New York Wine Diary: Day 2 – A Look in the Rear-View Mirror at 1990 (Mouton, Chapoutier and Riesling)

Drinking wine is always to some extent about looking back through the rear-view mirror at the past, because the wine in your glass didn’t just miraculously form there, rather, in the more or less distant past somebody made it then put it in that bottle. Even – a heretical statement I know! – so-called “natural” wines have all been made and bottled by someone, even if she or he’s claiming to have a direct line to God, can literally feel the Force, or has the hots for the divine. Good, bad and ugly wines are all made.

Of course, you can do this rear-view mirror thing more systematically as a group of friends and I did on my last night in Berlin, by focusing on one particular vintage. We Berliners picked 1990 because just the it was the other day that there was the 25th anniversary of German reunification on October 3rd, 1990. I’d missed the Berlin Wall coming down, because I had terrible spinal problems in the summer and fall of 1989, but on October 2nd 1990 I rose early at my apartment in Bernkastel on the Mosel and set off by train Berlin (a 12 hour journey back then!) to experience the celebrations there that night. At the very moment of reunification, midnight of the night October 2nd to 3rd I passed through the Brandenberg Gate at the center of a peaceful crowd estimated to be one million strong. The best thing of all was that the PA system was too weak for us to be able to hear the politicians pontificating about their great achievement and the momentous historic moment; perfect!

1990 was also an excellent vintage for German Riesling – arguably the first of the current Golden Age – and I stashed a lot away as a result. However, during the intervening 25 years there were plenty of opportunities to open those bottles, and so my stocks are now down to the point where I could just about offer a selection of these wines. A couple of friends were in the same situation, some of them having high-end French reds that I hadn’t bought back then, so we clubbed together and invited a handful more people who we felt would really appreciate the wines to join us in the Kurpfalz Weinstuben in Berlin. That’s where the photograph above (taken by my dentist Gerhard Gneist, like all the following pictures) was taken. I’m holding the first wine of the evening, the 1990 Dunkley red from England (!), a wine that was theoretically made from Pinot Noir grapes and was just about alive.

After this bizarre start to the evening we turned our attention to more serious red wines, including the 1990 Château Mouton-Rothschild with the painting by Francis Bacon on the label – the Irish painter died just before the wine was released and the painting had been lying in a draw at Mouton for years – and its smaller brother from the Medoc, Bordeaux the 1990 Château Clerc-Milon. The 1990 Mouton was darker in color, more youthful and more oaky in aroma, more powerful and tannic in taste than the 1990 Clerc-Milon, but opinion in the group was divided as to whether all this “more” made it better. I was one of the group who preferred the more elegant and harmonious taste of the smaller brother; a delicious glass of wine, if not mind-blowing. More than anything else it was the characteristic aroma of roasting coffee beans of the 1990 Mouton that either turned us on or off the Mouton according to our personal taste. The real competitor to it was the 1990 Hermitage La Sizeranne from the house of Chapoutier in the Northern Rhône, a wine of peppery power and great balance. The wines from this producer today are much more flashy and bigger than this, and I wonder if they will age anything like as this one did.

Then we switched to German Riesling and the change was like going from day to night, because of the enormous freshness of the 1990 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Auslese from Weingut Willi Schaefer in the Mosel. I remember this as a young wine and it always had the same diamond-like brilliance and positive hardness (it has a stack of acidity!) that it did the other evening in Berlin. Blind I would have guessed it to be no more than half it’s actual age. nobody was hesitant about praising this wine and it was a tough moment when the last drops were poured from the bottle. My guess is that in another 10 or even 20 years this masterpiece of Mosel vitality and delicacy will taste just as good!

Then came a pair of Gold Cap, i.e. best barrel bottlings of Auslese that were truly extraordinary. The 1990 Kiedricher Gräfenberg Riesling Auslese Gold Cap from Robert Weil in the Rheingau was an opulent wine packed with dried apricot aroma and at least as much power as the 1990 Mouton had in its very different way. Here was a wine of the kind that win blind tastings, and not without good reason. As imposing as it was, I was completely bowled over by the 1990 Erdener Prälat Riesling Auslese Gold Cap from Dr. Loosen in the Mosel, because here there was no fat on its sinewy and tautly muscular body. As Paula Sidore of said, it tasted of the peach stone rather than the flesh of the peach. To me it tasted as mineral as any wine gets, and this component of the wine seemed to soak up the sweetness (not high) in it completely, so that it tasted totally clean and invigorating. As I swallowed the first sip of it the 25 years seemed to dissolve for a moment. Then I realized that all I was doing was looking in a rear-view mirror that was turned in a particularly favorable direction, and the next morning I would have to pack my bags and fly to New York…

Many thanks to Rainer Schultz of the Kurpfalz Weinstuben who will be retiring at the end of October after 40 years at Berlin’s most historic wine bar. Much of that history he wrote!

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 7 – How I Stole the Ideas for ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA from Rock Star American Winemakers

Good writers steal all their best ideas, but then they give them a twist the person they took them from would never have thought of. In this kind of way I got the idea for ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA from Randall Grahm (pictured above on the big day), the charmingly crazy and sensationally creative winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyards of Santa Cruz in California, who I first met at the winery on March 2nd, 1992. That day he told me that California should, “make wines that celebrate our image.” When I asked him what his home state’s advantages for winemaking he told me, “1) lack of history, 2) flexibility, 3) cheap land, 4) sunshine.”  Beginning with his Rhône-style red Le Cigare Volante (first vintage 1984) he’s built one successful one new wine brand after the other, later selling some of them for stacks of millions, only to move on to the next daring high risk project.

At lunchtime on November 18th 2013 we sit next to one another in The Breslin Restaurant in the ACE Hotel on just off Broadway. After presenting his new wines to a small group of people from NYWC (New York Wine City) Randall became very quiet and thoughtful. Suddenly the words popped out that were to set me thinking, then traveling and writing. “Nobody’s written about the sea change in the wine industry. 20 years ago it was much more idealistic. People in the wine industry wanted meaning and now they want money. OK, I’m interested in both. Now there’s a cynicism and self-consciousness, and a sense of randomness…The weird thing is 20 years ago your job as a winemaker was to make a really great wine. If you did, then you sold it. Now you don’t know if you can sell it! Then you’ve got all the new shock labels. Is that how you sell wine now?”

Finally, he rather sheepishly acknowledged that, of course, he was responsible for some of the first eccentric wine labels. Some of them were sitting on the table in front of us! That only made what he said all the more fascinating. Was it true? And if so, did it apply only to California, or Wine America as a whole? Here was a Big Question that it would be exciting to answer, and I don’t mean a nice round answer, rather the jagged-edged truth.

Shortly after I get to know another extraordinary winemaker from California, Clark Smith (pictured above). The author of Postmodern Winemaking (2013, University of California Press) uses science to debunk the myths and misnomers that afflict the wine scene, obscuring its members’ view of the real world of wine. We met at a tasting of American wines in the cellar of the ACE Hotel on December 15th 2013. He began with some sweeping assertions. “The paparazzi of the wine industry have hit us with the accusation of manipulation.” He was talking about my profession, and I cast nervously around the room to see which of my colleagues were there, but I was the only wine journalists present, in fact NYWC was conspicuous by its absence. “It is my view that all winemaking is extremely manipulative. It’s all about artisanality,”he continued. Of course, artisanal derives from “art”, which we in the West traditionally contrast with nature. Today “natural” and “authentic” are crucial words for NYWC and the scene everywhere on Planet Wine, but when I hear them I often wonder what my colleagues are really talking about.

Then came an even more important observation. “If you count the number of different brands that each state produces, rather than the number of gallons of wine each producers, then California doesn’t dominate American wine in anything like the same way.” What he was talking about is the fact that a very large proportion of California’s wine production goes into a very small number of brands. The production figure for each of them needs to be so high in order to enable them to be nationally distributed in a nation with 310 million inhabitants.  Because, for example, few wineries in New York State distribute outside the Northeast so there are few larger brands and very many different wines considering a total statewide wine production that’s a fraction of California’s. That makes for stylistic diversity, and is often married to idealism.

The blind tasting that followed his remarks demonstrated again and again the amazing diversity of American wine. What were the high points? Norton is arguably the American wine grape and the 2010 Norton from the Augusta Winery in August/Missouri (a short drive outside St. Louis) was a powerful red wine that could hold its own against the best from California, but costs under $20 from the winery! Even more exotic, but equally delicious was the red Petit Blue from Hermit Woods Wines in Meredith/New Hampshire. All the experts present praised the last wine when they tasted it blind, but none guessed it was actually made from wild blueberries and honey! Clearly some major stuff had happened in Wine America but so far gone either completely or largely unreported. It struck me then that if Randall was right with his observations, then they apply far more to California than the rest of America.

I realized that I’d already begun investigating what I now call the Other Wine America, the one that doesn’t either belong to the California mainstream, or try to imitate it, many years before. For example, there were my trips to South Dakota in 2005 and 2010, and my more recent discovery of the New Jersey’s wine industry. During much of 2014 I was very busy promoting my book BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), but all the time the Other Wine America was getting its claws deeper and deeper into me. I had to throw myself into this and a trip to see the wine industry of Arizona in November 2014 convinced me that I indeed had a Big Subject that few of my colleagues were taking seriously. It was an intoxicating thought.

At the end of last year I realized that I had a great opening story for a book about America, Wine and I in the outrageous tale of my first visit to the USA in September 1985. This had the advantage of never having been told in writing before, and I immediately knew that if I was going to use it I had to describe those events as if they had happened yesterday. However, there would then be a big jump from this story to the following ones that would focus on the present. Could I risk that? I felt very hesitant for a while.

It was my American therapist in Berlin, Dr. Brian Pheasant (sorry no photo) who gave me the decisive push that made me start work on what is now ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #1. He loved the thought of me writing something outrageous, no doubt because he felt this would be therapeutic for me. And mostly his advice had proved to be spot on, at least when I followed it thoroughly. Suddenly all the ideas came together in my head and all I needed to do was write. That’s now the task facing me with issue #2. The subject is Arizona. WATCH THIS SPACE!

In the meantime you can click the link below and buy #1!

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 1 – The Backstory to ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #1

Every story has a backstory, however, I must point out that this is a widely misunderstood expression. A backstory isn’t simply the biography of a character or group of characters before the beginning of the story in which she/he or they feature, rather it is the series of events that directly lead to the situation at the beginning of the story. Today I have to tell a backstory, the one that leads up to the publication of ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #1 – Point of Entry featuring Very Bad PD as a Kindle e-book just few days ago. Put more simply: how and why did I come to publish this completely outrageous little book!

The story this new work tells is of my first visit to America on a press trip to Baltimore back in September 1985. Normally, a press trip is the last thing I would consider writing about at length, but so much happened on this one that even as it all happened it was clear to me that this definitely wasn’t normal. Over the weeks, months and years after I returned to London and my life as an absolute beginner at wine journalism I frequently recounted episodes that occurred during those first days in America, and they always seemed to amuse my listeners. However, as the years stretched into decades I took this to be no more than a heap of amusing stories for the dinner table. The greater significance of the whole story – its themes of success and failure in life, love and sex, rites of passage into the big wide world, etc – eluded me. I just didn’t get that, although I told these stories so often.

Everything changed one rainy day in the summer of 2011 in the steep vineyards above the Rheingau wine village of Lorch thanks to the woman pictured above, Regine Schneider of the Schneiderei PR and marketing agency in Berlin. I was on the road with film director Alexander Saran and his team shooting the second series of the TV series Weinwunder Deustchland, or Wine Wonder Germany, for Bavarian Broadcasting (a PBS station). That day I had to interview young winegrower Eva Fricke of the eponymous start up winery in the vineyards high above the river Rhine. She told me beforehand that she was nervous about appearing in front of the camera and asked if she could bring a friend with her for support. I explained to her what the situation on location would be, and told her that as long as her friend accepted this she could join us that day. Her friend was Regine Schneider.

I got on very well with Regine from the first moment. We frequently had to interrupt shooting to wait for the rain to stop, and this gave the three of us plenty of time for chatting and storytelling. The subject of America came up and I told one of those “after-dinner” stories about my first trip there, the one about a PR woman. Both the young women found it very entertaining and Regine suggested that I should write the whole story of that trip down, because, “there’s so little literature about really bad PR.” Suddenly, there was not only a reason to write, but also a potential title.

That was a couple of steps forward, but only small ones. Just as a murderer needs a motive to kill his victim, so a writer needs a compelling reason to write a story – at least if there’s no money being offered to do so. Over the next years I saw Regine Schneider a couple more times, and each time she asked me about the Very Bad PR story. However, I saw Eva Fricke (pictured above – her choice of photo!) more often, because I was closely following the development of her dry and medium-dry Rieslings. During the last four years they went from being very good to really spectacular, so we often tasted them together, and each time she would ask me when I would finally around to writing the Very Bad PR story. That didn’t provide me with a reason to write it, but her niggling reminders prevented me from forgetting the project.

Towards the end of 2014 I realized that the story of my first trip to America was the logical place to begin a book about the unsung winemaking heroes and heroines of America, because it explained how and why I got hooked up with wine and with America. That makes it the backstory to all those stories. Writing it took me some time, due to the interruption of my round the world trip in January-February 2015, but I completed it in the spring. At first it seemed unfortunate that the idea of publishing my stories about the unsung winemakers of America as a printed book wouldn’t fly, but in the end this proved to be fortunate, because it forced me to see them as a series of much shorter self-contained works. Then came the realization that self-publishing as e-books for Kindle is really rather easy. Just as a murderer needs to have the means to kill his victim, so a writer also needs the a practical method to publish his story in order for it to be viable.

Seeing this story as a self-contained entity, rather than a long book chapter, greatly helped focus my mind on how to make the story more exciting to read. The final impulse came from a conversation with my friend the TV producer and reporter Jürgen Fränznick, pictured above just a few weeks ago. Jürgen helped me move all my stuff into my new NYWC abode in Williamsburg, Brooklyn after which we went for a coffee together in the nearby Oslo coffee bar at 328 Bedford Avenue. Jürgen told me that he had something important to say about the stories on my blog, but it was critical, so did I want to hear it? I said that made it even more important for me to hear it, and he told me that the stories on my blog were too elliptical to ever achieve wide popularity. It was quite a shock, but a good shock, because it gave me the final kick up the ass that I needed to sharpen up several crucial points in the story. For better or worse it is my first really straight story!

To purchase it click on the following link:

Thanks once again Regine for setting me on this course!

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NYWC Diary: Day 12 – The Cover Story of ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #1

The image on the cover of my first e-book, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #1 pictured above, has already got a lot of comment and I felt that I must tell the story of how it came about. By chance a friend in NYWC (New York Wine City) recently introduced me to Angelyn Cabrales, a young Philippine-American artist who is still studying in New Jersey. We were having brunch in a waterfront restaurant and in spite of all the distractions it didn’t take long before Angelyn showed me some of her work on her iPhone. Her circular portraits were like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and I was immediately very excited, not least because of the medium. It was clear to me from the first glance that although they looked like drawings or collages involving drawing, in fact they were stitched. I recognized the embroidery hoop and metal clip with a screw that hold the cloth tight in a circle from school. As a child, I’d done some embroidery, but of a much more basic kind than this.

I asked Angelyn to email me some photos of her work, and I saw them at home on my computer screen I knew that I would be commissioning one of these works for the cover of my first e-book for Kindle. At this point I’d already asked Alexandra Weiss of Weisswieschwarz to design a logo for the series that would harmonize with the STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL logo that previously stood at the masthead of this ship. I was also into the final round of corrections to the manuscript and it was clear to me that the PARENTAL ADVISORY Explicit Content sign would need to go on the cover, not least because of paragraph one of the main Text (there is an introduction before that disturbing pornographic moment).  Suddenly, I had a concept for the cover, Alexandra Weiss agreed to do the design work, and all I needed was a portrait of me by Angelyn, since I am the main character in ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #1. She worked very quickly and I collected it from her at Caffe Reggio in Greenwich Village just over a month ago. As soon as I saw it I knew that it was absolutely right. Shortly after that she sent me the following series of photos of its creation.

At this early stage only the vaguest tentative outlines of the image are present, and you really couldn’t imagine what was coming if you didn’t know already.

Now it looks a bit spooky and reminds me of H.G. Wells novel The Invisible Man that made a big impression on me as a teenager.

But with the outline of just one side of the face the image becomes much clearer. It may be stitched, but if you see it at this stage, then it is clear that here stitching is drawing.

Now seen from a greater distance it’s plain that the white cloth on which the portrait is taking shape lies over the red and blue patterned cloth that will form the background. Angelyn explained to me that when the portrait is completed she then cuts away the remainder of the white cloth to expose the background. This is, in fact, a very simple method, but I think a very effective one for it creates a dramatic effect without any unnecessary complication. The form comes from the tools of the medium, and she has not complicated this either, rather remained true to it and trusted it. As someone who tends to unnecessarily complicate things (who is also well aware of that problem) I greatly appreciate this drive for clarity through simplicity.

Seeing how “rough” her cover art for ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #1 looked at the early stage of its making was also reassuring, because the text was also horribly rough in its early stages. Ernest Hemingway once said, “the first draft of anything is shit,” and that certainly applies to my story. I also hat to cut some material off, and to add a few things that accentuated the situation of the 25 year old me in the story. It is a story about success and failure in love and life, driven hopes and fears, lust and anxiety, and is also the story of strange rites of initiation into the way the world really works. There is, of course, some wine in it and plenty about America. It is also one of very few literary works about PR, and may be the ultimate “how NOT to” book on PR. Inexplicably, all of this does make a round whole, and that makes Aneglyn Cabrales striking cover image all the more appropriate. All the trial versions of Alexandra Weiss’ cover design were great, but I chose the one that showed the circular image with the clip and screw in fall to be faithful to this remarkable work of art.

To purchase it click on the following link:


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NYWC Diary: Day 8 – #1 is Completely Outrageous and Coming Very Soon on Kindle!

Yes, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #1 is completely outrageous and coming very soon on Kindle. There was no alternative to applying the Parental Advisory Explicit Content sticker to the cover of my new work, pictured above, because of the no-holds-barred way that the first of this series of stories about wine, America and I is told. Already the first paragraph of the main text (there is a brief introduction before that) pushes the envelope of what you can say in a wine book all the way to the limit, and then some. I promise you that this was not just a willful act of provocation and I’m not only trying to shock and awe. Rather, it is the logical consequence of deciding to tell the story of my first experience of America without hesitation or obfuscation.

This is the backstory to a series of tales about the underground rock star winemakers of America that will follow during the coming months and years, and its purpose is not only to explain how this project started, but also to set the tone for all that will follow. During the last years I often said that wine is a third world region of journalism, meaning that the research was often poor, probing questions were not asked, uncomfortable issues weren’t raised, nor was accepted wisdom was not called into question, much less did the story have even a convincing progression from beginning to middle to end, nor was there anything compelling about the whole that would compensate for these weaknesses. Instead, it more or less did the modest job it was supposed to do, neatly filled the slot allotted to it without particularly upsetting or pleasing anyone, the writer collected the fee (writers generally don’t receive a salary) then didn’t really worry that the readers weren’t so interested in what he or she had written. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that all writing about wine is like this, but all too often this is a fair description of what is written about wine, and of how it is written.

My new work tries to radically break with this, and unashamedly seeks to surprise and entertain to the max, because this is the way to grab readers’ attention. I wouldn’t have written this story first if it hadn’t been for the fact that when I told it people begged me to write it down. I wouldn’t have been able to publish it so quickly and easily were it nor for the possibilities that e-books open. However, you must tell me if I am on the right track, or have maybe even succeeded in my radical goal. By clicking on the link below you can order now for delivery early on the day of publication, Sunday, September 27 of the year of Our Lord 2105. The price is just under $5. Those of you who don’t own a Kindle also have the option of downloading the free Kindle app onto an iPhone or iPad and reading it there.

The cover features a work by the young New Jersey based artist Angelyn Cabrales who will also be responsible for the cover art of the next issues of ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA. Please be patient, very shortly, there will be a story here about the making of the work pictured above. Perhaps some of you can guess the medium she uses before that story appears in a couple of days? Using a completely contemporary image for the cover of this story set in Baltimore many years ago is my way of announcing that this is no exercise in nostalgia, rather I have tried to describe those events as if they happened yesterday. This wasn’t difficult because they were so very colorful, packed with sex and love, very bad PR, a declaration of war, alcohol, vomit, corpses and cockroaches. If I’d tried to make up a great story I wouldn’t have come close to this true story. And although the wine content is on the low side compared with the stories that will follow, it was enough to persuade me to return to America and to make NYWC (New York Wine City) my second home.


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New York Riesling Diary: Day 6 – FLX Launches a Great Riesling Vintage!

I am really not a fan of vintage tables, much less the declaration that this or that year is a Great Vintage, because every vintage varies considerably in quality from winery to winery, and sometimes no less from one plot of vines to the next wine. However, if we accept those facts as given, then I’m willing to stick my neck out and say that 2014 is a great vintage for Finger Lakes (FLX) Riesling. That was amply demonstrated this afternoon at the Riesling Vintage Launch of the FLX Quality Alliance at the Scandinavian Center on Park Avenue in New York Wine City where wineries large and small with widely contrasting winemaking styles shone.

Of course, some shone brighter than others, none more so than the tiny Boundary Breaks with their dry 2014 Riesling “239″, one of the wines of the new vintage that will help to change professional and public perception of what an FLX Riesling is like. You see, there are still plenty of people out there ranging from the somnolent to the somms who think that dry FLX Riesling is a light, tart and austere wine only for acid hounds and Riesling geeks. This kind of full ripe stone fruit aromas and elegant freshness just isn’t what most people expect from the region – some somms and journalists will be seriously disappointed because the acidity doesn’t bite! -  but I strongly believe it’s the taste of the future. In a less extrovert form it was also strongly present in the medium-dry 2014 Round Rock Riesling from Lamoreaux Landing on Seneca Lake, and in the sleek and mineral dry 2014 Estate Riesling from Thirsty Owl on Cayuga Lake. However, it was more or less present in all the 2014 Rieslings shown at today’s tasting.

In some ways, the most remarkable achievement showcased today was the leap in quality that the wines from Wagner Vineyards on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake have made recently.  They were represented by marketing director Katie Roller, who is one of the tight team lead by John Wagner that has steadily cranked up the quality at this large producer (225 acres of vineyards) over the last five years. She had good reason to smile, for not only was the 2013 Dry Riesling from Wagner recently declared Best in Class of the dry Rieslings at the 2015 Finger Lakes Wine Symposium, but the 2014 vintage of the same wine is at least as good as the 2013. Here is a prototypic new style FLX Riesling with a vibrant acidity and more than enough fruit aromas to carry it, a hint of spitz to lift the wine’s juicy, surprisingly full body and a very clean, beautifully balanced finish that draws you back for more. And we are talking about a wine that retails for just $15!  This combination will further push the reputation of the FLX as the premier Riesling producing region on the Eastern Side of America, and of Riesling as the premier grape of the Finger Lakes. Wagner’s rise is seriously good news for the FLX and for wine drinkers in the United States of Riesling!



New York Riesling Diary: Day 3 – Some Pictures (from the NYWC Wine Riot) Speak for Themselves!

There’s little need to write much in the way of explanation for these images from the NYWC Wine Riot yesterday evening and today, except to point out that it was 2013 vintage dry Rieslings from Dr. Loosen on the Mosel, Robert Weil in the Rheingau and Wittmann in Rheinhessen which generated this excitement at the end of the crash courses on dry German Riesling I gave at this off-the-scale wine event. By the way, I never saw any of the people pictured with me before they entered crash course zone B where I was performing and will do so twice more this evening.

This picture shows that the tattoo culture unleashed by the Summer of Riesling back in 2008 is still very much alive and kicking, even if officially the Summer of Riesling now only happens at the Terroir wine bars. Just the other evening at Terroir TriBeCa I experienced an astonishing food and wine pairing by complete chance. Kelby Russell, the winemaker of  Red Newt in the FLX wanted to try the dry 2013 Gaisberg Riesling from Schloss Gobelsburg in the Kamptal region of Austria and it arrived almost simultaneously with our burgers. It was totally “wrong” according to all the rules and the books, but it tasted so very right!

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 1 – Wine Rethinking (or how a Change is Not as Good as a Rest!)

Moving from one place to another, both in the sense of traveling and of moving house unleashes unusual energies in me, and I’m still feeling the after-effects of doing both simultaneously yesterday. This is my new place in New York Wine City (NYWC), although I should point out that the windows of my room look out the back of the top floor of this three-story house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Arriving here from my currently improvised quarters in Berlin, Germany set my mind spinning at unusually high revs, because during the months prior to 2am on Wednesday, September 16th when I landed on this rather solid piece of ground, my situation had felt seriously nomadic.

When I was a child and I said or did something that the grown-ups didn’t like there were lots of sayings they used to throw at me like, “practice makes perfect,” ” all things come to those who wait,” and “a change is as good as a rest.” I used to hate them, because they were all frustrating for me. Are you familiar with that feeling from your own childhood? Now I have to admit that practice really does make perfect, but, on the other hand I consider saying all things who come to those who wait is just a thought-terminating cliché designed to quickly end discussion. However, for me the worst of those three examples is the last, because I never found change restful. It’s a blatant lie as far as I’m concerned, because change always made me think at far higher speed than normal, which is always hard work. Even for those many millions people seeking excapism from the work-a-day world this only works if the change is to a resort holiday or a Harry Potter novel, rather than a holiday in a crummy hotel or bad pulp fiction.

Let me explain what’s been going through my mind. It suddenly hit me what a very unusual thing it is that I earn my living by writing about wine, while, on the other, this city is full of people who are obsessed with specialist stuff like jazz music, cigars or wine. What those fields have in common is that while regular people often partake of these pleasures, they usually regard them as being closed worlds that they’ll never actually understand. Sure, some of those people become determined to make sense of, for example, wine and plunge themselves into it, but often they become gruesome wine nerds. We wine journalists, including myself, take a bunch of ideas about wine (e.g. that it is an art form, that it’s all about terroir) dead seriously that are completely outside the thinking of regular wine consumers. Worse still, we’re completely unaware of the fact that we’re as far outside their perspective as the New Horizons probe that just passed Pluto is from Earth’s orbit around the sun. Like it, we just plough on ever deeper into the void, then we wonder why nobody except the nerds can keep up with us, or even wants to try and do so.

The problem is that most attempts to overcome this gulf between wine insiders and wine outsiders end up dumbing down the entire subject and employing simplifications so gross that the truth in wine gets watered down to the point where you can taste the chlorine in that water! This is no solution, but what are the alternatives? A new German language wine magazine called SCHLUCK – a print magazine that will appear just twice a year – is one of many possible answers to this question. It is full of great story-telling and strong to outrageous opinions, most importantly from the Austrian  photographer and journalist Manfred Klimek, who’s also the editor in chief. Of course, given the fact that issue #01 just came out a few days ago I can’t tell you if this path is one that will appeal to a large number of consumers, but at least it has dared to be very different, as you can see from the cover image above by Berlin photographer Oliver Rath. By the way, this isn’t just provocative wine-porn. It is reinterpretation of the image on a wine label designed by cartoonists who worked for Charlie Hebdo. It was also a strange shock for me to discover that there was a connection between this brutal terrorist attack and the world of wine, that even I often assume to be idyllic. Of course, I wish this magazine was also available to English speakers, but I think everybody can understand the cover!

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 13 – Is Eric Asimov Really Unprejudiced Towards American Grapes and Wines?

Rarely do I take an article by a colleague and pick it apart here on this blog, because this could so easily be interpreted as (excuse me for the pun) sour grapes that I wasn’t the one  who filled that space in that publication. Although I can’t prevent anyone from jumping to this conclusion, I feel compelled to comment upon Eric Asimov’s recent story in The New York Times, “At La Garagagista, Hybrid Grapes Stand Up to Vermont’s Elements”, because it raises questions not only as to whether Eric Asimov is really unprejudiced towards American grapes and wines, but also if much of the American wine scene isn’t grossly prejudiced against them.

Just to make one thing clear before we start, the hybrids in question are French-American hybrids, that is crosses of French (Vitis vinifera) grape varieties with native American vines that resistant to both kinds of mildew and to the phylloxera mite. They are widely planted on the Eastern side of the US, because they have an easier time coping with the climate, diseases and pests than Vitis vinifera varieties, and for other reasons that we’ll come to in a moment. Usually, somms and journalists treat these hybrids as American grapes rather than European ones, although many of them were actually bred in Europe. Of course, this same vexed question of identity comes up for American citizens who are of mixed race. For example, my therapist Dr. Brian Pheasant is one quarter Cherokee Native American and has a Cherokee emblem on his business cards. The image above is an 18th century Native American depiction of grapes (amongst other plants) to be found in NYC’s Natural History Museum.

Eric Asimov begins his article with a sweeping statement, “Wine is now made in all 50 states, though few suggest much of it is any good.” Of course, he’s not saying that this is the case or even his opinion, but making this statement about public perception right up front does give it immense weight. From the way he makes that statement it also might be taken to imply that this situation is equally widespread wherever you go in the US, for he makes no geographical or other qualification to that statement. In fact, this view seems to be most widespread in New York and the other large cities of the Northeast, particularly in the wine scene, and on the West Coast where there is a much bigger wine industry based on vinifera grapes. In the regions where the hybrids are grown, and amongst consumers who don’t belong to the wine scene in the East Coast cities there is quite some demand for them, appreciation of them. Otherwise the rather large acreage planted with them, particularly in Upstate New York, would long since have been ripped out and replaced with something else.

In paragraph three Eric Asimov tops all this by making the claim that, “for wine lovers conditioned to cherish the best expressions of pinot noir, riesling and other benchmark grapes, the notion of drinking wines made from hybrids…feels like trading in your chauffeur-driven Bentley for a bus pass.” What he is describing is a snobbish prejudice that is (see above) certainly not shared by all. Open-minded wine drinkers don’t place wines in hierarchies before they’ve tasted them, rather they seek to approach each wine afresh untainted by prejudice. Although few wine professionals actually do this, this is what they were taught to do! The person who sees the name of a European vinifera variety on the label and therefore expects the wine to taste better than one from a bottle with a hybrid grape’s name on the label is that living fossil the blinkered label drinker. I say living fossil, because I’ve encountered a bunch of younger wine drinkers of the Millenial generation who are no that way. There are also some of my own (more advanced) age.

To rub it in Eric Asimov then adds, “Wines from hybrids can often be dull and dreary,” which only seems to reinforce that brutal contrast between the chauffeur-driven Bentley and the bus pass. Sure, hybrids can be dull and dreary, but so can European wines made from vinifera grape varieties! Here in Berlin it would be no trouble to find Sancerre, Muscadet, regular quality red Bordeaux, various Burgundies (including some with fancy vineyard names), and, and, and. A similar list could be written for Italy, Spain, and any other wine producing country.  New York Wine City (NYWC) is in the privileged position of being protected from much of this mediocrity by importers who filter it out (by not listing these wines), but the fact that comparatively little of this French Stuff hits shelves and lists in NYWC doesn’t mean it ceases to exist. However, for Eric Asimov it doesn’t seem to. There too, I fear, is a preconception, if not a prejudice. This is one shared widely by the inhabitants of NYWC who all too frequently assume that people elsewhere in the world face store shelves and lists stocked like their own.

Now to the positive side of the article: the story of Deirdre Heekin’s La Garagista micro-winery and the wines from hybrids that she makes there. It reminded me of the many discoveries I’ve made over the decade that I’ve been (too slowly and erratically) exploring the wines of the East Coast. The last of these, the 2014 Vignoles made by August Deimel at Keuka Springs Winery in the Finger Lakes of NY a couple of months back. This stunningly aromatic (most obviously apricot and pineapple) semi-sweet wine with great concentration and a Riesling-like brilliance for just $13.99 per 750ml bottle direct from the producer. A few months before that it was the La Crescent from Coyote Moon winery in the Thousand Islands of NY region that stunned me with its citrus freshness and floral high notes. In this case a 750ml bottles costs $15.80 direct from the producer. Then there was the powerful and fresh 2013 Chambourcin red from Working Dog winery in central New Jersey. I feel rather sure from his description of the wines that Eric Asimov’s story describes a producer with wines of similar quality and originality, and I’ve put La Garagista on my to visit list. That will set you back a staggering $17.99.

My problem with the core of Eric Asimov’s story is that he writes as if the idea, “that wines made of hybrid grapes can not only be deliciously satisfying but can also show a sense of place,” is something radically new. However, it really is not at all new, because hybrids have been around for decades and some good wines were made from them right from the beginning. And please don’t think I’m claiming that I was there first, because people like Howard Goldberg, the retired OP-ED editor of The New York Times, was there long before me.

My real point is that American wine is way more diverse than any of us in the wine scene realize, and I feel that I too am struggling to eradicate some residual prejudices in my own mind, like that against wines made from Muscadine grapes in the Southeast. I seek to embrace that diversity of American wine wholeheartedly without hesitation, and of course to try and understand these wines, then to figure out which are the most exciting of them. And I promise you some of them are as exciting as driving a Great Red Shark Chevy convertible to Las Vegas at a hundred miles and hour with the top down. Watch this space!


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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 8 – The Daring of Cornelia Heymann & Reinhard Löwenstein

Wine is not only an emotionally charged product, it is also a catalyst of emotions. You want to go one way and it leads you another, sometimes dragging you by the scruff of your neck while you kick and scream. On Saturday evening I’d planned to say completely different things to those I actually said, and it was the wines that forced my hand.

I was part of the annual wine Heymann-Löwenstein (H-L) dinner at the Weinstein wine bar in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin. It was there that I took the above photograph of H-L founder Cornelia Heymann which captures the serious side of this event. 8 dry H-L Rieslings of the 2012 vintage from different terroirs around Winningen, Terrassenmosel were poured. The H-L wines should be world famous not only because of their remarkable character, but also for being the original New-Old style Mosel Rieslings. They were the stylistic model for producers like Clemens Busch and Lubentiushof (also Terrasenmosel) along with Peter Lauer and van Volxem (Saar), just to name the most obvious examples. It was Cornelia Heymann and Reinhard Löwenstein, pictured below, who back in the early 1990s showed that Mosel wine could not only taste different to the “classic” wines with their light body and intense interplay of acidity and sweetness, but a dry yet richly textural style that was spicy and mineral-driven was not only possible, but exciting. None of this is widely appreciated internationally. For example, in New York Wine City (NYWC) Clemens Busch is presumed to be a rather new producer, although when I first met him in 1987 and his current style goes back to the 1999 vintage.

Perhaps the reason for this is that from the moment they founded H-L in 1980 until only a few years ago what Cornelia and Reinhard did was considered by the majority of Germany’s wine establishment to be incorrect. That was in spite of the fact that H-L had a cult following here, often topped blind tastings, and received some major foreign accolades such as the top prize in France for the best non-French wine. This, the way the wines tasted, and a small incident at the beginning of the evening when a guest asked Reinhard Löwenstein for analytical data – he was desperately trying to “make sense” of the wines rather than letting them make an impression upon him – made it necessary to incorrectly describe them to the guests.

There’s a bunch of things we can explain about terroir, such as how a high chalk content in the soil tends to make white wines that have a certain roundness, but in this there isn’t yet a scientific explanation for that. Knowledge and mystery go hand in hand, and in this case they not only get along really well with each other, they’re actually in love. That’s what 2012 Uhlen Blaufüsser Lay made me say. It is one of three very different dry Rieslings H-L produces each vintage from the Uhlen site of Winningen, the others being the Uhlen Laubach and the Uhlen Roth Lay. Each comes from terraced vineyards sitting on a different geological formation . The Uhlen Laubach is on chalk-rich slate (which is very rare) and has a round, almost creamy texture every year. The Uhlen Blaufüsser Lay is on hard blue slate, is the sleekest of the Uhlens in body and the coolest in aroma. Finally, there’s the Uhlen Roth Lay which is the most powerful and rich, but with an astringency that you either find taxing or enticing.

All of this is old hat to German H-L fans, but I’m guessing that for most readers in the English speaking world it’s all new. The 2012 Uhlen Roth Lay and the 2012 Röttgen – another site close to Winningen, one that gives wines with a tropical character (think durian!) – messed with my head in a pretty serious way, dragging memories of moments in movies that had made a deep impression upon me many years ago. The 2012 Röttgen reminded me of that scene in Dr. No, the first James Bond film, where Ursula Andress climbs out of the tropical surf in a white bikini with a big diver’s knife in her hand. Regardless of what you think of the scene, I don’t think anyone who saw it could forget it. The same applies to the moment in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet that the 2102 Uhlen Roth Lay reminded me of. I’m thinking of the one when the youngster played by Kyle MacLachlan emerges from the closet after having watched the strange tryst between the singer played by Isabella Rossellini and the gangster played by Dennis Hopper. When the youngster ends up in her arms, she tenderly asks him, “hit me.” Now that was definitely an incorrect way to describe those wines, but the wines wanted it that way and I did their bidding. Afterwards, it struck me that this was appropriate given the daring course that Cornelia Heymann and Reinhard Löwenstein have taken and continue to take.

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