REX HILL
 
October 5, 2011 | REX HILL

Great Bottles of Wine: The modern Dodo-bird, or the common Grackle?

He Said...
- Mike Willison

I have had a few great bottles of wine in my day. A paltry few. More often, I have had a reasonably good to fair bottle of wine appear at a perfect moment leaving an indelible memory. Time and again, the garish, Hummer wines of the pricing über-stratosphere tend to fall flat with a whimper rather than raise a mighty huzzah! While I do not agree that any old plonk sloshed into my glass will a happy occasion make, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the beholder’s eye seldom sees things similarly.

Take, for example, this last New Year's Eve. I celebrated at the home of a friend in what has become our traditional manner with great friends, food, drink, music, games, dancing, and mirth. At midnight we choose a song that makes us wrinkle with embarrassment or giggle with the happy, bittersweet reminiscence of good times, and pop open the bubbles (even though they have been popping for many hours). All the usual suspects were there as well as few less conspicuous characters of both greater and lesser dignity. Call it a coincidence, call it bad luck, but the thing that struck me as funny was that, as we cleaned up the great mess the following afternoon, there was a bottle of Dom Pérignon amidst the rubble left half drunk near some toppled beer cans and uneaten maki rolls. It made for a few good mimosas. What had apparently been preferred, as the evidence accumulated, in great, happy slurps was the Costco classic St. Hilaire from Languedoc-Roussillon.

Now, I admit we were enjoying ourselves and that our palates may not have been 100% keen throughout the evening, but there is little doubt that the empty bottles were the result of people enjoying the wine, again and again. Great wine, in this case, is merely well-made wine with little pretention or fanfare served in a favorable atmosphere.

"Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result." –Wilde

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

Essentially, what you are saying here is that if one gets drunk enough, the "plonk" doesn't really matter. It seems that these are the "conditions" for the success of the Hilaire. So, as long as the eye of the beholder is, well, wearing beer goggles, things like "good" and "bad" don’t really apply? I've got to disagree.

Sure, I've had okay wine at a fabulous party, but it was the party I remembered, not the wine, and this seems to be the case with your New Year's fete. Did anyone stop to think about the wines as they drank them? I would argue no.  A great bottle of wine shouldn't be confused with a great party. A great bottle of wine stands alone. It is something to be remembered, cherished. It is not something that is "consumed in great, happy slurps" by the case-load. Those are good bottles, sure, but not great. A great bottle is something that happens rarely, infrequently and in paltry few sums. That is what keeps us coming back for more. After all, if we were all content to chase our next buzz with any old swill, would the pricing uber-stratosphere even exist?

Time Posted: Oct 5, 2011 at 10:38 AM
REX HILL
 
September 14, 2011 | REX HILL

Men are routinely stupid: why white wine gets the Heisman

He Said...
- Mike Willison

Men are, most assuredly, pretty ridiculous. We make bold statements, wild protestations, and haughty, puffed-up pectoral peacockings when challenged, yet willow into teary puddles of emotional melancholy over the slide of our fantasy baseball team in the daily standings. We believe that we are being watched. We think that everyone cares what we are up to and that there is some greater good we are upholding by our actions. For whatever reason, the behaviors of men, so we believe, are responsible for the reputation of Man.

Someone that knows more about anthropology than I will probably confirm this right away, but I believe that if you were to compare men and women to wild animals, the men would be pretty close to the genuine article; Maybe even un-evolved or dis-evolved. Our nature as hunter-gatherers remains somewhat unchanged in spite of the world advancing around us. Men have a need to look as if we have caught our food and drink in a trap made out household items and semi-precious poisonous gems we dug up in the back yard. We are dirty and have gilded and horned helmets. We throw the javelin. Our drinking pinkies have been forced up through a series of cruel and unusual experiments that have been foisted upon us by the publishers of Harper's Bazaar and makers of cream colored paper. We tape our pinkies down or have them broken in ritual ceremonies. The color of blood satisfies us, and our drink must be a reflection of this.

Maybe more important than even all of this is that we brutish men like to be right all of the time about everything. With wine, we are only comfortable remembering a small number of things about a minute couple of things only, and everything else is sissy juice. Big red wines look like blood and are obvious, chewy, imposing and good with steak when consumed young, and I am comfortable saying things like, "Cab" at restaurants without the emasculating Sommelier saying something like, "it's called MOO-ler TER-gow." Wild animals.

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

The evolution of the American palate has much to do with gender. Alcohol, in particular, has some very deep social roots. As soon as alcohol becomes a part of the picture, whether you were a law-abiding 21 years old before your first drink, or a teenage heathen like me, there's no denying the immediate division between the sexes and their choice of beverage. I, and all of my J-Crew-clad girlfriends, drank lemonade-flavored wine coolers. My boyfriend on the other hand, drank beer and whiskey. Neither of his choices was made because he liked the taste.

It’s sort of an early trial-by-fire for the palate. Things we would probably ease into naturally (like going from tea to coffee or from cheddar to Roquefort) are thrust upon men earlier, setting the stage for rougher, heartier alcohol preferences, and making a man’s journey into the wine world a bit backwards. Women, on the other hand, tend to start with the sweeter styles, move into light white territory, then ease into the big, burly Shirazes of Australia.

Although the impetus is the same, the reasons that men shy away from white wines becomes two-pronged: whites are more closely associated with what women drink (oh no!), and their manly palates are used to the harder stuff.  And it is unfortunate- nay, frustrating- as some of the best wines in the world are white. Riesling, for example (which, to further drive home the point is often done in a sweet style) is largely considered to be the most noble of the noble grapes.

Theories aside, the persistence of the white wine stigma is annoying. Trust me, men- your attractiveness is not determined by the color of the wine in your glass. If you are drinking wine, I view you as cultured, sophisticated. And if you are drinking white wine, I view you as self-assured, unfazed by ridiculous social norms and ultimately, sexy.

Time Posted: Sep 14, 2011 at 10:40 AM
REX HILL
 
September 7, 2011 | REX HILL

Food & Wine Pairing Is For Jerks, Right?

He Said...
- Mike Willison

One of the reasons that a great cheeseburger is so wonderful has to do with balance. The fat of the cheese, meat, and mayonnaise is offset by the tang of vinegar from pickles, ketchup and mustard, and salt from the seasoning. Other ingredients provide textural complements like crunchy lettuce or snappy tomatoes, while bacon sways the balance again with fat and salt and is often paired with something spicy like chipotle. While there are many ways to ruin a perfectly good cheeseburger (the indignity of medium-well and beyond, for example) I find that the choice of bread and how it is handled can make or break the entire deal. Soggy, too crusty, sweet and aromatic, or worst yet, absent. The bun is both the Achilles heel and the keystone in a well-balanced burger.

Making a good burger isn't all that challenging. Making a great burger has its difficulties but, as in many things, a little sustained initiative and practice should produce the desired results. So it is with pairing food and wine. It isn’t magic but rather it addresses the same constructs as does making a proper cheeseburger; most notably balance. If I am faced with a butter-poached lobster, what it is lacking is the vibrancy of acid. Squeeze a lemon on it, or enjoy a racy glass of Pinot Gris to begin to understand how the balance works.

Imagine a gloppy bowl of cheese dip. Now imagine how it turns your mouth into a slow-motion astronaut walking on planet mud puppy. Ask yourself, "What am I going to do about this viscous glob of deliciousness in order to prepare my palate for another heaping chipful?" Perhaps you will consider the brisk, cleansing sizzle of a carbonated beverage. The more sophisticated palate might apply the same principle to a delicious beer or a sparkling wine. It works because it creates a balance between the goo of the fat and the zoinks of the fizz. Wine is really just food, full of all of the same elements and more, that make the balancing act of cooking and eating so compelling, fun, and surprising.

Culinary genius is spawned of centuries of trial and error using the simplest ingredients in myriad ways, many of which were pretty lousy, like Spam or Chipped Beef. One need only to look at how many French dishes are basically scrambled eggs gone wrong to realize that the good ones stick around. So try a plump white wine with an arugula salad or black olives with marshmallows and see what comes of it.

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

Why does it have to be so technical? That's a lot to remember when standing in the supermarket aisle. Personally, it is an easy task- all I need to know is what I'm in the mood for. Who cares if I want red wine with fish? I've had many an enjoyable Syrah with salads. Sure, choosing one’s dinner and accompanying wine based on whim or mood might not create rare transcendent moments of taste bud bliss, but it needs to be said that one’s personal tastes are just that – personal.

Food and wine pairing isn't for jerks, it's just not something that needs to be so dang complicated.

Time Posted: Sep 7, 2011 at 10:41 AM
REX HILL
 
August 31, 2011 | REX HILL

Natural > Greenwashing > Nascar: How your wine made it to Daytona

He Said...
- Mike Willison

"Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast, at her, the child of honorable parents, at her, the mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman, at her, who had once been innocent, as the figure, the body, the reality of sin."

Hawthorne recognized the importance of brand recognition all too well. The big "A" on Hester Prynne was quickly identifiable to anyone within eyeshot of her as a sinner that had earned their sideways glances and private mutterings. Of course the book reveals all manner of duplicitous behavior on the part of ministers and husbands pretending to be doctors and Prynne, too, and in the end she is not forgiven for her behavior. Rather, Prynne is buried with a headstone that simply has the letter "A" carved into it, forever immortalizing her in shame and sinful behavior.

An easy solution to the greenwashing of the wine industry would be to require that wines made using conventional farming and heaps of chemical yuck-yucks should be required to put something on their labels announcing their many sins. May I suggest a scarlet picture of a bottle of Round-Up? Maybe a skull and Crossbow (bad chemical pun here for you nerdy types)? As a consumer, I too am frustrated by the NASCAR-ing of wine labels, proudly announcing how many certifications they have to signify that they aren't killing the planet with a sticker here and a logo there. Well, bully for you. Good job not being a jerk.

It seems that too many people are quick to pat themselves on the back for doing the right thing. Maybe it is time we start getting a bit more dark and stormy on everyone and work on our campaign of fear. Chances are, the industry will respond pretty quickly and the Shangri-La we all imagine will become a reality.

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

The greenwashing of wine continues to be a thorn in my side. As "organic" turns into "sustainable" turns into "biodynamic," I wonder where it all will end. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for preserving the environment. I drive a hybrid, recycle and support local and organic farming. But I don’t need to tattoo these facts to my forehead. The blatant self-promotion of all things green is disheartening.  Instead of wanting to preserve Mother Earth for the sake of Mother Earth, becoming green is now trendy.

And the worst part is that this marketing has become necessary. Unless a wine bears some type of "organic" label, the average consumer thinks he is drinking pesticide-laden, environment-depleting swill. This type of advertising is often misleading. Wines made "organically" aren't necessarily better for the environment.  Pesticides are traded for natural fertilizers, which still produce a high amount of greenhouse gases.   Wines made "organically" are often unstable due to lack of preservative use, making for bad wine.  The list goes on.

It’s also largely an American problem. Traditional vineyards in the age-old wine regions in France don’t need this type of advertising. They’ve shunned it in most cases, in fact, although they largely farm much more organically than the restrictions of organic certifications would allow. This seems infinitely nobler to me. We should all be farming this way – both out of respect for the environment and for the simple desire to make good wine. In addition, with global warming looming on our collective horizon, it just makes good sense to farm with extreme care. The world’s wine regions are steadily becoming warmer.  A vintner who doesn’t wish to stave this eventuality off at all costs would be idiotic.

Green should just be done, not talked about.  It should be the norm, not the exception that requires those few who adhere to certain regulations to become "certified" to prove their commitment to the earth. In the same manner that I don’t find it necessary to advertise my commitment to sustainable practices by covering my vehicle in bumper stickers which scream "Buy Local!" and "Ban the Bag!," I don’t want the wine I drink to find it necessary to advertise their commitments to the environment on their bottles in order to compete for sales.

Time Posted: Aug 31, 2011 at 10:43 AM
REX HILL
 
August 17, 2011 | REX HILL

But ours goes to eleven- The tenuous role of alcohol in wine

He Said...
- Mike Willison

LADY BRACKNELL- "The chin a little higher, dear. Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn. They are worn very high, at present."

So it is that alcohol in wine is the fashionable thing to be wearing either very high, or just somewhat lower than it is currently. Fashionable wine takes a few seasons to come and go and, just like fashion, can benefit a man to stick with what he knows, provided that what he knows is not parachute pants and Thriller zipper coats. Backlash only happens when someone gets wildly successful doing something that everyone else wishes they had thought of first, or people get genuinely sick of one thing or another. In this case, I believe it to be a combination of both.

Some sommeliers and wine merchants believe that high alcohol wines signify the end of an age of thought provoking, terroir driven wines that were profoundly better matches with food, made only by the most eccentric and affable wine mystics, and consumed in secret dining societies where only the very deserving would be allowed to consume even a drop of the goods. Other sommeliers have no problem lugging a $150, 16.6% alcohol Pinot Noir to the table to be served with your cowboy rib-eye charged ignobly to the corporate card.

What I know is this: delicate varieties become cloying and indistinct when produced in a high alcohol style. Pinot Noir is getting its hand slapped by Syrah for being on its side of the back seat of the car and mom is too busy talking on her mobile to notice so they bicker back and forth until they are all tangled up together and Mom is forced to turn down the radio and pull over. Peppery, inky Pinot Noir? Further, the winemaker that vinifies to high alcohols needs to figure out how to balance the resultant wine now that one of the calipers is in the red. Usually, one will look to longer maceration times, deeper extraction, longer and more aggressive new oak aging and, possibly having to acidify, chaptalize and re-acidify to sort out the mess. Imagine Audrey Hepburn in one of Cyndi Lauper's outfits from the 80's. You’d have to dye her hair, pierce her nose and feed her helium balloons for an hour before she could pull the outfit off. Some varieties just cannot handle the fashion.

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

Simply because something has always been a certain way doesn't mean that it should be that way. Philosophers call it the "is/ought distinction," and it is one that trips people up regularly. As the success of California Pinot Noir has shown, big, alcoholic, extracted, peppery, inky Pinot Noir is hot.  (Please excuse the pun.)   So what if Pinot Noir has always been delicate?  That’s not necessarily how it always will be – or should be.

Personally, I agree with you about style. I prefer cool climate (and cool vintage) Pinot Noir. I like the tension, the promise. I like to hold on to my Pinot and feel a sense of accomplishment when I open a great, older bottle and am rewarded with a delicate, earthy, balanced wine. Because I want this, I don’t want a high level of alcohol. However, I am not the norm.

95% of all wine is consumed within 4 months of purchase. In this sense, who cares that the alcohol level will be out of balance in 10 years? It’s in balance now and that is what matters to most… now. If right now I’m craving a bone-in rib-eye, a 16.5% abv, peppery, inky Pinot sounds pretty darn good.

Time Posted: Aug 17, 2011 at 10:45 AM
REX HILL
 
August 10, 2011 | REX HILL

California Pinot Noir is like…

He Said...
- Mike Willison

Largely becoming irrelevant. Don't get me wrong, there are some ground breaking, supremely talented Pinot producers in California that have done a world of good for the grape the world over, but I believe it is overwhelmingly going to their heads.

Most importantly, California has become the home of a style of Pinot Noir that is becoming harder and harder to distinguish from varieties usually grown in the Rhone valley of France, a harsh and unforgiving climate reserved for heartier grapes. While I am all for wines to express a certain personality indicative of their provenance, winemaking style, regional enological methods or whatever, I find the dark, syrupy morass of monolithic, garish and flamboyant Pinots oozing from California to be a sure sign of the total flatlining of distinctiveness in wine.

I get that the mentality of "bigger is better" has its supporters and wine shops all around the US are littered with the platinum cards of score-seeking customers looking to "say they were there." I also know that getting a cab hungry nation to try something largely considered to be "feminine," "delicate," or "elegant" can be a bit challenging. I further know that being the kid in school who played by his own rules either made you a hero or an outcast depending on what all the cool kids thought. So, how is any of that different now? It isn't, except no one is really sure who the cool kids are so we all just continue to play our Huey Lewis cds and dance in the bedroom with a hairbrush instead of taking a risk for fear of having your pants pulled down at the big pep rally. A cool pair of underwear can make all the difference and right now most California Pinot producers are wearing something their mom's picked out for them.

It would be refreshing to see more than the few maverick Pinot producers in California step out and express themselves so that the needle skips off the record when they enter the room.

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

Unfortunately, that just isn't the case. On the global scale California Pinot Noir is as relevant today as it has always been. The reasons are simple: marketing, celebrity, and the American palate.

When the average Joe goes to the store and is confronted with 5 shelves of Pinot Noir, he's likely going to choose a wine based on things he knows rather than take a chance on something new. First, he'll choose based on name recognition. Has he heard of Dundee? Not likely. But Napa? Sure thing.

Things like price, bottle placement and even label design play a role, but I'd say the other most influential wine marketing tool is the ubiquitous score you mentioned. The wine world is intimidating. We all want to be experts, but really, how much do I have to study just to get a good bottle of wine to go with the spaghetti I'm making tonight? If someone else has taken the time to become an expert, and subsequently rates the wines for me, then heck, I'm off the hook. And no one considers who is churning out these scores. In reality, the taster has likely tasted upwards of 100 different wines in that day, so which stands out? The huge, fruity, alcoholic ones.  So, really, bigger is better, and until Americans start caring about 1-2 percentage points of alcohol (extremely unlikely), California Pinot Noir's corner on the market is here to stay.

Time Posted: Aug 10, 2011 at 10:46 AM
REX HILL
 
August 3, 2011 | REX HILL

Opening the book on closures in wine: turning the screw

He Said...
- Mike Willison

Society is crumbing to pieces. Our collective attention spans are extremely short and shrinking into 140-character sputterings about the daily stuff of life. Things that do not require ceremony (like the halftime show at a Wild Card playoff) are long on celebrity appearances and million dollar pyrotechnic flamboyance with tearful homage to retired off-tackles while we complain of long wedding ceremonies made intolerable by earnest vows and loving testimonials. Romance is dying. If I asked my wife to marry me on Facebook she would have lit me on fire and paraded me through the streets of town. Unwed women would throw first generation iPods at me in disgust.

While I am not one that believes that every moment requires pensive reflection, nor do I believe that the past was a better time that we should strive to recapture, I do feel that there are certain things that demand a moment of repose, and that speak to our notions of what it means to consume and live and be a contributing member of society. Wine is one of them. To the people that toil in the vineyards, to the people that act out a frenzied ballet at each crush, to the lab rats that crunch numbers, titrate and inhale noxious CO2 emissions and worse, to the barrel coopers and their legion of forest shepherds, to the thankless bottling line crew and to the countless generations of Portuguese families harvesting in the oak forests to create corks, we owe this reflection and ritual. Not only to give them thanks, but to recognize their considerable efforts in capturing time, space, and lightning in a bottle so deftly, so beautifully, and so very magically.

So allow yourself the indulgence of doing something with ceremony and purpose. Cut the foil, remove the cork, wipe clean the bottle opening, pour, admire, breathe of the aromas, sip, splash, savor and relish in the delights of a job well done.

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

So many people these days are asking me what I think about screwcaps. The perception has long been that screwcaps equal bad wine, and although there are certainly some cheap wines under screwtop, there are also most certainly some cheap wines bottled under cork. So why use them? One main reason: quality.

With a cork enclosure, you really never know what you’re going to get when you open the bottle. Cork taint (a pesky, impossible to detect bacteria also known as trichloroanisole – or TCA) is prevalent – up to 15% of the wine industry is lost yearly just to this one potential downfall.

The argument is often made that wines age better with a cork enclosure. Maybe, but let’s face it – most people age their wine only as long as it takes to drive home from the grocery store. Taste the wine, people. Is it good? If so, drink it. Don’t worry about whether or not you need a fancy doohickey to open it.

Time Posted: Aug 3, 2011 at 10:50 AM
REX HILL
 
May 25, 2011 | REX HILL

AVA’s: How many is too many?

He Said...
- Mike Willison

There are currently 199 American Viticultural Areas approved in the US by the TTB, with many more seemingly on the way. 112 of those AVA's are located in winemaking mega-state, California. This is enough until something significant changes. The US has the world's smallest and the world's largest appellations in the Cole Ranch, California AVA at 189 acres and the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA at 19.1 million acres, respectively. While each state, hamlet and outcropping of rocks aims to distinguish itself by proving to the TTB that it, by virtue of its unique geographic and geological conditions, can make wines of identifiable distinction, three realities exist that preclude  anyone from actually caring.

The first is the totally beat-into-the-ground by bloggers and wine geeks that is a totally true trend that most wine is not particularly different seeming than its neighbor geographically, varietally, or by virtue of shelf positioning at the bottle shop.

The second is that the historical precedent for appellations has been eroding into the ether for some time now. 300 years ago the world was very, very big. It was difficult for wine folk from the far reaches of the empire to communicate about methods, best practices and innovation which meant there was little corroboration between the winemakers of Alsace and Sicily, for example. Technique was passed down through generations and was collectively copied and tweaked within villages creating a sense of place that, in today's terms, was extremely small. The world, being very small now, has changed so that community includes us all, from the biggest wine barons to the smallest producer of closet blaufrankish, and we have the same tools, insights and technology available. Our village has become the world.

The third contributing factor is that many wine drinking people just don't care if their wine comes from San Ysidro or the Niagara Escarpment, just that it costs $X, depending on who they are trying to impress, if anyone.

If good wine tastes like it comes from somewhere and bad wine tastes like it comes from anywhere then we have been living in a pretty mediocre time for wine.

 

She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

While I do think that there is some snobbery and certainly no shortage of marketing involved in the distinction of AVAs, I also think that the regional (and sub-regional) breakdown of winegrowing areas is a practice that can, and should, continue.

Wine regions are created to distinguish one region from the next, some based on soil type, some based on geography, some based on climate. While these may seem arbitrary to the average consumer, they are anything but to the winemakers and grape growers who exist within their confines.

The concept of terroir is alive and well in these debates. And we can't bring up this concept without allowing for its ambiguity. Given this, it doesn't make sense to argue that they are ill-defined or vague. By nature, of course they are.

When we start to ask smaller regions to distinguish themselves from one another without ANY ambiguity allowed, we may find it difficult to distinguish the large ones for truly solid reasons as well. It's a slippery slope. And with so much personal interest locked into the classifications of the different AVAs, attempting to place hard, factual, solid regulations upon a concept that is anything but is an impossible task. I say why try? Drink, enjoy, and be happy that people are taking enough pride in where they make wine to put their region on a map.

Time Posted: May 25, 2011 at 10:48 AM