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.