Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Alcohol, Part 2: How Many Pears Can You Eat In Two Hours?


"There are people who write me off as an idiot, because how could I know what I'm talking about if I don't taste?"

-Tim Hanni MW, recovered alcoholic

Do you think anybody who strictly follows the medical establishment's guideline for healthy alcohol consumption--"up to one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men"-- is a recognized expert in any part of the wine, beer, or spirits industries (accountants and other interchangeables excluded)? I don't. I don't think there's anyone who even comes close. The motives for deciding to spend your working life creating or promoting intoxicants are scarce in temperate souls.

Typically there's more to this than spreading the crunk gospel. Some amount of affection for the poison you peddle, and by "affection for" I mean "fascination with", and by "fascination" I mean "infatuation", is not really optional in this game. And when all that stands between you and the object of your infatuation is a screwcap, the next scene kinda writes itself.

If you sell wine, you need to be able to describe it at length. If you make beer, you need to know the styles you craft so intimately that you can accurately imagine your saliva tastes like any of them. If you write about single malt whisky for a living, your credibility is up peat creek if anyone ever out-nerds you in public. Book-learning is essential in all instances, but only as a compliment to tasting, endless tasting. If the nectar isn't coursing through your veins, you're wilted.

So you taste as much as possible. It's not a chore since you love it deeply. And you're in the business, so the next opportunity is probably in a few hours. And then there's that voice telling you that if you skip the tasting tonight, your colleagues and competitors will still go and have an edge, however small, over you tomorrow.

When your lofty desire for expertise, your animal desire for your next drink, and your professional survival instinct are singing in mellifluous harmony, you're getting drunk. Formal tastings aren't the only place where this happens. The same weakness is exploited at dinner parties where all nine of your oenophile friends bring at least one bottle, at craft brew meccas where the beer menus resemble phone books (remember phone books?) and everywhere else hangover fuel can pass itself off as a database that's both necessary and fun to assimilate.

Of course, everyone knows the solution to this dilemma: You spit. Just like you return all your library books a day early, and volunteer your weekends to clean the Steel Reserve cans and Coney Island whitefish from under the highway overpass. Yeah, some pros actually do spit everything at tastings and other feeding frenzies (and they're probably near the top of their field), but ask them if they've never left one and been nervous about driving home or glad they didn't have to. While you're at it, ask them for an itemized list of what they drank yesterday. Remember, one for women, two for men!

Spitting may or may not exclude something important from the tasting experience. To this wild guesser, it does. A quality common to every "great" wine I've had is a boom of intensity that only detonates at the back of my mouth, at the event horizon, the point where the swallow reflex is just beginning to kick in. Obviously I'm swallowing anyway, but if the crazy idea to spit Chambertin ever did hit me, I'm sure this goosebump-inducing crescendo would never leave the orchestra pit. Jancis Robinson would say I'm wrong, but come on, which one of us are you gonna believe???

Speaking of pretty English ladies, I wish it were easier to find Alice King's book High Sobriety here in the colonies because, if the blurbs and reviews are fair, it covers most of this ground with a lot more authority.

Ms. King was plumbing the pipedream, getting paid a lot of money to drink exquisite wines and write about them. The ego-inflation alone could make one lightheaded, but that wasn't cutting it for AK-47 (not her real nickname as far as I know, just what I would call her if she were my friend). For her it was wine, more wine, lots more wine, lots more vodka.

The seeds of all-out alcoholism were of course sown in her from birth, but backstage access to the finest wines and the ever-present escape pod of "don't worry it's my job!" were effective fertilizer. Then, impressively (though I suppose there's nothing inherently impressive about doing what you have to do to stay alive), she called a cab and left the party.

As did Tim Hanni, one of the first two Americans to get the #1 recognition of wine omniscience, the Master of Wine. Here's a really interesting guy--a trained chef who fattened a goose pheasant in his college dorm closet so he could roast it in his toaster oven. He got into wine, got really good at it, got even better at being drunk. Finally he fell down the same fetid well Alice King did, and similarly clawed his way out.

The cool thing is: Not only is he still in the racket, he's one of the few people attacking the orthodoxy of what quality is in wine. And I don't mean he's part of the "CRUCIFYPARKERONACROSSOFNEWFRENCHOAK" rabble (who I can't believe anyone still takes seriously--where's the counter-backlash?). Instead, Mr. Hanni has compiled serious analysis of how our tasting organs work, and more importantly how they vary.

This has led to some nonconformist conclusions (maybe every wine can pair with asparagus, and maybe white zinfandel isn't the devil's magenta urine after all), that would be really hard to believe if they weren't asserted by someone who could recite more facts about wine in an hour than you or I could memorize in a year, and could probably eat a tube of toothpaste and still ace any blind tasting.

*Probably*.

There's no way around the fact that a drop of wine on Tim Hanni's tongue could ruin his life. So perhaps he has forgotten the intricate details of how wine tastes--I don't know for sure that his detractors (opening quote) are wrong. But they almost certainly are if they think his ability to spew some cliches about minerality and Bosc pears has any bearing on the unique work he's doing.

Those of us less motivated to think outside the box can continue to chase some version of the mastery Mr. Hanni won and then threw away. We will keep tasting. What other option is there?

A couple of years ago I would flip to a random Wine Spectator tasting note every Sunday and try to taste each named component in its actual form over the course of the week. This regimen had some happy results--the spike in fruit consumption helped my digestion, and I smoked a couple of great cigars. It also had some ignominious ones, the low point being when my landlord stopped by and caught me licking a cast-iron skillet (thanks Molesworth). What it didn't do was make me a much better taster. As this became clearer I desperately increased the volume of apples, lavender, rocks, etc. I shoveled across my sensory transom.

Protip: Eating forty figs in one afternoon is not the fast track to an MW.

The takeaway was that reference points are good to have, but only tasting wine can make you better at tasting wine. And I've accepted that tasting at every opportunity is compatible with doing right by your body in theory, but usually not in practice.

At some point on this blog I may have said something about the negative health effects of being a boozy glutton not mattering to me, but since this is the summer of backpedaling and reversals, throw that stick on the pile.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Alcohol, Part 1: A Tiger Is Cuddly Once You Punch His Teeth Out

Here are some tasting notes:

  • Fre Alcohol Removed Brut: Yellow-green with seltzery bubbles. Interesting green tea aromas turn into reductive burnt match after a few sniffs. Big yellow apple hit on the midpalate (this is all midpalate). Very low acid. Don't take "Brut" literally--this would probably be demi-sec if labeling rules applied.
  • Fre Alcohol Removed Chardonnay: Peach-heavy nose. Watery and off-dry, evokes the apple juice served at snack time in first grade.
  • Fre Alcohol Removed Merlot: Sweet-smelling with a little unfortunate vinyl. Juicy and a little sugary like the others. Decent acid balance. Mellow structure, not much in the way of tannins.
  • Inglenook "St. Regis" Alcohol Removed White Zinfandel: Hate to join the White Zin gang-tackle, but there isn't much to recommend this. If wine is bottled poetry like the famous Napa welcome sign says, this pink stuff is "There Once Was A Man From Nantucket..."

The contempt these products elicit from everyone who doesn't already drink them is thicker than trockenbeerenauslese.

To prestige hounds, it's for the peasants like every other wine available at Safeway. To would-be critics and somms, it's excruciating to acknowledge they even exist. Drink water, soda, methanol, anything else--just please stop pretending you're drinking wine. To pregaming woogirls who don't like carbs, what's the point, bitch?

Per my little bench trial, they are in fact not much fun to drink. But hey, at the $6-$7 price point nothing is kicking their tail too hard in measures of aroma and taste. Cheaply-fermented grape juice is cheaply-fermented grape juice, not much variance in any direction you wander.

The collateral damage would obviously be severe dragging finished La Tache through a reverse osmosis torture chamber until its alcohol is scourged away (doesn't that thought just ruin your day?). Fre, to understate the crap out of things, doesn't have as much to lose.

About the only thing it does have to lose is the portkey to drunk. And here's a black fly for ya, Alanis, to lose it is its reason for existing. It may or may not be fair to assume that non-alcoholic wines were born of an attempt to chisel an odd niche into the adult beverage market. Like, something for people who want to keep alcohol out of their bloodstream but are happy with anything that has the essential sweet/sour/bitter balance of wine. Or for whatever reason wish to be observed holding a goblet containing translucent red, yellow, or pink liquid.

Evidently the gambit worked since these are not new products and there has been plenty of time for them to join Crystal Pepsi and (real) Four Loko in the great recycling plant in the sky. The profit margin is intuitive enough: Schwag grapes bought at high volume, probably not chauffeured around the winery by sparkling new Waukesha pumps, very probably not punched down by hand 4x/day, certainly not luxuriating in fresh-off-the-boat Seguin-Moreau barriques for two years before finally cannonballing into the punch bowl.

Also, the cost of an RO or vacuum distillation or spinning cone setup has to be largely offset by the feel-good PR the makers can claim by having a gentle pony in their stable. Drug pushers? Us? And all that really matters is that people are buying them, though aside from myself twenty-four hours before breaking ground on this post, I'm not sure who they are. I do know a handful of disciplined folks who "don't drink", and they "don't drink" this stuff either.

Once again, the silent majority sticks it to the smartasses and gets their representation.

The contempt for non-alcoholic wines will continue to sizzle. And like most contempt, it accomplishes little except making the people spewing it look like dickheads. If there is an error sloshing around inside all these bottles, it's the attempt to bisect the pleasure of drinking wine into

Pleasure from aroma/flavor | Pleasure from alcohol

and then snap the wishbone. You can't pull these two things apart and not expect to taste the trauma. They're not the same, but in the fabric of wine their fibers are tangled together somewhere. Tugging until they separate leaves a ragged mess.

I don't blame producers like Ariel for trying to create NA wines that can run with the Clydesdales (because in winemaking anything is worth a try if you can afford it), but there's a point--that has probably already been reached--where they can't get any better. Seriously intending to take the alcohol out of wine and still have it taste amazing is like trying to rewrite DNA code with a fat crayon.

Texture, the underappreciated lug, is toothless and predictable without alcohol's oily velvet. And a little post-swallow heat on your breath does a lot to bind otherwise disjointed flavor elements in to the mystery we call "finish". On the molecular level, I'll bet the Barolo under my sink that at least a few other essential compounds get the Brundlefly treatment when their alcohol is yanked out.

And let's pretend for a second none of the above is true at all. Let's pretend Latour and Montrachet and Grange would taste exactly the same without alcohol. Or let's pretend there was the same profound enjoyment to be had and the same lifetime of curiosity to indulge drinking the different varieties of Snapple. Would wine occupy the place it does in our minds, in our mouths, in our economies, in our lives?

Ha!


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

All You Can Do Is Do What You Must

1.

If he hasn't yet already, your friend who's really into wine is waiting for his chance to cudgel you with the story of his Aha! moment starring the Aha! bottle or glass or sip that made him realize what shite he'd been drinking until fate intervened. Maybe? Probably? Circulate in wine-land long enough and you can count on hearing enough of these big bang theories to fill a Melchizedek.

So I'll spare you mine, also because telling it would require inventing some portions of history, which I don't feel qualified to do yet. Best I can do is recall the Philadelphia winter/spring of '05-'06 when, underemployed and relentlessly drunk, I found my semi-daily stops at the Pennsylvania Wine & Spirits Superstore on 12th and Chestnut becoming more about the hunt and less about the kill. Bypassing Carlo and the Captain to proceed down the pomp and circumstance of the baroquely lit wine bottle aisles were suddenly, inexplicably, the clearest part of my bleary days.

It was handy to have a new way of parrying accusations that I was, gasp, "drinking alone". No, I was pledging the noble frat of wine aficionadi, not to mention it complimented my early cooking efforts, generally Rube Goldberg interpretations of the Bisquick cookbook eaten alone in front of the sometimes-functional TV. Also on some level it was a last-ditch effort to distinguish myself. No other recent grads, as far as I knew, gave a toss about wine with any seriousness. If I was going to eat their dust in the race to success, why not drink something that would help me savor it?

Some bottles from this time linger in memory--a St. Francis Zinfandel that turned my brain to fire and then ash with its 16.5% ABV, a Le Strette Barbera D'Alba that was my first $20 lucky guess, a Felton Road Pinot Noir obscenely discounted by the PA Wine & Spirits monopoly.


2.

It doesn't matter, my specific reactions, recollections, "tasting notes" concerning these, and as I bob rudderlessly into this summer I draw blanker and blanker blanks when questioning why my opinions on wines and Wine should matter to anyone, especially myself. To be offered blind trust from a friend seeking wine guidance, and then to actually earn it with some off-the-cuff wisdom is gratifying, satisfying, and every vanity in between. But it's getting hard to see how these little victories can support a ziggurat of hedonist values that demands you climb forever towards that endless spasm of pleasure at the top.

Eighteen months and two vocational false starts after deciding wine was IT, I was a sales grunt in a fancy NYC shop. I had the privilege of handling bottles worth $3K and up, handling the cold black AmEx cards used to purchase them, handling the first-growth egos of the cardholders. Tough work, with the true compensation being the 20-30 wines I got to taste and memorize weekly.

It wasn't enough. I craved absolute knowledge. I wanted to get closer and closer to wine itself until it clotted my pores and purpled my skin. Continuing to curate facts was well and good, but it was clear I'd never rest until I transcended the trivia and became it, a winemaker.


3.

I recently finished working my fifth vintage in four countries in two and a half years. In the vineyard with shears, in the cellar with pumps, on the crushpad with bees and blood. I accomplished phase 1 of my mission, winning craftsmanship, intimacy with the juice, and chest-puffing war stories, all swaddled in the achy pride of manual labor.

Why, then, are my gumbooted feet again kicking pebbles at a crossroads? Other than the field's dismal $ prospects and the creeping realization that an enology degree--always a keynote of my "professional goals" spiel--is not likely to pay off for me at this point, there's no good reason not to continue this, right? I also swore to myself, the morning after accepting my first winery gig, that the twentysomething English Major waffling was over. Time to dig this and dig it deep. I would report to the cellar every day for the rest of forever, and love this work no matter how much I hated it.

This is now a meaningless memory. Which is not to say I hate or ever hated or could ever hate slugging it out in wineries--there's still nothing else I'd rather do, other than sit on my ass and hope my MacBook's chrome shell can deflect the reality of adulthood. But if this should all fall apart (or if it has already), it won't feel like a broken oath, just an earnest pep talk sparked and then immolated in an internet-scrambled head.


4.

The real worm in this apple is how empty the "foodie" approach to life is beginning to seem. There's no harm in preferring what tastes good--way back when it was how you avoided swallowing things that would kill you. There's probably no harm in disposing of your disposable income at a quality-driven wine shop or restaurant. Something, though, is rotten in fetishizing bacon-wrapped everything and artisan whatever until you've out-gourmanded every other smug epicure in the greenmarket.

I'm disturbed by the possibility that this is the quiche in the sky I was grasping at when I traded a desk--er, salesman apron--for a forklift. No civilian would ever say their sensory skill or understanding of wine and its sister indulgences is superior to a winemaker's and expect to be taken seriously.

This was not completely lost on me at any point over the last three years. But no torture exists that would make me confess it was ever my objective. Wine was the intersection of my intellectual curiosity, my warmest, fuzziest feelings, and my desire to get really good at something. All I knew was that I wanted to shoot this magic bullet into the deepest wrinkles of my brain. If the worst case is true, if I was really motivated by arugula egotism when I junked my prior work experience and officially made college worthless by becoming a cellarhand, then the bastard snuck up on me quickly and quietly--a surgical strike worthy of SEAL Team Six.

Either way, this Jerry Maguire moment is what I get for staking my sense of purpose on the mirage of the good life, or at least a better one than yours. Whether or not it was my reason for anything, all the "lifestyle" twaddle in the glossy mags and cable food porn had me at hamachi. What would happen if I stopped caring about what I drank, or just stopped drinking? Not gonna happen at this point, but I struggle to name anything truly bad that would come from it.

I guess the ones who got it right are the men and women who do their productive jobs and attend to their families and only then seek pleasure where they may. And the great winemakers, the ones who shut out all the noise and let nature take its course.