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thor iverson

Writer, educator, communicator, consultant. Wine, spirits, food, cocktails, dining, travel. Authoring a book on the sensorial theory of wine & cheese pairing.
[please don't feed the hippies]

Butcher, writer, winemaker

Never watch sausage being made.

That few want to know what goes into sausage is, I suppose, taken for granted by those who don’t. But most food-enthusiasts absolutely do want to know…not just what’s in the sausage, but how it’s made. There would be dismay over poor ingredients, yes, but as much or more from watching good raw material mauled into something unrecognizable via sloppy practice or an excess of adulteration. Who wants to pay the premium for a wild boar sausage if it’s indistinguishable from plain pork? What’s the purpose of using a top-notch source of veal and then studding it with stale dried herbs?

(…transitions are for amateurs….)

The Lord of the Rings was, and is, an important book to me. The first time I read it, I was a little too young to follow more than the frontline narrative, and I suspect that’s part of why regular and enjoyable re-readings continue to this day: each time, I find something I’d glossed in the past. Such understanding has, admittedly, been greatly aided by also owning and reading the vast library of revisioning and background material that has gradually been made available by Tolkien’s son Christopher. Watching this particular sausage being made led to greater admiration for the result.

When the news first broke, years ago, of a live-action filmic version – I’d seen the fascinatingly muddled animated hack job back in the day – I felt the same mixed emotions as most long-time Tolkien fans. Emotions which were mostly borne out by the results, as the films alternated between painstaking recapturing and inexplicable revisionism. On balance, though, and with innumerable complaints small and large to the side, I was pleased with the results. It wasn’t always The Lord of the Rings, no, but it was a pretty good cover version.

As a fan and completist, it was only natural that I had to own the extended-cut DVDs when they came out, in all their lingering and bonus-materialed glory. But my fellow fanatics who’d sat down with them before I had offered a warning: don’t listen to the writers’ commentary tracks.

Perhaps inevitably, I failed to follow their advice. I wanted another trip to the sausage factory. And anyway, I’d already seen the results, hadn’t I? What they’d gotten right and what they’d gotten so spectacularly wrong? How much worse could it be? Well, I suppose I should have listened. Few of the perturbations to the original text were as infuriating as listening to how they came about, explanations which the writers were extremely eager to provide in detail.

Changes necessitated by a shift in media – book to film – didn’t bother me that much. The book, as written and without a word or scene altered, isn’t filmable. I’d understood going in that there would be shortcuts and additions made to pump up the action, to sharpen conflicts, to elevate emotional climaxes, and so forth. I didn’t even mind a little bit of alteration to better suit modern norms (which, I knew even before the movies were filmed, would mean bigger and better roles for women than are evident in the book, though much of this material could be mined from appendices and supplementary texts).

What set my teeth a-grating was how changes always begat more changes to “make up for” a now-insensible narrative that only existed because of the original changes. How disbelief in a character’s motivations (as written) wrought small changes early in the story, then required massive, deformative changes later in the story. How caricature-like inventions were defended as logical inevitabilities when the original alterations that required this logic weren’t necessary in the first place. Worse were the number of times regret was expressed at one of these later, cumulative alterations; as the filming progressed, the sense of closer fidelity to the text had frequently been seen and attempted, but was often rendered impossible by earlier, committed-to-film alterations. Thus requiring even more severe changes to return a story or character back to some vaguely-recognizable place.

(…transitions are still for amateurs…)

Which, of course, brings me to wine.

Keep Reading

[pigtail]

Who are you writing for?

(NB: this essay was originally published in 2011.)

A mentor, and friend, died last week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh-oh. Keep Reading

Daniel Whitehall

[whitehall lane]Whitehall Lane 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) — Falling apart. I don’t necessarily mean that it’s over the hill, just that the seams and edges are torn and battered, and the center’s not strong enough to hold. Tired dark berries under well-trodden shoe leather. (11/16)

Charly horse

[régnié]Charly Thévenet 2014 Régnié “Grain & Granit” (Beaujolais) — Bright, brittle red fruit laden with petal icicles. Warms as it finishes, leaving behind a flood of flowers and fresh-faced innocence. (11/16)

Pass the dulce

Los Bermejos Malvasía Dulce (Lanzarote) — Overt minerality, gritty and dark, with a sweetness that graces rather than coats. I love wines like this. (11/16)

Terra incognita

[piñol]Celler Piñol 2005 Terra Alta “Sacra Natura” (Cataluña) — 35% cariñena, 20% merlot, 20% cabernet sauvignon, 15% syrah, 10% tempranillo. The structural grapes have been just enough to hold the aromatic/textural grapes together this long, and in fact after a wan start the wine gains in strength and cohesiveness as it airs, but there are frays and tatters that shouldn’t be ignored. Rich, warm, dark, dusty fruit laid upon a decaying bed of dried leaves. (11/16)

Judd

[hirsch]Hirsch 2010 Pinot Noir “San Andreas Fault” (Sonoma Coast) — Just enough nervous energy to battle back a dense, earthen minerality. Otherwise, this feels like some sort of savory beet slurry in the hands of a creative chef; surprisingly heavy without being concentrated, tannin and acid simultaneous apparent and unintegrated. A second bottle introduces pine resin and green grass to the finish. Many of these signs point to an awkward stage rather than some fundamental flaw, but I also worry this wine will forever be accompanied by its struggle to regain coherence. I like everything here, yet this ends up being my least favorite wine of the tasting, because my affection for the materials isn’t retained by the finished product. (12/16)

Hirsch 2011 Pinot Noir “San Andreas Fault” (Sonoma Coast) — Much nervier than the 2010, its upfront floral notes slashed by a brittle, acid-forward structure. Black trumpet mushrooms are the baritone counterpoint. Poised, elegant, and balanced, with a long finish. (12/16)

Hirsch 2012 Pinot Noir “San Andreas Fault” (Sonoma Coast) — Dense layers of tannin, dark fruit with a hint of black pepper, and a slight astringency. Very, very long. The more air it gets, the more it closes in on itself. One fellow taster remarks that he’d like to drink this now; I can’t think of anything I’d rather drink less from this lineup right now. After a decade or more, though? Count me in. This is in desperate need of time. (12/16)

(Hirsch amusingly characterized the reaction of customers, when faced with the burly 2012 after the slender 2011, as, “what the fuck did you guys do?”)

Hirsch 2013 Pinot Noir “San Andreas Fault” (Sonoma Coast) — Dust and sweet black ink, dark cherries steeping on their skins and seeds, walnut. Juicy, but overwhelmed (in a delicious way) by its fine particulate dustiness. (12/16)

Hirsch 2014 Pinot Noir “San Andreas Fault” (Sonoma Coast) — Plums, berries, green olive…and yes, that’s surprising in a pinot noir. Supple and round, but with prominent acidity and a very slight astringency. Both eventually integrate with air. Balanced and confident. (12/16)

[hirsch]

The fault in our stars

Jasmine Hirsch is, these days, probably better known as the co-provocateur (provocateuse?) behind In Pursuit of Balance, but with that flashy (if sometimes haphazardly defined) project shuttered, she’s free to return to her other full-time job as the face and voice of her family’s eponymous Sonoma winery.

The cringe-inducing whining about IPoB was often as overblown as the wines against which it sought contrast (and even “against” is more antagonistic than the reality), but Hirsch’s basic message hasn’t changed at all: ripeness can obscure difference, intervention can obscure difference, even intent can obscure difference. Obviously her argument is more nuanced than that, but the core of the philosophy is to make wines of response or revelation rather than wines of intention…which is why there was always a certain irony surrounding the word “pursuit” in IPoB’s name.

By “intent” I mean something other than the basic desire to turn grapes into salable wine. Not even the most hardcore naturalistas operate from a position of utter indifference to material or process. Hirsch has selected its preferred grapes, its preferred clonal material, the sites on which its vines grow. It most certainly practices viticulture of intent, and harvest dates aren’t selected at random. A sufficiently problematic fermentation would likely be dealt with, one way or another. But on a continuum from industrial to natural, wines of intent invite — in fact, demand — a lot more meddling than is evident here.

“Revelation” is an equally tricky word, in that it usually bears a promissory burden. That’s not how I’m using it here. I mean only that a wine of revelation is one that differs from vintage to vintage in response to its natural inputs — weather, mostly, but also less welcome participants like pests and diseases — and the oenological decisions such inputs encourage. Big house non-vintage Champagne is the ultimate wine of intent, requiring dramatic interventions all through the process, up to and including blending to achieve the house style. Wines of revelation aren’t the total antithesis of such machinations, but they’re a lot closer to the other end of the spectrum. 

That said, it’s impossible to entirely disentangle intent from the drinkable results; Hirsch probably couldn’t make the style they obviously prefer were their vineyards in Paso Robles. Also, the notes below are for blended wines, not terroir wines (except in a general regional or communal sense). Still, the wines themselves can’t help but reveal the truth or lie in the claimed philosophy; if they hold fast to an identity, year after year, they’re wines of intent. If they waver in response to season and the resulting variabilities in vine/grape chemistry, they’re wines of revelation.

Hirsch’s are clearly the latter. Keep Reading

Fontodi’s wild ride

[fontodi]Fontodi 1995 Chianti Classico Riserva (Tuscany) — Dust and strawberry charcoal with a sharply exposed spine of tannin. Probably a few years past peak, but the lingering aromatics are as soil-driven as one could ever want. (11/16)