Saturday, December 15, 2012

Cave Saint Cyr Beaujolais 2010

Abbé Bertillon could smell a fierce fire.

It was far away, maybe even in Chambolle, but he was not mistaken. His sense of smell was his greatest physical gift. It was the reason his abbey never had a barrel of wine go sour, the reason they never sold a wine too early or too late, and the reason that they only acquired perfect vineyard parcels--Abbé Bertillon simply needed to put his nose to the earth and breathe deeply to know everything about the wine that would eventually come out of it.

Now he smelled a fierce fire, fed by wood and cloth and leather and other things that homes were made of.

It was the last week of June, 1790. May been rainy and humid, and fruit set was uneven in the easternmost rows of Pinot Noir.  If the summer continued like this, Abbé Bertillon knew rot would be a severe problem at harvest time.

His brother in Reims had written to him two weeks earlier, telling of riots in Paris that were spilling into the countryside. Peasants were smashing shop windows and burning anything that stank of nobility. Priests and even nuns had been threatened, but not harmed--as far as anyone knew.

Georges, to the chagrin of their parents, had not entered the priesthood but Abbé Bertillon knew he was still a more devout Catholic than most of the clergy. He said a short prayer for the safety of his brother's family, then put on his boots and went outside.

Today was one of the first beautifully clear days of the summer. As Abbé Bertillon walked the rows of vines behind the abbey, he brushed his increasingly unsteady fingers against the bark of the thick trunks. These vines were getting too old, the yields would be unacceptably low in just a few years.

Two decades earlier he had planted many of them himself and now he thought of how difficult--physically difficult--it would be to pull them out. He mumbled I Corinthians 4:12:

And we labour, working with our own hands: we are reviled, and we bless; we are persecuted, and we suffer it.

Georges in his letter had called the Abbé Sieyes a traitor and a heretic for siding with the revolutionaries. Abbé Bertillon was not so sure. He found it harder to think ideas through to their conclusions as he approached seventy.

He still believed the King ruled by the grace of God, but he did not believe that fact would save Louis from the grace of the guillotine. Maybe not this year, maybe not next, but it would happen. Abbé Bertillon was no politician and certainly no revolutionary, but he could smell the desire for regicide in the pages of the newspapers describing the growing chaos--the same way he could smell what a wine, or a vineyard would become long before it became that thing.

He kept this to himself, despite his certainty.

Down the slight grade that ended at the road to Dijon, he came to some younger vines. Two rows of Gamay, his secret. He was sneaking the grapes in with the Pinot Noir at crush, and once the wine was made it was it was indistinguishable to anyone but him.

Abbé Bertillon had a special affinity for Gamay--he suspected that it could be as good, or nearly as good as Pinot Noir could be if planted in exactly the right place and handled exactly the right way. He had no doubt that this was exactly the right place, where it smelled like moss and wind and water and something else no one, not even he, could describe. With a few more rows of it he could bottle a 100% Gamay and show everyone the truth.

And maybe soon he could have a few more rows of it. Duke Philip the Bold had called Gamay "vile and disloyal" nearly four hundred years earlier and that was that, the end of Gamay in Burgundy.

But now that every French ideal of "loyalty" was being immolated, revolutionaries were killing revolutionaries for not being revolutionary enough, and the Dukes were lucky if their property was the only thing they lost, maybe the decrees against Gamay were also running out of time.

The fire smelled stronger now. Was the revolution in Burgundy already? There were enough intellectuals and brutes in Dijon to do serious damage. Abbé Bertillon decided that if they came for him, he would simply ask them to spare the vineyards. He touched a little unripe green berry and said Hebrews 6:10 to it:

God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.

As long as his head was on his shoulders, Abbé Bertillon would continue to help.

I bought this Cave Saint Cyr Beaujolais 2010 at Falletti Foods in San Francisco for $18.99. The importer is The Sorting Table in Napa. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

State of the Status

Hi Friends,

Thanks for following what goes on here and tolerating the inconsistent updates.

I hope you will continue to stop in, especially now that I will be posting weekly short personal essays and fiction pieces inspired by the wines that I encounter.

Also, I'm reviewing California tasting rooms over at American Winery Guide, a startup site recently named "Best New Mash-up" by Programmableweb. Recently I've reviewed Trefethen and Robert Mondavi. Check 'em out!

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Winemaker, Part IV

Earlier entries in this series:

Part I
Part II
Part III

"Let's talk about this tomorrow, huh?" said The Winemaker. "We got a lot of shoveling to do here, not to mention fourteen tanks of wine that are still fermenting and going to go to shit if they aren't pumped over in about two hours."

"Get the fuck outta here and don't come back," said The Owner.

The Winemaker flinched and broke eye contact. So this was for real. He had it coming for destroying product and then lying about it--the original sin of fireable offenses in any winery--but to be so close to getting away with it and then blowing it like this was already stinging badly.

"Think hard about what you're doing here," said The Winemaker. The Owner stood still and stared at him.

The Winemaker opened his mouth to say something else, then didn't, then did.

"Have fun with this." He went outside and got into his truck. He lit an American Spirit from the crumpled pack in the cupholder. In the rearview, he saw The Owner waddling back to the office.

The Winemaker had never been fired from any job--virtually everywhere he had worked, he was the best guy in the cellar. The fastest forklifter, the most thorough tank cleaner, the best on-the-spot repairman.

But it was all at once clear to him how much he disliked working here. Even having complete control over winemaking operations wasn't worth being stuck with inferior terroir--waterlogged soil, erratic August weather, not a single south-facing hillside anywhere.

What an accomplishment for someone of his talents to deal with this for so long, and to do it while reporting to a lunatic with an eighth grade education who demanded 95-pointers that would never happen...

Call it career suicide-by-cop.

He sucked the cigarette down quickly and went back inside. Agustino and Juan Luis were shoveling again. One of them should be the next winemaker, he thought. The Assistant was an effete city boy who had great instincts about wine but was not suited for this sort of work, and would certainly bail soon to become a sommelier in some hipster restaurant.

But these guys... dedicated, strong, resilient, much smarter than anyone gave them credit for... they could make wine here.

Not that it would ever happen under this Owner, a racist through and through.

Anyway it wasn't The Winemaker's problem anymore. It was time to go. He went to the lab and took the pH meter, which was his to begin with. He decided to leave the Ziploc of pot under the sink for The Assistant.

There was one more thing to deal with. He found a long thick chain and attached one end of it to the temperature probe inside The Tank, the cause of all this. There was a hook on the other end that he attached to the forklift. He pulled open the wide loading door at the back of the winery and considered it for a moment, making some quick calculations of angles and momentum, then started the lift truck.

The Tank's legs buckled easily as he rolled towards the door. Agustino was grinning, watching its metal belly kick up beautiful sparks as it dragged against the concrete floor. Juan Luis stared dumbly, then made a fast move towards the door when it became apparent The Tank wasn't going to clear it.

"No tocha! No tocha!" yelled The Winemaker.  He threw the forklift into reverse and backed into the nose of The Tank, pivoting it fifteen degrees. He continued forward and it barely cleared the opening.

The paving outside was rough brick, and the noise of The Tank dragging on it was absolutely gruesome--it reminded The Winemaker of the beginning of a Sonic Youth song. He could feel that the forklift was at its limit of towing capacity, strong as it was. But it kept going.

The tasting room and office building was two hundred yards down a small hill, and beyond that was a tourist-dense state highway.

It was Friday, the dreary morning had given way to a beautiful afternoon, and the crowds were beginning to arrive.  There was already a big bus with tinted windows in the lot, attractive young people filing out and into the tasting room like ants towards a discarded popsicle stick.

The Winemaker reached the hill and turned to look at The Tank. Driving the forklift on a grade wasn't easy, but he was excellent--better than excellent--at this sort of thing. The tricky part was going to be staying in front of The Tank and accelerating immediately if gravity started to take over.

Of course, he lined it up perfectly and maintained total control. He was going to miss this forklift.

Three confident-looking guys in turtlenecks got off the bus but didn't follow the rest of the group inside. One drank from a tallboy in a paper bag, and another took out a pack of Marlboro Lights and passed it around. They smoked and had a conversation where every statement or question was met with an incredulous reaction.

Then one saw The Winemaker and The Tank coming towards them. His cigarette fell from his lips.

"HIT THE DECK BRO!!!" he roared, then for emphasis tackled one of his friends onto the grass.

The Winemaker turned to see the incredulous faces gathering against the windows of the tasting room as he crossed the lot. He hoped The Owner was watching, though he realized it would be just as good if someone had to run into his office and tell him.

The side of The Tank dragged along the side of the bus, scraping off most of the lettering in "SPRING BREAK WINE COUNTRY TOURS". A silver Cadillac turning into the lot from the road swerved onto the picnic lawn to avoid it.

"HEY!!" There was The Owner now, running, as fast as his eight decade-old legs could, out the tasting room door.

"HEY!!!" replied The Winemaker, "I'M NOT COMING BACK!!"

He reached the road and signaled a right turn with his extended arm. Just as he turned onto the shoulder, he realized he left his wallet and driver's license in his truck, which meant he probably was coming back.

Or not. He'd worry about it later.

The End

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Winemaker, Part III

Earlier entries in this series:

Part I
Part II

The Owner had made his fortune three decades ago by aggressively securing every portable toilet service contract in the county and the one next to it. Soon after he drove out the last competitor, there was a suburban development boom. Every worksite had at least one overburdened Sani-John, and he was a local tycoon by the following Christmas.

He broke ground on "The Winery Construction Worker Shit Built" (The Winemaker's term) after he divorced his second wife and decided he was going to use the money the bitch didn't get away with to expand into real estate. By then he had a cellar full of Opus One and Cain Five, and saw no reason he shouldn't have his name on a bottle just as heavy and valuable.

People would try to tell him about terroir and the differences between his land and Oakville, and he would wave them off. Ya can grow grapes in yer yard!

The Winemaker was the fourth winemaker in eleven years, and by far the longest-running. The second  had quit after four months when The Owner, six Johnnie Walkers in at the holiday party, pushed him to the floor and brandished the roast beef carving knife in his face, threatening to cut his balls off if he didn't deliver a "Parka 95" within two vintages.

The Winemaker's longevity was due to his having figured out gradually--well, quickly--how to deal with this sort of volatility, which was compounding as the old man endured bullishly into his 80s. The key was making it very clear to everyone that The Owner knew nothing about making wine and that every time he tried to make suggestions about the process, the operation lost money.

The Winemaker's experience and many degrees gave him the needed credibility, even though The Owner thought formal higher education was a Johnson-era liberal scam. The final ingredient was to be fearless about giving the old man a long, cold stare whenever necessary, perhaps accompanied by a "Can you please let me do my fucking job?" 

Following this protocol, he had carved out enough space to get the work done.

But it probably wouldn't get him out of this major screw-up. A lot of product was gone and there would be clear financial consequences to the business. The Winemaker didn't indulge in fear much anymore, but he allowed himself a quick instant of it before exiting the lab.

The Owner was standing in the middle of the winery now, squinting at the pile of grapes. Agustino and Juan Luis were leaning on their shovels in no ingles mode.

Juice was still audibly trickling down the drain.

"How much of my money is in the drain right now?" The Owner said, turning to The Winemaker.

Good question thought The Winemaker. He realized he needed to start talking; taking too long to respond could put him in a bad spot. He pointed at the rotor tank.

"Do you remember when I told you that was a bad investment? That it was going to end up being a liability for you?"

"How much of my fucking money is in the drain right now?" 

The Owner was an excellent businessman, no one begrudged him that. And he was on a dangerous sort of autopilot right now. He despised waste of any kind--even going so far as trying to limit any tasting of wines from tank or barrel by The Winemaker or The Assistant to once a month.

"Fifteen grand maybe? All covered by your insurance."

The insurance part was somewhat true, the fifteen grand part was completely false. The Winemaker had lost control of the exchange and lying was a way of taking a little of it back.

"So this is what I pay ya for? Spilling my grapes?"

The Winemaker jabbed his finger at the rotor again.

"I told you not to buy that thing. The internal processor malfunctioned overnight and made it start spinning with a hose still attached to it. Ripped the valve off with no one here. Shit was made in China."

It was made in Italy, but that was the sort of claim The Owner would buy sight unseen. At age 17 he had drawn up a fake birth certificate in order to enlist in the Marines three days after Pearl Harbor.

"It what?"

"It ripped... the valve... off!" The Winemaker pantomimed ripping something apart.

"Whaddaya mean by that??" This was a favorite phrase of The Owner's when he needed to buy time in an argument.

"I mean this thing is a piece of shit, just like I said, and you should get on the phone to that Chazz asshole who sold it to you and let him know what his product ended up being worth to you!"

Suddenly The Owner's Jitterbug phone rang once, twice. He glared at The Winemaker for one more ring, then opened it and answered the call by stating his last name.

"Yeah... yeah... huh?... yeah... listen, I gotta call you back. I'm at my winery with a pile-a grapes the size of Kilimenjerro on the floor!"

The Owner went to Africa every two years to shoot large animals--on his desk was a priapic rhino horn he had sawed off himself in Botswana.

He hung up. The Winemaker felt the situation was partially defused and that his window out of it was open wide.

"Can you just let me handle this now? We'll get it cleaned up, I'll get a report into your office by lunch so you can collect the insurance, and we can get on with making your wines. We don't even need to haul this tank out of here until after harvest."

"I still wanna know more about what happened here... that tank was sposta be a great investment!"

"Yeah... You thought hiring your granddaughter to run the tasting room was a great investment too."

The Winemaker's heart skipped, he knew immediately he had pushed his luck. A fury far beyond anything The Owner had directed at the grape spill began to well behind the old man's thick glasses and narrow eyes.

Three years earlier, The Owner had installed his twenty-four year-old granddaughter as tasting room manager. She and her mom, his daughter, had convinced him to do so on the basis of her extensive partying experience and three abandoned semesters of a Publicity and Communications major at the local junior college.

Once hired she began to purchase things like blacklights, velvet ropes and fog machines. She often didn't show up until four or five in the afternoon and kept the doors open until midnight or later--sometimes forgetting to lock them after everyone was gone. ID-checking became sporadic.

She also bought three Jagermeister chillers, assuming that if the tasting room could serve wine, they could serve Jagerbombs too. When she learned otherwise, she just unplugged them and left them on the bar.

For some reason, she instantly hated The Winemaker, even though he initially made an attempt to be her friend. Perhaps she saw in him the sort of cerebral, workaholic, aesthetically average male she  avoided at all times and demeaned when possible. A obvious beta male posing as an alpha, or, in her terminology, a "creepster".

So he left it alone and kept making the wine, detaching himself from whatever nasty cocktail it might end up in after it left the winery.

Crowds increased in the tasting room, but not enough. Since age sixteen, The Granddaughter never settled for throwing anything less than the most epic parties anyone had seen--since her last one. So she contracted a party promotions company that was also known for supplying bulk quantities of ultra-premium Ecstasy and Ketamine to all their clients' events.

When the police finally traced a fatal drunk driving accident to the tasting room/nightclub and busted "DJ WWJD" for interstate trafficking, it cost The Owner over $150,000 in legal fees to keep the tasting room open and keep himself and The Granddaughter out of jail. Not to mention $35,000 settling private lawsuits. The responsible local family man who had been bumped out of management to make room for her came back, and the incident was eventually forgotten.

But The Owner protected his family like an underfed Doberman. It was understood that you could get away with just about anything once you were on his payroll, except talking shit about any of his blood relatives. The Winemaker knew this, and knew that in his nervousness he had just crossed the line.

The Owner clapped his phone shut.

"You're fired."

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Winemaker, Part II

Earlier entries in this series:

Part I

The guys kept shoveling and The Winemaker began checking the fermentations in the other tanks.

Grenache was on day ten of a fourteen-day cold soak. The Winemaker loved cold soaks. The must was in there, unfermented in the chilled tank. It wanted yeast and he wouldn't give it.  It was his dominance over the product, summarized.

Not to mention it made the color of his wines beautiful, to use Wine Experience's term (March 2004 issue, page 67, two-thirds down the left column). The Winemaker liked to fantasize about thirty day-long cold soaks that would yield wines literally the color of squid ink. Color was everything in wine, or at least it was millions of things. Where aroma and flavor compounds could be infuriatingly vague, an anthocyanin always got straight to the point and The Winemaker appreciated that.

Some people said color had no relation to flavor. The Winemaker's opinion on them was two words long. He knew deep flavors only kept the company of deep colors. Pinot Noir? Irrelevant. Not that he didn't know how to make incredible Pinot Noir (and indeed had for three vintages, before he pissed off the wrong members of the Santa Rosa Politburo and never ate foie gras in that town again).

One day he would cold soak the white wines too--he would be the first to do it.  

Something was strange in this Grenache though, the skins appeared to be concentrating towards the surface. It wasn't obvious, but there was a dryness to the topmost ones that suggested a natural, wild fermentation had started and was forcing the skins upwards. The winemaker had learned to recognize subtleties like this.

He grasped for alternate explanations before settling on the inevitable--he would have to end the cold soak early and inoculate the must with yeast today. The times he had intentionally tried wild ferments had resulted in wines that smelled like onions and tasted like astroturf.  

The Assistant must not have been sanitizing the punchdown gear thoroughly. That's what you get when you trust people who don't know microbiology, thought The Winemaker sullenly. The Assistant had cheated him, cheated the wine, out of a proper cold soak. He got angrier.

Behind him the rhythmic scraping of Juan Luis and Agustino's shovels syncopated with the wasted grapes raining into the bin. There were still a lot of them left.

"Andale! Eh?" snapped The Winemaker in their direction as he started for the lab to mix the yeast culture.

There was no Lalvin BM45, the yeast strain he liked to use for Grenache, in the lab. The Assistant. Even though it was never explicit that ordering yeast was the assistant's responsibility, he was in the lab more often and so he should have known about this. The Assistant was going to have a very bad Monday morning.

The Winemaker dug furiously through the other yeast bags and eventually settled on Lalvin RC212--not ideal for Grenache but almost everything else in the cabinet was for white wines. He sliced it open with his Leatherman and filled a clean bucket with warm water.  He began to stir with his bare forearm, enjoying the starchy redolence of the rehydrating fungus.

Ten seconds later the creak of the main door echoed through the winery.

"What the fuck?!?" boomed a gruff General Patton voice. The shoveling noises stopped.

The Winemaker stopped stirring, thought a few things over quickly, and went out to face the owner with slimy yeast still on his arm. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Winemaker, Part I

Not all the must had spilled, there were still--what, fifty?--gallons of liquid left in the tank.  Fifty of 2,018, resting swamp-like around some stray piles of soggy, pale Cabernet Sauvignon skins at 1.5 brix. The rest was on the floor and in the drain.

The Winemaker jumped down off the ladder where he had been assessing the loss.  He took an ineffectual deep breath.  On the workbench there was a dusty, warm but unopened bottle of Stone IPA. He drank it quickly.

This was not the sort of crisis The Winemaker was trained for, and anyway, the suggestion that he was or wasn't "trained" for anything pissed him off.  Training was for cellarhands and dogs.  The Winemaker wasn't trained for things, he knew them.  Maybe he had learned them somewhere from someone once, but the knowledge was only his now.

He glared at the tank, the oversized, overcomplicated auto-rotating fermenter that was completely wrong for this winery.  The owner had bought it back in February when a sales slimeball named Chazz cold-called the old man and made his easiest sale of the week, convincing the owner in exactly four minutes that there was no better use of $125,000.  If he cared about putting his name on great red wines, that is.

For years The Winemaker had begged The Owner for a couple more 250-gallon tanks, a Waukesha pump, a dissolved oxygen meter for the lab, an electric forklift--things that would actually make his life easier, which meant they would make the wines better.  Same reply every time--Work with whatcha got!

When The Owner announced that a rotator was en route and that he wanted a press release about it to go out right away, The Winemaker had stormed out of the meeting.  For $125K he could have had all--well, almost all--the gear he wanted, with money left over to add more hands to the sorting table turing harvest.

Instead he got this horizontal Rube Goldberg contraption that The Owner insisted he keep in constant use so he could brag about it when he brought his Florida golf buddies through the winery.  This torpedo-like vessel that was programmed to rotate automatically three times every 24 hours so the cap of grape skins would disperse throughout the fermenting juice.

That The Winemaker had hooked up a hose and pump to the night before, in order to save a little work on the drainage that was scheduled for this morning.

That he had forgotten was programmed to rotate at 7 AM.

That had started rotating before anyone was at work, yanking the hose around the body of the tank.

That had dragged the faithful old Moyno pump along the ground, roughing it up but not lifting it into the air or ripping the hose from its inlet.  Instead, the break that had to occur somewhere occurred at the main tank valve.

That now had seven tons of Cabernet Sauvignon skins, every one of which contained years' worth of vineyard management and labor, mounded under it.

Where the fuck was The Assistant?  The Assistant needed to be here to start dealing with this.  Come to think of it, this was exactly the sort of screw-up The Assistant was always on the edge of doing.  Away for the weekend.  Against his better judgment, the winemaker had granted The Assistant's request for the weekend off.

He had to get outside.  The swollen, carbon dioxide-rich air was making him sweat and spin.  He went out the back door of the winery and walked to the Rousanne block where The Guys were pruning.  It occurred to him that locking the doors would have been wise, in case someone from the tasting room tried to bring an unannounced tour in. On the other hand, maybe that would teach them to stop the unannounced tours--all the fucking tours--once and for all.

"Ey!  Necessito dos hombres.  Con palas," The Winemaker called.  Some glances were exchanged across the squat rows of vines, then Agustino and Juan Luis started for the shed.

Back in the winery The Winemaker showed them where to shovel the mess and where to dispose of it.  He locked the doors and thought about what to tell the owner as he looked hopefully for another beer somewhere.  The wine that had been in that tank would have mostly ended up in $24 bottles.  Roughly eight tons meant roughly 1,800 gallons, which meant roughly 9,000 bottles, which meant roughly $216,000 no longer coming in.  That was roughly double his salary.

Rough, thought The Winemaker.

There were all kinds of insurance policies taken out on the whole operation--the owner was addicted to insurance--so he wasn't going to start thinking of it in terms of lost money yet.

It started rotating at a time it wasn't programmed for, came together in his head.  That's what he would say.  The computer didn't keep its own records, or if it did, no one else would know the first thing about accessing them.

We never should have gotten it in the first place--I was right.  The Winemaker practiced saying that.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Wine Critic

On the table before the wine critic, seventy-six bottles of red wine left no room for anything else.  Not that he was going to take notes anyway. He considered the bottle glass, thick and tapered, and could not help imagining a bowling ball plowing through every one.

Capsules, maroon and gold and black, looked up at him like one of those sophomoric Damien Hirst spot paintings his financial planner had urged him to buy years ago as an investment.

No regrets, ever.

He realized the assistant had not pulled the corks.  The wine critic swore softly and began looking in the desk drawer for a corkscrew. He clawed with increasing anger through the pens, rubber bands, paper clips, and crumbs.  He was sweating now, and his hangover came back.  When he stopped to catch his breath he saw what he was looking for on the edge of the desk in a sticky patch of dried wine.

He tried to relax but was despairing at the reality of having to open all these bottles himself.  A drink would help.   He grabbed the nearest bottle and began cutting the foil.  His hands were shaky and in the early stages of arthritis, or maybe gout.  It hurt to twist the worm into the sturdy, premium cork and he did not get it in far enough before trying to pull.  The cork broke in two, half of it still in the neck of the bottle.

The wine critic slammed the bottle down, and the mylar bag that was supposed to ensure "blind" tasting fell off.  The wine was a Chapoutier Hermitage, "Le Pavillon",  which he pretty much knew already.   He knew which wines were on the table, he had requested each one specifically, and the assistant at least knew the order--expensive to cheap--that he liked to taste in.

It was not going to be possible to pull the remaining cork half out with the corkscrew.  He took a pen off the desk and pushed the stubborn half down into the wine.

Finally, he poured.  He took a large drink, swallowed, and choked a little on one of the cork chunks that had made it into his glass.   The wine was still a 98.

The wine critic was flushed with a sudden desire to finish the afternoon's work as quickly as possible and have a gigantic gin and tonic.   He grabbed the next bottle, attacking the capsule with the corkscrew.  This time he gritted through the pain of turning the worm, and got the whole cork out.  This was a Cornas, probably from A. Clape.  Hell with it, he thought, and pulled the mylar off.  He was right.  99.

He spit some of the wines and swallowed most of them.  The scrap of paper where wrote his scores became dappled with purples and crimsons.  As far as the tasting notes, he would write them up later, from "memory" and from his own improvements on the marketing copy he got from the importers.

He was on a roll now.  92. . .94. . . 97. . . 91. . . 84, hah!. . . 99. . . 90.  The feeling of working fast was great.  But a problem was emerging--he realized he hated the taste of these wines.  On a level far beyond scores, this liquid in his mouth and throat was syrupy, tedious...invasive.  It tasted like labor and he was very tired.

There were maybe thirty more wines left to score.  The wine critic pressed on, unambiguously drunk.  As unpleasant as the wines had become, he continued swallowing.  He wanted numbness.  The spit bucket contained less than a half-inch of liquid.

Then a funny idea occurred to him.  He gave the next wine 100, and the one after that 99.  98. . . 97. . . 96. . .95. . .94. . .93. . .92. . . He laughed and was uncorking and tasting so fast that he spilled wine everywhere.

When he finally reached the last bottle he was at 72.  The wine critic pulled the mylar off, and saw he had given the score to Beaucastel "Hommage a Jacques Perrin" Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  This should have been at the front of the table, the assistant had screwed up again. Tomorrow he'd fire the moony-eyed little twerp.  

Or maybe he'd retire and promote the assistant to his position.  Put an end to this charade and let someone else spread the lie of "100" for the next few decades.

No, thought the wine critic.  I'm all in, no turning back.  No regrets. A familiar twisting began in his stomach and he got ready to vomit.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Ostertag Riesling "Vignoble d'Epfig" 2009

Josef had sensed this headache, a carbon monoxide headache, stalking him for weeks. Ten minutes before noon on Friday it finally got hooks his brain.  He had been on the forklift five straight hours. The warehouse, just outside Selestat, was large, but it still had walls--walls as good as any walls at reflecting the forklift's propane exhaust back into his lungs where it could start ruining his hemoglobin and starving every part of him that needed oxygen.  

He knew these headaches.  At 75 parts per million CO in the air they came on early and stayed for a long time.   He also knew he had another 45 minutes before this one really started to hurt.  And that was enough time to get the remaining seventeen pallets, each supporting a single 2,500 kilogram wooden crate of razor blades, stacked.  Then he could get outside.  

Faster, faster, go, go, Josef told himself.  He enjoyed the grunt of the forklift's hydraulics and the clacks of its raising and lowering mast as he willed himself into an imaginary high gear.  He was in the zone--completely immune to his frail human hesitations and distractions, just making his hands and feet available and staying out of the way as the forks accomplished their mission.  Raise, lower, tilt, side-shift. All unstoppable, like a football forward slashing towards the goal, already seeing the checkered orb stretch the back of the net.  

Now he was a little dizzy, but his mental organization was still perfect.  First thing in the morning he had spent an hour (which he now realized may have been too much time) inventorying the pallets to be stacked and noting where they would go, in which order.

Lames Circulaires--Aisle 21, pallet position 2

Doubles Trenchants --Aisle 3, pallet positions 4, 5, 6

Injecteurs -- Temporary stack in the warehouse's northeast corner, to be moved to a permanent place next week after the production run finished. 

Five more to go.  Josef began to feel unpleasantly intoxicated.  The last pallet of Lames Recourbees hopped awkwardly as he tilted the forks back after picking it up.  But he had it, and reminded himself to align the forklift perfectly straight as he entered Aisle 14--always enter a row perfectly straight, or else you will have problems.  But as he crossed the aisle's threshold he saw his left wheels were less than 12cm away from the adjacent stacks of Circulaires.  

It wouldn't matter.  It would be close, but he would still get this pallet to its position on top of the stack in front of him.  He began to lift as he inched forward.   The space seemed to shrink, either just before or just after the left wheels made an osteoarthritic grinding noise against the stack to the left he was sure an instant ago he would clear.  

He threw the steering right and hit the gas, which caused the forklift's tail to swing into the same stack the front wheels had just hit.  This time the stack wobbled a little, but Josef knew it took a harder hit than that to bring the whole thing down.  

There was not much further to go, and if he could just get the pallet on top of the stack he could back out, go in again more prudently, and center it.  He straightened out as best he could and gently hit the gas until the wheel freed itself from the jam and rolled forward.  As he continued lifting, he suddenly saw that he hadn't tilted the load back all the way, which would become more dangerous the higher he lifted it.  Not quite panicking but close, he threw the tilt lever back. 

Nothing happened.  It was already tilted all the way back.  His eyes had deceived him, which, after five years operating a forklift--operating this forklift--shouldn't happen.  

Finally he got it high enough up and over the stack and was ready to put it down.  It was too far to the right and needed to be side-shifted to the left.  But when he hit the side-shift lever and the load didn't move, he realized the forks were already shifted all the way left.  Always enter a row with the forks centered, so you can side-shift in either direction as needed when you're stacking the load.  He had known that and hadn't done it.  

This was bad.  He lowered the pallet until it rested on the crate in the second position on the stack.  The right edge of the pallet was way over the side and it would definitely fall if he pulled the forks out.  He lowered it more until the stack, not the forks, was supporting most of the load's weight.  Then he side-shifted right until the forks, which could now move freely, were centered.  The pallet remained where it was, but now he could lift it on the forks and move it left. The old man from Strasbourg who taught him to drive a forklift a decade ago had showed him this trick.

When he lifted it again he was acutely aware of the weight of the load.  He felt it in his body, even though the machine was doing the lifting.  Now the feeling of lifting was in his spine and hands as much as it was in the forklift mast.  Incredible strength.  He moved it left, a little extra just to be sure. 

Something felt wrong, a disconnect between what he was telling the load to do and what it was actually doing.  He looked up and saw that he had moved it too far left, and now it was pushing against the top pallet on the adjacent stack.  Scared, he shifted back to the right, but the plastic wrap that secured each of the two crates to their pallets was now torn and tangled together.  The entire stack on the left was being pulled over and to the right. 

Always lower the load any time something starts to go wrong was the dictum and he followed it reflexively, remembering a moment too late that the pallet on his forks was still hovering over the one below it.  This time there was a full-on crack noise as the wood of the pallet smashed on the crate.

You can still work with a broken pallet, just lower the load.  Please, thought Josef, please just get  it down and we can start over again.  He tried to roll backwards but now the pallet was stuck to both the one below it and the one to its left. 


The voice belonged to Christopher, the twenty-two year-old American who had given up looking for a job in his country's wretched economy, had forsaken his university degree as worthless, and was drifting through Europe working whatever unskilled, cash-compensation jobs he could turn up in the towns he passed through.  Josef mostly had him do cleaning, occasionally paperwork.  

"Josef?"  The voice was getting closer.  In a large warehouse with echo, it's hard to tell where a sound is coming from with no visual reference.     

"Chris!"  Josef couldn't turn around, but he sensed Chris behind the forklift.  By now the kid must have appraised the situation and was looking with dumb panic at Josef wondering how he could help.  He couldn't.  When the problem is a 2,500 kg crate about to fall, an extra pair of hands is just one more thing to crush.  

The only chance was to lift the pallet to clear the one below it, and then roll back and hope the plastic wrap untangled or broke before the stack to the left went over.  

"Chris, soyez prudent!" Josef said.  He usually spoke English with Chris, he had gotten much better at English since the kid came around.  In fact, he was pleased with how easily his mouth had gotten used to the noncommittal plosives and doughy unrolled "r"s of American English.  Sometimes when he couldn't stop to think he'd say non, non, ici s'il vous plait or something like that.  

This was one of those times--his brain was at its limit of stress now, and thoroughly poisoned by carbon monoxide.

He shifted to reverse and rolled backwards.  The plastic wrap held and pulled the top crate of Circulaires down. On its dumb trajectory to the ground it struck the crate on the forks, shattering the pallet that supported it.  Josef couldn't think and kept rolling backwards, and the crate on the forks fell too.  The noise made by the blades as the two crates exploded on the floor was surprisingly delicate, a shimmering wintry sound made by an amazing quantity of metal.  

Josef backed the forklift out of the row, kicked the emergency brake, and got off.  His hands were unsteady and he was worried for a moment he might throw up.  

Chris ran forward with a bin and a broom he had gotten from somewhere and began frantically sweeping up blades.  He seemed under the impression that they could hide this, just clean up the mess and continue with the day.  There must be two hundred thousand thousand razor blades on the ground right now, thought Josef.  Two different kinds, now united.  

The broom was not getting traction on the blades, and too-eager Chris began picking up handfuls and dropping them in the bin.  Josef stood still but thought, you're picking up razor blades with your bare hands.  

Impressively, Chris didn't cut himself until the fourth handful.  Josef snapped out of it and moved the kid away from the pile.   The cut wasn't bad and there was a first aid kit under the seat of the forklift.  As Josef got it out he wondered what sort of forklift accidents could be helped at all by a first-aid kit.  When Chris's hand was gauzed he asked what they were going to do about it and Josef told him to go to lunch.  


Three hours later in M. Geissmann's office, Josef's headache had ripened and was now burrowing into his gut as a riptide of nausea.  The owner was not angry, but was clearly gathering information to support some conclusion he had already made.  

"You're OK and we didn't lose product," he said, "just the time spent cleaning and re-sorting the blades."

Josef nodded.

"What scares me," continued Geissmann, "is where we would be if Christopher had been hit by that crate.  Illegal foreign worker, American, crushed in warehouse..."

"It scared me too.  He just snuck up behind me, I couldn't hear anything over the forklift."

"You supervise him, oui?"

"That's a fair question to put to me.  I do supervise him.  I had him outside cleaning the sump.  I guess he finished."

Geissmann ran his hands over his face and rested them on his head.  Hardened gel crackled.

"I can't handle risks like this anymore.  You must fire him.  Go take care of that now and we can just get on with things."

"He's gone, I... I tell him to leave at four every day."

"Merde.  First thing tomorrow--Monday!-- then."


Josef eased the Ford C-Max, 175,000 km old but driving like it was 225,000, into his farmhouse driveway at dusk.  At noon the day had been intensely hot, but clouds had set in over the afternoon and now a pregnant breeze was blowing through the shadowland where the Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin parted.  A few gold and pink tiles were visible on the horizon but the rest was overcast.  He still felt sick and his legs wobbled as he walked towards the house.

Isolde was on the porch swing, swirling a luminous glass of green-tinted wine.  On the table was an empty spire-shaped bottle next to an almost-full one.  She drank a lot and made no apologies, but it didn't cause any of the problems it was supposed to.  From inside, Josef smelled bacon and bread.  He sat down and put his head on her shoulder.    

"It's OK?"  She agreed to speak English with him for an hour every evening so he could practice.  He wanted to tell her not to bother this time.  He could suggest speaking German tonight, which they almost never did, to honor fallen empires.  

Instead he said, "It's OK."  Isolde filled a second glass he hadn't noticed behind the bottles and slid it to him.  It felt very cold in his hand and the air was so humid its sides were instantly flooded with condensation.  "It's OK.  We had an accident--I had an accident."


"On the forklift, I broke two crates.  Since I started this job I always dreaded breaking crates and now it finally happened."

"It's... OK?"

"It's OK.  Monday I must meet with the... syndicat... union to be sure of some things.  Detailles."  He sipped the wine and it stung him to his core, electric and ragged.  He wanted this feeling again and gulped it, catching himself before he drained the glass.  

Far off over the reedy grass, lightning glowed ember-like in some fat clouds.  

"Josef."  She kissed the top of his head, for some reason the last male head in his family still to have all the hair.  Josef could tell she didn't know what to say which was fine.  

He finished his glass and poured another.  This wine, he had had it before, but it never tasted or felt like this.  His nerves were entirely raw and exposed from the day and it seemed this was what the Riesling wanted in its drinker.  

This second glass paralyzed him with sensations of impossibly fresh fruit.  He saw himself as a particle-sized man climbing the cut side of a lime with harnesses and picks.  

Closer to them now, a lightning bolt touched down.  The rain hadn't begun yet.  Those blades, falling, he thought, or maybe he whispered. That metal... all that metal.  Metal we sucked out of the ground with a straw.  He felt delirious and closed his eyes, leaning against Isolde's breast.  

"I don't know if I'm strong enough," he eventually said.

"I don't need you to be very strong," she said back.  "Just be stronger than the hand swinging the blade."

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Villa Antinori IGT Toscana 2007

Sunday dinner service is a sharp rebuttal to whatever was said in church that morning about faith increasing as circumstances turn us more wretched.   Do you remember what a pacifier tastes like?  You do if you've worked in the NYC restaurant business for eighteen years, not superstar material but competent enough so that when you threaten to quit every year or two they stuff a meaningless tooth-marked promotion in your mouth.

We, me and one of the three waiters who should be arriving now, get to the restaurant just as the Empire State Building's shadow begins to cast its narrow opinion over Midtown East.  What an indignity it is for the captain not to be trusted with front door keys.  But the door is unlocked, which means Rolando is there.  And there he is, wiping down the bar counter that will never be clean.  In another time there might have been a full waitstaff still taking post-brunch service shots of anything together, but the owners gave up on brunch two years ago.

First seating is at 5:30.  She asks for a Campari and soda and he says he wants a Gibson, attempting a tone of voice that dares Rafael to tell him we don't have cocktail onions.

Good going, old man.  I watch from behind the Compaq 256-color monitor we still use to process card payments.  Good going you decrepit f***.  You made the drive from Nassau County to Manhattan in only forty years.  You indomitable tycoon of middle management, the Jack Welch of showing up every day.  Good practice for the graveyard, all you have to do there is show up every day.  I notice suddenly that I'm hissing at myself, not Mr. Kohland.  He's a good customer, here twice a month with Karen.

And like that the owner's wife has roosted on the corner of their table with her brittle Art Deco hospitality.  For the lady, the same questions she gets every time about  her nails and her kids and her grandkids. For the gentleman, some cliched flirtation to keep his arthritic ego limber.  Oh, stop.  Eventually she leaves, loudly telling Rafa to ensure the Kohlands' every need is met, and winking at me as she returns to her office where she'll shop online until she screws up her computer.

By 6:30 there are five tables and though I could hang back and let Rafa and Macedonio deal with all of them, I take the six-top at table 13 to pass some time.  It looks like a family, or parts of two families.  They tell me which pastas they want (one grunts for steak which is furious with gristle here, every time) and I start for the kitchen.

"And we'd like a bottle of the..." I turn around to the chipmunk-cheeked millenial, the scion of the blond-haired family, who is still speaking to me with his eyes and finger on the wine card.  "...Antinori Chianti."  The card lists Antinori Chianti Classico Peppoli 2008, but our distributor hasn't delivered this wine for five weeks because the owner called him a shyster on the phone.

This is going to work in the table's favor , because it forces me to bring them the only Antinori wine we have, IGT Toscana 2007.  My money's on the kid not noticing, and if he does I can either go apologetic or intimidating.  Either way, they're taking it.  And they should anyway, because this is a better wine from a year when the sometimes-vindictive Tuscan terroir was in concert with the intentions of the growers and their winemaker frenemies.

Sangoviese, no other varietal in Tuscany or anywhere is so taffy-stretched between tradition and modernity.  The crusty, oxidized sad clown tragedies in wicker fiaschi under filthy corks are losing shelf space to glistening, inflatable panders, microoxygenated, reverse-osmosised and Fren-choked into submission under surgically clean corks.

Sangiovese, ushered to the IGT guillotine by thuggish Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah as the "contemporary market", the bloodthirsty rabble eager to see the beheading and drink the drainage, jeers.

Not this one, though.  This is a dignified, generous wine in spite of our best attempts to disgrace it with our smudged stemware and indifferent food.  In this bottle, gentle Merlot and decisive Syrah lend Sangiovese the compassion and motivation it needs to be better.  I will drink anything they don't finish straight from the bottle.

I show it to the young master at the most inconvenient angle I can manage.  He looks at the label, nods at me, and then looks back to the label as I step back to pull the cork.  He says nothing, but has noticed this is not the Peppoli.  Bright boy.  He says nothing.  When you are twentysomething and tasked with ordering wine on behalf of your elders, you probably don't know what to do when the script breaks.  As in lovemaking, when something goes wrong in wine service it can be better or at least intuitive to pretend it didn't.

These feedbags are out at a restaurant tonight, having the experience they wanted to pay for: Looking at a menu, the most autonomy they've had all day.  Being "waited on", whatever that means.  Saying to each other the things they think people say in restaurants, all the while darting their eyes around in hopes of seeing their plates approaching, descending.   The plates remind me of UFOs; get ready for the probe I sometimes think as I deal the losing hands around the table.

This restaurant is going under, do they not realize it?  The Antinoris were, still are, smarter than everyone in this room, going back to that moment near the beginning of last millenium when one of them happened upon the miracle of people paying you simply because you already had money.  They became bankers, and then they made wine. Being rich was so easy.  Giovanni di Piero Antinori must have kept a huge grin on his face that had nothing to do with winemaking as he turned the screw on his basket press every October.

It tapered off, the banking.  By the time Carl Rothschild arrived in Naples with his French cigarettes and insatiable, anonymous grudges, it was already easy to borrow money in Italy without passing a coin to Antinori.  So it goes, so it continues, as this dirty decade in New York City accumulates its declines and falls.

Two hours later I approach their table with the check in my back pocket.  They had two more bottles of the IGT.  The kid is drunk and halfway through a cognac that drew a glare from his father when he ordered it.  No one else had a digestif.  His acceptably overweight mother has tiramisu on her nose.

"Is there anything else?" I ask.

"Just the check," the kid says too loudly.  I set it down in the middle of the table.

"You guys could get some bigger glasses.  Rie-DELLS," he continues unprompted.  He is drawing uneasy glances from everyone at the table now.

I smile in spite of myself.  "You know, I think the glass is only there to keep your wine off the tablecloth," I say as I pour the last two ounces for his father.  I wish the pour was full of tartrate crumbs to help make my point, but this is a modern wine.

Service ends, of course we lost money, and I am ready to split less than five minutes after the last table leaves.  The owner is still back there with the keys.  He owns the keys.

"Estamos chingando!" I say over my shoulder to Rolando as he unlocks his bike out front.

I turn onto Fifth Avenue and decide to skip the pokey R train and walk the mile home to Battery Park City, past the Zuccotti Park gypsies and the big hole.  That bright boy and his Sangiovese, I say as loud as I want as I pass the Flatiron and light my one-hitter.

Sang is blood, Giove is Jupiter, and I strain my eyes as I turn my head upwards, looking for planets through the light pollution.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Jean-Marie Berthier Coteaux du Giennois 2010

When your 1995 Citroën breathes its last on the D951 near Le Clous and even though you have a France-ready Vodafone SIM card you don't have the first clue who to call to get you out of this, do one thing first: sit on the hood and watch the Loire river--murky and shallow here--pass by.

Even though it's silent, as rivers go, try to listen.  Walk to the bank, put your hands in the water.  Grab some mud and extrude it between your fingers.  How long did it take for these particles to end up in your hands in this order?  These centuries of limestone and granite, these underwater fiefdoms of tuffeau. Take all the time you need to realize there's no answer.  When you're ready, go back to the car and deal with reality.

You're only a little screwed.  Maybe you should have started in Orleans and followed the river to the ocean, rather than trundling upstream and away from civilization like this. But then you wouldn't have met that girl in Nantes, the one who looks like Anna Paquin and and sings Motown songs in the shower in her funny accent.  Auréline.  You stayed with her for three unplanned days of earthly delights that you'll remember on your deathbed--stop pretending you're so cool that you forgot her name.

As you walk the roadside, the jerry can you've optimistically brought along even though you definitely didn't just run out of gas clangs against your leg.  The rhythm of it spells out a logic that would not fly in Math 103, but is so right it stings:

Citroën - Citron - Citrus - Lemon

The sun is beautiful and generous and you pray to it that you'll get ten more minutes alone with that butter-scented grad student who sold you the lemon in Bordeaux.  You'll let him pick the Edith Piaf melody to which he can croon his plea for mercy.

An hour later you make it to Gien and just start drinking.  They can tow the autocarcass if they want, they can roll it into the river for all you care.  It's late afternoon, you have money to burn since you bought a cheap shit car, and alcohol is the only help you're going to get until tomorrow morning.  

You're surprised not to be sick of white wine yet, not to have bolted for the voluptuous, pillowy epiphanies you came to expect from the reds and brandies that floated you through Southern France last week. These Loire whites are rigid, fierce, with the essence of cold stone and acidity like a wasp sting. In your mouth they dictate, not discuss. They are the opposite of what you thought you liked in wine.

So what is it that's kept you coming back to them, besides geography? When you were much younger you used to press a nine-volt battery to your tongue once, twice, again, holding it a little longer each time until the pain became unbearable.  This is not exactly like that, but it's not exactly different either.

At the bar you are into your second plate of sardines and ready to knock down an entire bottle of something.  You look at the carte des vins and take a guess towards the middle of the list--that's what you've been doing so far this trip and so far so good.  You let yourself assume "Coteaux du Giennois" means it was delivered from the winery to the restaurant on foot.  

The poker-faced bartender nods and you wonder if you just picked a tourist wine as he turns to the refrigerator.  He uncorks the bottle, gives you a new glass and walks away.


You pour into the same glass you've been using.  What comes out is pale, with a green aurora around the rim you're used to seeing after five days in the Loire Valley.  It glows so radiantly, even in this dim brown room, is the glass plugged into a wall outlet?  

Swirling and sniffing still makes you feel like an ass.  Even after however many thousand wines, it's as though your pants drop to your ankles every time you go through the motion.  But the dinner crowd hasn't arrived yet and the red-nosed old men down the bar pay you no attention as you expose yourself.  And it's worth it this time for the face-slap of glistening, dewy grass and fruit that issues forth.

You sip and do the suck-through-the-teeth aeration that is another habit of occasional-at-best value.  But for once the noise is not the obnoxious slurp of air disrupting wine, it's the fresh crunch of incisors penetrating an almost-ripe Anjou pear, ravenously, over and over.  "Dry" seems--no, is--the wrong word for something this refreshing, but the overachieving little saccharomyces cerevisae cells did their job well, obliterating every memory of sugar.  You eat an oily fish and take a much bigger drink.

The bottle empties quickly and your instinct is to get another, but it's 18h45 and maybe time for some rilletes de porc and red wine, something "imported" from Chinon.  You turn the menu over in your hands, not really reading it, and then you catch yourself singing softly.

I 'eard it srruuu ze grape-vine.

You change your mind, pay l'addition and walk back towards the river.