Mendocino, Roots and Ridges, A Review

Ξ September 30th, 2013 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, Wine History, Winemakers |

When reading wine histories, especially those extending back to America’s pioneer days, it is best not to believe in a golden age, of innocent foundations. The simpler the mythology, the greater is the deception. Here in the US we suffer from a certain degree of wine history envy. Though our viticultural past is significant and intellectually nourishing, we do not enjoy the deep, storied history of a Burgundy or a Turkey. We are relative new-comers, still struggling with the existence of terroir, the carving out of meaningful AVAs, fretting over distinctive commercial expressions of wines in an already competitive and well-defined wine world. So the temptation is to copy notions and tropes not truly ours, just as America’s founding fathers copied Roman and Greek architectural detail, rhetoric and imagery. On our supermarket shelves, for every Red Truck and Charles Shaw we can see Clos this, Château that, domestic bottlings, all.
On the other hand, despite its ancient sacred uses, its role, as some scholars have argued, in the very origins of agriculture, wine is most often treated in our age, both here and abroad, as an engine of light celebration, a commodity, a product. Distanced from substantial histories by the very means used to promote its consumption, the wine consumer is reduced to indifference.
So we are left with two contrary, consummately American impulses: To generate a history we are simultaneously urged to consider irrelevant. “History is bunk,” as Henry Ford observed; and his assembly line, structured according to the principles of Taylorism, divorced workers from the very understanding of their own bodies. Yet this same Henry Ford was justly proud of building a car every working man and his family could thereby afford, and with which they could now enjoy new forms of leisure, conviviality and togetherness.
Family. The commodification of wine may render the customer uninterested in formal histories, but there is one form of history in which we all participate and take an interest: That of our families and the families of our friends. And it is the communal experience at the table, of sharing food and wine, which unites and strengthens our bonds, with both the present and with antiquity.
So it was with great pleasure when I opened the book, Mendocino Roots and Ridges; here was no simple gloss, no mere advertorial exercise, but a work of substance and visual beauty, with vintner family histories front and center. Written by long-time Mendocino County resident and veteran food and wine writer Heidi Cusick Dickerson, and graced by Tom Liden’s fine photography, Mendocino Roots and Ridges tells the many family stories of this often over-looked wine region. Barra, Parducci, Fetzer, Brutocao, Giuseppe are just a few of the dozens of dignified vintners Ms. Dickerson introduces us to. Farmers and dreamers, this is a book which gives us real insight into the struggles and eventual triumph of folks who arrived in this country with nothing but the clothes on their back. And they achieved the American Dream working the dirt.
Living histories themselves, some of the families included in this volume can draw a straight line back to the 1850’s, when Mendocino County was rough wilderness, a true frontier. Still is, in many ways, with 70% of its mountainous terrain heavily forested, as we learn from Glenn McCourty’s excellent introductory essay, Dirt, Climate, Geography. But these tropes of wilderness and the American Dream give me significant pause. Ms. Dickerson writes in her fluid Introduction:
“This place we call Mendocino has nurtured inhabitants with its benevolent climate, great soil and wild edibles from land and sea. The original population of Pomo Indians (sic) feasted on mussels, abalone, crab, salmon and rockfish. They hunted game and gathered berries, greens, mushrooms and acorns. More than ten tribes live in Mendocino County and tribal celebrations still center around food, including tributes to the acorn, surf fish and abalone.”
Yes, this wilderness was indeed occupied by Native American populations. From Wikipedia, Mendocino County,
“In the 19th century, despite the establishment of the Mendocino Indian Reservation and Nome Cult Farm in 1856, the county witnessed many of the most serious atrocities in the extermination of the Californian Native American tribes who originally lived in the area, like the Yuki, the Pomo, the Cahto, and the Wintun. The systematic occupation of their lands, the reduction of many of their members into slavery and the raids against their settlements led to the Mendocino War in 1859, where hundreds of Indians were killed. Establishment of the Round Valley Indian Reservation in March 30, 1870, did not prevent the segregation that continued well into the 20th century.”
So let us be clear, not everyone was welcomed at the table. And for the Native American, as it was everywhere in the United States, there was no American Dream. Indeed, the Mendocino War of 1859 referenced above was a thinly veiled extermination campaign, the final act of the European colonizer.
Apart from this omission, and it is significant for a historical text, Mendocino Roots and Ridges is among the finest wine books of its kind, with well over half of the county’s wineries profiled in detail. The county’s role as undisputed leader in environmental initiatives in the US is strongly documented. Highly recommended.
Great thanks to the fine folks at the Mendocino County Museum in Willits, California for providing me with my review copy. I have been informed that all proceeds of the sale of the book will go to support the museum’s Wine History Project of Mendocino County.
Ken Payton, Admin
All photos copy-written by Ken Payton


George Taber, Of Bargain Wines And Culture

Ξ November 22nd, 2011 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, Wine & Politics, Wine History |

“I’m not too particularly interested in how deep the color is and how pronounced the bouquet is and how high is the total acid and how low is the sugar. To me, is it something I enjoy drinking and want more? If so, then it is good. And if it is not, I don’t think it’s good, regardless.” Ernest Gallo (pg 15)
In his latest exploration of the wine world, A Toast To Bargain Wines, distinguished author George M. Taber has turned his attention to a key aspect of what is indisputably our golden age of wine. Never before have so many wines of such high quality been available to the consumer. And never have the prices been as competitive. Mr. Taber has taken up the theme with characteristic optimism and a relaxed narrative style. Sub-titled How innovators, iconclasts, and winemaking revolutionaries are changing the way the world drinks, he recounts well-known episodes in recent wine history, such as Tim Hanni’s research into the quixotic nature of taste, and Robert Hodgson’s work on the inconsistency of the judging at wine competitions. And he gives ample space to innovative movers and shakers of the internet, the new gatekeepers, he calls them. Gary Vaynerchuk, Robin Goldstein, and Jeff Siegel are among his examples. Each individual named and episode recounted participates or has participated, sometimes indirectly, in the promotion of the increasingly popular mantra: “Trust your own palate.” Mr. Taber’s aim with A Toast To Bargain Wines is to add his voice to the chorus.
But as the Ernest Gallo quote above suggests, there is more here than meets the eye. Indeed, many pages are given over to Fred Franzia of Bronco, E & J Gallo, and John Casella of Yellow Tail fame, all of whom Mr. Taber also identifies in heroic terms, whether as iconoclast or revolutionary. But is it not a strange world when the people piloting companies producing wine on an industrial scale can be called revolutionary? Not if your primary message is the celebration of a world awash in readily available, inexpensive wine. Whether they are bargains is another matter entirely. For only very marginal consideration is given to the environmental credentials of any producer. Sustainable, organic, bio-dynamic, virtually nothing is said about the viticultural practices of any winery listed. And since fully half of the book is taken up with Mr. Taber’s very informative Best Buy Guide, if you are particularly interested in buying eco-friendly wines, this book will be of no help.
Following the now routine strategies of the ‘trust your own palate’ school, Mr. Taber begins by taking on the traditional foundations of wine expertise. From the introduction to The Iconoclasts,
“A small cadre of wine people are challenging old ways of thinking and doing things. They are not united by anything except radical ideas and defiance of conventional wisdom about how people taste, whether experts and judges are reliable, the kind of packaging to use, and who should be recommending wines. In the process, these iconoclasts are changing the way millions of people think and drink.” (pg 27)
The first pillar in Mr. Taber’s sights is the notion that people taste a wine in the same manner; that given a randomly selected group, everyone will share an identical experience of that wine. Mr. Taber cites MW Tim Hanni’s pioneering work on the physiology of taste to demonstrate that variation in the perception of flavors is quite common. Palates differ. Clearly, of what value can a wine expert possibly be, why ought a consumer follow a their recommendations, if the expert’s palate is but one of a series of disparate variations, a moment on a continuum of endless sensitivities? Even with respect to gustatory disputes between critics, Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson, for example,
“Hanni says that such battles only reflect the[ir] different tasting profiles…. One is not wrong, and the other is not right. They’re simply different, in exactly the same way that some people like the music of Brahms and others prefer Copeland.” (pg 38)
Now, inasmuch as Mr. Hanni’s research appears to based in the physiology of taste perception, the temptation is to believe, as Mr. Hanni, we are told, once did and may still, that “[w]hen it comes to tasting, people are stuck with what nature gives them, just as they are with the color of their eyes.” (pg 34) Wiggle room in this conceptual straightjacket is found in Mr. Hanni’s important notion of sensitivity. For sensitivity is not destiny. Sensitivity is a preference for Brahms or Copeland, whereas one’s nature is the ability to hear. So with respect to Mr. Hanni’s research, Mr. Taber seems to suggest that the consumer has a palate specifically theirs, the only one they should trust. Chalk one up for the liberation of the consumer from the tyranny of the expert. So it would seem.
But does having a palate of delimited sensitivity mean that the consumer should never question their preferences? Because this we are free to do. Sensitivity, we are told, is in fact mutable. In his discussion of Mr. Hanni’s Taste Sensitivity Assessment test developed to determine one’s place on the taste sensitivity continuum, Mr. Taber writes,
“Over time, you might change your entire sensitivity category because of the changes in wine fashion, aesthetics, learning, and experiences.” (pg 45)
This is very good news, indeed. After all, McDonald’s makes its fortune by providing a dependable, identical product everywhere on the globe. So it is comforting to know that we, as our mothers told us, can learn to like spinach. More seriously, in a later section of A Toast To Bargain Wines titled Wine Revolutionaries, an extended meditation principally on the rich history of the Franzia and Gallo families, we read,
“The Italian families expanded and prospered despite the slow growth in American wine consumption. They made what people in those days wanted: mainly sweet and high-alcohol products. The Franzias sold sweet port and sherry as well as Sauturnes and Rhine-style wines. The Gallos had Carlo Rossi jug wine, André sparkling wines, and high-alcohol fortified wines such as Ripple and Thunderbird.” (pg 97)
Leaving aside the social scourge high-alcohol fortified wines have been in America, Mr. Taber would have us believe people in those days wanted Thunderbird, presumably just as today they want Château Latour or 2 Buck Chuck. From “high-alcohol products” to today’s high-quality wines is a very complex historical trajectory, certainly with respect to the development in sophistication of America’s wine culture generally understood. But to the question of how such a dramatic cultural sea change would have ever been possible had the consumer done nothing but trust their palates, the answer is simple: It would not have happened. Consumers were not alone then, they are not alone now. More to the point, it has taken the combined talent of generations of winemakers to bring us to the golden age we now enjoy. Which is to say that because a wine is inexpensive does not mean the moniker ‘revolutionary’ belongs to the industrial producers alone.
So we know that sensitivity is mutable. We know that America has enjoyed a radical recasting of its wine culture. We know that Ernest Gallo paradoxically shares the same vision of the liberated consumer as Mr. Vaynerchuk. We know we should trust our palates. But what is missing in Mr. Taber’s scenario is any reflection on how to encourage the consumer to explore the larger wine culture itself, to understand how they came to their sensitivities, to their palates in the first place. Just as we eat fried chicken and not whale, beef but not spider monkey, chew Juicy Fruit gum and not coca leaves, there are specific cultural histories at play, both familial and societal, that condition and inform the very creation of our tastes and preferences long before we ever take our first sip of wine.
“Most Americans need help from gatekeepers [...] because few people have grown up in a culture like that in Europe, where wine is simply part of daily life and not a mysterious elixir. Americans have an international reputation for being pushy, loud, know-it-alls. That is not true, though, when it comes to wine. When the subject comes up, many are unsure what they should like or buy.” (pg 72)
Here again, in light of the above, trusting one’s own palate, far from being a badge of honor, should rather be seen as an apologia to a kind of social ineptitude, of cultural jingoism, and retrograde narcissism. Yet time and again Mr. Taber suggests this faux heroism is the consumer’s greatest strength.
“The final decision about a wine is yours, and yours alone. A person’s taste is as unique as his fingerprint. “ ) (pg 87)
I beg to differ. Such a sentiment, apart from being demonstrably in error, celebrates and encourages gustatory isolation and indifference. I would rather argue that a person’s taste is always in a state of movement, of flux. To truly believe in a golden age of wine is instead to encourage people to drink as widely as is affordable, to constantly challenge and stretch the limits of their sensitivities. My advice? Do not trust your palate. Routinely betray it with tasting experiences at odds with your comfort. Just a thought…
A Toast To Bargain Wines will provide the newcomer to wine a bit of encouragement and courage, some good stories and (a stated) 400 wine recommendations. A fine chapter on China rounds out the effort. Overall, it is an easy going, friendly, informative read.
Ken Payton, Admin


Robin Goldstein, Wine And The Intellectual

Ξ February 24th, 2011 | → 4 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, Interviews, Wine & Politics |

Robin Goldstein is a very bright fellow. But The Wine Trials, 2011, his most recent book (written with Alexis Herschkowitsch) provides only a glimpse, the merest insight into what is on the man’s mind. In my book review of the 2010 edition, I spent far more time exploring the first 45 pages where Mr. Goldstein’s puts in motion a complex suite of ideas fundamentally different from the balance of the book. In fact, The Wine Trials, 2011 occupies two distinct worlds, rather as the tourist is divided from a Sartre at whom he gazes outside Les Deux Magots. But this is not a problem. Instead it doubles the reader’s money. The Wine Trials, 2011 is both a book for the cafe and Mr. Goldstein’s prolegomena for a new research program about the ambiguous motivations informing what we will drink there and why. So rather than perform a modest rewrite of my 2010 review linked above, I felt it would be far more interesting to talk with Mr. Goldstein himself. I was not to be disappointed. And neither will the reader. We shall be hearing a great deal from this gentleman in the coming years.
Admin Thank you very much for agreeing to speak with me. I hear the last issue, 2010, of the Wine Trials was quite the success.
Robin Goldstein Yes. We’ve been very happy with the sales and with the success of the book. The 2010 edition outsold the first edition which came out in 2008. We’re thrilled. It means that more and more people understood the value of a new edition every year. There are new wines every year so each new vintage needs to be reviewed. I hope the book has been serving as a helpful, fun guide for people in their search for wine.
Well, I have certainly had fun with it. Now, after receiving the 2010 edition and writing my favorable review, I went on Facebook, naturally, to see whether you were there and ‘friend you up’, as is said. At that time I was surprised to see that there was not a single friend we had in common! And the vast majority of my FB friends are connected to the wine business in some capacity. I was taken aback. Have you since been ‘friended up’ by folks in the wine business? Or do most consider you a heretic?
RG I don’t think that most people in the wine world consider me a heretic. I guess I am to some extent an outsider to the wine world. I’ve never been intimately involved with insider wine media. I’ve kind of done my own thing… I think I’m friends with Asimov. We’ve met before….
Robin takes a moment to check his FB page.
We have two mutual friends: Eric Asimov and David Downie.
Oh! Well, that’s a start! Eric is a smart fellow and David Downie is an absolutely delightful guy.
RG I’m always happy to meet more people. (laughs) I’m not a career wine media insider. I’ve done a number of different types of projects. I’ve come at it from what some people might consider an eccentric standpoint.
In the 2011 edition I noticed a shift in your take on what might be called the culture war within the wine industry: globalization versus diversity. In the introduction to the 2011 edition you begin by praising a new diversity you perceive in wines now available.
RG Yes, and I think it’s real. In the years since we published the first edition of The Wine Trials in 2008 there are a lot more good and inexpensive wines in the market that are widely distributed in the United States than there were a few years ago, by far. I think that’s partly a response by the market to people pushing for lower prices and lower mark-ups on wine. And people are coming to see the value, that in many cases expensive wine is not worth the money. That is not to say that there are not expensive wines that I personally think are not worth the money, but I think when people are feeling economic pressure in this downturn – and also as the wine drinking population continues to grow and get more sophisticated – I think you have more pressure on importers and distributors to offer great wine at low prices; that translates into importing wine from lesser known regions and places where the value is great, because you’re not paying a premium for a brand name appellation.
It is a kind of Golden Age. We can go to small wine shops and find an astonishing variety of lesser known names. Many have never been scored, at least not as far as my casual research can determine. And the price point, $15 and up, is agreeable.
RG And it’s less of a risk. I also think that as the diversity has grown among people who are aficionados of inexpensive wine, among people who search for them and who drink a lot of wine, they are coming to see, all things being equal, that even if you don’t know the wine or the region well, then trying such a wine will likely have a positive correlation to value. For starters, you know that there are many appellations out there that are overpriced because they are trading on their brand recognition. Of course, there is always a certain segment of the population that is always looking for stuff they’ve heard of. But if I walked into a wine store not recognizing or having tasted any of the bottles they carried, and I had to pick one at random that I felt would have the best chance of being of value for the money, I would probably choose a bottle from a region I had never heard of or was least known to me.
That’s how I shop, even now! Those bottles are the great surprises, the revelations. I go into shops and ask for the strangest bottle they have. It’s a kind of blind tasting in its own way.
RG Definitely. Where are you based?
I’m in Santa Cruz, California. We don’t have quite the range, certainly of European wines, you folks enjoy back East.
RG It’s funny. California is obviously the wine heartland of America, but partly because of that there may be less pressure and incentive for stores to carry wines from other regions or from all over the world. There are pros and cons. On the flip side California wines are marked up on the East Coast, so they’re often less compelling as a value proposition than they are in California.
The same may be said of wines from the East Coast. I rarely see your region’s wines here.
RG It’s too bad. There are some good wines being made on the East Coast now. There’s great stuff from Long Island and interesting wines from the Finger Lakes, and elsewhere, but I think that their production levels are not up to a scale such that makes that much sense to focus on their export business. And the price points, because to their small scale, are still kind of high for many of those wines. So it’s really cool that we’re making good wines. And maybe it’s ok that those wineries won’t become more industrial and exceed the scale that makes sense for them.
Do you yourself visit vineyards? Do you wander around in wineries?
RG I do from time to time. I’ve actually been splitting my time between Berkeley, California and the East Coast lately. I’ve been in the Bay Area quite a bit in the last few months. I’m doing some research out here in the UC Econ Department. The time I visit vineyards most is when I have friends visiting from out of town. I take them to taste wine. It’s not really my favorite pastime, visiting wineries; but I certainly enjoy visiting friends in the wine business, you know, wine producers. I enjoy visiting and hanging out with them, hearing in a more intimate way what they’re up to. In California it’s been a really tough Summer for these folks. It’s been both interesting and sobering to hear what they’ve gone through with the weather.
And the economy. When your friends visit do they mostly want to go to Napa?
RG They say “Take me where ever you want to take me”. (laughs) I tend to gravitate more towards Sonoma County. I like it that the wineries are smaller and offer a more intimate experience for tourists and visitors. And the wineries are more farm-oriented. There’s a really great winery called Bucklin Vineyards. Do you know them?
Oh, yes! Will Bucklin, I interviewed him a little over a year ago. A very cool dude. He has one of our rare field blends, a vineyard of with multiple varieties.
RG I take friends to visit his place. It’s incredible, his place. He has plotted every single plant on the entire property, in the entire vineyard. It is a very complex environment. And he dry farms. He’s very committed to sustainable, traditional farming methods, but he is not at all advertising that fact. He loves to talk about it and to think about it, but he’s not trying to sell his wine as ‘organic’ because he’s just doing what he thinks is right. He’s a zealot in the best possible way. He represents what the wine industry should be.
The Culture of Wine
How do you approach the culture of wine? You’ve touched on Will Bucklin’s farming. Do you have an ethical position with respect to wine production generally?
RG It’s important to minimize the impact of you activities upon ecosystems. But wine is by its definition an art, an unnatural process. We’re planting, almost exclusively, grapes where they weren’t naturally springing up. There is human intervention at the core of the enterprise. We have to be comfortable with that. It’s important not to simply say we’re just letting Nature run its course. If you’re claiming to truly letting Nature run its course, you wouldn’t planting grapes. So there is a balance to be struck.
One thing that I don’t like is the over-emphasis on certification, such as certified organic standards. It is enough for me to hear from the winemakers I know and trust on these matters because they know so much more about farming than I do. So one thing I hear from them, over and over, is that the certified organic standard has been co-opted by companies that maybe don’t meet the standards except on paper; they aren’t necessarily committed to the principles behind them. They use it, organic, as a kind of branding or marketing technique more than a real commitment to the environment. So I think it is important to look past the certified organic label or the sustainable label and look at what they are actually doing. Talk to them and see whether you think they’ve got the right idea. But I don’t have any hard and fast rules. It always is case by case.
Yes. In California there are multiple certification programs: fish friendly, carbon neutral, and so on. There are all kinds. But to your point, Tim Thornhill of Parducci recently said to me that he wants to be measured. He welcomes any and all certification. His thinking is that once he has the certifications then he can improve upon them, move the certification baseline further, demonstrate more robust approaches. So some see certification as a way to nudge the wine industry as a whole toward better farming practices.
RG I don’t mean to suggest that because a wine is certified organic that it’s a negative signal. I mean only to suggest we shouldn’t assume that certification also means it is truly sustainable and coming from the right spirit. But I think Parducci is a great example. I am very much opposed to the viewpoint that a winery has to be tiny to be worthy of great praise and respect. There’s an over-emphasis, in some corners, on the size of the production; a sort of knee-jerk reaction against wineries that produce above a certain level. That’s just as biased as the other perspective. The wines we put in the Wine Trials, many are producing on quite a large scale. And while that prevents them from doing certain things that only a smaller winery could do, such as Bucklin’s dry farming, we also get great benefits from wineries able to produce on a larger scale. If someone makes good wine that makes somebody happy, then bigger wineries make even more people happy; and if they are able to be responsible in their methods given their scale, then that’s great.
Did a winery’s status vis-a-vis carbon neutral, solar use or waste water reuse and recycling programs, whether industrial, biodynamic or organic, did any of that figure into a wine’s inclusion or exclusion into the Wine Trials?
RG We choose the Wine Trials’ wines based on a nomination process. It is based on recommendations from people in the wine industry from all over the place. We don’t exclude wines solely on the basis of some set of rules on carbon footprints, or anything like that. We mention it in a positive way when a winery is doing cool things with regard to sustainability or carbon neutrality or responsibility in other ways. So when a winery is not doing those kinds of things, it speaks by omission. We just don’t mention their practices.
I think there are a lot of resources out there that can tell you what wineries are most environmentally responsible. We’re not trying to be another one of those resources. We’re just tasting and reviewing wines that are widely available and talking about why they are worthy of recommendation. I do think it could be interesting in the future to give out some special award for wineries that have the best practices. But we can’t do everything. You have to define pretty clearly what your goals are, and become modest about them. (laughs)
I love many wines that cost much more than $15, but I decided to do a wine book for wines that were under $15 because I thought that was an under-represented area in the wine guide world. I felt it was where we could make the biggest contribution, to give people something that was needed. I’m trying to reach a national audience with this book. We’re trying to be relevant to the maximum number of readers.
Food and Wine
There are food recommendations for each wine. Do you cook?
RG I went to cooking school, the Culinary Institute. Yes, I like to cook, but I’ve never done it professionally. But I also edit the Fearless Critic restaurant series which are guides to eating in select cities around the country. We have a guide to Seattle which just came out. We have a guide to San Antonio coming out; Austin, Houston, Portland, and Washington D.C., some other cities.
Why so many in Texas?
RG I lived in Austin for couple of years starting in 2005. I like the Texas market for restaurant guides; again, I thought it was a need we could fill where there wasn’t as much good stuff out there as I think people needed. It’s an interesting food state. There is this interface of South Western cuisine and a German barbeque tradition, and then Mexican, of course. There is a huge Hispanic and Latino community there. Just recently I was at the opening of the new Culinary Institute of America campus in San Antonio, an amazing, amazing project. They’ve restored the old Pearl Brewery from the 1800s. They’ve turned it into a culinary wonderland: a full cooking school program with special scholarships for Hispanic and Latino people who kind of dominate restaurant kitchens all over the country, but who are too seldom placed into executive positions. So the Culinary Institute is trying to rectify that situation. But they are also helping to preserve the culinary traditions of Mexico and Latin America.
Food, wine, and beer have always been joint interests of mine since I’ve started doing this. None of these are new interests!
When you first began drinking did you go the normal college kid route?
RG I began drinking at probably thirteen or fourteen. It was at home; my parents were always of the correct opinion that it’s better to introduce your kids to the pleasures of wine. They felt it was something to be enjoyed with the family at the dinner table and not something to be guiltily guzzled at a frat party. I think there is a very poisonous culture in the United States of a binge and purge mentality. I think it may go back to Prohibition. It results in too many kids who don’t grow up around wine and beer; and subsequently don’t see them as things to be enjoyed and appreciated, but as substances of abuse.
I quite agree. It is also true of wine culture generally. In the advertisement world especially, the dumbing down of wine has been corrosive; it has been nearly completely severed from cultural reflection. And this is one of the reasons I very much enjoy your book. Mixed in with this easy-going conversation, there is also heady thought, certainly in the first part of the book. The placebo effect and a constellation of related concepts really gets one to thinking about wine in a wider world, both practical and theoretical.
RG I’m glad you enjoyed that. It’s my favorite part of the book. It may not be the most useful, but it may be the most interesting. It is certainly what gets me going. I think I make the point in the book along the lines of what you said about the dumbing down of wine. I make the point that the absurd drinking age of twenty-one shares a lot of the blame for certain problems we have in the wine industry. People may not make the direct connection between the drinking age and the style of Parkerization; but the truth is that there is a direct connection. People grow up drinking sugary sodas instead of appreciating wine; and then they get to an age at which the plasticity of their brains is less than it was at an earlier age. When you don’t start drinking until you’re twenty-one, your preferences, for sweetness coming from soft drinks, are often already formed. And then you want wine to taste like soft drinks.
What is it you’re working on in the Economics Department of UC Berkeley? Is it food and wine related?
RG Actually it is very related, and for future editions of The Wine Trials as well as for academic papers and new books. I’m studying questions related to taste perception, perceptual bias, and placebo effects, like some of the stuff you mentioned in The Wine Trials. I’m running experiments and am trying to develop my research in this area. My effort is to make a contribution to the scientific literature in the field of sensory perception and economics. The experiments involve trying to measure how people respond to price signals; I’m asking how the knowledge of price changes people’s experience of wine and of beer. I’m also learning from folks in the Economics Department here how to fit the results into a larger theoretical model.
Perhaps you might expand on this?
RG In Economics there are a lot of traditional assumptions economists make about consumer preferences and consumer behavior. For example, one of the basic assumptions is that consumers have fixed preferences that aren’t related to their immediate environment or to arbitrary factors. The assumption continues that they pay exactly for what something is worth according to a rational framework of values that they’ve set up in their minds. And both Neuroscience and Psychology have for many years shown us that that is virtually unrelated to the way people really make decisions. So, from my perspective perhaps we don’t construct preferences in our minds. We don’t construct rigid evaluations of anything in our minds. We don’t even necessarily understand the value of money, or how much we’re paying for things. The way people work is much more fluid and reference-dependent. This is very interesting new work that’s been done in the last few years by Matthew Rabin and others at UC Berkeley. They are exploring consumer behavior that accounts for how the brain really works, which is that everything is relative to reference points that are constantly changing.
In college I studied the Philosophy of Mind and Neuroscience. My current studies brings a lot of that back! (laughs) It has all come full circle. I believe Neuroscience has so much to teach other disciplines. It’s not that Neuroscience explains everything; there are other explanatory levels that are also independently important. But those kinds of explanations need to be constrained by taking Neuroscience into account, and understanding what the brain is and is not capable of.
Thank you very much, Robin, for the enlightening conversation.
RG You’re welcome, Ken.


In Praise of Old Wine Books, Robert Lawrence Balzer

Ξ June 16th, 2010 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, Wine History |

How strange and jarring can be the experience when reading old wine books, especially those centered on California. But what might be meant by ‘old’ ? Is 1978 old? It can seem like ancient history when reading Wines of California, by Robert Lawrence Balzer. Yet that is the book’s great strength. Selling for pennies on the second-hand book market, Mr. Balzer’s book provides valuable insight into where we’ve come from, how far has the industry moved in 30 years. California’s first great modern wine writer, his Wines of California enjoys an unusual distinction of having been written on the cusp of California’s explosion onto the international wine scene, a fuse lit by Mr. Balzer himself.
Who is Robert Lawrence Balzer? From his Special Collections page at Cal Poly Pomona.
“Balzer is recognized for having had an enormous impact on the California wine industry, and on the acceptance of California wines worldwide. He began championing quality California wines in the 1930s, decades before the rest of the world realized their stature. In 1973 he organized a blind tasting with the New York Food and Wine Society, where California Chardonnays received the top four scores. That contributed momentum toward the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting where again California wines received top scores over French wines (portrayed in the 2008 film “Bottle Shock”). The acquisition of the Robert Lawrence Balzer Collection builds on an already significant Wine Industry Collection at Cal Poly Pomona Library and further strengthens the library as a research venue for the wine industry.”
A man of many talents (he played a small role in the 1975 film Day of the Locust), a practicing Buddhist, Balzer’s distinguished writing and teaching career earned him the enduring gratitude of Ernest Gallo, Robert Mondavi, and the California wine industry as a whole. A charming post from the Underground Wine Letter describes a recent March 2010 visit with the gentleman this way,
“Robert, the first serious wine journalist in the U.S., has been a wine writer for close to 70 years. I had not seen him since his birthday before last and he will be 98 in June. A true Renaissance man and an epicurean, Robert has been a retailer, an actor, a restaurateur, a Buddhist monk, a flight instructor during World War II, a wine instructor and the author of 11 books. While age is finally catching up with him, he is still charming, knowledgeable and articulate, especially when reminiscing about the earlier days of California wine. He stills drinks wine and Scotch regularly, which he partially attributes to his long age. An amazing man, he has known the rich and famous in politics, food and wine, Hollywood and more.”
Adding to his august reputation is the New York Wine Tasting he organized in 1973. Years before the far better known Judgement of Paris, the New York tasting
“assembled 14 leading wine experts including France’s Alexis Lichine, who owned two Chateaux in Bordeaux, a manager of the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City, and Sam Aaron, a prominent New York wine merchant. They evaluated 23 Chardonnays from California, New York, and France in a blind tasting before an assemblage of 250 members of the New York Food and Wine Society. California Chardonnays received the top four scores. Fifth place went to the 1969 Beaune Clos des Mouches Joseph Drouhin. Other French wines in the competition were the 1970 Corton-Charlemagne Louis Latour, the 1971 Pouilly-Fuisse Louis Jadot, and the 1970 Chassagne-Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche Joseph Drouhin.”
I belive much may be learned from older, out of print wine books. Mr. Balzer’s Wines of California is a case in point. There is a kind of innocence about his style. Free of technical, highbrow cant, we may read what are now almost tragicomic observations such as this about California Pinot Noir.
“Pinot Noir, both the grape and the wine, remains an enigma to California viticulturists and winemakers alike. [....] Pinot Noir in California seems to elude even the most intelligent application of enological science in the production of wines comparable in stature to those of the French Côte d’Or. [...] Few wineries can afford more than a year or so of bottle age before general release. That aging is the beginning of the refinement necessary to achieve a wine’s full potential. It is up to you, the wine buyer, to allow your wines the time they need to reach their peak.”
Or this (abbreviated) breakdown of California’s “own wine, unique, complex, and [...] varied” Zinfandel.
“1. A light, young, and fresh Zinfandel, its berry-like flavor suggesting the French Beaujolais.
2. A heavier-bodied, deeper-colored wine, capable of long cellar aging, comparable to the finest French clarets of the Médoc. Such wines are most likely to emerge from the cooler regions.
3. Late-harvest Zinfandels, with alcohol content as high as 17 percent by volume [!] and with minimal residual sugar. These have rare aging potential and suggest the results that will be possible when viticulture and enology marry in the science of winemaking.”

From rare pictures of youthful and noted California winemakers, Fred Franzia, Dave Bennion, Martin Ray, Joe Heinz, Warren Winiarski, Michael Mondavi, even Justin Meyer, to an excellent gloss on California wine history, this book has all that a contemporary wine enthusiast might want to learn about how the California wine world was understood in the late seventies. Mr. Balzer’s accounts of what he calls The Corporate Investment Period (1965-1974) and the Financial Adjustment and the Post-Boom Crisis (1974-1976) are especially insightful.
So, it is to Robert Lawrence Balzer, who will turn 98 on June 25th, that I offer my deep gratitude for his work. I strongly encourage folks to visit their local used book store and buy a copy of what will prove a classic, the Wines of California.


The Beer Trials, An Essential Guide

Ξ June 11th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews |

Sometimes on a hot afternoon a rosé or sharp Albariño just won’t cut it. With the weather we’ve had here in Santa Cruz, temperatures sure to spike over the weekend, I often turn to a cold beer to slake a thirst satisfied no other way. But what if I want those moments to be more than merely satisfied? What if I want exhilaration? If I only had a guide…. Well, I am happy to report that they are at it again, those Fearless Critics. Fresh off their groundbreaking The Wine Trials, this ever-widening circle of drinking friends has now returned with yet another very helpful guide, The Beer Trials. This time they’ve willingly sacrificed weeks of their lives for the humble beer drinker. And I am glad they did. What a world of taste and variety I have been missing!
As I discovered during a trip to Vermont some time ago, there has occurred an extraordinary explosion of artisanal, high quality beer production here in the states. It is no longer about Bud versus Coors, or dueling Michelobs, the choice of Corona or Pacifico for the beach. There are now new names to conjure: Saison Dupont, Russian River Pliny the Elder, Magic Hat, Boulder Planet Porter, Widmer Broken Halo. Just how massive has been the cultural shift to high quality beer making, abroad as well, I have only recently begun to learn. This book certainly helps! After years trying to grasp the intricacies of the wine world, is was in just the few weeks since the publisher sent me a copy, that this casual beer drinker can now more confidently find the IPA of my dreams. And understand why one might be better than another.
Yet the authors’ artisanal rap does not go to their heads. They are not fighting a variation of the culture wars. The Beer Trials is no high brow versus low brow. Their tone is itself humble, and humorous. Yes, I may keep my fond memories of stealing sips from my father’s Hamm’s.
“If this is a book with an agenda, then that agenda is simple: to broaden your horizons, and narrow your search, by arming you with better information about beer. If we can help you find a new beer to love, then our purpose is met.”
Written by Seamus Campbell and the intrepid Robin Goldstein, with the contribution of a dozen professionals, from homebrewers to the BJCP-approved enthusiast, The Beer Trials provides much more than a list dozens and dozens of beers from around the world. It is as well a guide to beer styles, flavors and ingredients. The section on adjuncts, additives, and unusual flavors was highly instructive. As was the chapter on off-flavors and flaws. I had no idea the flavor of malt could be further broken down into pale, English pale, crystal, medium crystal, Munich and Vienna. Now I do. Neither did I know what could be the differences, for good or ill, that adding oats, corn, rice, molasses, wheat or rye, brings to a finished bottle. Skunky, tart, sour, buttery, and soapy, these flaws are discussed. And the stylings created by proper use of Acetobacter and Brettanomyces? Of Brett they write,
“Brett produces a variety of phenolic compounds. [....] The most desirable of these is closely related to the clove-flavored phenol produced by weizen yeasts., and can come across as meaty (like bacon), smoky, or spice [....]
‘Old leather’ is the classic British description of Bretty beer — intriguing enough to inspire the recreation of 19th-century British beers, with authentic Brett flavors.”

As with The Wine Trials, all tastings were done blind. And again we are presented with compelling observations about the distorting effects of lifestyle marketing, observations central to all of the Fearless Critics’ work, and one of the many reasons I find their efforts important and commendable.
“If your job as a consumer is to look beyond all categories of lifestyle marketing, that doesn’t mean skepticism of Anheuser-Busch’s Super Bowl ads. It also means skepticism of the well-intentioned but ultimately narrow and unscientific opinions of the beer snob who insists that all great beer must be Belgian and cost at least $10. That enthusiastic beer geek may turn out to be even less aware of lifestyle marketing than your average Bud Light drinker.”
After a few pages explaining their methodology, their (harmless) scoring system, and price point symbols, we dive into the soul of the book: an examination of enough beers, more than 200, to keep me occupied throughout the Summer! Amber and Pale Lagers, Belgian, Brown and Dark Ales, including Porters, Stouts, and my personal favorite, India Pale Ale (though I will now look for a neuvo British Brett beer!), and Smoke, Sour, Strong, and Wheat beers are all well represented.
Another fine guide for a thirsty public. Highly recommended.


David Downie’s Terroir Guides, A New Standard

Ξ March 8th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, Interviews, Wine History, Wine News |

I am an an avid collector of travel guides. And the Baedeker series occupies pride of place on my crowded shelves. Begun in the early 18th century by Karl Baedeker, by 1900 this little red book could be found in the knapsacks of poets and statesmen, artists and perpetual tourists. Virtually all of Europe, her countries, regions and major cities, as well as Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Canada and the United States were covered by frequently updated individuated editions. Written by hundreds of pens, the guides were quite democratic in nature, providing precise info on everything from thrifty to expensive lodgings, museum entrance fees, front row theater and balcony prices, and train fares in first class or coach. Capturing the spirit of Nietzsche’s notion of the ‘Good European’, even if rather bourgeois, the Baedeker guides offered dignified commentary on the Western World’s shared history and culture, a common language for understanding monumental architectural forms and art, all for the ennoblement of the traveler wishing to learn as much about distant peoples and places as about themselves.
Then the world lost its mind. Two world wars made many a European Baedeker guide into an instrument of espionage and invasion, and transformed the excursion of a living city into a tour of ruins. But to this reader more than a half century later, this is also Baedekers great strength, what gives the guides their enduring value. They offer once living testimony of a vanished world.
Now this may seem an odd way to introduce David Downie’s Terroir Guides, but I am convinced that his work, the patient, herculean task he has successfully completed in three healthy volumes, Rome, The Italian Riviera and Genoa, and most recently Burgundy, is deserving of a similar admiration. And this is why. Focussing on food and wine, his Terroir Guides are generous and rich acts of resistance to globalization and homogenization. As he dryly writes in The Italian Riviera and Genoa,
The Italian Riviera has many excellent, sophisticated and some internationally celebrated restaurants. Most are not included in this guidebook…. [W]hen the authenticity, regional tipicity, and simplicity of the cooking are outweighed by the restaurant’s decor or setting and, above all, when the bravura of chefs focuses on innovation, creative or international cooking, the establishment does not correspond to the spirit of terroir.”
More pointedly, in the Author’s Foreword to his superb Burgundy guide he writes,
“The aim of the Terroir Guides is not to simply aid readers in the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure, but rather to encourage their appreciation of a slower, more meditative lifestyle based on respect for the soil, the seasons, and deeply rooted cultures capable of producing not only great food and wine, but also a saner and more tolerant world view and way of life.”
What may be found in Mr. Downie’s work are guides to cuisines and winemaking squarely at odds with post-modernist agricultural and marketing trends. Again from the Burgundy intro:
“[T]he battles continue against standardized, adulterated food, factory farming, growth hormones, fresh raw milk versus UHT milk, GMOs, vegetable fats in chocolate, trans-fats, and many other related issues, including the spread of hyper-markets and big-box discounters.”
Here my comparison of his work to Baedeker becomes a bit clearer. On every page is expressed the love Mr. Downie feels for each of the regions in which he travels. Never a harsh note, he writes entirely in the affirmative. His detailed explorations are always quiet celebrations of a vibrant, living food and wine culture he finds tucked away in corners of even the smallest, most decrepit village. There is always hope. Of the Northern Burgundy town of Tonnerre he wonders
“…how, in the second half of the twentieth century, Tonnerre was allowed to implode. Seemingly half of the houses in the upper city are abandoned, many in ruins. [....] With much effort, inner-city Tonnerre will rebound.”
He goes on to describe those dedicated to the work of the town’s re-energizing. And this is the general tone of the Burgundy book: for every sign of ruin or globalizing triumph there are plenty of counter-examples. For every collection of fast food joints and super-markets overflowing with standardized products mentioned, he offers well-described wine bars, restaurants, wineries and open markets. Where might artisanal cheeses and olive oils be found? Where are the best vegetables sourced?
Each of his remarkable 400 plus page Terroir Guides, Rome, the Italian Riviera and Genoa, and Burgundy, are the deepest, most exhaustively researched examples of their kind. I do not believe they will be outdone anytime soon. Further, I insist that as comprehensive gustatory compendiums of these regions, they each stand as a grand still-life, a moment in time. Future explorations of these regions, when a balance sheet is drawn up of their fortunes, the endurance of their multiple terroirs, such explorations will, I believe, require a return to Mr. Downie’s texts as a kind of standard history. Like a Baedekers guide, we need an accurate source of practical information to understand where we are. Mr. Downie’s work provides exactly that.
I contacted the author with a few questions. Knowing full well he was not a ‘personality’, that he did not seek celebrity, I did not hold out much hope for an interview. Neither did I really want one. Of the many haunting charms of guide books is the mystery of authorship. But I tossed a few his way.
Admin What project are you currently working on? Apart from your literary efforts, are you thinking of writing about another wine region?

©Alison Harris

©Alison Harris

David Downie Right now I am trying to juggle the three Food Wine books–meaning promote them–and decide whether to undertake another. These are very long-term projects, and require a great deal of research, foot work, energy, and investment. If I do another, it might well be of a winegrowing region, though I cannot say which just yet (I am talking to my publisher about this). It might also be Paris, which does have a couple of vineyards. Mostly, Paris has many fine wine shops, and wine experts (winesellers and sommeliers).
My other projects are my recently published political thriller, set in Paris: Paris City of Night. It requires nursing; all books are hard to get airborne, but when you’re known as a food/wine and travel writer and you write a crime novel, the odds are entirely against you.
Lastly, in terms of books, I am trying to finish and find a home for a quirky book about hiking across Burgundy (and much of France) along ancient Roman roads and medieval pilgrimage routes. The book is titled HIT THE ROAD JACQUES. It includes some commentary on food and wine, including an unexpected revelation about French winemakers and their “special” relations with Mr. Parker. I don’t want to steal my own thunder.
Do you have an opinion on wine scores and ratings?
DD Having worked for some years two decades ago on the Gault-Millau guidebooks to France, Paris and Italy, and having lived in France for 25 years, I have developed an allergy to numerical scoring. The French are obsessed with it, because they are traumatized as school children by the 20/20 system (no one ever gets 20/20 in school). Wines are living things, and we are too (most of us). Wines change, we change, constantly. Change is not possible, it is inevitable. That is why ratings of any kind are so approximate and ultimately not very useful. Also, Mr. Parker’s ratings–and those of many reviewers–would not generally be my ratings. Taste is highly variable. I do not worship fat, fruit-forward, oaky wines, and I am a mono-variety man (though I do love some wines made with multiples).
Do you take tasting notes above and beyond those provided in your book?
DD See the above for background. I am possibly less organized than you think. I take notes, in notebooks, and usually I can’t find my notebooks, and if I do, I can’t find my notes in them (I am par-blind, which probably helps me as a taster, but makes life hell otherwise). I also scribble notes on brochures, on wine labels, and so forth. And I realize that a wine tasted at the winery may taste very different at home, or in a restaurant. Winemaking, wine appreciation, and wine education, to my mind, are an art or a craft, not a science. Science and technology have their place in the world of wine, but they are also proving dangerous–like tools handed to the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. For me, when it comes to wine, the less “technique” the better. Romanee Conti has been making organic, un-technical wines for quite a spell, and people seem to like them. Many less trumpeted winemakers have too.
Are there wine books from any era, whether historical, popular or scientific, in or out of print, that you would recommend to the Burgundy enthusiast?
DD I will have to give that one a think. I am chaotic in my reading… most of my reference books (which I don’t always own, but borrow) are French…
What camera does the Food Wine series photographer, Alison Harris, use?
DD She has used/uses a variety of cameras. Now she uses a Canon professional digital camera with an EFS 17-55mm lens. By the way, here is her website, (and she is my wife, of many years now).
If you could be a tree, what tree would you be? JUST KIDDING!
DD Actually, I am happy to answer: a live oak. Drought-resistant, tough, a loner, but also happy to dip roots into a river, and stand among other oaks (and any other tree–all trees are lovely). In fact, if I could, I would chuck in everything I do and plant trees. The best photo of me ever taken shows me attempting to embrace an ancient chestnut, in Burgundy. I will attach it for your delectation. Burgundy has some of the world’s oldest and most beautiful chestnuts….
Thank you for your time.
DD Thank you for yours!
For more information on this gentleman, please see this interview.
An additional review may be found on Mr. Downie’s website, as well as notice of his other writing efforts.
And this piece by Mr. Downie himself appearing today (3/09) in the Huffpost.


The Wine Trials 2010, Tasting Blind

Ξ January 5th, 2010 | → 7 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, Wine & Politics |

The Wine Trials 2010, by Robin Goldstein and Alexis Hershkowitsch (along with scores of others), is a curious book. At once rigorous and slippery, honest and evasive, it is precisely because of it’s structural ambiguity that it is a good place to initiate a discussion of what might be called the informal cultural anthropology of wine. And the discussion may most properly begin among small groups of wine enthusiasts tasting blind. This is the book’s great strength.
Robin Goldstein, whom I’ve never met, is perhaps best known for an interesting experiment (some folks used harsher language) he performed in 2008 involving the Wine Spectator’s (WS) ‘Award of Excellence’ program, the details about which this space has written. He created an entirely fictional restaurant on the internet, composed a wine list of WS ‘under-performers’, paid his $250 entrance fee and, voila!, the Award of Excellence was his. Equally importantly for Mr. Goldstein’s purposes (and ours) was the solicitation for advertisement space. Full details may be found on his website, Blind Taste. It was an amusing coup.
The Wine Trials 2010 takes elements of this project forward. First of all, it is important to stress that the tone of the book is a kind of hopeful skepticism, a forceful, yet playful insistence that though the consumer’s conscious freedom to taste is muted by three distinct cultural obstacles, they might yet escape through the practice of blind tasting. (And, of course, with the help of the wine recommendations in this book!) This is a book for adults interested in the ‘big picture’. It is meant to provoke thought. But that it also interferes with thought I hope to make clear.
The first of the three obstacles is the wine press, generalized under the titles Parker’s Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. The second obstacle is the ‘placebo effect’, a universal feature of the human condition. The third obstacle, an equally universal feature, is cultural training whereby everyone is introduced from infancy into a specific gustatory regime. I shall briefly examine each in turn.
The Wine Press How is it that a $12 Domaine Ste. Michelle Cuvée Brut sparkler from Washington State is consistently preferred in blind tastings to a $150 Dom Pérignon? Or a $9 Beringer Founders’ Estate Cab to its close relative, the $120 Beringer Private Reserve Cab? Or a $6 Vinho Verde from Portugal to Cakebread’s $40 Chardonnay? Precisely because they were tasted blind. And the reverse, choosing the more expensive wine in the full light of day? In part, this is because of the distortions the wine press. Through well-publicized tastings by established critics, advertisement and a battery of lifestyle-enhancement triggers, the consumer comes to believe a higher price is correlated to quality. To see is to believe. Of course nothing could be further from the truth, the book argues. And it tries to show the reader why.
The Wine Trials 2010 tells us that four hundred and fifty “widely available” wines were initially selected, all under $15. As distinct from last year’s edition, this time around “We have accepted nominations from professionals in many different areas of the wine industry, from producers to sommeliers, importers to retailers.” It was from this pool that after multiple blind tastings among dozens and dozens of contributors, one hundred and fifty wines made the cut. Part Two of the book is an alphabetical compilation, with details and notes, of these wines. Now, what is surprising is that every one of the 150 wines “outscored much more expensive bottles in our brown-bag tasting.” It is surprising because of what the reader never learns :
1) The identity of the “more expensive bottles”. Indeed, very few expensive wines are mentioned in the book. Apart from the Dom Pérignon, Beringer and Cakebread, the only other wines touched on are Veuve Clicquot and a Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru from Louis Latour. Were there others? What was the price spread? Were $20 bottles included? We just don’t know.
2 Neither is a definition of “expensive” provided. Is it $18, $25? (The least expensive of the wines mentioned comes in at $40.)
3) Lastly, though the Wine Spectator comes rightly under considerable fire for their very questionable methodology, readers are not informed whether the “expensive” wines were ever given especially high scores in that magazine.
These are important methodological faults of The Wine Trials 2010, in my view. Of course, the book’s principle argument is that value may be found at lower price points. I heartily agree. No one would argue otherwise, not in the real world. But I do not believe their case is properly made absent a full disclosure of the expensive wines’ identities, how the expensive were selected and how widely did the authors select. We do know that all wines had to be “widely available”. But that is the sole criterion, as near as I can tell.
The placebo effect The Wine Trials 2010 discusses very important developments in the field of Neuroscience concerning how it is that to believe something is true in fact physically alters one’s perception. The authors provide a fine, though limited bibliography for further reading. Recounting various historical and current experiments in which test subjects, from the sophisticated to the novice, were creatively mislead (shall we say), the book amply demonstrates the very real phenomenon of the placebo effect. In these experiments wine experts come to believe the same wine in different bottles, one expensive, one cheap, actually taste different; casual drinkers, when mis-informed that they are drinking a cheap wine said to be expensive, prefer the ‘expensive’, by significant statistical margins. New experiments are being formulated as I write, so rich is the field.
Perception and expectation do alter taste. About that there is no question. Mr. Goldstein calls this framing of experience “The taste of money”. This we know occurs. And it is a far deeper phenomenon than the casual drinker might be willing to admit. Or the authors themselves. Indeed, the clinical trials of new drugs are routinely abandoned because the pharmaceutical company is unable to show a statistically meaningful improvement in a patient over a placebo in blind trials.
Further, there is a large body of brilliant research on differing experiences of pain when a subject’s expectations are wildly distinct. Take, for example, a soldier shot on the battlefield. He is offered pain medication, but he refuses it, deferring to his fallen fellows. Why? With allowances made for specific details, it is because he knows he is going home; he knows he will see his kids and wife; he knows he will receive a hero’s welcome; he knows he will receive on-going medical care. He was wounded defending a cause. Clinical experience clearly shows the experience of pain will be attenuated.
Now contrast that series of expectations to the victim of a random shooting on the street. This poor soul has no expectation of proper, complete care; he does not know whether his employer will keep his job for him and whether, as a consequence, he will be able to pay the rent; or how he will provide for his family. He is the anonymous victim of a random crime. There is no ’cause’, just the brutal reality of the street. Again, clinical experience reveals a different experience of pain.
I’ve gone on this tangent because I think the authors of The Wine Trials 2010 grossly overstate the simplicity of consumers rising above ‘the placebo effect’. They provide what I would call a ’soft’ case. The research they cite, however methodologically flawed, still remains compelling. It is simply that neuroscience and anthropology, the hard research, provides stronger evidence of the persistence and durability of ‘the placebo effect’ than the authors appear to believe.
Cultural Training The Wine Trials 2010 offers some very valuable insight into modern wines, what they call a ‘globalized’ style. Recognizing the jeopardy much of the world’s wine diversity is in, they point to a plausible suspect. Robert Parker? No. For Parker is only the bearer of a cultural marker, a gustatory preference. The real culprit is sugar. From the book,
[...] the culprit for the style convergence might not be Parker himself, or his followers themselves; it might be the taste for sugar that he, and they, all acquired in childhood–a taste that an increasing percentage of the world’s children are now also acquiring. [....] Should we call Yellow Tail not ‘Parkerized,’ but rather ‘globalized’”?
I think there is something to this. And one might look no further than The Wine Trials 2010 list of wines itself for evidence of this increasingly important cultural factor. Sure enough, of the 150 wines selected a full 42 ‘Heavy New World reds’ (their category) made the cut in their blind tastings! Nearly a third, and by far the largest single grouping. Of course, they might argue that this is because the decisive factor for inclusion into the original 450 wines was that they be “widely” available. And Heavy New World red does not necessarily mean ‘globalized’. But it, nevertheless, begs the question. No discussion of this statistically significant result is entertained in the book.
And this takes us to a more difficult question about the value, you could even call it the philosophy, of blind tasting. Mr. Goldstein cites a lively discussion shared on Eric Asimov’s NY Times wine blog, The Pour, about the subject. Among the many topics touched on, Asimov insisted that “blind tastings eliminate knowledge and context that can be significant in judging a wine. [....] It is an almost anti-intellectual position. Obviously what’s in the glass matters. But the more knowledge you can bring to a wine, the better your understanding of that wine will be.”
In The Wine Trials 2010 Mr. Goldstein responds in a very curious, though similar, way. He writes, “Our descriptions do not rely solely on blind tasting notes. Without a doubt, a lot of the fun of wine is in all the stuff that’s not in the glass.” [emphasis in the original]
Now, I have not read all the original source material framing this exchange, but I will say that both gentlemen seem to agree that Knowledge, with a capital K, is extraneous to what’s in the glass. I couldn’t disagree more; for knowledge comes in many different forms. I would argue that viticultural and winemaking practice have a direct bearing on what’s in the glass. Whether biodynamic, organic, conventional, whether terroir-driven, practice and soil informs the wine. It is one thing to recognize it, it is quite another to claim, as Mr. Goldstein certainly does, that knowledge, this time with a small k, does not inform a wine.
Mr. Goldstein is equally dismissive of the notion that wine is meant to be consumed with food. Who would argue with what half the wine-drinking world holds to self-evident? Well, he erases entire libraries and cultures when he writes,
“It is true that information about your experience of a wine in the absence of food, or in a sequence of other wines, will not be perfectly relevant to a reader’s future experience of that same wine over a relaxing meal. But information about how the wine’s fruit character and tannins reacted with your next-door neighbor’s demi-glace might well be even less relevant”
Try telling that to a Spaniard! I guarantee that uttering such a thing will not get you invited into his family’s house.
It is almost as if he is claiming ‘knowledge’ of/about wine is limited to price, the eccentricities of the winemaker, label and prestige, only those elements that fall under the umbrella of wine marketing and ‘the placebo effect’. An astute student of socioeconomic folly does not make one a wine critic. Neither does he claim to be, to be sure. And as to that, it is a curious effect of this book that it leaves this reader with the impression that Mr. Goldstein does not himself drink wine. There is little passion for wine on the page. Intelligence, yes. I think he might be principally a creature of the behavioral sciences, perforce hamstrung by the multiple ways his freedom may be hijacked by subterranean cultural forces at work on us all. Or, perhaps, a touch of how the gynecologist might reflect upon the prospect of having sex. He’s just seen too much!
But I like the book, even though my point of view cannot find a home there. It is stuffed with ideas, too many to fairly discuss in a modest review. It forcefully puts forward a point of view, a series of challenges to a large part of the wine industry which deserve, no, demand to be heard. I like the book well enough to give Mr. Goldstein the last word.
“The aim of The Wine Trials–aside from seeking out good, widely available values under $15–is to question the institutional structures that govern the industry, to encourage people to learn their own palates through the exercise of tasting blind instead of trusting the numerical scores that Parker and the magazines assign. It is the economic power of these institutional structures that damages not only the wallet of the everyday consumer, but also the chances for a small, interesting, good-value producer–even one that makes a wine costing more than $15–to succeed on the store shelf or on the restaurant wine list.”
Please also see the spirited debate over at 1 Wine Dude’s site.


Why We Are Not Dogs. Jonathan Nossiter’s Liquid Memory

Ξ October 19th, 2009 | → 5 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, International Terroirs, Wine & Politics |

“I acquired my love for the taste of wine as a small child when it was first dropped into my mouth or mixed in a glass of water”.
This is not how the book begins. Liquid Memory follows no sequential narrative logic, one recollection does not force the next. For that is not how memory works.
Neither does the book begin with reflections on Mondovino, though the popular memory of that ground-breaking film might, too, have made thematic, if not commercial, sense. (Indeed, I suspect the majority of reviews will follow this noisy thread.) And don’t think for a moment we have before us a guidebook of wine tasting notes fetishistically severed from place and time, isolated by a ‘wine professional’ from all worldly contamination. Isolated from memory.
Instead, Part One, The (None)sense Of Place, chapter one, Why We’re Not Dogs begins with this.
“The term globalization is frequently misused. This is particularly disturbing for me, a child of the globe. My father, Bernard Nossiter, an American journalist, moved our family from Washington D.C., to Paris when I was two. I grew up across the cultures of France, Italy, Greece, India, and England, as well as the United States. So, where do I belong?”
Liquid Memory is not an attempt to answer this question by submitting to an easy, marketable nostalgia; you know, a story of the search for a warm hearth before which one might safely curl to sleep. Instead, Mr. Nossiter performs his answer with a very personal journey of recollection, exploring the multiplicity of ‘homes’, ‘heimat’ or terroirs that memory itself calls into being.
We are not dogs because we possess the unique freedom to cross ideological borders, to resist cultural and commercial forces that offer to name us in exchange for a kind of security. (‘Consumer’ is one of many such names.) And wine is the agency of resistance par excellence. This book is an invitation to escape from the kennel of advertisement, to snap the tether of scores; to cultivate an intellectual nomadism of both sapience and of culture, in the company of others.
“Without terroir–in wine, cinema, or life (I’m happiest when the three are confused)–there is no individuality, no dignity, no tolerance, and no shared civilization. Terroir is an act of generosity. The last thing it should be is sectarian or reactionary.”
We are all complex mixtures of the past, the present and the future. There is nothing new in this. What is new is that Mr. Nossiter demonstrates through generous, playful stories that bottles of wine, what he calls liquid madeleines, may quietly, entirely by themselves, stir in us the experience of blended time, so to speak. We have only to learn how to listen.
“Wine bottles to me are not inanimate objects. And not just because the liquid inside them is biochemically alive. The shape of the bottle, the label, with its carefully printed place names, family names, and year of harvest, both evoke deeply human stories that remain vital even once the contents are consumed. When I see a bottle of wine, I travel in space–of course to the place the wine comes from (if its identity and personality have been respected), but also to the place, people, and circumstances where it was consumed.”
Though Liquid Memory makes serious arguments, there is nothing doctrinaire or ideologically rigid about Mr. Nossiter’s approach. Philosophical, yes; but he is too disciplined, too creative an independent film-maker to write sermons. The book’s prose is bright, often lyrical, always entertaining, even when discussing dark topics. He is never pugnacious, but he is willing to push back. How could it be otherwise? This book is a self-avowed “Proustian journey”, after all. But unlike Proust, Mr. Nossiter has not spent years in a cork-lined room endlessly scribbling emendations in the margins of an infinitely unspooling text. And unlike Proust, memory for Mr. Nossiter must be fed with the real-world anticipation of future pleasures. Indeed, his tone is resolutely upbeat, open to new loves.
(As a purely personal aside, rather than Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdue, the text that actually returned to me again and again when reading Liquid Memory was Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques.)
Before beginning his thoroughly original adventures across the Parisian winescape, the greater part of the book, he writes,
“When I enter a wine shop–a magical place for me since adolescence (an arrested adolescent replacement for the childhood delights of a toy shop?)– or when I scan a restaurant wine list, I feel a surge of excitement, like someone arriving at the doorstep of a potential love affair. A tour of places in Paris where wine is critical–wine shops and restautants–becomes for me a kind of triple Proustian journey. I might go back in time with one glance (a bottle last drunk or seen years before), forward with another (there are millions of bottles that are unknown to me that I hope one day to meet), and rooted in the present with a third turn of the head (because the choice of wines is like choice of friends: it instantly reveals character and taste).”
But, push back? Yes, there is plenty. Robert Parker’s work, for example, is discussed with a combination of bemusement and genuine revulsion, as is “modern wine gibberish” generally. But the reason for his hot and cold critique throughout the book has nothing to do with personal animus (despite the unrelieved hostility of Mr. Parker and some of his board members, the wine world’s equivalent of Rush Limbaugh and his excitable ditto heads). Rather, it is the simple proposition that, among other Parker foibles, lugubrious tasting notes and scores do not get at what is most important in wine. Tasting notes and scores dumb down wine, at best rendering each bottle one of an endless series of Warhol-esque Campbell soup cans.
“But Parker is not alone. Modern wine gibberish (and the desperate attempts of winemakers to make wines that correspond to that gibberish) is a global product.”
And as a global product,
“Consumers all over the world have now become accustomed to seek out ‘Parker 95 wines’ or ‘ Wine Spectator 90’s,’ no longer sure of, or necessarily interested in, the wines’ origins, makers, or contexts. [....] To assign numbers to a wine, given that a wine is fully living and infinitely mutable, is almost as repugnant to me as assigning numerical worth to humans.”
Memory is aborted; our fundamental distinction from dogs is no longer necessary or even minimally required. Consumers, like dogs, run in packs. This is the great insight of modern business psychology. And we, as dogs, are left obediently waiting permission to feast from the bowl of the one who eats first.
Setting aside the ridiculous theater of modern wine gibberish for a moment, the finest section of Liquid Memory in my view is Part lll, All Roads Lead To Burgundy. Here Mr. Nossiter steps away from driving the narrative; he largely subtracts himself in order to let others speak. He then lovingly devotes 35 pages to the voices of some of the finest vignerons of Burgundy’s new generation. Can they find “a means of communication as limpid as their wines”?
“We are in the home Jean-Marc Roulot and his wife Alix de Montille to find out. They’ve been joined by their friends Dominique Lafon and Christophe Roumier, creating a quartet of inspired vignerons, all of whom are themselves children of talented vigneron fathers. Though anchored in a sense of tradition, they have each one of them acquired international reputations as modernist pioneers. Indeed, because the opposition between tradition and modernity is as absurd in wine as it is in cinema, it’s not surprising that the tradition within the Roulot, Montille, Lafon, and Roumier families is to assert a new ideal of progress in the expression of terroir with each generation.”
The next four chapters are quite simply a tour de force in contemporary wine writing. Mr. Nossiter has done brilliant work here. I cannot review the chapters without repeating them. But I will say there may be found detailed discussions of biodynamics and organic viticulture, the burden of tradition, the fragility of familial relations, of fathers and sons, with respect to the preservation and transmission of historical experience and memory. How does one persevere, how does one make durable a vision, a terroir, while all around is compromise and accommodation? The many strengths and pleasures of Liquid Memory notwithstanding, ‘All Roads Lead To Burgundy’ will be read for many years to come.
The section ends with this reflection.
“It must be said that the current practitioners of marketing are often congenial figures with no wish at all to subsume us in any evil design. But those who preach the cult of the individual nonetheless are contributing to the erasure of our collective culture and therefore, ironically, of our individual identities. The (historically mutable) delineation of Burgundian terroirs and their highly idiosyncratic interpretation by people like Jean-Marc, Dominique, and Christophe seems to me a very graceful (if infinitesimally miniscule) response to this threat.”
Part lV, The Taste of Authenticity, the last part of the book, reads a bit like a compilation of essays; of related pieces, to be sure, but with a free-standing quality. Each may be read independently of the book as a whole. All chapters will be welcomed, deepening, as they do, our understanding of the politics and culture of wine.
Finally, I can only imagine that Mr. Nossiter is pleased to finally set Liquid Memory on its way, to give it a life of its own. My interview with the gentleman was sprinkled with new ideas, new departures for thought, new terroirs. Thoroughly future-oriented, with children to raise, movies yet to make, should he have met Marcel Proust I suspect he would have slapped him on the back and spirited him off to Caves Legrand for a cheering-up. Yet Mr. Nossiter’s relation to Literature remains a mystery to me. He writes on pg. 14,
“In fact, nothing so complex, so dynamic, and so specific, nothing that links both nature and civilization, can be said in relation to memory in literature, painting, cinema, music, architecture: and any of the other records of human civilization. However, precisely because neither terroir, nor nature, nor men are fixed, and because a wine itelf is destined to be consumed–to vanish–a wine of terroir is by its nature, an ultimately undefinable, unquantifiable agent of memory. This is a curse for relentless rationalists, unrepentant pragmatists, and all the busy codifiers of this world, anxious for absolutes. And a blessing for the rest of us.”
But it is equally true people are destined to be consumed; they vanish. They, too, are records of human civilization. Yes, it is true that men are not fixed. But a man is, when he vanishes. As does all that he knew.
From Borges’ Dreamtigers.
“In a stable that stands almost within the shadow of the new stone church a gray-eyed, gray-bearded man, stretched out amid the odors of the animals, humbly seeks death as one seeks for [sic] sleep. The day, faithful to vast secret laws, little by little shifts and mingles the shadows in the humble nook. Outside are the plowed fields and a deep ditch clogged with dead leaves and an occasional wolf track in the black earth at the edge of the forest. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten. The angelus awakens him. By now the sound of the bells is one of the habits of evening in the kingdoms of England. But this man, as a child, saw the face of Woden, the holy dread and exultation, the rude wooden idol weighed down with Roman coins and heavy vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he will die, and in him will die, never to return, the last eye-witness of those pagan rites; the world will be a little poorer when this Saxon dies.
Events far-reaching enough to people all space, whose end is nonetheless tolled when one man dies, may cause us wonder. But something, or an infinite number of things, dies in every death, unless the universe is possessed of a memory, as the theosophists have supposed.
In the course of time there was a day that closed the last eyes to see Christ. The battle of Junin and the love of Helen each died with the death of some one man. What will die with me when I die, what pitiful or perishable form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernandez? The image of a roan horse on the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas? A bar of sulpher in the drawer of a mahogany desk?”

Liquid Memory is a valuable contribution to the conversation about wine, of course. But it is a rare book. It makes the strongest case that I have ever read that wine matters; it matters to culture, to history, to our self-understanding of what makes us human. I highly recommend adding it to your library.
For my three part interview with Mr. Nossiter please see this and follow the links.


Adventures In Burgundy by Lincoln Russell

Ξ July 2nd, 2009 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, Wine News |

Adventures in Burgundy by photographer Lincoln Russell came to my attention in a rather unusual way. I made a request of Clive Coates, the august subject of my most recent interview, for pictures illustrating, among other things, the grounds of the Ten Year On Tastings, the Brouilland farmhouse owned by Becky Wasserman-Hone and her husband Russell Hone. Mr. Coates suggested I write Lincoln Russell whose fine book includes just such photos. Indeed, it does, and a great deal more I was to discover when Mr. Russell graciously sent me an inscribed copy of his book.
Photography books, especially of wine country, can be exercises in the familiar, the already known. Very often they are compilations of visual clichés. But Mr. Russell’s book is of another kind entirely. His is an effort that tells a story, deepens our understanding of things we’ve merely heard and not seen. Let’s take his photo of Sebastien Denis and his horse Mickey, for example. Simple. It’s of a man, a colorful local, plowing a field. Not quite. Burgundy has become a hot spot for the use of biodynamic methods, hence the workhorse, an essential component of that viticulture. And Mr. Denis has been working the biodynamic vineyard of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC) for a number of years.
Or take this photo of the Hill of Corton from the vantage point of the commune Aloxe-Corton near Beaune. The intersecting of clos and subtle changes in the orientation of the vines, the slight changes in shade of the exposed soil surfaces, redder at the lower elevation, all are important details for the appreciation of this extraordinary growing area. Indeed, the book’s forward is written by Aubert De Villaine, DRC’s co-director. According to a recent brief in the Wine Spectator, the DRC
” has signed a lease with Domaine Prince Florent de Mérode for 6 acres of vineyards on the hillside of Corton for three grand cru red wines.”.
And among my favorite images is that of a wall, the run of a clos, simply titled Pommard. I have often wondered after the method of construction of these stone walls and how they weather. I was surprised to see how tight the fit of each stone. And the angle of the image helps reveal erosion, the crumbling of the top of the wall and its ad hoc repair.
Included among the book’s more than 150 images are numerous informal portraits of major figures of the region, of winemakers and workers. Many are of the caves, the work at local tonnelleries, the changing seasons in the vineyards, bud break, and superb pics of numerous domaines at dusk, in winter, shrouded in fog. And, of course, photos of Clive Coates’ Ten Year On Tasting from 2006, of the interior of the farmhouse and of the magnificent grounds with children playing on the expansive lawn.
One pic playfully hints at Mr. Russell’s participation. It is of a nearly a dozen pair of muddy boots and shoes aligned before an open door, the threshold to the interior of which is mud-free. And off to the left is the only pair of clean shoes remaining, a pair of black loafers; the photographer’s? All other folks must have put on their fresh shoes and entered. Mr. Russell must have been the last one in.
And that is the overall impression of his work in this wonderful book. He is the last one in. He effortlessly floats about the people and landscapes he clearly loves, patiently waiting for rare moments to reveal themselves to him, and so to us.
Lincoln Russell has one stop left on his book tour, the Tanglewood Wine and Food Classic, August 6th through the 8th, 2009. He will be signing at this event. A copy of his book may be purchased through his very well-designed website. I strongly encourage the reader to secure a copy.
Special thanks to Mr. Russell for his permission to reproduce photos for this review.


Cafe Paradiso Seasons and Vegetarian Wine Pairing

Ξ June 25th, 2009 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, Interviews, Wine News |

There are indispensable wine books; one immediately thinks of The Oxford Companion to Wine. But what of recipe books? A trip to the local bookstore in any city reveals 100s of titles. There are many compilations, inches-thick, those dedicated to specific national cuisines and their regional sub-divisions. Cantonese is not Sichuan. There are multitudes of great food writers, great cooks and chefs: Julia Child, Alice Waters, Jacques Pépin, Ferran Adrià, to name a very, very few. And every town and village has their unheralded favorites. One’s mother, perhaps.
But then there is the great cultural divide, Omnivore and Vegetarian. How many times have we read tasting notes of how well a wine would pair with a rare steak, a leg of lamb, pork, wild game bird, venison, or prosciutto? So abundant are the meat/wine pairing references that a vegetarian, such as myself, might well think wine itself shares a fundamental, intimate alchemy with the flesh of animal life roasted, baked, blackened or fried. And at a certain level this is undoubtedly true. The multiple origins of wine production have, we might safely hazard, universally occurred in meat-eating cultures. Vegetarianism is a culinary exception, often ethically or environmentally driven. A choice, and one I’ve freely made.
So a question wine-drinking vegetarians must ask, certainly those committed to the idea of consuming food and wine, where can we turn for instruction, for inspiration? What book? I have an answer. Inasmuch as a meat is the keynote, the centerpiece of an omnivore’s meal, for the vegetarian the search must be for surprise, flavor complexity, and innovative variety in a meal. Yet the food must also be something we, too, can prepare. And the brilliant Denis Cotter of Cafe Paradiso in Cork City, Ireland has written such a book, Cafe Paradiso Seasons.
Winner of the 2003 Gourmand World Cookbooks Award as the ‘Best Vegetarian Cookbook in the World’, Cafe Paradiso Seasons is a gathering of 140 recipes made up of seasonal vegetables. And we are not talking tofu night and day. Indeed, only two tofu recipes are included in the book. As he writes,
“I probably use tofu more at home than in Cafe Paradiso these days. Every time you try to create a restaurant dish with tofu, you have to confront the public perception of it and its association with the worthy but dull end of vegetarian catering. [....] Let’s say I’m in a rest period in my professional relationship with tofu.”
And a glance of his most recent ‘mains’ of the dinner menu displays the same rest.
risotto of watercress, avocado & broad beans with Oisin mature goat’s cheese, braised fennel and a lemon thyme & chilli oil €23
sweet chilli-glazed panfried tofu on chinese greens in coconut-lemongrass broth with soba noodles and a gingered aduki bean wonton €24
feta, pistachio & couscous cake on citrus & nutmeg greens with sweet & hot pepper relish, chickpeas with cumin & fresh chillies and coriander yoghurt €24
almond and pastry galette of spinach and Knockalara sheep’s cheese with sweet harissa sauce, coriander-crushed potato and sugar snap peas with oregano €25
panfried fresh artichokes with semolina & fresh goat’s cheese gnocchi, braised lentils, lemon cream & caramelised beetroot €25
roast aubergine parcels of kale, pinenuts & Coolea cheese with warm cherry tomato-caper salsa and sage & shallot farrotto €25

In the book you will find recipes for watermelon and feta salad with lime, pumpkinseed oil, toasted pumpkin seeds and green peppercorns; poached zucchini flowers with herbed ricotta stuffing in a tomato and basil broth; pan-fried couscous cake of red onion, feta cheese and pine nuts with green olive tapenade and spiced roast peppers with spinach; baked portobello mushrooms with Cashel blue cheese, pecan crumbs and sage, and smoked paprika aioli. You get the idea. In my home we have cooked these and dozens of others drawn from the book.
So, again, how to answer the question of wine pairing with such meals? Here wine takes on a different meaning. In a very real sense Mr. Cotter’s recipes reverse the role of wine. It’s not a matter of wine with food, but of food with wine. Food takes gustatory precedence. That an omnivore’s meal might be of a single note, have a commanding center, a rare steak, for example, the recipes in Cafe Paradiso Seasons instead open up a space of experimentation and exploration for wine drinkers in general. The flavors, textures, and temperatures are profoundly decentralized.
Perhaps this is why tasting notes so rarely reference vegetarian cuisine. Reviewers are perplexed. Terra incognita. And that is a very good thing. We might yet think for ourselves.
Cafe Paradiso Seasons has been in our house for a few years. We have yet to exhaust its riches. I contacted Denis Cotter essentially to thank him for his work. I was pleased he agreed, without hesitation, to be interviewed. Before proceeding the reader might wish to first look over his wine list.
Admin When did you become a vegetarian?
Denis Cotter In my early 20’s. It was the early 80’s and vegetarianism was mixed in with all the other fashionably left-wing politics of the time. Plus I had a girlfriend who was vegetarian, and I was a big fan of Morrissey of the Smiths, who was and is a militant vegetarian.
Before that, I had a squeamish attitude to meat growing up, and a generally sensitive nature.
But, as I often say, it’s not about why you become a vegetarian but why you remain one [emphasis added]. I’ve never felt that I was denying myself anything so there has never been a sacrificial element to it. Vegetarianism simply became part of my core ethics, a central part of how I felt morally comfortable in the world. As time went by and I got older and calmer, I moved away from being evangelical in any way and simply kept it as a personal ethic.
When Paradiso opened in 1993, I wanted it to succeed as a mainstream restaurant, despite being vegetarian rather than being recognised as a good ‘vegetarian’ one. I also consciously wanted to disconnect from the health food industry and connect with the local food culture instead.
I’ve been a vegetarian for a little over 20 years. My first shock was watching Frederic Wiseman’s 1976 documentary ‘Meat’. For reasons not clear to me, the film is now nearly impossible to find. In any case, how do you understand the modern industrial production of meat?
DC I’ve read a few books like Fast Food Nation and the like, and went through a period of shocking myself with the horrors of the meat industry. But, to an extent, it’s not really my concern. How animals are reared for slaughter is an ethical issue for people who eat them. I don’t eat animals because I don’t consider them to be food, and I suspect that the slaughter involved in meat production is holding us back as a species. I wouldn’t eat a pig even if it was hand-reared in the farmer’s living room and got to choose which tv channel the family watched. That said, I have great respect for, and get along very well with, people who produce meat in an ‘ethical’ way.
Where do source your produce from? Have new gardens been planted because of your effort?
DC I buy cheeses from local producers. I work very closely with a local grower, Ultan Walsh, who has a farm and guesthouse nearby. Paradiso buys most of his output, I visit him once a week to make sure my menus are adapting to what’s coming in, and we plan together what to grow, how much and so on. He’s gotten into beekeeping recently and I have a hive out there too, so Paradiso will have it’s own honey this year.
Paradiso is a small restaurant that couldn’t support one grower completely, not to mind several, so no, there haven’t been any gardens planted for us.
However, it’s probably true to say that Ultan has built his business on his relationship with Paradiso, but he’s such an amazing grower that he would have found an outlet anyway.
Besides Ultan, we buy from a couple of other small growers, but because of the climate we work in, we also have to buy a certain amount of imported produce. I would estimate that in summer we buy 80% from Ultan, in winter it drops to 25%.
Do you yourself farm or garden?
DC NO. That’s a weird one. I can talk the talk and I love to spend time on Ultan’s farm, but I’ve never done anything more productive than weeding. It’s something I feel is in my future somewhere, but it would want to hurry up.
I’ve worked to produce a garden for a local elementary school. Do you work with schools?
DC I did a demo recently for a class of 32 11-year-old girls – my niece’s class, she asked me to do it. They were incredible, so enthusiastic and adventurous. I told them we would be eating some wild food, including nettles, which they found very exciting and a bit scary. But the nettles were in gnocchi and they loved them.
I’ve done a few other classes for kids, with Slow Food, and always get a great buzz from it. It’s definitely something I want to do more of.
It can be expensive to eat locally. But given the increasing popularity of family gardens, there is hope. What advice would you give folks with a small backyard? What might they grow given a temperate climate, one with seasons?
DC Again, I’m not a grower. But something that Ultan and I have always agreed on is that, if you have a small garden, use it to grow things you can’t get in good condition otherwise, and luxuries. Grow your own salad leaves, asparagus if you can, and, of course, tomatoes – get some sungold seeds and you’ll never want another tomato! It’s fine growing a few spuds and onions but you can’t grow many and they’re cheap to buy. And put up a small hothouse if you can, it will increase the range of possibilities so much.
Has your work had a discernible effect on local restaurants? Have they felt the need to improve?
DC That’s a hard one to answer. There is probably a small number who admire Paradiso and I think the way we work has helped to grow the idea of working with local producers. But there has always been a strong Slow Food movement here as well as a lot of independent-minded individuals who have been nurturing a good food culture for decades. Paradiso wasn’t alone in turning to local producers in the past ten years, but maybe the books have given the concept a public face.
Most of the restaurants in Cork, however, carry on as though they are on planet pizzaland. It’s one of the frustrating aspects of the city that, despite a healthy food culture in the general population, the restaurant scene hasn’t kept up or properly tuned in.
What kind of clientele do you serve?
DC All sorts. Mostly foodies, I suppose, people who have Paradiso on their list of good restaurants, but who aren’t vegetarian. We have a strong core of regular clients, and a lot of people travel from out of town to eat here. Again, foodies more than vegetarians. Also, a high percentage of women, sometimes as high as 80% early in the week, falling to 50/50 at the weekend.
Are you cooking in the kitchen everyday? Would a customer have a good chance to meet you?
DC No, since I wrote the last book – ‘wild garlic, gooseberries…and me’, I’ve stepped back to be more of an executive chef. I have a great head chef and a great team. I do the Saturday night service, but I wouldn’t be able for all the hard prep anymore.
Also, because of my personal life, it’s not possible for me to be here all the time so I need a good team to run the place as though I wasn’t here at all. I spend at least half my time with my girlfriend in Ontario, Canada.
Moving on to wine, how are your wines selected? It must be difficult with the flavor complexity of your menu!
DC The wine list has evolved over the years. It started with personal preferences but has broadened out over the years to be more in line with the kind of food we serve, which has complex and bold flavours.
With a focus on European wines now, particularly Italy, Spain and Portugal, I think the best we can do is offer a wide range and make sure the floor staff know the wines well enough to be able to guide customers according to their personal preference and to the food they choose.
It’s usually possible to match a wine to a dish but much harder to match a wine to a whole table of orders, given the wide range of flavours in the menu. In that case, the best you can do is try to pick a compromise or convince people to drink separate wines. However, Paradiso is a laid back dining room, more suited to conviviality than reverence, and I think an important part of a meal is sharing wine even if you’re not sharing food. So compromise is my preferred way of solving the issue.
Have you tasted all the wines on your list? How often do you update the selection?
DC The wine list is now in the hands of Geraldine O’Toole, the dining room manager. She updates it and uses the taste buds of the floor staff to help her keep it in line with the food.
Do you keep a wine cellar?
DC No. Again, this is a tiny place – 45 seats. Also, with Cork being built on a marsh, going underground has never been a good idea. With the exception of a Barolo and one or two others, we don’t really stock wine for cellaring, and I would guess that most of our wines are 2 to 6 years old.
What is your personal history with wine?
DC I drink too much of it! When we opened first, I was involved with the wine, but gradually gave up control of it. Initially to my ex-wife, who was a New Zealander and gave the list a strong antipodean twist; then to Geraldine, who has brought it back to Europe.
Do you have more books in you? Are there topics you have yet to write about?
DC Sore point. I just had another in an occasional series of arguments with my girlfriend about ‘the book’. I signed up to do another book with Harper Collins a few months ago but there’s not much coming out. I have a number of ideas for things I want to write about, and a number of ideas for recipe books. But the book I signed up for depends on a narrative in my life which is not happening. Hence, no story. There will be a book sometime in the next two years. It might be a recipe book with short intros, along the lines of ‘Seasons’, or it might be a narrative with recipes, a la ‘wild garlic…’.
One topic that interests me greatly, going back to the top about why I became a vegetarian, is the wide range of ethical approaches people take to food. While a large part of the population goes on eating anything in front of them, so many people have a personal way of choosing what they will and won’t eat. Turning 50 this year, I’m curious about looking at my own vegetarianism and squaring it up to others’ approach – the ones who only eat their own animals, the ones who only buy organic, those who will eat fish but are careful to know which are environmentally sound and which are not…etc etc.
I don’t know if this is a book or an introduction to a book of recipes. More worryingly, I don’t know when I will start to produce something.
One of the dangers of approaching a new book is the risk of replacing the sense of pride in previous work with the sense of failure inherent in staring at a computer screen with an empty brain. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that.
What will be your lasting impact?
DC I don’t know if there will be a lasting impact. Some people will fondly remember the good times they had in Paradiso. Maybe it helped to turn people on to a different way of living and eating so their lives are happier in a subtle way.
I love the fact that there are thousands of my books all over the world. A lot of those people found the books themselves and have a great attachment for them. I always wanted to do something useful with my life, after eight years working in a bank. I think the books have been very useful things, in bringing pleasure to peoples’ lives. The pleasure of food, as distinct from it’s nutritional value, is so important to our well-being, and very few vegetarian books have gone there. Any ambitions I have left are personal.
Thank you very much, Denis.
DC It’s been interesting answering the questions. Thank you.
Mr. Cotter has written three books. The Cafe Paradiso Cookbook, Cafe Paradiso Seasons, of course, and most recently, Wild Garlic, gooseberries …and me. All may be purchased from Amazon, all may be purchased, signed editions at that, from the Cafe Paradiso bookstore on its website.


The Gort Cloud, A Must Read For Wineries

Ξ May 18th, 2009 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, Technology, Wine News, Wineries |

The Gort Cloud, written by Richard Seireeni, a “30-year veteran in brand consulting and marketing”, is the most important internet savvy 2.0 ‘how to’ business book I’ve yet encountered. And every winery should read it. It offers a compelling strategy for brand positioning based entirely on ‘Green’ credentials. The book, subtitled The Invisible Force Powering Today’s Most Visible Green Brands, provides a significant deepening of our understanding of how exactly a business, for our purposes, a winery, might successfully use the internet to secure and extend brand recognition. All that is required is a computer, a story, and commitment to environmentally-friendly practices.
So what is the Gort Cloud? From the book’s blurb:
“[It is] a vast and largely invisible network of NGOs, trendspotters, advocacy groups, social networks, business alliances, certifying organizations, and other members of the green community that in its entirety has the power to make or break new green brands.”
The book documents a series of case studies, successful companies, from Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, TerraCycle, to Ben and Jerry’s Homemade, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Stonyfield Farm, all of whom have participated, in varying degrees, in the Gort Cloud.
And of its discovery, Mr. Seireeni writes,
“As I was busy sourcing information on these companies and their markets, I continually came across families of similar organizations, all sharing some aspect of sustainability. They included individual green businesses and green business alliances; advocacy groups; nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government, and education Web sites; bloggers; trendspotters; social networks; certifying groups, technical libraries; news organizations; green guides and shopping sites; authors’ sites; and so many others.”
“Despite the fuzzy nature of the beast, I realized that this vast network is connected. People know one another. They share information…. They form alliances and cross-discipline exchanges…. [T]he network is not limited by the internet but facilitated by it. The internet provides convenient glue, but the contents spill out into the real world.”
The book’s endpapers provide a helpful visual aid of the Gort Cloud. It is reproduced on Seventh Generation’s web site.
So how does this book’s approach to brand promotion and marketing differ from others? After all, we have a multitude of titles to choose from, some of the best listed by the author himself: Cradle to Cradle, Eco-economy, Harvard Business Review on Business and the Environment, The Sustainability Revolution, The Ecology of Commerce, Green to Gold, and Natural Capitalism.
As Mr. Seireeni writes, “This book is more focused. It’s written for anyone interested in exactly how others have built green brands and how they developed a following.”
With specific reference to the wine industry, to wineries in particular, I’d like to contrast the Gort Cloud’s understanding of the commercial world with that of a recent Social Media Report written by a consulting firm whose principle focus is the wine industry, VinTank.
Of themselves they write,
“We create innovative, strategic online solutions for selling and marketing wine in the digital age by threading together business strategy, the realities of global wine commerce, the latest technology, and a strong network of relationships.”
And their Social Media Report broadly reflects this approach. But a striking departure from the Gort Cloud approach is the complete absence in VinTank’s report of any ‘green’ marketing references, the narrowing of recommended social networking platforms, a traditional insistence on control of the message, and the valorization of the comparative isolation of the winery. I’ll explain.
It is often said the proof is in the glass, that how a wine tastes is the principle, distinguishing consumer driver of any wine purchase. Here the consumer is understood as only interested in a single dimension. This would seem to be borne out not only by the success of established trade mags, Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, for example, but more to the point, by the proliferation of internet-based wine review sites, a few of which are profiled in the report. The participation in social networks, and they strongly recommend three they call the “Big Boys”, Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin, a winery’s participation therefore becomes important because, in the words of the report:
“First, wineries have fans — like musicians and bands. To be more specific, winery customers follow a sales/brand acceptance funnel, from lead to prospect to customer to regular customer to evangelist. The psychology of a wine consumer lends them to want to have a direct relationship with the winery. Social media sites are direct enablers of this type of interaction.”
If a winery is not happy with playing with ‘acceptance funnels’ then The Gort Cloud concept, by contrast, suggests that a winery’s strength may not be limited to the vagaries of the tasting fan or his/her evangelical tendencies. Wineries have many other possible messaging avenues available to them beyond the 140 character ‘tweet’ or Facebook happy talk.
Here are a few of the promotional angles a winery might productively explore according to, as I read it, The Gort Cloud:
The use of solar power and other energy saving technologies;
Whether grapes are grown sustainably, organically, or biodynamically;
The use of a recycled waste-water system;
Enlightened farmworker contracts or protections, including health care;
The use of electric or biodiesel power for their machinery;
The character and depth of their community participation.
These are but a few of the possibilities. So how is this information to get out beyond a winery’s website? And I should add that VinTank strongly discourages winery blogs. They write:
“[W]e have been a loud opponent of winery blogs for some time. [W]e have heard consistently about the blog readers complaining about infomercials and conversations about terroir, the weather, or a picnic that they had.”
It is not clear where else but on a winery blog that all of the green and social justice achievements they might have realized, those listed above, might be read about. And it would seem ‘conversations about terroir, the weather’ are rather close to the heart of winegrowers. The ones I know are dying to tell folks about what they do, about their labor. Be that as it may…
And so it is that the author of The Gort Cloud would advocate that a business, a winery, also reach out beyond the limits of consumer preference sites (to the degree they are based on wine tasting alone), and make contact with diverse elements within The Gort Cloud. These would include advocacy groups, special interest authorities, green search engines, educational institutions, trendspotters, bloggers and podcasters, as well as social networks.
The Gort Cloud provides numerous compelling examples of how brand buzz may be generated through the promotion of green accomplishments, not to mention those bearing on social justice, by entering into a larger conversation, not simply that of impressionable millennials. Of course, a winery must have the goods, they must walk the walk. And in a world where 250 thousand wines are produced each year, a winery can ill afford not to use every marketing advantage at its disposal.
The age of what Seth Godin has called “shouting at strangers” is over. Green practices are a good place to start a real conversation.
For my subsequent interview with the gentleman please see this.


Wine Trails of Washington

Ξ August 14th, 2008 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, Winemakers, Wineries |

Steve Roberts, the author of Wine Trails of Washington, is a very busy man. Not only has he visited more than 200 wineries in a year in the course of doing research for this book, not only does he maintain a well-designed, complementary website, Wine Trails NW, but he is currently on the road in Oregon where, having begun this June, he intends to visit its 208 wineries by November!

In an effort to help keep this heroic gentleman in gas money (he says he put 30,000 miles on his car seeking out wineries) and tasting fees I bought his book and so should the reader. Washington is a daunting challenge to the wine lover. With over 500 bonded wineries, making it the nation’s second-largest producer of premium wines, how is he/she to begin? Well, let somebody else blaze the trail. This, Mr. Roberts has done. As he writes,
“…I wrote this book so you won’t make the same mistakes I did. …I was forever getting lost…. About half the wineries charge a small tasting fee [] and I often forgot to bring cash. In my search for ATMs in such places as Quincy, Lyle, and Kettle Falls, I accrued enough information to write a guidebook on the ATMs of Washington…. Sometimes I would go to an area and wander from one winery to another, only to discover later there was a logical circuit to follow….

Further, not all 500 bonded wineries could be included without the book becoming a door-stop so his method was to select “only [] those wineries that have tasting rooms open to the public with regular tasting room hours”. So, for example, one will not find listed the celebrated Quilceda Creek Vineyards (by appointment only), or the wonderful upstart Pomum Cellars (too low a case production). Mr. Roberts’ website linked above is far more comprehensive in this respect.


But this criteria gets at the utilitarian, democratic character of the book. In fact, Mr. Roberts writes,

“I’ve chosen purposefully to avoid any ratings of wine. This book is about wine touring and the experience associated with getting out there and swirling. More often than not, I discovered that a visit to a tasting room housed in a double-wide trailer is just as fun and memorable as a visit to a tasting room located in a chateau.”
Thirty-two wine trails are clearly laid out. Depending on distance between wineries (and personal decorum) a given tour may take from one to three days. Woodenville’s Wine Trail North includes 13 wineries with a recommended leisurely pace of 3 days by car and on foot; the Red Mountain Wine Trail, with 11 wineries, Mr. Roberts suggests two days by car. Southwest Washington Wine Country, by contrast, has 5 tasting room destinations with a two day touring adventure encouraged. Of course, places to stay and restaurants are amply listed. As are a regions festivals.

Winery profiles are well-written with candid pics taken by the author. Indeed, one of the books charms is the non-professional quality of the photos. They are like the ones I might take! Another “Everyman” feature that gives the book its special character.

All in all, Wine Trails of Washington is a very fine effort, especially when used along with Mr. Roberts’ website. Superb resources, nearly-comprehensive. I say ‘nearly’ because I would like to see Pomum Cellars, linked above, added to Mr. Roberts’ website data base! A small quibble…



Red, White and Drunk All Over

Ξ August 4th, 2008 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews |

Red, White and Drunk All Over (A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grapes to Glass) – Natalie Maclean
Red, White, and Drunk All OverNatalie MacLean is Canada’s leading woman of wine and this is her first book after years of writing on her popular web-site, Nat Decants and in numerous newspapers and magazines.

I started reading this book not long after finishing Jay McInerney’s “A Hedonist in the Cellar” and the first thing that struck me was the complete contrast in style and content. “A Hedonist…” was a compilation of punchy, bite-sized articles which, at times, came across as rushed and often left you wanting more – but this was tolerable in the knowledge that it was really just an adhesion of his magazine articles.

MacLean has created well researched, substantial stories on which she writes in a flowing, easy to read manner and peppers with personal anecdotes and experiences. Each chapter is given space to allow the story to develop naturally and draws the reader in with rich detail, excellent character building and ample reference information for the wine enthusiast (although, on occasion, she pushes to the other extreme and you feel some paragraphs are unnecessarily “padded” or tangential to the main topic – such as the several pages of cellar information apparently randomly slotted in the Jay McInerney chapter, “Big City Bacchus”).

The introduction sets the tone with a full and vivid description of MacLean’s early experiences with wine and how she immersed herself in the field and passed Sommelier exams, but was strictly amateur until 1998 when she only started writing after the birth of her son. It includes an epiphany moment after leaving University with a Brunello enjoyed at an Italian restaurant – anyone who describes a taste “like a sigh at the end of a long day” is clearly letting you know the emotional, almost sensual descriptions that wait in later pages.
The first Chapter, “The Good Earth”, is a vivid introduction to the complexities of Burgundy and details visits to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Leroy, Domaine Leflaive & Frederic Drouhin of Negociants Maison Joseph Drouhin. As with the second chapter, “Harvesting Dreams”, which covers Sonoma’s Seghesio family and the unique Randall Grahm, it is the insights into the people which I enjoyed as much as the wine facts. All throughout the book MacLean takes the personal touch which adds to the reading enjoyment. I especially liked her admission of abject failure when it came to riddling and disgorging Champagne in “The Merry Widows of Mousse” chapter.
There are plenty of other tales but two more chapters I especially enjoyed were “Purple Prose with a bite” and “Undercover Sommelier”. The first is an informative recount of Chateau Pavie 2003 debate (also known as the War of Words) between Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker, which does a good job of stating the facts and also providing detailed profiles on these two giants of the wine tasting circuit. The second recounts an evening at Le Baccara restaurant in Quebec where MacLean puts her Sommelier training to good use and comes out relatively unscathed and with a tale that should provide some insight to those tempted by that career path.
This was my first introduction to Natalie MacLean, but it proved an enjoyable one and I can only recommend this book. Any weak areas are still informative, the general style and content is excellent and there’s a good dose of lighthearted humour throughout, something I’d like to see more of in wine writing (and which I have to remind myself to retain, lest I fall into the trap of humourless prose).


The Geography of Wine

Ξ July 23rd, 2008 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, International Terroirs, Interviews, Wine History |

It often happens that wine books especially those taking up scientific topics, plunge into the middle of the subject. An unrealized level of academic sophistication is required for many wine enthusiasts to get much out of them. And it is for this reason I welcome Brian J. Sommers’ fresh effort The Geography of Wine, How Landscapes, Cultures, Terroir, and the Weather Make a Good Drop.
Prof. Sommers works in the Geography Dept. at the Central Connecticut University. His discipline shows. He begins by providing necessary, positional knowledge. The first two chapters introduce readers to such important principles as ‘the morphology of landscape’, terroir, growing degree days, the ‘Köppen system’, and broad climatological distinctions. No need to worry! Prof. Sommers makes these concepts readily accessible. In fact, every chapter is capped by an international example so that a reader may pair a vinous experience they’ve had with geological notions they might not have imagined. The chapter on Microclimate and Wine ends with a gloss on the Rhine and its tributaries. That of Viticulture, Agriculture, and Natural Hazards, California, of course.

But beyond geology, geophysics and its cloud of related sciences we will also read about urbanization, communism, temperance, multinationals, and wine tourism. Each topic is conducted with the conversational ethic of a good teacher; no one gets left behind.

Indeed, I asked him a few questions about his book. Here is what Prof. Sommers himself had to say:
Admin How is it you became interested in the world of wine?
Brian J. Sommers I became interested in wine and its geography thanks to the teaching of John Dome. I was his graduate assistant at Miami University (Miami of Ohio). There is some background on this in the book. He taught a geography of wine course that involved nightly wine tastings. Through it I discovered two important things. First, I discovered that wine was a lot more than Manischevitz. Second, I learned that you can actually pursue academic studies of those things that you enjoy in daily life.
Have you ever worked in the wine industry?
B.J.S. I have not worked in the industry. I just kept going to school until I got a job teaching in one.
Do you provide vineyard consultation?
B.J.S. I do not provide vineyard consultation. My interests are more toward teaching about wine through classroom experiences or through study tours/travel. My colleagues and I have significant experience taking students abroad on geographic study tour. As a follow-up to the book’s publication, I had planned to turn my wine knowledge and travel experience into wine tours (for a general-not academic-audience). But given rising travel costs and the growing disparity between the Dollar and Euro, those aspirations have been put on the back burner.
Are you part of a larger oenology/viticultural program at Central Connecticut University?
B.J.S. In my wine interests I am all by myself here at CCSU. I did have a colleague in the History Department who was very active in wine research. But he got a great gig as a wine researcher at Cal-Berkeley.
Who is your target audience?
B.J.S. My target audience is those individuals whose interests in wine are such that they want to learn more about it. My target is not a person sitting in a classroom. It is the person sitting at home who enjoys reading about wine while they relax with a glass. Two weeks ago it might have been a wine history book. Last week it could have been a literary journey through Provence and its wine. Next week it might be a book on wine vintages or food pairings. Maybe some week it will be a book on wine and its geography. In doing so, I would hope that the readers would gain a greater appreciation for wine and a greater understanding of geography. Even though it is not aimed at a classroom audience, the book does touch upon all of the major subject areas that I would cover in an introductory geography course. We are just covering them using wine as the subject matter.
Do you have reading suggestions for those interested in transitionin to more technical texts?
B.J.S. There are no technical texts in the geography of wine that are comparable. That was why my original book proposal was for a textbook. I never envisioned doing a book for a general audience. That was the challenge that my publishers posed to me. I actually had a heck of a time trying NOT to write in a textbook/academic journal format. Tim Unwin has a nice historical geography of wine (ie. a little geography and a heck of a lot of history). There are some books which deal with geography in a couple of chapters and then go into the description of wine regions. But interestingly enough, most are from an earlier time and are out of print. Given the absence of a true textbook, I am working on a web accompaniment to my book that will allow for a classroom application of the book. My intention was to have it done by the end of the summer. The reality is that I probably need a New England winter to get through that task.
Can you tell me a bit more about your tasting evolution? Were you a part of Prof. Dome’s tasting group? Perhaps a bit on how it was organized? By country, variety, climate, terroir?
B.J.S. He was an emeritus professor when I arrived at Miami U in 1987. He has long since passed away. When I was given the assignment I thought it was a joke. But after a couple of weeks in the class I came around. There were two sections of 90 students each. About 1/5 were ‘townies’ from around Oxford (just NE of Cincinnati) who took the course every time it was offered. They were great because they brought in food–always a welcome addition for poor graduate students. Many of the other students were Business majors who saw the knowledge as useful for shmoozing with future bosses. A few were geography majors who wanted to get the geography out of the course. Most of the rest were the drinkers that thought a $50 lab fee paid by their parents would ensure them of 15 weeks of getting drunk. The last group were roadkill at the first test.
Each night John would deal with a different wine producing region. It was a lot of slides (two or three 80 slide trays a night), a fair amount of geography, and then wine tasting. He dealt a lot with terroir as it is a natural for geographers. After all, terroir tells us that geography matters. What is more important than that??? In the class we would learn what made the wine regions tick. We would then taste 4 or 5 wines from that region. This was, after all, the 1980’s on a residential campus. My job was to prepare enough bottles for 90 people and to make sure that the drinkers did not heist the bottles as they made their way around the room. After class I was left to clean up and ‘dispose’ of the remaining wine. For the opened bottles this usually involved emptying them in the company of the other grad students who were working down the hall in the computer lab. The unopened bottles ended up back at my apartment. So I had the opportunity to taste the wines in each of the two classes. I then tasted them again after class with the other grad students. I then repeated the process in the months that followed as I worked my way through all of the leftover bottles. So while it started as a joke, it turned out to be the best ‘job’ that I ever had!
Thank you, Prof. Sommers. I certainly hope your fine book will be found by those who might otherwise be anxious to ask the questions you easily answer.


The Wines of Burgundy

Ξ June 6th, 2008 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews |

The Wines of Burgundy by Clive Coates, MW, is a magnificent effort. At over 850 pages and 34 detailed maps, it is quite simply the finest book of its kind written in English. However, humility is required for the vast majority of readers. The respect for the region Mr. Coates demonstrates is paid forward. Pinot Noir may be the grape of the moment here in Cali, we’ve our celebrated wineries echoed in the mainstream wine press, but in France great Pinot is found down obscure, unimproved roads. The Burgundy region is a labrinyth. As Mr. Coates writes,
“The only way to become a competent judge of young Burgundy is to spend many years at the coal-face; to go down there as often as possible, to listen a lot, to say a little, and to learn much.

“This is what I do. Sadly, I seem to be largely alone. There are many growers I visit who have never seen another writer; many cellars who would dearly love to welcome others to explain what they are trying to do.”
Alan Meadows of Burghound fame notwithstanding, the reasons for Mr. Coates’ solitary toil are multiple.


Firstly is the recent history of the region. Mr. Coates writes,
“A generation or more ago, Burgundy was on its knees. Over-fertilization in the 1960s and 1970s, the introduction of high-yield, low quality clones and the clampdown on bolster wines from the south of France and Algeria all led to wine which was thin, pallid, fruitless and short-lived.”
(Eric Asimov recently provides a more pointed gloss.)


Secondly, “Burgundy has been much maligned-more so than any other region-by certain elements of the media”. By which he means Robert Parker and Wine Spectator. Of the latter he says, “Wine Spectator has criticised the increasing bunch of estates that refuse to play ball with its modus operandi [...]“. For Parker’s recently minted sentiments see Asimov’s article linked above.


And lastly is the difficulty of finding in the States a very high percentage of the wines he reviews. No small matter.

Mr. Coates also provides instructive notes on the critical concept of Terroir, especially relevant in Burgundy. He improves on many normative wine texts with a persistent emphasis on Global Warming and viticultural improvements.
“It is alarming to see how much damage can be done so rapidly. Through a combination of ignorance, negligence, cynicism and a regard for solely short-term profit [...] the Burgundian vineyard was reduced to the status of almost desert [...]“
He discusses both Organic and Biodynamic innovations in the region. The latter method he finds mysterious yet praiseworthy:
“Sometimes the extremes of biodynamism sound like black magic. But the point is: it works. We should learn not to scoff.”
More concretely the book provides, in the main, vineyard and domaine specifics, owners, hectares under cultivation, and notes on the wide variety of wine-making techniques used:
“All one has to do is permute between zero and 100 percent stems, use zero to 100 percent new wood, ferment at temperatures from 25 C all the way up to 35 C and above, and employ cold soaking or not.”
Mr. Coates is well into his 60’s yet he continues to explore and to learn. Under the guise of a sedate, ‘old world’ writer of thick books he nevertheless remains a radical. I encourage every serious student of wine to read this book, but especially novice drinkers of Cali Pinots. Much will not be understood, and that is a good thing. Books like his stand as humbling reminders of where we stand with respect to wine knowledge.


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