What Were They Thinking


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.

.. 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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Perhaps Americans who care about wine romanticize the notion of a European wine culture. You know what I mean, the image we carry around in our imaginations that depicts a long table set outside under ancient olive trees — this would be in Provence, of course, or Tuscany — with three or four generations of the family partaking of utterly fresh and simple yet wonderful food while sipping from glasses of a tasty unpretentious local wine. The kids get a little wine diluted with water in their glasses, and the teenagers are allowed one glass and no monkey business, thank you very much! See, these people know that learning about drinking starts at the family table, with Grandma and Grandpa looking on benevolently as the youngsters are gradually initiated into the knowledge that so many Americans can’t comprehend: That wine is part of life and is inextricable from the enjoyment of food. Gosh, wouldn’t we like to be in that movie!

Because the truth is somewhat different. In Great Britain laws governing the consumption of alcohol have become draconian. Germans are turning away from wine and drinking more beer. The French — sacre bleu, the French! — have become almost hysterically puritanical about alcohol consumption, though now that their non-drinking prez has been booted out perhaps the atmosphere may lighten up a bit. In any case, America traditionally looks to Europe for its lessons about food and wine and life the way that an ingenue looks to a wiser, more sophisticated older man for instruction in love. Oops, not anymore! That’s a different motif from a different time and a different movie!

So, to the question “Could America become a country with a genuine wine culture, in the sense that wine is accepted as a foregone part of household and family existence, that wine is a natural accompaniment to food and belongs on the table, that wine, moderately consumed, is an enjoyable, even celebratory aspect of life,” I have to answer — “I think not.”

I’ll provide a tiny admittedly isolated though, I think, potent example of why I believe this is so. Here’s the background:

To the east of Memphis lie the smaller towns of Germantown and Colllierville, all these contiguous cities and towns running up against each other, so you could drive on Poplar Avenue from downtown Memphis, on the Mississippi River, east to the Shelby County line and seldom be out of a major shopping area. When I was in college, a drive from the center of Memphis out to Collierville felt like an all-day expedition; now the road is six lanes all the way and in a sense the drive is even more tedious.

Germantown and Collierville began as villages, and they each grew and grew, so that even these suburban towns have their own suburbs and malls and shopping centers and civic plazas. The heart of Collierville, however, is the old town square that retains a bit of original quaintness and a group of 19th and early 20th Century houses that surround it. Like many old villages that expanded into the era of urbanization and its growing pains, Collierville tries to hold on to its heritage, especially through an annual town fair that celebrates its history and its present.

Here’s the point of this preamble, quoting from a recent story about the Collierville town fair in Memphis’ daily newspaper, The Commercial Appealr: “It’s just part of Collierville. It is family-friendly, you know there isn’t alcohol served, and Collierville is all about family,” said Twentieth Century Club president Karen Ray. (Serendipitously, the article was written by reporter Chelsea Boozer.)

Anyway, there you have it: “Family-friendly” and alcoholic beverages are antithetical. The town of Collierville and its fair are “all about family,” and family values and alcohol don’t mix. (Though a good name for a cocktail would be “Family Values.” I’ll let you contemporary mixologists work on that.)

Now you may be saying, “FK, don’t get hysterical. This is one comment from one person.”

And while you would be right, I cannot help thinking that the statement epitomizes the attitude of a great deal of America’s conservative population regarding alcoholic beverages, whether we talk about beer, wine or spirits. The case doesn’t merely reflect a lack of sophistication; it’s more a matter of real apprehension about alcohol in its old-fashioned guise of Demon Rum. In truth, alcohol has been more and more demonized lately, not only in this country but, as we have seen, in Europe, the great home of vineyards, winemaking and food and wine culture. I would never downplay the real harm that excessive alcohol consumption can result in nor the devastation visited on some families and society generally by alcoholism; the physical, emotional and financial losses are tremendous. Alcoholic beverages, however, are designed to give pleasure, and used legitimately and with common sense they indeed impart a great deal of pleasure, yes, occasionally of a heady, giddy sort, to our lives. Americans, though, have historically fostered a love-hate relationship with alcoholic beverages, viewing their manifold pleasures as well as their deleterious effects with equal suspicion. Never will the dual nature of this contingency be resolved, because these suspicions, anxieties and alarms have been hard-wired into the consciousness of certain portions of the population for generations.

I wish American families could take as their models the Reagan family on the CBS dramatic series Blue Bloods — re-signed for a third year — in which three generations of New York police officers, centered around the police commissioner portrayed by Tom Selleck and including his long-retired father and his two sons, one a beat policeman and the other a detective (a daughter is an assistant district attorney), along with spouses and children, gather for family dinners at least twice during each broadcast. And there on the table always stands a bottle of wine, and there on the table stand wine glasses from which the adults sip throughout the meal and pause to refill those glasses. No one ever mentions the wine because there’s no need to; wine goes with food and is obviously a natural part of their daily life. It’s so damned refreshing!

Some of my readers may say, “Oh sure, and the Reagans are Irish Catholic, and we all know about them.” All right, then, perhaps it’s time that a whole lot of Americans should learn a lesson from these very loving and family-oriented Irish Catholics.

Al fresco dining image by Alexandra Rowley for sbchic.com. Collierville town square image from tnvacation.com. Blue Bloods image from tvfanatic.com.

I was recently in New York, where lunches at two well-turned-out restaurants brought a question to my mind about wine-by-the-glass service. Should waiters bring the glass of wine to your table or should they bring the bottle to the table, show you the bottle and then pour the wine? Put to the vote, I don’t see how anybody could not opt for the latter procedure.

My flight arrived at La Guardia at 12:35 on Sunday. I had not checked a bag, so I was able to rush outside, grab a cab and beat my friends to a 1:15 reservation at Bar Boulud, on Broadway directly across from Lincoln Center. Talk about a great location. Pre-matinee, the place was packed, and from what I have read, that’s the case with before and after theater at night or anytime. Bar Boulud is one constellation in the galaxy of establishments in New York (and around the world) belonging to French chef Daniel Boulud. It’s called a casual bistro, but instead of going in the direction of Keith McNally with Balthasar in SoHo and Pastis in the Meatpacking District, that is, reproducing down to the ultimate nostalgic detail an old-timey bistro or brasserie in Paris — or our fantasy of such — Boulud called in Thomas Schlesser, the James Beard Award-winning restaurant designer, to create a sleek, contemporary vaulted room that’s cool in its modernist allure yet warm at heart.

The menu features a wide range of traditional French “country” and bistro fare, with lots of charcuterie, which the kitchen, under chef Damian Sansonetti, turns out in stylish versions. The wine list, overseen by sommelier Michael Madrigale (and Daniel Johnnes, wine director for all of Boulud’s restaurants and what a tremendous job, in all senses, that must be), is phenomenal; I mean, truly, it’s the sort of deep and detailed wine list one might expect at a high-end temple of French cuisine, yet it includes many reasonable choices too, though by reasonable I mean under $100. This is New York. The list focuses on Burgundy and the Rhone Valley, with excursions into the wine regions of other countries that use Burgundian and Rhone grape varieties and then a section of “heart-throb” wines of other sorts. The list is interesting, inventive, intriguing, inviting and in the rarefied cases very expensive, so one wisely turns to the wine-by-the-glass offerings.

I forget what my friends ate at Bar Boulud — they had the $29 four-course prix-fixe — but I do remember that they each had a glass of the charming Domaine Triennes Sainte Fleur Viognier 2009 ($12 for a glass; $45 for a bottle). With my “country breakfast” of fried eggs, house-made sage sausage, buttermilk biscuit and tomato confit ($18), I chose a glass of the Domaine Tissot Cremant du Jura Brut ($15; $59), a completely delightful, floral and slightly austere sparkling wine made from chardonnay, pinor noir, trousseau and poulsard grapes.

Our waiter, whose only flaw was being too chatty, brought the bottles to the table, showed us the labels and then poured the wines. We knew exactly what we were getting.

A few days later, I had lunch with friends on West 57th at Brasserie 8 1/2, an elegant restaurant reached by descending a wide spiral staircase theatrically carpeted in red-orange. Our waiter, whose only flaw was that he was goofy and distracted and therefore distracting to us, followed the standard line; he took our drink orders — from the surprisingly ordinary, corporate wine list — and returned in a few minutes bearing a glass of red and a glass of white. Who knew what was in those glasses?

I ordered the Domaine Le Croix St Laurent Sancerre 2010 ($12; a bottle is $52), and, yes, the wine was certainly made from sauvignon blanc grapes in the dry, limestone-loaded style of the eastern Loire Valley — it was quite nice, and I enjoyed it, especially with my sea urchin risotto and skate with lentils (from the three-course prix fixe, $34); executive chef is Julian Alonzo — but who’s to tell if a cheaper wine had not been substituted? No, please understand that I’m not accusing Brasserie 8 1/2 of chicanery; I’m just using that occasion to mention that in the system by which wines-by-the-glass are delivered to the table instead of poured at the table the possibility for abuse exists.

As Americans, we’re all about transparency, especially at this point in history; we’ve been hoodwinked plenty, not to mention keelhauled and financially waterboarded, in the past decade, and we want to know what we’re paying for. Wouldn’t it make sense for the sake of good customer relationships and openness and honesty to have waiters bring the bottle of wine out to the diner and pour the wine into the glass at the table instead of merely escorting to the table the now anonymous glass of wine which has apparently been reluctantly released from some mysterious Guantánamo of wine coolers in the back of the restaurant?

Image of Bar Boulud from sociallysuperlative.com; image of Brasserie 8 1/2 by Paul Goguen from bloomberg.com.


Friday again, so soon, time flies, seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, and then it’s like why didn’t I drink more wine? So, here’s your chance! Today’s Friday Wine Sips are mainly from California except for an Argentine malbec I threw in to mess with your heads this morning. As usual, I eschew technical data for the sake of brevity, punch, vim and vigor. Seven wines here, arranged by price; six recommended, one emphatically not. These were all samples for review, as I am required to inform you by the Federal Trade Commission.
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Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. Bright and bold but not flashy or overdressed; classic pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors freighted with notes of green apple and cloves, a hint of some floral aspect; very dry but juicy, lively and taut with acidity and a sinewy limestone element but a lovely, almost lush powdery texture; a zing of grapefruit and flint on the finish. Very attractive. Very Good+. About $13.50, a Raving Bargain.
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Conundrum, 2009, California. 13.5% alc. The famous mystery white blend from Caymus, though the grapes are chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, muscat canelli, viognier and semillon. Radiant medium straw-gold color; mango and jasmine, roasted lemon and cinnamon toast; you feel the oak in the presence of a touch of toffee and spicy baked pears; quite spicy altogether, hints of lychee, lemongrass and petrol; lovely talc-like texture balanced by bright acidity and limestone. The best Conundrum in years. Current release is 2010 but the ’09 is still widely available. Excellent. About $18.
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Parley The Bookmaker 2009, California. 14.5% alc. 70% cabernet sauvignon, with zinfandel, petite sirah and petit verdot. From Ramian Estate. Pick up a cheeseburger with one hand and a glass of this robust wine with the other. Black currants, black raspberry and plums; laden with smoke and spice, potpourri, thyme and cedar, a hint of graphite minerality; rambunctious and slightly shaggy tannins wedded to svelte oak; long sleek, dusty finish. 570 cases. Very Good+. About $19.
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Morgan Syrah 2009, Monterey County. 13.8% alc. Blackberry and black raspberry with undertones of blueberry and mulberry; lavender and violets, cloves and sandalwood; a deep exotic core of bittersweet chocolate, moss and smoked Russian tea; quite earthy, a little rustic and muscular but eminently drinkable, balanced and integrated. Very Good+. About $20.
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Mer Soleil Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey. 14.5% alc. Medium gold color with green highlights; big, rich, bold, brassy; very ripe, very spicy, very toasty; mango, pineapple and grapefruit, buttered toast, toffee, brown sugar, coconut crème brûlée, bananas Foster; full-bodied, rampant ripeness and oak; a woody stridently spicy finish. Who would want to make such an exaggerated “chardonnay”? Who would want to drink it? Not recommended. About $32.
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Colomé Estate Malbec 2010, Calchaqui, Salta, Argentina. 14.5% alc. Dark ruby-purple color; intense and concentrated; walnut shell and rosemary, cedar and bay leaf, black currants, black raspberry and blueberry; a combination of austere and juicy with deep, dry dusty tannins and huge reserves of oak and dry woody spices. Try from 2014 to 2018 or ’20. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $30.
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Hidden Ranch 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Sonoma County. 14% alc. 100% cabernet sauvignon. Ripe, fleshy and meaty, intense and concentrated black currants, black cherries and plums; graphite right through the core to the bottom; mint, dried thyme and bay leaf, earthy and loamy; huge power of dynamic fine-grained tannins, vibrant acidity and a great undertow of polished oak, but boy this is lithe and sleek and seductive. A tremendous achievement. Best from 2013 or ’14 through 2019 to ’22. Excellent. About $45.
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Greg Davis, mayor of Southaven, Miss., is in deep shit; in fact the term “embattled mayor” has become redundant in what’s called the Mid-South because of his (alleged) shenanigans. Southaven, by the way, abuts Memphis immediately to the, well, south, just on the other, the southern side of the Tenn.-Miss. state line.

Davis has been accused of padding his expense account; spending exorbitant amounts of dough on travel, wining and dining, as if he were some Wall Street money-bags; and douple-dipping on his expense reports, that is, submitting the same travel and entertainment receipts to the city and the bizarrely enabling Southaven Chamber of Commerce, a body whose striking naivete will go down in the history of wide-eyed innocence. Yolanda Jones and Marc Perrusquia, reporters for The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper in Memphis, delivered a wonderful story about the double-dipping last week, in which they reported uncovering 26 instances in which Davis submitted identical invoices to the city and to the Chamber of Commerce, which for two years paid Davis for expenses he incurred in accommodating developers and people in the tourism industry. It was all part of the job! And four months into this imbroglio, Davis declines to resign.


I was particularly intrigued by a credit card receipt for a dinner that occurred on August 17, 2010, at Mesquite Chophouse in Southaven. The bill for six diners — that is, Davis and his five guests — was $469.60, tax was $42.27, and to the $611.77 total the wildly munificent Davis — motto: “It’s only money, and it’s not mine!” — threw in a tip of $200, a whopping 42 percent of the pre-tax amount. An even more grandiose example of Davis’ city-backed largesse, also reported by The Commercial Appeal, was when he and a group of legislators and lawyers dined at The Mint Restaurant in Ridgeland, Miss., and he dropped a $1,000 tip for a bill that totaled $2,509.43, including two bottles of Opus One at $415 each. Damnit, I wanna have dinner with Greg Davis some night!

I wish I could photographically reproduce the credit card receipt for the Mesquite Chophouse affair from the newspaper, but I will instead write it out in similar form. It’s as strange and fascinating a document as Barack Obama’s birth certificate in the fevered imagination of a Tea Party fanatic. Here ’tis:

Jack Black (11 @$5.00) 55.00
MIC ULTRA (2 @$4.00) 8.00
Bud Light (3 @$4.00) 12.00
Crown Royal (3 @$6.00) 18.00
ABSOLUT VODKA (5 @$6.50) 32.50
And Tonic Water
GHOST RIVER DRAUGHT 5.60
LOS ROCAS GARNACHA (5 @$7.50) 37.50
BUFFALO MOZZ SALAD 10.00
GRILLED CATCH OF THE DAY (4 @$26) 104.00
ESTANCIA CHARDONNAY (4 @$8.00) 32.00
Jack Black (2 @$5.00) 10.00
GUMBO 6.00
KJ CHARD GLASS (2 @$9.50) 19.00
Buttery Nipple (8 @$6.50) 52.00
CHOPHOUSE SALAD (2 @$5.00) 10.00
Prime 8oz FILET 28.00
GARLIC MASHED POTATOES 6.00
BLACKENED CATFISH 24.00

Here is a text (or texte) worthy of the analytical mind of Claude Levi-Strauss, but I think we can dope out some significant aspects without unlimbering our well-worn copies of The Raw and the Cooked.

First, this party of six spent $188 on food and $281.50 on alcoholic beverages, and that’s without buying a single full bottle of wine. The breakdown in the beverage category is $25.60 for beer, $88.50 for wine by the glass, and a staggering — haha — $167.50 on booze. most in the form of shots or shooters. How much food did this party absorb to temper the effects of the alcohol? Not a great deal. Three salads, a bowl of soup, six entrees and a side-order of mashed potatoes. At least everyone had a main course, but, boy, how these boys could drink!

Did I say boys? Well, I don’t mean to be sexist; I know plenty of women who can drink men under the table and still recite a chapter of Finnigans Wake without missing a Gaelic pun. And of course many women work in the travel, tourism, entertainment and development industries, precisely Mayor Greg Davis’ booze-hound constituency. On the other hand, don’t women have more sense than to consume an amount of alcohol that would cement the party-animal reputation of an Ole Miss frat boy on a post-football Saturday night?

If the order of the receipt is chronological, I think that by the time Davis and his guests got to the task of eating, it was far too late; to paraphrase Dante: “No more business was done that night.” I like that in the midst of the meal, several diners returned to Jack Daniels. Was there a designated driver? A chauffered van? Think of the magnitude of boozing at that table: 29 cocktails, shots or shooters; six beers; 11 glasses of wine. That’s 7.66 drinks per person. Just the kind of table that waiters love.

Perhaps your eye was drawn, as mine was, to the term “Buttery Nipple.” I don’t get out a lot, I suppose, because that was a new one to me. A Buttery Nipple is, in case you don’t get out a lot either, a cocktail or, I suppose, a shooter composed of 3 ounces of Bailey’s Irish Cream atop which is carefully floated 2 ounces of butterscotch schnapps. A couple of those do wonders for your blood sugar.

Apparently all the instruments agree that a good time was had by all; we possess no reports to the contrary. And every drink and every dish was free! Well, free up to a point. The tax-payers of Southaven beg to differ.

Image of Greg Davis, AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis. Image of Mequite Chophouse in Southaven, Miss., from local.yahoo.com.

My answer to the question posed in the title of this post would be “No,” but who am I to contradict the research, development and marketing arms of such companies as W.J. Deutsch & Sons and Treasury Wine Estates? (Treasury Wine Estates is the former wine division of the Fosters Group, which underwent a “demerger” of wine from the brewing business in 2011.)

One of Treasury’s numerous brands, labels and wineries is the venerable Beringer, which is launching a brand called Be. — the period is part of the name — aiming at “sophisticated women who seek a more chic, stylish yet casual approach to wine,” according to Stephen Brauer, managing director of Beringer, quoted in Shanken News Daily. Be., which rolls out in April, will feature a Chardonnay and Riesling and, inevitably, a Pink Moscato and Pinot Grigio; the price will be about $13. Does Be. capture the essence of “woman” and all for which she stands? Perhaps someone at Beringer or Treasury has been reading Robert Graves, one of whose later poetry collections was titled Man Does, Woman Is. Another Treasury brand, by the way, is Emma Pearl — how many hours and meetings went into that name? — whose target audience is women 30 and over. The price of the Emma Pearl Chardonnay and Merlot is $16, indicating that women who buy Emma Pearl are better off financially that the target audience for Be., i.e, they’re older and have jobs.

Coincidentally, W. J. Deutsch, the importer based in Harrison, N.Y., is introducing a label called Flirt, aimed at “female consumers” — age and demographic not specified — that will cost about $11. First to be released is a blend of syrah, zinfandel and tempranillo from 2010.

We have seen this phenomenon before, in products such as Brown-Forman’s Little Black Dress label and the Folonari Pink Pinot Grigio, imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons. I don’t know what the sales figures are on these wines; perhaps women flock to them like passenger pigeons darkening the skies of 19th Century America. One imagines the meeting rooms of adult beverage conglomerates filled with junior-grade executives pondering Freud’s infamous question: “What does a woman want?”

The women I know who love wine would gag rather than drink something patronizingly called Flirt or Little Black Dress, because what they want from a bottle of wine is a well-made, authentic product whose price reflects its quality. And isn’t that what we all want from a bottle of wine? I realize that we live in a contemporary cosmos of niche marketing; even so-called Millennials are, for marketing purposes, now divided into two groups, those ages 18 to 25 and those 25 to 32. We also live in an age governed by the Tyranny of Choice, so we can go into a grocery store and stand bewildered before a dozen varieties of Cheez-It Baked Snack Crackers (a trademark of Kellog) or Pringles (a trademark of Procter & Gamble). Indeed, the range of wines foreign and domestic in large stores is daunting, and consumers need help in choosing the right bottle for their purposes.

Still, do women really want wines that are “cute” or “fun” or “stylish” or “chic”? Are those truly the criteria women would use in selecting a bottle of wine? Or do they not mind being condescended to by the cynical machinations of corporate marketing divisions and their PR agencies and advertising minions? Where will this trend stop? Surely coming soon will be wines labeled “Dumb Blond,” “Barefoot and Pregnant” and “Can’t Live with ‘Em, Can’t Live without ‘Em.”

Images from babelwine.com; dexknows.com; wedind.com.

The “pinotgate” scandal is old news, but the settlement in the class-action suit occurred a few days ago.

Wine industry giants E&J Gallo and Constellation Brands agreed to a $2.1 million payout to consumers who purchased bottles of their inexpensive California wines filled with merlot and syrah passed off as pinot noir by a wily French entrepreneur. That’s right, whoever bought bulk wine for Gallo and Constellation between 2006 and 2008 was fooled by the plonk that would be pinot — 20 million bottles-worth — and approved it for sale under several labels selling to American wine-drinkers for $5 to $8. The Gallo labels were Red Bicyclette, Redwood Creek and Turning Leaf; the Constellation brands were Farallon, Rex Goliath, Talus and Robert Mondavi Woodbridge. (Constellation acquired Robert Mondavi in December 2004.) The fake pinot noir, from the Languedoc-Roussillon region, was shipped to our shores by a firm called Sieur d’Arques, who had purchased the bulk wine from the culprits in the deal, Ducasse Wine Merchants. A dozen Frenchmen were convicted of the fraud last year but got off (seems to me) with slaps on their manly French wrists. You can practically hear the argument: “Zut alors, it’s just a bunch of Americains. What do ze know about le vin anyway?”

Consumers may receive up to $21 even if they do not have receipts from purchasing the wines mentioned above. I know that I certainly saved my receipt from the bottle of Red Bicyclette I bought in 2007. For details of the settlement — and to see if you are entitled to a few bucks — visit frenchpinotnoirsettlement.

What tickles my admittedly perverse funny-bone is the idea that the buyers at Sieur d’Arques, Gallo and Constellation had no idea that they were purchasing bottles of merlot and syrah with perhaps a bit of pinot noir blended in. Perhaps they should have followed the advice on how to tell if a wine is pinot noir from the folks on the website of Sunset magazine, quoted by Jill Krasny writing for Business Insider:

Check the color. Pinot grapes should be nearly transparent.

Break down the flavor. “Sniff for cloves and cinnamon, violets and mint, mushrooms and loam under the fruit. And taste for licorice, olives, espresso?…”

Scrutinize the weight. Pinot should be delicate and silky, not full-bodied and “dramatic.”

(Olives and espresso? Those qualities seem rather anomalous for pinot noir.)

‘Scuse me while I fall off my chair laughing. When was the last time you tried a pinot noir wine whose color was “nearly transparent”? (I assume that the intention was to say “wine” rather than “grapes.”) When was the last time you tasted a pinot noir that was “delicate and silky”? I’m talking particularly about pinots from California and Oregon, where alcohol levels of 15 percent or more are common, where the wines are deeply extracted for opaque, brooding color and super-ripe, syrah-like flavors, where “full-bodied and dramatic” pinot noirs are as reckless as deductions on Mitt Romney’s tax return. Every week I taste purported pinot noirs that display all the character of a syrah or zinfandel in their darkness, richness, extreme spicy qualities, extravagant textures and burdensome tannins. I recently came across a producer of limited edition, high-end pinots whose motto is “Bold Decadent Daring.” Whatever happened to “Reticent Elegant Balanced”?

No wonder the noses and palates at Gallo and Constellation couldn’t tell that the “pinot” they were buying was actually mostly merlot and syrah. (We have to assume, of course, that they cared. Would I be cynical enough to suggest that the big deal for Gallo and Constellation was not that they bought fake pinot but that they were bamboozled by the French?) What’s a nose and palate to do when so many pinot noir wines, even made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes, carry all the effects of merlot or syrah or zinfandel? And if the result of farming the vineyard and tinkering with the wine is a pinot noir that resembles syrah, why bother with making pinot noir in the first place? Just make freakin’ syrah and be done with it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it today and probably in the future too. Winemakers who do not try to bring out the best qualities of their grapes, that is the character inherent in the grapes grown in the most sympathetic and advantageous soil and climate, are making wine in bad faith. A high-alcohol, deeply extracted, super-ripe, excessively spicy pinot noir of which one is compelled to say, “That certainly is a syrah-like [or zinfandel-like] pinot noir,” does not have the right to the name pinot noir. I’m not saying the all pinots not made in Burgundy must slavishly follow the Burgundian model; obviously geography, latitude, elevation, climate and soil will impose their subtle or not-so-subtle influences. The pinot noir grape, however, performs at its best when it is allowed to assume its gratifying and paradoxical blending of elegance and power, of delicacy and sinew, nuance and structure, transparency and luster. Winemakers should pay heed to what grapes know best about themselves and want to express most eloquently; everything else is an exercise in ego.

By the way, the composition of the Red Bicylette Pinot Noir 2009? 86 percent pinot noir, 7 percent syrah, 7 percent merlot.

It may be the Yuletide season, Readers, but I am not inclined to extend generosity to those who mangle the Mother-Tongue and allow way too much wiggle-room in the definition of words. The worst offenders, other than politicians, bureaucrats and sociologists, are advertising copywriters and public relations/marketing interns. Here’s the example that lit a fire under my ire:

The back label of the JCB No 81 Chardonnay 2009, Sonoma Coast, tells us that the wine is “Alluring. Ephemeral. Insatiable.” “JCB” stands for Jean-Charles Boisset, president of Boisset Wine Estates, owner of, among other properties and brands, Buena Vista Winery, DeLoach Vineyard, Lockwood Vineyard, Lyeth Estate, Fog Mountain and Raymond Vineyards in California and Bouchard Aîné & Fils, Domaine de la Vougeraie, J. Moreau & Fils and French Rabbit in France. The JCB line represents the company’s extension into producing fairly limited edition wines from vineyards primarily in Sonoma County. (Image from harrods.com)

Let’s look at these adjectives.

Alluring. I occasionally use “alluring” in reviews to mean that a wine draws the taster in seductively and irresistibly, with a sense of style and glamor; it’s a rather abstract and subjective concept, but one that I think can be employed legitimately and that readers readily grasp. So, O.K. on that.

Ephemeral. I think that the word is incorrect for the wine. According to The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged (1987), ephemeral means “lasting a very short time; short-lived; transitory.” One might apply the word, especially in the realm of “transitory,” to certain wines, say the driest and more delicate rosés or fresh and quaffable white wines such as Vinho Verde or South African chenin blancs. Applied, however, to a Sonoma Coast chardonnay that’s rich and full-bodied and solidly oaked (though nothing out of the ordinary), “ephemeral” would be a negative term; the context is completely wrong.

Insatiable. Here’s a vivid model of incorrect word choice. The RHDEL2 tells us that “insatiable” means “incapable of being satisfied or appeased.” A glutton may be insatiable in his hunger; a sadist may be insatiable in his blood-lust; a dictator may be insatiable in his quest for power. The application of the word to a bottle of wine is nonsensical or, if you prefer, ignorant.

In fact, the marketing device for the JCB wines rests on the three-word trope. For the JCB No 1, a cabernet sauvignon, the figure is “Voluptuous. Opulent. Incorrigible.” For No 22, a pinot noir, the scheme is “Intimate. Tumultuous. Intense.” And, bizarrely, No 8, a pinot noir dry rosé, receives the flamboyant encomium of “Rebellious. Capricious. Seductive.”

While voluptuousness and opulence are virtues in cabernet sauvignon wines in some circles — not usually mine — (and they seem redundant anyway), “incorrigible” is another example of a copywriter simply not knowing what words mean. If a chardonnay truly were “bad beyond correction or reform; impervious to restraints or punishment; willful; unruly; uncontrollable,” I think that I would leave it on the shelf and try something else. “Tumultuous” for a pinot noir? (“full of tumult or riotousness; marked by disturbance and uproar; … disorderly or noisy; … highly agitated”) The last thing I want is a disorderly and highly agitated pinot noir. And how would you feel about a rosé that was insubordinate and erratic?

Friends, this is the Silliness of Vocabulary Overkill, the result of poorly prepared writers trying too hard to sound impressive, a common symptom in the world of public relations and marketing. I say that it’s time to retire the concept of the back-label hard sell and storytelling that dominates in New World wines, especially California and Australia, and let the product speak for itself. Tell me about the wine, if that’s necessary, but keep the copy brief and to the point. And please, keep a dictionary on the desk.

The history is complicated.

The Mirassou family has been in the wine business in California since 1854, qualifying them for a place among the industry’s pioneering pantheon. For most of the first century, the family grew grapes in Santa Clara and (discounting Prohibition) sold bulk wine. I won’t go into all the details of the family’s splits, buy-outs and mergers as the generations succeeded each other — Charles L. Sullivan provides the narrative in the essential A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California press, 1998) — except to say that by the mid 1960s Mirassou had moved decisively into bottling varietal wine and that they were crowded out of Santa Clara by suburban development and had expanded to Monterey, buying some 600 acres in the northern part of the county.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Mirassou struggled with quality and finally achieved the sort of standards and technical ability that result in decent and drinkable and sometimes more than decent wines. Production centered on about 70 percent white wine — the “White Burgundy,” mostly pinot blanc, and the Harvest Reserve Chardonnay being notable — 10 percent sparkling wine and 20 percent in red.

In 2002, the family’s fifth generation sold the brand to Gallo, which uses it for cheap, innocuous bottlings; the family retained the winery and property, then reduced to 15 acres by encroaching habitation and commercial endeavor. The name was changed to La Rochelle, in honor of the French sea-coast town from which Louis and Pierre Pellier embarked for America (bringing with them what would become California’s first pinot noir vines); in 1881, Pierre H. Mirassou married Pierre Pellier’s daughter Henriette, who was already running her father’s vineyards, thus paving the way for the Mirrasou enterprise.

In June, 2005, as reported by W. Blake Gray in the San Francisco Chronicle, brothers Daniel and Peter Mirassou sold the La Rochelle brand to their cousin, Steven Kent Mirassou, who owns the Steven Kent Winery, a producer of small edition cabernet sauvignon in Livermore, east of San Francisco Bay. La Rochelle now concentrates on limited release pinot noir wines from vineyards throughout California and in Oregon. Some of those pinot noirs, which I find fairly unpinot-like, will be our focus in this post. In fact, I thought that these wines displayed an alarming variance in quality, tone and effect. Winemaker is Tom Stutz.

These were samples for review. The Mirassou labels in this section are from my wine notebook for 1983.
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First, if you can possibly get your hands on a case or a few bottles of La Rochelle Pinot Noir Rosé 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County, do so. This is perhaps the best rosé from California (or the “New World”) that I tasted this year. Color is pale but radiant onion skin with a light copper glow; it’s all dried red currants, Rainier cherries, melon ball and a hint of spiced peach; a lovely almost satiny texture made vital and vibrant by crisp acidity and a scintillating limestone element. Loads of personality yet quietly elegant. 13.2 percent alcohol. Production was 157 cases. Excellent. About $22, and Worth a Search.
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La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, seems pretty over-heated and syrah-like for a Russian River pinot. It’s very spicy and slightly sweet, with powerful waves of cloves, cinnamon and Red Hots permeating intense aromas and flavors of black and red cherries with a touch of dried red currants and blueberries; a beguiling floral element, bursting with violets and rose petals, is immediately apparent. The texture is blatantly and sleek satiny but neither heavy nor obvious, though the finish starts to fall apart, not knowing if it’s meant to be dry, briery and earthy or super-ripe, candied and glossy. Shall I be generous and call this wine a curiosity rather than a failure? 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 137 cases. Drink now, if you’re of a mind, through 2013 or ’14. Very Good. About $42.
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A shadow darker, a shade more subdued is La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2008, Sonoma Coast — and also more balanced and integrated than the Russian River version mentioned above. It’s actually fairly placid and brooding, though not truculent, definitely earthier and more deeply imbued with graphite-like minerality, still managing, however, to display aspects of finesse and gradations of spice (instead of an assault) that marry well with the delicious but almost spare black and blue fruit flavors layered with notes of briers, brambles and forest floor. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 156 cases. Drink now through 2012 or ’14. Very Good+. About $42.
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La Rochelle Pinot Noir La Cruz Vineyard 2008, Sonoma Coast, is unabashedly gorgeous and seductive, star-making qualities to be sure but not necessarily the first aspects one thinks of pertaining to the grape. The fine print reveals the fact that this wine carries 15.3 percent alcohol, a heady element perhaps accounting for a bouquet of black cherry compote, spiced and macerated cranberries, mulberries and plums, though backnotes of mint and iodine and graphite-like minerality provide a bit of leavening. Violets and roses, yes, plum pudding, the latter also prominent in the profile of ripe and roasted black cherry and currant flavors steeped in cloves and sassafras, with some notion of briers and brambles hinting at a foresty layer. The wine is potent with alcohol, and the dry, austere finish feels rather flat-footed. A pinot for zinfandel-lovers. Drink now through 2013 to ’14. Production was 171 cases. Very Good. About $48.
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Despite the 15.3 percent alcohol, La Rochelle Sarmento Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County, initially displays a modicum of the fleetness, finesse and elegance and the black cherry, cranberry, rhubarb and cola notes that we associate with the best pinot noir wines. On the other hand, sadly, its excessively spicy, assertively macerated and roasted nature tends to overshadow those qualities and bring to the foreground obtrusive elements of brown sugar and caramel and high alcohol’s over-ripeness and cloying sweetness; a good pinot noir should have a satiny texture, but this is almost viscous. In the end, one cannot figure out exactly what this wine is supposed to be. Drastically unbalanced. 141 cases. Not recommended. About $48.
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Finally and thankfully — I loved La Rochelle Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Cruz Mountains, the most balanced, integrated and seemingly authentic of these five pinot noir wines, excluding the rosé, which, as you’ll note above, I also adored. The color is an entrancing cherry-cerise with a dark ruby center; classic aromas of black cherry and blueberry tart — this is California — are generously wreathed with touches of rhubarb and cola, moss and leather, briers and brambles, all seamless, reserved, tranquil. In the mouth, this pinot noir expands into more earthy, mossy, foresty realms that provide ballast for ravishing black and blue fruit flavors that gain flesh, ripeness and substance after 20 or 30 minutes in the glass. The texture is lovely, smooth, satiny, flowing, the finish sweetly delineated, long, spicy. A beautiful pinot for drinking through 2013 or ’14. Alcohol content is 14.9 percent, high for pinot noir in my book but not obvious here. 138 cases. Excellent. About $38 and Worth a Search.
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