Meditation and Contemplation


The phrase “Wine and Memory” may evoke for readers the memories we carry within ourselves of the great vintages of wine we have consumed or the wonderful times we spent with others, in some trattoria in Tuscany, next to a canal in Venice, on a wind-swept plain in Extremadura, high in the hillsides of the Douro region, in sight on the Andes in Mendoza, or among the lush vineyards of Napa Valley, always with the perfect bottle of wine, be it rare and costly or a simple everyday luncheon quaff, all bound by the congenial cords of friendship and landscape and pleasure.

Those evocative images, however, are not what I intend by writing “wine and memory.” What I mean is the memory of the wine itself, of wine as an evanescent record of the verities of soil and weather and location, the factors that merge to create the character of the wine, along with, of course, the nature of the grape itself. The reverse scenario also applies; wine can be stripped of its memory, rendered forgetful and inchoate.

I was impelled to write this little essay by a recent reading of two books, one of which has nothing to do with wine, the other of which has everything to do with wine.

First, then, from The Situationist City (MIT Press, 1998), in which Simon Sadler, speaking of the anti-modernist situationist architects and designers of the 1960s and ’70s, writes: ” … they deplored modernism’s tabula rasa approach to the city, one that would effectively leave the city without a memory.” And he mentions “the authority of narrative,” by which he means the deep accumulated history of cities that in its layers and diversity create a unique complexion and identification. You may wonder why those ideas reminded me of wine and winemaking, but if you don’t catch the drift, have a little patience.

Let me juxtapose that quotation with two from a book that should be essential (though difficult) reading for anyone connected with making, selling or writing about wine, Robert E. White’s Soils for Fine Wine (Oxford University Press, 2003). Much of the material in this volume is highly technical, algebraic and meticulous, but White, a professor of soil management at the University of Melbourne, makes clear, in his examination of the soils of St. Emilion, the Medoc, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Napa Valley and Australia’s Coonawarra region that there is “a significant influence of soil on wine character for particular grape varieties” grown in those areas. In addition, “the distinctive character of this wine will depend on the terroir (soil and climate), provided this influence is not obscured by extraneous factors in the vineyard or the winery.”

My point in aligning quotations from these disparate volumes is my sense that as in the city decimated by the rationalist and utopian methodology of modern architects, urban designers and sociologists, so it may occur in the vineyard and the winery, where producers have the ability to tailor wines to their own and their customers’ expectations rather than allowing the cogent features of geography, landscape, soil and microclimate — which White narrowly defines as the conditions that maintain in the vine canopy down through the roots — to shape the final product.

Now I am neither so naive nor so romantic that I would advocate for what is called “natural wine,” the current buzz-concept, nor would I assert that wine should “make itself.” For wine to be totally “natural” and “make itself,” it would have to be the product of ripe grapes that fell off the vine and fermented because of native yeasts on the broken skins, an elixir for the beetles and worms that burrow in the dark earth. Making wine calls for dozens if not hundreds of crucial decisions in the vineyard and the winery, most of which don’t involve mechanics as much as instinct, knowledge and experience. On the other hand, there’s virtue in simplicity, and while many so-called New World winemakers bristle — or become downright vituperative — at terms like “nonintervention” and “nonmanipulative,” it’s my feeling that the best wines result from a balance of sensibilities and techniques that concentrate on the benefits to the integrity of the wine.

What, for example, is the use of bottling single-vineyard chardonnays and pinot noirs if whatever qualities those vineyards might embody are obscured by an aggressive oak regimen? I frequently receive samples from wineries that take pride in a series that involves a separate and increasingly limited bottling for, say, a region, a valley, a vineyard, a block within that vineyard; the implication is that the sequence of these releases will provide a more accurate and profound expression of a particular place. How tragic, then, that the hoped-for eloquence is muted or disrupted or actually negated by the sweetness of high alcohol or tediously ripe flavors or a toasty overlay of new wood.

As you learned in Philosophy 101, tabula rasa is Latin for “blank slate,” a concept most familiar from John Locke’s idea that the human mind is a tabula rasa upon which the world imprints its impressions and effects. A few years ago, a very well-known winemaker for a venerable producer in Napa Valley said to me, “You know what I love about chardonnay? It’s a blank slate. You can do anything you want to with it.” That must explain why I could not drink this winemaker’s stridently spicy, toasty, cloyingly tropical chardonnays.

A grape variety is not a blank slate, My Readers, nor should winemaking devolve to an exercise in ego and dictatorial principles. If you’re not in the business of making fine wine because you revere a place and the grapes you work with and will not through thoughtful nurturing allow that place and those grapes complete expression, why bother? There’s history in the vineyard, geology in the vines and a narrative in the bottle that satisfies a deep longing for connection and gratification on many levels. It should be a privilege to husband that character to ultimate realization.

A few times a year, I receive a slim catalog from a wine seller in the Napa Valley, and naturally quite a few cabernet sauvignon wines are included in the roster. The descriptions of these wines are the most outlandish I have encountered. (I know, some of My Readers are thinking, “Pot calling the kettle black, eh?”) Here’s what I mean, though.

One cabernet will result in “leaving you in a giant wake of tannic goodness.”

Another is “truly decadent.”

Another cabernet “is sure to kick your palate out of bed.” (Huh?)

Again: will “deliver a knockout blow of flavor from this crimson heavyweight contender.”

Some cabernets in this catalog are “mind-blowing.” One of those mind-blowing cabernets is a “bottle of red decadence that’ll keep your palate shooting straight.” (Huh?) Another “will take your palate for a joy ride.”

To switch to pinot noir, a Sonoma Coast example is a “garnet siren (that) howls for your full attention the minute you lay eyes on her.” Another, to extend the hussy metaphor, is a “crimson vixen.” Another pinot noir “will have you licking your lips after every sip.”

And meanwhile a syrah from Napa Valley has “the guts and gumption of a wily young bird dog,” while a Cotes du Rhone is a “Grenache-based beast.”

My thought, after reading such flamboyant notations, is that I wouldn’t want to drink any of these wines. They sound tiresome and wearying, garish and vulgar, wanton and intemperate. All the emphasis is on size, power, extravagant ripeness, “sexiness” and baroque overwroughtness. Of course perhaps the wines themselves don’t actually embody such qualities; perhaps the writer felt hyperbolic and enthusiastic; and perhaps he knows that his audience lies within the range of those for whom drinking wine must somehow be a large, dramatic and exaggerated experience.

“Decadence” once connoted the decline, degeneration or decay of primarily political and cultural institutions from their first standards of ideals and behavior through morbidity to a level of dilution, inaction and nullity. Edward Gibbon described the long decadence of the Roman state in minute detail in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), while Oswald Spengler did the same for Europe as a whole in The Decline of the West (1918-1922). As is the case with many words and concepts, “decadence” has itself been watered down, operating now as a synonym for luxury — or “luxe,” as style-writers say — or richness that goes beyond cloying, commonly applied to desserts and confections and the leather seats of expensive automobiles.

The implication of a “truly decadent” wine, then, a “joy ride,” a “mind-blowing” “crimson vixen” is a rich, cloying beverage, excessive and profligate, orgiastic and orgasmic. Or at least there are customers of the author of this catalog who believe those qualities are what they desire in wine. Or so the author of the catalog himself believes.

Count me out.

As longtime readers of this blog understand, I want wines in which power is balanced by elegance, where fruit is tempered by rigor, where the focus is on vigor and freshness, not luxury or opulence or some mythic animalistic aura. Save the decadence for a towering slice of “Death by Chocolate” cake.

I was tasting a range of red wines yesterday, and pulled the cork on a bottle of the Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Sonoma County, a 100-percent varietal wine that can typically be relied upon to be solid, well-made and flavorful, not exciting, perhaps, but better than decent, like the Dad in a television show. Swirling the wine in the glass and sniffing over several minutes, I noticed some aromas that I don’t often observe in cabernet sauvignon wines, especially made in California; just hints, mind you, but intriguing touches of dill and black olive, mint and bell pepper and then, more typical of cabernet and merlot, cedar and dried thyme. “Herbaceous!” comes the response, “heaven forfend!”

For some reason, winemakers in California not only avoid any notions of herbal qualities in their cabernets and merlots — especially dill and bell pepper — they seem to absolutely loathe those elements. When I first became interested in wine and for whatever reason tasted more red wines from Bordeaux than I do now — hear that, importers? — those hints of dill, green pepper, black olive and occasionally caraway seed seemed to be an integral part of the aroma profile, especially in wines from the communes of St. Julien and St. Estephe. Perhaps the bias against an herbaceous character in cabernet sauvignon and merlot by so many winemakers in California is a reaction against the excessive levels of green pepper that dominated red wines from Monterey County in the 1980s and ’90s, the dreaded “Monterey veggies” that I well remember.

Herbaceous qualities in red wine, and particularly the green pepper component, can be traced to methoxypyrazines, particularly the compound 2-methoxy-3-isobutyl pyrazine, popularly known as IBMP. This compound is so potent that it can be detected at the level of one part per trillion. It is present in certain grapes, especially cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and semillon, but undergoes rapid loss as the grapes ripen, ergo, that green pepper character — or asparagus and green pea in sauvignon blanc and semillon — can be attributed, at least in some instances, to grapes harvested before being fully ripe, so the date of harvest is important. Another factor is cool climate conditions, which tend to produce comparatively higher levels of methoxypyrazines along the vintage’s course of ripening. Anyone for a glass of leafy, green pea New Zealand sauvignon blanc? Vineyard practices, too, are important, and perhaps some of My Readers will remember when before the light bulb of canopy management went off in the heads of winemakers in California how so many sauvignon blanc wines smelled like canned asparagus and the damp grass cuttings scraped from a lawn mower?

Anyway, the real subject is cabernet sauvignon, and the theme is that a hint of green pepper and perhaps a touch of dill and black olive enhance a wine’s bouquet and lend interesting highlights, adding to the layering of aromas. The year in Sonoma — 2010 — was cool in Spring and Summer, but with a warm September that aided ripening. Rodney Strong harvested the last of the grapes for this cabernet, from four vineyards ranging from Jimtown in the south to Cloverdale in the north, on October 28. Allow me to lift a quotation from the press material that accompanied this wine to my door: “Late rain generated a healthy canopy, but one that required careful management to avoid green flavors.” And in the description of the wine occurs the phrase “herby black currant,” which I interpret as meaning black currant aromas and flavors infused with notes of cedar, thyme, perhaps something briery in there and possibly including a hint of the dreaded bell pepper.

In other words, it seems to me that Rodney Strong’s longtime head winemaker Rick Sayre, winemaker Justin Seidenfeld and director of winegrowing — a strange word — Doug McIlroy are aware of and concerned about the problems that methoxypyrazines can cause but are willing to allow at least a modicum of the herbaceous element into the wine for its intriguing contribution to the network of aroma and flavor complexity. It’s all about balance, of course. Too much herbaceous quality can ruin a wine, sure, but so can too much oak ruin a wine or too much alcohol, excessive acidity or overripe fruit. That why the saying the wines are made in the vineyard rings so true.

The wine in question, the Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Sonoma County, powered by 18 months in French and American oak barrels, also exhibits notes of black cherries and roasted coffee, deep powdery tannins and supple oak, an iron-and-iodine-tinged mineral character and a cloves-sandalwood-and-mint packed finish. 13.5% alcohol. Now through 2015 to ’16. It practically gets down on its knees and begs you to drink it with a medium-rare herb-crusted rack of lamb. Very Good+. About $20.

A sample for review.

Jim Barrett, founder of Chateau Montelena, deserves all the praise he has received in the tributes and obituaries published in magazines and newspapers and online since his death on March 14 at the age of 86. A successful attorney with a particular vision about what chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon wines should be, in 1969 he acquired a long-abandoned Gothic-style winery built in 1882 near Calistoga, in the northern part of Napa Valley, worked to restore the building and the property’s vineyards and, while the estate vines were too young to produce viable grapes, sought reliable vineyards as sources. The event that brought Chateau Montelena and California (and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) to the astonished attention of the wine world was the famous or infamous Paris Tasting of 1976, organized by Englishman Steven Spurrier, at which Montelena’s Chardonnay 1973 — notice that the wines was a blend of grapes from Napa Valley and Alexander Valley — and the Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 placed first in competition with the best of white Burgundy and red Bordeaux. Though there has been been a great deal of controversy over the scoring methodology of the ’76 “Judgment of Paris,” the fact remains that, in this blind tasting with prestigious judges from the French wine, restaurant and publishing industries, the California wines involved performed extremely well, gratifying Americans, when the news came out, and embarrassing the French.

I have read many of the notices of Barrett’s death, and they refer, consistently, to his chardonnay that won the Paris Tasting. In the sense that he owned Chateau Montelena and was its guiding spirit, that assessment is correct. Only one writer that I have seen, though, S. Irene Virbila of the Los Angeles Times, noted the fact that the historic Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 was made by Mike Grgich, and that by rights the wine should properly be referred to as his chardonnay. I don’t mean to denigrate or diminish Jim Barrett’s accomplishment in shaping Chateau Montelena nor that of his son Bo Barrett, who became winemaker with the vintage of 1982 (and became CEO of Montelena at his father’s death). I’m a fan of the Montelena wines and their combination of power and elegance, and I look forward to tasting and writing about them with every vintage. However, the neglect of Grgich’s contribution in this area reflects a general neglect in the media of winemakers below the celebrity level. It’s symptomatic of this issue that Grgich was also ignored in the movie Bottle Shock (2008, directed by Randall Miller), which purported to tell the story of Montelena and the ’76 Paris Tasting, but actually sensationalized it. Of course Grgich went on to partner with Austin Hills to establish what is now the venerable Grgich Hills Estate.

My point is that I receive press releases many times a day from marketing firms and wineries that extol the virtues of new releases and the glorious histories and geographies of the wineries, the wisdom and passion of their owners and proprietors, urging me to accept samples for review, but never mentioning the name of the winemaker. Isn’t that like publicizing a book without naming the author or a movie without mentioning the director?

In line with giving credit where credit is due, I try to be consistent in giving credit for the images used on this blog. So, the image of Mike Grgich is from intowine.com; the photo of Jim Barrett (at top) and the label of the Montelena Chardonnay 1973 are so ubiquitous, however, that’s it’s difficult to tell whence they originated.

I always read every word of every review written by Alastair Macaulay, chief dance critic for The New York Times. Macaulay, seen in the accompanying image, came to the Times from London in 2007. He writes primarily about ballet and from a standpoint that’s not just knowledgeable and experienced but deeply passionate and revealing. Often, Macaulay’s writing and his observations remind me of how I think about and write about wine, particularly in the sense that the physicality of ballet and its relationship to music and the physical and sensuous nature of wine and its relationship to the vineyard whence it originated involve paradoxes of the most minute and complementary sorts.

An ardent admirer of choreographer George Balanchine (1904-1983), Macaulay recently reviewed a series of performances by the New York City Ballet of dances that Balanchine had set to symphonic music. He writes, at one point, that ballet dancers need to display elements of “rigor and allure.” Instantly, I thought about how great wine ought to reflect the same paradoxical qualities.

By great wine, I mean any wine, no matter its origins, intent or expense, that might embody such a character. The little Côtes du Rhône or Maconnais, the Rosso di Montalcino, the zinfandel blend, the bargain malbec, the simple everyday wines that are so important and so necessary to the world of drinking wine with lunch and dinner because we just love to have wine with our meals — these can achieve greatness in their way. Then there are the wines with aspirations to excellence and exceptionality, authenticity and integrity that reflect faithfulness to grape varieties and specific locations. Such wines, with their potential for greatness, ordinary mortals (like journalists and wine bloggers) do not drink all the time.

By “rigor,” I mean the structure of the wine, based on acidity, alcohol and (in red wine) tannins, an innate mineral quality and an exterior (as it were) oak influence, all of which contribute to the stones and bones, that is, the frame and foundation, that keep a wine lively, thirst-quenching, vigorous, upright and potentially long-lived. At the same time, the heady “allure” of the wine works its way through fruit and all the attendant aromatic and flavorful fruity, spicy, floral aspects as well as through the texture (not quite the same as structure) that helps the wine lie so obligingly velvety or silkily or satiny on the tongue. Too much rigor and the wine is harsh, merely big, austere, sometimes even astringent and definitely unpalatable. Too much allure and the wine is soft, delicious, voluptuous, cushiony, perhaps really attractive but also merely pretty. What one desires in a great wine is to be fully aware of its rigor at every point and promise and equally fully aware of its allure, each bound inextricably to the other.

Later in the same review, Macaulay writes of principal dancer Sterling Hyltin and describes his performance in “Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements” as “alert, lustrous, refined and compellingly enigmatic.”

Oh, wouldn’t we like all the wines we encounter to display such virtues! This is the epitome, the wine that feels lively, attentive, present and there; the wine that offers a sheen and glow, a sense of sophistication and completion; a wine of elegance, poise and equilibrium; and finally, a wine that does not give everything away too readily, that keeps something in check, that allows a sense of inexplicable yet wholly satisfying wildness and mystery, a wine that slowly ravels its ambiguities and lays them out for our revelation and delight.

The differences between dance and wine are many. Dance presents the human body in movement, immediate, demanding, sensuous yet intellectual and above all, evanescent; each gesture and movement disappears as it is accomplished. Wine is about patience, silence and time, about an expression of earth and weather, yet it is above all a beverage meant to be consumed for pleasure, and once the wine has been consumed, it is as ungraspable as a forgotten pas de deux.

Great wines possess a kind of intensity that flatters the nose and palate, as well as the imagination, with a comprehensive scope of sensation and character without burdening our faculties with any quality of the flamboyant or egotistical; they burn with a hard, gem-like flame — as Walter Pater bade us live — rather than self-immolating in the baroque furnaces of exaggeration and manipulation. Great wines exert a sense of finely tuned balance in addition to a paradoxical element of risk, at times almost playfulness, these qualities subsumed into the overall impression of integration, generosity and completeness. The models I look at today, both samples for review, as I am required to inform you by the Federal Trade Commission, exemplify such standards. Nothing links these wines except the fact that I tasted them on sequential days and that they’re beautifully wrought renditions of the grapes from which they’re made.

First, however, a comment on what’s called the “tasting note.” There’s a hue and cry in the recent press about the death of the tasting note; the tasting note is outmoded, assert its opponents, a relic of a time when wine critics were deemed authorities and their notes — typically involving Bordeaux Classified Growths, Burgundy Premier and Grand Crus and great German rieslings — regarded as sacred texts. Such notions, we’re told, are hopeless in the world of the Internet, instant reaction and analysis, the cohort-like animation of word-of-mouth, blogs, smart phones and hanging loose. I think that’s all fine and dandy. Certainly the tasting note as perfected by a magazine like the Wine Spectator — telegraphic, gnomic, superficial and pointed toward the all-important numerical score — seems unhelpful except to consumers primarily interested in the dynamic of that large, black, bold-face rating. Such punchy tasting notes bear the same relationship to the characterization of a wine in a full review as a capsule summary of a movie does to a review in The New York Times or The New Yorker.

If I may self-advocate here, I have been taking notes on wine for 30 years, and I use those notes to assemble not merely a review of the wine but a narrative that blends history, geography and intention with an attempt to get to the heart of a product, in detail and dimension. I want My Readers to take away from such a review a sense of where a wine came from, the importance of its origin in a place and time and climate, what it smells like and tastes like and feels like over passing moments and what its potential is for growth and development — and perhaps what foods it could profitably accompany. Much as I love the physical properties of many of the wines I taste every year, I also dote on a wine’s chronicle from vineyard through the hands of the winemaker to the bottle on your table. If any of you read this blog and utter a sigh and heartfelt, “Oh, there F.K. goes again, talking about vineyard elevation and late harvesting and oak aging,” well, you should be used to that by now, because you’re stuck with it.

It’s true that not all wines require or deserve such full-blown treatment; many of the products I mention on this blog are simple quaffing wines meant to be enjoyed without much thought, and there’s not a thing wrong with that. The wines that I find richly rewarding though and that capture my attention — as did the two wines under review in this post — seem valuable not merely because of their high quality and complex character but because they imply a narrative that extents into a personal, historical and geological past and into the future of possibility.

The first image above is from my wine notebook, actually a ledger, from 1986 and 1987; the second image represents a small portion of wine notebooks from about 1995 to 2005.
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The Villa Huesgen Schiefer Riesling Trocken 2010 derives from steep vineyards that rise 100 to 200 meters above the Mosel River. The slightly fractured landscape lends the slate-impacted vineyard a faceted relationship to the sky, allowing the 30- to 35-year-old vines a multitude of exposures to sunlight as the day proceeds; the result seems to be an unusual degree of richness in the grapes, as well as a profoundly significant array of mineral elements. The estate traces its origin to 1735, when Johannes Huesgen (1697-1762) moved to the town of Traben-Trarbach in the Mosel region and began buying vineyards; in 1762, his son Johann-Wilhelm, with his mother and brother-in-law, founded a wine merchant business. Among the family’s most striking achievements is Villa Huesgen itself, one of the most famous Art Nouveau houses in Europe, designed by notable architect Bruno Möhring in 1904.

I don’t want to wax too poetical here or wade into the murky miasma of metaphor, but the bouquet and the flavors of the Villa Huesgen Schiefer Riesling Trocken 2010 evince such a powerful perception of rain on dusty slate tiles, of damp lilacs, of the snap of gunflint and the mingling of crushed limestone and lime peel, of lemongrass and ginger, of quince and spiced pear that it remains with me vividly two days later. This marked intensity, however, while distinctly present in nose and mouth, is not the least overwhelming; rather it evokes an impression that’s almost poignant in its acuteness and its weaving of infinite delicacies into a fabric of strength and elegance. Close to talc-like in texture but enlivened by crisp and crystalline acidity, Villa Huesgen Schiefer Riesling Trocken 2010, made all in stainless steel, is fresh and immediately appealing yet should age beautifully through 2018 to 2020. This, friends, is great riesling. 11.5% alcohol. We drank this wine with wholewheat linguine, roasted golden beets and beet greens, kale, leeks and Gruyere. Excellent. About $35.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Ca.
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The Wild Horse Cheval Sauvage Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Maria Valley, is the finest wine I have tasted from the winery in years. Director of winemaking is Clay Brock, and winemaker is Chrissy Wittmann. I don’t know to what extent the wine was a collaboration between them, but whatever the case, this is well-nigh perfect pinot. The grapes for the 2009 version all came from the well-known Sierra Madre Vineyard; previous vintages have been blends of several vineyards in Santa Maria, which, except for a tiny portion in San Luis Obispo County, lies within Santa Barbara County. Santa Maria, still largely isolated compared to wine regions farther north in the state, is cool climate, with its western-most area cooled even more by sea-breezes. It you ever stay in the vicinity, it’s wondrous to see the whole valley filled with fog early in the morning.

Wild Horse was founded in 1982 by Ken Volk; the winery and its vineyard occupy land above the Salinas River near Templeton, in northern San Luis Obispo County, in the Paso Robles appellation. In 2003, Volk sold the brand, the winery and the 64-acre property to Peak International, a subsidiary of Jim Beam Brands Worldwide. In 2007, Beam was swallowed up by the Icon Estates division of Constellation Brands. In January 2011, as reported in the San Luis Obispo Tribune, Constellation decided to “cut back operations” at Wild Horse, shifting the cellaring of Wild Horse wines to Estancia Winery in Soledad and Gonzalez Winery in Gonzales. The crush occurs at the original winery, with the reserve wines still “processed” there. Few things stay the same in California (sung to the tune of “Welcome to the Hotel California”).

Wild Horse Cheval Sauvage Pinot Noir 2009 offers exactly what I want in a pinot from The Golden State, that is, an ineffable sense of tension, resolution and balance between elegance and energy, between spareness and vigor. The color is medium cherry-mulberry from stem to stern. Aromas of red cherries, cranberry and rhubarb are permeated by touches of cloves, hints of toast and licorice and, beyond all that, something fleshy, spicier and untamed, a bell-tone of wild berry and a hint of briers. This bevy of elements is not presented in a blatant fashion but rather as a tissue of subtleties and nuances exquisitely poised, dexterous and agile. The texture is supremely satiny, supple and lithe, a bit of window dressing on the stones and bones of the wine’s vibrantly acidic and scintillating earthy/graphite structure; it spent 14 months in French oak barrels. A few minutes in the glass bring in notes of blue plums, pomegranate, sassafras and fruitcake, with the latter’s attendant notes of dried fruit and spices. A refreshing 13.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $65.
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.. and here are a few of them, in no particular order, so don’t over-analyze.
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When will wineries and importers stop introducing variations of moscato — Pink Moscato! Blush Moscato! Marilyn Moscato! — as if they were ahead of the curve and not on the caboose of a trend? I’m not dissing moscato per se; a young electrician at the house yesterday told me that his favorite wine was the moscato at Olive Garden, and who am I to quarrel if that’s what he enjoys? The beef here is with the marketing of moscato as if the launch of some winery’s White Zin Moscato or Purple Passion Moscato represented great strides not only in the wine industry but in the tastes and cultural aspirations of all Americans. And I really don’t think it’s a good idea for Clairette de Die, the lightly sparkling white wine from east of the town of Valence, in the southern Rhone Valley, to market itself in the United States as “French Moscato Bubbly.” I mean, please …
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When will producers of and zealots for so-called “natural wines” lose their holier-than-thou attitude? Grapes are natural; wine is artifact.
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Why don’t my fellow wine bloggers understand that writing critical and even negative reviews and commentary is necessary for balance and credibility, as well as a test of and goad to producers, importers and marketers? I once heard a prominent writer about wine (this was on a train from Milan to Verona, long before blogging was a gleam in anyone’s eye) say to his acolytes, “I never write anything negative about California wine. The industry needs all the help it can get.” Friends, you don’t help an industry by soft-pedaling its flaws and deficiencies; you help by pointing them out and opening the path to improvement. At WBC12 a few months ago, a blogger said to me, “Life is too short to write about bad wine.” My reply was, “Life is too short for my readers to drink bad wine.”
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Why does California reduce wines like pinot grigio to their lowest common denominator? Is the idea that Americans will drink anything bland and innocuous as long as it’s crisp and tingly and especially if they’re sitting in a bar? Was that question rhetorical? Certainly Italy turns out and exports masses of bland innocuous pinot grigios; does that mean that scores of wineries in California must produce similarly characterless pinot grigios to capture market share? Are they that cynical? Was that a trick question? (I’m happy to add that a handful of wineries in California and Oregon turn out excellent pinot grigio or pinot gris wines.)
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Will writers and marketers ever stop calling zinfandel the “all-American grape”? Oops, this just in: Fortuitously I received an email press release that offers these words: a Sonoma County Zinfandel representing the robust flavor of America’s most famous indigenous grape. And this: Zinfandel is our most prized American heritage grape. I won’t out the person who wrote these words or at least sent them to me, but the email came from Nike Communications on behalf of Joel Peterson, who must be thrilled, and Ravenswood. For the last time people, do your research! The zinfandel grape is as European as chardonnay, pinot noir and alicante bouschet.
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Am I the only one who thinks that $750 for a currently released bottle of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is a tad overweening? I’m referring to the releases of 2009 for the Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Each is firmly ensconced among the elite ranks of the most highly sought-after Napa Valley cult cabernets, and the CEOs, multinational lawyers and powerful media moguls and agents who collect such wines (and have places secured on the wineries’ coveted waiting lists) don’t give a flying fuck about the price or my quibbles. One could argue that $750 for a bottle of Screaming Eagle or Harlan Estate is pocket change compared to prices for top-rated chateaux of Bordeaux for 2009 such as Mouton Rothschild ($1,106 per bottle), Lafite-Rothschild ($1,552) or, a true eye-opener, Petrus ($4,053); these are average prices from wine-searcher.com. Collectors have been screaming (haha) about the cynically inflated prices of their favorite Bordeaux wines, even in so-so years, for at least a decade. On the other hand, those prestigious, if not legendary properties and many others in the regions of Bordeaux possess track records of excellence (with fluctuations, of course, sometimes dire) going back 200 or more years. The first vintage of Screaming Eagle was 1992; the first vintage of Harlan Estate, the 1990, was released in 1996. Perhaps we need to wait 20 or 30 years to see how these wines fare and if they’re worth the price.
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Why do wineries send me samples of Big Deal, limited edition wines with beautifully designed and printed information sheets and histories of the properties and the people involved and full-color images of gorgeous vineyard landscapes and their striking contemporary multimillion dollar wineries and tasting rooms, all this information enclosed in an embossed folder made from the sort of heavy, incised paper that popes employ for official pronouncements, but they don’t include the price of the wine?
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Why do producers in emerging or suddenly popular vineyard regions think that by throwing their indigenous grapes or traditional wines into French barriques they will create greatness measured on some spurious international scale (or catering to some mythical “American palate”), when they should be happy with the charming and authentic wines they were making? Take the grüner veltliner grape, which (primarily) in Austria turns out completely delightful, spicy, racy, nicely nuanced white wines of undoubted appeal at reasonable prices, I mean about $16 to $25. Were these goals enough for the Austrian winemakers? Nooooooooo, they had to put their grüner veltliner wines in French oak barrels to pump up the character, to, um, deepen the depth, to broaden the scope, and they jacked up prices to $50, $60 and $75 a bottle. Did they make great wines? Of course not. They eliminated all the qualities that made grüner veltliner wines desirable in the first place and produced bad imitations of bad California chardonnays.
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Sources of the question mark images: 1. uncyclopedia.wikia.com; 2. forums.appleinsider.com; 3. commons.wikimedia.org; 4. clker.com; 5. maccheeky.com; 6. wondrouspics.com; 7. zazzle.com; 8. dreamstime.com.
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A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness …

When John Keats wrote these opening lines of “Endymion,” he was thinking of the Platonic and transcendental beauty of nature, not a bottle of wine, though he wrote some fine, brief descriptions of wine here and there in his body of work, notably in the second stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale,” where he calls for “a draught of vintage! that hath been/Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth…” Later in this stanza, he calls again, ecstatically: “O for a beaker full of the warm South,/Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,/With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,/And the purple-stained mouth …” I taught this poem for years in the second semester of English Literature survey, and every time I read those lines, I thought, “Damnit! I want some of that wine!”

Unfortunately, unlike the endlessly melodic and unchanging song of the nightingale — “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” — a bottle of wine is not immortal, though some wines are capable of aging into mature beauty. In fact, Keats hits on both of the themes that have dominated the world’s wine industry since the ancient times of the wine-loving Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, and that is that some wines are intended to cool their heels “a long age in the deep-delved earth” until they attain a plateau of subtlety and nuance, while other wines, “with beaded bubbles winking at the brim,/And purple-stained mouth,” something like 95 percent of all wine produced in the world, are meant for more or less immediate consumption. In the wine-reviewing business, we don’t often have the opportunity to try those lovely, old, fully developed wines — and we are jealous of those who do — because our focus is on wines in current release, which we taste too young and have to evaluate more in terms of potential — “Best from 2016 or ’17 through 2025 or ’27″ — than for their ability to deliver pleasure in the present. The truth, though, is that nowadays many winemakers are producing wines, particularly reds of course, intended to be drinkable soon after release as well as 15 or 20 or more years later.

Paradoxically, and perhaps perversely, the wine that inspired this post was not a fine old vintage — though I’ll get to a few of those in a different post soon — but a just released cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley, a region widely and justly acclaimed as having one of the best climates and geographies for the grape. The wine is the St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley, a blend of 87 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot, 2 percent petit verdot and 1 percent cabernet franc that aged 19 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels. Winemaker is Danielle Cyrot. A portion of the grapes for Oroppas ’08 came from the valley floor, in Rutherford, but the majority derived from higher altitudes in Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Mount Veeder.

The color is pure intense dark red-ruby, while the bouquet presages the perfect balance and harmony that characterize the wine; no edges here, no risks, just the sheer beauty of a wine that’s so totally poised and integrated. Aromas of licorice, lavender and potpourri, warm and slightly roasted and meaty black currants, black cherries and a touch of wilder mulberry are permeated by hints of cedar and thyme, graphite and bittersweet chocolate. Yes, there are tannins and they grow more powerful or at least evident over 20 or 30 minutes, but they’re tannins of the finely milled, minutely sifted variety, sleek and suave as the oak influence on the wine is sleek and suave and almost invisible. Who said that oak should be like the Holy Spirit, everywhere present but nowhere visible? Why, that was me! And so it is here! I mean, the wine soaked up that oak and turned it into another dimension. This cabernet sauvignon is, in other words, an absolutely lovely, pure and intense expression of the grape, delivering the immediate gratification that’s so important for consumers in these times yet possessing enough backbone and grip and earthy minerality — and nothing overdone, nothing too ripe or opulent — to allow the finish its quiet and slightly demanding moments of dignity and austerity. 14.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $55.

Why did this wine inspire the post you’re reading now?

To corral another poet to my purpose, Wallace Stevens, in “Sunday Morning,” one of the greatest poems written in the 20th Century, said “Death is the mother of beauty.” Though that sentence sounds like a grim sentence indeed, Stevens means that beauty is born of its inherently fragile and inevitably ephemeral character. We value beauty all the higher because its very nature embodies its impermanence, its decline and final dissolution. Keats’ nightingale is not immortal in the individual bird; they all die, but the identical song lives on in each generation of nightingales. The greatest wines ever made — Margaux 1900, Mouton-Rothschild ’29, Cheval Blanc ’47, Petrus ’49, Lafite ’59, Latour ’82 — however extravagantly lauded and loved will soon be gone from this ever-changing earth, faded, weakened, cracking up, fled, departed. That G. Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1998 that you’ve been holding onto like Silas Marner his hoard of gold (a wine that shook me to the core when I tasted it from barrel in December 1999, as it happens on my birthday); drink it, my friend, because it will soon go the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon. That last bottle of Heitz Martha’s Vineyard ’74 in your cellar, you lucky bastard (depending on its condition, of course)? Gather your loved ones, roast a chicken, sit down together and eat and drink. It will not last much longer nor was it meant to.

St. Clement Oroppas 2008 is an absolutely gorgeous wine, fine and beautiful in every small detail and broad stroke, and when we drank it, we felt privileged. I would love to try the wine again in 10 years. It is not immortal, nor does it stand among the greatest cabernet wines ever produced. It was made for pleasure, both now and through the next decade, and that is a goal and accomplishment not to be disparaged, and a great deal of its pleasure lies in what Keats, so wise for one so young — he was 25 when he died of tuberculosis in Rome in 1821 — wrote about in another poem, “Ode on Melancholy.” Melancholy, he wrote, “dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die;/And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu…” Dissolution and decay dwell with the beauty of great wines, and tasting them, drinking that lambent, plangent liquor, we feel the death inside them and the beauty, and we are made glad.

Image of John Keats from Bettmann/Corbis; image of dusty old wine bottles from rapgenius.com. The St. Clement Oroppas 2008 was a sample for review.

The Wine Bloggers’ Conference that I attended last month in Portland was my first. Will I attend next year’s conference in Penticton, British Columbia? My feelings are ambivalent, but today I want to put forth the argument that I should be the keynote speaker for WBC13, in which case, of course, I would certainly participate.

(And a brief aside to the WBC organizers: There cannot be two keynote speakers at an event, as there were, so to speak, this year. The keynote speech is the grand introduction to or the grand climax of a conference or convention. All speeches that occur before or after the keynote speech are simply speeches and ought to be billed in some other fashion.)

Why should I be the keynote speaker for WBC13?

First, because I’m an active blogger who tries righteously to post four or five times a week, though I don’t always attain that goal. In 2011, I posted 196 times, which equals one post every 1.8 days. Keynote speakers for previous Wine Blogger Conferences included Eric Asimov and Jancis Robinson, both estimable writers and judges of wine, and, I’ll admit, far more famous than I am, but hardly active bloggers. This year’s relevant keynote speech was given by Randall Grahm, controversial and outspoken owner and winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyards. (The irrelevant “other” keynote speaker was Rex Pickett — you remember Sideways — whose event I skipped and later was congratulated for doing so by many of my wine blogging colleagues.) Grahm’s talk was entertaining, funny, informative, personal and, finally, just profound enough for the audience to take something important away with them. In other words, exactly what a keynote speech should be, and I applauded along with the rest of the room. (Here’s a link to the speech.)

The problem is that Grahm posts to his blog, Been Doon So Long, so infrequently that last year he entered only six posts; I know, he’s busy running a winery and making wine, but my point is that as keynote speaker for WBC13, I would share with my audience the similar blogging experiences of finding time to deal with the wine samples, finding time to taste the wine, finding time to write and post, finding time to walk the dogs and exercise and run errands and make a living outside of blogging and haul all those bottles out to the street for the garbage truck and not feel guilty for not posting often enough.

Second, I bring to wine blogging a history that’s almost unique in our little kingdom. What I mean is that I started writing about wine in 1984, before some wine bloggers or other participants in WBC12 — as several sweetly reminded me — were born, as in “Wow, you started writing about wine before I was born!” I wrote a weekly print column for 20 years, one that was distributed to newspapers around by country by the Scripps-Howard newswire. When the column ended (not my choice), I launched in December 2004 a magazine-format website, KoeppelOnWine.com; my blog, BiggerThanYourHead.net, came in December 2006, and for a while I ran both the website and the blog, but that was a hell of a lot of work, so I dissolved the website in April 2008.

Based on my 28 years experience as a journalist, wine writer, freelance writer and blogger, what would I tell my audience at WBC13?

<>I would say, Revel in the spontaneous and improvisatory nature of blogging, but at the same time remember that professionalism counts. Good spelling, grammar, punctuation, word order, sentence structure mark the difference between the serious writer — or the writer who can be taken seriously — and the hit-and-miss amateur.

<>I would say, Don’t merely be a wine-blogger, but be a person who writes about wine on a blog. Not many degrees may separate those concepts, but they are significant indicators of intention and accomplishment.

<>I would say, O.K., however spontaneous or improvisatory you want to be, because after all this is the Internet and that, you may say, is the whole point, and all questions of grammar, spelling and so on aside, be accurate — in terms of history, geography, tradition, names, brands, grapes, personalities — get it right. Write, for example, that Chablis is made from sauvignon blanc grapes or that Santa Ynez is near Santa Cruz, and it will be difficult for you to be taken seriously as a wine writer, either by readers or wineries.

<>I would say, Be skeptical. Once your blog achieves some healthy measure of readership or reputation, you’ll be inundated by information and narratives designed to persuade you to like a product, to mention a product, to trade a link for your (free) content. Ignore them all except the ones that politely say something like, “We’d like you to try our wine. If you have any feedback, we’d appreciate it.” Remember that even the text on the back label of a bottle of wine is a form of marketing, so why would you quote such a thing in your review? Sure, it’s exciting to get the attention of wineries, importers and PR and marketing agencies, and while it’s necessary (and sometimes a pleasure) to work with them, remember that they’re all trying to sell you something.

<>I would say, Be critical, by which I don’t mean negative but discriminating, thoughtful, disinterested, judicial — all of these qualities based on knowledge, experience and extensive tasting — but when it’s necessary to be negative in tone and judgment, be that too. “Life Is Too Short to Drink Bad Wine” goes the placard we see in many retail stores, but my motto is “Life Is Too Short for My Readers to Drink Bad Wine,” so when I get a bad one, I tell them about it. It’s fine to be enthusiastic, but temper your enthusiasm with taste and tact.

<>Finally, I would conclude my keynote address for WBC13 with a recitation of Fredric’s Three Rules for Blogging and Life, and I would ask the assembled bloggers, writers, journalists and others in the trade to repeat after me, like a gospel call and response:

1. Be honest!
Be honest!!
2. Be fair!
Be fair!!
3. DON’T BE AN ASSHOLE!!!
(General hilarity, applause, cheers and acclaim.)

We all know what wine is, right, wine is … Well, perhaps the whole topic bears some thought and scrutiny. Here are five definitions, ranging from simple to complicated, rather like the order of wines at a tasting.

I. Wine is a beverage made by fermenting fruit through the action of yeast so that the natural sugars are converted to alcohol, which becomes an inextricable component of the beverage, and carbon dioxide, which is allowed to escape, except in the second fermentation of Champagne and other sparkling products. Wine can be made from any fruit (or vegetable, for that matter) whose sugar content is sufficient to result in alcohol — apples, pears, peaches, various berries — though the dominant or most important form of fruit turned into wine, both in economic and cultural terms, is grapes. As an alcoholic beverage, wine is intoxicating and inebriating; it gets you drunk, and the more you drink, the drunker and more impaired you become.

That was straightforward enough, but let’s take a different tack:

II. Anthropologically and historically or seen as a function of commerce, the production of wine ensures that a valuable crop, in which a farmer has invested time, effort and money, does not go bad and become useless. Crates of picked grapes become compromised after a week or so; once you buy grapes at the grocery store, they need to be eaten within a week. Turned into wine, however, grapes, in their new form, last longer and are easier to transport. Even in its simplest more immediate form, wine offers more longevity than the fruit from which it is made. Wine also commands a higher price than its constituent fruit. This modality holds true in the example of distilled spirits (though they are not, strictly speaking, our topic), which can be seen as agents for prolonging the production of the harvests of corn, rye, wheat and potatoes beyond the pleasurable but limited functions of the breakfast and dinner table. Again, the economic factor is crucial; a bottle of Scotch commands a far higher price than a box of Wheaties, a comparison that somewhat stretches the point, but you see what I mean.

All right, let’s look at wine and its symbolic relationship to the grapes from which it is made:

III. Not intending to do violence to T.S. Eliot’s notion of the adequacy of narrative and metaphoric forms in the expression of action and feeling — which he writes about in his radical essay on Hamlet, published in 1919 — but I’ll borrow his concept and assert that wine is the “objective correlative” of the grape. That is, wine, especially at its greatest, is the perfect vehicle to fulfill the highest level of a grape’s possible achievement. In this perception, wine conveys a sense of inevitability that other beverages or agricultural products rarely contrive. One does not drink beer, for example, even in its best or most powerful manifestations, and think, “Ah, yes, this is the apotheosis of cereal grains.” The grape, however, is never far from one’s thoughts in the swirling, sniffing and sipping of a glass of wine, nor is the notion, depending on the quality and complexity of the wine, of the place where the grapes were grown and the wine was made. Which leads us to:

IV. A glass of wine, perhaps the one you’re holding in your hand now, serves — let me say should serve — as an emblem of a piece of earth, a stretch of vineyard, a swath of sky, a defined region where its grapes were nurtured and harvested. That sentence summarizes the notion of terroir, the French idea that wine is influenced by and reflects the nature of the vineyard where the grapes were grown. Factors in terroir include the character of the soil and sub-soil, the specific climate in all its nuances and broad strokes, the lie of the land and its direction and exposure to the sun and its drainage. (A few winemakers in California try to assert that terroir includes whatever processes occur in the winery as well as the agency of the winemaker him- or herself. Any thoughtful person will see that this caprice is nonsense; too often the winemaker interferes with a wine and negates the effect of terroir.) The concept of terroir and the belief that a drinker can smell or taste or somehow sense the presence of the vineyard in a wine is controversial. As an ideal, one would want every wine to express its terroir; how a wine would do such a thing remains nebulous, unless the taster possessed years of experience and could tell the difference between, say, Burgundy’s Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses and Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes, vineyards that occupy sites a few yards from each other. We’re approaching a digression here, however, so let’s extend the definition of wine as follows:

V. As a cultural artifact, wine represents an aspirational signifier that no other product of the farm or orchard could hope to emulate. Wine is not “necessary,” just as a car is not a necessity; one could walk or ride a bicycle, as in many societies people do, and food is perfectly palatable without wine. The automobile, however, though merely a mechanical contraption fashioned from steel, plastic and rubber surrounding an internal combustion engine, represents myriad rungs on the ladder of accomplishment, self-image and status, and wine, while we say it’s just a beverage, betokens similar ambitions and yearnings in the realms of knowledge, style, sophistication and prestige. The almost reckless surge of the newly wealthy in Asia, and particularly China, to buy top French Bordeaux and Burgundy wines is motivated by exactly these values.

In 1997, a demographic survey of the readers of the newspaper where I worked full-time revealed that among the local followers of my national weekly wine column the largest group consisted of professional young black women. Initially, I was surprised, but it didn’t take much thought to figure out why this was the case. Wine — in the choosing, serving and matching with food — marks a path toward social acceptability, refinement and savoir faire, whether one is having friends over for a party or dinner or is selecting wine to go with a meal in a restaurant. Few responses are more empowering than the enthusiastic “Excellent choice!” from the waiter when you have selected your bottle of wine from the list. Knowledge of wine and the ability to determine quality and value are ways of completing one’s education in life and joining the ranks of real adults. That was then, and only 15 years later I would say that the attitude among Millennials regarding food and wine is probably more casual, if not effortless, though there is a degree to which wine still represents the pursuit of a paradigm. The ideal for the 22 to 35-year-old cohort, however, tends to be well-made inexpensive yet authentic products (under about $30) that come with interesting back-stories and preferably originate from small, organically-run family estates, and it doesn’t hurt if the wines display off-beat or “fun” labels; in other words, not their parents’ wines.

Images: three wines glasses from fitfloridian.wordpress.com; loading wine casks onto cart from ebay.com; Italian vineyard from italylogue.com; friends drinking wine from richardtimothy.com.

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