The Uncanny Wine Men

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:

Still Life with Wine

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.

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.

Feet Buried in the Sand

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

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:

On Language and Dogma

February 5, 2012

Not long ago I was in a restaurant and wine bar deciding what to drink when the waiter came by and mentioned that if we were interested in natural wines, he had a number of exciting ones he could recommend. I didn’t have to ask him what he meant by “natural wines.” I understood, and he understood that I understood. Among the wines on offer were Champagnes from Anselme Selosse and Vouette & Sorbée, Rhônes from Thierry Allemand and Dard & Ribo, Loire Valley reds from Thierry Puzelat, Beaujolais from Marcel Lapierre and Yvon Métras, and Burgundies from Philippe Pacalet and the De Moors—exactly the names you would hope and expect to see on a list specializing in natural wines. So it is a little strange to read complaints by intelligent people like Mike Steinberger and David Schildknecht complaining that the term “natural wine”—even the idea of natural wine—is illegitimate because it lacks a clear definition. If the term is so poorly defined, how come there are so many people who understand exactly what it means?

Steinberger recently wrote a blog post following up on his 2010 Slate article, “Down with the Natural Wine Movement,” whose teaser was: “The word ‘natural’ is meaningless.” The occasion for the post was a recent Eric Asimov column defending the movement against its critics. While the thesis of Asimov’s column was that some such critics ought to try actually drinking some of the wines before decrying the genre, all three pieces have a lot more to say about the nomenclature than the wines themselves. Apparently the wines don’t need defending, but the name we have to call them by does.

As it happens, Steinberger, like others who have complained that the term “natural wine” is meaningless, has said enough to reveal that he’s fully aware of its meaning. Natural wines, he writes,

are described as those that have been made with minimal involvement by the vintner. As with organic and biodynamic wines, the grapes must come from vineyards that have not been treated with synthentic chemicals; what sets natural wines apart is that the same hands-off approach is supposed to be carried into the cellar. The winemaker performs only those tasks that require midwifery, such as crushing the fruit. Apart from that, the wines are left to birth themselves. . . . This means relying on ambient yeasts—those floating around the cellar and vineyard—rather than commercial ones, eschewing high-tech toys like spinning cones and reverse osmosis machines, and neither acidifying wines nor otherwise tinkering with their composition.

Steinberger now asks, “If they are going to classify wines as ‘natural,’ aren’t they obliged to explain what it takes to earn that distinction?” Why bother? He’s done such a good job explaining it himself! His definition seems accurate, and nearly comprehensive. Elsewhere he mentions other additions such as powdered tannins and oak chips, which are also verboten.

So what’s the problem that leads to the charge of meaninglessness? Well, you see, there are certain additions like sulfur dioxide or sugar for chaptalization that are not considered per se disqualifiers from natural-wine status. “Hardliners” and “strict constructionists” might eschew them, but other naturalistes don’t. For his part, Schildknecht proposes a few other alleged borderline cases, such as fining agents.

To hear these sorts of complaints, you would think that “natural wine” is the only phrase in the English language that has ever described a fuzzy set or a gray area. A few months back, Steinberger used the words “traditionalist” and “classic” to describe the Barolos of Mauro Mascarello. These were apt descriptions because, as Steinberger wrote then, “although they have made some concessions to modernity—stainless steel, temperature-controlled fermentation vats, for instance—you will not find roto-fermenters or French oak barrels in their cellar.” And yet nobody complained that the word “traditionalist” was meaningless, or that it was illegitimate to call anyone a traditionalist so long as someone among them was willing to make an allowance for modern temperature-controlled fermentation vats. Had anybody done so, it probably would have provoked little more than eye-rolling, because if you compare what Mascarello does to what an unabashed modernist does and deny that there are material differences between the two, it will be understood either that you are fantastically ignorant or that you are playing cheap rhetorical games.

The current critique of “natural wine” is one of those cheap rhetorical games.

Steinberger says that “the biggest problem” with the concept of natural wine is that it’s subjective, because “there is no official classification for natural wines, no sanctioning body that decrees whether or not a wine qualifies.” If that’s the biggest problem, one can only conclude that the concept is practically problem-free. How many words in the dictionary need an official sanctioning body to decree what comes within their definition? Is there an official sanctioning body in Piedmont declaring that Mauro Mascarello’s practices are “traditionalist”?

For Schildknecht, the problem is that proponents of natural wine “routinely reject wines because of one or another thing that was done to them, while refusing to draw the logical conclusion that some subset of practices serves as a litmus test of legitimacy.” I can resolve that problem for Schildknecht by stating that I personally am not at all uncomfortable with there being some litmus tests of legitimacy. If a wine has been in a reverse-osmosis machine, it’s not a natural wine. If it contains Mega-Purple or grape concentrate, it’s not a natural wine. I doubt that anyone who accepts the reality that there is indeed such a thing as natural wine would disagree with those judgments. Sure, eventually we will exhaust the easy litmus tests and face some debatable propositions as well as some questions that can go either way, depending on the totality of the circumstances. This has been true of every school of thought, philosophy, and movement in human history, none of which have ever been denied the right to call themselves by whatever name has stuck.

Like many schools of thought, the idea of natural wine is based on a collection of principles of varying levels of importance and relatedness to one another. Together, they sketch out an ideal, and the fact that some may hew closer to that ideal than others doesn’t make the definition meaningless, any more than the definition of the color blue is rendered meaningless by the fact that some shades of blue are more or less blue than others.

The realities are these. There exists a set of wines made according to a particular ideal. There are enough similarities between them, in execution and in result, that people who find themselves enjoying one of those wines will surely enjoy a good number of the others. In addition to being enjoyable, these wines are interesting, and some people who like to drink them also like to talk about them. To talk about them, they need a vocabulary for doing so, words for describing the set and the ideal. The word that has stuck is “natural.” If some people don’t like that word, it’s incumbent upon those people to propose another word to describe the concept, and get it to stick. But it has to stick among the people who are actually interested in talking about it, not among the people who only participate in the discussion to protest that the thing being discussed doesn’t exist and isn’t worth talking about.

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At least part of this backlash against the people who like to drink and talk about natural wines is motivated by the belief that they are being self-righteous about it. Steinberger accuses “journalists, importers, and retailers” of turning natural wine into “an ideological crusade.” Apparently, they stand accused of the high crime of believing that some wines are better than others and that it is interesting to talk about why.

I believe that myself, wholeheartedly. But I’m not on any ideological crusade for natural wines, which probably represent a minority of the wines that I drink and cellar. They are a worthy genre of wines. There are other worthy genres, too. I could not pretend to know by tasting alone whether a wine was made with native yeasts or cultured yeasts, but I have had many profound wines that I know to have been made with the latter. Indeed, if there is any criticism to be made about the natural-wine movement, it’s that it seems to have been far more successful producing tasty wines than it has producing truly profound ones.

And yet many profound wines might fit within the definition of natural but don’t choose to associate themselves with the movement. Steinberger says pretty much the same thing, but pitches it as some kind of indictment of the naturalistes: “Aubert de Villaine and Paul Draper have worked in a ‘natural’ way for decades, but they have never categorized their wines as ‘natural’ or peddled the kind of dogmatism that is standard fare with the natural crowd.” Let’s unpack that sentence, because it presents two separate issues worth dealing with.

The first is the fact that two benchmark producers of what are indisputably the greatest wines of their respective appellations don’t choose to associate their wines with the natural-wine genre despite working more-or-less naturally. I don’t know their reasons. Both are clearly sympathetic to the ethos, even if they’re not interested in or not comfortable with the label. That’s their own decision, and it should not function as an indictment of anyone who makes a different decision and wants to make their allegiance to natural processes explicit. (As it happens, Henry-Frédéric Roch, the other gentleman whose signature appears on every bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti along with Aubert de Villaine’s, makes ultra-natural Burgundies at his personal estate Domaine Prieuré-Roch which are intensely sought after everywhere natural wines are drunk or sold; and Lalou Bize-Leroy, of course, has made every effort to define her domaine as biodynamic.)

Then there is the matter of dogmatism. I can’t think of any examples of the offense myself, and Steinberger doesn’t mention any, but I’m willing to stipulate that it’s out there somewhere—though hardly in a form any more strident than some of the dogmatism that has been deployed in defense of other winemaking philosophies, such as, for example, traditionalist Barolo. (Some quotations from traditionalist Barolo makers: “A modern winemaker is like Berlusconi. He is the model. He embodies this way of looking at the market, at the economy.” —Maria-Therese Mascarello. “The damn shame was that, instead of saving the tradition of this land, they followed the way of the modernist, in other words, the way of the market. . . . Any use of the barrique is crossing the tradition, because it is not part of our tradition.” —Giuseppe Rinaldi. “There is one and only one Barolo, defend it!” —Bartolo Mascarello.)

I don’t see anything wrong with a little dogmatism when it comes to wine.

Tonight, tens of millions of Americans will be overcome with passionate intensity over a football game, and they’ll scream and howl at their friends and their spouses and their television sets over which group of hired millionaire thugs will carry a ball over more yardage than the other one. The outcome of this game will have no wider significance to anything else in our culture, but still people will yell and brawl and probably get stabbed in the head over their differing viewpoints on which team ought to win. Any dogmatism over how wine is made is completely insignificant in comparison. And yet the question of how wine is made carries a lot of cultural significance, because it is a microcosm of our larger cultural dilemma over whether we still value genuine articles over their synthetic imitations, and how far along the spectrum between the two we are willing to travel before we lose the ability to draw any distinctions between them.

Let’s get back to the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Bill Nanson of Burgundy-Report has a new book out on the region that seems to aim for a more democratic outlook than the typical Burgundy tomes, which have mostly run out of novel ways to express their rapture over the most elite of the grand crus. He makes an interesting observation about DRC that I’ve never previously seen crystallized quite so well, which is that even though prices have made the domaine’s wines inaccessible to a majority of the people who might appreciate them, DRC is more relevant to Burgundy drinkers than ever due to the “trickle-down” effect of its practices’ serving as an inspiration for others to reach for the same heights. I think the natural-wine movement is starting to have a trickle-up effect in a similar fashion. Producers in historic regions have taken note of what the best producers of natural wine have managed to achieve in humbler zip codes such as the Touraine and Beaujolais, and this gives them confirmation that there are ways of making their product relevant other than hiring fancy consultants to ratchet up their Parker points. It doesn’t make a difference whether they choose to call their wines natural or something else. What matters is that natural wines represent something important and worth talking about, and that conversation can’t happen if we don’t even have any words to describe them.

For further reading:

Patience and Fortitude

January 15, 2012

For people who collect wine, one of the nice little perks of a New Year rolling around is how it officially ticks up the calendar age of all the bottles in the cellar. Those 2002s which might have seemed too young to enjoy at nine years old may finally be knocking on the door of drinkability at age ten! This sort of thing can take the sting out of our own birthdays, too. Sure, each one brings us a little closer to the date our limbs start creaking and our pants won’t stay up without suspenders, but our wines are there to grow old with us.

The problem is that it really does require growing old. For most wines meant for aging, two years in the cellar or five years or even ten isn’t enough to take a wine to any place more compelling than it was on the day it came out. In fact, most are likely to taste quite a bit worse since that’s the age at which the shut-down phase of a wine’s evolution can be at its fiercest. Planning to age these wines five or ten years is like setting your warp-speed drive to a coordinate in the middle of an asteroid. You came so far but you picked the worst possible place to stop.

The uncomfortable truth is that great Bordeaux and Burgundy almost always needs at least twenty-five years of cellaring to be worth your while, sometimes more. When I think back to my most memorable Burgundy experiences over the last few years, the youngest vintage that offered truly magnificent and perfectly ready-to-drink wines was 1985—26 years past the vintage date in 2011. And that was a relatively precocious vintage. After that, you have to go back to 1978 and 1971. Bordeaux actually fares a bit better, mostly because 1989 and 1990 offered some wines on an atypically fast track to maturity. But if you restrict yourself to the more classic vintages, everything younger than 1986 is best kept undisturbed, and frankly even the ’86s seem to me to need a few more years. None of them offer the satisfaction of a perfectly à point claret that you can get nowadays from the best of the 1975, 1971, 1970, 1966, and older vintages. Twenty-five years, then, doesn’t even take you to the summit, only to the very beginning of the period in which you finally don’t have to feel like it’s a waste to open a bottle.

I don’t think enough wine collectors have put as much thought as they should have into the significance of this fact. Pause, then, to consider what can happen in a period of twenty-five years. It is the span of time in which a person can be born, grow up, finish college and graduate school, spend some aimless years wandering Europe or occupying Wall Street, and start procreating on his own.

Where will you be in twenty-five years?

Where were you twenty-five years ago?

I was 10. And if I had traded in my baseball cards for 1986 Bordeaux futures, I’d still be sitting and waiting on most of them.

One of the industry’s favorite ways to hype modern Bordeaux vintages is by comparing them to the ’47s. If the greatest bottle of Bordeaux you drink this year has a 1947 vintage tag on it, your 2009 will get there in the year 2074. Babies born in 2009 will qualify for Medicare in 2074.

People sometimes joke about a wine that it’s so backwards they’re really buying it for their grandchildren. It’s always a joke—a figure of speech, an expression of hyperbole. You seldom hear it lead to the dawn of realization: Hmm, I guess I really am buying this for my grandchildren.

The time frame necessary for wines to evolve from release to maturity wasn’t much of a problem when they were purchased by English aristocrats who actually were passing them on to their children, because they had inherited a drinking stock from their parents. The situation is a bit different now that most wine collectors picked up the interest on their own and had to start from scratch. They tend to view wine like any other consumer product and think that owning a wine is as simple as buying it. The reality is that even when those bottles are actually in your hands, you don’t really possess them. What you have is more like a contingent future interest, at best a postdated check. Someday it will mature, if all goes well. But the idea that you actually have in your possession the wine you thought yourself to be buying is a dangerous illusion that has had unsettling effects on the market. Does anyone doubt that the unprecedented price escalation of recent years owes a lot to the thrill of acquiring coveted symbols of wealth and taste? Does anyone think that other such symbols—take, for example, a Picasso—would fetch the prices they do if instead of getting a Picasso, you got a certificate promising to deliver a Picasso in twenty-five years?

None of this means we should forget about the long-agers. It is probably good for the soul to have so much invested in something that demands so much patience. But a smart collector definitely needs a strategy other than acquiring as much as possible of the best wine one can afford. Here are some of the things I do:

Take advantage of deals when a vintage tastes its absolute worst. Wine collectors can be a fickle and demanding lot, always asking what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. Most great vintages go through a long stretch in which they don’t do anything at all, which inevitably leads to nervous nellies fearing that they were never any good in the first place and trying to get rid of all those impulse bottles they bought when the hype was irresistible. For years now, the 1995 Bordeaux vintage and the 1996 Burgundy vintage have been in this category. Buying either one gives you roughly a decade’s head start over the 2005s in the aging marathon. A quarter-century wait can try anyone’s patience, but if a ten-year wait sounds manageable you can buy these ’95s and ’96s now and be rewarded with twenty-five years of bottle aging once the decade’s up. And they’re priced fairly because if you were to open a bottle now, you probably wouldn’t be very impressed.

Sure, perhaps the prices also reflect a risk that the nervous nellies are right and the wines will never be as good as people initially thought. But I’m willing to bet otherwise. The thing is, it’s only recently that we’ve developed this compulsion to follow every vintage obsessively as it ages and reevaluate its worth in a state of constant realtime flux like brokers shouting “SELL! SELL!” on the New York Stock Exchange floor when a bad earnings report hits the wires. Previously, it was simply understood that wine was to be put away until it was ready. So there’s every likelihood that if we had a fossil record of people revisiting all the legendary vintages of the past at age 15, there’d have been all kinds of worrying about those wines, too. Which leads me to…

Resist temptations to “check in.” Or at least don’t do it with bottles from your own cellar. It’s one thing to sacrifice a bottle for the sake of science when you can easily go and buy more. It’s another thing when they’ve already run half the marathon. The investment you’ve put in cellaring a bottle for ten years can’t be replaced by anything. You have the peace of mind of knowing that it’s spent its whole life in perfect conditions and will likely emerge showing better than any bottle of the same wine you can find anywhere else. These are the most precious bottles in any wine cellar: not necessarily the most expensive or the rarest, but the ones that have had the most invested in their care and upbringing. We should be just as hesitant to open these as we are with “special occasion” bottles. You can always buy another trophy wine if you’re willing to pay for it, but time is more precious than money. Respect the investment you made.

Don’t forget the short-term agers. There seem to be a lot of misconceptions out there about what kind of wines reward short-term aging, which I’ll define as anywhere from three to ten years. The most oft-repeated bad advice is to buy lesser wines from great regions, such as appellation or village wines in Burgundy or basic Langhe nebbiolo in Piedmont. The problem is that hierarchies in wine tend to be defined by the heights a wine can reach, not by the time it takes to get there. A basic Gevrey will never manage to push all the buttons that a Chambertin can, but the time it will need to reach the point of tasting like a mature wine is not substantially less. Open some cheap 1999s if you don’t believe me. They still taste like young wines if they aren’t closed up altogether, and they are ten years past release. By the time they’ve peaked, you might wish you’d shelled out a few more dollars for the premier crus, anyway.

With the exception of those few legendary wines that seem ageless and immortal no matter how old they get, the rate of evolution for a wine seems to me to depend more on the simple fact of what type of wine it is (region, grape) than where it stands in the quality hierarchy of its type. So rather than buying basic wines from the most elite regions, focus on the very best wines in categories that just age faster. Beaujolais offers some options; a wine like Lapierre Morgon seems to offer real tertiary character seven or eight years after release. New World regions are also useful for this and needn’t require any stylistic compromises so long as you avoid the sort whose winemakers appear on magazine covers. For example, Henschke’s Mount Edelstone shiraz and Mount Langi Ghiran’s shiraz at ten years old are packed with the same character one craves in mature northern Rhônes. Over really short timespans, though, white wines of course deliver the biggest payoff. The best Sancerres from producers like the Cotats, top albariños such as Do Ferreiro’s Cepas Vellas, and, in a similar category, Henry Marionnet’s ancient-vine Provignage romorantin all show a visceral awesomeness with as few as three years in the cellar that’s not even hinted at in the pale, gossamer liquid they are on release. And of course there is riesling. People hear stories of transcendental German rieslings at forty years of age and assume they all need to be put away forever. But a typical spätlese at eight to ten years old is already a very different animal than it was on release, and there is a good argument to be made that this is their real peak period inasmuch as further development can come at the expense of energy and vibrancy. This is not at all a bad time to be drinking 2001s, 2002s, and 2003s.

Support producers who age their wine for you. The current releases of Lopez de Heredia’s Viña Bosconia and Viña Tondonia Rioja Gran Reservas are the 1991s. Renaissance Winery is still offering six cabernets and claret blends from 2001 or earlier. Calera and Mayacamas regularly offer library selections. And there are tons of 2002 Champagnes just recently put on store shelves, which, if you do the math, are already ten years old. Some of them will only need a few more years to get where you want them to be.

Don’t believe the bullshit. For the same reasons that lots of folks who buy thousands of bottles of wine wouldn’t get so carried away if they understood that it meant a decades-long commitment, people who buy publications reviewing thousands of bottles of wine might lose some interest in the chase if the reviewers were honest about how much time those wines really needed to make the purchase worth the while. But sometimes telling the truth isn’t as clear a path to fame and fortune as telling people what they want to hear. I recently looked back at the initial Wine Spectator reviews for the 1995 and 1996 Bordeaux vintages, which is where I got my own start in this game. Here are some of the actual drinking windows they projected back then. 1995 Lafite-Rothschild: “Best after 2000.” 1995 Haut-Brion: “Best after 2001.” 1995 Latour: “Best after 2002.” But the review of the 1996 Latour takes the cake. It concludes: “This is how they built clarets in the great years of the 1960s and 1950s. Best after 2005.” This was worse than blind speculation; it was a willful denial of reality. How many first-growth clarets from 1961 or 1959 or 1955 were at their best six years after release? If you’re going to make the serious monetary investments that wine now requires, you have to do it with your eyes open. It would be great to see that investment pay off in as little as three years, but that’s just wishful thinking.

Don’t doubt for a moment that it’s worth it. We live in the age of short-attention spans and instant gratification. Most of us don’t volunteer for many undertakings that require a whole human generation’s worth of planning and commitment before bearing fruit. But if you want to experience wine at its most sublime, there are no alternatives. A lot of producers have reconciled themselves to (or cynically embraced) the new reality that there are a whole lot of people who want to fancy themselves wine connoisseurs without having to put in any time waiting for their prized acquisitions to develop. These producers offer wines designed to provide thrills on release, making the implicit promise that they may offer a different kind of pleasure than the satisfaction of drinking a perfectly mature, classically made wine from a great terroir but that both are equally profound experiences that ding at the same point on the pleasure-o-meter. That’s snake oil, of course. Nobody’s obligated to read the classics all the time. It’s nice to lose oneself in a trashy page-turner on occasion. But one is no substitute for the other.

Everybody with a wine cellar should make an effort—at least once a year, more often if you can—to consume one majestic old bottle that reminds you exactly why we’re in this. Even if it requires a flagrant defiance of your comfort zone in an auction, a splurge at an expensive restaurant, or a flight to Tampa. The wine should be at least thirty years of age, ideally forty or more, and come with provenance you can trust. My bet is that it lingers in your mind like nothing else you drink all year and puts all those ten-year-old bottles in perspective. I can’t think of any better way to instill the patience and fortitude necessary to get some of one’s own bottles carried along on the same journey.

The Umpire and the Judge

December 31, 2011

One of my law professors, the late E. Allan Farnsworth, was fond of a parable about a crew of baseball umpires gathered at a bar after the game to talk shop. (While not essential to the substance of the story, it works best if you imagine the appropriate local accents and period details: This is definitely a bar nearabouts the Polo Grounds or Ebbets Field; figure there’s a newsboy outside in a tweed cap shouting “Extra! Extra!” and perhaps a few fruit carts.) Each one of the umps has something to say about how to do the job.

“Some o’ dem pitches are balls, and some are strikes,” says one. “I calls ’em as I sees ’em.”

“Sure, some o’ dem are balls and some o’ dem are strikes,” says the second ump, twiddling a toothpick. “I calls ’em what they are.”

The third ump chomps down on a cigar. “Now, some o’ dem pitches look like balls, and some o’ dem pitches look like strikes. But they ain’t nothin’ ’til I call ’em.”

*   *   *   *   *

Apparently the new issue of the Wine Advocate is out, which is a big deal everyone is talking about because it contains the first report on California’s Napa Valley since the Emperor of Wine bequeathed coverage of the region to his designated successor, Antonio Galloni. Galloni may or may not be calling them as he sees them, but to many of his readers the wines ain’t nothin’ ’til the Wine Advocate calls them. Consider, for example, one of the common locutions in modern winespeak: phrases of the form “95-point wine” to refer to a wine rated 95 points by the Advocate or a selected number of other wine publications with a similarly authoritative aura. (Wine Spectator qualifies, but the Wine Enthusiast doesn’t. Don’t ask why; it’s just something everybody knows.) The idea seems to be that the point rating is an intrinsic, physical property of the wine, as if the ritual of scoring actually transsubstantiates the liquid from mere wine to 95-point wine. And that property remains with it for its entire life and beyond. A 95-point wine is always a 95-point wine, even as it closes down, matures, fades, and dies (a process which can take decades in some regions, but which can take barely longer than it takes a carton of milk to go bad in the case of many highly rated California wines).

When the transition to Galloni was first announced, a chorus of writers and merchants let themselves get excited by the prospect that it might represent a revolutionary philosophical change at the Wine Advocate and that the overblown, cartoonish wines that Parker had scored so ridiculously high for so long would finally get their comeuppance. I never bought into this fantasy. Galloni went on record stating that “[i]n terms of critical evaluation, one of the main things I look for is conviction. The style of the wine is less important to me than feeling that a winemaker is 100% behind what they are putting into the bottle.” I really mean no disrespect to Galloni, who has proven himself a man of discerning taste, but to me that approach is a wholesale abdication of the duties of critical evaluation—equivalent to calling a pitch two feet wide of the plate a strike so long as that’s the target the pitcher was aiming for. Criticism in any field is supposed to involve an exercise of judgment, which necessarily entails inquiring not only whether something is a good example of what it is aiming to be, but also whether what it is aiming to be has any value to it in the first place.

Oscar Wilde put it best in his dialogue “The Critic as Artist”:

Ernest. Well, I should say that a critic should above all things be fair.

Gilbert. Ah! not fair. A critic cannot be fair in the ordinary sense of the word. It is only about things that do not interest one that one can give a really unbiased opinion, which is no doubt the reason why an unbiased opinion is always absolutely valueless. The man who sees both sides of a question, is a man who sees absolutely nothing at all. . . . One should, of course, have no prejudices; but, as a great Frenchman remarked a hundred years ago, it is one’s business in such matters to have preferences, and when one has preferences one ceases to be fair. It is only an auctioneer who can equally and impartially admire all schools of Art.

As in any other creative field, there is a spectrum of sensibilities that wine can be made to appeal to—which is the most politic way I can think of to say that there are highbrow wines and lowbrow wines. But the peculiar thing about wine is that it seems to be the only creative field whose critics utterly refuse to distinguish between the two. You will not find a music critic willing to argue that bubblegum pop music is as important as Beethoven, or even one who reviews both on the same terms as though they are the same kind of thing. But that is exactly what is occurring in wine criticism today. Sure, most critics don’t take the mass-produced commercial brands all that seriously, but many of the wines they do take seriously and esteem as truly great hew to the same vulgar aesthetic. Occasionally a gadfly might come along and proclaim that the emperor has no clothes. But a critic who aims to be indifferent to style is in no position to do so, because it can be said even of the most appalling styles that “people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like,” as the old saying goes.

The other problem with this sort of style agnosticism is that it is never applied consistently. Suggest that a critic ought to malign an expensive, sought-after wine and you will immediately be reminded that there are readers who like the style and are only interested to know whether the wine is a good exemplar of that style or not. But the same supposed obligation to meet the wine on its own terms is never enforced in the case of wines with less mainstream appeal. You will never see a 99-point mondeuse. That is, of course, fully justifiable if a critic believes in fundamental standards of excellence and has made the determination that even the finest mondeuse does not have the virtues of a great cabernet. But what’s the justification for that disparity if the critic isn’t even purporting to judge the intrinsic value of one style or another? Surely any number of quirky, offbeat wines can be made with at least as much “conviction” as a glitzy cabernet in a heavy bottle with a celebrity consultant and a waiting list for its waiting list.

*   *   *   *   *

Unfortunately, the new Wine Advocate continues the familiar pattern, with most of the big scores awarded to the same kind of wines that got those numbers from Parker. In fact, as Alder Yarrow concludes at Vinography, “Galloni’s scores match Parker’s with an almost scary precision.” Which is why a lot of folks can’t help but suspect that Galloni isn’t exactly calling ’em as he sees ’em. Nothing in Galloni’s biography or body of work to date suggests that if he could choose to drink anything at all, he’d be inclined to choose a truly epic piece of trash like, say, Kongsgaard “The Judge” Chardonnay (a “98+”). Probably he just thinks he’s being fair, as Wilde’s Ernest would have had it.

But maybe this pattern makes more sense if one considers the possibility that calling ’em as they see ’em isn’t really the main service that many collectors want their critics to perform for them. Sometimes it seems as if the desired service is not recommendation but ratification. Perhaps it’s within the realm of theoretical possibility that somewhere in the world there is a new Wine Advocate subscriber, perhaps recently emerged from a coma or released from long captivity in an Iranian prison, totally unaware that the anointed trophies of the new issue are mostly the same names the Advocate and the Spectator have been pumping for umpteen years, and he’s war-dialing wine retailers as I write these very words trying to capture those must-have bottles of Abreu, Bryant, or Kongsgaard. More likely, however (and no need to flog me!—believe me, I am so deeply ashamed of the cynicism that I shall administer the flogging myself), the typical Parker subscriber already has a capacious cellar stocked with the approved selections and a regular incoming flow of more of the same, and his interest isn’t necessarily in being told what to buy but in having the sagacity of his existing investments reaffirmed. Even if he wasn’t forced into buying the same Napa wines year in and year out just to keep his place on the mailing list, he’s already got a relatively settled array of names on his radar screen and he’s not about to revert to tabula rasa and wrap his head around an entire new universe of wines  any sooner than Antonio Galloni is going to go and give 99 points to a mondeuse. But all those wines coming in . . . “they ain’t nothin’ ’til I call ’em” . . . where’s the pride in ownership supposed to come from, if they’re just wines? They need to be 95+ point wines. A critic has to step up to the plate.

For further reading/viewing:

  • Antonio Galloni interviewed by Tyler Colman at Dr. Vino.
  • Commentary on Galloni’s Napa Valley report from Fred Swan, W. Blake Gray, and Alder Yarrow, and, in case you’re tired of the cynicism but not yet tired of that stock photo of Galloni, an alternative perspective from Matt Latuchie at Terroirist.
  • The parable of the umpires as retold by Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy.
  • Oscar Wilde’s The Critic as Artist.
  • On YouTube, a classic Kids in the Hall skit which is always the first thing I think of when I see a cellar full of high-scoring California wines. (I know, I know! More flogging! First column of 2012 will be a ray of happy sunshine, I promise.)

Through a Glass Darkly

December 16, 2011

Two of my biggest wine-collecting regrets pertain to the same wine. A number of years ago I took the advice of a critic and bought half a case of a 2001 Côte-Rôtie which the review had described in enticing language as a powerfully earthy, old-style wine. But when I opened the first bottle and stuck my nose in the glass, instead of the funky thrill ride I was expecting, I got nothing, nothing at all. And it tasted so frail and vacant it seemed like one of those generic older red wines that might have aged just past the point of having any personality left to offer—hardly a promising attribute in a wine just released. A half case of Côte-Rôtie was a not-insignificant investment for me and I felt utterly frustrated that I had five more bottles and absolutely no desire ever to drink one again. I ended up getting rid of them one by one in the time-honored method of disposing of regretted purchases: I brought them to the houses of non-wine folk I figured wouldn’t know the difference. And that was my second regret, because years later I had occasion to drink a vintage with a quarter-century’s worth of age on it, and it was, of course, glorious and brimming with all the personality and depth one craves in a mature Côte-Rôtie.

The wine was Bernard Levet’s Côte-Rôtie La Chavaroche. And since tasting that ’83, I made an effort to restock Levet’s wines in my cellar and taste newer vintages of it to see what I might have missed in the 2001. It seems to me that when a wine or a type of wine you’ve always been bored by suddenly delivers an amazing experience, one of two things usually happens. Either it turns out to have been one of those chance alignments of the stars and leaves you with a memory that’s no less true for being impossible to recreate, or it has an effect uncannily like flipping a switch and somehow activating the area of your brain that can make sense out of the stuff—and once that switch goes on it never goes off. Every subsequent bottle delivers something you’re never quite able to figure out how you missed before.

But Levet hasn’t seemed to fit neatly into either one of those categories for me. Some of the bottles I drank after the epiphany ’83 showed a textural allure I had never noticed before, maybe because it wasn’t in the popularly accepted textbook definition of Côte-Rôtie, which tends to fixate on savory flavor components like bacon and olives. But truth be told, some of the bottles seemed just as anonymous in flavor as the 2001 was years ago. Under other circumstances one might wonder if it’s another case of “they just don’t make ’em like they used to,” but that doesn’t accord with the history of this estate. At Levet, they make ’em exactly like they used to.

Levet Côte-Rôtie is just one example, albeit a particularly demonstrative one. The point of the story is that a whole lot of ageworthy wines are in the same bucket: capable of transformation but not into a form one can discern by extrapolation from how they taste at a young age. And yet an awfully large amount of the verbiage generated about wine seems obsessed with trying to accomplish just that. The standard form of the tasting note has become the familiar catalogue of component scents and flavors followed by a prognostication about the wine’s “anticipated maturity,” and the fact that the person doing the prognostication has almost never personally experienced an example of the wine’s aging in that fashion is, quite astonishingly, not thought by anyone to discredit this exercise.

What’s to blame for this credulousness? Above all, it seems that many of us have some difficulty reconciling ourselves to the idea that anything in wine is truly dormant and beyond our powers of detection. We see the wine as a deterministic universe whose perceptible characteristics at two years of age will dictate what happens at every subsequent frame of development, in the manner of the character from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia who ruminated, “If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future. . . .” The problem is that wine evaluation is not algebra and the soul of a wine is not the sum total of the so-called “descriptors” one reads in the tasting notes. The things that determine how it might develop are not necessarily things you can taste or feel. I once bought some bottles of a relatively inexpensive Graves because it tasted eerily reminiscent of Haut-Brion. A few years later it didn’t. Why? Because it wasn’t Haut-Brion.

But still the idea of aging-by-formula remains the subtext in so many tasting notes purporting to see into the future. In its simplest form, the thought process goes something like this: Tannins help a wine age, and this wine is tannic; therefore it needs time. There are endless variations on the theme: As wines age they lose their baby fat, and this wine has a lot of baby fat; therefore it will be a long time before it fades. Or: Wines integrate with age, and this wine seems very disjointed; therefore it just needs some time to come together. Or: Wine ages on its balance, and this wine is perfectly balanced; therefore it will age effortlessly. You can pluck any one you want to justify any arbitrary prognostication. For example, one person tastes a heavily tannic, backwards wine and concludes it’s structured for long aging. Another person tastes the same wine, decries its lack of balance, and quotes the late Henri Jayer: “If it tastes too tannic, then it is too tannic.” Which one is right? Answer: It depends. Some wines have a track record for starting out punishingly tannic and eventually becoming exquisitely finessed, while other wines that might seem structurally indistinguishable from the starting gate never manage to shed the harshness–or, just as disappointingly, they do shed the tannin but don’t reveal anything interesting in the material that remains.

It’s true that aging is just a series of chemical reactions; it isn’t magic. So if we perceive some of the necessary inputs for those chemical reactions, then choosing to cellar a wine on the basis of an early taste isn’t an entirely blind gamble. But of course the character revealed by aging is of vastly more importance than the mere attainment of longevity. Accordingly, the fact that a wine is “built for the long haul” or “has the stuffing to age” or (insert your favorite cliché here) tells us very little about what we really care about.

I recently opened some newly released Barolos and Brunellos from the 2006 vintage, trying to decide whether I wanted to buy additional bottles of any of them for the cellar. I’m not sure exactly what I was hoping to see. Some of the bottles were beautiful, especially Brovia’s Barolo Rocché. Others were so tough and backwards they hardly offered any pleasure at all, such as the Francesco Rinaldi Cannubbio and Conti Costanti’s Brunello di Montalcino. And this tells me . . . absolutely nothing at all about which ones I will be glad to have bought fifteen or twenty years from now. The 1985 Rinaldi Cannubbio is one of the greatest wines I’ve ever had in my life. Maybe the 2006 will end up in a similar place. But tasting the wine now doesn’t give you any hint of how it might get there.

My proposal is this: Let’s put an end to this silly and misleading practice of opening young wines for the sake of science. Let’s instead resolve that every bottle we open will be for the sake of the satisfaction it can deliver on that day. That doesn’t mean I plan to give up drinking young, newly released wines. That’s not something I’d want to do even if I had an unlimited supply of mature stuff. But I will make an effort to avoid listening to that devil-on-the-shoulder that keeps trying to trick me into trying to sneak a preview of those wines that everybody knows aren’t designed to offer any reward for a long, long time.

For further reading:

  • Importer Neal Rosenthal’s profile of the Bernard Levet domaine, concluding with the much-needed warning that “Bernard Levet’s wines are well-structured wines that are built for aging and experience significant improvement with time in bottle.” It is interesting to observe that Levet owns old vines in the La Landonne vineyard which comprise his Côte-Rôtie Les Journaries bottling and which would cost a few hundred dollars if, for whatever reason, you felt like buying the version from Guigal instead.
  • A book by a famous wine critic characterizing Levet’s wines as “vegetal” and “mediocre,” rating them in the 70s, and advising against aging them.
  • Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia in print, or on CD.

Orange Wine

September 23, 2011

That sommelier,
That sommelier,
I do not like that sommelier.

Can I see your list of wines?
Please, oh please,
Before we dine?

Our list is fine,
Our list is fine.
But won’t you try
This orange wine?

I will not try
That orange wine.
I’d rather have
A glass of Rhine.
I do not drink
Those orange wines.
I do not like them,

Will you drink it
Here or there?

I will not drink it
Here or there.
I will not drink it
I do not drink
Those orange wines.
I do not like them,

Will you drink it
By the glass?
I recommend it
With the bass.

I will not drink it by the glass.
I will not drink it with the bass.
I will not drink it here or there.
I will not drink it anywhere.
I will not drink those orange wines.
I do not like them, anytime.

Will you drink it
In a box?
It’s quite tasty
With the lox.

Not in a box, not with the lox.
Not by the glass, not with the bass.
I will not drink it here or there.
I will not drink it anywhere.
I will not drink those orange wines.
I do not like them, anytime.

Would you? Could you?
On the roof?
Try it! Try it!
It’s not spoofed.

I would not,
Could not,
On the roof.
I would not,
Could not,
Here or there.
I do not drink them

Would you drink it
With the uni?

I would not.
It sounds so loony.

You may like it,
You will see.
Would you try it
In a tree?

I would not, could not,
In a tree.
I’d honestly
Prefer Chablis.
Those orange wines are not for me.
Sommelier, just let me be!

Will you try it
On the house?
Will you try it
With a mouse?

Not on the house! Not with a mouse!
Not in a tree! Just let me be!
I would not, could not, on the roof.
I would not, could not, that’s the truth.
I will not drink it in a box.
I will not drink it with the lox.
I will not drink it by the glass.
I will not drink it with the bass.
I will not drink it here or there.
I will not drink it anywhere.
I will not drink that orange wine.
I do not like them, anytime.

In the dark?
Here in the dark!
It’s not orange in the dark!

I would not, could not,
In the dark.

You do not like
These orange wines?

I do not like them,
Bottom line.

You do not like them,
So you say.
But take a whiff
Of this bouquet!
One whiff and you may, I say.

Just let me say,
I don’t care
If that bouquet
Will make me
Bend my knees to pray.
And I don’t care about the bass
If orange wine’s inside my glass.
And I don’t care about the place
They grow these silly orange grapes.
I don’t care if far away
The sky is orange every day,
And fields of orange vineyards grow
Around an orange-brick chateau,
And grapes are stomped with orange feet
Until the orange wine’s complete
And songs about the wine are sung
In sing-song foreign orange tongues
By tribes of little orange dwarfs
Called the neffer-neffer-norfs!
I do not like those orange wines!
I will not drink them, anytime!
So spare me please the blow-by-blow.
I think it’s time for me to go.

Wait! Just wait!
Before you go,
There is something
You should know.
I did not bring
The list of wines
Although the list
Is mighty fine,
Because our list,
My friend, you see,
Has a certain specialty.
We have a thousand
Wines consigned
And every wine
With which to dine
Is mighty fine,
Sublime, divine!
But all our wines
Are orange wines.

Very well.
If we have to play that way,
My stubborn goateed sommelier,
Then play that way we will, I say.
Play that way we will, I say.
Pour me please that orange wine.
I will drink it, this one time. . . .

Say! I like this orange wine!
I do! I’d drink it anytime!
I would drink it by the glass.
And I would drink it with the bass.
I would drink it in a box.
And I would drink it with the lox.
I would drink it on the house.
And I would drink it with a mouse.
I would drink it with the uni.
I don’t care if it sounds loony!
I would drink it here or there.
I would drink it anywhere!
Thank you, Mister Sommelier!
But there’s one thing I hate to say.
I do not need this orange wine,
Because it didn’t come in time.
It seems that while you stood there bleating
I’d already sat and eaten.
Thank you, Mister Sommelier.
But I’ll just pay and go away.

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