A passage to insight (New Zealand, pt. 9)

[David Evans Gander]A wrinkle in vine

“How do you go back to the place where everything changed…?” I asked, once, and from that question a travelogue was born. The “place” I had in mind was Milford Sound, on which much more can and will be written many narratives hence, but certainly other interpretations are possible. Here’s one:

“Hello?”

David Evans Gander pokes his head around a doorway. He’s casual in working shorts and shirt, knee-deep in one of those endless tasks that consume every morning, afternoon, and night of a winemaker’s existence. “Just a moment.”

We wait. It’s dark and cool inside, strangely silent outside.

A half-dozen moments later, he re-emerges with bottles in hand, ducks behind the counter of the now-closed winery café (really more of a pizzeria, to the apparent delight of most visitors) to retrieve some glasses, and groups us around a picnic-like table.

“So…how was Stony Batter?”

Rock is their forté

My first day in New Zealand was a bit of a blur. Not so much from jet lag as travel lag, a sense-dulling miasma of displacement and the nasty, filmy feeling of twelve hours of recycled airplane air battling the onrush of a world of new experiences and sensations. Among those sensations was a marvelous little wine – just a glass – shared with Theresa and Sue Courtney at Nourish. I’d spent the morning at Goldwater and Stonyridge, tasting a lot of wines that were – whether better or worse than I’d expected – familiar. But here, at this terrific little bistro, was a glass of sun-filled viognier that rose above all my expectations, especially for this highly cranky grape. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Passage Rock 2001 Viognier (Waiheke Island) – One of the rarest of wine discoveries, a delicious viognier from somewhere other than Condrieu. Not that it tastes like Condrieu. There’s the requisite midpalate fatness, but it’s braced on both sides with excellent acidity and a lovely floral delicacy. Best of all, there’s no alcoholic heat.

Passage Rock. Few wineries I’ve not visited hold a special place in my heart, and none whereat I’ve tasted only one wine. And yet, there was something about that deliciously brief taste of viognier…well, if I ever got back to Waiheke Island, I vowed to visit. To see what it was all about, to get at the heart of the matter…no, I must admit, my aim was more personal: to try to recapture and relive that memory.

Sue talks about our morning while Evans Gander pours the wine and I study our surroundings. Passage Rock would be, in the absence of Stony Batter, the most remote of Waiheke Island’s wineries, and the facilities obviously represent a sort of haphazard expansion; needs-based, rather than designed. And while the vines fanning out from the main buildings replicate a descent to the sea found at our morning visit, it’s a gentler, slower, shallower descent to a much more distant shore. Which only adds to the feeling of isolation.

Soon enough, however, the first wines are in front of us and we’ve work to do.

(Continued here…)

Sheep attack! (New Zealand, pt. 8)

[Stony Batter bottles]Flocking together

A large, flightless mass akin to a colorful heirloom chicken scuttles across the yard, pausing every few feet to investigate a potentially edible morsel. Cliff and I emerge from our apartments at the same time to watch, which only serves to increase the velocity of its scampering and nibbling.

“It’s a weka, I reckon,” opines Cliff.

Swans, geese, ducks and gulls congregate in multiracial harmony on a beach that adjoins the Matiatia ferry wharf. Neither begging food from passersby nor twitching in fear from same, they bask in the sun, preening and squalling as the ferry noisily chugs, groans, and squeaks into its berth. Our guests have arrived.

A not-so-stealthy and rather ridiculous-looking black, blue, and white bird with a vivid orange beak and grossly un-proportionate legs stumbles around the roadside, occasionally veering onto our already too-narrow road. Were there ever need for a visual link between the bird and the dinosaur, this sight would settle all doubts. We slow down, then swerve as best we can to miss it, but it seems not-at-all put out by the cloud of dust that now encompasses it. Neil Courtney, concise as ever, answers my unspoken query: “pukeko.”

New Zealand is for the birds

Stony dancer

It’s a sunny, hot day on Waiheke Island, though cooling ocean breezes keep the temperature just a shade short of uncomfortable. We’ve picked up Auckland-area wine writer Sue Courtney and her husband Neil for a day of wine tasting, a reversal of our usual arrangement (in which they cart us around mainland wine regions), and definitely some sort of payback for Sue’s guidance on our previous visit. That is, assuming the Americans’ driving on remote gravel roads through the wilds of Waiheke doesn’t give them both premature heart attacks. I do note that Sue’s breath seems a little quicker than usual, though Neil is his usual stoic self.

Sue’s arranged for us to start our day with a tour at the reclusive and remote Stony Batter winery, and it’s impossible to turn down the opportunity. Built on the massive expanse of an historic reserve better known for its old gun emplacements and tunnels, Stony Batter is less a winery than a all-encompassing agricultural project that covers a rather large percentage of the northeastern quadrant of the island, a project unlike any other on Waiheke. The owner, apparently an unimaginably wealthy gent, has an obvious desire for privacy (the entrance to the reserve is blocked by a forbidding gate, though through apparent negotiation hikers are once more allowed on the property as long as they don’t touch, look at, smell or otherwise offend the vines), but has equally obviously spared no expense in covering the area with a crazy-quilt of experimental vineyards.

(Continued here…)

Whites only (New Zealand, pt. 7)

Ask not what your winery can do for you…

The aquamarine rippling of the Hauraki Gulf throws shadows and highlights onto the trees below us. A breeze gently ruffles the leaves, then stills, freshening the quiet air but leaving nothing but memory in its wake. I hold up my glass of sauvignon blanc, which shines bright and clear in the sunlight, and take a deep, luxurious sniff. All is right with the world.

Though not quite as much is right with the wines.

We’re on the patio at Kennedy Point, looking down a rather precipitous cliff to the ocean, and working through a tasting conducted by a friendly young Californian. But after the sauvignon blanc, I’m afraid it’s all as downhill as the below-patio slope.

(Continued here…)

Dining review: No. 9 Park (Boston, Massachusetts)

What makes No. 9 Park the best restaurant in Boston?

Everything.

The first few times I dined at No. 9, I wasn’t impressed. (These were free lunches dinners, paid for by various wine entities.) The food was too restrained, the atmosphere a little too stuffy, and the then-new restaurant had yet to achieve a comfort level; everyone seemed to be trying so hard, to so little effect. But it didn’t take long for my impression to change, and I think it paralleled some sort of final confidence hurdle at the restaurant. Suddenly, “restraint” was understated brilliance. The service was no longer stuffy, but as formal or relaxed as the diner preferred…and the adjustment was made with that amazing sort of ESP that the best waitstaff possesses. And the wine list, full of brilliant moments without consistency in the first few months, found its groove.

Those who seek a culinary experience with a strong “wow” factor usually do not, and probably never will, like No. 9. Chef Lynch will occasionally hit on a particular flavor combination with surprising palate impact, but her true skill is in drawing forth the fundamental essence of ingredients, then blending them in subtle ways; familiar enough to be comforting, but deft enough to entice. It’s not “exciting” cuisine, and it’s certainly not trendy, but it is the practiced art of excellence. Influences are pan-European and American, but most clearly Italian, and Lynch’s great affection for pasta is frequently put to good use (just try to resist the special offerings during white truffle season)

The décor is subdued, riding a line between “formal” and “power” (the latter may derive from the restaurant’s next-door proximity to the State House) but without frills; a simple space that calms. Sound is absorbed well in the side and rear dining rooms, though the bar (open for drop-in business, with a more limited menu available) can be noisier. As for price…it is by no means an inexpensive restaurant. I feel that it’s well worth the tariff, and one can easily eat more cheaply in the bar or by careful wine selections (see below), but the full No. 9 experience is best supported by a willingness to spend what’s required.

Special mention must be made of the wine list. Wine director Cat Silirie has done something rather remarkable for a restaurant of this caliber and at this price point. There are few big-ticket Bordeaux and only a small handful of big-name California cabernets. Instead, Silirie pursues her love of crisper, more aromatic wines – riesling, grüner veltliner, chenin blanc, nebbiolo, gamay and…most of all…pinot noir – whose elegance and delicacy is a much better match with the food. Further, she has a keen eye for value, and the prices on this list are far, far cheaper than one would ever expect. One way she achieves this is through careful and extensive tastings of wines from what would otherwise be mindlessly-rejected off-vintages; Silirie finds the overachievers in each region and puts them on her list, giving her diners early-maturing wines from fantastic terroirs at much-lowered prices. Silirie remains one of the very few restaurant wine people anywhere to whom I will cede the selection of wines. The level of recommendation that implies cannot be overstated.

(Continued here…)

Dining review: Tamarind Bay (Cambridge, Massachusetts)

Boston, Cambridge and environs have a lot of Indian restaurants. Probably too many; while few are actively bad, almost none are actually interesting. Some have vague specialties or regions of influence, some have better (or worse) décor, and many rest too comfortably on a constant inflow of student-heavy business. Until recently, the best Indian food in the Boston area was – somewhat inexplicably – in the white bread suburb of Arlington, at Punjab. But while Punjab achieved superiority though better flavors and spicing (and the occasional introduction of a slight digression on tried-and-true dishes), it broke little new ground.

Then Tamarind Bay came along, and changed everything.

Not only is the menu full of exciting new dishes (that is, “new” in the local context; places like London have had this level of cooking for ages), but the cooked-to-order nature of things at Tamarind Bay makes everything several orders of magnitude more vivid and intense. (Obviously, “cooked to order” means something different in an Indian restaurant than, say, a French joint…but the key is flavor bases that aren’t merely repurposed from dish to dish, and an actual attempt to work as to-the-moment as one can given the cuisine.) Plus, there’s even a decent little wine list – try the Sula Chenin Blanc from, of all places, India – and a nice selection of digestifs, which is almost unheard of at Indian restaurants.

Tamarind Bay is probably most adept with tandoori cookery (which also means many of their breads are top-notch), but after working my way through a rather large portion of the menu, my two favorite dishes remain the appetizer-sized chotta bhutta kali mirch (baby corn coated with a zingy black pepper sauce and served with an intensely-infused olive oil) and the transcendant lalla mussa dal (black lentils slow-cooked with spices to an almost unbelievable complexity of flavor and texture).

The downstairs location is a touch claustrophobic, but the space is a notch more elegant than most Indian restaurants (save, perhaps, Kashmir on its better days). This is a restaurant that deserves even more patronage than it already receives.

Man and machete (New Zealand, pt. 6)

[Stonyridge vineyard]

A cut below

A sweaty man with a machete approaches us. Bits of vegetation cling to the honed edge of the machete, and the bright midday sun sparkles on his sunglasses (and the beads of perspiration that surround them).

“Martin?” We eye the machete warily.

“Yeah. I’ll be right up. One more row.” He retreats, putting blade to leaf with a practiced vengeance. We shrug, return to our lunch, and wonder if he might not prefer to shower before he joins us. But hey…his giant knife, his call.

Nibbles and sips

We’re sitting on the restaurant patio at Stonyridge Vineyards, nibbling on a fantastic assortment of appetizers – raw tuna, green-lipped mussels, fairly decent local cheeses, slab bacon, something that may or may not be prosciutto but possesses all of its qualities – and waiting for someone from the winery to join us for lunch and a short tasting. Proprietor Stephen White was supposed to be our guide, as he was last time we visited, but he’s caught in a net of red tape on the mainland, trying to acquire an Indian visa, and so we’ve been passed to the actual winemaker of record.

Stonyridge is widely considered the best of Waiheke Island’s ever-emergent wine industry, though there are some relatively new contenders…and, as one might expect, a few naysayers. The dominant complaints seem to be that the wines are too expensive (or at least too expensive for the value they represent), and the always-classic “the wines aren’t what they used to be.” We’ve returned after a few years’ absence to see if we can justify or refute any of those complaints, though of course our experience is no substitute for years of careful tasting.

With our platter of goodies, we sample a few glasses of wine from the café’s rather extensive (Stonyridge-produced) wine list:

Stonyridge 2003 Riesling (Marlborough) – Crisp green apple, ripe melon, quartzy minerality and great acidity. A little underripe on the finish, but there’s striking fullness and length to this wine, plus a gorgeous balance; the minor sin of mild greenness can be forgiven. It’s not a delicate riesling, however.

Stonyridge 2004 Chardonnay Church Bay (Waiheke Island) – Balanced and soft, with oak-infused stone fruit. Pretty, but…well, chardonnay is chardonnay, and it takes a real effort to distinguish one from another. It’s pleasant, but no more.

A sizzling slab of flavorful and wonderfully rare beef arrives, accompanied by a decidedly Provençal-styled variation on ragout. Just as I’m threatening my ex-cow with the steely blade of a knife, winemaker Martin McKenzie appears tableside. Without his machete, praise Bacchus.

(Continued here…)

The ethics of wine criticism

Wine writers are not doctors, lawyers, accountants or politicians, so any discussion of ethics is of an import several orders of magnitude below its more crucial applications. Nonetheless, ethical considerations do play a role in shaping the personality and work of a writer – and, especially, a critic – and those considerations are worth exploring in some detail.

Are ethics necessary?

On its face, it seems a silly question; of course ethics are important. But it’s worth asking: are they really? Is anyone truly harmed by an unethical wine writer?

Leaving aside the issue of the writer’s own karma, the answer is: not much, unless the writer is both unethical and malicious. To the otherwise-unarmed-with-context consumer of wine writing, there’s no functional difference in negative outcome between information based on inethics and information based on ignorance; both are entropic within the greater context of wine, but I would suggest that the latter is a much, much greater problem than the former. A parallel argument concludes with a similar lack of damage to the subject of the writing in question; again barring the presence of actual malice, ignorance and inethics are inseparably entropic. There are multiple paths to foolishness, but in the end one is still a fool.

What ethics instead provide are a framework for battling back the two actual dangers of unethical writing: malice (momentary or predetermined), and the purchased writer. Battling back, that is, but not eliminating. Human nature is such that any writer, no matter how self-professedly ethical, is subject to momentary (though recoverable) failure at any time. This is not something we should concern ourselves with overmuch, as writers remain human and subject to the accordant frailties. To expect writers to be otherwise is to desire the impossible. What should be expected is a thoughtful and open examination of ethics and consequences on the part of a writer, and frequent re-examination thereof…especially on the occasion of a lapse.

Ethics vs. responsibility

Ethics, as framed by the consumer of wine writing, are often characterized as responsibilities: the duties of the writer to his or her readers. This is a limited and ultimately incorrect view, but since it exists it is necessary to address it.

All that a writer is really responsible for are the fundamental necessities of wine writing. Consumers of wine writing are responsible for their own expectations, though of course a writer who fails to meet enough consumers’ expectations is going to be an unsuccessful writer. A writer is not responsible for the individual ethical beliefs of consumers, primarily because such standards are myriad and frequently contradictory, and secondarily because the adoption of external ethics is a poor substitute for thoughtfully-conceived personal ethics in which the writer actually believes. A writer who is primarily responsive to the external ethics of consumers will be a writer who is forever on the defensive, forever explaining and disclaiming and arguing until the writer’s own ethics are deformed by the debate itself.

A better term for what must exist in the writer-consumer relationship is trust. A consumer must trust that a writer is informed by their own ethics, and a writer must do as little as possible to strain that trust.

“The appearance of impropriety”

Formal ethical codes, and certainly those so often applied to journalists, place great importance on the external. This is done for a theoretically wise reason: institutional trust in journalism is predicated on the consumer’s assumed belief that the motivations of journalism are ultimately noble and separated from the baser passions. As a society we desire a free press, but as individual humans we are uncomfortable with the anarchy of true freedom, and distrustful of any class or group that seems to exercise it. We want journalists to abide by rigid codes of ethics because we ourselves live under various collections of codes and laws, and thus have difficulty relating to or accepting those who operate with potentially unlimited freedom. We say that ethical codes free journalists from a quagmire, but what they really do is tie their hands in a way that seems beneficial to the rest of us.

On the other hand, we can all see how well this is working out for journalists. Only politicians (who have their own extensive set of ethical guidelines, oh-so-closely followed) are viewed with more suspicion and mistrust. To repeat what I see as the key issue: the problem with external codes is that they are not fundamental to the writer. They work to eliminate environments for impropriety, but they do not address the desire for impropriety. Only a personal code can do that.

The concept of “appearance” as the problematic factor is, in itself, a widely-held and endlessly-repeated fallacy. Certainly what matters is the actual impropriety, not whatever public face one does or does not put on it. Focusing on mere appearance encourages a secretive environment of non-disclosure, which is no good for the consumer or the writer. And, as has so often been noted through scandal after scandal, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up that pushes people beyond redemption. Fair consumers can forgive admitted impropriety. What they’ll rarely forgive is an ongoing attempt to hide it.

Ethics, then, must discard the baggage of externally-applied expectations of responsibility and a misguided focus on appearances, and concentrate on core fundamentals, which can be summed up in four questions:

  1. What is fair?
  2. What is right?
  3. What is truthful?
  4. How do fairness, rightness, and truth serve the aims of the writer, the consumer, and wine writing in general?

Ethical dilemmas in wine writing

Some problematic ethical areas are specific to a genre of criticism. Some are specific to journalism in general. None, however, are specific only to wine writing; what’s important is identifying the commonalities and differences between different subfields of these practices, and discerning what’s sensible in the specific discipline of wine writing. Herein, an attempt (subject to future expansion).

bias

Freedom from bias is both impossible and undesirable. This point is greatly expanded-upon here and here.

truth-telling

It is manifestly unwise for a writer to make things up. It is even more unwise to deliberately employ mistruth in the service of an argument that could not otherwise be supported. Fictionalization for the purposes of entertainment is fine as long as the practice is obvious and transparent to the reader, but any intrusion of fiction into informational or critical practice is a betrayal of the necessary trust between writer and consumer.

If a truth is negative, this does not preclude or mitigate its importance. It’s understandable if a writer wants to avoid negativity altogether, but it lessens the importance of the writing, it lessens the contribution of such writing to the general subject wine, and it leads to dangerous opportunities for the replacement of negativity with untruth. This latter impulse, especially, must be fought.

judgment with (or without) expertise

Bafflingly to some, this is not an ethical concern, but a practical and professional one. Without question, it is preferable for a writer – and especially a critic – to possess contextual expertise before issuing judgment or characterization. It is not unethical for a writer who lacks such context to do so. It is merely silly and unrewarding in its extreme forms, and of limited utility in its milder forms.

completeness

This, too, is not an ethical concern, but one of practice and professionalism. What it means is that many – consumers, occasionally, but more often producers and those who move or sell wine – want writers to have wide and deep experience with any given subject, and to have that experience shared to its fullest extent. But there remains no ethical obligation of context or expertise, and if someone who has never tasted a Bordeaux wants to issue an opinion on Bordeaux based on an insufficiently large sample, that is their right undiminished by ethical concerns. Again, however, it is poor practice and of minimal or no utility.

free samples

Of all the ethical bugaboos that plague wine writers, the issue of free samples – their existence, their acceptance, and their use – is the one that simply will not go away. This is so because certain high-profile wine critics make a great and trumpeting noise about them, drawing bright, clear lines between themselves and the allegedly unethical masses who do not adhere to their particular practices. This is unfortunate, for even a cursory examination of the issue shows that much of the debate over the inethics of samples depends on the selective use and misuse of definitions.

A free sample is just what it seems to be: wine not paid for by the writer, with the implied corollary that such wine would require monetary compensation were the receiver not a writer. Wineries and the entities that represent them supply samples for the obvious reasons: exposure and coverage. Yet a sample takes many forms, and too often some of those forms are dismissed (as inconvenient) by those who which to paint themselves as ethical paragons.

Unquestionably, a free bottle of wine is a free sample. This applies whether the bottle is opened or closed. It applies whether the bottle is shipped to the writer’s home or office, or handed to the writer by someone else. It applies whether it is poured in a convention center by an importer or distributor, by a retailer in a store, by a sommelier in a restaurant, by a winemaker or waiter at a special wine-related meal, by a tasting room employee at a winery, or in fact by anyone else, anywhere, for any reason not caused by transfer of money equal to the wine’s value from writer to provider. But it doesn’t end there. A glass, a pour, or a barrel sample at any press & trade event, winery tour, or one-on-one meeting is also a free sample; these events are seldom completely open to the public, not all wines are willingly poured for those outside the trade and press, and the level of access required for such opportunities is rarely similar to that enjoyed by the general public.

So, for example, is it correct for a writer who tastes barrel samples at wineries to claim that they do not accept free samples? Only if each and every barrel sample would be equally available to any member of the general public, and if the writer compensates the winery for those samples. Since this is rarely (never is more likely) the case, the answer should be: no, it is not. Similarly, is a writer who has region-wide tastings in a hotel room organized for them (and paid for by someone other than the writer) free of the “taint” of samples? No. For a writer to claim they do not accept free samples, the writer must pay for each and every drop of wine that passes their lips (an exception may, but very probably shouldn’t, be made for pours provided by family and friends if those wines are then the subject of later commentary). While I am open to correction on this point, I do not know any wine writer who meets the purest form of this criterion. Not one.

Obviously, a core issue is that it is very difficult for any other than the extremely wealthy to practice informed criticism in this fashion (which leads to several fundamental difficulties; see the essay on independence for a careful expansion of this point). For some writers, the way out of this dilemma is to differentiate between modes of acquisition. A writer may choose to not solicit samples – that is, to not request them – but to accept those that are freely offered. Alternatively, a writer may choose to accept samples only in certain forms: yes to press/trade tastings, no to winemaker dinners or shipped bottles, etc. Obviously, at this point the writer has abandoned any pretext on which to deny that they accept samples (no matter how much they may protest to the contrary), and is simply picking and choosing among associated ethical challenges (special access, free food) that accompany the wine itself. On this, see below.

Ultimately, the hue and cry over the existence of samples can fairly easily be shown to be a vast forest of misapprehension among consumers, grown from seeds of distrust planted by allegedly well-meaning but misleading writers who wish to highlight their ethics in opposition to others. This is an unfortunate situation. None of this is to say that the question of samples is not important, merely that it is in no way as significant as it is made out to be by certain self-aggrandizing critics.

other forms of largesse

Wine writers enjoy – if they wish to – all manner of invitations to special access and complimentary booty associated with the world of wine. Access can range from simple distributor- or importer-arranged tastings to which press and trade are invited, to lunches and dinners hosted by sales representatives or winemakers, to exclusive and rare tastings in the cellars of famously private wineries. Food is a frequent accompaniment to such events. Gifts of wine-related tchotchkes are not uncommon. And, of course, everything up to and including the much-maligned junket is available to the writer who wishes to take advantage of such opportunities.

As with samples, bright lines are hard to draw. Writers who claim to reject hosted wine dinners can often be seen nibbling on the snack trays at larger press & trade tastings, rendering their professed standards merely a matter of price and formality, not of principle. Some writers accept gifts of wine but not of, say, t-shirts; others practice the opposite standard. Junkets are particularly problematic; the nearly unparalleled opportunities for education are usually coupled with a clear and obvious expectation of positive follow-up coverage flowing from such a large expenditure, and there are enough writers that those who host such trips can afford to sift for the pliable.

All of this, however, is cause and not effect. Again, surely the crucial issue is not the form or the value of the gift itself, but the result of the gift, and how it affects the writer’s subject, approach, and conclusions. Ethical codes that focus on the former are really trying to address the latter. Yet the potential for abuse does not inherently flow from the gift, but from the inethics of the writer, and so removing the gift does nothing to modify or combat the ethical failings that produce potential abuse. In fact, it may make it easier to hide abuse under a veneer of ethical behavior. Again, we return to the material difference between appearances and actual ethics; one matters, the other is simply window-dressing.

anonymity

The cult of critical anonymity worships principally in the restaurant world, but because wine is so often associated with food, some adherents to the cult have turned their attention to wine criticism and demanded similar practices. This is a mistake.

Wine is not like a restaurant meal, where the key factors that shape it can be modified at will and in the moment. Wine – with one exception, which will be covered in a moment – is a fixed product…bottled, sealed, and inalterable by any monetarily-involved entity thereafter (except negatively, as with a distributor who doesn’t protect their wines from the damaging effects of heat). In this, it is like a CD or a toaster oven, the criticism of which requires no anonymity on the part of the critic, and the criticism of which carries no expectation of anonymity from the consumer. That is the methodology that should apply to wine criticism.

The one exception is, of course, before a wine is contained within a sealed container. A barrel sample – thieved straight from the barrel or contained within a temporary receptacle – can indeed be altered by an entity sufficiently inclined to do so. (To be completist on this point, this exception could also apply to bottled wine especially produced for critical review; that is, not part of the regular for-sale production line.) The potential abuse is in the power of the entity providing such a sample to misrepresent the product under consideration. A winemaker can pour the best among multiple potential samples, or pour an entirely different wine, for example. More nefariously, they could provide a specially-concocted sample tailored to a critic’s known biases. (A few – very few – critics angrily insist that such “critics’ cuvées” don’t exist. Usually, those critics are those with the most to lose if their judgments are called into question, or perhaps they are merely willfully naïve. In any case, the key point as it relates to a discussion of ethics is not whether or not these doctored samples exist, but that they can exist, and their potential existence applies to the only instance where critical anonymity may in fact be preferable.) There’s really no defense against this tactic except vigilance, and the annoyances of anonymity are well beyond the slight protection it would provide for all but a tiny minority of very famous writers, for whom it is almost certainly too late.

independence

It may be seen that all of these potential ethical dilemmas hinge solely on the ability of the writer to assess and manage potential corrupting influences. The goal of formal codes of ethics is to enforce independence – to forcefully separate the writer from their subject – in order to maintain the aforementioned appearance of impropriety. But, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, the important word in that phrase is not “appearance,” but “impropriety.” And while it is not enough to simply declare one’s independence (all too often, this is presented as a misguided synonym for objectivity), the path of trust between writer and consumer can only be walked by the writer who puts into actual practice a code of ethics that create a recognizable shield of independence. And on that subject, we leave the realm of ethics and enter the difficult, but real, world of methodology.

A well-oiled oyster (New Zealand pt. 5)

Pressed for time

It’s a rare traveler in wine country that will be able to avoid the lure of another ubiquitous dangling fruit: the olive. Wherever there are grape presses, there tend to be olive presses (save in the coldest of viticultural climes), and one of the most delicious accompaniments to the blood of the vine is the essence of the olive, extracted into viscous, greenish-gold sunlight.

At the lower end of the twisty, hill-ascending road that leads to our villa, Rangihoua Estate is an irresistible drop-in visit. We’re just a bit early for proper business hours, but the door’s open, and proprietress Anne Sayles finishes up a bit of backstage work and sets up an interesting tasting for us, featuring the estate’s four extra-virgin oils (two varietals and two blends), some delicious local bread which she warms in an oven, and a snacky preparation of cured and citrus-enhanced olives. Having done a little bit of professional olive oil evaluation, I always find the process fascinating in comparison to wine tasting. The functional similarities are obvious, but the descriptive palette is completely different, and there’s an inherent limitation on the exercise itself which doesn’t usually apply to the world of professionally-expectorated wine: only the strong of stomach can endure more than a few ounces of swallowed oil.

Rangihoua is, itself, a solution to a problem: what to do with the olives on the Stonyridge winery property that were, year after year, simply falling to the ground? Anne, then a Stonyridge employee, and her husband Colin decided to make a go of oil production (with a little bit of a nudge from Colin’s stint in Tuscany), and just a few years later are making oils that are gathering quite a bit of national attention, and even the first stirrings of international interest. Their olive sources are primarily 1000 or so trees near the property (including the aforementioned Stonyridge groves), supplemented with plantings all over Waiheke Island.

Rangihoua Estate 2004 Koreineki (Waiheke Island) – Smooth and silky, showing apple notes and a light, almost tannic bite on the finish. A pretty oil.

Rangihoua Estate 2004 “Waiheke Blend” (Waiheke Island) – Zingy, raw olive flavor with some midpalate bitterness and a brisk, sharp finish.

Rangihoua Estate 2004 Picual (Waiheke Island) – Peppered celery and a green, chlorophyll character with lemon rind and an undercurrent of minerality. Really striking and individualistic; our favorite of the bunch.

Rangihoua Estate 2004 “Stonyridge Blend” (Waiheke Island) – Raw peanut, pine nut, and more “oily” than the previous three, with a high-toned finish. This would seem to need food to tame its wilder qualities.

Anne, eventually joined by Colin, gives us a brief tour of their clean, modern facility, which has – and will probably need, given current trends – plenty of room for future expansion. We leave with a pair of oils and some of the olive mixture, weaving our way through a maze of ducks (different breeds, all of them) wandering the expansive yard and parking lot.

A moldy digression

Bread, wine, cheese and olive oil: the holy quadrity of Mediterranean staples. On the other side of the world, New Zealand needs a little help with two of them.

(Continued here…)

Down with big pinots!

It’s time to say it as clearly as possible: big pinot noirs must be eradicated from the earth.

No longer is it enough to embrace them as some sort of “alternative expression” of wine. No longer will their misguided individuality be tolerated. No longer will the excuse that they are “representative of their place” be permitted. No longer can wine lovers everywhere sit idly by while something they’ve paid a lot of money for is rendered utterly useless by the misdirected dabblings of their producers.

Why have we reached this point of conflict? It’s simple: the super-sized pinot has infected the home soil, the motherland, the cradle of civilization. Outsized pinots have now worked their insidious evil in Burgundy itself. Burgundy! Imagine!

Oh, sure, I hear what you winemakers are thinking. “Who are you to say what I should do with my pinot?” Well, Mr. Arrogant Winemaker Dude (or Chick), I am the representative of wine lovers everywhere, who will no longer tolerate these abusive horrors of modern technology that waste our time and our money. We have had enough, and we demand change! Smaller pinots, now!!

Why, just last night, I took one of these monstrosities from a box. Try as I might, I could not encompass its fat-bellied girth. No food, no apéritif, no amount of mitigating technology could reduce its size. I pushed, and wiggled, and bent…but it simply would not fit in any part of the cellar.

Wait, you thought I was talking about the wine? No, no…

It’s the bottle size. Damn it, these things are way too big. What are we supposed to do with these keg-shaped monstrosities, anyway? They don’t fit in wine racks…or if they do, they tilt and slide into precarious positions, their flabby midsections intruding into nearby slots and rendering them equally unusable. They don’t stack, because there’s not a flat surface anywhere on the bottle. And lifting a dozen of them is all it takes to give your average oenophile a permanent wrist injury. What are they made of, lead crystal instead of glass?

Sure, there are occasional producers elsewhere who use oversized bottles. Huet. Turley. Others. But in the world of pinot noir, the disease has grown beyond spot infections into a full-blown plague. Next thing you know, we’ll have 750ml wines in 1.5L bottles, with a solid half of the total volume made up of hand-crafted stained glass studded with lead weights; $30 for the wine, $125 for the bottle, 75 pounds each and in the shape of a llama. People will need forklifts to move a case from their car to their cellar, and retailers everywhere will be nursing spinal injuries. Cellars will start to resemble glass topiary. And Wine Spectator will have a whole new thing to photograph.

It has to end, I tell you! Join me now in eradicating the scourge that is destroying a grape we love.

Down with big pinots!

Bias

Bias is a difficult subject among critics, because the word carries a lot of negative baggage that most would prefer to avoid. But understanding the concept and its fundamental role in criticism is vital to a successful dialogue between critic and consumer.

Bias is natural

All humans have biases. Those that claim to be free of bias are either remarkably self-unaware or attempting to con their audience. How can the fundamental human trait of preference be abandoned just because one puts finger to keyboard?

Bias is good

That fact-focused reportage exists is good. That opinionated reportage exists is also good. The important thing, always, is that bias be open and acknowledged; little is more dangerous to the truth than stealth (or worse, denied) bias.

Criticism cannot, by its very nature, help but be stuffed to the gills with bias. After all, criticism is a statement of opinion, and opinions are shaped by personal experience and personal preference in equal measure. Critics must accept, reveal, and revel in their biases…and audiences must accept and correctly interpret those biases. Only in this fashion can a useful communication of ideas transpire between critic and audient.

Critics must confront their biases in a constant process of reexamination. An absence of questioning is the calcification of bias into ignorance.

What critics must not do is pretend they are free of bias…or worse, claim that their biases are objective truth. The more authoritative a critic becomes, the greater this danger, and the more it must be guarded against; not only by the critic, but also by a wary audience. Beware the critic who decries others preferences while holding their own immutable. They have lost their way.

Bias is personal

I do not pretend that it is possible to iterate all potential biases, for I do not believe it is possible to know all the inner workings of one’s mind. Nonetheless, there are biases that are clear and known to me, and I think it best to reveal them here. Readers should consider these biases the context under which all my writing – critical and otherwise – should be considered.

I believe very strongly in the importance of terroir, and will nearly always prefer wines that are of their place to wines that are not.

Native grape varieties are preferred to imported and “international” grape varieties, because tradition and diversity are valuable (though not all-important), and because safe choices are too often boring ones.

Minimal intervention is preferable to deformative intervention. It is unquestionably true that there is no such thing as non-interventionist, but it is equally unquestionable that there are degrees of intervention.

Ripeness is not a goal without limit. Nor am I afraid of green aromas in wines. Underripeness is no estimable goal, but “riper” is not a synonym for “better.”

Wine is just a beverage, wine is a product of agriculture and chemistry, and wine is a work of art. I do not consider those statements to be in conflict.

Extreme levels of anything are off-putting. I am severe averse to obscene levels of alcohol, fruit, and oak. I am somewhat averse to obscene levels of tannin and acid. I am indifferent to the presence of residual sugar, pending a consideration of the wine’s balance. Conversely, I am extremely averse to the absence of acid, and not at all averse to the absence of anything else.

The complexity of mature wines is, when achievable, preferable to the exuberance of youthful wines. This does not mean that I don’t like youthful exuberance, only that I find my emotional and intellectual responses to it inherently limited. Nonetheless, the majority of the wine I drink is youthful and, in some measure, exuberant.

Sweet wines are better if they have balancing acidity. I tend to prefer sweet wines unmarked by new oak aromas, but there are exceptions to this tendency.

I am strongly predisposed towards earthy and mineral characteristics.

I am particularly sensitive to volatile acidity, though I’m not against it in all cases. The greatest consequence is that I have a fairly strong adverse reaction to certain wines rife with it (e.g. traditional Amarone or Madeira).

I am not averse to mild levels of brett, but will soon tire of a wine overwhelmed by it.

I am somewhat put off by strong new oak influence, though there are exceptions.

Winemakers should produce the wine their terroir indicates rather than practice deformations to conform to a style, when and where possible. Corollary to this is the acknowledgment that not all grapes and techniques are equally-suited to all terroirs, and the mere physical ability to grow a variety or make a style is not, by itself, an unquestionable endorsement to proceed.

Complexity is almost always preferable to power. Power, by itself, is boring.

Grapes have characteristics that should be respected. Terroirs have characteristics that should be respected. Winemakers have signatures that should be respected. However, the best winemakers subvert their desire for respect to the demands of grape and terroir.

“All that matters is that it tastes good” is a simple-minded way of approaching wine appreciation, and of no utility when it forms the foundation of criticism.

A wine that requires food to show its full quality is not inherently less good than a wine that is complete when consumed by itself. (It is not inherently better, either.)

Winemaking techniques designed to mitigate deficiencies in the source material are to be viewed with suspicion if their use is the rule rather than the exception. None invalidate the resulting wine, but at some point they become fundamentally deformative.

The better-funded the winery, the greater the responsibility for producing quality wine.

Changing a wine’s style to fit the vagaries of fashion or the tastes of powerful critics is an understandable reaction – bankruptcy and starvation are not estimable goals for winemakers, and philosophical purity doesn’t pay the bills – but this rarely leads to a superior product, and contributes to the entropic decay of wine as an essentially natural product (that is, a literal product of nature).

I adore many natural wines and the lack of process that leads to them, but am weary of indifference to flaws and deeply suspicious of anti-scientific ideologies. I also don’t understand the purpose of a “natural” winemaking that allows so many different grapes and places to taste the same. The homogeneity of industrial wine a bad thing; homogeneity is no more admirable because it’s uninoculated.

“The hand” (the influence of man) is more important than “the land” (natural factors) in determining a wine’s character, but the best wines reveal more of the latter than the former.

Wine can be fun. Wine can be serious. Wine can be mindless. Wine can make you think. Wine can make you feel. The best wines are those that embrace more, rather than fewer, of these concepts.