Thursday, March 30, 2017

Cork Dork: A HoseMaster of Wine™ Book Club Selection

I’ve been wondering for a couple of years when a book like “Cork Dork” would come around. It seemed inevitable to me that an enterprising journalist would one day decide that writing about what it takes to become a Certified Sommelier in the world of fancy schmancy restaurants would make for an interesting book. I’m glad that journalist was someone as talented as Bianca Bosker. This could easily have been a dreadful book, just as “SOMM” was a dreadful film for me to watch. Instead, it’s a wonderful read. I especially admire Bosker’s prodigious research about wine, and about our senses of smell and taste, and her unflagging sense of humor. I rarely laugh when I read, but Bosker made me break out into noisy smiles quite a bit. I blamed the dog.

In her acknowledgments, Bosker mentions Susan Orlean and John McPhee as inspirations, but reading “Cork Dork” made me think more about the late George Plimpton. Plimpton, founder of “The Paris Review,” and quite the literate raconteur, may have reached the pinnacle of his popular fame with his book, “Paper Lion.” “Paper Lion” is about Plimpton’s desire to find out what it’s like to be a quarterback in the NFL. He talks the Detroit Lions into allowing him to train with them for a season, and takes us along. Plimpton is a writer with a gift for the extraordinary and telling detail, and his misadventures in the NFL are very funny and surprisingly poignant. The book made Alex Karras, a defensive lineman for the Lions, into a star. It’s Karras who famously knocks out a horse with a punch in “Blazing Saddles.” Bosker shares Plimpton’s keen eye for detail, and she also sports the exuberance of youth. In a business as stuffy as the wine business, these qualities serve her wit well. Bosker also echoes Plimpton’s editorial game plan. Plimpton, of course, takes a beating as a quarterback, has to win over the skeptical pro players who slightly resent his presence, yet he triumphs in the end. Bosker is often humiliated in her attempts to understand wine and work the floor as a sommelier in exclusive, service-oriented restaurants, she is warned by many Master Sommeliers about the folly of her task as she gives herself a year to accomplish what has taken others many years, but, of course, in the end, well, you know… And she’s worked pretty tirelessly to make Morgan Harris, a young New York sommelier, her Alex Karras, though Harris struck me as less horse pugilist and more horse’s ass.

The book is really eleven set pieces organized into a whole. You may have read parts of “Cork Dork” already, one chapter as a “New Yorker” piece, “Is There A Better Way to Talk About Wine?,” and part of another chapter served as a piece in the Opinion pages of the “New York Times,” “Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine.” The latter piece stirred up the hornet’s nest of natural wine’s alt-right. The eleven chapters stand on their own, you’ll learn a lot about your senses of smell and taste, and how sommelier’s brains are different than yours (I’m a prime example of that), but it makes for a very clunky ride taken as a whole. A chapter about working the floor in a fancy New York restaurant, a visit with Ann Noble in California, a brain scan in South Korea, a wine exam in Virginia… All of it’s interesting, but most people trying to become Certified Sommeliers don’t have expense accounts that cover their curiosity. Much of that serves to make Bosker less sympathetic to the reader, harder to identify with, which works against her. And yet her talent is so great, she wins us over and makes us glad we signed up for her journey. I may have a crush on her.

Bosker has talent, and, apparently, a great agent. (So, really, it doesn’t matter one iota what I think about her book.) “Cork Dork” is a stereotypical work of participatory journalism. Poor man’s Plimpton. The risk in that kind of journalism is that the work can eventually come to be about the writer, and not the subject. John McPhee is the master at this sort of creative nonfiction, and clearly someone Bosker (among many others) idolizes. McPhee has a talent for knowing what to leave out in his work. In his work, you always sense his presence, his intellect, but he is very much in the background most of the time. You see through his eyes, but you don’t think McPhee is his own subject. In the end, “Cork Dork” is very much a book about Bianca Bosker. Don’t get me wrong, she seems like someone I’d like to know, though there’s fat chance of that (though, I, of all people, understand that a voice should not be mistaken for the actual person writing in that voice). Wine transforms her, though I’m not sure I cared. It’s certainly not why I decided to read the book.

I want to be clear about a few things because I ramble like Professor Irwin Corey with head trauma. Bianca Bosker is a flamboyantly talented writer. I could read her work all day long. She’s genuinely funny, and wit is a precious asset that’s absent in most wine writing. She does have McPhee’s work ethic. She doesn’t want to just understand a subject, she wants to master it, destroy it, and perform an autopsy on it. “Cork Dork” is a great glimpse into obsessive personalities, especially Bosker’s. I’d read it for that, and be grateful I’m not one. If I have issues with the book, it’s not about the quality of the writing. I’d go on any journey to which Bosker invites me. I’d already been on much of this journey long before Bosker could hold a pen, so I bring an old and odd perspective to the book. But I loved the book for its youthful bravado, and for Bosker, especially when she stops to think about what a stupid obsession wine can become.

When Bosker travels to Virginia to take the Certified Sommelier Exam she meets Annie Truhlar. I found Annie’s story to be the most interesting, and the most revelatory, in the book. Annie is the one “sommelier” (she isn’t really) in the book who loves wine with a passion, and not obsession. I got tired of the obsessed sommeliers in the book who give up what’s actually important in life, love and family, for a life in wine. I know a lot of people like that in the biz, and I feel sorry for them. (I wish Bosker had spent a bit more time talking about the rampant alcoholism in the trade, but I get that she didn’t.) It seemed that Bosker’s view of wine, and of being a sommelier, changed after her time spent with Annie as they endured the Certified Sommelier Exam together. Annie can barely afford the money to take the test. She’s never been able to go to a La Paulée kind of event, which is Bosker’s subject in one of the chapters, or even taste any Champagne tête du cuvées before she’s tested on them. She’s never dined at Eleven Madison Park, and probably thinks it’s the name of a Korean M.W. Annie just loves wine. It’s her story that holds the book together for me. She’s a breath of fresh air amid all the fetid breath of too many yammering young sommeliers. Annie Truhlar is the one person in the book with whom I’d like to share a great bottle of wine, aside from Bosker herself. Annie, you’re ever in Sonoma, call me!

I cannot imagine this book will have much resonance for those who love wine but don’t live in New York. It will teach you a lot, but won’t speak to you. It’s a very New York-centric book. I found that tiresome. There were endless and casual dismissals of California wine throughout the book, which is very New York somm. In her quest to learn about wine, Bosker learned far too much elitism, despite the chapter excerpted in the “New York Times” about how Treasury manipulates cheap wine to taste good, which she defends to a degree, but which, of course, takes place in California. Reading the book made me grateful to have grown up in the wine business outside of New York. So much of what Bosker writes about on her path to becoming a sommelier was foreign to me. I wasn’t unaware of it, as I’m not unaware of the behavior of dung beetles, with which sommeliers have a lot in common, but the book reads like this is how the wine world and the restaurant business works everywhere. That’s certainly not true. I found myself disliking almost everyone in the book, aside from Bosker herself and Annie Truhlar. Ah, but that’s me. However, if you’ve never been a New Yorker, or worked in the New York wine trade, you might be rather perplexed by much of “Cork Dork.” I actually wondered why Bosker would want to be part of that group. They read more like Swiftian fools to me than wine lovers.

If you read this stupid blog regularly, I think you’ll like “Cork Dork.” I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it. It’s in paperback, it’s cheap! Buy Bosker’s book! I mean it. It's not even ten bucks on Amazon. She’s such a great young writer. She deserves our support. I’ve had my say here, but this is a book easily worth reading and recommending to friends that love wine. All my reservations aside, it’s terrific work.

I’m obviously not a professional book critic. There’s a very vapid review that the “New York Times” published (it’s a good review, which the book deserves, but it’s emptyheaded, and I get the feeling the reviewer might even know Bianca, though I don’t know that). And there are some of the most transparently fake blurbs I’ve seen on a book cover in a long time. For example, late in the book Bosker recommends “Wine Folly” to her readers for their summations of grape characteristics. And then there’s a blurb on the back cover from Madeline Puckette calling “Cork Dork,” “The ‘Kitchen Confidential’ of wine.” That’s pretty shameless. It’s more the “L.A. Confidential” of wine, really. Jay McInerney, whom Bosker meets at La Paulée, has a blurb proclaiming her a “gonzo nerd prodigy.” So you know he grabbed her ass. The blurbs are completely FAKE NEWS! Sad.

Bianca, I love your writing. “Cork Dork” shows the wisdom and the foibles of youth. With no added sulphur.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Newer, Better Wine Critics You Should Be Reading

It’s entirely possible to pursue your wine education reading the same old critics over and over again, but that’s the equivalent of only drinking Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc while ignoring the other eight thousand varieties. For the most part, let’s face it, you read the critics who reinforce your own opinions and tastes. It’s what humans do. Yes, it’s obvious the folks who support Trump are assholes for believing everything he says and not seeing through the constant lies, but there’s absolutely no reason to doubt that what Alice Feiring says about natural wines is true because it just feels right. This is how we think. Keeping an open mind is for other people, mine’s only open every other Tuesday. Don’t tell me Zinfandel can make great wine, I just told you I don’t like it. I am completely open to your opinion, except when you’re wrong, which is always when you disagree with me. Zinfandel is too jammy, like that smegma between my toes. But have you tried this Trousseau? It’s natural wine, only lightly fined with placenta extracted from a sheep. I watched it happen on Ewe Tube.

Maybe you only read Robert Parker because you like the reassurance that your cellar full of very expensive and highly rated Cabernets from Napa Valley is well-chosen, the envy of wine lovers everywhere. Well, you’re a different form of idiot—ask anyone with a little lapel pin that subtly notifies you that they are foolproof when it comes to wine knowledge. The only Master Sommeliers who confess to loving Napa Valley Cabernets are the ones employed at wineries there, or who lie on behalf of Constellation or Jackson Family Wines for a living. Which turns out to be most of them. They’re the laughing stocks of MS’s. It’s like being a wine writer and your main credit is “PUNCH.” Which is to wine writing what Apothic is to wine—it bears only a vague resemblance.

Reading every issue of “Wine Spectator” is the wine lover’s equivalent of the movie, “Groundhog’s Day.” It’s the same issue every fucking time you pick one up. The editorial content is more tightly pinched than Sean Hannity’s sphincter. And why is the magazine itself so goddam large? “Wine Spectator” is like wine’s answer to IMAX films. Its only reason to exist is that it’s ridiculously big. The content is utterly unimportant. The only thing glossier than an issue of “Wine Spectator” is my eyes when I’m reading the magazine’s columnists. Who the hell reads Matt Kramer? Eye charts make more sense, and are far more irreverent.

It’s time that you begin to read other wine critics. Get out of your comfort zone. Broaden your wine horizons. Wine lovers who only drink wines under 13% ABV, or only drink 100 point wines, or refuse any wine that isn’t a natural wine, I hold in equal contempt. “Natural wines are the only ones that taste good to me.” “What score did it get?” “I don’t like Napa Valley Cabernet.” Hard to decide which sentence is the most ignorant. Is there a 100 point scale for ignorance? Those are all 95+. The “+” because I may have underrated the ignorance. And the same is true for wine writers. Try someone new! Parker is Parker, Galloni is baloney, Puckette is Breitbart News (if you ignore that first syllable), strictly truth-adjacent. Find a new wine writer to follow, someone with a new axe to grind, wearing a different set of Virtual Reality goggles than Asimov, Feiring, Laube, or Jefford. I have a few suggestions…

TouchMyJunket—Talking about integrity and standards in wine journalism is a lot like the debate surrounding the use of condoms in the porn industry. It might be the right thing to do, but nobody in the industry wants them. It just doesn’t feel right for those participating. We’re consenting adults fucking each other. It feels best this way. Mind your own business and watch. Which is why I value the opinions of Frank Payola on his blog Frank goes on more wine junkets each year than Jamie Goode, Elaine Brown and Joe Roberts combined! It’s his tireless pursuit of wine knowledge on our behalf that inspires me. And, like all the wine journalists I can think of, he’s never been to a wine region he doesn’t love. And, honestly, on top of that, when it comes to wine reviews, objectivity is highly overrated, though happily extinct. Everybody’s so damned critical, so opinionated about wine. Not Frank Payola! Free trip to Uruguay? Why Frank can write a thousand words about the glories of Uruguayan wine that more than offsets the cost of his hotel mini-fridge bills. See his piece, “I’m Devoted to Tannatural Wines.” Oh, it’s the kind of pay-for-play journalism that makes America Great Again. You should make a habit of reading TouchMyJunket. It’s refreshing to see that wine journalists are not nearly as expensive to buy as the wines they travel to write about.

Ted Frasker—Syndicated in several hundred newspapers around the country, Ted writes about all the industrial plonk you can’t afford to miss in the sort of language normally generated by random word programs. The good thing about Ted? He really believes there are great wines under $20! So sweet. Like those people who believe building a wall will make their life better. Because that always works. Ask any Berliner. Now, we all know there are no great wines under $20. None. Zero. Only an idiot thinks there are great wines under $20. But it’s so frustrating that major wine critics don’t rate the hundreds of wine labels of manufactured grape juice available—unless, of course, the corporation that makes them pays for advertising. Hell, we’ll take an 86 as long as the label photo we paid for isn’t blurry. Ted, though, he only tastes those corporate wines. “Sure, they all taste about the same. I have standards, though,” Ted told me. “I only review wines made with indigenous chemicals.”

Isabel Sans Clapper MW—“I don’t think making Natural Wines is enough,” Clapper proclaims. “We need to focus on wines of a higher consciousness. I won’t recommend any wine that hasn’t been Certified Enlightened™.” Unenlightened wines are a product of modern technology, or a poor upbringing. They not only ruin the Earth, they can harm your aura. Clapper has begun a movement, one that’s catching on among all the young sommeliers (or “somms,” because knowing how to speak French is giving in to the Man), that supports only wines that have been Certified Enlightened™. “A Certified Enlightened™ wine,” Clapper tells me, “is a wine that lives in the moment. Some call that a short finish, I call it awareness.” Clapper’s followers assure me that Certified Enlightened™ wines will not give you a hangover because they listen to you, they hear you, and then they talk you out of a second glass. “There’s something deeply spiritual about Certified Enlightened™ wines,” she insists, “so you can’t trust objective realities like smell and taste. What kind of a monster are you? Certified Wines™ don’t just reflect terroir, they reflect all sorts of other imaginary concepts. Those who drink anything less are not only harming Mother Earth, they’re killin’ my vibe.”

Thursday, March 23, 2017

EPHEMERA: 1969 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon--"ITS ALIVE!!"

You never know when the next great wine will appear in your life. “Great” is one of those words that gets bandied about endlessly when it comes to wine, and has become nearly meaningless. I’ve been fortunate enough to have tasted more than my share of what I consider great wines. I’ve never counted how many. That’s a bit like guys who keep a list of women they’ve slept with. I remember them all, but I don’t lump them together as trophies. Not all three women! Great wines, to me, are wines that simply knock you off your feet, leave you virtually speechless, fill you with gratitude that you’ve lived long enough and well enough to put them in your mouth. They are only rarely encountered, and they are never forgotten. They’re true loves, not one-night stands. I recently met one.

I was invited to Chappellet’s 50th Anniversary tasting in February. I haven’t the vaguest idea why. Most of the other attendees were far more illustrious than I. Among the attendees were Esther Mobley, the supremely talented wine writer for the "San Francisco Chronicle," Karen MacNeil, Kevin Zraly, the last name in wine writing, Kelli White (speaking of supremely talented), Laurie Daniel, Elaine Chukan Brown, and me. I felt like John Waters at the Director’s Guild Awards. I don’t belong here, I tell people to eat shit. However, I’m a longtime fan of Chappellet, and always bought their wines, especially their late-lamented Old Vines Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, for my wine list, so I was excited to be there. Yet I had no idea I was going to meet a true love.

There’s something magic about an old wine that is still vibrantly alive. Very few are. Most begin to show their faults as they get older, many just get weird, an awful lot are dead but don't seem to know it. We have families like that. And then there are the blessed, the ones who age obscenely gracefully, a Molly Chappellet (the loveliest matriarch of Napa Valley, especially since the recent passing of Mary Novak of Spottswoode), and the 1969 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon. The Chappellets were kind enough to offer us the ’69 at their 50th anniversary tasting, and when a wine can dazzle even the jaded palates of countless wine “experts,” and the ’69 was the talk of the room, it has to be extraordinary.

What’s magic about an older wine is that it takes us on a journey through our memories, through our lives. Nothing else we consume does that. OK, maybe mushrooms. I was a junior in high school in 1969 when Donn Chappellet and Philip Togni were harvesting this wine, and it must have been bottled when I was a freshman at Occidental College—the same year my wife Kathleen was born, 1971. Imagine that. I had no idea in 1969 I would end up a sommelier married to a woman who wasn't yet born. I’d never tasted a single wine when this wine was bottled. Not one. Nor had I met anyone not yet born. And if I had tasted this wine when it was released (I would have been underage, but, more importantly, under-qualified), I would no doubt have hated it. We both needed to evolve.

I won’t bother to attempt to describe it. Esther Mobley did that beautifully in her SF Chronicle column about loving older wines (she said it was maybe the best wine she’d ever tasted). My tasting notes begin, “IT’S ALIVE!!!” I was channeling Dr. Frankenstein at that moment, amazed at the electricity in the wine, and falling in love with it at the same time. Wines like that are ineffable. Like being asked what I love about my wife. It’s both impossible to express in a meaningful way, and too personal. I was an unhappy kid in 1969—lonely and confused, angry and reclusive. And yet somehow I managed to live a wonderful life filled with amazing loves, and end up in 2017 happy to be alive. The ’69 Chappellet was like a message in a bottle from that miserable kid living in that miserable time. A message of hope. A kind of congratulatory experience, a reassurance that sometimes, and maybe more often than we think, if we just hang around long enough, things can work out. Drinking it felt like, despite all odds, I’d had a great life, and, as a reward, ended up drinking that great old Cabernet among my peers. It was humbling. Great wine always humbles anyone with a heart.

The other nine Cabernet Sauvignons Chappellet served us were interesting and variable. Many were top-notch. I’ve never been to a vertical tasting where that wasn’t the case. How did the ’69 turn out so miraculously, so much more compelling than the rest? No one seemed to know. Everyone was guessing, everyone had a theory, but no one actually knew. A bunch of decisions were made, most of them irrevocable, many of them guesswork; the wine was paid attention to, nurtured, but could easily have been undone by any one of those decisions. We’ll never really know how it made it to 2017 so alive and remarkable. And the same could be said for all of us in that room that day, not just the ’69 Chappellet.

The truth is, we don’t have to know how it was made. No wine, no one’s life, can be replicated anyway. Some, inexplicably, just turn out to be miracles.