Rheingau Riesling Diary: Day 1 – The Grapes Begin to Soften ! (Technical Word: Verasion)

After the hottest summer in Western Europe since 2003 & 2006 and the driest summer in Western Europe since 1961 how do the grapes look? I have to admit the combination of hot and dry made me worry that a lot of the vineyards in Germany and elsewhere would look yellowed, maybe wilted, or even sometimes close to collapse. However, I just got back from an intensive tour of the vineyards in the eastern end of the Rheingau with Hajo Becker of J.B. Becker in Walluf, Rheingau and was very pleasantly surprised by what I saw. By no means is 2015 doomed to be a problem vintage, in fact the great majority of vineyards that were well cared for looked very good.

The photograph above shows the plot in the Eltviller Rheinberg site from which J.B. Becker regularly makes a dry Riesling and harvests the base wine for the sparkling Riesling Sekt. As you can see, it lies right on the bank of the Rhein and that makes it a warm location. The soil is very sandy, which means it can hold little water. This together with the heat and drought has resulted in the grass between the rows completely browning (something it rarely does in the generally moist climate of Germany), yet the vines are obviously in excellent health. Only in one small corner of the vineyard did I see any drought stress, and I saw absolutely no sign whatever of fungal disease. I also found the first berries that were beginning to soften (technical word: verasion), a sure sign that  the final ripening process is beginning.

This softening is accompanied by a change appearance of the grapes. White wine grapes become translucent, but this is very difficult to photograph (my Olympus EP-5 is great, but I don’t usually have a tripod with me or all the time in the world). Red wine grapes turn color at verasion, and this is much easier to photograph. The picture above shows grapes on Hajo Becker’s oldest Spätburgunder / Pinot Noir vines in the Wallufer Walkenberg site that were planted in 1959. As you can see, the change of color is almost completed, and they look extremely healthy. This is the ideal state for red wine grapes at this point in the year year, and it suggests that as long as theres on heavy rainfall between now and the harvest this could be an excellent red wine vintage for Germany. Don’t forget, Germany has the third largest area planted with Pinot Noir in the world!

Riesling dominates in the Rheingau where it accounts for about 70% of all the vineyards (only the tiny Mittelrhein region has a higher percentage of Riesling in Germany, or indeed the world). From what I saw here yesterday and today there is clearly variation between the vineyards of one commune to the next, because summer storms brought rain in some places and not in others. In a few places, like the Rüdesheimer Berg vineyards, the intensity of the storm (more than two and a half inches of rain in about half an hour!) was so great that it actually reduced the size of the crop. These factors, and differences in cultivation methods, have lead to widely varying crop levels. That and the longer time until the late-ripening Riesling grapes are ready to pick, makes it yet more difficult to predict the result. However, the general good health of the vines and the fact that serious drought stress has only occurred in a few corners, suggests that a positive result can be expected as long as the pre-harvest period and the harvest itself aren’t plagued with heavy rains.

Famously, those who predicted the end of the world fell became a laughing stock, and it’s the same with those who dared to predict to a great vintage many weeks or even months before the first grapes were picked. On the West Coast of America some wine producers have foolishly been playing that game this year, basing their prediction on the exceptional advanced development of the grapes. Excuse me, but this is complete BS! My experience says that vineyards like the plot of old Riesling vines in Hajo Becker’s holdings section of the Wallufer Walkenberg site, pictured above, give very good to exceptional wines year in, year out. There are many, many examples of this in Germany, Western Europe and the world of wine as a whole. The excitement about the new vintage each year is a good thing, but even good things can be carried too far! A good wine in your glass is the main thing!

 

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London Riesling Diary: Day 3 – Sophisticated German Spätburgunder/Pinot Noir from Sebastian Fürst in Franken

Sophisticated German red wine? Really? Internationally, there’s still a lot of resistance to the idea that red wines from Germany can be better than moderately good and even this would be an exception to the rule. Amongst experts and Somms around the world the standard view is still of Germany as the prototypic cool climate wine producing nation, that therefore the white wines will always work better than reds, and even these will tend to be light in body and high in acidity. Many of those experts and somms are convinced that German red wines are hopelessly over-oaked, if necessary in defiance of evidence to the contrary. The truth is that a combination of climate change and greatly increased ambition in red winemaking already began altering this significantly during the early 1990s. However, the problem with this statement is that proving it requires opening bottles spanning that period and not many German red wine producers have such bottles.

That’s what made yesterday evening’s tasting at the home of Anne Krebiehl MW in Leytonstone, London so special. We tasted 10 vintages of the Spätburgunder / Pinot Noir from the Fürst estate of Bürgstadt in Franken ranging from 2103 back to the 1990 vintage. All were from the same vineyard site, the Centgrafenberg and had been made either by Paul Fürst, the estate’s winemaker since 1979 and/or by his son Sebastian, pictured above. It was a very convincing piece of proof that at least some German reds have been worth taking seriously for a long time, that there has been a very positive development in the winemaking skills for these wines, and, at least amongst the leading makers of red wines in Germany, also in their feeling for harmony, elegance and delicacy in these wines.

On one level, the vitality of the 1990 Centgrafenberg Spätburgunder  - the first wine I ever tasted from the Fürsts back in spring 1993 – was the most important piece of news, because that’s something few wines from the Pinot Noir grape manage to retain at this age. The smoky note in this wine was very distinctive, and Sebastian Fürst explained that this is rather typical for the Spätburgunder clones from the vine breeding station in Freiburg, Baden (in the far SW of Germany). There was also an elderberry aroma that grew considerably in intensity as the wine aerated in the opened bottle. However, on another level, the consistency in quality of the entire row was really more impressive that that singular success, since consistently high quality is something famously difficult to achieve with “fickle” Pinot Noir anywhere in the world, including its homeland of Burgundy, France. It’s fickle, because it presents the winemaker with a complex and interlocking set of challenges, and focusing too much on one obvious issues like the tendency to pale color, can lead to other problems. Let’s be frank, I’m glad I don’t have to make red wines from this grape!

In spite of the consistency of quality there was an important stylistic shift through the row of wines. Often this is portrayed in the wine and gastronomic media as a direct product of the generational change, but this cannot be so. The super-elegent and now beautifully mature 2001 Centrafenberg Spätburgunder from Fürst, had a freshness and bright red fruit aromas that the more robust wines of  1990, ’97 and ’99 vintages didn’t have. This wine was made 6 years before Sebastian began to be involved in the winemaking, so it can only have resulted from a shift in his father’s thinking. However, this was certainly the path that Sebastian also followed when he began working in the vineyards and cellar, as the 2009, ’10, ’12 and ’13 vintages (vintages labelled as “GG” or Großes Gewächs, the VDP producers’ associations equivalent of the French Grand Cru). The 2012 was the perfect example of this, already super-silky in spite of its considerable  power, very subtle and delicate in aroma in spite of the ripeness (which can make red wines lean in a sweetish and one-sidedly rich direction). Lastly, the enthusiasm of the other tasters for the “lesser” vintages of 2008, ’10 and ’13 with their crisp acidity must be passed on. This was not an occasion when concentration or scale was sought above all else, in fact there was more excitement about the wines “freshness, life,” their, “leafy hints,” and their, “poetic,” and “sexy” qualities.

Maybe that says something about the tasters too? Certainly, Nigel Greening – the owner of Felton Road in Central Otago, New Zealand – produces Pinot Noirs – that share these qualities and stand out in their national context for that. David Motion (thanks for the photograph at the top) of The Winery in London is also a seeker after character and elegance, rather than brute force or opulence. Amazingly, it wasn’t only for us the first time that we’d tasted 10 vintages of these wines in one go, but also for Sebastian Fürst. So the effort that all the participants made was well worth while. I’m only sorry that Anne Krebiehl’s table couldn’t seat more, because the message of yesterday evening deserves to be spread!

 

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London Riesling Diary: Day 2 – Mr. Pigott, Do You Love Britain or Hate Britain?

I’m often asked whether I love Britain or hate Britain every time I write a blog posting in England or about England. It is one of the eternally recurring questions, only topped in frequency by, “Mr. Pigott, how did you get into wine?”

I was brought up as a sceptic, that is not to trust accepted wisdom without question it and the groups of people who promote its acceptance as The Truth. At the Royal College of Art where I studied for an MA in cultural history in 1984-6 I was taught to take apart statements, stories and ideas to see how they tick, like a clockmaker who’s task is to repair a bunch of old clocks, some of which still seem to run well, others run too slow or fast, and some don’t run at all. I still do that in this blog, and the statements, stories and ideas I take apart and put back together again come from all kinds of places on Planet Wine. Sometimes they are from Britain, and this leads some British readers to the questions in the title of this posting in a very pointed way. The unspoken undertone of what they say is, “are you still a Brit, or have you gone native in Germany/America and become a Britain basher?” Am I, even, a traitor?

I was certainly never blindly loyal to H.M. British Government, nor any other national government, or political party. However, I am not a Britain basher. Let me tell you about what I love most about Britain. I love the taste of England, also the taste of Wales and of Scotland. Of course, these places have many tastes and I am over-generalizing, but a simple question demands a simple answer. What I mean by this is, that my sense of how good milk and butter, peas and beans, apples and berries, chicken and beef, and many other things should taste developed during my childhood and teenage years (1960 thru 1979) in Britain. It was primarily through my family and my grandparents that I had those key expereinces, but as time went on I began to gather them on my own, or with the help of my close friends (thanks again Liz & Dave, Paul & Myra). During my teens I was also introduced to elements of French and Italian cuisines through London restaurants, and my mother’s interpretation of some of those dishes. And all this remains an important part of the knot of British culture which is the core of my identity.

That’s why the tarte au citron, or lemon tart I ate yesterday at Maison Bertaux in Greek Street, Soho is pictured above. It’s a perfect example of an anglicized French dish. It is – and this is typical of British food – rather more robust than the foreign original; at once subtle and satisfying. So are the wonderful croissants and fruit tarts at Maison Berteaux. At its best New British Cuisine (from the very late 1980s and through the 1990s and into this century) reinterpreted a variety of French-British, Italian-British, etc dishes by applying the principals of French nouvelle cuisine to them, but with a feeling for the solidity and generosity of the result. This is exactly what Marco Pierre White did so brilliantly, and at his restaurants it was almost impossible to eat more than three courses, but you didn’t want any more if you had something like his wonderful stuffed pig’s trotter. In spite of the rise and influence of molecular and Nordic cuisines this remains the core value of British Cuisine to this day.

Of course, I don’t like the “taste” of everything British. For example, in common with the British rock singer P.J. Harvey, I find that the foreign policy of H.M. Government tastes bitter.  The British Empire and Britain’s political influence in the world have been in decline ever since the Empire reached its maximum extent a century ago (swollen by the “booty” of WWI), and they continue to decline. However, it seems that almost any means of hanging on to the remainders of these things – although on the world map the various colonies look like coffee grounds in a long-since drained cup of coffee! – is regarded as necessary and legitimate. This attitude is based upon a dangerous optical illusion in the minds of members of the British Establishment that makes things far in the past appear much close than they actually are. This creates a situation where out of the bitter taste of the British ambition to “punch above our weight” on the world stage (note the violence in the metaphor) a fiery taste could all too easily develop. I suggest that the rich and mellow flavor of the café aux lait at Maison Berteaux, pictured above, is vastly preferable to this. In this, and in many other departments, Britain has something distinctive to offer the world. That should be enough!

 

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London Riesling Diary: Day 1 – Why I Left England and Never Returned, and Why it Doesn’t Matter

I’ve often been asked why I left England and never returned, except for short visits like this one. That question is most frequently posed by British people who can’t understand why anyone could ever want to leave this country. The fact that I’m still a British citizen makes it even more difficult for them to understand, but explaining even that detail is delaying me answering that question. Why did I leave?

I started drifting away from England after I completed my education with an MA in cultural history from the Royal College of Art in London on July 6th, 1986. I’d already begun traveling to Germany quite frequently to research the nation’s wine industry, and this had overwhelmingly been a positive experience. By the end of 1987 my father had died of a brain tumor, I had split with a girlfriend, lost my place in a shared student flat and been forced to move back to my mother’s house because I couldn’t find anywhere else to live I could afford. From that moment nothing much was keeping me in England. For some years I’d had serious misgivings about the direction “Thatcher’s Britain” was taking, and I reckoned that my chances in this new environment that worshipped only Mammon were meagre. Needing to make a new start after the disastrous year of 1987, I decided to make the Mosel Valley in Germany my base and learn how that wine region ticks from the inside. At that point Germany was a string of positives set against the many negatives that Britain stood for in my mind; the choice was rather easy.

My self-imposed exile worked too. By the end of 1994 I was well established in Berlin with my then wife Ursula Heinzelmann (a talented writer who’s history of German food, Beyond Bratwurst, is highly recommended). My first German language book had caused a stir and resulted in me acquiring a degree of notoriety or infamy, depending upon your perspective. This all confirmed my conviction that I had a much better chance of success in Germany, and in spite of all the ups and downs I’ve experienced during the last twenty years, that turned out to be true. Although the flowering of British culture that was YBA, Brit-Pop and Cool Britannia during the mid and late 1990s fascinated me I observed and reported on it as an outsider. The break was clean and it has remained so.

It is as an outsider that I visit Britain, returning to familiar and favorite places (like Maison Bertaux in Greek Street, Soho pictured above) and sometimes explore new places. It is very much the same with people too. My emotional connection is to those particular places and people here, not to this island as a whole, much less to the nation of the same name. So, am I still British in any meaningful sense, or just a person who happens to have a British passport?

Inside me is a great twisted knot of British culture, and I cannot imagine that it could ever be untied, nor can I imagine ever wanting to do so. This knot has many loose ends that extend into the distance, threads that keep leading me to new connections. I often encounter them by “chance”, like my recent discovery of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 76, that dropped into my hands at exactly the moment I was most open to its message – that originality and pride in originality are unnecessary. Since the end of 2012 I’ve had two places of exile, New York and Berlin, but this has in no way altered my fundamental situation. The knot of British culture, in which the popular, the alternative, the tacky and the classic are all tangled up is the core of my being, whether I like it or not. In this sense, it is irrelevant if I never return and I have also never really left, because England is in me.

PS For people of other nationalities, I should point out that the confusion of England and Britain is something peculiar to my nationality. For someone born in England like me  the two terms are interchangeable, however confusing that may seem to outsiders.

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 20 – Re-garding the Future of This Blog

The Times they are a’ changin’, and as the title of that 1964 Bob Dylan song makes clear they have been changing for a long time. Change is afoot at this blog too.

About a decade ago I started talking about re-search, rather than research. Why? Many journalists and other non-fiction writers just rewrite what someone else has written, because that’s easier than doing any research. Through their plagiarism things that are no longer true, were never really true in the first place, or were outright lies from the beginning are unthinkingly further disseminated.  Untruths of this kind are at the root of many of the worst prejudices in our world. From the destructive consequences which the frequent lack of research has you can extrapolate what a force for good research can be. It must, however, be genuine research, that is re-search to have that effect. Just going through the motions of, for example, going to a distant winegrowing region, visiting producers, tasting wines and taking notes is not enough. You’d be surprised how often that kind of thing happens too, and in all fields of journalism. A good journalist actively searches again, because she or he knows that they always approaches their subject with preconceptions. The goal of their re-search is to overcome them, for without that there can be no new story to tell, and no truth comes out (although the truth will out). Why did I never write that here before? No good reason!

Now I’m back with those two letters – RE – because this blog is undergoing a process of re-thinking, re-orientation and re-newal . Many personal changes during the last weeks and months are the background to this, but, of course, those kind of changes don’t necessarily lead to re-thinking, much less re-orientation and re-newal. I have to do this because yesterday over a cup of coffee my colleague Jürgen Fränznick, who was also my first landlord in New York City (at the Hotel of Hope on East 7th Street in the East Village of Manhattan) made some very pertinent criticisms of this blog. Regular readers should not dismay though, for you may hardly notice the change during the coming weeks and months. My blog will continue to look much as it has done since the spring of 2012, and the mix of subjects will not be abandoned. However, it is time to be more direct in the way I tell these stories, and this may be the last elliptical story! It is also the last story for some time from NYC. I’m sad to leave, because I love this city, but all things must change.

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 13 – Graham Tatomer and the New Aromatic Dry Whites of Santa Barbara County, CA

I have to admit that when I first tasted the dry Rieslings from Graham Tatomer’s eponymous winery in Los Olivos, Santa Barbara County in California I hesitated. They were so different from anything else I encountered during the research for my 2014 book BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) that I wasn’t sure what to make of them. And what I’ve tasted several times recently, the three single vineyard dry Rieslings of the 2013 vintage, are also way outside the conventional Riesling box. For those seeking Rieslings with effusive fruit aromatics and a bright interplay of acidity and sweetness this is not the place to go, except for reasons of curiosity. However, if you aren’t afraid of some tannins and plenty of yeasty (technical term lees) character, nor of a hint of bitterness and a lot more power, then you should  find them fascinating and impressive.

There is a very special backstory to these wines and the equally distinctive Grüner Veltliners from Tatomer Wines (Meeresboden and Paragon Vineyard, both $28 direct from the winery), and it begins in the village of Loiben in the Wachau, Austria where Graham, pictured above, went to learn and work in 2003. There a love of Grooner was added to his fascination with Riesling. After he returned to California he founded his winery in 2008 and since then he has roughly tripled production to about 14,000 bottles per year. He uses grapes from some of the coolest sites in the entire county to makes his three single vineyard Rieslings ($22 to $35 direct from the winery), and the result is some of the most daring whites being made in this part of the state.  Although I’m sure that the development of Graham’s white wine style hasn’t reached an endpoint, after making seven vintages of dry white wine from these grapes he’s already become something of a role model in the region.

Just the other day at the offices of Soilair wines in New York Wine City (NYWC) Volker Donabaum showed me an impressive handful of wines from the tiny Solminer winery in Santa Barbara County that included these delicious 2014 dry Riesling and Grüner Veltliner ($28 and $30 direct from the winery). Anyone who finds the Tatomer style too extreme and not fruit-driven enough is strongly recommended these vividly aromatic and expressive wines. The Riesling has a lot of lemony and some floral character, the Grooner has a very authentic white pepper and green apple aromas. NYWC will surely go for this pair, and Anna and David deLaski have only been doing this since 2012! No doubt it helps that she’s originally from St. Pölten in Lower Austria, however, I’d say that they must be doing a lot of things right in the vineyard, choosing good picking dates (the alcohol levels are modest), and that the 6 months in neutral oak before bottling is enabling the wines to develop at their own pace.

This isn’t the end of the story of the new aromatic dry whites of Santa Barbara County though, for although Jeff Fischer’s Habit Wines doesn’t yet produce Riesling, it does produce a good Grooner and a great Chenin Blanc. Here is another aromatic grape that dislikes oak and really gains something from prolonged contact with the yeast after fermentation; the twin secrets of Jeff’s distinctive wine style. Although their orientation point is Northeastern Italy Steve Clifton of Palmina (and Brewer-Clifton) is also making aromatic dry whites in this vein under that label. I love the Malvasia Bianca from Palmina and the Pinot Grigio is very good too. All of which says to me that an era of major innovation is beginning in this part of California and this is something I have to explore there at the first opportunity.

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 9 – Remembering Hiroshima and Facing the Truth about Hiroshima (George Orwell Part 3)

There is a theory which has not been accurately formulated or given a name, but which is very widely accepted and is brought forward whenever it is necessary to justify some action which conflicts with the decency of the average human being. It might be called, until some better name is found, the Theory of Catastrophic Gradualism. According to this theory, nothing is ever achieved without bloodshed, lies, tyranny and injustice, but on the other hand no considerable change for the better is to be expected as the result of even the greatest upheaval. History necessarily proceeds by calamities…

George Orwell wrote those words lines for the in November 1945, and in spite of the timing he was not thinking particularly of the atomic bombings of Japan just three months before. However, his words also well describe that situation. I took the above photograph of the Atomic Dome in Hiroshima, Japan on April 15th, 2007 during the month I spent researching wine, sake and Japanese culture. It was the only one of my photographs that didn’t turn these ruins into just another historical landmark, but showed them as one of few surviving reminders of the almost five square miles of complete destruction caused by the atomic bomb dropped by the USAAF on the city 70 years ago today.

On August 6th, 1945 about 70,000 of the city’s 340,000 citizens were killed by the direct effects of the bomb’s explosion, a figure which had doubled by the end of the year mainly due to radiation sickness; more than 40% of the entire population! The great majority of the dead were civilians, and in Nagasaki (the target of the second atomic bombing three days later) where the corresponding figures were almost 40,000 dead on the day of the atomic bombing and close to 80,000 by the end of the year more than 99% of the victims were civilians. But what do numbers really tell us? They are necessary to give a sense of scale to the most terrible events from the atomic bombings of Japan to the Holocaust, but they also mask the identities of the individual victims. For a detailed description of what those number meant in terms of human suffering I recommend John Hersey’s book Hiroshima first published in the August 31st, 1946 issue of The New Yorker, which it almost entirely filled. It describes in a matter of fact way what 6 survivors experienced, but I warn you that in spite of that and the distance in time it’s not an easy read.

Of course, it is important not to forget the wider contexts of the Pacific War and the Second World War as a whole. Almost all of Japan’s major cities were destroyed by USAAF firebombing during the last six months of the Second World War, most terribly in the raid on residential Tokyo of March 9th, 1945 that killed about 100,000 civilians. Of course, the Japanese also conducted air raids on urban centers in China and committed many other war crimes, of which the Nanking massacre was the worst. And then there are the 6 million Jews and 5 million Slavic people murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators in Europe, plus smaller (but still very large numbers) of European civilians of many nationalities killed by all sides in that conflict. This isn’t the place to try and catalogue all the genocidal horrors of the global conflagration. Professional historians are better equipped for this task. There is extensive literature about all of these events for anyone who is interested. I just read Elie Wiesel’s Night, his autobiographical description of the Holocaust, which spells out what that enormous genocidal crime meant for the victims. It only confirmed my feeling of compassion for all victims of war and genocide.

The first reason for covering this subject is my personal connection to Hiroshima, where in 2007 the Yoshinaga family, including one Hibakusha (survivor of the A bomb), showed me great hospitality and generosity. Then there are the results of my research over almost a decade that leads me to the conclusion that the first atomic bombing was unquestionably a deliberate attack on a civilian target and no warning was given precisely in order to better study the effects upon the, “Hiroshima urban industrial area”. Already that wording in Order Nr. 13 of August 2nd, 1945 signed by Acting Chief of Staff General Thomas T. Hardy make the non-military nature of the bombing’s target rather clear.

I first saw a facsimile of that order in the Peace Memorial Museum of Hiroshima, but it was not at the beginning of the exhibit as you might have expected. Instead the museum began by telling the history of Japanese militarism and Hiroshima’s role in that. There was no attempt there to, much less deny, the wider context of the Second World War, or the wars that preceded it. This is did not align with how the international media portray Japan as nation of revisionists determined to play down the crimes of the past, and it is a lesson from which we could learn. For example, although the Manhattan Project was American controlled, it was actually British-American joint venture that enjoyed considerable material support from Canada. The Quebec Agreement of July 1943 gave British Prime Minister Winston Churchill a veto over the use of the atomic bomb. Instead, he approved its use against Japan and consulting with none of his cabinet before taking that decision. Which Churchill biography tells you that though? As George Orwell also wrote in November 1945:

There are always the most excellent, high-minded reasons for concealing the truth, and these reasons are brought forward in almost the same words by supporters of the most diverse causes…So often it seems a positive duty to suppress or color the facts! And yet genuine progress can only happen through increasing enlightenment, which means the continuous destruction of myths.

The second reason for devoting a long posting to a subject so far from this blog’s core theme is to make the observation that if atomic weapons are ever used in anger again, many of them will undoubtedly be dropped on civilian targets. For my entire lifetime this was the genocidal threat of the nuclear arsenals on both sides of the Cold War, and as a child and young person I felt this in a visceral way, particularly in 1983, the second terrifying high point of the Cold War after the so-called Cuba Crisis of 1962. (It was about Russian nuclear missiles on Cuba, but also about American nuclear missiles in Turkey, Italy and Britain). My parents told me all about their fears in October 1962, and I relived them 21 years later.

The thousands of nuclear weapons retained to this day continue this intimidation, even if the chances of them being used have thankfully reduced since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. That doesn’t alter the fact that in August 1945 the principal was established that the use of atomic weapons against cities is legitimate, even if the number of victims is enormous. This was an extension of the legitimacy the Allies gave to their firebombing of entire cities in Germany and Japan, but achieved more quickly and economically. Of course, we were lucky that deterrence worked, and it is worth nothing that no Soviet leader or American President ever seriously considered starting a nuclear conflict, although some generals on both sides were in favor of this at several points.

On my last morning in Hiroshima I went for a run, passing the Hypocenter, the point above which the bomb exploded, the brown stone obelisk next to the apartment building) picture above. As I was returned to my hotel I had to wait for a traffic light to cross the road. Suddenly, on the other side of the busy street from me I saw one of those large clocks decorated with flowering plants that you see in public parks around the world. It had been sponsored by the Japanese watch manufacturer CITIZEN, and at that moment it said the time was 8:15 am. This was exactly the time the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th 1945, and one of the most potent symbols of that day are watches and clocks stopped forever at the moment of the explosion. Of course, it was the citizens of Hiroshima who paid the price for this act the American and British governments still have not properly acknowledged for what it was. The claim that the atomic bombings ended the War in the Pacific has been well refuted by professional historians, so this argument is spurious. Anyone who thinks it is possible to deny such acts with impunity is directed to Hiroshima in America by Robert Jay Lifton & Greg Mitchell who describe the psychological consequences of being in denial for decades.

This blog posting does not seek to assign blame though, rather it promotes facing the past, so that we aren’t doomed to repeat it. For if we do repeat it there will be no pleasure in wine, or a thousand other beautiful things we take for granted. With the next posting this blog returns to its core subject: the beauty of wine.

 

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 5 – Nationalism and Natural Wine (George Orwell Part 2)

Some of you may be wondering what George Orwell, the famous 20th century British writer, has got to do with wine. Here is one connection I see:

The most important writers for me are the ones that make me feel that whatever weaknesses my work may have what I’ve written isn’t complete rot, and also give me clear insights into how my writing could become better. By better I mean not just in the superficial stylistic sense, rather how I could tell the story better. George Orwell just became one of those writers, although I was a teenager when I fist read his novels Animal Farm and 1984. That means some years before the actual 1984. They made a deep impression upon me, as they did on many other people of my generation, not least because one of them (Animal Farm) seemed like an explanation of important events in the recent past, while the other (1984) seemed like a terrible prediction of what might still come to pass. However, I read them years before I started writing, and yet longer before I wrote a story with any substance, and also for this reason they never connected with my work in any way. No doubt, the fact that I never went back and reread either of them also had something to do with this, as did my focus on non-fiction.

I was completely unaware of George Orwell’s essays and journalism until a couple of years ago when my mother gave me a small paperback containing a handful of them. There I found Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism which he completed in May 1945 and was stunned by it in more sense than one. In it, he shows how all manner of dogmatic belief systems that don’t revolve around a nation, but are associated with religions or political parties, really function in exactly the same way as nationalism. (Please note that Orwell doesn’t say that, for example, being American makes you an American nationalist or being Jewish makes you a proponent of Jewish nationalism). However, in that essay he shows the fundamentally irrational nature of all forms of nationalism, and how this leads to both prejudices and the complete inability to face certain truths.

No area of modern life is entirely free of the influence of such nationalistic cults and their effects. Although this may seem to of paltry importance compared with say Russian nationalism or that revolving around Catholicism the wine world is also afflicted by nationalistic cults. The most obvious of these are associated with biodynamic wine and so-called natural wine and overlap. This doesn’t mean that every winemaker involved or every fan of these wines is part of the cult, but many of them certainly show the symptoms of what for Orwell was, the great modern disease. I think it makes sense to start a description of these forms of nationalism by looking at the most obvious difference between them, the attitude to the use of sulfur in winemaking.

The recorded use of sulfites as a preservative goes back more than 500 years, and may well date back as far as the Romans. However, for the natural wine movement it is inherently suspect, and if any sulfites are allowed to be added, then it must be the absolute minimum. For biodynamic winemakers and the advocates of those wines a significantly reduced sulfite content is the good and right path. The similarity of that difference to a theological dispute between purists and idealists capable of a certain degree of pragmatism is rather clear.

Now let’s turn to their common ground and the core vale of both belief systems: Nature, and specifically that which is supposed to be natural in wine. As far as I can see the idealization of Nature and all things “natural” in Western culture goes back to the works of the 18th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the enormous influence they exerted upon his contemporaries and subsequent generations. For the advocates of biodynamic and/or natural wines there is something at least slightly holy about their wines. The winemakers on this page believe that their work in the vineyards and cellars doesn’t manipulate the wine in the way that of their conventional colleagues do. There’s some truth behind this, although the far greater difference is in the vineyard.  There the rules of biodynamic winegrowing forbid chemical fertilizer, fungicides and insecticides even more strictly than regular organic winegrowing.

However, the truth is that almost all the winemakers who claim their wines are “natural” plant the vines in their vineyards in straight parallel rows, spray with copper sulfate (copper is heavy metal) against downy mildew, crush the grapes using modern presses, and package their wine in industrially manufactured glass on modern bottling lines. None of this is in any way natural, but they rarely talk about those things unless you ask them direct questions, and I think many of them don’t really think about these things either. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing their wines here, some of which are great (but so are many conventional wines), just trying to show that their beliefs are often irrational and inconsistent with what they actually do. The problem is greater with the advocates of natural wine than with those of biodynamic wine, because their rhetoric tends to be more extreme. The basic situation is the same though.

To make it plain how crazy all this can get I have to tell a story about a winemaker in the southwest of Germany who wishes to remain anonymous. Recently his Japanese importer, who is specialized in the biodynamic and/or natural wines, visited him. When her flight from Tokyo arrived in Frankfurt she picked up her rental car at the airport and drove straight to his cellars. First of all she wanted to taste the wines with him and was clearly very impressed, understand so, because he makes great reds and sparkling wine from the Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) grape. Then he took her out for a vineyard tour and things suddenly turned sour. As they walked into the first of his plots she gave a gasp and said, “oh no, you’re using wire! That destroys the energy field in the vineyard.” Wire is the means of supporting the vines’ foliage in 99.99% of the world’s vineyards, and the type of energy that she was talking about can’t be measured by any scientific equipment. The winegrower wondered what he could possibly say. What arguments would she accept, or even listen to?

Over dinner with more of his wine this very awkward moment seemed forgotten and she explained that the next day her appointments were in the neighboring region of Alsace, France. The German winegrower said he would be interested to accompany her, because the biodynamic and natural winemakers of Alsace have a considerable reputation and he hadn’t visited any of them so far. He offered to do the driving and she agreed to his proposal. The next morning there was beautiful weather as they drove over the Rhine to Alsace, but when they reached the small town where their first appointment was the winegrower lost the way. The Japanese wine importer then whipped out her iPad and quickly directed him to their destination. As they arrived it suddenly hit him: she had flown to Europe from Japan in a modern jet aircraft, travelled to his place by car, then used an iPad, but he wasn’t not supposed to use wire in his vineyards, because his wine had to be holy. To acquire that status it had to be as “natural” as possible, because for the advocates of biodynamic and natural wines Nature is God, and drinking wine is therefore communion with Him/Her (which is obviously adapted from a Christian source).

I’m not against wine having a spiritual dimension, only against this being at the expense of the concrete and practical, sensual and aesthetic dimensions. As Francois Mitjavile of Tertre Rotebeboeuf in St. Emilion, Bordeaux said to me once, “if wine is all man then it is really boring, but if it is all nature then it is just vinegar! You have to find a balance between the two, but where does that lie?” It sin’t a simple question to answer.

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 4 – I Blog Therefore I Am, and How I Blog Now (George Orwell Part 1)

Why blog instead of write for print in the form of books, magazine articles or newspaper columns? Many of you will already be aware of the fact that I write for all of those media, and do so with as great conviction as I have done so for 20-30 years, depending upon which of those print media you look at. Each of them has its own set of possibilities, and of course its limitation. I have always enjoyed moving back and forth, and the changes in form, style, pace which those movements back and forth definitely did something positive for my writing, precisely because they were often challenging.

It is the comparable movement from writing for printed pages to writing for virtual pages, that has driven the development of my blog. I relish the combination of immediacy with reflection that the virtual page makes possible, and when I come from writing for physical pages to this I am acutely aware of what is special about blogging. Unlike any of the print media for which I work, here in the blogosphere there isn’t the filter of editors and publishers, because I am those things as well as being the writer. At best, this leads to a directness that is very special for me and for some readers, but clearly sometimes shocking for other readers. This always was the result of genuinely free speech!

On the other hand, some of the postings on this blog edge in the direction of obsession with the details of my core subject, Riesling and its place in the world of wine as a whole. As soon as I realize that I’m doing that I make a course correction and head out into open waters ignoring the weather and risking running straight into a storm in the process. This is one of the days that I feel the need to push my core subject back and I’m therefore turning to the subject of this profession, that is the sub-species of journalism which is blogging. As the title says, I feel that blogging is central to who I am, and the question of how I do this today is therefore also the question of how I am today.

I have been reading the final volume of Georg Orwell’s collected essays, journalism and letters, In Front of Your Nose, and many of the texts in this collection of works from 1945-50 made such a strong impression upon me, because in spite of all the differences between the situation of the immediately Post-WWII world and that now there are many horrible similarities. Let me give you an important example from Orwell’s As I Please column in Tribune magazine from November 29th, 1946:

And yet exactly at the moment when there is, or could be, plenty of everything for everybody, nearly our whole energies have to be taken up in trying to grab territories, markets and raw materials from one another. Exactly at the moment when wealth might be so generally diffused that no government need fear serious opposition, political liberty is declared to be impossible and half the world is ruled by secret police forces.

How much that sounds like our world, particularly since the Edward Snowden revelations made plain the unscrupulousness with which the electronic communications of the entire world have been accessed by the relevant security services (a special kind of secret police force) of theoretically democratic western nations. Orwell’s analysis of the situation he describes in the lines was that the driving force  behind this struggle was the desire for pure power, rather than the desire for wealth, although what he describes clearly has an economic aspect. And that too seems to be the situation today, the pursuit of economic advantage having long since been absorbed into the quest for what is blandly termed “national security”, but is actually just power by another name.

But I do suggest that we will get nowhere unless we start by recognizing that political behavior is largely non-rational, that the world is suffering from some kind of disease which must be diagnosed before it can be cured.

Quite probably the nature of this disease has changed somewhat since Orwell wrote those lines, for in 1946 immediately following the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, paranoia was at a relatively low level. However, the appearance of the atomic bomb on the scene had already started cranking up the paranoia in the direction of contemporary levels.  And without this hard core of paranoia in the elites of many nations it is impossible to explain the drive by the security services they fund and control to get their hands on all electronic communications. If knowledge is power, then the possession of all knowledge is omnipotence, which also ought to guarantees inviolability. This combination is what the seekers of pure power really desire.

Of course, this isn’t the sole aspect of the current situation that’s worrying, for simultaneously the last years have seen a resurgence of strident nationalism (sometimes accompanied by a worrying element of racism and/or anti-semitism), driven and exploited by political elites supported by mighty oligarchies. Much of the new wealth that was created in the Ex-Soviet Union, China and many other countries during the last decades is now allied to these old political agendas. Together with the new field of mass electronic surveillance this makes a dangerous cocktail.

Dealing with this complex and worrying situation, at least to ensure that I don’t become absorbed by the very things I abhor, is a daily concern even if it isn’t directly linked to the wines and winemaker that are the main focus of my activity on this blog. Please don’t think that I’m succumbing to paranoia, for I certainly don’t imagine that there’s anything here or in my other electronic communications that would really be of interest to those security services. Until artificial intelligence makes possible the detailed analysis of the complete electronic communications of the planet by any organization that can access them I’m not worried about being a target of their interest. The danger of the current situation is entirely another.

I see a certain similarity between what the atomic bomb did to the world and what mass electronic surveillance is doing to it, which is to cast a shadow over it. The shadow which the atomic bomb cast was one of fear of imminent destruction, and by the time of the so-called Cuba Crisis (actually a global crisis that had as much to do with American missiles in Turkey, Italy and Britain as with the Russian missiles on Cuba) when I was two years old intelligent people had already figured out there was no place to escape to if the atomic shit really did go down. Of course, this didn’t happen, but the crucial thing was the awareness that at any moment it could, something that I grew up with.

The shadow that mass electronic surveillance throws over the world is different. Although nobody may be listening in to you or I we cannot be sure that they aren’t, and if they aren’t at the moment then this could soon change. It seems to me that a lot of people in the West have long-since reached the point of shaking their shoulders and getting on with life in this knowledge, because so few politicians have been willing to speak out against this new situation, and far fewer have shown any determination to actually do something about it. This resignation amounts to the reluctant acceptance that constitutional rights have been circumvented. With that the political process in any meaningful sense ceases, and becomes reduced to a second-rate sideshow.

When one considers how things have gone since 1930 or thereabouts, it is not easy to believe in the survival of civilization. I do not argue from this that the only thing to do is to abjure practical politics, retire to some remote place and concentrate either on individual salvation or on building up self-supporting communities against the day when the atom bombs have done their work. I think one must continue the political struggle, just as a doctor must try to save the life of a patient who is probably going to die.

This is Orwell’s rather pessimistic conclusion, and although I would like to be more optimistic about the current situation of the world a sober assessment of the problems makes that very difficult. Beautiful things like wine could easily look like a distraction from this, and therefore of no value, but a better world implies that more people are lucky to be able to appreciate beautiful things without fear or suffering. And it is in this spirit that I present the blog postings that may obsess about my core subject. Since reading George Orwell’s words quoted above how I blog is shaped by them.

 

 

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@CityofRiesling Diary: Last Day – Underground Rock Star Riesling Winemakers of America unite!

An event like @CityofRiesling in Traverse City is a great opportunity to experience a bunch of wines that you otherwise wouldn’t have tasted, but far more important are the people behind the wines. As Brad Bickle, who’s business is mergers and acquisitions told me, “it was a great opportunity to actually talk with the winemakers as you tasted their wines.”In Brad’s case the revelation at the Night of 100 Rieslings were the powerful and vivid dry wines from Brooks in Oregon which winemaker Chris Williams presented, which were a world of flavor he hadn’t associated with the grape before. By the way, Chris Williams jet skied across Grand Traverse Bay to reach the Night of 100 Rieslings, which confirmed his status as an underground rock star wine guy!

In my case, the taste of the wines from Galen Glen in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania was familiar, but it was no less an important experience for me to talk with winemaker Sarah Troxell, pictured above, about them for the first time. Galen Glen planted back in 1999, but has been under the wine media and wine scene radar, because of their “wrong” location (wine from PA isn’t supposed to be good), their focus on the “wrong” grape varieties (Riesling and Grüner Veltliner aren’t supposed to be growing in PA), and the fact that they sell most of their production through their own tasting room (for the wine scene what doesn’t make it to NYC and SF/LA doesn’t really exist). However, none of that alters the fact that these are white wines of purity and elegance with a lot of subtlety, and for me these are great wines and she is an underground rock star wine chick. Over the two days of the event I learnt from her how a lot of precise hand work lies behind all this, which makes a lot of sense. Wines like this are never accidents.

Salon Riesling on the second day was composed of a series of four tastings hosted by panels and some really great discussion took place. Of course, Riesling’s difficulties in the marketplace were discussed and the session that compared Riesling with Sauvignon Blanc (SB is my favorite grape’s main competitor) was very illuminating. SB is one-paced and often simplistic, not least because the vines are often over-cropped and the wines are rushed into the bottle as a result of the same imperative for profit maximization. The consumer isn’t aware of this though, because they are focused on the narrow range of aromas and predictable taste profile of the wines. It is exactly this predictability that attracts them, because it means they have the comforting feeling of knowing exactly what they’re getting. That’s why it accounts for more than 7% of all wine sales in the US compared with Riesling’s 1% share of the market.

Of course, compared with SB Riesling is seriously individual, and has a staggering range of aromas and tastes. As I wrote in BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH it spans the entire range from bone dry to honey sweet, from featherlight to ton heavy. As Nicolas Quille of Pacific Rim in the Columbia Valley of Washington State pointed out, “the beauty of Riesling is its limitation in the marketplace.” This is a painful truth and although the introduction of the IRF taste profile indicating the sweetness level of (many but sadly not all) Rieslings is a big step forward it is not a complete solution to that problem. He has done a great job of improving the balance of all the Pacific Rim Rieslings in recent years, to which all the 2014s are still on the full lees; a daring move for a winery of this size Meanwhile the 2013s from Pacific Rim prove that quality and quantity can be combined in modestly-priced Rieslings that have a rather mainstream appeal. That’s quite an achievement!

I brought a vertical tasting of Scharzhofberger Riesling Auslese from Egon Müller-Schrzhof with me to Traverse City and they were served at a lunch on the final day. It was great to find that the oldest of these wines, the 1983 Auslese, was still in great shape, because this was one of the first wines I put in my cellar exactly 30 years ago. Other high points were the enormously concentrated 2001 Auslese Gold Cap – all the honey, dried figs and mango you could ever want! – and the 2005 Auslese, which seemed to expand directly from my mouth into the deepest corners of my nervous system. These would be very expensive wines to buy ($500 – $1,000) per bottle, but the great thing about Riesling is how they peacefully co-exist with startling original, modestly priced wines like the 2014 Stone Cellar from Galen Glen. In the Cabernet world more modestly priced wines rarely get taken seriously except as cheaper alternatives to the “right” stuff, even if they’re as beautiful as the 2012 from Smith Madrone in Napa, California.

Events like this wouldn’t happen without people like Amanda Danielson of The Franklin and Trattoria Stella (two of Traverse City’s best restaurants) and Sean O’Keefe of Mari Vineyards, pictured right. Organizational talent, determination and hard work aren’t enough to pull off something like this year’s @CityofRiesling. For that, you need all those things plus a vision of what the wines make possible in terms of human interaction (the subject of today’s blog posting). Discussion at the seminar tastings was so exciting, and raised so many important questions and issues, because the panel members were chosen on the basis of what they would have to say, not on their fame. Often those who are almost famous have way more to say for themselves than those who’s fame and egos are as big as zeppelins. In Traverse City the panelists enabled me to learn not only what is happening with Riesling in the US, but also how that fits into the broader picture including the stuff that is supposed not to happen (for example the illegal kick-backs used to buy into restaurant wine lists and onto store shelves in some states).  However, the most important revelations all were the startling new Rieslings of exceptional quality are being produced in the US. For example, the 2014 “239″ Dry Riesling from Bruce Murray’s Boundary Breaks estate in the Finger Lakes of New York isn’t released yet. Wines like this will make waves when they reach the market shortly.

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