Category Archives: Gonzo

Arizona Wine Diary: Day 8 – Unsung Winemaker Heroes of the South (Part 2)

Although it doesn’t look like it, this photograph of Todd Bostock of Dos Cabezas winery in Sonoita is missing something vitally important: Todd’s wife Kelly Bostock. I’d already left Sonoita for Tuscon with Todd late yesterday afternoon when I suddenly realized that I’d forgotten to get a photograph of Kelly, at least one in which her equally strong personality comes across as like Todd’s does in the picture above. My humble apologies to Kelly and to you the readers for this omission, because it skews this story somewhat as a result. You see, there are plenty of winemaking couples around Planet Wine, but Todd & Kelly Bostock really are shaping the Dos Cabezas wines and their marketing as a team, and that’s still rather rare in the conservative world of winemaking.

The only point where there really seems to be a division of roles in this partnership is the job of spokesperson for this two person “politburo”, which is something that Todd appears to do more of than Kelly. No doubt some of my colleagues would say that’s because he’s got the gift of the gab – he can talk very articulately at quite a pace for a seriously long time – however, his real gift is for finding a few words that vividly describe the most important things about Arizona’s rapidly developing wine industry, the extreme environments of Wilcox and Sonoita where the Bostocks’ vineyards are, and the remarkable Dos Cabezas wines. But sometimes what he said yesterday went way further even than that.

“All the beautiful stuff comes from the edge of disaster,” came just before we sat down for lunch yesterday after a tour of the Bostocks’s Sonoita vineyard. That made straightforward sense after what he’d told me about the problems the’d had with raccoons, deer and lightning. I mean in addition to the problems of frost, hail and rain discussed in yesterday’s blog posting. That means that winemakers either go under or they find creative ways to deal with this multidimensional adversity. And together the Bostocks’ have done that in way that leaves me breathless, but which a regular visitor to their beautiful tasting room in Sonoita will not necessarily get, that is unless they decide to ask the kind of questions I do.

The photo wall behind the bar of the Dos Cabezas tasting room is one good reason why some of them do ask those kind of questions. It not only shows aspects of the savage sublimity of this place that visitors might not get during their often brief visits to the area (this applies to me too), it also tells the Bostocks story in a way that takes you close to the edge where all that beautiful stuff happens, and it provokes visitors’ curiosity to find out much more than just how the remarkable Dos Cabezas wines taste. I guess that marketing people reading this will think to themselves, “that’s just using instagram for experiential marketing!” but if it is that, then it is a special experiential marketing that retains an unusual down to earthiness.

Meskeoli is the name of Kelly and Todd Bostocks’ main dry wine and some readers will remember me singling this out as the Riesling Innovation of the Year some months back. For those of you who missed that I should explain that the 2014 tastes a bit more of the Viognier grape (melon and a hint of apricot) than the 2013, but this grape accounts for just 25% of the blend, followed by 21% Roussanne, 19% Riesling, 17% Picpoul, 11% malvasia, 6% Albarino and 1% Muscat. From a New York Wine City (NYWC) or a CA somm perspective this is a mad, bad mix of grapes that shouldn’t add up to anything more than confusion, but the startling reality is that it adds up to way more than the sum of these parts. That strikes me as being the basic idea behind most of the good and exciting wines made in Arizona (that are often unconventional blends), but in this particular wine that principal is raised to the power of ten. Wines that give me strong personal associations are something I live for, and this one has a floral note that reminds me of the smell of the room where my grandmother used to dry flowers from her garden (for flower arranging), but it also has a grapefruit note that’s way more subtle than this aroma usually is in white wines (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc, Scheurebe). And the finish is seriously saline, which means the wine is intensely mineral, but also excites me because it reminds me of exploring rock pools on the coast of Cornwall, England as a child.

OK, Kelly and Todd Bostock’s Meskeoli isn’t the most elegant or subtle dry white on Planet Wine, but it is one of the most startling and expressive I can think of, and I’d rather have that than a polished but predictable taste any day, even if that polished taste is deemed “classic” by NYWC and CA somms. I also think it’s important to remember that the 2014 Meskeoli isn’t one year, and is therefore currently in a state of youthful exuberance. Todd told me he doesn’t think it will age, but I think this is because he almost only experiences it when it’s this young. My gut tells me it will also be great at 5 – 10 years of age, but probably I’m underestimating a marathon runner.

Like their leading colleagues in AZ, most of Kelly and Todd’s production is red wine, and not without good reason. None of those wines are aged less than two years until release, some of them three or more, so tasting the 2013 vintage wines was a lesson in science fiction, because the best of them aren’t even bottled yet. However, they are ready for bottling and that’s a great time to taste young reds. It’s plain to me from the cask samples I tasted that several of these wines, most notably the 2013 El Norte (a Grenache-based blend with a lot of richness, but also a great herbal-citric freshness) and the 2013 Aguileon (a powerful Tempranillo-based blend with aromas across the spectrum from black olive to pomegranate) are the best vintages of these wines to date. About the second of those wines Todd observed, “there was the wine we could have made to meet out production goal in terms of quantity, and there was the best wine we could blend from the barrels we had. Kelly was right that we had to make the latter.” I’d say that she was spot on, for this wine is going to make some of the people who have been talking down AZ wine sit up and take notice. Then there’s the 2012 Montana, a spectacular blended red that is as “crazy” and “right” as the Meskeoli, and is single the most exciting wine from Wilcox I tasted so far.

Yesterday evening I was inspired and enlightened by dinner at Pizzeria Bianco in Tuscon, but I feel that subject remands and deserves a posting all of its own with the title BEST PIZZA ON EARTH – The Chris Bianco Story. Please be patient! After that pizza, Todd and I wandered down East Congress Street to the Unplugged wine bar for a glass of 2013 Riesling Unplugged from Martin Tesch in the Nahe, Germany. That was like suddenly being beamed from one planet to another, but this is what wine in the 21st century is all about: connecting those dazzling aroma and flavor dots over vast physical and cultural distances. And, as you can see from the photo above, the pace has a special vibe. And it could only be in Tuscon, a city I immediately fell in love with. So, I have plenty of reasons to return, apart from the fact that I’m still not sure how I should best answer those tightly intertwining questions that popped into my head in the first of this series of postings about the Arizona wine industry. Give me more!

www.doscabezaswinery.com

www.pizzeriabianco.com

www.unpluggedtuscon.com

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Arizona Wine Diary: Day 4 – Singer-Winemaker Maynard James Keenan, or Quo Vadis AZ Wine (Part 4)

No direction but to follow what you know,

No direction but a faith in her decision,

No direction but to never fight her flow,

No direction but to trust the final destination.

You’re a stranger ‘til she whispers you can stay.

You’re a stranger ‘til she whispers your journey’s over.

Weigh your worth before her majesty the Verde River.

From The Green Valley by Puscifer

I never suffer from that vile disease called writer’s block, and I therefore never sit in front of a piece of virtual or real paper blinded by its whiteness and haunted by my own emptiness. However, I do have occasional crises when I just can’t figure out how to make sense of all the material I’ve gathered during a major piece of research. That’s always a problem of fullness, of feeling that what I now know is so rich that there are a dozen, or even dozens of ways in which the story could be told. Then, I feel too feeble-minded to recognize the right direction my storytelling should take. Paralysis results, and that’s the state I was in yesterday evening sitting alone in front of my computer in this airstream trailer parked at Maynard James Keenan’s Merkin South vineyard in the Verde Valley of Northern Arizona.

I decided to give in and admit that I didn’t know which way to answer the two tightly intertwined questions I posed in the first of these blog postings. So, I switched off the computer, closed the analog notebooks, then removed some of the agricultural riches of this green valley from the fridge, and cooked them instead of stewing in my paralysis. And, because the fridge was full of half full bottles of wines from singer-winemaker Keenan’s Caduceus Cellars & Merkin Vineyards I pulled them out and “tasted” them again. By that I mean that as I blanched green beans and spinach, sautéed carrots and beetroot I  drank at least sip, and sometimes as much as a small, of each. Several of the young wines I’d tasted with Keenan during the lass days tasted much better than when I’d first tried them, most notably the 2013 Marzo red (Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon) and 2013 Marzo rosé, both of which were way more elegant than when those bottles were freshly opened, and the 2013 Agostina red (Mourvèdre) that had a great herbal freshness. That had surely comes from this cool site – it grows right next to the airstream down here in the valley bottom.

While I was doing that I went back in my mind over the intense conversation with Keenan I had yesterday afternoon at the tasting room of the Four Eight Wineworks (a cooperative winemaking facility where a handful of winemakers in orbit around the Singer-Winemaker make their wines) in the Old Town of Clarkdale. I can understand that the Singer-Winemaker is sparing with personal stuff when I’ve got my black notebook open on the table and I’m scribbling in it like crazy. That sight might be intimidating if you’ve had so-called journalists treat things you told them, including that detail called the truth, like an elastic band that can be pulled and twisted this way or that at will.

What he told me about growing up in small town Michigan and his later experiences in the sprawling Moloch of LA before coming out here to the colorfully alternative wilderness of Northern Arizona and his life here was low on directly expressed strong emotion, but in spite of that, paradoxically, the material piled up until I felt overwhelmed by it as if I was standing in front of the edifice of a great Gothic cathedral for the first time. And the emotions were there, like shadows cast by the sculptures decorating that elaborate edifice.

On the drive back to Merkin South Keenan’s vineyard manager Chris Thurner and I talked about his complex boss, and that piled the stack of impressions even higher. “You know at the beginning of each year he hands me a schedule that tells me where he’ll be each day of the year, in case I have to contact him,” Thurner said, deeply impressed by this herculean labor of planning.

Although Keenan and I had talked about music, that was all about the process of writing – as different as our writings are, we have much in common there – not what the life of a rock star is like. “And he has this complete other existence as part of Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer!” I threw out at Thurner.

“Yes, its amazing how he balances the two things, but during the harvest he’s totally here the entire time,” he replied, “I remember one night I arrived at the Jerome winery with a refridgerated truck full of grapes from the South at 1am and he jumped to the job of crushing them. At something like 2am he was busy cleaning the bins the grapes had come in with a high-pressure water cleaner.”

“I’ve done that job, so I know what it’s like,” I said, “he doesn’t need to do that does he?” “No he doesn’t,” Chris answered, “but he wants to.”

When I woke this morning the seriously dazed and confused feeling of yesterday evening was thankfully gone. I felt calm and steady as I went out for a run shortly before 8am and it was cooler than the previous days. As I wound my way through the valley catching glimpses of the wide Verde River below me I remembered some lines of the Puscifer song The Green Valley. Little by little, the conviction grew in me that I have no choice but to follow what I know even if it sometimes overwhelms me; no choice but to accept the flow of this story whichever way it turns; no choice but to trust in the final destination whatever it is. Because, only then will there be a chance that at some point I might cease to be a stranger in this strange land. Your majesty, I am Gonzo, and I am yours.

There are two versions of Puscifer’s The Green Valley

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMAG6KhH35U

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dhU1CBLYPU

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Arizona Wine Diary: Day 2 – Singer-Winemaker Maynard James Keenan, or Quo Vadis AZ Wine (Part 3)

By 10:30am yesterday, the only hints of the huge electrical storm of the previous evening were a few wisps of white and grey cloud slowly dissolving into the azure above the Verde Valley.  That’s when the Maynard James Keenan and his vineyard manager Chris Thurner picked me up for a tour of the vineyards owned by Singer-Winermaker in Northern Arizona began. It ended up filling almost the entire day and wiped me out. What made the day so demanding was the thoroughness with which Keenan and Thurner presented the five vineyard sites, and how we tasted wines wines harvested in each during that tour.

The only problem with this situation, is that it makes me feel like a photographer challenged to capture a panoramic landscape of the kind that Arizona is so rich in into a conventional 3:4 format photograph. The only way to get close to that is to pull the zoom lens all the way out, so that it take in the widest possible field of view, then to select a section of the panorama that gives the best idea of the whole. How can I cram into a regular length blog posting all that I experienced and was said without dumbing it down? You see, over-simplification to the point of falsification is the commonest and worst mistakes of wine journalists, it isn’t an option for me. So I’m pulling my storytelling zoom lens out as far as it will go, and selecting moments that I hope give you a feeling for the whole ball of wax.

Let me start by pointing out that the photo above shows Keenan in his Merkin East vineyard site where the Caduceus Cellars Marzo red wine and rosé grow. It takes just one glance for it to demolish one of the commonest misnomers about wine growing in Arizona. This vast state is not a uniformly barren desert dotted with cacti, where the wine grape is destined to struggle hopelessly and ultimately to fail. Although barren reddish cliffs tower over the vines at Marzo if you look at the vines of the Tuscan Sangiovese grape variety (pictured below) instead of those rock faces, then you can immediately see why the Spanish christened this the Verde, or Green Valley.

Now we need to backtrack an hour to the more rocky and arid looking Elephante vineyard on a hilltop with gentle slopes overlooking the valley, which was first stop on the tour. In a few years will be the major source of grapes for Keenan’s Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards here in the north of the state, so it deserved particular attention. As we arrived at Elephante Keenan listed the major obstacles to success with wine growing in Arizona in order of importance beginning with the paradoxical Problem Numero Uno, “Frost kill in winter and frost damage to the young vine shoots in spring…we also get monsoons, strong winds and dust devils.”

Then he passed the baton to Thurner (pictured below) for an explanation of how they’re trying to deal with this slew of problems, and before he did so Thurner added a couple more to that list, for example, too much potassium in the soil, which can result in flabby wines lacking in freshness. However, Thurner has a calm confidence in his power of creative deduction, and with good reason. In just a couple of years he’s figured out a bunch of strategies for tending the Elephante vines that look like  partial or complete solutions to those problems. The proof of this is that except where frost killed them in winter, the young vines at Elephante looked like they’d made a good start in life. I can’t wait to taste the wines made from these grapes.

Although he professes to have little idea about vineyards, Keenan’s also had a couple of good ideas. “He’s so smart!” said Thurner, “He came up with the idea of funneling the rocks on the surface of the soil under the rows of vines where they can work as reservoirs for daytime heat during the cold nights.” “I’m so smart I can’t stand next to myself!” Keenan retorted ironically, hopping awkwardly aside and adding, “I only came up with that idea after spending a lot of money removing rocks from this vineyard!”

Wine growing maybe a science, but it isn’t rocket science, and you can never be sure that you’ve found the right solution to a problem, particularly in a situation like that in Arizona where there isn’t the experience of earlier generations of winegrowers to draw upon. Prohibition killed off the Arizona wine industry on January 1st 1915 when it was introduced in the young state (founded 1912).

Keenan hopped awkwardly, because he had major hip surgery on Monday, is currently walking with a stick (he will continue to do so for several more weeks), and has to wear support socks that give his feet a seriously odd appearance (see the photo below, and note the rocky soil of the Elephante Vineyard under his feet!) The day must have been far more of a challenge for him than it was for me, but he didn’t complain even when, quite late in the evening, he had to retreat to bed. That’s just the kind of determination I’ve come to expect from him.

The problem with the monsoon in Arizona – I’ve already experienced how rain here can be on a biblical scale, but that wasn’t the actual monsoon – is that this landscape, including the vineyards, can then flip over almost instantaneously from desert to jungle. As Keenan observed, “Every seed in this soil has evolved so that when a few drops of rain hit the soil it shoots up…like six feet!” Those are the kind of killer weeds no crop shakes off a confrontation with, but that applies particularly to the sensitive grape vine. And at the 30 acre Elephante vineyard Thurner cultivates 15 different grape varieties, each of which reacts differently to every change in conditions, therefore requiring individual care. That’s the demanding everyday task for this Master Gardener of the Wine Grape.

Last stop on the vineyard tour was the small Judith vineyard below the Bunker, as Keenan calls the complex that is both his home and houses the winemaking facility for Caduceus Cellars. The first time I saw this extreme terraced vineyard (pictured below), perching on a precipitous hillside on the edge of Jerome in November 2014 I thought, if this location doesn’t give great wines at some point, then I’m a complete idiot. However, turning the potential of a special vineyard like this into wines that blow people’s minds is a very major challenge.

As impressive as some of the first wines from the Judith vineyard were (the first vintage was 2007), they left wide open the question whether Keenan, Thurner and team could really crack that challenge. The fact that during the last few years all the vines growing on Judith’s terraces had to be pulled out and the vineyard planted a second time, because the original vines were attacked by the deadly Pierce’s disease, inevitably cast even greater doubt over the feasibility of this undertaking, making it seem way more daring, risky, and yes, downright crazy. I therefor expected it to take another 5-10 years to get a conclusive answer to that question.

Then, suddenly and completely unexpectedly, at the end of yesterday evening after a simple but delicious pasta dinner in the octagonal living room of Keenan’s house that answer gently flowed into my wine glass. From the moment that I first sniffed the 2013 Judith red made exclusively from the Tempranillo grape the delightful chill of discovery that crept over my whole body told me, that the Singer-Winemaker and his team had made a unique wine and it had me in its erotic grip. It combined the darkness of black olives with the intense perfume of the wild herbs on the hillsides around Jerome, and the freshness of the early morning air below Mingus Mountain. Delicious already, I feel sure that it has decades of life ahead of it, and I hope to report on it to you again many times. This all has a soundtrack and it is Puscifer’s gentle anthem to the power of teamwork, The Humbling River:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0YxeTjFn70

Thanks to Erika Smatana for the opening photograph.

 

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Arizona Wine Diary: Day 1 – Singer-Winemaker Maynard James Keenan, or Quo Vadis AZ Wine (Part 2)

Yes, I know, this is supposed to be a story about the Singer-Winemaker Maynard James Keenan, the wines he’s making in Arizona and the work he’s doing to move that state’s embryonic wine industry forward, and, of course the above photograph is of someone completely different. However, this isn’t just any old coffee guy, it’s Alan Bur Johnson, “Barista and Wine Slinger” in the tasting room of Caduceus Cellars in Jerome, Arizona the public address and retail outlet of Keenan’s wine operation. He demands and commands this space by virtue of the amazing coffee he prepared for me and my companions yesterday afternoon after our arrival. I promise you that I am not the wine critic for whom every bottle is either “awesome” or “disgusting”. At least on a good day, I am Mr. Nuance, and on top form I am Prof. Analyze. So, I mean it when I say that this really was the most delicious cup of coffee I’ve had in a long time, and as evidence to support my case that the Caduceus Tasting Room at 158 Main Street, Jerome is one of the best cafés in America I present this tantalizing photograph.

Have, I lost the thread of the story? No, I don’t think so, because while I was drinking that coffee Brian Sullivan, the Tasting Room Manager told me that he well remembers the first time in the early 1990s when Keenan came into the café he than ran in Jerome. He said that the availability of really good coffee might have been a major factor in the Singer-Winemaker’s decision to move here in (I think) 1995, rather than somewhere else in the Southwest. And I promise you that this was not a joke Brian was making, because Keenan is as fanatical about coffee as he is about wine!

Yesterday Kennan was on the road back to Jerome from a distant city where he had important business, so we were “on our own”, which actually means in the hands of the Caduceus Cellars vineyard manager Chris Thurner. I’m saving his story for when I write about the vineyards he tends as if they were gardens. I mention him them now, because I am staying in one of those vineyards during my time here in the north of Arizona, and exactly where I’m sleeping leads me to the trivial topic that has elbowed it’s way to the front of the queue in a rude manner. Please bear with me just a moment!

I’m talking about the airstream trailer pictured above in which I spent my first night here in the Verde Valley. Ever since I first saw ads for the airstream in American magazines (I think it was National Geographic) from the early 1960s I wanted to sleep in one of these things that I associate so much with the Space Race, John F. Kennedy’s glowing optimism and Marilyn Monroe’s voluptuous curves. All of this came back to me when I saw a small airstream in one of the Puscifer music videos staring Keenan, and when I first visited Jerome in November 2014 I was delighted to see it parked outside his house; “it’s real!” I’m now pleased to report that I slept extremely well in it, and that’s where I’m writing this blog posting. The door is open, the heavy electrical rainstorm of yesterday evening has passed, the early morning sun is streaming in, I can hear the water in the stream that runs through the property, the birds are singing and I’m drinking a cup of tea. More importantly, I feel confident that this will be an exciting day with Keenan, during which I will learn more about my host and his Great Arizona wine quest. Watch this space and while you are doing so listen to Puscifer’s Breathe, a song about needs and expectations:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcSxx7msLAA

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Arizona Wine Diary: Day 0 – Singer-Winemaker Maynard James Keenan, or Quo Vadis AZ Wine Industry? (Part 1)

I’m just about to jump on a plane to Phoenix and until June 13th will be reporting from the wine trail of Arizona. I am returning to the same places I visited for the first time six months ago. This second time anywhere is a crucial step, because then the charm of novelty has worn off and you start sinking into your subject’s world. At least, that’s the theory and the justification for considerable expense and effort.

 “I’m sorry, but I don’t know what Tool or Puscifer sound like,” I said to Maynard James Keenan, the singer of both those bands, dryly from the back seat of his all-black cop car as we drove me through his vineyards close to Wilcox, Arizona.  The Buhl Memorial Vineyard nestles on a dusty plain between the hills where the Apache warrior Geronimo hid from the US Army for decades, an achievement which I’d learned had deeply impressed the young Keenan. We’d been talking animatedly and the abrupt silence from the driver’s seat was deafening.

Earlier that day, Keenan had told me about the problems he has with stalkers around his home to the north in Jerome, AZ. “The one’s who you can see are crazy aren’t the problem, because you see them coming, “ he said, “the frightening ones are those that seem completely normal at first, who you only realize are stalkers when it’s already too late.” I’d just admitted to being an anti-stalker! Although he didn’t say so directly, when he started talking again, I could tell that Keenan was pleased with what I’d said. Had I won his trust? Maybe.

There’s a simple explanation for this odd situation. Because wine is my subject, when I accepted the invitation on that press trip to AZ back in November 2014 it was to see the state’s vineyards and taste its wines for the first time. In contrast to California, the established top dog of American wine that produces 90% of the nation’s wine – everything from the super-popular “Two-Buck-Chuck” to hyper-exclusive Screaming Eagle for a four-figure bottle price – Arizona’s wine industry is tiny and almost nobody in the American wine scene takes it seriously. This is a classic underdog story, and that was its appeal to me. Some days before I climbed on the plane to Phoenix the Dada PR man who organized this junket, David Furer of Austin Texas, explained to me that I’d soon be meeting Maynard James Keenan the winemaker of Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards who is also the figurehead of cult metal band Tool with a long-term solo-project called Puscifer, but my attitude was, “so what!” Normally, I do some prep for a trip like this, but I struggled to finish a couple of stories before leaving and didn’t even get around to the half hour of YouTube music videos I’d promised myself. A feeble excuses for a journalist, but par for the course if you’re the anti-stalker of a rock star!

Of course, at that moment in Keenan’s car I realized my unfamiliarity with his music had to end fast, because this was the last night of the AZ wine tour, and I couldn’t go home in the same state of ignorance I’d arrived in. So after he dropped me off at the Sheraton Hotel next to Tuscon airport the moment I got to my room I was on YouTube belatedly finding out what he sounds like. It immediately clicked that back in the 1990s I’d heard some Tool tunes, but never bothered to find out who the band was, because they didn’t excite me. It isn’t my sound today either, although some of the visuals are impressive. Do you need to like a piece of music or a wine in order to write about it? No, but being fascinated by it sure helps. Then, I listened to the Puscifer song Horizons, and from the first bars I was hooked. My first encounter with those darkly beautiful sounds in my Anywhere in America hotel room felt like destiny, and threw up two intertwined questions in my mind: How did this musical multiple-personality mutate into a winemaker in Arizona? And, could he succeed in realizing his goal of putting the state’s wine industry on a solid long-term footing?

I’d already realized that Keenan’s not just another face in the crowd of rock stars and movie stars making wine. Most of their products don’t taste great, and they often get trashed by the wine critics. Mick Hucknall’s Il Cantante red and dry white from his vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily are exceptions to this rule, and they only up how badly folks like Gérard Depardieu (grossly over-priced), Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie (totally boring) are playing the wine game. The difference is that they have professionals making those deeply unexciting wines for them, whereas Keenan is making the Caduceus and Merkin wines himself, and they’re not only very good, but they also taste distinctive. That’s even more of an achievement than good quality, because it’s much rarer. I was fascinated from the first sip.

I figured out all this, and a bunch of general stuff about the Arizona wine industry during that press trip, but a junket is a junket. By the time I’d heard Puscifer’s Horizons for the first time I knew that I must return at my own expense with my own itinerary and try to answer those questions.

There are two versions of Puscifer’s Horizons, and I am torn between them:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUUKN9NPfqA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFNR6AI6ovw

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 18 – Downtime on Fire Island, or What Journalistic Independence Really Means

I spent an oddly wonderful weekend on the construction site on Fire Island, New York pictured above. I’d not only never been to Fire Island, a long sandbar off the southern coast of Long Island before, in fact, I didn’t know where to look for it on the map, much less did I realize what a “special” place this is. Although it’s so close to the Hamptons where the lawns are wide and consumption is expansively conspicuous, Fire Island is packed tight with (mostly wooden) cottages and consumption is discretely inconspicuous. This is a delightfully leafy retreat with some of the most beautiful gardens I’ve seen in the US, and some of the highest grocery and wine prices too.

Maybe that sounds a bit griping, but I promise you I felt very much at home in what struck me as the Carmel of New York State. I just wish I could have done more to help my friends Jenn and Don’s with their construction project, but it was very heavy work to which my upper body musculature is not well suited. Instead, I helped cook, washed up dishes, cleaned floors, went to the store for missing ingredients and helped manage the trash. I also had a good look around the island on foot and bicycle. When I mentally blotted out the row of immediately beachside houses on wooden stilts (out of frame, below picture right), then the beach reminded me very much of Margaret River in Western Australia. There too a strip of sand that looks as straight as a laser beam extends as far as the eye can see in both directions and in front of it is water as far as the eye can see; in Margaret River it’s the Indian Ocean, on Fire Island it’s the Atlantic.

Of course, nothing in this world is as straight or as logical as it seems at first glance. During the last week I had tweeted a bunch of stuff about journalistic integrity, and while I was doing all those chores for Jenn and Don, and they were doing all that heavy lifting, I got to doing some long slow thinking about all those things and the stuff I’d written about them. The first thing that struck me is how there’s a fine line between having positive journalistic principals and becoming obsessively moralistic about those same things. Where does the point lie where the courageous adherence to journalistic independence, honesty about your methods and results, and the strict avoidance of undeclared agendas  tip over into rigidly demanding the adherence to rules instead of cultivating inner strength and a self-righteous sense of one’s own integrity that starts denigrating others who work well in a different way to yourself? There certainly is a place where one ends and the other begins, and I may have have stepped over it at some point.

Was it the calm of the car-less (except for police and fire dept.) island, that is as far removed from the hustle of NYC as you can imagine that lead my mind ever onward into this mental territory, or was it just the simple nature of the tasks that I was doing that gave my mind the space to wander? Maybe it was both, but regardless of the explanation, I feel the results are worth sharing, because this is talked about so little about. Firstly, I always admired the commitment of certain American publications to journalistic independence – the New York Times immediately comes to mind, but my practical introduction to it was at the Wine Spectator for which I was a freelancer from ’86 thru ’96 – and this is still an ideal for me. However, since 9/11 not one newspaper, magazine or website that employed me with any regularity was committed to covering the expenses of my research. They all expected me to solve that problem by myself, and it wasn’t very long until that situation was something also I took for granted. In Germany, where the majority of my journalistic work is still published, this was situation was and is considered normal. Very few freelance colleagues enjoy real support from their employers with the burden of their legitimate expenses, and this influences the way they work, can afford to work.

With rare exceptions, for 15 years I paid them myself as far as I could, and those costs were often substantial. For example, a month in Japan back in 2007 cost me around $10,000. In fall 2014 I was in Israel for two weeks, a trip that cost me about $5,000. In both instances, I accepted no kind of financial assistance from any wine producer or any regional/national promotion board. The modest amount of hospitality I accepted from wine producers never extended to a room for the night or a lavish meal. (To be frank about my methods, although I rarely go on all-expenses paid press trips, I sometimes accepted hospitality from producers on the basis that I would return this when they come to one of my home cities). The vital difference between these two examples, is that back in 2007 I had a publisher who paid generous advances for books packed with daring reporting. Since the financial crash advances of that kind for this kind of material have all but disappeared, so the Israel trip was much more difficult for me to afford than that to Japan although only half the cost in absolute terms.

I write all this not to win your sympathy, but to point out the realities of much contemporary journalism. I am lucky to often be better paid than many of my colleagues, and if some of them accept more assistance from wine producers or promotional bodies, than I ever consider acceptable, this often has something to do with them having a lower income than I do. I am not handing out some kind of blanket excuse for freeloading to all wine journalists, much less all journalists, I’m  just saying that this job is rarely well paid, and when it is badly paid this inevitably exerts serious pressure on those affected.

Now, it’s time for full disclosure: on Fire Island, I accepted a bed for the night from a wonderful little old (sorry, I mean this in the nicest possible way!) lady from Brooklyn called Oona who spends most of the summer out there and knows the place better than anyone else I encountered. It was a great pleasure listening to her stories told with a broad Irish accent. All of this had a lot to do with the high spirits at the lobster fest Jenn and Don served us on Saturday night. As you can see in the above picture, Don cut up the lobsters on his surf board at the edge of the deck where we ate. Oona drank an impressive amount of whisky and was in top form; I was on wine of  non-fancy kinds and forgot a lot of the minor troubles I too often let bother me.

During the night in one of Oona’s guest rooms I woke and lay there listening to the waves of the Atlantic on the nearby beach. All of the stuff I’d been thinking about during the day went through my mind again, and I came to the conclusion that journalists who were lucky enough to spend their entire working lives employed by publications that pick up their expenses must have a hard job understanding what the life of the freelancer employed without expenses (the juggling act between avoiding bankruptcy and maintaining some kind of journalistic independence), just as those freelancers must find it tough comprehending what journalism is like with the safety net of paid expenses and the strict codes of conduct that comes with that. The hard fact of this journalistic age, is that the latter situation is fast becoming an island of old-style professionalism in a sea of badly-paid advertorial and internet (dis)-information. That is something readers and journalists alike need to face up to, before the endangered species called the “free press” becomes extinct. We get the journalism we are willing to pay for and deserve, also the wine journalism we are willing to pay for and deserve.

The train I wanted to take back to NYC Sunday afternoon wasn’t running because of some technical problems, so I was forced to take a shuttle bus, which got caught in the massive thunderstorm that afternoon and evening, and the resulting gridlock on the Upper East Side. I don’t believe in omens, but it was difficult and slow – plenty of “down time” – getting back to my desk, my deadlines and the expenses I shoulder myself.

PS Many thanks Jenn, Don and Oona for your hospitality!

 

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 20 – Billy Wagner’s Restaurant Nobelhart & Schmutzig is Some-thing/where Else (Part 2)

The photograph above is a Portrait of the Gastronomic Artist as a Young Man, which is to say the previous incarnation of Billy Wagner just before he started seriously planing what became his new restaurant Nobelhart & Schmutzig (N&S) on the wrong part of the famous Friedrichstrasse in Berlin (the section in the Kreuzberg district, rather than the much cooler one in Mitte). I was not in good shape health-wise the evening I visited N&S for the first time on Friday evening, which had the advantage that I didn’t take a very active a part in conversation and therefore had plenty of time to think. Watching Billy Wagner zipping around the restaurant, opening bottles, pouring wines and changing the vinyl on the record player it struck me that N&S is not only the stage on which the new Billy Wagner performs with the grace of a gazelle in its natural habitat, it is the stage which gave birth to the new Billy Wagner! If you doubt this, then I suggest you compare the above picture with the one in Part 1 below and see if you really find no difference.

We return to the Mahlzeit, or meal, just as the oh so very noble, hard and dirty soup course was served. Like many other dishes, you can’t tell what is actually from the “menu”, because it only tells what the main ingredients are and where they came from. In this case it said celery, leak and lamb fat from Bauer Zielke (farmer Zielke). Exceptionally, I think my photo conveys very well what this dish looked like. Either you’ll love this soup’s very low key, delicately rooty and mellow flavor, or you’d find it way too bland and ask for Tabasco or some other form of chili to pep it up, as someone in my group did! (Billy Wagner just laughed at that comment). Every dish at N&S has this potential for controversy to a greater or lesser degree, and if that idea doesn’t excite you I suggest that you don’t go there. Maybe this was a shock for some of the “young and beautiful people” who made up the majority of the guests last Friday, but if so they weren’t showing it. Maybe the pervasive aura of coolness surrounding N&S at this early stage in it’s life distracts some guests from this situation, but that’s an effect that will wane in a short time. Then we’ll see how they take these gastronomic slaps in the face. Not everyone can say, “hit me”, and very few can say it and mean it.

Meat was a single course and – if you really wanted to see things this way – was just about recognizable as a “main course”. I forgot to take a picture of my plate when it arrived and when I was able to take a picture of another plate of this dish later in the evening (the photo above) the piece of meat was much larger than the one I got. I guess that I got about 75 grams / <3 ounces, but feel I should point out that this is all any of us need per day to obtain the protein our bodies need. I’m actively in favor of this portion size, also if it’s goal is to make this dish less of a conventional “main course”. Democracy for dishes and wines is something I strongly believe, but am sometimes not thorough enough about.

This piece of Mangalitza pork neck from the Landwerthof farm was delicious thanks to the exact preparation and the intense flavor of the fat. The caramelized onion with it made it even more schweinisch, or piggy, as Billy Wagner called, and the hint of camomile added a light touch to this fat bomb of a dish. The 1975 Kiedricher Gräfenberg Riesling Spätlese – a 30 year old sweet Riesling from the now defunct Rheingau estate of Schloss Groenesteyn – was also the most daring and exciting wine pairing of the evening. The combination of fat and delicate sweetness landed spot on the pleasure center of my brain and I could have wallowed in this dish like a Mangalitza pig in mud. By the way, there is a pig in my name, Stuart deriving from styward, or warden of the pigsty.

Also only slightly sweet was this combination of flower pollen sorbet with elderberries and yoghurt and for my palate this would have been the perfect happy ending to the meal, because the sweet dishes I like are anti-desserts like this. That’s a personal preference though, and not to be taken too seriously if this is a serious review who’s purpose is to assess how good N&S really is according to the motto, “two stars or three?” Before I go any further I have to take that purpose and heave it into the dustbin of history though, because what this story is actually about is figuring out what N&S stands for and what the food, drinks and everything else about it says to us. “I’m not a critic, I’m a free thinker!” Let’s leave this subject right now though, so that the dustbin doesn’t get too full of what seem to me rubbishy ideas before this posting ends.

The other end of the scale to personal preferences are those things that once we taste them immediately make us want to retch. I started eating this dish with the Elstar apple ice and liked the “odd” – an ugly little 3 letter word – contrast with the grains. Then I tried the oat mass and, although I eat quite a lot of oats, the flavor was just too intense for me and I wanted to retch. I consider that quite an achievement by chef Micha Schäfer, because most chefs are so dependent upon being praised, admired, talked about and generally loved to death that they only put stuff they know almost everyone will like on the plate. That narrows down the range of gastronomic possibilities before even ingredients are bought never mind prep begins. Don’t get me wrong, other people in my group loved this stuff. It’s me that was the problem, and the good thing is that Micha Schäfer doesn’t shy away from this kind of collision. As I wrote yesterday, N&S is a gastronomic collision chamber!

With the considerable help of his friends the team, the new Billy Wagner has made N&S this. Everything from the David-Lynch-dim lighting to his own wine selections fits into this dangerous, rag-bag whole without anything ever drifting off in the direction of familiar well-rounded harmonies. I dislike them as much as I like well-rounded answers to difficult questions. That makes this is the Berlin restaurant for me.

For more details go to:

www.nobelhartundschmutzig.com

 

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 19 – Billy Wagner’s Restaurant Nobelhart & Schmutzig is Some-thing/where Else (Part 1)

I don’t normally do restaurant reviews, but occasionally my visits to restaurants were so exciting that I ended up writing some kind of “review”. This is such a case thanks to restaurateur Billy Wagner (left), dishwasher Samuel Teye-Osom (centre), chef Micha Schäfer (right) and the rest of the Nobelhart & Schmutzig team (sadly invisible in this “group” photo).

Before I pressed the bell of Nobelhart & Schmutzig’s (N&S) front door in an unlikely off-centre location in Berlin-Kreuzberg I already knew a great deal about the personality behind this new restaurant that dares to declare itself to be oh so noble, hard and dirty. I first met Billy Wagner when he became the sommelier of Weinbar Rutz in Berlin-Mitte a few years back. That was “late”, since many other people in the wine and gastro scenes knew him from his previous job in Düsseldorf. At first I didn’t know what to think of this larger than life Natural Born Waiter, then we slowly became sort-of-friends, although contact was always erratic, and my observation that I’m old enough to be his father (me vintage 1960, he vintage 1981) repeatedly annoyed him. More importantly, many waves of mostly positive comment crashed over his new restaurant even before it opened, then a rogue wave of immense proportions hit immediately after it opened. I haven’t read what people wrote on the social media, blogs and in newspapers, although some of it was reported to me by friends. As the door opened I tried to forget all this stuff before going, and what I could remember certainly didn’t prepare me for the experience.

I stumbled into the dingy space, and immediately felt dazed and confused in this small-town bar on steroids in the wrong location, turned around and saw I was actually in an over-sized Japanese restaurant (all the best places in Japan are small), then sat down at the enormous three-sided bar and felt sure I was actually sitting in the lovechild of Noma (Copenhagen’s most famous joint) and New York’s Momofuku Ssäm (David Chang’s luxurious street food emporium). It is all of this, but also defies any simple description. Then it was clear that the long gestation process before the lovechild’s birth wasn’t due to any problems, but had been necessary for all of these facets to align in this precise pattern. Diamonds and movies both have to be cut, and N&S had to be cut too.

Not that every aspect of the evening was “perfect” in the conventional sense of that nasty little 7 letter word. The two surprising, but playful amuse bouche – ramps roots with mayonnaise, then goats milk cheese nuggets coated with elderflower – along with the delicious white bread and butter (from Stettin in Poland) count as dishes in the 10 course Mahlzeit, or meal, that is the only solid nourishment on offer. I’m all in favor of breaking down the hierarchy of dishes, so it is seriously inconsistent of me to now “complain” about these details. And let me say right away that whatever other criticisms I have – the wine list is too complex for me to read, but maybe I’m just way too linear? – the 80 Euros which the N&S Mahlzeit costs is a wound I will inflict on my credit card as often as I can.

The super-delicately flavored trout from Müritz in the state Mecklenburg served with potato purée and almost raw chicory (pictured above) announced that regional products are not a fad here, much less a politically correct reflex, but are at the very heart of what N&S aspires to be. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that this restaurant is trying to reinvent the regional identity of this city, and with dishes like this Micha Schäfer has already got a long way along down that path. Yes, this dish doesn’t look like that much if you’re used to all the clever fancy stuff that passed for gastronomic creativity before the Age of Noma, but I think even my so-la-la photo does communicate something of the Geist or spirit (it is, of course, a Zeitgeist) of N&S.

“Too many vegetables!” was one comment I heard, but realizing the untapped vegetable potential of the landscape around Berlin (mostly flat with sandy soils, many meandering rivers and lakes – lush green in summer, grey-brown in winter) is a noble cause, which has its hard and dirty sides. So, I was all in for the gherkin with emmer wheat and rowan berries. The combination of textures was as exciting as those of flavor, and all of these ingredients have deep roots in this landscape. In some way, that I can’t adequately describe this fact gave the dish an inner logic behind the interplay of textures and flavors. To some degree you could say that about all the dishes.

Radish is one of my favorite root vegetables and like parsley it feels at home in this region. Blood sausage is something fundamentally German with many subtle regional  variations and personal interpretations, as any genuinely national dish must have. It looks so right, elegant, but also so very down to earth, and that’s exactly how it tastes. I can imagine that this dish is something of a shocker for some of the guests, just as Billy Wagner’s wine combinations sometimes are. His drive to surprise and his delight in astonishing is one of his best traits, and N&S is a collision chamber where all of this takes place within its own space-time. And, I say that although I wasn’t “pleased” – another nasty little 7 letter word – by every beverage and food combination he presented me during the evening. I was always surprised and often astonished.

Now, I’ve reached the halfway point and I’m wondering if this is the right way to tell this very fascinating story. Have I managed to fascinate you, that is to communicate something of the knot of impressions and feelings I had during my hours in N&S? Part 2 – hopefully – tomorrow will therefore not only be a description of the second half of the meal, but a second attempt to nail this story which keeps running away from my hammer and nails. Watch this space!

 

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 17 – The Vanishing Wine Journalist: Good, Bad or Flaky?

As you can see from the title of this posting it’s Day 17 for me in Berlin this time around, but sometimes it felt like Day minus 17. Several times I’ve walked into wine stores, wine bars or wine tastings and someone here I’ve known for many years said something like, “Oh look who’s here, the vanishing wine journalist!” What they’re referring to is the fact that the Wine Metropole of Berlin used to be my sole home and now New York Wine City also feels like some kind of home to me. They always try to make it sound as if those words are a joke about my new situation as a “bi-polar” journalist, but every time there was something judgmental about their tone, and it was this I didn’t like.

I think what they feel is that I’ve somehow let them down by spending so much time away from the city in recent years, or through my more limit presence here than in the past I’ve forfeited my membership to the Club of Proper Berliners of which they are fully payed up members. They are annoyed with me for behaving in a way that seems to cast doubt on their own commitment to this city. Of course, the doubt is all in their minds, for I have never questioned the importance of this place. As a whole Berlin is the most creative, relaxed and liberal city in the German-speaking world, but their attitude doesn’t fit into that. However, theirs is a highly parochial and narrow-minded attitude that demands people be divided up into neat groups (including those of the Good, the Bad and the Flaky – in their eyes I belong to the latter group). This is definitely the worst side of Berlin, and clear proof that the city still has some way to go before it’s fully cosmopolitan in the way New York is. I am doing my best not to let it get me down, much less cramp my style, because there’s so much else about Berlin that is so positive!

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 10 – Champagne, Gossip & Decadence (according to Frank Krüger)

I know that this blog is sometimes very serious, even dead serious, but this is not one of those days. Today, it is literally dead funny. You see, I’m still on this God-awful VIP-trip and many of today’s VIPs, are dead. The only one who isn’t already in his grave is German TV anchor and comedian Harald Schmidt, pictured above. However, many people would say that his career is already dead in the water.  A brilliant segment of one of his old shows, back in that other geological era when he was on top form, was shown last night at the Champagne, Gossip & Decadence event at Cooks Connection staged by Frank Krüger. His comment on Moet & Chandon was, “11am in Düsseldorf,” a very frou-frou German city,  ”very important, to wear the Polo Ralph Lauren baseball cap!” That’s quite an alternative tasting note and is also spot on! At least, that’s how Moet tastes to me.

There was a semi-serious side to the evening, which was to taste some growers Champagnes and that was important because almost nobody in Berlin knows them. This is one respect in which the Berlin wine scene is on a completely different wavelength to New York Wine City. In NYWC it really must be an Extra Brut (bone dry) growers Champagne that smells a bit funky and tastes a bit sour or you might be mistaken for a Tea Party member or – much worse still! – a tourist from the Mid West. For many members of the packed house it was their first exposure to growers like Agrapart, Gonet-Médeville and Legras & Haas and that experience was rather like suddenly having to try to walk on the moon in one-sixth normal gravity. But that’s why Frank did it!

Enough beating about the bush, here is a very dead VIP; the King of Pop is dead, long live the King! Whatever you may think of his personal life in later life, Michael Jackson was surely one of the greatest African-American singers of all time. He was also a regular guest of Studio 54 during that New York club’s rather short life in the 1970s, and Frank showed a short excerpt of a great documentary about the club. It may be historically correct that Roederer Cristal is the Champagne most associated with Studio 54, but I felt the super-sexy berry bombe that is the Billecart-Salmon Rosé Brut (the one non-grower Champagne of the evening) aligned best with the spirit of Studio 54.

Although I really enjoyed the Blanc de Blanc ‘Terroirs’ Extra Brut from Agrapart in Avize that was my contribution to the evening (a great Chardonnay with zero perceptible oak aroma or flavor, although the base wine is aged in oak), I was also really impressed by the Blanc de Noirs 1er Cru Brut from Gonet-Médeville, which was halfway to being a rosé, and had  great orange peel, quince and herbal character. That seemed to me to fit with the video of the dead American writer Truman Capote, pictured below. Not everyone looks better after ingesting large quantities of Champagne. Did I mention white powder? No, I don’t think so…

Nobody was stupid enough to spit any of the Champagne poured, and by the end of the evening there was plenty of gossip plus a little bit of decadence. What exactly that means, I leave to your imagination, but feel compelled to point out that I did nothing I regretted today after sleeping all that Champagne off. I have taken legal counsel and am denying all the rumors. Honestly, I am always pure and virtuous. But, I guess, if you’ll believe that you’ll probably believe anything. Thank you, Frank!

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