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Wine Books

Alice in Wonderland

alicefeiring She’s a rabble rouser and contrarian who was tossed off the Robert Parker Forum. Sorry, I always get that wrong, I mean the Mark Squires Forum. Tried and convicted by Mr. Squires for the ultimate sin: asking questions - Alice Feiring is persona non grata at eRobertParker.com.

For those who have met Alice Feiring in person this image of her as someone who needs to be banned from Parker’s, crap, I mean Squire’s Forum is hard to reconcile with the reality of the woman herself.

Alice floats into a room like the dancer she is and like the wines she loves. Diminutive with an explosion of long, wavy red hair, she seduces all comers with an inviting mixture of confidence and shyness. Soon she charms her audience into actually listening to what she has to say, which is a lot. Alice’s delicate voice is one of the few beacons of light for wine producers dedicated to making wines of a place, or, as she calls them natural wines.

Wines that have a sense of place are an endangered species and Alice is out to prevent them from disappearing from the earth. Putting her natural shyness aside she has become a veritable Woman of La Mancha as she swings her sword at the corporate windmills of modern winemaking: cultured yeasts, new oak, over-ripe grapes and the long list of additives and manipulations available to today’s winemakers.

This Christmas there are few more important gifts that you could give your wine loving friends than Alice’s book, The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization. Alice’s voice may seem small compared to the bloated wines, points and writers at The Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate, but her message is more meaningful and honest. With no other agenda than what she believes, Alice writes about wines made by the most passionate of winemakers for the most passionate of wine drinkers. While conformity of taste is the message of so many wine publications, Alice celebrates the diversity of the wine world.

Alice, like the wines she loves and the winemakers who make them, is not for everyone, but for those whose minds and palates are open to the experience she is the most important American wine writer I can think of as what she is fighting to preserve is so valuable.

It may be too late to save the world from Parkerization, but for those who care, through Alice’s looking glass they’ll discover a wonderland of wines.

Slow Learner

dunce-cap I love the country wines of Italy, France and Spain. Unassuming, un-oaked, personality soaked bargains that make the most of simple meals. There are so many of these wines available for under $20 it is astounding – especially considering how weak the Dollar has been for the last few years.

It has been a national embarrassment for many, many years that American wine producers have been unable to produce anything of interest in the bargain basement. What could be our excuse on the climate blessed West Coast? There should be an ocean of great bargains. Instead all we can muster is a sea of cookie cutter, industrial wines with, at best, no personality or, at worst, an undrinkable gloppy-ness. Clean they are, but that’s it.

Being the slow learner that I am, I picked up a bottle of 2006 Petite Sirah from Vinum Cellars in Clarksburg.  I thought what the heck: Petite sirah? From Clarksburg? That could be good, a no-name variety from a no-name region. After all, why spoofulate up a Clarksburg petite sirah? Put me in the corner with a dunce cap. You’d think I’d learn. What did I get? A purple glop of something that barely resembled wine. Undrinkable and inexcusable – even at $12 a bottle.

As much as I hate to write about wines I don’t like and that it’s perhaps unfair to single out this wine when there are so many like it, it’s just such a waste to make purple glop from grapes that could give us good wine for everyday drinking.

The fact is that you rarely get decent American wine until you cross the $20 threshold. The choices under $20 seem to be purple grape marmalade glop and/or neutral corporate wine. By the by, often these types overlap.

So I have put myself in the corner with a dunce cap writing over and over again, “I will be good” and not buy American wines for everyday drinking. For some bizarre reason to get a decent inexpensive wine I have to find it from producers over 4,000 miles away.

WBC '08: It's a New Dawn..Good Morning People....*

volunteers I happened to finish two things about the same time last week. The first Wine Bloggers Conference and a book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar. This was perhaps a coincidence as I did not find time to read a word at the conference. Drinking trumped reading in Santa Rosa that weekend, but I finished the book a few days later. It’s hard to think of a greater contrast between the event I attended and the events and people in the book.

The Wine Bloggers Conference was defined by an almost innocent enthusiasm and love for wine, while The Billionaire’s Vinegar represents The Dark Side of wine. You cannot be help but be stuck by the ugly greed, arrogance and ignorance of the wealthy posers chasing “great wine” in this book. It’s one of those plots were there is no protagonist, they’re all bad guys. I highly recommend this book as it’s a great story based around the excesses and greed of big time collectors who were sold faked old wines and were just too greedy and had such massive egos they couldn’t taste the obvious.

billionairevinegar One thing this book proves is that we are all too human in our abilities and no one can escape the trap of letting labels affect our perceptions. I’ll be the first to admit if someone told me I was getting a glass of 1787 Lafite purchased by Thomas Jefferson my esthetic distance would be right out the window. The trouble with the arrogant bastards in this book is that they thought that their palates were so great they could rise above human frailty. I can only guess they got stupid after they made their money, not before. The tacky glitz, excess and greed surrounding the elaborate tasting events described in the book cannot be overstated. What is perhaps most disconcerting is the attendance at these events of those that consider themselves wine “journalists” Certainly, attending such extravagant events gratis would not be acceptable under even the loosest code of journalistic ethics. It was clear to these writers that they would not be invited back if they offered even a hint of criticism in their reports. Rave reviews were the price of  next year’s admission and they were always invited back. It’s hard to be critical after enough foie gras and caviar.

The recent first ever Wine Bloggers Conference in America (there was one a few months before in Europe) painted a very different picture. The jaded arrogance that blinds so many established wine writers these days was replaced by the refreshing enthusiasm of the wine bloggers that descended on the Flamenco Hotel in Santa Rosa. Surrounded by the beauty and wonderful wines of Sonoma over 150 new media wine writers gathered to explore their emerging genre. The energy brought to my mind Gracie Slick and the Jefferson Airplane welcoming the dawn at Woodstock, “It’s a new dawn…” said Gracie before the band roared into that hippie political anthem, Volunteers.

winebloggersconference Every blogger that attended was there on their own dime as no one is make a living from wine blogging yet. Everyone was there because of their passion for wine. They are truly volunteers and the generous spirit of this group stuck out starkly to the outrageously expensive, competitive and ego driven wine world documented in The Billionaire’s Vinegar.

While there are many wonderful examples of wine bloggers making a difference I can’t help to pick out Deb Harkness, better known as Dr. Debs, who has created a blog called Good Wines Under $20.  For what I hope are obvious reasons I won’t describe what Deb’s blog is about. Deb’s day job is as a college professor, but by night she’s a consumer activist seeking out great wines at great prices for her readers. Yet what is even more impressive about her is her deep commitment to a personal standard of ethics. While most mainstream wine writers are mostly concerned about what others will think of them when it comes to ethics, Dr. Debs, and many bloggers like her are concerned what they think of themselves. Their ethics are in their hearts. They’re not in it for the money or glamour tastings, but out of a sincere love of food and wine. At the end of the day only self respect and personal pride can make ethics a reality. Deb and many bloggers like her are setting a new standard.

I’m well aware that I was one of the old guys at the Wine Bloggers Conference and most of my compatriots there were well under forty, but the energy and spirit there reminded me of an earlier time, before when some of them were born, when we thought we could change the world. The conference gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, that the pointy world of wine writing today can be brought down. Power to the bloggers.

It’s a new dawn for wine writing. Good morning people.

 

Put A Cork In It?

Fewer sales reps are more paranoid these days than cork salespeople. They barrage you with emails damning all other types of closures. At trade shows they meet winemakers with frigid stares that have changed over from cork to something else.

The battle is fully engaged on what is the best closure for a wine bottle and as always, in the heat of battle there is often more confusion than fact. Much as a war correspondent sees through the smoke of conflict, writer George Taber has cut through all the brouhaha to offer us a clear look at the cork conflict in his book, To Cork or Not to Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science and The Battle for the Wine Bottle. Taber is also the author of Judgment of Paris, which is bound for the big Hollywood screen. The journalistic temperament that Taber brings to his book, a rarity in wine writing, should be no surprise as he is a twenty-one year veteran of Time Magazine.

The combat is about the dreaded TCA (2,4,6 trichloroanisole) that destroys anywhere (depending on whose giving the stats) from 3% to 15% or so of every bottle of wine sealed with a cork in the world. These are the so called “corked” bottles as wines spoiled by TCA have a distinct musty character that can range from the wine seeming just not quite right, to bottles that almost make you gag. What makes TCA the nightmare of winemakers it that most affected bottles are consumed by unsuspecting consumers that are unaware the the wines are actually spoiled, instead thinking that whatever the winery is just doesn’t make very good wine. This dramatic rate of failure combined with disastrous PR has turned many wineries away from natural cork to closures like screwcaps, crown caps and glass stoppers.

To Cork or Not to Cork is a must read for wine professionals and aficionados alike. Don’t expect to have the best closure revealed in the last chapter as Taber presents the whole story without judgment as you would expect from someone with his journalistic credentials.

As Taber points out, all closures currently in use have potential issues so the jury is still out and the closure of the future probably is not invented yet. My major issue with many cork fundamentalists is the constant reference to the tradition of cork and the romance of the ritual and sound of pulling a cork. Screw tradition, the argument should always be about wine quality not superficial issues like romance. What’s romantic about a corked bottle of $50 wine?

Perhaps in the end the solution will be different closures for different wines. After all, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir age very differently and what is good for one may not be good for the other. Put a cork in it? The answer seems to be sometimes yes and sometimes no. Whatever happens in the future, the century old monopoly of the cork is over.
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