October 6, 2013
Someone needs to sign Peter Tseng for a reality television show. We’re introduced to him about 35 minutes into the new documentary Red Obsession, as he lights up a pipe and walks filmmakers through his anal-retentively neat cellar and its enviable holdings of (what else?) Château Lafite-Rothschild. “I have bottles of Château Lafite everywhere,” he laughs, “in the dining room, in my office, even in my bedroom.” I must admit: Like many people who’ve been priced out of Lafite for several years now, I have cursed the Chinese billionaires who drove its prices to unprecedented heights for no apparent reason other than a vague perception of Lafite as “the best of the best.” But Mr. Tseng is such a wonderful caricature that it’s hard to hold a grudge. With his Sherlock Holmes pipe, Bond-villain cat, and sideburned, mustachioed visage, his screen personality seems a roughly equal admixture of Hugh Hefner and a boss in a kung-fu movie. The Hefneresque aura is enhanced by the fact that he made his fortune in what the narration calls “the pleasure business,” and his infectious laughter suggests that the absurdity of becoming one of the richest men in the world from a dildo empire is not lost on him. “When I was younger, I preferred sex,” he chuckles, “but as I get older, I prefer wine.”
Red Obsession is a story in three parts. The Chinese billionaires don’t come in until the second act. The film opens with a time-lapse shot of Médoc vineyard plains as a cloud cover rolls in. From there, it interpolates some of the most breathtaking vineyard cinematography ever filmed with interviews from Bordeaux VIPs such as Petrus’s Christian Moueix, Palmer’s Thomas Duroux, and Paul Pontallier (et fils) from Château Margaux, each of whom attempts to articulate just what it is that has made Bordeaux the gold standard in wine over the last several centuries. That’s familiar marketing spin, of course, but some of them, particularly Moueix, come across genuinely passionate. It’s a passion that seems easy to share as one absorbs the imagery: Bordeaux has never looked this beautiful, even in person. Shots of Château Lafite from the same vantage point as its iconic label seem quite literally to bring the scene to life; the effect seems like what I imagine it must have felt like for a generation of silver-screen moviegoers to see black-and-white turn to technicolor for the first time in the Wizard of Oz. With its time-lapse sequences, aerial panoramas, and radiant landscapes, it struck me that the vineyard cinematography itself was enough to carry the film. Cut out the interviews, add a Philip Glass soundtrack, and it could pass for an installment of Godfrey Reggio’s ’Qatsi trilogy.
I actually wonder if an homage might have been specifically intended, because it isn’t just the imagery that reminds me of Koyaanisqatsi‘s “life out of balance,” but a good part of the narrative arc, too. In Koyaanisqatsi, serene desert landscapes ultimately segue into scenes of monolithic skyscrapers and soul-crushing urbanity, most powerfully in a sequence where Glass’s “The Grid”—essentially twenty minutes of building adrenaline—plays over time-lapse reels of thousands of office workers endlessly churning through congested streets and subway turnstiles in filthy pre-Giuliani Manhattan. In Red Obsession, the second act begins with a transition from pastoral Bordeaux to modern Beijing, dramatized by a time-lapse shot of a thirty-story skyscraper being erected in a mere 15 days.
The ChiComs had to be dragged kicking and screaming into modern civilization but having gotten there they are apparently determined not to be outdone by anybody. They are now enjoying a bender of economic growth that has produced literally too many billionaires to count. The inevitable result is a lot of conspicuous consumption and kitsch, which Red Obsession portrays honestly, but also somewhat sympathetically, nodding to the historical context. “If they have lived through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution,” remarks wine writer Ch’ng Poh Tiong, “this means they’ve gone to hell and come back.” So they have earned the right to enjoy their billions.
Nevertheless, the film does leave a certain irony about this chain of events unacknowledged and unexplored. The Cultural Revolution went even further than the rest of history’s many spectacularly failed experiments in communism and became a mass pogrom against every aspect of China’s culture that was not explicitly Maoist, including both its own traditions as well as any semblance of Western influence. Suffice to say that possessing a bottle of Lafite would certainly have qualified as “counter-revolutionary.” Yet the same Party with the purges of the Cultural Revolution on its résumé is presiding over the minting of nouveau riche capitalists fixated on Lafite and Prada and Gucci and, for that matter, any other brand in the world with the trappings of Western European luxury. “Wine now is a new Silk Road,” remarks one Chinese wine merchant in the film. “It is one of the intermediaries to connect China to the rest of the world. You look at China now, they’re all dressed in a shirt and tie like me. It’s part of Westernization they wear on the top of their skin. Now you talk about wine . . . they swallow Western civilization, inside the body.” Once it was a nationalist act to smash these idols; now it is a nationalist act to drink them in. Robert Frost was right: “The trouble with a total revolution / . . . / Is that it brings the same class up on top.”
Red Obsession also omits any mention of the role that China’s ruling Party itself has played in the Lafite fetish and the luxury-goods market in general. The only people interviewed in the movie are presumably buying wine for their own consumption. Nobody was going to be caught on camera admitting he needs to maintain a gift stash of thousand-dollar bottles of wine for purposes of bribing Party apparatchiks with not-inconsiderable influence over who can do business in their zone of influence. But two years ago, an executive of a government-owned oil company in China was caught up in a mini-scandal after it was discovered that he had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of company money buying up the 100-point-Parker-rated ’96 Lafite—“allegedly to sweeten deals with local officials,” reported Decanter.
In any event, while Red Obsession tells a less than complete story of the Bordeaux mania in its heyday, it deserves a lot of credit for recognizing that the story is worth telling at all. There is more truth in this movie about the way wealth is earned and spent in the modern world than there is in the entire Thomas L. Friedman œuvre. I am particularly fond of the movie’s juxtaposition of Lafite’s Charles Chevalier offering his explanation of how Lafite achieved its esteem in China—“the secret of Lafite is in the soil itself . . . there is something by the nose which is [ . . . dramatic hand-wave . . . ] Lafite style”—with the explanation offered by Julien Pouplet, a French ex-pat on the ground in China as a wine consultant: “Yesterday a customer of mine told me, we think in China it is very good for the health of a lady for the skin. If you drink Lafite you have beautiful skin.” He rolls his eyes.
The final part of the movie runs through some of the consequences of all this—and hints at the endgame. There is some coverage, of course, of the problem of counterfeits. We also see some of the Bordelais and old-timers in the trade acknowledging that they have abandoned their historic customers—some even lamenting that fact, or at least pretending to lament it while barely managing to suppress the urge to make cha-ching sound effects, strip naked, and perform an Uncle Scrooge dive into a vat of euros. But the real plot twist comes when Sun Hongbo walks us through the grounds of a stately, turreted Old World chateau surrounded by a Medieval town and vines in the familiar Bordeaux fashion—except that the estate is not in Bordeaux. It’s Chateau Changyu AFIP, “80 kms north of Beijing.” Mr. Sun explains that he traveled through Europe for ten years, “visited many chateaux and famous villages,” and made up his mind “to build a European town and chateau in China.” But the unspoken message seems to be, What, you thought we were going to keep sending you our money and buying all your wine forever? Two can play at this game, you know. “It now seems that Bordeaux’s largest customer is becoming its competitor,” intones narrator Russell Crowe. “China is now planting over 20,000 acres of new vineyards every year.”
That might be bad news for the Bordelais, but it actually offers consolation that for at least some participants in China’s latest obsession, there is a genuine passion for wine as wine and not simply as a luxury good that serves the same function as a Prada bag. The only reason to plant vines and attempt to make fine wine in a place that has no historic culture of winegrowing or wine-drinking is if you want to help create one. That this is even thinkable in China is, in some sense, an even more remarkable cultural transformation than its embrace of market capitalism.
The Chinese never had a wine-god but the Greeks called theirs Dionysus. In his 1965 book of that name, subtitled A Social History of the Wine Vine, Edward Hyams wrote:
Now it is self-evident that there are very large tracts of the world between 30 degrees and 51 degrees North and between 30 degrees and 51 degrees South where there are no vineyards. There are indeed, particularly in Asia, many thousands of square miles of perfect vineyard land in perfect vineyard climates, where grapes are hardly grown at all, and then only for dessert fruit or dried fruit. It seems that the wine-vine is excluded from some parts of the world which would be congenial to it by influences other than climatic or geographical. These influences are subtler: they are social, almost religious. There are those who are people of the vine; and others, simply, are not; and the curious facts touching the repeated introduction of the vine into China, described in Chapter VIII, bear out this contention. The wine-vine is very much a plant of Mediterranean man: it is an art of the Mediterranean cultures; it is deeply involved in their religions, both ancient and modern; for even the positive, the conscious rejection of wine by ancient peoples of the vine under the influence of Islam is a negative involvement very different from the total indifference of the Chinese or the merely commercial influence of the Japanese. There are, in short, peoples whose cultures have never included the vine and which have rejected it when offered; and this is the other limit set to the expansion of the vineyards.
European man overran the whole planet; he has now withdrawn or is withdrawing from parts of it, leaving them again to the older cultures which already possessed them and were fossilized, or to any new ones which may arise. Curiously, the places he has withdrawn from are those where the vine, too, was hopelessly alien; and the places he has made permanently his own are places where the vineyards have flourished. One might almost regard Vitis vinifera as his peculiar hallmark; and in his new absence one would expect to find it lingering only among those people who have taken something fundamental from Mediterranean culture, the Christian religion for example. For, Lord Snow notwithstanding, the Western type of tool-making, called ‘Science’ and now œcumenical, while a part of a culture in the archaeological sense of the word, is not fundamental to culture in our sense here: a Chinese may accept our nuclear physics; he rejects our poetry, our music and our wine-vine. There is a sentimental illusion, fostered by liberals, that though the minds of men may differ, the heart is the same everywhere; the curious history of the association between men and grape-vines is part of the evidence that the converse may be true.
For a Beijing billionaire, a hoard of Lafite must make for a pretty nice trophy of China’s economic triumph over the debt-ridden, declining West, but the whole obsession—and the growing vineyard footprint—does raise the intriguing question of just who is conquering whom.
August 9, 2013
We interrupt your irregularly scheduled programming for a brief detour. The site may have been quiet, but I haven’t been—you’ll just have to read my three most recent articles somewhere else.
First, you surely know Lars Carlberg’s name as one of the founders of the late, great Mosel Wine Merchant, which brought such producers as Peter Lauer, Immich-Batterieberg, and Steinmetz to the US and changed the way many people, myself included, drink riesling. The first time I tasted one—Peter Lauer’s Senior—my immediate reaction was, “Where have you been all my life? And why doesn’t everyone make riesling like this?” Lars now writes a Mosel wine guide at larscarlberg.com focused on in-depth producer profiles and recent tasting reports, and he asked me to contribute a guest article. Opening lede:
André Simon wrote in Vintagewise—his 1945 “Postscript to Saintsbury’s Notes on a Cellar Book“—that the wines of the Mosel saw “a very marked and most regrettable difference not only in the individual quality but in the general style of the wines made after 1915 and those made before 1914.” That is an intriguingly specific place to draw a line. Style is more often a fluid thing, evolving slowly based on changing tastes and the whims of fashion. But a few very specific things happened in 1914.
There was, of course, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of World War I, but (as Leslie Nielson might have said in the movie Airplane!), that’s not important right now. . . .
Read the rest at larscarlberg.com.
Next, I am very proud to say that I’ve now had several articles and book reviews printed in my favorite wine magazine, the World of Fine Wine. The latest issue features my review of three new books on Bordeaux—Neal Martin’s Pomerol, Stephen Brook’s The Complete Bordeaux, and Jane Anson’s Bordeaux Legends. You can also find my report on Abe Scholium’s Metaphysical Lecture Series, and find out what his Scholium Project Gardens of Babylon petite sirah has in common with a foggy landscape painting hanging in Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery. So visit your local newsstand today—or read the issue on the brand-new World of Fine Wine iPad app.
June 30, 2013
It’s officially summertime, so everyone is drinking some rosé. A lot of it will be from Domaine Tempier (it’s some kind of unwritten law). But the Peynaud family behind Domaine Tempier once almost gave up making it. As related by their importer Kermit Lynch in his seminal Adventures on the Wine Route, “I had to argue the case for the rosé of Domaine Tempier . . . with its own winemaker!” Bandol had the terroir for great reds, Jean-Marie Peynaud maintained, so the rosés should be left to the lesser coastal appellations. Lynch protested: “There is a place for a pretty wine like that, and, moreover, the rosé has something to do with the personality of the Domaine Tempier, the joie de vivre. When one arrives, one is greeted with a cool glass of rosé. That’s valuable.” Peynaud conceded the point, and said, “in fact it is in that spirit that I make it.”
Tempier never took out a glossy magazine ad depicting the scene, but had it done so, it would have been engaging in what the Madison Avenue types call “lifestyle marketing.” They’re not so much selling a pink wine as the joie de vivre, the spirit of Provence. You are probably not drinking your Tempier on a sun-drenched Provençal veranda while a Mediterranean breeze wafts the scents of the garrigue over your salt-flecked hair—you may, in fact, be sneaking sips while trying to tap out an email on your Blackberry and hoping Thomas the Tank Engine occupies your toddler long enough to let you finish your dinner—but the wine reminds you of some of the little things you can do to nudge yourself to a more civilized existence. Maybe when guests arrive, you end up greeting them with, “Hi! Have a seat, grab a glass of wine!” rather than, “Hi! How was the traffic? What route did you take?” And when there is wine on the table, you’re forced to slow down a little bit. Meals aren’t just about pausing to refuel before moving on to the next obligation. An evening with wine is different from an evening without it. By extension, life with wine is very different from life without it.
The same is not true about Coca Cola or beer. So it strikes me that people who are in the business of selling wine have a pretty good story to tell. They have a beverage that doesn’t merely satiate thirst or taste good, but promotes a civilized way of life in every culture where it is a fixture.
I was recently surprised, however, to see some disagreement about this among some people who are as appreciative of wine in all of its facets as anyone. It started when Eric Asimov responded to a post on Twitter by an Oregon winery lamenting that “[t]he industry has largely failed to communicate to consumers that wine is food.” Asimov quipped, “It hasn’t tried. Prefers ‘lifestyle.’” He added: “Promoting as aspirational commodifies as luxury good, intensifies anxiety.” Asimov’s argument is that we should want wine to be treated as a staple of the table, something as normal to see there as salt-and-pepper shakers. Bruce Schoenfeld then joined the discussion to make a similar point: “Lifestyle marketing is about making wine appear to be a piece of a desirable way of living. . . . Except promoting wine as a lifestyle adjunct comes at the expense of promoting it as a staple food.”
But I don’t see any tension between those two things myself. Promoting wine as a staple food is to promote it as a piece of a desirable way of living. To say that wine should be a staple of the table is essentially to say that we should promote the kind of culture and lifestyle where it is treated as such. Lifestyle marketing needn’t mean luxury marketing.
Asimov has a point, though, that the kind of lifestyle marketing that makes sense to me may be more theory than reality. If we see it at all, it is in missives from specialty retailers, not from wineries that actually do produce enough of the stuff that being perched on every dinner table is a realistic business objective. I was thus inspired to spend an afternoon browsing some of the glossy wine and food magazines I have lying around to see exactly how those brands promote themselves and what lifestyle message they are trying to convey.
Most of them, to be sure, don’t have much of one. More than half the ads consisted of a close-up shot of a bottle occupying most of the page pasted on top of a pretty vineyard scene with a generic slogan like “The Quality is in the Bottle.” (The guys at the ad agency probably go with this one when it’s 4:59 on a Friday and they have nothing else—”Oh, what the hell! Let’s just give ‘em the old bottle-and-vineyard pic special and call it a day.”) Some others were slightly more imaginative, though. Here are the results.
Product: Penfolds Grange
Copy: The headline “100/100,” with a blurb promising that “it will only get finer with time” and explaining that “[t]he 2008 Grange has been awarded a perfect score by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, a respected publication.”
Graphics: A two-page spread of a faux-candlelit dungeonesque wine cellar, of the sort a vampire might have built in his castle if he had exceptionally tacky taste in both wine and wine-cellar architecture. A bottle of Penfolds Grange and four empty glasses sit on a table in the foreground. (There is no food, but that is probably okay if you vant to drink some blood.) In the background, behind a bricked archway, is the cavernous cellar space featuring what appears to be some kind of objet d’art on the wall (abstract and geometric except for its incorporation of vine-twigs) and enough racking to hold several dozen bottles of wine. The photograph is captioned, “Private cellar, New York, USA.”
Message: If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t find this wine cellar tacky, why don’t you try our top-of-the-line shiraz? You probably won’t find that tacky, either.
Product: San Pedro GatoNegro
Copy: “Why are 3 bottles of GatoNegro opened every 2 seconds somewhere in the world? GREAT WINE + EXCELLENT PRICE.” [ed. note: Can this really be true? By my calculations, which started with getting a song from Rent stuck in my head and multiplying 525,600 minutes by 60 by 1.5 bottles per second, that's over 47 million bottles.]
Graphics: A bottle of San Pedro GatoNegro Cabernet Sauvignon from the Central Valley of Chile looming large in the foreground a la the 4:59 special, but pasted on a background photo of a rooftop party at dusk populated by just the sort of clean-cut—but not too preppy—attractive, diverse 20- or 30-somethings who have just graduated to the kind of parties where you don’t have to yell over the music and beverages are served in actual glasses.
Message: Maybe you’re not the kind of person who wants to drink the same thing that other people are opening every two thirds of a second. Maybe you’re the kind of person who stays home alone reading the Internet every Saturday night because he has no friends. Wouldn’t you rather buy a bottle of GatoNegro Cabernet Sauvignon and get invited to rooftop parties where young, attractive people mingle and have a much more fulfilling, mature time than all those ruffians down below drinking beer and watching sports? And did we mention it’s cheap?
Product: Marchesi Antinori
Copy: “Behind every Antinori label is a 600-year pursuit of excellence.”
Graphics: A bottle of Villa Antinori IGT Toscana occupying the full height of the page, next to a montage of vintage paintings and photographs of Antinori family patriarchs (including Renaissance-style oil portraiture, a sepia-toned photograph of a gentleman with a handlebar mustache, etc.) along with vineyard and winery imagery (barrel room, Tuscan hilltop vista).
Message: Buy our $10 sangiovese and you, too, can be an Old World aristocrat. Oh, wait, no you can’t. Why don’t you buy our $10 sangiovese anyway and give our noble bloodline the respect we deserve, you filthy plebeian?
Product: Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon
Copy: “Place Matters. Sonoma County”
Graphics: A typical example of the bottle-and-vineyard pic genre: a point-blank shot of Rodney Strong cabernet occupying most of the page, perched on rustic wood slats (one imagines it might be a picnic table) pasted on top of a monochrome scene of an expansive wine-country vista, vines in the foreground, a lush, forested hillside in the background. A gratuitous color illustration of a grapevine twig with a few leaves is wrapped around the bottle like a laurel.
Message: Gosh, that vineyard is pretty. Surely the wine inside must be too!
Product: Liberty School Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon
Copy: “American Classics Are Never Left Behind.” In the corner, a notation that the wine rated 90 points and a #3 Best Buy from Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Best Buys 2012.
Graphics: A whimsical photograph of an attractive young couple boarding a private Gulfstream jet and reaching down from the staircase to grab a bottle of Liberty School Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon from a silver tray held aloft by a white-gloved stewardess in a naughty vintage Pan Am–style uniform just barely managing to contain her ample bosom, standing alongside a red carpet while a grounds crewman loads six cases of Liberty School Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon (prominently branded “Made in America”) into the back of the plane and the pilot stands by, impatiently staring at his wristwatch.
Message: The imagery is so exaggeratedly tongue-in-cheek that the private-jet lifestyle is more of an ironic joke than an aspirational lifestyle promise. Thus, the aspirational lifestyle promise is that this is a wine for people who don’t take themselves too seriously, and get ironic jokes. My favorite of these ads!
Product: Butternut, The Rule, Volunteer, and Bandwagon brands from BNA Wine Group
Copy: “Special Occasion Taste You Can Enjoy Every Day,” followed by a signed quotation from winemaker Tony Leonardi: “Napa Valley’s in my blood, and I blend that heritage with expertise from our Nashville headquarters to create wines rich in taste and value.” A QR code promises “a chance to win a FREE trip to Nashville,” including “airfare, hotel, entertainment, a private tasting, wine and a VISA gift card.”
Graphics: Full-page bottle shots of Butternut California Chardonnay and The Rule Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, pasted on a photograph (with a filter applied to give it that washed-out, 1970s family-album look) of Tony Leonardini in blue jeans and plaid shirt walking a dirt road surrounded, it appears, not by a carefully manicured vineyard, but by wild brush.
Message: We ain’t fancy-pants wine conn-oy-sooers over here. Look at me, I’m from Nashville, I wear plaid, and I probably even drive a beat-up truck, but I can still drink cabernet instead of Coors and not feel like any less of a man.
Product: “Austrian Wine”
Copy: “Taste culture. Come and visit some of the world’s most picturesque wine landscapes along the Austrian Danube. Taste crisp, delicious wines with regional food specialties in fine restaurants and cozy wine taverns.”
Graphics: A glass of a crisp, delicious white wine in the foreground against a background of a picturesque wine landscape along the Austrian Danube, with a town nestled among the vines which probably contains some fine restaurants and cozy wine taverns.
Message: No subliminal messaging here! Did we mention the crisp, delicious wines, the fine restaurants and cozy wine taverns, and the picturesque landscapes?
Copy: The headline, “Bonterra / Pure Harmony” with a paragraph explaining: “At Bonterra, we grow wine organically and sustainably, treating the land with deep respect. We build birdhouses in our vineyards for the bluebirds and finches, who thank us by snapping up insects that would otherwise harm our crops. They get a tasty dinner, and you get pure, flavorful wine made from our organically gown grapes. That’s what we call being in tune with nature.”
Graphics: A bottle of Bonterra something-or-other (variety and region cropped out of the picture, but it’s red) with a bird perched on top, against a plain gray background.
Message: You already drive a Prius, spend twenty minutes a day sorting your recyclables, and Facebook-defriended everyone you know who isn’t convinced of global warming, including your mom. You’d probably be really into the natural-wine scene if you’d ever heard of it, but you’re reading a glossy national magazine so we bet you haven’t. Have some Bonterra instead.
Product: Fontanafredda Barolo
Copy: The headline, “Fontanafredda / Let Your Barolo Journey Begin,” with a short historical precis informing us that “Barolo is often referred to as the King of Wines, and Fontanafredda is among the most noble of them all. Established in 1878 by the first King of Italy, Fontanafredda now blends time-honored winemaking techniques of the past with today’s most advanced technology. Perhaps that’s why every wine we produce becomes a modern classic. Start your Barolo journey with a truly regal wine—Fontanafredda—and you’ll never look back.”
Graphics: Yet another full-page, close-up shot of the bottle—a 2007 Serralunga d’Alba Barolo—whose label’s alternating dark and light gray stripes appear inspired by a prison uniform. There is no imagery in the background besides a continuation of the stripe pattern from the label.
Message: You can drink like the King of Italy and dress like an escaped convict.
Product: Chateaux Canon-la-Gaffeliere, Gazin, Smith Haut Lafitte, and Branaire-Ducru
Copy: “Les 5 / born under a lucky star”
Graphics: Proprietors S. von Niepperg, N. de Baillencourt, F. & D. Cathiard, and P. Maroteaux standing beside or leaning against their respective wines as though the bottles were ten feet tall, all dressed in dark, bespoke suits accessorized with the requisite master-of-the-universe cuff links and pocket squares.
Message: There is a wine for every occasion. These are the wines for occasions when you’re wearing a pocket square.
Product: Zonin Prosecco
Copy: “Enjoy the simple moments of life. [signed] Francesco Zonin.”
Graphics: A bottle of Prosecco and a gentleman with long, flowing dark hair, in a black suit jacket and a white dress shirt, top two buttons undone—presumably Francesco Zonin, but a dead ringer for a soap-opera star, a romance-novel cover model, or the sort of man who likes approaching discontented married women with a line like, “Your eyes have a—how you say—sparkle. Come back to my villa and I will make love to you for hours”—holding aloft a glass of bubbly Prosecco.
Message: Cougars, start your engines.
Product: Brunello di Montalcino
Copy: “Brunello di Montalcino”
Graphics: A silhouette of a bottle on a black background, no label or other identifying marks visible. In the corner, the logo of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino.
Message: Did you know there’s such a thing as Brunello di Montalcino? It comes in bottles!
Product: Cantina di Soave Re Midas Soave and Corvina Rosso
Copy: “You Won’t Go Wrong with the Right Italian.” In smaller text, a paragraph telling us the Soave is “elegant, bursting with crisp citrus, melon and pear,” adding as a postscript, “Also, you’ll love Re Midas Corvina for its red berry, currant and cherry flavors!” and in between extolling their “accolades from the top wine publications” and ability to “partner flawlessly with an exceptional range of cuisines.” Concluding text: “So, if you enjoy Pinot Grigio, delight in Re Midas Soave—the right Italian.” On the bottom, movie-poster style quotes of “Extreme Value”—Wine & Spirits, “Best Value”—Wine Spectator, “Best Buy”—Wine Enthusiast, etc.
Graphics: A bottle each of the red and white with a left-hand column depicting dishes from the aforementioned “exceptional range of cuisines”—a lobster, Greek salad, tortellini, peppers, grilled chicken, salmon and tuna sushi, spaghetti with fresh tomatoes, and wedges of cheese.
Message: You want a staple of the table? We got your staple of the table right here. If you enjoy pinot grigio.
April 6, 2013
“It was a dark and stormy night,” wrote Edward Bulwer-Lytton in the first sentence of a novel whose name nobody bothers to remember; “the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scantly flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness”—thus reverberating through the ages and inspiring the world’s preeminent annual awards ceremony for bad writing. The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest, now in its 31st year, challenges writers to compose “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” I think the 1997 grand-prize winner was among the best at capturing the spirit of the contest:
“The moment he laid eyes on the lifeless body of the nude socialite sprawled across the bathroom floor, Detective Leary knew she had committed suicide by grasping the cap on the tamper-proof bottle, pushing down and twisting while she kept her thumb firmly pressed against the spot the arrow pointed to, until she hit the exact spot where the tab clicks into place, allowing her to remove the cap and swallow the entire contents of the bottle, thus ending her life.”
But I’m not sure that Bulwer-Lytton or any of the illustrious winners of the contest bearing his name ever strung together anything quite as self-indulgently prolix, pretentious, and riddled with clichés as the typical wine tasting note. Here are just some of the stock phrases and fifty-cent words that aspiring and imbibing Bulwer-Lyttonites pack into their tasting notes as compulsively as someone refreshing his email or Facebook feed while sitting and waiting for his number to be called at the DMV—but which, if you really think about it, either don’t say anything, or say a whole lot that isn’t true.
All that hedonism. — There is probably no single word more misused in the lexicon of tasting notes than “hedonistic.” As of this writing it appears in no fewer than one billion Wine Advocate tasting notes and is essentially Robert Parker’s shorthand for everything he loves to see in wine—unctuous concentration, syrupy fruit, and minute-long finishes. Whatever the merits of these attributes, they are not, I am almost embarrassed to have to point out, what anyone customarily associates with a life of hedonism. It is quite impossible to imagine the Emperor Caligula admiring the viscous legs of an oily-black grenache in his Riedel glass in one hand and an hourglass in the other to time the finish while bored concubines file their nails in the background wondering what they bothered getting naked for. No, the wine you would want to pair with a Roman orgy is one you can guzzle with such abandon that 750 milliliters is a woefully insufficient single serving. It should be juicy and full of energy and capable of delivering a visceral joy, not an analytical project—I think of something like a Clos Roche Blanche gamay, Peter Lauer’s “Senior” riesling, or even a fun, tingly little dolcetto. Frankly, if you’re writing a tasting note at all, which is basically a flowery lab report, the wine probably wasn’t all that hedonistic. If, on the other hand, you put down your pen and had to resist the urge to execute a Gatorade dunk, then you’re getting much closer to hedonistic territory.
The fruit salad. — Let’s be clear about this. Cabernet sauvignon does not taste like currants. Pinot noir does not taste like cherries. Riesling does not taste like apples. They taste like what they are. Cabernet tastes like cabernet, pinot tastes like pinot, riesling tastes like riesling. The analogies to other fruits are, perhaps, of some arguable potential use to someone who’s never tasted a grape before, the same way describing a zebra as a horse with stripes is helpful to someone who’s never seen a zebra but extremely unhelpful if you are aspiring to describe what is notable about one particular zebra. But that’s where the usefulness ends, and I’m not sure it even goes that far. Nobody has ever bit into a cherry and remarked that it tasted like a Gevrey-Chambertin, a fact which ought to prove conclusively that any Gevrey-Chambertin’s resemblance to a cherry is so distant it’s barely worth noting. One hundred pinot noirs in a horizontal tasting will all resemble each other more than any one of them will resemble cherries (even if you include some Griottes!). If you had to comment on just one of them, saying “textbook pinot noir” would, more often than not, exhaust almost everything that needs to be said about its fruit. But this is not a viable option for someone who is paid to taste a hundred wines in one sitting and comment individually on each one of them. The critic cannot spend very many column inches talking about what they have in common. Nobody would have the patience to persist through so much redundancy. The alternative is to dwell on the differences, even if those differences don’t have very much to do with what makes each wine what it is. Thus comes the cavalcade not just of cherries but of maraschino cherries and kumquats and pomegranates and hermaphroditic Himalayan elderberries. Obviously, each of these lists is a completely irreproducible result. I do not believe for a moment that there is a human being alive who is capable of tasting the same wine and composing the same fruit salad twice even within ten minutes of each other, to say nothing of what happens when two different people attempt the exercise.
“Literally.” — Poor Antonio Galloni has tasted wines which “literally hover on the palate” (2010 Jadot Clos St. Denis), “literally float on the palate” (2009 Comtes Lafon Volnay Santenots-du-Milieu), “literally wrap around the palate” (2008 Montepeloso Nardo), ”literally explode on the palate” (2009 Grivot Clos Vougeot, 2006 Cerbaiona Brunello di Montalcino, 2006 Voerzio Barolo Sarmassa), “literally burst from the glass,” (2009 Shafer One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004 Geoffrey Brut Millesime), ”literally fill the room with intense perfume” (2005 Aldo Conterno Barolo), and “literally send shivers down my spine” (2006 Ornellaia). But does the 2009 Jadot Puligny-Montrachet Folatieres, which “literally fills out in every dimension,” fill out the fourth dimension as much as the 2006 Gaja Sperss, whose finish “literally lasts an eternity”?
“Painfully intense.” — This is apparently supposed to be a good thing (at least when it’s not literal!). Intensity is good, so “painfully intense” must be better, and “excrutiatingly intense” better still. Wines used to perform actual waterboarding are automatic 100-pointers.
The “deft” use of oak. — Putting wine in an oak barrel is not origami, or a close-up magic trick, or a maneuver on the uneven parallel bars. Doing it deftly just means one didn’t spill. In tasting notes, deft oaking tends to mean that the wine doesn’t taste oaky, or that it does taste oaky but not too oaky, or that it tastes very, very oaky, but expensive oak.
Gratuitous French. — “Pain grillé” means “toast,” “cassis” means cherries or currants, and “en magnum” means that someone, for some reason, not only felt it vitally important to let the world know he has a big, swinging bottle, but that everyone else’s big bottle is a country hick in comparison. My magnum did a semester at the Sorbonne, and can order in French. (As long as it doesn’t have to speak any more French than a two-letter preposition.)
Timed finishes. — As much fun as it is to imagine fat wine critics wearing stopwatches around their necks in gym-teacher lanyards to time all those 55-, 65-, or 75-second finishes with the requisite precision, science says that those finishes have pretty much nothing to do with the wine and everything to do with how much bacteria is living in one’s mouth. In any event, those with a fetish for long aftertastes can forego the wine and eat some garlic. The finish will go on for hours!
Kudos. — It’s the emptiest of empty surplusage, tacked to the end of the note when a critic fears that even the purplest prose is insufficient to convey the magnificence of the wine in front of him. “Kudos to proprietor Frenchie McFrenchman for fashioning such an extraordinary effort!” It took me awhile to realize why I find it so grating (other than sheer overuse), but I finally put my finger on it. It is a nice thing to happen upon a wine that one enjoys. It is quite another thing to presume that one’s own personal enjoyment is such a universal moral imperative that catering to it represents some kind of heroic struggle against adversity for which honorifics are due. Ezekiel 25:17. The path of the righteous winemaking consultant is beset on all sides by the inequities of precious sommeliers and the tyranny of the anti-flavor elite. Kudos to he who, in the name of high scores and price hikes, shepherds the grapes through the valley of reverse-osmosis machines and 100% new oak, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. . . .
I am sure I have overlooked many other worthy clichés. Readers are hereby invited to comment with their own nominations, preferably in the form of fictional tasting notes for the worst of all possible wines. There will be a prize for the winner!
References and further reading: Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford . . . Winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest . . . The Oregonian on “Retro-nasal wine appreciation” . . . Andrew Jefford on tasting notes at Decanter.
March 2, 2013
Unlike the protagonist of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”—who “started out on Burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff”—the usual path these days seems to be for people to start out drinking wine from California. Some stick with it, while others tire of the usual formula of jam + wood and sooner or later find themselves migrating to the Old World. My own biography, however, is none of the above. I got my start on Bordeaux.
I was in a summer program in France before my junior year of college, attempting to learn the French or at least get a credit that would finish out the foreign-language requirement. I failed miserably at the former while succeeding in somewhat dubious fashion at the latter (learning an interesting lesson in American-style grade inflation along the way, when my 13/20 mark for the semester—”Assez bien,” literally: “Good enough”!—translated into an A- on my college transcript). The school was in Annecy, an idyllic postcard-snapshot of a town in the Savoie. The area was and is much more famous for its cheese than its wine, but I enjoyed many afternoons of cheap, gulpable local whites out of pichets or in kirs, and plenty more over dinner. The family I was lucky enough to be boarded with seemed to host students more out of a desire to have mouths to cook for than any financial necessity, and there was a bottomless supply of cheap mondeuse on the table. (We speculated jokingly that it was the same bottle refilled every day from a gas-station-style pump in the yard.) I quickly got curious enough to start exploring the wares at the wine shops in town and asked my host one day what the best wines in France were. “Bordeaux,” he responded, and then said again a few more times, “Bordeaux,” refusing all entreaties to elaborate and using the tone of voice I imagine Ring Lardner captured in his classic line, “Shut up, he explained.”
I had only two criteria to guide my Bordeaux purchasing. The first was the label. Any bottle with an etching of a stately château and a fancy cursive script got preference. The second was age. The shelves were mostly stocked with newly released 1994s, but there were some older bottles here and there. I had somehow picked up on the fact that 1989 was supposed to be a pretty special vintage and bought those when I saw them.
Obviously, I had no clue what I was doing. I didn’t know whether Haut-Médoc was a place or a grape. I had certainly never read a wine magazine and had no idea I was supposed to be judging what I was drinking based on whether it approximated red currants, lead pencils, or anything else. Nor had I ever heard used, or ever thought to use, the word “complexity” to describe the desirable attributes of a wine. Rather, if you had asked me to identify what distinguished the ones I liked from the ones I didn’t like so much, I would have used the word ”smooth,” a term which is today practically a shibboleth of complete ignorance about the standard vocabulary. But “smooth” was the key for me. Some wines felt coarse and dry going down the gullet, like the cheap table mondeuse. But others went down as easy as water, the gastronomic equivalent of slipping into your most comfortable pair of shoes. A 1989 cru bourgeois guzzled on a picnic blanket with a girl from California while watching Bastille Day fireworks fit into that category and remains my Platonic ideal of what “claret” should be for reasons—believe it or not—having nothing to do with the girl. One of the reasons it would never have occurred to me to describe it as tasting like red currants or any other kind of fruit is that it didn’t taste like fruit at all. It tasted like wine.
When I got back home I made it a project to learn about Bordeaux. I read about the 1855 classification and remember the rush of excitement finding a Grand Cru Classé with “Rothschild” on the label within my budget, even if it was only Chateau d’Armailhac (lovely, regardless). Since the point was education rather than alcohol consumption I became an avid consumer of half-bottles and managed to cover a broad swath of the 1855 classification and several decades’ worth of vintages on a student’s budget. Even first growths were not completely out of the question. You could get lucky with a find like ’70 Mouton in half bottle—the one with the Chagall label—out of the cold room of a local shop for $50. You could get a few friends together, each put in twenty bucks, and drink Lafite.
I spent my first professional paycheck on 2000 Bordeaux futures, six cases’ worth. They weren’t cheap—but they would have been a hell of a lot more expensive if I’d bought them even a day later. In a stroke of good luck, I’d just happened to be browsing Sherry-Lehmann’s web site when they came online and benefited from first tranche prices. I think my most expensive purchase was Pichon-Lalande at around $75 a bottle, and I had a fine time patting myself on the back over the next day as I watched the web listings absorb multiple price hikes in a real-time display not totally dissimilar from a scene on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Then something odd happened. With each successive campaign, even as I had more disposable income to spend, the level of Bordeaux I could afford to buy kept shifting downward. I could no longer afford to drink as well as I did when I was a penniless student! When the 2005s came out to even greater fanfare and frenzy than the 2000s, I didn’t buy six cases. I bought six bottles. In the years since, the number has been zero.
Style, of course, has been as much a factor as price. The fact that very few of the châteaux I know even remotely resemble the way they tasted just a few years prior made the decision to give up on them very easy. One can hear Michel Rolland’s Gargamel-like cackle from Mondovino in the background every time the critics praise an estate for its “rejuvenation” in quality, or laud the new vintage as the ”best ever.” None of those wines will ever deliver anywhere near the satisfaction as that cru bourgeois on Bastille Day, 1997.
Which got me to thinking. The Bordeaux that do have the ability to deliver that kind of satisfaction haven’t gotten that much more expensive, because nobody cares about them, and haven’t changed their style all that much, because doing that stuff costs money and they don’t stand to gain much from it anyway. Most of those châteaux aren’t reviewed by the magazines, and even if they were, investing in high-tech manipulation, more new oak, and expensive consultants probably wouldn’t accomplish much more than taking them from an 84-point rating to an 86 (which still may as well be an F, grade inflation no longer being restricted to college transcripts). The critics simply aren’t looking for what those wines can offer.
The 2009 vintage seemed to me a fine occasion to do some exploring. It’s a ripe vintage, but unlike 2003 or even 2005, it’s a friendly one. The wines are easy to drink, but they’re not insubstantial. ”Smooth” is, in fact, an apt way to describe them, even the ones that actually do have a lot of tannin. So I bought a mix of petits châteaux and crus bourgeois I had enjoyed in the past and a few that were new to me and opened one with dinner whenever I was in the mood for a simpler pleasure, hoping that one of them would conjure up a petite madeleine moment.
The wine that did it was the 2009 Château Recougne, a Bordeaux Superieur. I actually remember going through several bottles of the 1995 back in the day, which used to cost eight or nine dollars. The 2009 is widely available for eleven or twelve. I wish the rest of the region had shown the same restraint. Restraint is also an apt description for the wine in the bottle, which is seamless in the way it is put together and is one of those wines that tastes like wine and not fruit. That latter quality isn’t something all that difficult to find at this level, but there is something about the way Recougne presents it that strikes me as prettier and more satisfying than most. It has a degree of drinkability that would lend itself perfectly well to being guzzled straight out of the bottle on a picnic blanket, but most wines with that quality pull it off just by being light and easy. This is actually not that light, just very streamlined. There is an underlying density that gives you something to savor, but it’s so rounded that you can drink it with abandon. It is not profound Bordeaux and does not pretend to be, but it reminded me of what I used to love about Bordeaux.
Some of the other wines actually turned out to be somewhat more serious than I had intended for this exercise, but were no less satisfying for it. I won’t say much about the 2009 Château Lanessan because it’s already one of the most famous of the crus bourgeois with a known track record for aging well, but the 2009 is an exceptionally pretty vintage of it, more approachable than any I can remember. Here, the vintage gives it more fruit sweetness than usual, and more than the norm for classic Bordeaux, but it doesn’t color outside the lines, and its soft, open-knit personality made me think of it as an ideal comfort wine.
Perhaps more interesting, though, was the 2009 Château Haut-Vigneau, from Pessac-Léognan, a property I had never heard of before. If I have one regret in my Bordeaux buying history (aside from not buying more of the stuff that skyrocketed in price so I could have cashed in and bought a vacation home), it’s not buying more Pessac, which seems to be the one appellation in Bordeaux with a screaming personality. It has been described variously as scorched earth, campfire wood, molten tar, or just plain gravelly, but whatever you want to call it, it makes Pessac and Graves taste different from everything else and was very likely what Samuel Pepys was tasting when he wrote of “Ho Bryan” that it ”hath a good and most peculiar taste that I have never met with.” Not all of the lesser Graves manage to wring this unique flavor out of the earth the way the big boys of the appellation do, but it is unmistakable in the Haut-Vigneau. And while the wine is structured enough to make me curious about aging some bottles, it is exceptionally drinkable so there is no need to wait. I bought a case. If I ever get tired of it, I also have some mondeuse.
November 11, 2012
Pete Hamill wrote a short story for his collection Tokyo Sketches about a wealthy Japanese businessman who develops a crush on a young art student. He tries to buy her love by buying her a Picasso, but gets swindled. Asked which of Picasso’s periods he’s interested in, he can answer only, “The best period,” which the con artist, thrilled to have spotted such an easy mark, happily offers to supply.
Hamill definitely put his finger on one of the Orient’s less attractive cultural tendencies, that pathological compulsion to show face with “the best” of everything and nothing less. We saw it, too, in the recent mania in China for Château Lafite-Rothschild predicated on its status as the so-called first of the firsts, a mania now abating in favor of anything from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti as the consensus “best” of Burgundy. It’s a pitiable way of looking at wine or art or anything else because it is so contrary to true connoisseurship. A true connoisseur would not drink Lafite or Romanée-Conti every day even if he could afford to, because the reward of such a wine comes not merely from the physical experience but from the intellectual understanding of what makes it what it is, and that reward isn’t exclusive to the top tiers of the hierarchy.
The Japanese, at least, may have a certain status anxiety ingrained in their national DNA but it is also a culture with an eye for things of exquisite beauty, like cherry blossoms and bonsai trees and Shinto temples and sushi and haiku and all that. You can see both the ugly and beautiful aspects of this culture as they pertain to wine on display in The Drops of God, the popular manga now becoming available in English translation. It tells the story of the prodigal son of a renowned wine critic who’s trying to learn about wine while defending his inheritance from a villainous usurper, who really does utter comic-book-villain dialogue like, “Learn well in exchange for your patience. . . . Today there is no question of victory or defeat. It’s already been decided. I can tell just by looking at you.”
Manga aren’t exactly comic books, of course. In America, comic books tend to be read by kids and they’re mostly about superheroes with super-powers fighting crime in silly costumes. In Japan, everyone reads comics and they’re not about superheroes; there’s something in pretty much every genre. There are even some about wine. The Drops of God is the most important of those. Wines featured in it apparently experience a feeding frenzy in the Japanese market similar to the kind that occurs in the U.S. when Parker anoints a new 99- or 100-point darling.
The protagonist is Shizuku Kanzaki. His father, Yataka Kanzaki, was a revered wine critic in Japan. Shizuku rebelled, swore off wine, and became a beer salesman. When Yataka dies, Shizuku learns that he has a competitor for his father’s estate. Issei Tomine is a young prodigy of a wine critic, and a total dick. He’s managed to get himself adopted by Yataka a week before his death, hoping to inherit his wine collection. But Yataka has left behind an unusual will. Shizuku and Tomine will compete for the prize. Yataka has named “twelve apostles,” twelve great wines described only with riddles, and whichever of his sons can identify the most will win the inheritance.
I said that The Drops of God is not a superhero comic, but that’s not exactly true. We’re introduced to Shizuku as he is exhibiting one of the two (sort-of) superpowers to figure prominently in the story. Now, when Marvel’s X-Men were running out of ideas for new characters, they came up with some really silly ones, like the one whose power was being really good at inventing things or the one who could translate any language—but they never came up with any talent quite as specialized as Shizuku’s. His superpower, developed not by mutation but from a childhood indentured as his father’s wine-pourer, is the power of decanting. He is, one might say, the Spectacular Mr. Fantastic Super-Decanter. He can decant a bottle from high in the air and direct a laser-like filament of wine to its target on the inner lip of the decanter several feet below, spontaneously transforming backwards, undrinkable bottles into elegant beauties. “Amazing!” remarks his Lois Lane, aspiring sommelieress Miyabi Shinohara. “He can decant from that height. . . . The wine droplets formed a line as straight as a thread of scarlet silk. It danced into the spout. In my experience with wine, I’d never before seen such divine decanting. . . . His decanting was delicate, yet bold, and so elegant, it dazzled.” (Thus far, no character in the epic has exhibited the companion superpower commonly seen among old-timers in the trade, the ability to expectorate an equally flawless frozen rope into a spit bucket.)
It’s not apparent whether Issei Tomine boasts the same ability to alight the female erogenous zones with his decanting, but his villainy and douchebaggery are cemented by scenes in which he partakes of the pleasures of the flesh offered by various wine groupies (apparently, they exist!) and, in one case, an older, wealthy woman who has taken him as her kept man and on whose nude body he pours a stream of pitch-black Miani Merlot—to do what with, we are not shown, but it probably beats drinking it.
Spoiler alert! Tomine’s ego leads him to flunk the first apostle challenge, in which Yataka Kanzaka had riddled the boys this: “I wandered deep within a forest thick with pristine primeval growths. As the humid scent of life wafts from the moss-covered trees, I walk toward the heart of the forest in search of solace. The bounteous blessing of nature suits a virgin forest unsullied by human hands. Ah, behold a pair of violet butterflies, tangling in flight. Perhaps this little spring is your Holy Land.” After much consideration and soul-searching, both Shizuku and Tomine decide the apostle must be Georges Roumier’s Les Amoureuses. Tomine submits the 1999. Shizuku selects the 2001. Shizuku is right. We learn that “the 12 Apostles aren’t about being perfect,” that on occasion it is the imperfect that “exude[s] a charm that more than compensate[s] for faults.”
But wait a minute! How is it that Shizuku and Tomine each somehow realize that the “virgin forest” must be a Roumier Amoureuses? And within two vintages of each other, no less? And how is it that they each somehow realize that the second apostle, described with an even more puzzling riddle paying homage to The Da Vinci Code, must be Château Palmer—Shizuku submitting the 2000, Tomine the 1999? That’s the second superpower (of sorts) that figures prominently in the story. It is the power not only to drink a wine and describe it in flowery, metaphoric prose, but to hear flowery, metaphoric prose and somehow discern with exact specificity the wine being described. This superpower drives the plot in several installments of the series.
If you can forgive the schmaltz, these flights of fancy actually yield some scenes of legitimate poignancy. In one memorable episode, Tomine at first describes a Mouton-Rothschild 1982 with the fruit-salad verbiage of common tasting notes (“there wafts the mature scent of faint traces of nutmeg, ripe figs, and pepper”), but then declares, “I compare this wine to a painting that uses thick strokes like a plow singing the earth’s praise, layering the canvas with paint”—and he is transported first to the vineyard and then to a two-page spread of the painting he had imagined, intricately rendered here in pen-and-ink, “The Angelus” by Jean-François Millet. Now of course this kind of association is an irreproducible result, but it still says something vastly more interesting about the ’82 Mouton than has been said by anyone taking note of nutmeg, ripe figs, and pepper. And in the super-taster-powered world of The Drops of God it is not an irreproducible result at all. It is adjudged that Tomine’s description of the wine is in accord with Yataka Kanzaki’s own—who, we learn, had visited Paris to see “The Angelus,” and declared that it reminded him of the ’82 Mouton! What are the odds of that? Don’t ask; just enjoy the poetry.
But in Japan, as elsewhere, wine also draws in those who do not see its poetry, the sort of people who would try to buy a Picasso from “the best period.” In the first volume one wonders whether the series’ creators themselves fall in this category, so fulsome is the worship of Henri Jayer as “the God of Burgundy” and of the “Big Five” Bordeaux first growths, which are consistently called “brands” even in the course of the reverent praise—as if any mere “brand” could inspire such a transcendental experience as Tomine’s ’82 Mouton. Confirmatory references to Parker scores make gratuitous appearances.
But as Shizuku (perhaps along with his creators?) develops a deeper appreciation of wine, some of that label worship subsides. In one episode it becomes Shizuku’s project to disabuse a nouveau riche businessman of his conviction that “I have no need for anything less than top-flight wines. For Bordeaux, the top 5 châteaux and their rivals. Just DRC for Burgundy.” Shizuku makes the point by pouring a selection of off-vintage first growths and lesser wines from better years. I would have made the point differently myself, though. Buying by vintage chart is just as shallow as buying by brand. It’s the same pathological fixation on acquiring what one imagines to be “the best,” only manifesting itself in different criteria for the measurement. But there are many more installments of the series we have yet to see in translation, and maybe its sensibility will continue to mature. I’ll keep reading regardless. What fun are comics if you don’t get to see the good guys win?
For further reading:
September 9, 2012
It finally happened. The tasting note is over, done. It happened without anyone’s noticing. It happened quietly, in the middle of the night. Nobody can say exactly when. But the evidence is all around us. A different way of communicating about wine has emerged. You’ve seen it; I know you have. You’ve probably done it; I know I have. It’s the camera-phone picture of the wine bottle.
If your Facebook news feed doesn’t light up with a few of them every night, you need new friends.
It seems so simple, but it isn’t. The properly composed bottle picture reflects at least as much thought as a detailed tasting note. Will it be a close-up of the label, so much the easier to grasp such key details as the vintage year? Or will it be more of a still life with wine bottle, the viewframe zoomed out sufficiently to hint at the evening’s festivities—the glasses on the table, the white tablecloth and candle, softly out-of-focus revelers in the background? What stage of consumption will be depicted—the bottle fresh from the cellar, not yet uncorked? The bottle half-drunk, in flagrante delicto, glistening tears of red dripping down its neck? Or the dead soldier, the empty bottle, drunk up and then immortalized, a triumph of virtual taxidermy? In that last case, will the bottle sit for the photo alone or with his entire company, on orderly lineup of everything drunk that evening?
Will the bottle be shot straight-on? Or will the photographer search for the perfect angle—one which gives the bottle a presence as grandiose and imposing as the wine itself must be, like one of those pictures of the Earth taken from the space station?
Some bottle photographers take pride in the props, arranging the bottle beside a glass and perhaps even the cork, to exhibit its timeworn patina. Other bottles in the background can be used to foreshadow the joyous moments to come. An Instagram effect can enhance the vintage appeal.
Inept bottle photographers always ignore the negative space. Nothing compromises the mood of a statuesque bottle of a Bordeaux first growth quite like an unappetizingly half-eaten plate of food behind it or, worse still, one of the dinner guests caught from the neck down, a stupid slogan on his T-shirt, perhaps even stained with wine from an errant swirl.
The bottles people choose to photograph say much about who they are. For some, only bottles that hit a minimum threshold of price and prestige receive the honor, the photograph serving to enhance the conspicuousness of the consumption for which the wine was bought in the first place. Others are pure hedonists, the act of bottle photography only committed when there is a proper orgy of a dozen or more. The connoisseurs choose to telegraph secret messages, photographing obscurities of no interest to anyone but a select few, the photograph attesting to their taste in finding the bottle worthy of photographing. The collectors tend to photograph their purchases rather than their consumption, rows of identical bottles neatly aligned straight from their styrofoam packaging, no glassware or corkscrew in sight.
Usually, no words are said about the wine. That is the purpose of a picture, after all. But others will comment. Some will pay the compliment of feigning jealousy, their overly enthusiastic “Wow!” politely concealing the fact that they drank the same wine last week and have two cases of it in the cellar. The hardcore enthusiasts will ask how it’s drinking. Well-meaning but clueless friends of the photographer from non-wine-related circles will stop to leave comments along the lines of, “I could sure use a glass of that right now lol,” totally unaware of the hornet’s nest they’ve stepped into.
* * * * *
Is this a good thing or a bad thing, that we’ve gone so far towards replacing a form of writing—however imperfect it might have been—with wordless images? It’s certainly a strange thing, to see a medium that kids use to post pictures of themselves partying and drinking getting coopted by adults posting pictures of what they just drank.
What I like about it is that it makes wine a social experience again. The tasting note is a form of writing invented by wine writers, not wine drinkers. It is traditionally written alone, in a laboratory-like tasting room, all the joy the wine can deliver spit into the sink with it. The subject wines are analyzed but never shared, never even drank.
The photographs, on the other hand, are all about the context. The analysis is irrelevant. Nobody ever comments on a picture of a half-drunk bottle to ask whether it tastes like red currants or black currants. Nobody ever asks about the length of the finish. But they might ask about the dinner, about what was served and who else was there to enjoy it. It’s a welcome reminder of what we’re left with when the wine is gone.
It’s true that great wines have a way of staying with us. The taste and feel of the ones that have captivated us the most are as salient in memory as whatever we drank last night. I have tasting notes on most of mine, just in case I ever forget. Those notes don’t say anything about the occasion, though, where I was or who I was with. But I can remember those things for each one of those wines. It’s good not to let that stuff get cropped out of the picture.
August 4, 2012
One of the mantras that experienced old hands like to repeat to new and learning collectors is, “Buy what you like.” This is absolutely terrible advice. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to end up with hundreds of bottles you won’t drink and can’t sell than to start out “buying what you like.” The California section at WineBid is basically one giant cut-rate, over-the-hill, bought-what-I-liked emporium.
The problem is, how are you supposed to figure out what you like?
The simple answer is that you like a wine when it tastes good. This is another terrible piece of advice. Taste isn’t totally irrelevant to wine, but it’s not nearly as important as some people seem to think. Lots of things taste good. Pizza tastes good, milkshakes taste good, pancakes with maple syrup and a side of bacon taste good, frankly even General Tso’s chicken tastes pretty damn good. In terms of the pure hedonic pleasure of consuming something that tastes good, there probably aren’t too many wines in the world that push the needle further into the visceral pleasure zone than a plate of warm chocolate-chip cookies and a glass of ice-cold milk. So the thing about wine that makes it something worth caring about obviously has very little to do with whether it tastes good, which is why your newspaper doesn’t have a cookie critic and you don’t hear about anyone’s multimillion-dollar cookie collection.
In any event, the tasting-good test leads to a second problem, which is, how are you supposed to figure out what tastes good?
If you stop and think about it, it’s clear that nobody decides that a wine tastes good the same way a child decides that cookies taste better than broccoli. The latter judgment is instinctive, knee-jerk. There is no thought process—or if there is one it occurs at a subconscious level. Wine is different. Deciding that it tastes good or that it’s something one likes is generally the product of a series of smaller, constituent decisions. That’s because it’s often the case that when we think we’ve decided that a wine tastes good, what we’ve really done is decide that it tastes the way we think a good wine is supposed to taste. And that’s a process that has nothing to do with the pushing of pleasure buttons. Instead, it’s an exercise in judgment.
When I first started reading wine magazines, one of the stock phrases in the tasting notes that struck me as especially silly was “lead pencils.” I had tasted plenty of wine and hadn’t come across one yet that tasted like a pencil. Then one day I drank a Lynch-Bages that absolutely reeked of lead pencils. The description in the tasting notes made perfect sense. I was impressed with myself for finding something in the wine that I was supposed to find there, and impressed with the wine for featuring something that it was supposed to feature. But at no point in this mental process of being impressed did I put much thought into whether lead pencils were an attractive component of a wine or not.
If someone else were to have tasted the same wine without reading the tasting notes or having any knowledge that lead pencils are considered a typical characteristic of wines from Pauillac, it’s anyone’s guess whether his reaction would have been more along the lines of, “Hmm, that’s interesting,” or, “Yuck! This tastes like a pencil sharpener!” There is certainly nothing inherent to that cedar-and-graphite sensation that pushes biological pleasure buttons the way chocolate appeals to our sweet tooth. If it appeals, it’s not so much because it delivers intrinsic satisfaction as a matter of taste, but because it delivers the mental satisfaction of a pattern recognition well done.
Which means that when we decide we like a wine, we’ve done just that: we’ve decided it. It was an exercise in thinking—not only, and not even primarily, an exercise in tasting. We keep a mental checklist of what a good wine is supposed to offer, and we decide a wine is good when it manages to meet enough criteria on the list. And that means that the decision that we like the wine has very little to do with the way it tastes, and a lot to do with how we’ve populated that mental checklist.
Take some time to think about how novices evaluate other sorts of things. A particularly fertile example, I’ve noticed, is stereo gear. When you start reading consumer reviews, it does not take very long at all to figure out which reviewers know what they are talking about and which ones don’t. The ignoramuses always comment first and foremost on the bass. They like speakers that deliver a powerful thump. That deep bass thump is one of the main items on their mental checklist of what makes a speaker sound good. On the other side of the spectrum, you can always tell right away which consumer reviewers fancy themselves serious audiophiles. They don’t care much about the bass except to the extent the speaker covers the entire dynamic range without distortion. But one item that looms large on the audiophile’s mental checklist is the “sound stage.” Picture the musicians each standing in a different place in the room. The sound stage is the ability of the hi-fi system to recreate that image so you can imagine exactly where in the room each instrument’s sound is coming from, even though there might be a dozen instruments and only two speakers.
Whether they sound good depends on whose checklist you’re using. And the checklist you’re using depends on how much you know. What sounded good when you didn’t know anything doesn’t sound so good once you know a lot.
If one were to codify the wine novice’s mental checklist, it might look something like this. The first item, in all-capital, 24-point boldface, would probably be, “IS IT DRY?” The same ignoramus alarm that starts flashing above the head of the Amazon reviewer when he praises Skullcandy headphones for their powerful bass is flashing above the head of the lady in the wine shop who asks the guy pouring samples to give her something dry. (And then says that she likes it because it’s dry. And that she doesn’t care for the next one because it’s not as dry. Some people’s checklists are pretty short.)
As people start to learn a little bit more, they add to their checklists. But this is a very impressionable period. A man gets treated to a $200 wine in a steakhouse. It’s the most expensive wine he’s ever had, so it must be good. And it doesn’t taste like any other wine he’s had before, so all of those differences migrate to his checklist. The local wine shop does a brisk business finding a twenty-dollar “Cab” to pitch as a poor man’s Silver Oak. And then one day the man discovers (cue the theme from Psycho) wine critics. He sees all those shelf talkers and reviews in the magazines and finds all sorts of new things to add to his checklist. Some of these come bundled with a style prejudice (“full-bodied” is good; “on steroids” is even better). Some of them are the usual stock “descriptors.” (Make no mistake, our man is now on the lookout for black currants and lead pencils.) And some of them are total non-sequiturs. (How many seconds is the “finish”?)
And then the poor sucker sets up a wine cellar and starts buying what he likes.
If he’s lucky, he passes through this stage in his youth when he doesn’t have a whole lot of money to waste. Otherwise he probably won’t take more than a few months after that first Silver Oak to accumulate several thousand liters of full-bodied black currant lead pencils on steroids with 60-second finishes. If only somebody had told him—if only his future self could step into a wormhole and warn him—do not, do not, buy what you like! At least not for the cellar. Taste as much as you can. Refine that checklist. Learn what you like. And learn why you like it. Then buy all you want.
April 28, 2012
Something about the name itself has a ring of fantasy to it, as if it’s one of those mythical places like Shangri-La or Brigadoon. As it happens, the place is something of a Shangri-La for wine grapes. While the phylloxera plague was laying waste to vineyards through the rest of Europe in the late 1800s, the vines in Colares, oblivious to all of it, just kept getting older. Phylloxera doesn’t take well to sand, and the vines of Colares, fronting the Atlantic coast a few miles east of Lisbon, were literally buried in the sand. Today, Colares is one of the rarest wines in the world, appearing for sale outside its local markets with the approximate frequency of someone stumbling upon Shangri-La or Brigadoon, because that sand is nowadays more valuable for beach houses than for winegrowing. There were 8,000 acres of Colares at the turn of the twentieth century; barely 50 acres were left by the beginning of the twenty-first.
Colares is not the only place in Europe where the original, ungrafted vines survived because of the sand, but to understand what makes Colares unique you have to—forgive the pun—dig a little deeper. The thing about sand is that while it may be inhospitable to phylloxera, it’s not all that hospitable to serious winegrowing, either. In a 2000 talk, Randall Grahm listed sandy soils as one of a dozen “enemies of terroir” because they are poor in exchangeable minerals. In contrast, if you want a soil with a high cation-exchange capacity, you’re looking for clay.
According to soil microbiologist Claude Bourguignon, who has advised a Who’s Who of elite wine estates, great terroirs are fundamentally about clay. Sure, everybody has their own pet theory of what makes a terroir great, but Bourguignon has some compelling data to back his up. Bourguignon conducted measurements of the internal surface area of clay layers in a number of terroirs and made some interesting discoveries. “All the great white wines have been planted on soils containing small internal clay surfaces and all the great red wines have been planted on soils containing large internal clay surfaces,” Bourguignon reported in an interview in Jacky Rigaux’s Terroir & the Winegrower. “The smallest internal surface measured in France is that of Coulée de Serrant at 52m^2/g. . . . The largest surface currently measured is that of Pétrus at Pomerol, followed by Bonnes Mares at Chambolle-Musigny: 671 m^2/g.” Bourguignon added, “When Bordeaux owners tell me, ‘I have a very good terroir, I have good gravel,’ it makes me smile. . . . The only function of the gravel is to drain water as fast as possible so that the root reaches deeper into the subsoil, there where the good clays are found.”
If clay is a good thing and sand is a bad thing, then why should we expect anything out of an obscure red variety planted on a Portuguese beach? The answer is that Colares is not like other beaches. Dig beneath the sand, and you hit clay. Lots of it. Here is how Raymond Postgate, in his 1969 book Portuguese Wine, described the soil of Colares and the effort required to grow wine there:
Its soil is sand, sometimes as much as ten feet deep; underneath that is a foundation of clay. No vine can grow in sand, and the wine-growers have to dig the sand away, revetting it on the sides lest it fall back on them. A cone-shaped hole some twelve feet across at the top is necessary, and the diggers throwing the sand stand on different levels. When the clay is reached the vine root is driven into the clay nine inches or a foot deep, usually into a hole made by an iron bar. In due course the vine will rise, sand will be built up again round it and it will flower and fruit in the open air. . . . But the travail of growing Colares does not cease with the planting. Because the topsoil is sand and because the summer is long the layered vines have to be propped up to keep them away from the hot earth, which would otherwise burn the grapes. However, they cannot be raised any great distance, for the wind from the Atlantic is violent, and until the month of June at least can damage the vines seriously. They must therefore be protected, and palisades of willow and osier enclose each vineyard.
It’s safe to say that there is no terroir in the world quite like Colares.
And you no longer have to go there to buy some. Importer José Pastor, who specializes in Spanish wines in the natural and traditionalist camps, has added to his portfolio a set of wines from the Adega Regional de Colares, a cooperative representing several dozen growers. (There are almost none left making and bottling their own wine.) The cooperative’s Colares is sold under the label Arenæ and bottled in 500-milliliter format (hey, this stuff is precious); there is actually both a red and a white version, the red from ramisco grapes and the white from malvasia. The current release, the 2004 vintage, retails for $40 at Chambers Street Wines in New York and K&L Wines in California. There is also a cheaper bottling ($15/750ml) with the designation Chão Rijo (“hard soil”) from lesser inland plots in the region without the sandy topsoil and with considerably higher yields.
Chão Rijo does not have the intrigue of true Colares. The Adega’s bottling has some of the carbonic spritz one finds in a lot of natural wines these days which don’t aspire to be much more than everyday quaffers, but the fruit profile is a little too rich and warm to achieve that sort of easy drinkability. The carbonic spritz presents another obstacle because wines made in this fashion tend to require a long decant—sometimes even overnight—to compose themselves, which is more fussing and forethought than anyone wants to invest in a $15 quaffer. Yet when I did manage to come back to the leftovers of the Chão Rijo a few days later, the fruit had mellowed and revealed an interesting earthy quality, so there is indeed more to the wine than you can get from the pop of the cork. Maybe this is the kind of wine where a short rest in the cellar of a few months to a year can eliminate a lot of its awkwardness.
There is nothing awkward about the Colares Arenæ, which has the grace of a ballerina from the first sip to the last. One of the features that growers have consistently observed about vines growing on their own roots is that they manage to ripen grapes somewhere between a half a degree to a full degree lower in potential alcohol than grafted vines. That may not seem like a huge difference, but balance is an inherently precarious thing. A wine at 13.5 degrees alcohol has 8% more alcohol than one at 12.5 degrees; how many things can tolerate an 8% margin of error on a major structural element? Or to put it in aesthetic terms, a little difference becomes a big difference when it’s the difference between just right and not-quite right, which in wine often means the difference between effortless grace and something clumsy or clunky.
By reputation, Colares is tannic and foreboding in its youth, but that’s not the case with the Arenæ, at least not in 2004. With its feminine figure and satiny touch, there’s nothing getting in the way of enjoying it today, and plenty going on in the wine to hold one’s interest from the first sip to the last. Its fruit profile is an immediate contrast to the primary, sunny style of the Chão Rijo; the Arenæ is far more restrained, red-fruited, and just-plain wine-like, in the style of an old-fashioned claret. It’s augmented at first with the enticing, succulent aromas of hanging game and then develops a vivid smokiness as if you had just walked into a cigar shop.
That smokiness seems to be a characteristic of aged Colares, too. I found some 1955 for sale from Antonio Bernardino Paulo da Silva, who also happened to be the producer of the only other Colares I’d ever managed to try until Arenæ hit the market—a 1995, which certainly fit the reputation for being tannic and in need of long aging. The ’55 had certainly achieved that. At first it had me worried that it might have aged a little too long for its own good, because while it was still in fine condition it wasn’t showing all that much personality. But with an hour in the decanter it developed a more distinct character, with scents of smoke and herbal greenery. It also began to reveal what I can only describe as inner strength—remaining light on its feet but somehow becoming both more insistent and more defined. It’s labeled at 11% alcohol, making it a relic in more ways than one.
For further reading:
- Randall Grahm’s speech at the Terroir International 2000 symposium (scroll down).
- Everything you ever wanted to know about cation-exchange capacity but were afraid to ask.
- Interviews with Francisco Figueiredo of the Adega Regionale de Colares at the Reign of Terroir and Slotovino blogs.
- The last five bottles of Antonio Bernardino Paulo da Silva 1955 Colares Chitas Tinto Reserva at WineBid.com.
March 25, 2012
There were only six known copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio in private hands in late 2001, when Abel Berland elected to auction his copy at Chrstie’s along with hundreds of other rare books and manuscripts. It had taken Berland decades to assemble his collection of English literature, philosophy texts, and incunabula—books from the first half-century after the invention of the printing press—and he had previously resolved not to part with them in his lifetime. He changed his mind and decided to sell them off, he said, because “I owe it to the next generation.” He quoted the nineteenth century bibliophile Robert Hoe, who had explained his own decision to auction his legendary collection with the rhetorical question, “If the great collections of the past had not been sold, where would I have found my books?” Berland said he felt a similar responsibility to “nourish the cycle,” as he put it. “Someone has to replenish the supply; if not me, then who?”
Nicholas Basbanes, from whose books on book collecting I pulled this story, dubbed the hobby “a gentle madness.” That gentlemanly respect for the cycle in the rare-book world struck me as a dramatic contrast to the latest scandal to pollute the wine world, where the bequest to future generations from the biggest hoarder of the rare and the great over the last decade is not so much a First Folio but a jeroboam-sized flaming bag of shit on our collective doorstep. If those non-existent Ponsot wines Acker-Merrall tried to auction off a few years ago were the tip of the iceberg, federal authorities seem to have found the iceberg. His name is Rudy Kurniawan, also known, as the feds’ complaint helpfully reminds us, as “Dr. Conti,” and now known as inmate no. 62470-112.
Like most people, I had never heard of Mr. Kurniawan or Dr. Conti or whatever else he calls himself until he initiated an infamous thread on Robert Parker’s discussion board in 2004 headlined, “Last weekend where I tried to kill John Kapon with legendary wines!!” Those more plugged in to the auction circuit surely knew of him sooner. A 2006 L.A. Times puff piece reported that he had been spending over a million dollars a month at wine auctions over “the last several years,” or nearly as long as he could legally drink. “For many years, he was the biggest buyer of fine and rare wines on the planet and basically cornered much of the mega-market,” Kapon later posted on Parker’s board. During that period, sightings were regularly reported of Rudy holding court in restaurants and treating his friends and those aspiring to befriend him to generous quantities of priceless wine, the sheer number of bottles never seeming to militate against the necessity of brandishing a few magnums or methuselahs or other ostentatiously sized bottles. But nobody ever reported at the time that Rudy was having the empty bottles shipped back to him for reincarnation as future auction consignments. That allegation is only one of many bombshells to come out of the FBI investigation. The stacks of homemade Lafite, Lafleur, and Petrus labels seized during the search of his house is another.
They were thick stacks. There was never a whole lot of 1947 Lafleur to go around. If you’ve ever seen one, it seems a safe bet it came from Dr. Conti’s kitchen.
The revelations and arrest have triggered a mass outbreak of schadenfreude of the type last seen when Martha Stewart and Leona Helmsley were facing hard time. But I am going to go out on a limb and speculate that very little of it has to do with righteous anger over the alleged fraud operation, the same way nobody ever really cared what Martha knew or when she knew it about ImClone stock. However many Romanée-Contis Dr. Conti doctored, only a small proportion of the people remarking on the story could have been buying bottles expensive enough to come within the potential victim class. The rest of us have felt our wallets lighten in a more indirect fashion, and that’s what most of the schadenfreude and righteous anger is about.
Reflect on what Kapon said about Kurniawan: he cornered the market. Cornered the market! That 2006 article also reported: “Since he started buying, prices for rare wine have skyrocketed. As he stepped up his acquisitions in 2004, a dozen other ultra-rich buyers emerged to compete with him for the best bottles. And the market for old wine exploded.” The article quoted Allen Meadows as stating that older Burgundies “are selling for 20 times what I used to pay only a couple of years ago” and reported that Meadows “believe[d] Kurniawan’s heavy buying has been a significant factor.” The effect was not limited to people buying $75,000 cases of 1971 Romanée-Conti. It trickled down to new releases and less-grand wines and assured that unless you were willing and able to spend Rudy money, you would never get the chance to drink them again. With respect to the prices for the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that there is Before Rudy and After Rudy. The “After Rudy” price of the Domaine’s Grands-Echezeaux is roughly the same as the “Before Rudy” price of the Romanée-Conti. “After Rudy” Echezeaux costs more than “Before Rudy” La Tâche. In Bordeaux, Château Lafleur used to cost less than a tenth the price of Petrus, but Rudy took a fancy to it and now they’re both in the $1,000-a-bottle club.
The philosopher John Locke had a theory that man is morally free to pluck something out of nature and make it his own so long as he leaves “enough, and as good,” behind for others. Rudy’s bankroll, wherever it came from, was apparently enough to make even the most treasured wines as freely available to him as a fruit plucked off a tree. But he never evidenced any regard for others who might have shared his passion, or left enough, and as good, behind for them.
If he also felt himself entitled to flood the market with counterfeit wines in order to finance his own habit, that adds a more sinister variation to the theme—but it’s the same theme underneath it all. The image of Rudy sitting alone in his kitchen consuming one treasure after another like a feudal lord exercising his droit du signeur and then recycling the defiled bottles for auction sales borders on sociopathic. For a generation hence the awkward scent of a California pinot noir wafting from a legitimate DRC bottle will serve as a mocking proclamation that Rudy got to it first.
It actually compounds the offense that his appreciation for wine seems to have been genuine. Even the fraudsters hawking fake Vermeers or Van Goghs didn’t destroy the originals to make their copies.
Every hobby has its scoundrels, but some are classier than others. One of the “collectors” profiled in Basbanes’ series is Stephen Blumberg, whom the FBI tracked down after he’d stolen over 23,000 valuable books from libraries and curated collections in 42 states. Basbanes’ account is almost sympathetic, because he senses that the mania that drove Blumberg to serial thievery is the same mania that drove others to cultivate legitimate collections. Blumberg confessed to Basbanes that he’d rationalized what he’d done as acts of rescue. Surely some of them had rested in anonymity before being whisked away to a place at least one person would cherish them. His agony when the feds seized and—worse—recategorized his books should ring with familiarity to anyone who shares the collector gene. One of the conditions of his bail was that he not enter any museum or library. I noticed that one of the original conditions for Rudy Kurniawan’s bail, which has since been stayed given the flight risk, is that “the defendant is not to consume alcohol.” For a moment I almost felt some sympathy for the devil. If any part of the show he put on over the last decade was genuine, the prospect of months or years without wine must be striking him as an unbearable agony. But the rest of us are better off for it. Rudy’s already consumed more than his fair share.
For further reading/viewing:
- A two-hour program on the Abel Berland Rare Book Library Sale at Christie’s, on C-SPAN’s BookTV.
- Nicholas Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness and Patience and Fortitude at Amazon.com.
- Mike Steinberger’s indispensable shoe-leather reporting on the Rudy affair, with links to the complaint and smoking gun(s).
- The epic Wine Berserkers Rudy thread (including a copy of Rudy’s original Parker board post), for those with time to spare who haven’t relished every word already.