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[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

[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

[trimbach hors choix]

Or ə

Trimbach 1989 Riesling Clos Ste-Hune “Vendanges Tardives” “Hors Choix” (Alsace)

I don’t normally include tasting notes in the the blog’s main feed (they’re exiled here), because I feel that they’re one of the least interesting ways to talk about wine. (The worst are point or ranking systems, of course.) But this bottle overflows with personal meaning…both its past and its present…and to relegate it to a word-salad of descriptors was to do it, and me, a disservice.

I can only find four instances of Trimbach doling out the incredibly rare “Hors Choix” designation, though there may be more about which I don’t know. Two were for sélection des grains nobles bottlings that were/are so overwhelmingly sweet that finding a sensible occasion to open them is virtually impossible. (Not that they’re in any danger of fading; they may well be essentially deathless.) I own one of those — a gewurztraminer so dark brown with botrytis that I think even the richest possible pâté de foie gras might fade into nothingness — and while it’s unquestionably an extraordinary experience, it’s more or less the Sagrada Familia of wine: impressive to admire, to be sure, but what does one do with it?

Keep Reading

[dirler-cadé]

Dirler prudence

One by one, the pinnacles of Alsace crumble. Sometimes it’s unexpected tragedy — I still have trouble believing that Laurence Faller is gone — and sometimes it’s the fickle winds of the marketplace. But mostly, it’s climate.

Global warming is ruining Alsace. Actually, let’s make that more strident: global warming has ruined Alsace. The region’s “best” vineyards — the solar-collector grand crus of the Haut-Rhin — are often too hot for anything but slow-ripening riesling (sometimes) and grapes that wine law prefers to dissuade from those notable slopes (like sylvaner, or even pinot blanc). Gewurztraminer? Pinot gris? Forget it. Vendanges tardives-level ripeness is sometimes achievable from a good grower’s first harvest, these days. Yet far too many wines are sweet, alcoholic, and just generally huge, lacking any sense of acidity or freshness such behemoths require.

Saving graces could be coming from the cooler Bas-Rhin, where many sites are fully entwined with the lower arms of the Vosges and their cooling breezes, but a majority of the northern producers seem ill-equipped to handle the change in fortunes. While it’s far from clear that the sites in the north are capable of reaching the same heights as their southerly brethren, it also may just be that producer inexperience with making world-class wine is holding back the quality. Loew manages it. So does Gresser. Kreydenweiss is capable of it, but the wines crack up far too quickly. There aren’t all that many others. And even if there were, who would buy them? The market for Alsatian wines has cratered.

Still, there are holdouts. Trimbach, obviously…though the techniques that preserve their house style are a matter of some debate. Lorentz. Blanck. Mann. Some of the (semi-)non-interventionists (Josmeyer, Barmès-Buecher) manage thicker styles with grace. It’s too early to know what’s going to happen at Weinbach.

I’ve been visiting Alsace off and on for almost twenty years, and the options for something local that I actually want to drink with its already weighty cuisine diminish every year. But there’s one producer I return to again and again: Dirler-Cadé.

Keep Reading

[rimbaud]

Noted in passing

I’ve hidden them from the main feed…because they’re the second least interesting way to talk about wine (points remain the absolute worst)…but the posting of tasting notes has resumed here on the newly rebranded and incompetently designed blog. They’re here. And I suppose I should offer a warning: while I do occasionally drift off into a list of ingredients, I’ve come to prefer experiential notes to iterative ones. If you need clearly replicable descriptors, I’m not your writer.

[stained barrel]

No filter, no cry

There comes a moment in every young wine writer’s life when they dabble at becoming Robert M. Parker, Jr. When knowledge of wines crosses the Rubicon into a vastly more satisfying (and self-satisfied) knowledge of wine, and the urge to proclaim their understanding suddenly becomes overwhelming.

With fair frequency, the very next moment in every young wine writer’s life is someone with vastly more knowledge explaining that they’re wrong.

I’m pretty sure my own era of ranting from a illusory mountaintops happened around the turn of the millennium; I was convinced I was on my way to being a Master of Wine (I wasn’t), I had done the work of tasting and study (but not nearly enough), I knew stuff (only some), and I had regular outlets through which to bestow my undoubtedly brilliant and precious insights on an eager audience.

Reading my work from those days is now a matter of silencing endless groans of embarrassment, and there are more than a few things I wish I could permanently expunge. But what I really wish is that I’d preserved the admonishments and corrections from (mostly) patient correspondents. I could make copies and forward a parcel to each new writer as they enter their own personal Enlightenment, accelerating the arrival of their own personal Disillusionment.

Most eventually pass through this boastful phase and move on to a truly satisfying era in which excitement and energy are drawn from unknowns, from yet-unsolved mysteries, from new horizons. An unfortunate few remain Parkeresque, driving anchors deep into their epistemological turf, cementing them into permanence, and screaming bloody murder at heathens and apostates who dare question their god-like authority.

And so it was that I prepared for the worst as the following pull quote scrolled past my not-quite-awakened eyes this morning:

Enough about sulfur already. More wines are ruined by filtration.

“Uh-oh,” I fretted. For the author is still young, and occasionally inclined to shout. Keep Reading

[white wines]

White privilege

Wine is getting whiter. The ascendance of white wine as not only the most logical, but the default accompaniment to dining at any level is all but complete.

Sure, there are always exceptions. Some of them are establishment- or cuisine-specific, some of them are national or regional, and of course there are individual holdouts who find the thought of drinking anything they can see through utterly inconceivable. But in defiance of seasonality, and whether amidst gilded formality or tchotchke-littered casualness, wine consumed in quantity (that is, by the bottle) increasingly tends to be white. The reason: it makes a whole lot more sense as an accompaniment to the food.

Keep Reading

[rosso & pet-nat]

Go froth & conquer

The “moment” arrived about ten years ago. Perhaps earlier? Memory’s forever bent by the convex lens of so very many wine glasses. Nor do I remember where, or who…though I have some guesses. I do remember what, though. It was Lini, and as expected it came in red…but it also came in pink, and white. The rosso was disruptive and I wasn’t yet prepared to understand it, the rosato was pleasant enough, but it was the bianco that grappled with my attention.

“Lambrusco comes in white?”

In theory, I’d known this. I’d read the texts, eyes flickering over the allowed expressions in the hilarious anarchy of Italy’s DOCs. Mostly, aside from a very small handful of internationally famous appellations with vaguely restrictive codes (regulations that would be impossible for any self-respecting Italian winemaker to ignore), the “laws” seemed to be the same everywhere. Make it white, pink, red, sparkling, dry, sweet, fortified, aromatized, or really whatever you feel like doing…

But still. “Lambrusco comes in white?”

I drank a lot of that white, over the next few years. As a by-the-glass pour it metastasized all over Boston, where I lived and wrote back then. Why not? It was delicious, and — perhaps more importantly, on the commercial side — it was inexpensive. I occasionally dabbled in the rosato. But the rosso…the rosso…

There lay the actual struggle, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. Keep Reading

Watch out for falling debris

As should be immediately obvious, oenoLogic is under an avalanche of destruction construction. And — funny story — it’s not even called oenoLogic anymore. I was the only person who ever liked that name anyway.

Stay tuned.

Plus c’est la même chose

romulusIt isn’t always necessary to choose a side. In fact, some would argue that the only path to wisdom is in not doing so. Others of a less earnest bent might feel that it’s at least better to retain devil’s advocacy as a rhetorical tool. I’d agree with both, depending on the subject, but add that the most common cause of a lack of surety is the experiential maturity to know what one doesn’t – or cannot – know.

This defense of hesitancy is a prelude to Yet Another Post on natural wine. I think my written record on the subject qualifies me as a vocal advocate, firmly on the “pro-” side (or at least very frequently witnessing for the defense), but that’s not a fully accurate characterization. I think that’s grasped by some who really are fully committed to the cause, who see through the support to the lack of surety within. I have, at times, been accused of a lack of sufficiently strident advocacy…as if this is a bad thing. (That said, I certainly draw more grief from the skeptical, though I usually find that their objections amount to an extended argument with things someone who is not me has claimed.)

It’s true that I do have…worries. Certain areas of non-commitment. And that really makes sense, for my goal isn’t to promote (or condemn) natural wines, it’s to drink better and, perhaps, participate in an open discussion of how natural wine both does and doesn’t fit into that pursuit.

So if it’s useful to have an essay extant in which I say bad things about natural wines to demonstrate my agnosticism, this would be it.

I’ve said this before, but one of the most distasteful things about natural wine — another is actually distasteful natural wine — is the often-messianic surety that surrounds it. And there are some angry messiahs, to whom everything and everyone else (even sometimes within the movement itself) is wrong…for reasons of insufficient purity, insufficient commitment, insufficient science, or a hundred other sensible and lunatic doctrines seemingly invented on the spot. In a way this shouldn’t be surprising, as the movement not only invites, but practically requires, a large percentage of cranks and anti-social, anti-most-everything-else iconoclasts. I mean that much more affectionately than it sounds, but listening to the loudest voices in the movement often requires a good deal of private eye-rolling. Natural wine could – and the irony is not lost – use a good finishing school, in terms of selling its philosophy.

(To which I know the response is going to be: yes, but we don’t care. Fair enough. But there are people who could be convinced, or at least persuaded, were the temperature turned down a little.)

Of vastly greater importance is that the whole issue of biological and chemical flaws is far too blithely handwaved as a matter of personal preference. Not because it’s impossible to enjoy wines with characteristics otherwise considered flaws, but because it’s not clear that they have to be there in the first place. Were all natural wines bretty, or excessively volatile, or ropy, then it would be obvious that this was just an essential condition of the category. But they’re not. There is a very large percentage — I have no idea if it’s a majority or not — of natural wine that’s clean, that’s pure, and (in some cases) ages perfectly well despite limited (or no) added sulfur. A lot of what is regarded as the common baggage of natural winemaking is instead just sloppy, often untutored, winemaking. Certainly this impression is not countered by meeting the winemakers whose wines are chronic sufferers, many of whom seem to insist on doing things at odds with the tenets of basic chemistry.

But there’s another side to the widespread embrace of flaws, and it ties into the third and most distressing problem with natural wine. To contextualize this, let’s step to the other side and consider natural winemaking’s philosophical opposite: industrial winemaking, the goal of which is to produce, via technological means, a thoroughly reliable, predictable, quality product. As bad or good as any given wine might be (for industrialism is practiced in the hallows as much as in the Gallos), the actual hallmark of industrialism is its sameness. This is true whether the wine is a $12 petite sirah littering gas station liquor shelves or a pricey Champagne produced in zillion-bottle quantities that remains inseparable from its own glitzy marketing beast.

One doesn’t have to taste more than a few hundred natural wines before it becomes clear that a rather distressing percentage of them are very, very close cousins. Biochemical “flaws” can be the cause of this — one brett-ridden explosion of volatility is much like another — but there’s a more fundamental sameness. On the red side, one tastes an awful lot of crisp, snappy Beaujolais…except that much of it isn’t from Beaujolais, nor even made from gamay. On the paler end there’s a bit more variety, but a flavor profile akin to Loire chenin dosed with a little skin-contact ribolla gialla is quite ubiquitous. And then there are the orange wines…

(Let me head off the complaints: I’ve tasted scores of orange wines together, and in that context their differences are clear…ish. But no one drinks them that way, and no one ever will. Considered in isolation, only the true outliers really shine through their copper-colored glasses.)

That so many of the reds should be Beaujolais-alikes isn’t all that surprising, considering the heavy imprint of semi-carbonic winemaking on the source material, but I think it’s worth asking: to what end? Do we really need Sicilian frappato, Roussillon grenache, Sierra Foothills syrah, and even Bordelais cabernet to taste like increasingly endless variations on the — admittedly excellent — Lapierre/Breton/et al theme? Where’s the individuality? (And I don’t mean the often excruciating label design.) What, exactly, makes the creative philosophy of all these nearly-identical natural wines different from their nearly-identical industrial opposites? Less frequent use of beard trimmers?

Natural wine is supposed to, among other things, be the ultimate transparency; letting the vine speak with as little interference as possible. It’s patently obvious that wines that taste the same no matter what they’re made of or where they’re from aren’t revelatory of anything except the winemaker’s imprint. That happens to be the core sin of industrial winemaking. There’s no need to replicate it.

How did we end up here? It’s my belief that a lot of natural winemakers and admirers don’t, in their subconscious liver of livers, actually like transparency nearly as much as the idea of it, whereas what they’re really after is the taste. And please, don’t tell me they don’t have a taste. (The exceptions are the stars of the genre, and there are many, but they’re not the subject of this essay. Also, many of their winemakers and importers agree with this complaint, though sometimes only privately.) I don’t mind the fetishization of that taste any more than it truly bothers me to see someone who really, really loves mass-market pinot grigio. Less appealing is the volume of the adoring peloton careening along a merry trail of sameness while all the while crowing about how fundamental and essential their preferred wines are.

So if the industrial fans prefer painstakingly crafted monuments to intention and the frequently-cloned natural wine aficionados crave indifferently crafted monuments to inattention, who’s holding the philosophical high ground? Could it still be the terroirists? The winemakers and drinkers who do in fact philosophically skew towards natural, but would be just as horrified by a Brouilly that tastes like a Morgon as they would a Chilean carmenère that tastes like one.

Is this a call to some sort of action? Not really, no. Natural wine is what it is; or, more accurately, natural wines are what they are, since there remains little agreement on a definition (and given the personal predilections of those involved, I suspect an unwillingness to conform is fundamental to the movement…which is why the easy acceptance of wines that very much conform is so baffling). Perhaps it would be most correct to say that natural wines are what they aren’t and leave it at that.

It’s neither my business nor my interest to tell people how to make, sell, or enjoy wine. To each their own gout…let a hundred brett infections bloom…whatever. But when I’m next accused of fence-straddling and unnecessary contrapuntalism regarding the claims of natural winos, I’ll have a document to point to that explains why.