever a restaurant that was dangerously pointed right at my weakest points, this might be it. Shellfish, pork, wine, beer? Raw stuff and ridiculously heavy meat preps? Hams? Cheeses? God help me. Were it no so ear-punishing they’d have to build me a bedroom upstairs, because I might never leave.

They don’t try to mess with the food too much, which not only works but allows them to get a lot of food out of the kitchen very quickly…necessary in a place of this (surprisingly expansive) size and with this turnover rate. And it’s probably unwise of me to order fideus (which is, here, the neutron star of dishes, offering a good 50% of the animal kingdom atop a completely unnecessary pile of starch) as a third – rather than only – course. But despite being bent with culinary double-stuffing as I leave, I enjoy every moment. It does not, in my personal affections, trump the conceptual brilliance of Avec (with which it has much in common) in this culinary mini-empire. But it’s way more fun, and frankly better, than Blackbird.

There’s a wine list, and it’s fair enough, but the thing here is beer. And they know their beer, too; unfamiliar micros are a subject on which one can have a quite involved conversation, which is not always the case even in places that have interesting lists thereof.

Two Brothers “Atom Smasher” Oktoberfest Style Lager (Illinois) – Heavy. Good heavy, but heavy nonetheless. I’ll admit that no matter the tradition, this is the sort of style I always feel is (or at least should be) implied by the autumnal name, but is rarely delivered by most beers of similar designation. Weighty, somewhat bitter, somewhat refreshing, and definitely seasonal; one can almost taste the leaves crunching underfoot. Molten rocks. Definitely leaves an impression. (9/10)

New Holland “Pilgrim’s Dole” Wheat Wine (Michigan) – A barley wine-style brew made, as the name indicates, with wheat. And – here’s a warning – a beverage for those who think barley wines are watery and light. Holy crap is this dense! Nearly opaque, as well. Comes as near as I’d want to drinking pure molasses (without the sugar). It’s fascinating, frankly, but I don’t think I’ll ever want this much of it again. Stylistically, it’s closer to the old Seppelt “Para Port” Liqueur wines than it is any beer of my acquaintance. Worth the experience, at least. (9/10)

Hanssens “Oude” Kriek Lambic (Belgium) – Oh, yes. Beautifully tart, but not so iconoclastically acidic that it becomes an Olympic-level challenge to struggle through. Here I suppose I reveal my long-time struggle with the Cantillon style, in which I have to warm up like a beer athlete to deal with the fierce lash of puckering sourness, and which even with said warmup I don’t always warm to. This is less aggressive, and maybe it’s less authentic as a result, but it’s far more to my liking. (9/10)

Topolobampo – Can any restaurant live up to this sort of hype? Not hype that it’s the best of all restaurants or anything, but the hype that it has changed the entire perception of Mexican food in this country, and that it will change the diner’s perception as well? I think it’s important to not have unmanageable expectations for such a transformation when approaching an establishment with this much fame. Why not just go and try to enjoy the meal?

And I will say that, with one exception (see below) I have an absolutely marvelous time here. The food on my plate and stolen from others’ is extraordinarily good. It perhaps doesn’t challenge the very foundations of my western palate, but then I’ve dabbled in Mexican cooking myself, so it probably wasn’t going to anyway. But surprise? Delight? Absolutely. In our group, we sample each of the various tasting menus on offer, and despite our token Brit struggling a bit with the peppers in a not-very-spicy dish, there’s not a single course that isn’t pronounced somewhere between very good and terrific. From conception to execution, this is a kitchen operating at a very high level of skill, and since this restaurant is so famous and there are so many other income sources for the Bayless empire that it probably doesn’t have to do more than push competent food out the door, I’m even more impressed.

Service is engaging and flexible; I hear our principal waiter in patient cajole with a nearby table of more tentative diners, while with us he’s delving into minutiae and esoterica as we shift our interrogations from plate to waitstaff. Noise levels are high, but decently handled by the separation of the restaurant into smaller rooms.

And then there’s the wine list. It’s very long. Parts of it are very good, but it’s clearly attempting to be all things to all people, and there’s a stylistic incohesion as a result. Further exacerbated, of course, by the unavoidable fact that a good number of the dishes really aren’t easy wine matches at all, and some are downright impossible. One is faced with several choices: to just drink what one wants, to accept guidance, or to attempt very difficult pairings which, unless one has extensive experience with this cuisine, are likely to fail anyway. It’s not an inexpensive list, either. To the list’s credit, however, there has been a clear attempt to hold some wines back for a time, and the older (not mature, usually, but at least not ultra-primary) wines are often the best buys on the list.

One of our group is a habitué of the restaurant and friends (he has a lot of “friends,” quotes not meant pejoratively but to distinguish between them and confidants, which is one of the benefits of his acquaintance) with the sommelière. And unfortunately, while he’s made a big preparatory play of the fact that I’m a wine guy and that she and I are going to have a great conversation about wine, it turns out to be one of those relationships that just doesn’t work. I want to offer a written shrug here, because sometimes these things just happen, and they’re nobody’s fault. But despite a promising beginning (she grabs an off-list German riesling, right in my palate’s wheelhouse, for us), the conversation starts to go wrong very early, and completely fails halfway through the dinner…to the extent that, by that midway point, she’s patently and obviously upset with me, but everyone at the table (having been very disappointed in her suggestions thus far) is in agreement that I just should order the wines and stop consulting with her. After which we do drink better. It’s largely the fact that I can’t seem to get her to understand what I don’t want, and thus I keep getting offered wines more woody, modern, and internationalized than I want. Her argument would be – and in fact is – that the wines I’m mentioning don’t “go with” the food. And she’s not entirely wrong about that, but since we don’t want to – in any context – drink the wines that she thinks do go with the food, it’s an intractable problem. There’s also a confusing palate misalignment, made clear to me when I query after a Dashe Zinfandel and she informs me it’s “too light” for the food. I think that may be a first, at least in my hearing. Of course, the Biale and Turley wines she offers in its stead (which are, I agree, less “light” than the Dashe) range from painful to undrinkable for my palate, so there’s no way to come to a détente.

(I should note that, as a result of this, I am going to do something counter to my regular practice and leave a wine that we drank – or, more accurately, were served – out of the list that follows. It was her counter-suggestion after my attempt to order a Rioja, it was a Washington State syrah, and it was horrible. Absolutely wretched. Seeing it lingering, mostly unconsumed and to all of us virtually undrinkable, in our glasses, she whisked it away and did not charge us for it. Since I never would have ordered it in the first place and very much wanted a different wine, I see no reason to go ahead and trash the wine just out of spite at my few unpleasant moments with it. So I won’t. Besides, I have enough problems in Washington.)

It’s the only flaw in the evening’s festivities, and I do my best to repair the relationship while retraining control over my own wine ordering, but I don’t think I’ll ever be the wine director’s favorite diner, nor she my favorite wine consultant, and I suspect she will allow me to go my own oenological way should I return. Which is fine. The food more than makes up for everything.

Brander 2007 “Cuvée Natalie” (Santa Ynez Valley) – Weird, but one approaches this wine knowing that weirdness is on offer. Leafy greens, pale citrus, lurid pink weirdness, and then sort of washing out in a shallow pool of salinity. Did I mention that it’s weird? (9/10)

Leitz 2002 Rüdesheimer Berg Schlossberg Riesling Spätlese Trocken (Rheingau) – The ever-so-slight touch of cream is a little surprising in this wine, given that it’s so young, but it works wonders in terms of textural cohesion. Everything else is still primary…gravel and dried white flowers, weight and presence, steel under lidded eyes. Surprisingly approachable, and yet nowhere near what it will become. (9/10)

Santo Tomas 2003 “Duetto” Cabernet-Tempranillo (Baja California) – I expect Baja wines to have a dried out, baked character, and this bottle does not disappoint in this regard. Is this a fair assumption, or have I just had the wrong wines? The fruit’s not shy, but it’s limp. And yes, there’s heat…both in the wine and showing its effects at the wine’s creation…with a premature desiccation that doesn’t bode well for the future. It’s important to say that none of this was unexpected, and I don’t want to overcriticize a wine I purchased specifically for the experience of having Mexican wine with Mexican food. It is what I thought it was, as Dennis Green might say. How often does Dennis Green turn up in wine notes, anyway? (9/10)

Dashe 2007 Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley) – Dark little berries, each one offering a tiny explosion of slightly tannic fruit, in a twisted-vine broth of surprising structural lightness; the overall effect is thus one of heft without overt density, of strength without force. Aside from a little dusting of black pepper, it lacks the further complexities one expects from the very best zinfandels, but it delivers everything – fruit, acid, just enough structure – one wants from the grape, without the baggage of booze and volatility that so often hitchhikes. I think it will age for a few years, if one is so-inclined. (9/10)

R. López de Heredia 2000 Rioja Reserva Viña Bosconia (Center-North Spain) – Not, I think, the best Bosconia of my lifetime. That said, it’s still compelling enough, gentling into its soft, tanned redness enveloped by old wood, then fading away to show its smooth, polished bones. It should be noted that my dining companions, who have never tasted an LdH of any vintage or designation, are utterly fascinated by the wine. So those of less jaded palates may enjoy this more than I do…though I do enjoy it. (9/10)

Leydier “Domaine de Durban” 2005 Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise (Rhône) – I keep waiting for someone to show me a better example of this wine, and year after year I come back to Leyder/Durban as the pinnacle. (I’m open to counter-suggestions, though.) The key, since my very first taste, remains a vibrant foundation of quartz-like minerality. Lots of wineries can do the perfumed sweetness, the orange blossom, the fun. The rocks are something special. And I can only guess that it’s terroir or some sort of particular cellar technique, because I find the same incredibly appealing quality in the winery’s Beaumes-de-Venise red. (9/10)

19 October 2010

The truth isn't...

[“que es la veritat?” at sagrada famlia]It started off well enough. It started as a discussion of a (to most) arcane bit of cocktail-making technique. It turned into a barrage of sarcasm, curriculum vitae in place of arguments, insults, hurt feelings, and both participants more or less stalking off into the digital ether with a virtual huff.

So goes far too much online discussion, but this instance – with someone I’d called a friend and mentor, and still would were he willing to talk to me – was striking. Not because of the disagreement itself (we’re both stubborn and argumentative types), but because of the form of that disagreement. To elide all but the matter of immediate interest: there was an attempt to test a theory of mixology that ended in doubt being cast on the efficacy of certain other techniques. No problem, right? Just one more inquisitive step on the long road to understanding, no?

No. My interlocutor was having none of it. Science be damned, and in fact the mere notion that there might be reason to question or even test his beloved technique also be damned (or, more accurately ignored: I suggested he draw up a test, since he was so convinced of the inevitability of its result, and the suggestion wasn’t even acknowledged, much less accepted or rejected). My friend was a believer, and could not be gainsaid. Immutable surety was his counter-argument, and when that was questioned, along came the CV. (An impressive one, it must be said. But entirely orthogonal, especially to this mixology-agnostic.)

What struck me so much, especially in the aftermath, wasn’t that we couldn’t agree on the bona fides of the technique, or even whether or not it had been/could be tested by scientific inquiry. It was that we weren’t actually having an argument at all, despite appearances to the contrary. I was primarily interested in the questions, but he was so convinced by the answers (despite a lack of anything other than anecdotal evidence, weighty CV or not) that he was no longer interested in the questions. There was a riptide of hero-worship inherent in my friend’s angry rejection of counter-arguments, even of scientific counter-arguments, that I did not fully understand until the churning waves had receded. No; the matter had been settled, because a bartender – the object of my friend’s intense admiration – had settled it simply by saying so (the form of “saying so” here taking the form of a finished cocktail of, in my friend’s assessment, superior quality). That other practitioners with comparably or even more impressive CVs (than my friend, not the bartender) disagreed with said conclusion was deemed as irrelevant as the potential scientific arguments. The matter was settled, once and for all time, and a man had settled it by saying it was settled, and now another man was attempting to work the same dazzling rhetorical mojo on me. In other words, he was propheteering, if you'll forgive the coinage.

That is, of course, faith. By no means am I prepared to speak for or against the power, or even the importance, of faith. But there’s a reason that the adjective “blind” so often precedes it. And guarding against that adjectival form – the supplanting of reason with faith – is one of the hardest but most important things to which a student of any subject can aspire. There’s room for belief, and for faith, but there can be no understanding without reason, and where reason and faith are in conflict and a test exists to settle the matter, the test does settle the matter. To believe otherwise is to abandon reason. But, alas...my friend, normally one of the most relentlessly inquisitive people I know, had been attracted by the gravity of, and had thus entered the orbit of, a guru.

Usually, when someone in the wine world starts warning against gurus, an attack on a wine critic (or perhaps wine criticism in general) is about to follow. Or it’s a wine critic issuing a similar warning about the rampant untrustworthiness of retailers and/or sommeliers. None of this is inherently wrong or right – people have self-interests on which they cannot fail to act, even if sub- or unconsciously, and even in the absence of any malicious intent it’s probable for each of these entities to see the others as competitors for mindshare and thus commercial importance. But I’m not talking about critics, retailers, or sommeliers. No, the guru against which I wish to warn is the one responsible for wine itself. In my friend’s case, it was a bartender that was the object of his admiration, but I think the same concern I have over admiration writ extreme applies to practitioners of the oenological art.

Talk to winemakers, and you’ll hear entirely convincing arguments for the efficacy of certain practices. Talk to enough winemakers, and you’ll hear entirely convincing arguments for the efficacy of absolutely opposed and entirely incompatible practices. The subject might be irrigation, it might be yeast, it might be sulfur, it might be clonal selection, it might be varietal composition, it might be anything, but the conviction will be firm and the defense (whether asked for or not) more or less passionate. But an argument in isolation does not a case make, no matter how convincing or lauded the source. There must be results, too. There must be wines to support the case. When there are, the first opportunity to leave the path of reason presents itself for both creator and consumer, for the widespread belief that “all that matters is what’s in the glass” applies not just to the misguided notion that wine has objective qualitative standards, but also to the equally misguided belief that a wine can settle an argument. As anyone who’s consumed even the best of wines long into the night with friends/acquaintances/enemies knows, after all, the opposite is much more frequently true.

Consider traveling to a destination. One may take the quickest route, saving time. One may take the easiest route, avoiding inconvenience. One may take the cheapest route, saving money. One may take the most scenic route, gaining more than just the destination along the way. Or one may take an entirely random route, and still arrive at the destination by happy accident. In each case, the desired result – getting to the destination – is achieved. But in each case, the path to that destination is different. It is possible to argue the inherent superiority of one path over another, and those with a strong preference may do so, but they will not be objectively correct…because no matter which choice is made, the destination is still attained. A successful result, then, speaks of a successful path, but not necessarily the successful path. No one who has achieved success via a different path would agree that any path other than their own was the one and only correct path, nor would anyone credit or laud the chosen path of the random arrival. So why should we respond otherwise when it comes to winemaking? In the absence of testable, repeatable evidence for claims, we often have little more to go on than that random traveler’s itinerary, no matter what a given winemaker says.

Winemakers who defend specific practices, even to the extent of decrying alternatives (which is often the case, especially for believers of more idiosyncratic theories), are convinced of the rightness their defense. They can show what they believe to evidence via the wines made with these practices. They may even have actual science to explain the efficacy of those practices, though just as often this is either not the case or the science, properly understood, tells a fuzzier, less certain tale. But while successfully-produced wine is an important component in a convincing-to-others argument, as long as successful alternatives exist it cannot be the answer. It can only be an answer, at best. And in the case of our random arriver, there’s no answer at all, only unaddressed questions.

Perhaps this point can be made more clearly by referencing practices that have, in whole or in part, demonstrably anti-scientific defenses. Biodynamism comes immediately to mind, of course, but it need not bear the entirety of the burden; there’s cosmoculture, crystal energy, divination, tidal forces, astrological calendars, the disallowing of women in the cellar (it happens; don’t ask)…a rich panoramic cornucopia of the semi-sensible to the entirely nutty that is embraced by some winemaker, somewhere, and which may nonetheless be passionately defended as the reason for quality wines thus produced. In the case of biodynamics, in fact, widely practiced, though somewhat less enthusiastically defended, by a large number of very successful winemakers.

Those defenses are interesting, and the open-minded listener should attend to them. How could anyone blindly ignore the thoughts of someone who produces excellence? However, the requirements of an open mind are twofold: it must remain open, but it must not become a sieve. One should not discard reason and intellect because of a few convincing words and a fine glass or two. Moreover, one may fully appreciate the quality of a product while harboring the belief that the person who made it is right, wrong, sensible, or a lunatic on any given subject (and may be differently-situated with regards to a different subject). It is an essential separation of the thing that is made and the person that makes it. One may simultaneously love Huet Vouvray and think biodynamics are a load of hooey, and one may subscribe wholeheartedly to the superiority of biodynamic agriculture while thinking that Benziger’s wines are lousy. Despite what advocates, true believers, and prophets would have you believe, the technique is not the result, nor is the reverse the case, without a proven and repeatable link between the two.

When evidence – hopefully scientific – arrives that shows a given practice to be either supportable or unfounded, one should be prepared to accept that evidence. This is the duty of a critical thinker. Not to fail to question, ever, but to add answers to one’s understanding, the better to ask new questions and thus reignite curiosity. This is especially true if that evidence contradicts one’s previous understanding. That, after all, is how we learn and grow as thinking beings.

[sagrada familia under construction]Some winemakers – through force of personality, the excellence of their wine, or both – can be utterly convincing, especially to those unprepared with an equivalent depth of experience (and that would be most of us, unless we’re eminent winemakers ourselves). It’s all too easy to ally one’s convictions to those of the winemaker in question because what one is hearing “sounds right,” and isn’t the wine just oh-so-good? This is an understandable impulse – we all, at times, need something in which to believe – but it’s important to remember that it’s faith, not intellect, that motivates this impulse. By so choosing, one has abandoned the path of understanding in favor of the path of belief. Even the demands of politesse, in which one may wish to suspend open debate so as to not offend one’s host, can be met as long as critical thinking is only delayed, not abandoned.

The alternative, however, is how one participant went wrong* in the midst of the argument referenced at the beginning of this essay: the transformation of a personal faith into the means by which others are to be convinced of that faith. It goes wrong because one is not mounting a defense based on evidence available to anyone’s review, but rather asking others to share their faith through no more than an inevitably personal testimony…proselytizing rather than informing. For any who are themselves searching for a faith in which to share, that method of argumentation has efficacy. It works for religions, after all. For those who are not, it is utterly useless, and may even become offensive if pursued with enough vigor.

*The other participant – me – went wrong by not understanding this soon enough, and so snarking and sarcasm-ing my way into a debating stance in which my opposite number took angry offense. This was insensitive on my part, for which I can only mouth this defense: I was not prepared for irrationality from this particular person. Were a rewind button available, I’d conduct myself differently. This, by the way, is not to suggest that I don’t mean everything I just wrote about the dangers of gurus and belief over reason. I do. But I don’t want to leave the impression that I consider the entire mess someone else’s fault. I don’t.

For as we all know, it is easy for those immersed in belief to become so convinced of their rightness that the dissemination of that belief becomes as important as the belief itself, no matter how aggressive one must be to achieve that dissemination. Inquiry is no longer ignored, it is attacked. Dissension is no longer an unshared viewpoint, it’s a wrong that must be righted. The discourse devolves, and warring camps develop. On one side, one belief. On the other, another belief. And standing in between, suffering under rhetorical artillery from both sides, are those who would, retaining their intellectual curiosity, ask questions of both.

Obviously, this sort of “debate” does not lead to understanding, but rather hurt feelings and the general entropic decline of civility. Further, no one is convinced of anything in such a debate, except perhaps of the intransigence and unreliable intellect of those whose faith cannot be shaken by reason. This is also a danger, for it remains important to listen to those with whom one disagrees, and this sort of discourse breeds unwillingness to lend an ear. Deaf faith is no more admirable than the blind version.

It would perhaps be better, regarding most controversial winemaking issues, for there to be an inherent skepticism of anyone who utters any form of “this must be” or uses even the slipperiest version of “because I” (in which that pronoun is laden with self-importance) “say so” as a defense for a position. The more convincingly-argued a position on a controversial issue, the more suspicion should be applied as a buffer, unless and until scientific rigor follows on its heels. Winemakers are not required to adhere to any given philosophy (most don’t, and even many of those that do can be wavering and selective in their faith), but if they do, it does not follow that consumers are required to join that adhesion, even if they enjoy the wines thus produced.

Am I over-intellectualizing wine by insisting, over and over again, on the primacy of science over belief? Yes and no. After all, I am one who claims that wine is (or at least can be) about a lot more than just chemistry, to which a relentless and complete application of scientific rigor would reduce it. To this hypothetical charge, I would respond that I don’t believe embracing other fields of inquiry regarding the creation or appreciation of wine affects scientific inquiry one whit; one may romanticize, emotionalize, wax literate, or engage in whatever else inspires and derives from one’s passion for wine without negating a single datum. One may even choose to ignore science in its entirety, feeling that it interferes with a (perhaps) more appealing emotional response. But apathy is not the same as negation, and all the unscientific romanticism in the world does not invalidate the science, whether a given person chooses to engage with it or not. These responses and modes of interaction can coexist without conflict, because they do not address each other in the same language. When they attempt to do so, things often go ill.

For wines do, after all, make their own sort of argument for themselves. But it is an argument, not a conclusion, and wine’s responses to even the most careful questioning are ambiguous at best…suggestions rather than definitions, innuendos rather than proofs. Wine is difficult, confusing, contradictory, and yet wonderful not just despite, but in fact because of those difficulties. Wine is not about easy answers. Those who would attempt to convince you otherwise are not acting in their, or your, best interests.


Apologies for the long radio silence. (Digital silence? Whatever.)

I wanted to give the purpose of this blog a little more thought, especially as its author was clearly running out of blogging steam, and there had to be a reason. (Does the steam engine analogy really work anymore? How many people have actually seen a steam engine, outside a museum? Is the fact that I continue to use analogies that represent the best technology of the early 1900s part of the problem?)

It occurs, reading the last twenty or so posts and excepting the Barbera Meeting coverage (still not done, alas), that this blog had become entire reactive. A dialogue with others is an essential part of blogging, yes, and the reactivity (coinages and grammatical repurposings are a part of blogging I'm not going to give up) will not be absent. Indeed there's plenty to be reactionary about of late, starting with yet another stupid blog lawsuit, a wholesale (and, I hate to say it, chickenshit and badly-considered) retreat in panic and ideological disarray from the word "natural," the breathless realization of the oenological youth that wines are more complicated and less categorical than they'd believed (and I'd like to issue the boilerplate apology to my parents and everyone else that I, like this newly-reformed youth, doubted in the same way and for the same reasons when I was a cocky young know-it-all rather than a rapidly-decaying curmudgeon), and so forth.

But there was far too much of this. Far too many measured reconsiderations of and gentle remonstrances over someone else's ideas. I don't miss the "attack first, think later, apologize never" fire of my youth (well, sometimes I do; everything was simpler then), but I picture the author I've reading sitting in a well-padded but increasingly-worn chair, pipe in hand (lets hope there's no ascot), legs crossed, delivering a slowly-unfolding scolding in verbiage so plummy and passionless that one barely remembers that it is, still, a scolding. And still, alas, about what someone else wrote.

What, I wondered while re-reading essay after essay, did I think? I mean, I know what I thought. But what about others? The subtext could be glimpsed via a very close reading, perhaps, but I've inside knowledge about the author. (He needs a haircut, for example, and to reconsider the volume of his coffee consumption.) But for anyone who wasn't me, the essays were mostly about someone else's thoughts. Not so much about mine.

And were did the travelogues go? Yes, they're a pain to write, but there are now unfinished series going back to 2005, and ultimately they're some of my favorite writing, because they're not just critical, ideological, or (worst of all) "talking about talking about wine" as so much of this blog has been. They're about the people, the places, the core ideas, the cultures, the differences that make wine worth talking about. Even when they're not about wine, except perhaps the passing mention of a bottle with lunch.

Well, enough of that. By which I, ever-equivocating, mean there will still be some of that, but there will also be something else. Something that's been missing for a while. I don't want to over-promise, so I'll let the posts themselves speak to the coming changes. The first installment of things to come is actually a good way to start. It's something more personal than I usually allow on this blog, being a private Scandinavian (and worse, upper Midwestern) sort with a genetic distaste for personal unpleasantness, involving the (hopefully temporary, but perhaps not) loss of a mentor and friend over what seemed, at the time, to be a very minor technological disagreement. I doubt the essay will help, in fact, but it's from the heart, and it helped me understand some things about that conflict and how it could have been avoided.

17 September 2010

"It became necessary to destroy the town to save it"

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Cliché? Yes. And yet, true. Ideally, a little knowledge sets one’s feet on the path to more knowledge. But in reality, for too many a little knowledge is simultaneously the beginning and the end of the journey. That one should wish to know more, to know better, never occurs. Once in possession of a fact that confirms one’s prejudices, no matter how decontextualized or debatable, sides are taken, barriers constructed, and rhetorical (or worse) defenses mounted. And thus is our ruinous public discourse conducted.

The cliché applies in other ways, too. Want to enjoy the broadest possible selection of wines, unfettered by moral ambiguity? Don’t get to know the people who make the stuff. Oh, it’s true that most folks who make wine are friendly and generous, some are unfriendly and generous, a few are friendly but grasping, and of course the rest – a pretty small percentage – are widely-acknowledged bastards of the first order. (Often, and refreshingly, they’ll be the first to proffer this acknowledgement.) But encountering someone in a vineyard, or in a tasting room, is not the same as knowing them. Did, for example, the smiling French vigneron that just offered you a gift of a cherished bottle from his cellar vote for the hateful Front national in the last election? Look at the voting totals for certain French regions. Chances are if he didn’t, one of your upcoming appointments did. Is it, perhaps, better to not ask? To not know? That very much depends on your taste for moral conflict.

Considering both of these manifestations of a well-worn cliché about “a little knowledge,” we are thus brought to the matter of Jean-Pierre Frick.

Frick is a grape grower and winemaker in Alsace. He has very firm and non-traditional (or, one might counter-argue, ultra-traditional…the best term of all might be neo-traditional) ideas about viticulture, winemaking, and the region’s wines and winemakers. Most of which devolve to the core idea that he is right and anyone who thinks or does otherwise is not. And fair enough, as far as that belief goes. Shouldn’t someone do what they think is right, and shouldn’t someone believe in what they do? People who think very differently than Frick have similarly strong views and beliefs in those views, and while they may think and act in opposition, the sum of the conversation is better for the strength of that opposition.

It is, however, true that Frick is a little more likely than many others to be outspoken about the rights and wrongs of the wine world (and especially the Alsatian wine world) as he sees them. In this, he joins a smaller subset of producers in his region who tend towards the demonstrative and, occasionally, abrasive. Some of that subset are producers that I and many fellow wine drinkers admire a great deal. Others are not, or are at least more controversial. Again, regional dynamism pretty much requires this, and rampant self-satisfaction is all-too-often a clear midpoint on the road to qualitative ruin.

(Here I think a personal disclaimer is well-warranted: I am not an admirer of Frick’s wines. There are certain exceptions, but in the main I think they are unreflective of, and in fact obscure, both terroir and cépage. I do not think they are made as well as they could be, and are more than occasionally flawed in preventable ways. I think they are, as one acquaintance derisively puts it, “wines of philosophy” rather than wines of pleasure or drinkability, and that philosophy has gained ascendance over the results to the detriment of both. There are, it must also be noted, some for whom I have immense respect who vehemently disagree with these opinions. And finally, to those who contend that I would not write everything I’m about to write were the winemaker in question someone I admire, I can only offer the entirety of my work, which is not exactly rife with caution and rectitude.)

So here’s the short version of a longer story: there were some genetically-modified vines at a research facility near Colmar. A group of anti-GMO activists destroyed the vines and then, as far as I can tell, turned themselves in…the better, given the inevitable legal action, to further publicize their motivation in doing so. One of those activists was Jean-Pierre Frick.

Now, let’s not mince words here: this was destruction of private property. Or it was destruction of public property; I don’t know the specifics of the research facility’s funding. In either case, it was destruction of property that did not belong to these activists. Worse, it also destroyed many years of hard work. Work undertaken by people undoubtedly just as dedicated to the pursuit of their vocation as Frick and his cohorts.

Frick, however, is unapologetic. “The neutralization of the 70 grapevines was an act of civil disobedience,” he claims. No. A protest is civil disobedience. A sit-in. A strike. A barrage of negative publicity and lawsuits designed to stop the research, its publication, or the application of its results. All of those and more would be civil disobedience. This was uncivil disobedience, it was in any sane jurisdiction a crime, and one hopes that the perpetrators – including Frick – will pay a price for their willful act of destruction.

“Il ne s’agit pas d’une destruction mais de la préservation de mon outil de travail,” claims Frick. (Roughly: “it’s not destruction, but the preservation of my work tools,” by which he means his vines.) Frick sees research into, even the very existence of, these genetically-modified vines as threatening to or even destructive of his own. Why? One can speculate, or one can read his own thoughts on the subject, but there’s no logic to the claim until proponents of genetically-modified vines demand that he uproot his own, and France is very, very far from that Monsanto-like state of affairs (.pdf). Is there good reason for concern, wariness, and conservatism about genetically-modified plants as promoted in the commercial agricultural sphere? Absolutely, unquestionably, 1000% yes. But this…this goes well beyond concern.

This was an attack on property, this was an attack on the owners and operators of that property, and (perhaps most dismaying of all) this was an attack on science. Science is neither the final nor sole answer to all questions agricultural, nor should it ever be while the hand of man still crafts our food and beverage to aesthetic ends, but to oppose its testable conclusions is problematic enough, and to oppose its very practice is unthinking and reactionary. There’s no apparent evidence that Frick possesses the science to oppose this project on factual grounds (though I’d welcome evidence to the contrary), which is likely why he’s resorted to a tantrum of breaking and destroying. But ending an argument is not the same as winning an argument. Frick has attempted the former, and in doing so has ceded any moral authority with which to achieve the latter.

But let’s assume, for the sake of that argument, that he’s right. Let’s say that the destruction of both property and work (and possibly livelihood, if the research is subsequently de-funded and the researchers must look for new jobs) is justified because it legitimately threatens something of Frick’s. What is the nature of that threat? Frick may cloak himself as a defender of biodiversity and a proponent of anti-globalist rhetoric, and he may even be right to do so in the Great Struggle against the over-application of science and commerce to agriculture, but that doesn’t explain Frick’s personal motivation in that struggle. No, Frick must himself feel threatened. In fact, he says so, explicitly, in the above quote about his “work tools.” The possibilities and dangers presented by genetically-modified vines are, in his view, a threat to his livelihood, to his way of working, and – it must be said – to his profits.

Continuing under the sake-of-argument assumption that he is justified in his actions based on these beliefs, what are the natural conclusions to draw? One obvious one is that those under similar threat from equally revolutionary or counterrevolutionary methods are justified in taking similar action. Say, for instance, a grower of more typically-treated vines (that is, using chemicals and industrial farming techniques) and producer of quality wines whose livelihood is threatened not only by the commercial competition from Frick, but from the pedagogical din emanating from Frick’s oft-used lectern. Frick is not shy about saying that others are doing wrong, nor that their ways are insufficient to the cause of quality wine as he perceives it. Could not that be considered a threat to the livelihood of those who think and proceed differently? Could not the very existence of his wines constitute a threat in themselves? Could these entities not be free to act in the defense of their livelihood, their way of working, and their profits? And if it’s not his neighbor the winemaker in this role, how about a producer of farm equipment? Of chemical fertilizers? Of stabilizing chemicals or inoculated yeasts? Are their “work tools” under threat from the ascendance of Frick’s ideas? Undoubtedly so. What, then, is their allowed recourse?

Were Frick to wake up tomorrow and find his vineyards “neutralized” by a different set of activists who feel themselves under threat (and let me be clear: I fervently hope that this does not come to pass, because it would be no less criminal or morally offensive), would he consider their actions justified? One hopes so. Because otherwise he would not only be a destroyer of property and work that does not belong to him, he’d also be a hypocrite.

And so, there's a little knowledge. It’s still a dangerous thing. Knowing of these events changes one’s opinion of Frick’s wines, whether in enthusiastic support or horrified repulsion (I’ve seen both, browsing the commentariat on this issue). And what is that shocked consumer to do? Boycott? Dump any wines already in the cellar down the drain? Refuse to visit or write about the producer in the future? Confront Frick in person? Confront Frick from the safety of an English-language blog he will probably never see?

Or perhaps just go out and wreck a bunch of property? That should solve things. Shouldn’t it?

25 August 2010

How sweet it is

Alsace might be getting it right. For a change.

Faced with disastrous sales -- a recent visit included a lot of producers' shrugs and "our American market is dead"-type laments -- and an increasingly sugary regional identity, the time has apparently come to do something about it.

Rémy Gresser, a forward-thinking winemaker who doesn't share the ludicrous fetishes of some of his peers and is now in a position of regional influence, thinks there should be sweetness indicators on bottles. He's absolutely right. Because aside from Zind Humbrecht's indice, there's no way to know what one is getting unless one knows the stylistic preferences of the producer (and even then, it's easy to go wrong).

Global warming has a lot to do with this; look at Alsace's varietal range and then look at where else those grapes are planted. In almost every case, Alsace is the hottest and driest member of the club, and it's not exactly getting cooler or wetter. But there's a lot of blame to be assigned to ripeness-loving critics and writers, as well. The desire for the gargantuan points (and prices) achieved by Zind Humbrecht or Weinbach has led to a lot of long-hanging viticulture without corollary concentration or the sense of balance occasionally achieved by the former and more regularly achieved by the latter, and that means a lot of wines that aren't pleasantly off-dry or easy-to-drink soft, but instead are just sugary and leaden. This has been a disaster for the region, as sales demonstrate.

Sweetness labeling isn't going to save Alsace, but it certainly won't hurt. What's more, I suspect it will have an unintended effect: faced with the prospect of labeling nearly everything they produce as sweet, more than a few wineries are going to rethink the absence of dry wines in their stable and (re)start producing some. This, too, can't hurt.

(It's possible that this isn't actually an unintended effect. Gresser may very much intend this exact outcome. Good for him, if so.)

I fear that, over the long run, Alsace -- like many other regions -- may be forced to consider rethinking their traditional varieties in favor of something more climate-appropriate. How much sweet gewurztraminer and sweet pinot gris does the world really need, after all? But in the meantime, this represents unquestionable progress. I only hope the producers heed the message of the market and join in.

11 August 2010

What the hell are we flighting, flor?

[flor, © Arnaud 25 via Wikimedia Commons]It’s all about context.

Oxygen is the enemy of wine. Open a bottle and it starts to die, right then and there. The demise may take minutes or long, lingering days, and there may be some interesting…maybe even salutary…effects along the way (certain components kick their respective buckets faster than others), but the fact is that exposing a wine to oxygen is signing its death warrant.

This is as true in the winery as it is in the bottle, and a lot of modern winemaking is about going to elaborate lengths to keep wine and oxygen as far apart as the Montagues and Capulets. The failure to do so turns out about as well as that literary pairing did, albeit without quite so many balcony dramatics. Careful pumping from one container to another, topping up barrels the instant they show a little airspace, bottling under a blanket of oxygen-repelling gas…it’s all part of the basic repertoire.

Sure, there are a few ambered-in-time wine styles – colheita port comes to mind – in which a little bit of oxidation can be expected, but what in the distant past used to be the norm is, today, little more than a historical artifact. These days, when someone mentions oxidation it’s almost always negative…as with the vexing scourge of prematurely-oxidized white Burgundies. And oxidation isn’t the only worry. For in the cellar, oxygen also encourages the growth of unwelcome micro-beasties that will work their own nefariousness on the wine.

Ah…but it’s all about context.

One of the colonizations encouraged by excess in-barrel oxygen is yeast…or at least, a certain type of yeast. Finished with the busywork of turning sugar into poisonous (to them) alcohol, they retreat to the surface, lay back, and commence as much of a sunny post-work bask as yeast cells can enjoy within the darkened confines of a wine barrel. Their cousins join them, pulling up a very tiny beach chair and cuddling close. And soon enough, there’s an enveloping film of recumbent Saccharomyces doing what the winemaker could (or would) not: separating wine from oxygen. Oh, those poor unicellular Romeos and elemental Juliets, they just can’t catch a break…

And then…a bunch of chemical stuff happens. I’m not going to bore anyone (least of all myself) with the details, especially since I’d just be cribbing others’ barely-comprehensible work, and I’d still probably get it wrong. The important thing is that, under certain controlled conditions, this layer of yeast – one that in most situations would mean liquid refreshment for the winery drain – leads to something particularly interesting. The geographical center of such controlled conditions is the region of Spain in which Sherry is made. There (and in other Spanish regions practicing similar techniques) the yeast is called flor, from the Spanish word for “flower.”

But the flower doesn’t just bloom in Spain. It’s also embraced in the Jura region of France, in which vin jaune (yellow wine) is the most famous name amongst a varied, yeast-enveloped genre. There, flor is called voile, which means something like “veil,” “shroud,” or “curtain.” And then there’s Sardinia, with its vernaccia di Oristano, and…well, no need for a complete dossier on flor’s worldwide peregrinations. Enough to know that it’s not just restricted to Jerez and its neighbors.

The French term for the yeast in question raises an interesting question however: what is flor’s role in varietal and site expression? Like fortification, botrytis, bubbles, sans soufre winemaking, and the extended macerations of the orange wine set, is what it adds to the organoleptic palette subverted by its masking, equalizing effects? Do flor-affected wines achieve an asymptotic similarity, or do grape and site still shine through? Perhaps flor itself differs from wine to wine?

These are provocations that can’t be argued into submission, but rather need to be explored by tasting. And the Impresario of Orange, towering (literally) New York wine eminence Levi Dalton – the man responsible for last year’s orange wine bacchanal – is just the man to do it. It is thus that a group of wandering seekers after a babe in swaddling yeasts assemble at Alto, Dalton’s swanky new Manhattan restaurant digs, to find out. Florty-nine wines…each one flor-affected, flighted and sequenced in a controlled setting which will highlight what they do and don’t reveal from behind their veils.

It’s all about context, after all.

Oh…and there’s food. Selected from some of the hits of the flor repertoire but taking a few chances, filtered through Alto’s northern-Italianate leanings (more or less; note the cheesy interloper at the end), and mostly highly-restrained and low-impact, which serves the wines – if not always the food – well.

sausage-stuffed olive, branzino tartare, spiced marcona almonds

capesante dorate e agrodolce di uva
seared scallops, toasted marcona almonds, golden raisin agrodolce

garganelli amatriciana
hand-made pasta quills, pancetta, slow-cooked tomato ragù, basil

sgombro alla griglia
lightly grilled mackerel, fava purée, hen of the woods mushrooms


And so, flortified and sustained, we forge florward…into a walk-around tasting of finos and manzanillas.

El Maestro Sierra Fino (Jerez) – Very salty and fierce, slashing and hacking away at the already well-infused remains of a raw olive pit. Bitter. With food, this is pretty exciting; without it, there’s hurt. (8/10)

Gutiérrez Colosia “Juan Sebastian Elcano” Fino (Jerez) – Dirt, sand, sourness, and rancidity. The worst wine in the room, and by a fair measure. The real first man to sail around the world deserves better than this, doesn’t he? (8/10)

Perez Barquero “Gran Barquero” Fino (Jerez) – Nuts and old citrus oils, with a molten candle-wax texture. Smooth and elegant. (8/10)

Toro Albalá “Eléctrico” Fino (Jerez) – Bitter green olive and lemon pith. Rectangular in form. Not very interesting, but OK. (8/10)

Dios Baco Fino (Jerez) – Perfumed, elegant, and somewhat feminine in form. Flowery. Fills out and lengthens on the finish, though the alcohol becomes more pointed. (8/10)

Lustau “Jarana” Fino (Jerez) – Sweet watermelon and strawberry. Kind of a fluffy fruit bomb. Not what I want. (8/10)

Lustau José Luis González Obregón Fino del Puerto (Jerez) – Flat-textured. Sand and gravel in planar form. A little weird, but there’s complexity in that weirdness. (8/10)

Valdespino “Inocente” Fino (Jerez) – Lavish, complex, and well-seasoned with various salts and peppers, yet elegant at the same time. Earth-driven, in a grey-toned way. Very impressive. (8/10)

Equipo Navazos “La Bota de No. 15” Fino (Jerez) – Starts texturally lush but quickly turns solid, its dark metals ending in squared-off edges. Seems not to be all it could be. Good but disappointing, I’d call it. (8/10)

Fino is sort of the poster child for flor-influenced wine, and so here is an early demonstration of something that will become increasingly clear as the tasting continues into other regions and realms: while it’s not really possible to mask flor’s influence, the extent to which it’s pushed into a supporting rather than leading role has a lot to do with how positively I respond to a given wine. I should note that come to this tasting with an unfortunate disposition against Sherry – I can appreciate it, but I very rarely love it – and I wonder if someone with more affection for the genre might feel differently, preferring more equilibrium between yeasty and grapey elements. On the other hand, here and in the flight that follows, my favorite wines are those that I’d expect to favor based on reputation, so maybe it’s less an issue of picking the most interesting wines than it is properly appreciating the more typical, middle-of-the-road expressions.

La Cigarrera Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Rusty seawater, thick and chunky. Moody and dark. Difficult to like, or even to approach. (8/10)

Argüeso San León Clásica Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Bright lemon rind, salted stones, and riesling-like metal shards. An inner light lifts this into the realm of refreshing. (8/10)

Pedro Romero “Aurora” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Very fruity (seriously: raspberry and peach, not typical manzanilla descriptors, at least in my experience). Decidedly different and somewhat giggly. (8/10)

Hidalgo “La Gitana” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Direct and overtly fruity, melding stone fruit and Rainier cherries with peaches and just a little bit of minerality. The training wheels need to come off, and soon. (8/10)

Dios Baco “Riá Pitá” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Structured and full-bodied but beaten down by overt sourness and what appears to be light oxidation. Lifeless, really. (8/10)

Lustau “Papirusa” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Leafy and barky, with an omnipresent snowflake shower of apricot skin. Medium-toned and average. (8/10)

Valdespino “Deliciosa” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Spiced berries and dark fruit dominated by minerality. Complex and rather fantastic, albeit showy. (8/10)

Equipo Navazos “La Bota de No. 16” (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – The bones are evident, but that’s appealing here, as the plump intensity draped about the skeleton just adds interest. Long, spicy…and dry, dry, dry. Really excellent. (8/10)

Equipo Navazos “La Bota de No. 10” (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Heady, dark fruit edging towards cherry, with a saline structure and thick, persistent intensity on the finish. Very impressive. (8/10)

The manzanilla-fest starts slowly, but more approachably than the finos, and then pretty quickly builds towards the same qualitative conclusion as the last flight. I know which producers will be on the shopping list: the same ones that were before the tasting. But a few have dropped off in the interim.

Montagut “Mendall” 2007 “Vinyes Arrencades” (Cataluña) – Apple and honeysuckle. Mead-like. Or maybe it’s dandelion wine? There’s a bit of skin to it, so perhaps it’s neither. Quite interesting. (8/10)

Vevi 1954 “Golden” (Castilla & León) – Spanish speakers would know this as the “Dorada” bottling (why it was so arbitrarily and Ibérico-handedly translated I don’t know), done in solera and made from verdejo (with cameos from viura and palomino) in the Rueda. Sweet and short, blowing itself out early in a soft burst of bronzed banana. Fun and very appealing…while it lasts, which isn’t long. (8/10)

Strictly speaking, the Vevi probably would have been better nearer the end of this meal, alongside the vernaccias, but that would have orphaned the Mendall. Perhaps they’re better left here, as an interesting interlude or a palate reset before delving into much narrower and more directed realms of flor – or rather, voile – expression. Florward march, voilenteers…

Bornard 2006 Arbois Pupillin Melon “le Rouge queue” (Jura) – Pointedly volatile but otherwise shy, aromatically; it could be that the reticence highlights what would otherwise be submerged volatility. Peachy, pretty, and rounded. Very fresh. If there’s flor influence here, I can’t detect it, despite being assured by all involved that there is. In a tasting of non-sous voile Jura whites, this wouldn’t stand out. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. (8/10)

Bornard 2005 Côtes du Jura Savagnin “les Marnes” (Jura) – Forward fruit and huge acidity. Very juicy, with a gummy texture despite all that acid. Shouldery. (8/10)

Puffeney 2005 Arbois Savagnin (Jura) – Here’s an interesting twist: mint, lily, apple blossom. Intense, balanced, and unreasonably long, turning more orange-ish and succulent as it lingers. There’s some volatile acidity to deal with, but it’s manageable. (8/10)

Puffeney 2003 Arbois Savagnin (Jura) – Dusty and dense, with both the texture and some of the form of an orange wine, but also with the fatness of the vintage. Thick, spicy, and shocked with electric tangerine that – alas – doesn’t make up for insufficient acidity. Direct, and yet holding something back. This is good for a 2003, and (as the lengthy note indicates) it’s hardly without interest, but it’s neither typical nor qualitatively above-average. (8/10)

Puffeney 1999 Arbois Savagnin “Cuvée l’Oubliée” (Jura) – Stone fruit and copper with a beautiful texture. Incredibly interesting, with depths and hidden hollows in that depth, then crannies in those hollows; the finish is almost Mandelbrotian. Gorgeous. It is not, one must caveat, representative of normal Arbois savagnin. It’s special. (8/10)

Puffeney 1999 Arbois “Cuvée Christelle” (Jura) – A deft but somewhat acrid nose soon loses itself in flowers, mold, and volatile acidity. Powdery. Too weird for me. (8/10)

Here endeth the first flight, in confusion and disarray. A slow start, a peaking middle, and then a jumpy trio of eccentricities. As for enveloping mold characteristics, they’re too voileatile to pin down in this set of wines. Onward...

Macle 2006 Côtes du Jura (Jura) – Almond and metal-armored apple in its woody, post-ripened stage. Deep and rather thoughtful. With that apple, steel, and a (contextually) brittle acidity, it almost seems to have spent some time in riesling’s classroom, learning a lesson here and there but rejecting a more encompassing imposition of form. It’s…different. (8/10)

Ganevat 2005 Arbois “Cuvée de Garde” (Jura) – Windy and difficult on the nose, but the palate makes up for it with an excess of expression. Wet metal, walnut (without bitterness, though), and stones. Angular. (8/10)

Ganevat 2002 Côtes du Jura “La Combe” (Jura) – A little stewed and short, with the alcohol out of balance and to the fore. I ask a few fellow tasters who’ve previous experience with the wine (David Lillie is one, so it’s not like I’m asking random passersby) if this seems to be an intact bottle, and they assure me it tastes as it has. In the absence of that assurance, I’d have thought something was wrong with this bottle, and that something was heat-related. Whatever the cause, it’s not very good. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2001 l’Etoile “Cuvée Spéciale” (Jura) – Lots of acid and even more metals, haphazardly piled atop one another with flash but without cohesion. Vibrant and piercing. It’s a very particular wine, and it will leave you a little breathless along the way. “Good” isn’t really applicable. It’s liquid iconoclasm. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2005 l’Etoile Savagnin (Jura) – Very flor-dominated, with a complex stew of high-toned quivering and a waxy interior. Mineral, long, and linear. There’s not much else to it, but I wonder if it’s not just too young to strut. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2004 l’Etoile Savagnin (Jura) – Gravelly, moldy, and bitter, with obvious volatile acidity. Short, twisted, and difficult. What happened here? (8/10)

Another pause for us to collect our breath and scrape our tongues. Again, the wines are all over the map both stylistically and qualitatively, but some common threads are starting to appear in the weave. First, the acidity, which is affected by yet manages to stand somewhat apart from varietal influence: here and in other wines it’s a planar, nearly impenetrable, and yet paper-thin wall of zing rather than an integrated partner in the structural framework. Second, there’s a tendency towards volatility that might escape notice for the non-freakishly sensitive (which, alas, I am). Third, and perhaps most relevant to the subject of our study, there’s a way in which flor seems to grasp the wine’s aromatics and structure in a loosely-gripped fist. In return, there’s a payback of textural complexity, but the wine has to work to earn everything else. Some can’t escape the clench and end up dominated by that external envelopment. But those that do seem more alive and in-motion as a result of the energy required for the escape.

The next few wines are a bit of an interlude, starting on-topic but soon darting afield.

Berthet-Bondet 1998 Côtes du Jura Savagnin (Jura) – Buttered bronze, deep copper, empty silver. I can’t quite get past the midpalate void, but the perimeter is certainly shiny. (8/10)

Loye 1989 Arbois (Jura) – Salted nuts. Simple, forward, and fruity. Kind of a yawn. (8/10)

Campadieu “Domaine La Tour Vieille” Vin de Pays de la Côte Vermeille “Memoire (d’Automnes)” (Roussillon) – A gorgeous texture (is that oak, though? it does a good impression if not) with cinnamon and nutmeg (again: wood?) plus other spices deeper in the blend. Stands a little too apart in this crowd for proper analysis, I think, but I’d welcome another go in a different context. (8/10)

Causse Marines 1996 Vin de Table “Mysterre” (Southwest France) – More conformity to INAO edict would make this a Gaillac, I’m told. Powdered salt, mixed citrus rinds and skins, and a weird Styrofoam finish. Too bad...it was just getting strange. (8/10)

More glasses are added, until we’re all protected behind a solid wall of glittering crystal fortifications, and then the most focused and relentless assault of single-notion wines commences. It will be quite educational, if not necessarily enlivening.

Clairet “Domaine de la Tournelle” 2002 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Deep, with brittle acidity and a hard, sandpapery texture. There’s a sort of lingering nothingness to the finish. Closed, or just not very interesting? (8/10)

Clairet “Domaine de la Tournelle” 2001 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Despite a pillowy aspect to what “fruit” there is, the acidity is razored. In fact, I mention the acidity three times in my scribbled notes, so it must have impressed me. What appears to not have impressed me is anything else about the wine, because the acidity is all that I write about. So: the acidic pillow. It might be a great band name, but it’s not a great wine. (8/10)

Macle 2002 Château Chalon (Jura) – Pine-Sol™ and waves of acidity, both traditional and volatile. Frankly, this is actively repellent, though some of that is my personal issue with VA. (8/10)

Berthet-Bondet 2003 Château Chalon (Jura) – Grapey but otherwise subtle. Reminds me of a smoked apple tart. Interesting. (8/10)

Berthet-Bondet 2000 Château Chalon (Jura) – A goopy froth of diffidence. Small and short. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2000 l’Etoile Vin Jaune (Jura) – Pear and metal with big acidity and persistent intensity. A diagonal wine. Hard to ignore, but you must tilt your palate in the correct direction. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 1999 l’Etoile Vin Jaune (Jura) – Sweet with acrid intrusions. The finish is bitter. Weird and old-tasting. I’d be tempted to ascribe this generalized failure to the bottle in the absence of a second sample. (8/10)

Puffeney 2002 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Intense, with great balance. Metal, pear, and layers of compressed leaves. Striking and sophisticated. Very, very good. No…brilliant. My absolute favorite of all the non-Spanish wines, and by a significant margin. (8/10)

Puffeney 2000 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Powdery to the point of being toothsome, with a quinine aroma and a complex, amaro-like bitterness (that is, melding bitter/sweet/herbal components). More interesting than good, though it’s certainly not bad. (8/10)

Puffeney 1996 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Weirdly ashen with spiny acidity. Difficult. I feel like I’m missing something that I might have noticed were my palate not fatigued by this point, but maybe I’m not and there’s just not that much here. (8/10)

I normally count myself a fan of both vin jaune and Château Chalon, albeit I rarely get to taste the latter due to cost and general non-availability. As a result, looking over my collection of notes comes as rather a surprise. Palate ennui? Perhaps, but I don’t notice in the text a devolving reaction to the wines’ similarities, which would be the usual fatigue effect. Instead, there’s an increasingly persnickety spotlight on various flaws and imbalances, and to say that those flaws and imbalances aren’t – to my palate – present is not right either. Without extensive retasting, it’s hard to say much more. I only like three of these wines, and truly love only one. But wow, do I love that one.

In retrospect, I wonder if the serving order doesn’t negatively affect these wines. Not the order within the flight, but the fact that they come after the less-reputed gaggle of wines in the last flight. Reputation doesn’t always equal greater size or concentration, and in fact the previous bunch certainly features more showmanship and overt statement-making. These wines, while largely of a piece within their respective appellations (my notes elide some of the similarities), are quieter…while, at the same time, in more congenial agreement with each other. It is ever the “curse” of such wines that they do less well the more peers they are forced to converse with, and I do suspect the combination of breadth and serving order is at least partly to blame for my dissatisfaction with the lineup.

As for veils, curtains, and shrouds, there’s certainly a consistency to the wines in terms of the acid/volatile aromatic relationship. If that’s the voile, then it’s most definitely on display here. But while my favorite wine in the group is (again) the one that layers the most on top of that shroud, I also like a few wines that attempt more playful, interpretative, contrapuntal dances with their veils.

The dinner’s finale is a somewhat amusing one, as our chief server (not Levi, it should be noted) attempts to tell us that the Comté in front of us is Italian and (he thinks) from Puglia. I’m all for his nationalistic boosterism, but…seriously, now. (He does return later, someone red-faced, to admit that it is, in fact, actual Comté. It’s also more than a little wan and flavorless for a Comté, but that’s a separate issue.)

Contini Vernaccia di Oristano “Antico Gregori” (Sardinia) – Honeyed Pink Lady apple cider and pollen. Ripe. Appealing. (8/10)

Contini 1987 Vernaccia di Oristano “Riserva” (Sardinia) – Restrained. Pine nuts and a brittle, snap-crackle honeycomb character. Very pretty. (8/10)

Contini 1985 Vernaccia di Oristano “Riserva” (Sardinia) – White chocolate-covered mandarin oranges. The finish is a bit abrupt, which might indicate progress down the path of lingering demise. (8/10)

These are delicious, though they don’t have the seriousness of purpose or complex subtlety of many other wines I’ve experienced this evening. They taste – it might be more accurate to say that they feel – more like regular dessert wines than they seem part the yeast-enveloped category. But they’re a nice way to finish the meal.

And so, did I learn anything? Did I florge a new understanding, pull back the veil, open the curtains? More importantly, did I make enough stupid jokes and puns utilizing the subject of the tasting?

The answer: yes, I learned something. I learned that, no matter how good the wine, I’m still not a Sherry aficionado…though I have even more confidence that when I do purchase the category, I’m looking for the right labels. I learned that I like the flor show (NB: that’s Levi’s pun, not mine) more in isolation and counterpoint than I do en masse…a lesson not dissimilar to the one I learned at last year’s orange wine festival.

And as for flor? What strikes me in retrospect is not so much some ineffable commonality of aroma, but of structure. With the expected exception of the hotter years, there’s a very brittle and unstable, yet inexorable, character to these wines’ acidity that really marks them…across places, grapes, and categories. It’s not the high and full-throated acidity of (say) an old-style riesling, but it’s nonetheless impossible to ignore. More than the aromatic and textural changes wrought by the veil, it stands as a sort of signature.

A signature, signed with a florish.

Disclosures: none that matter. The Berthet-Bondet 1998 Côtes du Jura Savagnin and the Bornard 2006 Arbois Pupillin Melon “le Rouge queue” were supplied by me and purchased at a friendly discount from The Wine Bottega in Boston.