Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ma vie en Orange

Tyler, the Doctor of Vino, was nice enough to inquire about how I might serve a bottle of orange wine with a meal. The short answer is: don't serve it from the bottle, serve it from the decanter. The long answer is here, on the Doctor's blog.

If you are still interested to hear more, here are some other links on the subject...

In the beginning there was Orange, and Chip Coen

Lunch with Giampiero Bea

A life amongst flowers and clay

The exception to the rule

There are other items out there to read as well.  I think of what they are and post them later.

Levi Dalton, OGOO (Original Gangster of Orange)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Surrealist Wine

If there is an essence of wine like an unconscious, an unconscious wine, who is trying to portray it?

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Not the whole truth, because there's no way, to say it all. Saying it all is literally impossible: words fail.  -Jacques Lacan

...because he could seek a great deal, particularly for expressions when he has to express himself - it is difficult to express oneself with respect of a wine...  -Jules Chauvet

There is perhaps a language of wine. Not a language that we use to speak about wine, although there is some attempt at that, but a language through which wine articulates itself. This language might be thought to be primitive (primal, unsophisticated, a phenomenon of nature) or archetypal (Chardonnay, Viognier, New World, Old World, etc.). When wine is thought about in these ways, the "telling" character of a wine is thought to slip out in our human speech, seemingly instinctually, and because of our intense preoccupation with the liquid. "Peaches" we might say, or "hazelnuts". "Low acidity" and "high alcohol". And we as observers take up these threads and tie them together as a knot might be pulled together (apart from the wine), indicating an identity for the wine. The code of cryptic associations has been deciphered. But such an identity is thought to be only a hint of what lies below the surface of the words. Underneath this weave is the roiling liquid in the decanter, full of hints at a cloaked meaning.

When one reads what Jules Chauvet said in 1981, that

...but when one speaks in truth, for the wine itself, it may be questioned. That is to say, the aroma of oakwood, of oak variety, which is very good, it may be said, which I like a great deal, one must know that it does not come from the wine...That's what you must say. Wine is wine, this is contributed to it. All very well, very well, but all the same...It is an old practice, which no doubt would improve the wine. But one does not see the truth of wine...Yes, indeed. It goes together very well, when it is well done...Yes, it makes them more complex, it makes one more flavour, etc. it is well matched...but it is questionable, when the wine is itself the thing presented: wine, wine must be naked. I shall go even further: it is the wine of wine: without anhydride, without sugar, without anything. That's simple! If one wants to look things straight in the face. Because one has the habit of putting sulphur, sugar, oak, etc.

one sees perhaps not the creation, but certainly the assumption, of a concept of wine as apart, as having its own nature alone and on its own. A conception of wine beginning as a kind of Noble Savage, separate and before oak, and chaptalization, and sulphur additions. A primal truth, naked.

This is such a pervasive thought today, wine as having its own essence, that we may forget that this is perhaps a fairly modern understanding. The Romans took a wine with resin, saltwater, and aromatic herbs in a recipe that varied by region within the Empire. There was no taste for "wine" without these. Wine might have been thought of as an ingredient. The difference that France's AOC system and Italy's DOC system have with America's more recent appellation rules is that the European models give stipulations not only for where a wine might be made, but also for how it must be brought up. There is no Barolo or Brunello di Montalcino without a minimum time period in wood. There is not a "naked" Barolo, only speaking of its essence as "wine". To be Barolo it must have been in wood. I would submit that for Chauvet there was the unconscious wine. The wine not of deliberate choice and the changing stages of nature, but of an essence preceeding choice.

But what if we look at unadorned wine as having a language determinate on how it is spoken. In this view each individual wine provides a full sentence of meaning at birth, but this meaning is intrepreted differently depending on how it is raised. A wine might have the sentence "I walked from Houston to Hollywood." This sentence could have a multitude of meanings. One might coax from this a meaning of Houston the city, or Houston the street. It might imply Hollywood the street, Hollywood the town, or Hollywood the industry of film. This sentence might imply a slow change from country music singer to film star. Imagine now that oak barrels implied Houston the city, whereas stainless steel implied Houston the street. You see? The sentence is ostensibly the same, but the meaning has been changed. A wine might have a nature separate, but not intelligible except by being misunderstood.

Language when it is not understood seems a decoration. As hieroglyphs on a wall. We do not understand the meaning, but we think the effect pretty, awe inspiring, and from another time. As we do wine.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Viejo California

Being laid up for awhile, it is as good a time as any to go through the mish mash library of wine books I have here at the house. I enjoy thumbing through these old volumes because they take me out of the debates of today (Natural Wine, Indigenous Regionality, Pricing) and the debates of yesterday (Point Scores, Barriques, Pricing) and lead me into a vantage point on wine all their own. And because I find that as I learn more about wine, I am also able to learn more from the written words that I once may have skimmed. A palate is formed by the memory of wine, but discretion is formed by the memory of what is said about wine.

One of the books I like to return to now and again is California Wine, edited by Bob Thompson, and first published in 1973.

"A Sunset Pictorial"

This is a book that tells stories I have found it hard to find elsewhere. Ostensibly the book chronicles a single vintage from new leaves on the vine to new wine in the bottle. But I think what I like most about the book is that it doesn't seem to already have its mind made up about the story it wants to tell. And because it captures a particular moment (1972) in the history of California wine where all routes led forward, but with unknown terminus. For example, there is this quote from the introduction:

"With change a daily fact of life, this is no time to make lasting judgements on what California wine is. Likely it will be something different by tomorrow."

California's forgotten wine history, from California Wine, page 51. The caption reads: "The Biggest Winery. In the 1830s the Franciscan missionaries at San Gabriel produced as much as 50,000 gallons of wine a year, the greatest amount made at any mission. Their winery was the 14 by 20-foot building almost hidden by the cross in the mission cemetery. Indians trampled the grapes on the floor; the juice ran into a well at the lowest corner, from where it was scooped into cowhide bags or barrels for fermentation and aging."

Something else I like about this book is that it happens to contain photographs of many several of my personal California wine heroes. These are the people that made or caused to be made the wines that have served as the benchmarks in my appreciation of California wine. I thought I would share some of those people with you. Maybe you have heard the name, but never seen the eyes of the person who crafted one of your favorites. Here is a chance to know them better.

J.D. Zellerbach, founder of Hanzell winery. Old Hanzell wines are a gift.
from California Wine, page 117.
John Daniel of Inglenook, underappreciated in his own time, underappreciated in this one as well.
from California Wine, page 144.
Louis M. Martini, as tall in my mind as a redwood. Thank you for the '59 Mountain Barbera, Sir.
from California Wine, page 145.

Joe Heitz wasn't everybody's cup of tea, but it is hard to argue with '85 Bella Oaks.
from California Wine, page 9.

Fred McCrea, in his Stony Hill vineyard. This picture is my kind of Old Time Religion.
from California Wine, page 134.

Bob Travers of Mayacamas, pictured at about the age his son is now.
from California Wine, page 149.

Donn Chappellet, who has yet to receive the real recognition he deserves for wines like the '77 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon.
from California Wine, page 147.

The Robert Mondavi Winery. It is amazing to think that at the time it opened, this was the first new winery construction that Napa Valley had seen in over 30 years. Thirty.
from California Wine, page 147.

Napa as it was, circa 1972, from California Wine, page 137.

Thanks for listening.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Liz Nicholson, Italian wine dynamo

Liz Nicholson is the wine director at Maialino, the Roman -inspired trattoria in Manhattan's Gramercy Park Hotel. Liz has been running the cellar there for a bit over a year, and in that time she has introduced an innovative thematic by the glass program and intensified the focus of the wine list on the great regional diversity of Italy. Liz brings considerable gusto to everything she does, and it was a pleasure to sit down and talk with her at length about what she is up to during her segment of the Snooth sommelier interview series. With Liz I think you can really sense the drive and sense of fun that is present early on when a great talent gets a chance to take on a wine program of their own. There is an extraordinary happiness that she shares with those around her. Watch for yourself.

Monday, October 17, 2011


Pascaline never told me whether these apples in the background went through malolactic conversion, but if she selected them, then I suspect not.

Pascaline Lepeltier is the accomplished sommeliere and wine director of two restaurants, the Rouge Tomate locations in Manhattan and in Belgium. Pascaline is that rare person who brings a grace and sense of occasion to the service of even humble wines at the table. She is someone who never fails to fascinate me with the language she uses to speak about wine. There is an ability to create new meanings for the wines she loves and to almost effortlessly share those insights with others. She has an understanding and respect for both the immense history of wine, and for what is happening in well cared for vineyards at this very moment. But don't take my word for it, just watch her interview on Snooth, wherein she makes me blush by referring to "schisty" wines and we get a chance to share some laughs.

Watch it!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Talking with other sommeliers and hearing what they have to say, part 1

Over the summer I sat down with several of my favorite sommeliers on behalf of the wine website Snooth, and I asked each wine guy (or gal) a few questions. I tried to raise the kind of questions that I myself might like to be asked in an interview. Questions that seemed relevant, with an understanding of both the sommelier job and of each particular venue, rather than the "name your desert island wine" kind of boilerplate. I wanted to hear what people really had to say regarding what they were up to, and also a bit about who they are. In the end, I spent quite a bit of time with some people whose company I really enjoy.
Maybe you'd like to see one of these interview sessions? The first, an interview with Joe Campanale of Anfora and dell' anima, is up online at Snooth.
Joe Campanale of dell' anima, L'Artusi, and Anfora
Joe and I spoke about the kinds of wines that interest him, how he approaches service, and some of the people who have most inspired him, as well as whatever else we thought to say to each other in the moment. Check it out.

If you do take the time to watch either of the two videos of myself and Joe, please also let me know what you think in the comments here on the blog. I'd really be curious to hear your thoughts.