Once upon a time there was a sommelier who worked in Hollywood. I was scouting stories for The Hollywood Reporter, for a deep throat-like column, dishing on what people drank, but all anonymous. The column never materialized, but I loved this one young wine geek's particular story and so here you go.
There are all sorts of people who come in here and it’s hard to sell a wine under 14% alcohol. The people who are creative, the true talent, not the producers, they are incredibly fun to talk to. Like even though Bruce Willis wanted a cabernet, we talked about it. Like Gwyneth Paltrow? When I brought out the Bermejos from the Canary Islands she was like, Oh, I love Lanzarotte. My Nana is from there.
Other people? They are trying to seem important and they’re the ones who don’t talk and treat you like the help.
But one of the most interesting evenings I had on the floor was when the rapper Lil Wayne came in with a few friends.
This was a very funny situation.
He frequently stays at the hotel and his tour bus packed out back. He dressed like a skater with skinny pants and Vans, dreads pulled back in a hoodie. Our wine list was as large as an eagles wine spread. It really is a list that you need help with, and that’s what we’re there for. He was flpiping through very carefully, literally, he read it from cover to cover. I went over and asked, and can I help you?
And he said no. Not really.
Then he pointed to the last wine on the list and said, I want this 1902 Verdelho.
Ok. I’l be right back.
It was the D'Oliveiras.
I brought the bottle over and I showed it to him, had he had it before.
Do you know anything about it?
Well, he said, it’s pretty old.
And I asked, are you familiar with the term borracho? I told him that for many Spanish speakers it means drunk but it is the kind of old wine making on the highland of Madeira, where the farmers used to press the wine in the field old goat skins.
Ah that’s interesting, he said.
Meanwhile he’s with three other people who couldn’t give a shit. They were all texting, completely ambivalent to time and space and place and not drinking anything, not ever water, and space but Lil Wayne? He was very present.
I decanted the bottle and realized he ordered it all for himself and while he waited for me to finish, he had a cocktail. It was a Halle Berry, a vodka, with jalapeno infused blackberry juice. He told me it was the closest thing he's had to a Purple Drink (Robitussin + grape Kool-Aid).
I found this quite funny, there’s a whole doc done on it.
To go with the madeira he also ordered a cotton Candy Foie Gras (a torchon cube of foie is rolled in corn nuts and dipped into a cotton candy machine so a shroud covers it and it’s served on a long stick, and drank down the $900 a bottle of 1902 down in 22 minutes. He even left a little for me.
What I find endearing is that the liver dish he chose and Madeira was obviously a brilliant pairing. And that Verdelho is one of the most dynamic complex wines I ever tasted-- so incredibly full of flavor at the same time, a prevalent sweetness, and people in our current era they don’t drink sweet, because of the stigma. But, here’s a guy, a progenitor of all kinds of social value and he is the only human being who I sat in front of who I talked wine at the table, who bought a bottle of sweet wine!
He drank one one of the most fascinating creatures on the list. Whether or not he appreciated it he did it carefully, thoughtfully and quickly.
I snuck out of my cave on this brilliant day to taste some old Willamette Valley Eyrie Vineyards. It is always such a treat to see Jason Lett hold forth on his family's estate. For one, he is an excellent speaker, natural and unguarded, has a lovely expressive use of language. Also, the love he has for his legacy is inspiring.
I'm always touched to hear a winery stops at their max, 8000 cases. They did that in 1983 and stayed at that volume. The need not to grow? How refreshing to see someone do what they do and do it well and, be satisfied. No need for world domination.
It seems that David, his father, was obsessive about keeping a huge amount in the wine libary, at this point about 6,000 bottles deep. At one time Jason thought he'd get away and do his own thing. but in 2004 when his dad needed help for harvest he showed up and never left.
When his father got sick, he allowed Jason to find his ownway though the wines.
I'm sure there was much argument, after all, David was a difficult, loveable, hard headed guy (from my limited knowledge and tales that have been told) but one of the more touching comments was that every time Jason tastes from the library one of his father's vintages, the collaboration continues. I love this idea of conversing with ones ghostly parents through the wines they made.
Eyrie Pinot Meunier. 1993!
A twenty year old pineo meunier from two different plots, high acid, high tone and high delight. Made me feel like playing Frank Zappa. An absolutel beauty. Look for it on choice and lucky wine lists and I bet I know which ones. This wine was pure forest wild strawberries, long delight and showed no sign of tiring.
1993 Chardonnay Estate
(picked at 21 brix) elegant, floral and compelling.
1983 South Block Pinot
A dancer in disguise, etheral, skimmed the floor with elegance and endurance
1974 Pinot Noir Estate
Sorry, not available. This was the scond year the south block gave fruit and made up 45% of the cuvee. It is not only a beautiful old lady, but it is the Queen Mother in high heels. Smoky, touch of tannin and grip with strawberry pinched in wintergreen.
A treat for the mid day.
Heading out on my bike, I had a last minute lament with a colleague. We admited to major guilt. Too much writing, not enough tasting. Were we losing our edge? Were we not up on vintages and regions. Had we missed something? She went off tasting. I went back to my cubicle. Where is the balance. Take this as a warning; a tongue must be used or else it is lost. I'm on the hunt for mine.
When I first smelled the Clos Roche Blanche Cot, I was overwhelmed by its violet juice sucked through a chalk straw magnetism. It was the violet that stung me.. every time. Yes, even though I could never actually wear the scent, I'm obsessed by it.
So you see, on a morning in Barolo just a few weeks back, I was thinking about violets. It was just after Maria-Teresa Mascarello and just before Beppe Rinaldi. We were steps away at Giovanni Canonica, and sitting in his white clothed study, tasting his concentrated 2008 and I wrote a note that said: thick, crusty, violent violet. His wife had asked him about how to salt the lunch she was making for him. Then we took to see his cantina, nothing more than tarp covered winemaking equipment and then stood on the grass in his back yard in the brilliant light when I saw something flash from the spring tender green grass.
After decade of frustration, of one scent-less violet after the other, I finally found my very first viola odorata.
In my palm, it felt like the most fragile crystal and I feared my excitement would fracture its petal. The smell was a dream, not at all like the drug-like attack of gardenia or jasmine. It did not smell like old sheets or bad poetry and it did not smell like the ghastly perfume, Violetta di Parma. It was a ghost visitation and I couldn't get enough.
"James," I said to my new Australian friend, "Smell this." I hoped I was giving him a gift. I wasn't sure.
James is a chef. He is the rare kind who has an exceptional wine palate as well as for food. Over the next minutes as I went from violet to Barolo back to James, I saw him with the flower pressed to his nose, trying to crack its code. I saw he too was hooked. It was a rare moment, a first time for him too.
Over the years, when feeding my violet obsession, I'd heard all commercial attempts whether in Creme de Violettes (hello Aviation cocktail) or perfumes were synthetic. Some fragrances and taste got away with the spoof; seductive and sweet. Others like that Violetta di Parma are horrific visions of tortured flowers in the muck. Where were the real things? Will I be forced to go to Giovanni Canonica's backyard in spring for my yearly fix?
I asked the master perfumer, Mandy Aftel of Aftelier if it was true that no natural violet scent had been captured. From her atelier in California she confirmed, "Violet has resisted scent harvesting forever. I think because it has a tiny yield and from what I have heard, the extracted essence doesn't smell like violet." She added, "I have never been able to find a natural one. "
And the world weeps.
But Mandy, master blender of natural and ephemeral essences, is on the hunt. If anyone can conjure a captured memory as beautiful as what I smelled on that Saturday nebbiolo filled morning, she's the one.
The day went on to more magic, filled with old men with bad teeth, a flirt and a wizard in La Morra. It was a day lavished on my favorite grape and soil mates. I was aswirl with sandlewood, tar and roses and perhaps a bit of that viola with a different kind of chalk, as the limestone in Piemonte is darker and earthier--it continued to raise goosebumps. I tried to keep the poetic perfume close to me, as if I could imprint my nostrils with its memory. What I smelled in that flower was not, I would bet, what Australian James smelled. I wanted to know what he did perceive. What did he find in its stamen, in its gentle trap door. What was so powerful to him that he too had to steal some sniffs?
If he and I tried to paint it aromatically, we would undoubtedly come up with wildly disparate water colors. Me? I would go for the pinpoint sweet, but where would I put the powder, underneath? And where would the soap be? Oh, just the lightest hint please. And how did they come up with that nasty Violetta which drove me to a nasty madness--by focusing on the soap and the powder? I am sure James would be closer to my interpretation, this you know about someone when you taste and smell side by side. This you know.
I'm back in New York. Life and death situations are building fortresses and I find myself more guarded, but yet I find myself still thinking about the flower and its layers. I see how many violet perfumes are failures in their melancholy interpretations. Without a perfumer to mess with it, relying purely on nature, the scent has complex bottom and top notes and plenty in the middle. I could see them all. The powder. The ink. The ultra-sweet candy. The almost lilac, but pinker. I smell the hope and I smell the death. I also smell one of the most appealing notes that I can ever hope to smell in a wine, that special violet juice sucked through a chalk straw.
This morning I heard the news of Pedro López de Heredia's passing. He was 85 and hadn't been well for a few years.
I met him only once but know him mostly through his daughter Maria José, and as a way of sending my condolences to her, as I know this is a huge loss, I offer an excerpt from my first book, chapter 4 entitled, Rioja Loses Its Spanish Accent.
To all of us who love Spanish wine and the new wave of them coming up, we can thank the hold outs, especially López de Heredia, who kept the flame of Rioja burning.
On the flight to Bilbao, I begged my way into a bulkhead seat. Being the kind of person brought up to feel guilt with no provo- cation, I looked uncomfortably at a long-legged football player type crammed into a tiny seat while all five feet and one hundred pounds of me luxuriated in the extra room. Once I overcame an urge to offer a seat swap, though, I indulged in a rare moment of tranquility, happy to be tiny. This trip was before liquids were banned on planes and it was still possible to sneak wine on board disguised as fruit juice in a water bottle. I had some wonderful gamay from the Loire, which I drank happily. I was just ready to reach for the Ambien when I realized my sleeping potion was in my checked luggage. At the same moment, the infant next to me started to wail. So I read through the night, including an inter- view with Pedro López de Heredia, Maria José’s father. He was quoted as saying, “If we allowed ourselves to be guided by the financial profit that drives many winemakers to use accelerating techniques during the wine making process, our product would lose their personalities.” Wow, I thought, now there’s a father for you.
We don’t get to choose our fathers, but Pedro’s passion for wine honesty and integrity is what I look for, whether choosing literature, wine, or love.
I was staggeringly tired when I landed in the spring-bright sun, and I slept soundly during the one-hour connecting flight from Bilbao to Haro, where I awoke to the sight of the old Tempranillo vines just coming to life. The fresh leaves pushing from splintery stumps looked like hands reaching for the sun. The silver-tipped Cantabrian Mountains lit up the background. The sandy soil looked like crushed coral. I felt I was standing in the basin of a drained-out sea. Perhaps that’s why I found a sea-like savory salinity in so many older Riojan wines. Haro was the town that put Rioja on the map. Problems in the French vineyards helped make the region famous. In 1849, when a powdery mildew destroyed vineyards, Bordeaux merchants crossed into Rioja and set up consultancies to help Rioja make wine suitable for the French palate. Again, in 1877, when the louse phylloxera ate up their vines’ roots, the French looked to the tempranillo-based wines of Rioja to replace their Bordeaux. So the region has a long history of French influence. The French fo- cused on Haro because it was conveniently located near both Bor- deaux and Rioja and directly linked by rail to the ocean for shipping. The town became home to several great wineries, including Muga, Cune, La Rioja Alta, and López de Heredia.
All but LdH have added the modern amenities of stainless-steel tanks, new oak, and perhaps a few more tricks as well. The other three are widely thought of as also producing some traditional wines. But, though not wildly modern in their techniques, Cune and Muga do produce some hormonal, over-the-top wines to compete in the vinos de alta expressión market. The real old-fashioned cheese—López de Heredia—stands alone.
I was signing in at the hotel when Maria José López de Heredia breezed in to fetch me for lunch. She was ablaze in canary colors: gold eye shadow, lemon-yellow silk scarf trailing behind her Isadora Duncan–style, buttery-looking boots, and a tan cor- duroy skirt. “Ahlyce!” she cried. “Eeet’s goude to zee you ah- gayn! Look at this weather! Eeez gorgeous, no?” She summoned me in her raspy, chirpy voice. “Queeck, we have to run for lunch.”
There was a magical, elfin quality to her. If I didn’t see the stray silver strand in her head of glossy black hair, I would swear she was sixteen. She was so incredibly cute that I wanted to pinch her cheek, pick her up, and put her in my pocket. I could easily imagine her as a chatterbox child who never stopped to inhale. She was so perky that she woke me right up from my jet-lagged stupor. We ran, sprinted, dashed for the restaurant with such urgency that our lunch might have been the reason that I’d crossed the Atlantic. At home, I hate lunch. I never like taking the time, or spending the calories, and if wine is involved—an occupational hazard—I can never go back to work without a nap. But lunch is an important part of European life, and in Spain it is absolutely sacred. There was no way to avoid it.
We slid into a tapas place, Altamauri Restaurante, just seconds before closing time. The owner turned ashen when he found out I didn’t eat meat. In a country where the pig is considered a vegetable, this is problematic. These are the times I need my pig-loving friend Skinny. Her passion for pork is so attention getting that people don’t no- tice I’m pushing the food around on my plate, reaching for the cheese instead. Sweating nervously into his huge mustache, the chef murmured an unconvincing, “No problem,” and disappeared into his kitchen. Maria José ordered wine while I noted two women on the stools to our left lighting up cigarettes in front of the no smoking sign. The chef returned, proudly bearing way too many plates of tapas, in hormonal proportions. These are not the dainty tapas of Barcelona, these are the huge, pinxto-sized plates of the Basque. The minestra—overcooked vegetable stew— had some ham in it (remember, pig is a vegetable), but there was also a salad and a battered piece of Swiss chard draped with a thick potato slice. I was happy to trust that this food was far from avant- garde, that there were no fish scales or eyes in anything. Maria José tittered about me eating like a bird while she packed away lunch with gusto. If I ate like she did, I would turn into a cow, but she, in constant motion, must have the metabolism of a hum- mingbird. No matter: The star of the show was the 1997 white from her Gravonia vineyard. We had no trouble polishing it off and wanting more, even if there was no nap in my future.
Trained as a winemaker, Maria José is her family’s charismatic ambassador to the world. I don’t understand how she remains single. How could a woman prone to saying things like, “After a hailstorm, when vines are damaged, you mourn for your vines as if they were children” and “If you have this relationship to the earth, you make a very different wine” not have a trail of suitors? She must. Suitors, however, would have to compete with the other loves in her life, like her father, Pedro, and the family wine. “My father wanted me to study chemistry,” she told me. “That was a big fight in the family, because my grandfather yelled, ‘She’ll learn how to make wines with no grapes!’ I need chemistry. I need to know what to do if something should go wrong. But in modern wine school, when everything is right you are taught it is wrong!” She went on to tell me that any time the malolactic fermentation commences before alcoholic (the reverse order of things, but often a result of the years weather patterns), “A UC Davis grad- uate would drop dead on the spot.” Another lesson she didn’t lis- ten to at school was to plant clones instead of replanting from their own cuttings, known in French as selection massale. The sup- posedly virus-free clones are developed in the lab and raised in the sterile environment of a nursery. They can never produce grapes with the complexity that vineyard selection can. Bred for certain flavors, bred to produce grapes that are more precocious than those grown under selection massale, they are viewed as an eco- nomic boon and a safer choice. I often get press releases in which a winery proclaims the careful selection of clones for their vineyard, but Maria José says, “We will never use them. You need three hundred clones from a nursery to give the complexity of one real vine.”
“I met Mr. Parker once,” she volunteered. “When I told Pedro,” she said, referring to her father, “that I was going to have lunch with him, he told me I could only go if he promised not to write about the wine. Pedro explained, ‘Because if he writes about our wines, we won’t have any to sell!’”
She found Parker charming. “I have no problem with him,” she said. “He loves our wine.”
I wasn’t going to be the one to break it to her that she and her padre were delusional. Parker told me that Rioja is overrated and, as far as the LdH white Rioja is concerned, “I hate those wines. I won’t review them because I don’t need any more enemies.” He likes the reds enough but, he said, “I like their neighbor, La Rioja Alta, better.”
Because of bitchiness between Italian natural wine factions-- ViniVeri and VinNatur-- many unhappy winemakers defected to the corporate side. This meant that they actually crossed the threshold and showed their wines at ViVit. This was the Vin Italy's (the huge Italian trade show's) attempt at relevance. They aimed to give some space to wines that are natural and organic.
The verdict from those who went? Thumbs up.
Drama followed. Sunday, when the likes of Arianna Occhipinti and Alesandra Bera were pouring for tasters, suits walked in and tried to catch a thief. These guys were the same fraud squad that snagged the Bulzoni wine shop in Rome back in June. The authorities demanded proof of farming and practice just to be sure there was no fraud perpetrated on the public.
Meanwhile, over in Spain, no squad has trained natural wine in their crosshairs--yet. But the unnaturals are taking advantage of the natural-free- for- all. It could well be the basis of a Luis Buñuel film.
Case in point? Two wine events. Coming right up in Spain, one real, one pretend. Both embody the fight for the sole of wine that just won't quit. Let's start with the fake. Part Two: Talk about burying the lede! When in Italy, Vincent Poussin linked me up with this abortion of justice. May 13th is the day for Vinum Nature - Barcelona.
VN-bcn is a must for everybody who wants to enjoy organic, natural and biodynamic wines from out nearest wine appellations. A gathering space where wineries and its people bring us closer together with a glass filled with sceneries, land and the soul of its wines.
I'm the first person to say that I don't mind the word natural, there's no other word that really works as well and no word is iron clad. But to see the names like Condonui and Paris Balta included and only one biodynamic producer (and a very conventional one at that)?
Forget about natural wine. This is natural travesty.
All is not lost.
A few years back I was held hostage in Ribiera Sacre by the "golden nose. " I was not happy having spent the day with a spoof wine instead of my original plan. But the bonus was, at the end of the day, I found out that my fellow hostage was one of the brothers of Can Roca in Girona and we shared similar palates. Some bond was forged. And yesterday I received this email from Josep Roca of Can Roca in Girona.
The world of wine in Spain evolves, and day by day is closer to the grape and further from the systemic products. I wanted to tell you about this slow by persistent progress in the sensitivity of many producers of our country. Little by little, that conversation you and I had driving on the way back to Santiago, is meaning to me the germ of a new hopeful reality to spanish wines: more pure, fresher, more daring, without any make-up, more sincere and authentic."
So, two tastings, side by side in Spain, one real one fake. Which side will win? I have my hunches. Do you?
So, now that the Wine Advocate (that would be Robert Parker's famed publication) has replaced their main critic (Antonio Galloni) and put the critique of Loire wines on a 2-3 year rotation (a move I highly applaud because really, what do blue chip drinkers really need Loire reviews for?) Mr. P. decided to educated his readers with a video a little reminiscent of the 1987 fried egg campaign, "Your brain on drugs."
As the video is copyrighted and Mr. P. is in a litigious mood (he is sueing that former critic) I decided I decided not to risk court, so here's the gist.
+ Mr. P. warns about the dangers of no sulfur in a wine. He holds up dregs in a glass, presumably two days. "Looks like somethng from a bio-warfare lab."
+ The bottom of the glass is coated in mold, not unusual if you have bad houscleaning practices and fail to clean your glass, whether the wine is sulfured or not.
+ "Do you want this stuff growing in your innards? Natural wine is one of the dumbest things ever created," he says, then he signs off citing his acupuncture appointment.
You have to watch it. Even better than the first time around, which you must also see. The powers at Red to Brown Wine Review have the touch. Even before I heard my name mentioned with Jamie Goodes, I was rolling on the floor.
I wrote this piece for Wine and Spirits magazine and investigated the funky bits .