Meditation and Contemplation

We drink wine for many reasons, for pure enjoyment with a meal or perhaps for the prestige that a great, long-lived bottle brings; for raging thirst and desire or for the conviviality of friendship. Here’s a brief tale about one of those motivations.

In the early 1990s, we made the acquaintance of Jack M., an elderly man, a native Memphian, who had returned to the city after closing his gallery in New York. Before his sojourn in Manhattan, he had operated a gallery in Paris for several decades. He abandoned New York primarily because of a crippling ailment that gradually deprived him of the power of movement. Not of thought or expression, though, not a bit of that. Jack was sharp, witty, a little irascible but always courtly and considerate, widely-read and knowledgeable about all the aspects of life worth knowing about, but primarily art, literature and music, food and wine. His garden apartment in Memphis was filled with drawings, prints and paintings and books, many of these objects inscribed by grateful artists and writers to their benefactor. We visited Jack as often as possible; though a few relatives attended to his needs, he was lonely in his city of origin, a sad fate for such a gifted raconteur with a talent for friendship. Just in the time we knew him, he had to give up his car, yet he never complained about the pain his affliction brought him, only the inconvenience.

Much as he loved food and wine, Jack’s doctors forbade him any indulgence in the latter of those essential quantities, a ban that gave him a great deal of frustration. When we invited him to our apartment for dinner, an occasion that required the working out of all manner of logistics, I pondered the wine issue deeply. Would it be an act of mercy or arrogance to disobey his doctors’ orders and give Jack a glass of wine? And how would he feel if the rest of us had wine and he didn’t? And would it seem strange to have no wine on the table at all, a gesture that would make no sense to this Francophile?

The dinner was simple: A roasted chicken, scalloped potatoes and a salad. At a private wine tasting I had been to recently, a collector had given me a bottle of Madame Leroy’s Bourgogne Rouge 1989, the basic, classic entry-level wine from the most meticulous and expensive of Burgundy houses. At four years old, it would be drinking perfectly. That night, our friends drove to Jack’s place, brought him to our building and helped him up the stairs to our second-floor apartment. Setting the table for five, I positioned a wine glass at each place, but at dinner time poured only four glasses.

Jack regaled us with stories about his time in Paris and New York, anecdotes, a few scandalous, about artists and writers he knew, and tales about his life and travels. He kept an eye on that bottle of wine, though, and finally he said, “How about pouring me a little of that wine? Just an inch.” I looked at my wife and she nodded, so I said, “Sure, Jack, an inch of wine can’t hurt.”

On the candle-lit table in our darkened dining room, the wine glowed deep cherry-red, like a glass of wine in a Dutch still-life painting. Jack lifted the glass to his nose and sniffed the pinot noir aromas and then drank the wine down in one long supple swallow. He sat still for a moment, holding the glass, and then said, “God in heaven, that was good. Bless you.”

Jack died a few weeks after that dinner party, to which he brought a present of Armagnac in a funny old bottle that leaned over at the top, as if the bottle itself were joyfully inebriated. We held on to that Armagnac for years, sipping a glass late at night occasionally, until only an inch or even less pooled at the bottom. On Christmas Eve 2006, I poured the last of Jack’s Armagnac, and we toasted to the generosity and kindness of a man who knew how to live and how to die.

And that’s a great reason for drinking wine.

This little piece is dedicated to Meg Houston Maker, whose lovely and insightful writing about food and wine and whose talent for storytelling continue to inspire me.

Or luscious wines, or wines that a certain writer calls “sexy” or “hedonistic,” or wines that base their raison d’etre on ripeness and juiciness, succulence and opulence. I think that these wines reflect the infantile nature of the American palate trained to sweetened iced tea and sugary sodas or, for the Baby Boomer generation, Kool-Aid and Tang. American wine consumers seem to want their taste buds coddled and cosseted by the saturated ripeness of long-hanging grapes plumped with sugar and by velvety textures that slide comfortingly through the mouth and down the throat.

As a culture, Americans typically desire immediate gratification, a tendency that’s probably our most consequential export to the rest of the world. With a sniff and a sip, the gorgeous wine gets right in there and provides quick fulfillment, a burst of pleasure. “Wow, that’s gorgeous!” What happens next, though? Such wines may be superficially attractive, even seductive, and I won’t deny that a wine with the capability to draw you in irresistibly isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the end, however, the gorgeous wines don’t deliver the true promise that great wines hold: elegance and finesse married to power and dynamism; a structure that feels embedded in the grapes’ origin in the vineyard and the vineyard in a region; acidity that brings the necessary matanzas merlotvitality to the wine’s essence and cuts a swath on the palate; the balance among fruit, tannin, acid, oak and minerality that soothes, stimulates and challenges the senses and the intellect.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. A couple of nights ago, to accompany meatloaf and roasted potatoes, I opened a bottle of the Matanzas Creek Jackson Park Vineyard Merlot 2012, Bennett Valley. (Matanzas Creek is owned by Jackson Family Wines.) Bennett Valley, approved as an AVA in 2003, largely at the instigation of Matanzas Creek Winery, lies almost entirely within the Sonoma Valley AVA and overlaps somewhat into Sonoma Coast and Sonoma Mountain AVAs. The vineyard stands at an average elevation of 600 feet. The wine is 98 percent merlot with one percent each cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc; it aged 20 months in French and American oak, the French being 23 percent new barrels. Winemaker was Marcia Monahan-Torres. Yes, that’s the wonky technical data that may bore you silly, but I love it.

The color is deep ruby-purple with a glowing magenta rim. The aromas launch from the glass in what’s initially a subdued skein of ripe and slightly macerated black and red currants and cherries with notes of raspberry and blueberry; a few minutes’ airing brings in hints of cloves and sandalwood and then a great bloom of violets and lilacs, backed by licorice and bitter chocolate, all in a lovely welter of sensual delight. Yeah, pretty damned gorgeous. Within this panoply of pleasure, however, lurks a deeper influence of graphite, something root-like, briery and brambly, with sage and a touch of rosemary, and deeper yet, a layer of lithic iodine and iron. The wine is shifting, you see, from gorgeous to profound, a transition that occurs on the palate, also, where the ripeness and allure of the spicy red and black fruit flavors are bolstered by bright and active acidity and given depth and dimension by dusty, woodsy tannins that partake of dried mushrooms and forest-floor and a burgeoning tide of granitic minerality. This is in no way, you see, a merely gorgeous wine. The Matanzas Creek Jackson Park Vineyard Merlot 2012 doesn’t sate your desire for wine or weary your palate by its opulence and velvety succulence. Instead, it leads you on from sip to sip, a wine to savor for the very savory qualities that more flamboyant wines lack. This should drink beautifully through 2020 to ’24. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Excellent. About $60.

Perhaps the virtues I extol demand too much of wine, which is, after all, only a beverage, an agricultural product, though I think that wine — including Champagne and the adjuncts Port and Cognac — possesses the capacity to be the most complex and satisfying result of agricultural endeavor. (I’ll hear arguments for Scotch, too.) Not that every wine ought to promote deep contemplation and examination; sometimes you just want a decent quaff to knock back with a burger or pizza. Still, I think we deserve wines that exhibit finer character and more essential structure than the prettiness and hyperbole of ripeness and plumpness allow.

Dear Readers: A few days ago I posted an entry to BiggerThanYourHead that brought the number of posts since its beginning in December 2006 to 1,500. That’s an average of 187 posts each year or slightly more than 15 per month. Perhaps it’s time to step back and get a little perspective.

Last week, Jonathan Cristaldi posted to an amusing and educational essay titled “10 Dirty Secrets of Wine (That Nobody Wants to Talk About),” an exercise that received quite a bit of comment on Facebook and on other people’s blogs. In his prefactory remarks, Cristaldi mentions among “sinister forces at play” in the wine world the “in-fighting among critics and bloggers.” Does such “in-fighting” exist, with its implications of envy, rivalry and hurt feelings? If it does, I hadn’t noticed, but perhaps I am isolated in my Slough of Despond here in what’s called the Mid-South.

One of the “10 Dirty Secrets of Wine” in the piece is “Wine Critics are not necessarily more qualified than bloggers.” Not necessarily more qualified. The point I take from this statement is that typically wine critics are regarded as more qualified than bloggers, but surely these loaded terms require definition. I assume that a wine “critic” is a person employed by a newspaper or magazine or online entity who is paid for his or her efforts, hence a “professional.” A wine “blogger” on the other hand is anyone who establishes a blog or has a blog designed and set up and then writes whatever he or she desires about wine, hence an amateur. The Federal Trade Commission certainly adheres to this view. That regulatory body made effective on December 1, 2009, a ruling that bloggers must disclose the source of products they review and whether those products were samples. (Didn’t know that, youngsters?) That stipulation does not apply to writers who review for print media, the assumption being that newspapers and magazines undergo editorial control that somehow makes the process more trustworthy and legitimate.

The distinction between professional and amateur is irksome. The widely held belief is that one is professional if you get paid for what you’re doing, while amateurs perform out of interest, involvement or love (as the word implies) without regular financial compensation. A professional can also be a person who is certified by an overseeing board or entity, having passed certain tests and qualifying procedures; amateurs typically lack such credentials. Yet since reviewing wine or being a wine critic, whether for a print journal or online, tends toward matters of taste and subjectivity, just as reviewing books or music or theater does, notions of who is professional and who is amateur become more tenuous. The real criteria rest in knowledge and experience, sensitivity and imagination and the ability to transform physical and emotional sensations, as well as history and geography, into evocative language.

How does one achieve such a state? Through constant reading and tasting and writing, through seeking out opportunities to experience a wide range of wines through regions and vintages, through travel, if possible, and visits to the home turf where grapes are grown and wine is made. The “professionals” who write for print outlets may possess all sorts of qualifications, but they are not infallible nor do they always display particular artistry or articulateness in their expression; the same may be said of many bloggers. As far as consumers are concerned, they need to find writers or critics or bloggers whose voices they admire and can engage with, whose intellects they find amenable and whose palates they trust. I started writing about wine in a newspaper column in 1984, before many of the marketing and PR people who send me press releases and samples were born, and I continued that weekly, nationally-distributed column for 20 years (and was a full-time reporter and critic). Did that make me a professional? And when I left the newspaper and launched myself online, did I decline from being a professional to being an amateur?

Those issues are ancient history, however, and wine-blogging and critiquing are about the here and now, as each vintage succeeds the one before, and producers around the world watch the weather and the climate for the minute (or dramatic) changes that make each year and harvest different. The issue I really want to approach is my own motivation for adhering to an avocation that takes up a good deal of time and space and produces little material reward except — and this is a big “except” — for the wine samples I receive and the occasional sponsored trip that I go on. My Readers are thinking, “Those should be reasons enough,” and indeed I don’t discount them, but there are other aspects.

Most important is the wine itself — a uniquely complex and evocative beverage and a perpetual reminder of our connection to the earth and its seasons — and the ability to follow producers and wines from year to year. One of the most gratifying factors in this endeavor is the contact I have with new, small wineries that send me their products for review. Next is the responsibility to My Readers, bless their hearts, who depend on me for honest and fair assessments of wines and for supporting historical, geographical and technical information, which to me is an essential part of writing about wine. Then there are the friendships I have made and that I treasure in many moments of tasting wine and food and sharing knowledge and experience and stories of travel and adventure.

Lord knows how many mass tastings I have attended over 30 years, those trade events where journalists carry a glass in one hand and a notebook in the other and move from table to table, producer to producer and swirl-sniff-sip-spit their way through a hundred wines. Not the best way to taste wine, but sometimes such events are the only way to be exposed to a broad range of products. Then there are the weekend mornings when I stand in the kitchen and taste through a dozen cabernets or pinot noirs or rieslings. My favorite way to experience wine though is with dinner at home, when LL and I sit down with a wine that I have held back and open it and take a sniff and taste and look at each other and whisper, “Holy crap, that’s good.”

You see, friends, we’re all amateurs.

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; 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.
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.
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.

.. and here are a few of them, in no particular order, so don’t over-analyze.

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 …

When will producers of and zealots for so-called “natural wines” lose their holier-than-thou attitude? Grapes are natural; wine is artifact.
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.”

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.)

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.
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 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.

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?
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.
Sources of the question mark images: 1.; 2.; 3.; 4.; 5.; 6.; 7.; 8.

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