Posts Filed Under kick-ass wines
“We sing the same old song
Just like a vintage car,
You can look, but you won’t ever drive it.
We drink the same old wine
From a brand new jar,
We get hung-over, but we always survive it.”
- “New Song” by The Who
Some tasks are just… unenviable.
Take, for example, trying to say something new about iconic California producer Ridge that’s not already been said. Go ahead, give it a shot; it’s not easy, folks. Some people are adept at taking the same few chords or themes and churning out something that sounds totally new; The Kinks, The Who, John Grisham (okay, maybe not Grisham). I am not one of those people. The Ridge story has been told several times in print, and from a wine perspective equates to something like “these are excellent, potentially long-lived reds, go buy some; the end… why are you still here?”
And so in recapping my visit to Ridge Lytton Springs in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, I find myself entertaining a sense of dread that I’ve not felt since I’ve had to turn in a term paper in undergrad, the kind that you avoid for as long as possible because you know it’s going to be a bitch to write. I can offer at least one take on Ridge that is original, though, since it happened to me personally; so I suppose I’ll start there.
A couple of years ago, when interviewing the equally iconic California stalwart Kermit Lynch at his Berkley area shop, I noticed a shelf of old empty bottles on a wall in his office. I pointed out to him that only one of those bottles was from an American producer: Ridge. “Yeah!” he exclaimed, “and check this out!” taking the bottle from its display and showing me the back label, pointing to the small text that proclaimed its sub-14% alcohol by volume. I then tried (unsuccessfully, I think) to convince him that Ridge was still making elegant, long-lived, balanced wines that despite an uptick in abv, and that I’d had several aged examples over the years to prove it.
Interestingly, my host at Ridge’s DCV winery was winemaker John Olney (onboard at Lytton Springs since the 2003 vintage), who once worked for Lynch… see, I knew if I tried hard enough there’d be something new there…
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“A warning to the crews out there who think they’re hot, if you’re not original rockers you will get shot
down by the kids neglectin’ your art, the stuff you did, eventually it get so bad puts you to bed
’cause when the lightning flashes sweet electricity, all the world then stands revealed with the clarity
of raw voltage, briefly we see and the hope is you’ll be able to tell just what dope is…”
– Come Original by 311
Earlier this month, I attended the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Barbara, CA, as a speaker on a panel titled “How The Pros Taste.” I was actually in town primarily to help a friend of mine, Wandering Wino, kick off a post-WBC tasting event (called “Authentic Press”) that focused on small SB-area producers (happy to report that was well-attended, and nary a drop of under-performing juice was to be found among the stellar lineup that he selected to pour at the event), so the timing all worked out splendidly.
I enjoyed WBC14 (well, ok, apart from the big dinner, which always seems to fall flat at WBC for some reason, excepting Alan Kropf’s entertaining WBA presentation), and thought this was one of the best incarnations yet, particularly for those new to wine blogging. The WBC keynote address by Corbett Barr seemed divisive based on the twitter chatter, but I also enjoyed that talk; and for anyone who doubts Barr’s assertion that character trumps everything else when it comes to building up your brand online, consider as some evidence that what I make for writing about wine puts me in the top 5-10% of all U.S. wine writers (and it’s a sad commentary that amount is only bonus-level money compared to my previous corporate gig).
I won’t comment on the Wine Blog Awards. No offense meant to the winners (there are some fine blogs in that group), and I’m always touched to be nominated and to be named a finalist, but I’m still pretty “fringe” and gonzo when it comes to wine writing (which, after all these years blogging, is also a kind of sad commentary, when you think about it), so the things I value and want to see recognized (in almost any genre, not just wine writing) are usually not what get rewarded. Just imagine how I feel about the Grammy’s!
A few hiccups involving LA road rage delays impacting fellow panelist Patrick Comiskey aside, I also had fun participating on my panel (for those of you who were thinking that I was stroking moderator Steve Heimoff’s crotch under the table on stage, I was actually petting Steve’s adorable pet dog Gus, who was sitting quietly in Steve’s lap the entire time; that’s my story, anyway), waxing philosophic about how I go about critically tasting vino (and getting totally fooled by the final “mystery wine” of the lineup). I’m good for at least one or two re-tweetable money quotes per panel, and the one that got the most attention during the panel seemed to be my comment on negative wine reviews (“some wines need to be kicked in the crotch”), so I thought I’d talk a bit more about that stance here.
My view on negative wine reviews is that they, like serving rare vintages of the world’s finest wines, ought to be reserved for special occasions. I say this because only a few wines are epically bad enough –and were created with sufficient malicious intent – that they deserve your finest writing work…
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No, you didn’t see one of these selections coming, okay?
Don’t even try it. No one, least of all me, would buy it for even a second.
This Summer, I once again had the pleasure of judging at the Critics Challenge in (stay classy) San Diego, my second stint as a judge there. A more well-executed U.S. wine competition you’re unlikely to encounter, and the judging panels boast some impressive collective credentials. Before I get into the two most memorable (for me) wines coming out of this year’s incarnation of the event (full results are here), I should give you a quick primer on how Critics Challenge works.
The judges are paid (well… duh), and for two days each is given a series of wine flights organized by category and tasted blind (residual sugar, grape variety, and category are known, in some cases vintage as well). The judges work in pairs, awarding (or denying) medals as they deem appropriate, and each wine is officially awarded the highest of the two medals determined by the pair of judges. The assumption, of course, is that as judges we all know what the hell we’re doing.
For 2014, I was fortunate enough to be paired of with writer and educator Deb Parker Wong, someone for whom the term “consummate professional” was invented, and a judge with a methodically brilliant tasting approach. I’ll stop here before this turns into a Deb valentine, but I feel compelled to add that Deb also possesses the rare and uncanny ability to double the elegance quotient of any room into which she walks (since I possess the equally rare and uncanny ability to halve a room’s elegance quotient, our judging table vicinity essentially remained elegance neutral)…
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Not sorry for
The things I’ve said
There’s a wild man in my head
There’s a wild man
In my head”
– Morrissey, “I’m Not Sorry”
Christophe Baron, the short, edgy, high-energy force behind Walla Walla’s controversial Cayuse, is sniffing dirt. And – in a very thick French accent that betrays his Charly-sur-Marne heritage and belies his nearly twenty-year stint in the Pacific Northwest – he’s imploring me to do the same.
“C’mon! You’ve come all this way to Cayuse! You’ve got to SMELL IT!!!”
Just moments before, a burly and beautiful Belgian draft horse was turning over this soil (in a vineyard named, for obvious reasons, “Horse Power”), so I am less than totally enthusiastic about the possibility of getting horse shit up my nostrils. But this guy’s energy is such that he makes me seem calm, so I acquiesce (as if I had a choice). These newer plantings were “designed for the horse,” Baron explains, with three-feet between the rows. “With the horse, you can’t rush it, you can’t force it. But the texture of the soil is like couscous… This is the reason why I’m here.”
Spend any appreciable time with Baron and you will not only sniff horse-powered dirt, you will hear impassioned proclamations such as “I am not a winemaker;” “Let’s all take off our clothes and get naked;” “There are a lot of things about Biodynamics you cannot quantify… you cannot quantify the smile on a beautiful woman;” “I’m like a dealer, I sell pleasure… liquid pleeeeeasuuuuuure;” and “no pictures on Facebook!” not all of which you might fully understand or be able to distinguish as serious or jovial.
But there’s one thing that is easy to understand: why Baron’s wines are controversial. Garnering stratospheric scores from The Wine Advocate and skyrocketing in secondary market prices after release, Cayuse offerings can be stunning, odd takes on Rhone-styled reds; often demanding, beguiling, and off-putting all at the same time. If you’ve ever watched a movie – or read a novel – that seems brilliant but has disturbing scenes in it, the kind of scenes that haunt you later but without which the central themes of the work wouldn’t be nearly as powerful, then you’ve got an idea of what it’s like to come face to face with Cayuse’s juice.
To understand these take-no-prisoners wines, you need to understand the background of the take-no-prisoners Baron, and Walla Walla’s take-no-prisoners geographical landscape…
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