Category Archives: Gonzo

Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 7 – Gonzo Wine Journalism Lives!

The world is finally waking up again after Easter / Passover / the holidays and just in time the German edition of VINUM magazine (04/2013, but not in the Swiss edition!) has just published a red hot piece of my gonzo wine journalism. Of course, if you don’t speak German you can’t understand everything, but the 8 pages which describe my 60 days in New York Wine City (NYWC) are still eye popping thanks to the daring of designer Johanna Pietrek. What she did with the mass of photos I sent her along with my stories of how the Petite Arvine grape is about to be planted in the Finger Lakes of New York and my encounter with Brambo at 740 Park Avenue is a small miracle. Thanks also go to editor Stephan Reinhardt for placing this huge a bet on gonzo. The most surprising thing for me is not that this is the most original article I’ve published in years, rather the fact that it is an article which functions so much better in printed form than it does on the screen (even the latest iPad or the Microsoft Surface), because it’s in comic format. And already the reaction to it amongst Germany’s Jungwinzer and young consumers is great, although most of them will only get to see it this coming week.

Posted in Gonzo, Home, STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL | 2 Comments

New York Riesling Diary: Day 25 – New Jersey, the Ultimate “wrong” Wine Region + comment by Justin Christoph

It seemed to be exactly the right moment to visit the ultimate „wrong“ wine growing region: New Jersey. A couple of weeks back German-born economist Karl Storchmann of New York University and the American Association of Wine Economists persuaded me that I just had to go. A little reluctantly I agreed. However – see ‘In the Feiring Line’ below – by the time I climbed into his car yesterday morning at 8:30am I was convinced the wines and vineyards of any wine growing region considered this “wrong” by the New York wine scene were an essential gonzo wine destination. So yesterday it was Escape from New York and head for the nearest wine Badlands.

“Why is that people want to eat as local as possible and things like New Jersey tomatoes are so popular, but when it comes to wine they want to drink as far away as possible?” Karl demanded as his car shot out of the Manhattan sunshine and into the Holland Tunnel, “I’ve lived here for 15 years and even I only found out about New Jersey wines last year!” What he meant is that for the New York City sophisticates when it comes to wine New Jersey is way on the wrong side of the tracks. Maybe the stalls on the farmers markets helped New Yorkers get over the widespread anti-Jersey prejudice when it came to fruit and vegetables, but the state’s wine producers haven’t yet offered them that kind of touchy-feely experience within the comfort zone of their own city?

In New Jersey the traffic was light so we made it to Peter Leitner’s Mount Salem Vineyards near Pittstown in the North of the state, pictured above, in barely 80 minutes. That’s really not long, so why don’t hoards of New Yorkers drive out on sunny weekends to visit New Jersey wineries? Well one reason is that as Karl said on the way, “it’s not a wine growing region with a cluster of producers close together, it’s more a region in which there’s wine growing.” That means there’s no easily accessible valley like Napa (in California) or the Willamette (in Oregon) where tourists can hop from tasting room to the next, and no one-stop destination for the journalist wanting to quickly pick up a wine story. For that you have to drive around a lot, but hell Karl and I managed it in just 12 hours!

By the time we arrived at Mount Salem Vineyards another of my preconceptions about New Jersey had been demolished. I thought that the state was flat and full of smoke stacks, the whiff of hydrogen sulphide fumes from chemical plants heavy in the air. Instead, we’d driven through woodlands and fields steadily climbing into the hills until we were around 700 feet (over 200 meters) above sea level. It’s beautiful country full of historic small towns untouched by tourists, ripe for journalistic discovery closely followed by a Madison Avenue advertising campaign. I mean, this could easily become a happening place. At present though, you need a contact like Karl who tells you what’s happening, because this is not a story New York wine journalists want to write.

Sadly that’s not the only obstacle New Jersey winemakers face. “Downy mildew, powdery mildew and black rot…fungus is the big enemy,” Leitner explained as we entered the more than two hundred year old red barn that is his winery, “then there are grape berry moths, Japanese beetles and the stink bug.” So winegrowers in the state face a tough struggle in a climate that tends in the warm and humid rot-friendly direction in summer. Then man’s destructive influence enters the equation. “In 2012 we had no Grüner Veltliner crop because of herbicide drift while the vines were flowering, something ugly called 2, 4-D. It can drift one or two miles, so I don’t know which farmer was responsible.” The fact that it was used as a defoliant by the US military during the Vietnam War only makes it clearer that this is an Agricultural Weapon of Mass Destruction that should be banned in the US immediately along with assault rifles.

Grüner Veltliner? Yes! In 2010 Leitner made a delicious, richly textural barrel-fermented wine from Austria’s number one grape. His family originates from Vienna/Austria and when he studied the climate of this part of the state he felt there was a close enough to match with his family homeland to try Austrian varieties. 2010 was his first vintage and good as the results were, it was the barrel samples of 2012 Blaufränkisch reds that convinced me he’s really on to something. It was really exciting to taste how the wine from his home vineyard had red fruit aromas and a wonderful elegance (silky tannins), whereas the Blaufränkisch from Coia Vineyard in the south of the state was packed with black berry (including elderberry) aromas, and was at once powerful and crisp. That means there’s terroir in New Jersey!

Just before we had to dash to the next appointment Leitner said something which hit me like an express train. It was his answer to why the state has a serious image problem. It’s not the smoke stacks and it’s not the flatness of much of state. “All you have to do is to turn on late night TV and you’ll find somebody shitting on New Jersey. And the chances are they came from New Jersey and are now successful somewhere else.” Ouch!

It was almost half an hour’s drive to Unionville Vineyards, during which Karl told me how this operation is well-established and well-capitalized, because it belongs to two very successful people, though I didn’t find out if they’re natives. I liked the Calfironian winemaker Cameron Stark, pictured above, from the moment he stepped up to the bar in the cavernous, but warm tasting room (also in a barn). “We’ve been working on a wing and a prayer for too many years and it’s coalescing into…nothing,” he joked, for the 2010 Pheasant Hill Chardonnay was something else. I haven’t tasted a new Chardonnay that had this concentration of fruit, this seamless elegance, subtle oak and an exciting whiff of funk in many years. And all this at 13.1% alcohol, way below the contemporary norm for Chardonnay, and $45 isn’t cheap, but it’s far removed from what good white Burgundy costs, Kistler or Marcassin charge for their high-end single-vineyard bottlings.

I’m not the only one to be wowed by this wine though. It already won a major wine competition against everything California could throw at it and placed second in the Judgement of Princeton tasting last June which pitted France’s best against New Jersey blind. (See the Wikipedia entry for more information). Cameron has been at Unionville since 2003 and from this and other wines he clearly has a great feeling for Chardonnay. OK I thought, that’s what this area does best. Then he poured me his 2010 Syrah, the first commercial vintage of this wine, and I slammed into the wall of wild black berries which poured out of the glass. For a moment I feared a monster, then was amazed by how lively and dry it tasted, and how the abundant tannins were woven into the sleek whole. Obviously many grape varieties grow well here.

It’s adrenalin which powers crazy appointment packed days like this. The navigation software on Karl’s ipad going on strike, having to keep an eye our for the cops while moving fast on the freeway, while simultaneously trying to think through the economics of the state’s wine industry kept us buzzing during the long drive to Heritage Vineyards & Winery in Mullica Hill south of Philadelphia.

The Heritage family have been growing fruit here, mostly peaches and apples, since 1853, but it was only in 2003 that Bill and Penni Heritage plunged deep into wine. Why? “We couldn’t make any money with peaches and apples,” Bill declared bluntly. Their tasting room is as cleverly thought out as many Manhattan stores and obviously equally successful. Penni told me that this Saturday it would be heaving with shoppers when this year’s Christmas feeding frenzy peaks.

Here just under 200ft above sea level the vineyards are almost flat, and due to the combination of relatively high rainfall and a water-retentive dirt (loamy sand) there was a lush natural cover of “weeds” between the rows. Irrigation is only necessary for the youngest vines until they get established. It took a lot longer for winemaker Sean Comninos, seen below, to open up than his employers, but the more he did speak the more interesting I found this thoughtful guy who clearly has asked a lot of probing questions about how vines function in this location. Judging from the red wines we tasted he already found a bunch of answers to those questions.

The most exciting of them was the 2010 “BDX” which is theoretically a Bordeaux blend, hence the slightly tacky name. There’s absolutely nothing tacky about the taste though, which is rich, warm and spicy, but without a hint of the monolithic heaviness that weighs down so many over-ambitious reds of this ilk which try so desperately to be The Great American Red (a parallel to all those portentous books determined to be the next Great American Novel). I was enchanted by the subtle spiciness of the nose in which the vegetal side of Cabernet Sauvignon was barely hinted at in a tantalizing way. This balanced the “sweetness” from fully ripe (but not over-ripe) grapes and the tannins were discretely dry in a manner reminiscent of “classic” style red Bordeaux. Once again the alcoholic content was modest at 13.1% and I found the price of $70 for another wine that shone in the Judgment of Princeton tasting very fair.

By this time I was asking myself what the hell was going on in New York wine scene. Why had wines of this quality and a story as full of engaging and contrasting characters like these failed to happen big time. I thought back to how decades ago I had to get out of the London wine scene in order to free myself of the mutually reinforcing prejudices of the majority of its members. They met almost daily at tastings and on junkets, continuously telling each other how right they were, until, without ever consciously deciding to do so, they all treated the current collective wisdom as the absolute truth. I wanted the reality on the ground, even if it was complex, contradictory and confusing.

Winemaking in the South of New Jersey seems to have Italian roots, by which I mean that Italian immigrants came here because land was cheap and transplanted the wine traditions of their homeland to this very different country. This was long before Prohibition, which must have been a severe shock for them. It wasn’t difficult to like Jim Quarella of Bellview Winery, see below, because he has a no-nonsense, practical approach combined with a great feeling for dry red wine.  I can already hear the cries of, “yes, but it won’t age!” because it comes from New Jersey and because it grows on very uncool sandy soil – “where are the minerals?” – and all kinds of other Manhattan Excuses for avoiding the obvious conclusion that these are serious wines which are also full of joy. A 2006 Blaufränkisch which was still delicious proved the ageing potential.

I tasted a row of five 2010 reds from single varietals ranging from an incredibly floral, effusively fruity and slightly sappy Cabernet Franc to a chunky Syrah that smelt of smoked bacon and black cherries. The 2010 “Lumiere” Bordeaux blend, the first vintage for this wine,  was super-elegant in spite of its considerable power with a long silkly aftertaste with a delicate hint of chocolate. I challenge you to find a Bordeaux red or Northern Californian Cabernet-based blend which comes close to offering this kind of experience for under $35 per bottle.

It was good that Bellview were setting up their company Christmas party right next to our tasting, because it helped us get out almost on schedule. As we drove off Karl and I were stunned…by the extravagant Christmas illuminations in front of many homes we passed. It was like being lost in Disneyland way after closing time!  Again we struggled with the failing navigation app on Karl’s ipad, but he’d been to Louis Caracciolo’s Amalthea Cellars before so we found it OK. Even in the pitch darkness the building had a Chateau-like feel to it.

Every great winegrowing region needs one or two larger-than-life winemakers who think light years outside the box and are willing to go the extra hundred miles to find out where the limits of the possible really lie. Caracciolo, pictured below with a photograph of his grandfather, plays that role for New Jersey. Four of the six wines he showed me were mind-blowing, with two just a head behind the leading pack, but let’s forget the damned score card for a moment. What he has done is to create a series of (potentially) seven “Legends Edition” wines, each modeled on a particular Bordeaux Château. For example, the stunning 2010 “Europa VII” is inspired Château Figeac in St. Emilion, which means that it is a third each Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. That would be a crazy idea in Bordeaux, never mind New Jersey, but the result is no slavish imitation, instead balancing a delicate sweetness with generous tannins that are moderately dry and just a hint of leather. In comparison, some vintages of Figeac stink like an entire gang of Hells Angels and were often a bit on the lean side, and more recently rather flabby. The price of the 2010 “Europa VII”? Just $34,99!

Karl slumped half-dazed, half-exhausted on a bench in the rear tasting room as we learnt more and more about the decades of research, experimentation, thinking and rethinking behind these masterpieces. Caracciolo, at once craftsman, scientist and artist had one eye fixed on the great Bordeaux wines of the past centuries while the other gazed far into the future of New Jersey wines. Back in Manhattan the people who should have written this story long before I did still have their Eyes Wide Shut.

www.mountsalemvineyards.com

www.unionvillevineyards.com

www.heritagewinenj.com

www.bellviewwinery.com

www.amaltheacellars.com

The comments from Justin Christoph are always spot on. Here is the latest:

There’s a passage I got memorized.
Himmelreich 49:56.

“The path of the righteous Riesling
is beset on all sides by the inequities
of unbalanced wines and the tyranny
of evil wine critics.

Blessed is he who, in the name of
terroir and good wine, ripens
the grapes through the valley of the
darkness.  For he is truly his
brother’s keeper and the finder of
lost vineyards.

And I will strike down upon thee
with great hail storms and furious
phylloxera those who attempt to poison
and destroy my vineyards.  And you
will know I am Riesling when I lay
my vengeance upon you.”

I been sayin’ that shit for years.

And if you ever heard it, it meant your
fass.  I never really questioned
what it meant.  I thought it was
just a chilled-Riesling thing to say to
a points fucker ‘fore you popped a
gold kapsule in his ass.  But I saw some
shit this mornin’ made me drink
twice.  Now I’m thinkin’, it could
mean you’re the evil critic.  And I’m
the righteous Riesling.

And Mr. Grosses Gewachs Magnum
here, he’s the winemaker protecting
my righteous Riesling in the valley of
darkness.  Or is could by you’re
the righteous Riesling and I’m the
winemaker and it’s the wine critics that’s
evil and selfish.  I’d like that.
But that shit ain’t the truth.  The
truth is you’re the grapes.  And I’m
the tyranny of evil critics.  But I’m
tryin’.  I’m tryin’ real hard to be
a winemaker.

Posted in Gonzo, Home, STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL | 6 Comments

What the hell is Gonzo ?

The icy wastes of Piemont where I wrote about the icy wastes of wine journalism

A Brief Introduction to Gonzo Wine Journalism

Notes from the Piemontese Alps, January 2009

Just what the hell is gonzo wine journalism ?

I may be in a small minority, but I believe in indirect answers to straight questions. Well-rounded explanation that seems to settle the matter once and for all are one of the things which got us into the present mess, for nothing is ever really settled for very long. And in this isolated house high in the mountains – into which we had to dig our way with shovels and a pick – I’ve got more than enough time to spin this story out and examine this thing from many angles.

I could start by claiming that none of this is my fault, because it really wasn’t my idea. But any statement I make which attempts to reduce my responsibility in this matter, however indirectly, would be some kind of lie, since this whole thing is about the search for truth; the truth in wine and the truths which wine has lead me to, continues leading me to. In fact, it was Dee Lite’s idea.

At the time, the summer of 1991, she was the wine columnist of a British newspaper and we were on a strange press trip to the sunny Portuguese island province of Madeira. We were walking back to our hotel from the town centre of Funchal, the island’s slightly crumbling capital, one afternoon and I asked her what her goal as a journalist was. Put like this the question sounds dull and predictable, but we’d been chewing over the state of journalism at this very particular moment, and in that context it sounded very different. It was just a couple of years after the fall of the Berlin Wall immediately after the Cold War’s end, and even the Iron Lady Thatcher had abruptly departed. Everything seemed to be in flux in the most promising way.

Gonzo wine journalism !” Dee replied; three electrifying words. Although my head was instantly in a wild spin I immediately understood what she meant: to write about wine the way Hunter S. Thompson had written about the American Dream. It was more than a decade since I’d dipped a toe into Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, but so explosive was what I’d read that it had etched itself into my mind. The book was, like much else of his work, a freewheeling, full-throttle, no-holds-barred, do or die search for personal truth. It had been lubricated with a super-size-me cocktail of drugs and hard liquor, but that only added a garish range of colours.

Unlike Thompson who never seemed able to decide which stimulant was the right one and gave every available drug at least one serious test drive, for Dee Lite  there was never any doubt about her drug of choice: wine. More important than this identity of subject and intoxicant was a vision of writing about wine which communicated the rush of sensual and intellectual discovery. When it comes to wine the border between the two is totally illusory, the product of nit-picking blinkered rationality.

When I got home I was all fired up and wrote a much more adventurous story about Madeira wine today than I would if I hadn’t had that conversation with this daring colleague I couldn’t get out of my mind.

Somehow word got out about what I’d written before it appeared in ‘Decanter’ magazine and several people unsuccessfully tried to get its publication stopped. After it rolled off the presses there was a heated discussion of it in the cabinet of Madeira’s autonomous government and word was passed to me that I shouldn’t try to return to the island any time soon.

What was the terrible thing I’d done ? Slightly cautiously, that is shooting downhill on a bike with one brake half-on in order not to gain “too much” speed, I’d written the painful and largely suppressed truth about the decline of the island’s wine industry. To placate my vociferous critics, who all had a direct or indirect commercial interest, a silver-haired Big Name in wine journalism was wheeled out to write an alternative Madeira story in the next issue of ‘Decanter’. Just as the critics wanted he dressed up a one-sided version of history as news, but who knows maybe he also saved my neck ?

Just a year after this I met my now wife, Ursula Heinzelmann (then a sommeliére and restaurant manager, now a successful food and wine journalist) and for some time I was pretty distracted with the struggle to set up our own home in Berlin hampered by some fairly serious financial problems.

Much of my first book in German ‘Die großen deutschen Rieslingweine’ or The Great Riesling Wines of Germany, was written during the first months of 1994 in Hotel Bogota on the Schlüterstraße in Berlin under rather desperate conditions. We were bankrupt and my tiny desk was close to a very draughty window, so that when during a short ice age in January I had to write wrapped in a blanket.

Once again it was only after publication that I realized what I’d done. Without thinking about it, or about German press law, I’d simply written the truth as I’d experienced it. Suddenly a handful of winegrowers who were clearly frothing at the mouth were threatening to sue and dozens of others were steaming with fury. “Like a Wild Boar” was the title of the story about the controversy in ´Der Spiegel´. The moment I saw it in Café Central during a brief stop in Vienna on the way home from Northern Italy one cold November afternoon I knew that it was all true and great publicity too.

When the one winegrower who actually sued me finally got in front of the judge he suddenly realized he was facing the possibility of a very public humiliation and caved in, agreeing to a settlement greatly in my favour. This was partly due to him having hired one of the nation’s worst lawyers who’d then given his naive client a wildly inflated idea of his chances in court. It was all very surreal.

After I got my head out of that noose I made a very stupid mistake by trying to write well, developing a highly self-conscious form of wine literature that was often too clever for its own good. Fear of further legal action cramped my style during the late 1990s. The weak nerves that had prevented me from becoming a punk during my teens held me back again, slamming on the breaks just as I was picking up speed.

Some things worked out in spite of this, particularly the articles I wrote for ´Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung´ magazine, but these were high-brow conventional journalism, rather than under-the-wire gonzo. They helpped me give up writing for British and American wine magazines, which was a great relief. There editors were too anxious to pigeon-hole me as their expert on German wine, as if my postal address automatically put a severe limit my mental horizon. I am not a number, I am a free man!”

Unfortunately, I wasn’t living this credo; it was just a theory to which I subscribed. Worse still, away from my writing I was discovering that I had an addiction to happy endings and what the consequences of this dependency are. The combination tipped me into an ever deeper depression. At the end of 1998 my wife and I tried to move from the Wedding area to Mitte, the heart of East Berlin, and crash landed again in Hotel Bogota. (Thanks Joachim Rissman for saving us from destitution for a second time and to the hotel staff for helping us though this harsh period).

Finally we won our battle with the developer of our new apartment and moved into our present home in June 1999, but by then I was suffering quite seriously from depression. My first trip to California in seven years in the summer of 2000 finally enabled me to get some distance from all my problems and see that I’d lost both my chosen path and the determination to follow it wherever it lead me.

The word gonzo wasn’t in my mind at that moment, but it was the direction I was moving in. By the time I returned home it was clear to me that any claim to objectivity in my work, however indirect, had to go right out the window if I was going to get somewhere more interesting. Even scientists measuring “concrete” phenomena choose to do so one way rather than another using certain kinds of instruments instead of others. Scientific method is a human construct and the history of science helps shape its future.

When it comes to journalism you can work more or less systematically, but there’s no such thing as objectivity. Evoking illusions of objectivity and comprehensiveness are the symptoms of a diseased form of journalism that is often mistaken for normal good health. This condition ceases to be benign when the journalists suffering from it decide to abandon the search for truth entirely and tell the public what the editors think they want to read/hear.

Fundamentally the only difference between this and how the CIA gave Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld the “evidence” they needed to justify invading Iraq is of degree. An epidemic of this virus is one of the things which got the world into its present mess. Of course, sitting here in this well-heated house whose kitchen is stuffed full of good food and wine makes it easier to say all this, but this favourable situation doesn’t reduce the truth in this statement one jot.

Lies dressed up as AAA truth have been second only to greed in pushing us in the direction of the abyss. No doubt many of the major newspapers and big news networks will deny that they ever did this, but if you look at when they started reporting critically on Iraq and the Subprime Scam then it was really rather late.

Then, I started reading Thompson’s books thoroughly and was amazed by what I found. Not only was there more truth than “chaos”, but the “chaos” showed me how he discovered his truth and why he saw them in a certain light. Here was three-dimensional journalism: facts many of which were too explosive to be “true” in the everyday sense of this word, the context in which they made the fullest sense and how the journalist came to regard these as his truth.

It was clear from that moment that with gonzo wine journalism I wasn’t going to win generous praise or make a lot of money. Recently I’ve take to saying the following lines to myself to remind myself of this: nobody told you to climb Mt. Everest, and nobody told you it would be easy. With these words I steel myself for the challenges to come.

Thompson frequently wrote about how when the going gets weird the weird turn pro, and he certainly considered himself one of the professionally weird and thus particularly well qualified to comment on the situation when things turned weird. Now things are getting weird and are going to get very tough. In spite of the widespread recognition of this I don’t think many people yet realize fact that because we failed to learn many lessons from recent history we are doomed to repeat it as a collection of episodes rearranged in an original combination and sequence nobody can predict.

Our only hope of avoiding this fate is to start learning from recent history real fast. But at the moment many people seem to be worrying about whether to cancel that third holiday this year or put back buying a new car until next year. Another painful truth is that for many years we in the West were living under the illusion that we were the Masters of Globalisation, when we were actually like little kids who imagined that whoever had the biggest stack of tokens at the end of the game is top dog. Now we suddenly find that our tokens are almost entirely worthless and it is we who are caught in globalisation’s grip, maybe even between its jaws.

I don’t want to become some strange kind of prophet of doom, but after a decade spent studying globalisation and wine these things strike me as unavoidable conclusions. Wine isn’t the financial industry, real estate, the automobile industry, oil or nuclear proliferation, but globalisation is globalisation and I’ve spent years in the Belly of the Beast.

Gonzo journalism demands that you crawl inside your human subjects and when you can’t see the borderline between them and yourself, then you know that they’ve started crawling inside of you too. Whether that’s a good thing or not is something everyone has to decide for themselves, but regardless of how you see that it you do gonzo journalism, then afterwards you’re a radically different person from beforehand, certainly a less blinkered person.

I spent the last decade doing in this in a variety of cultures around Planet Wine and there were some moments when I thought that I was completely lost and would never make it back home and once again look like the person other people imagine me to be. On the flights from Berlin to Paris and Paris to Turin yesterday I ploughed through all the English and German language newspapers I could pick up at those airports and felt seriously shaken. I recognized so many faces of globalisation from my research trips for ‘Wine Far and Away’ (the book I’m currently working on) that I felt them crowding in upon me and stuffed the pile of newsprint in my bag.

Of course, some aspects of the mire we find ourselves in are so obvious that even fools ought to be able to recognize them. That old-fashioned greed is the principal villain of the piece should be clear to everyone except those who dismiss reporters as “the reality-based community.” Self-importance come a close second or does that honour actually belong to believing in comforting lies? This terrible trio latch onto so many things and wine is one of them.

That fact has convinced me that however many other tasks are lined up for this so called “New Year” – suddenly those words were always so positive sound like a horrible threat, rather than a clean slate ready for optimistic thoughts – I must finally put pen to paper and write a story that has been turning circles in the air during the last two years. My reason for not writing ‘Double Trouble in Wine Paradise’ and ‘The Great Wine Party’ was always that I hadn’t got punch lines, but this now seems like a petty excuse. Or would you say that a wine with a three figure Euro profit margin per bottle was in tune with what everybody says is the worst economic crisis since the 1930s? And is winegrowers awarding their wines fancy titles with the slimmest of arguments to make them look like something they’re not in tune with Obama’s call for more “transparency”?

No and no again. I’ve dodged telling these stories too long. Watch this space!

Posted in Gonzo | 3 Comments

Culinary Ethnic Cleansing: White Euro-American Writing about Food

Hear me people: We have now to deal with another race – small and feeble when our fathers first met them, but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of possessions is a disease with them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break but the poor may not. They take their tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule.

Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull) on the White Euro-Americans

People often ask why I’m writing about food, and eating and drinking. It makes me feel like Groundhog Day and I’m tempted to quote MFK Fisher as an answer: when I’m writing about food and wine it’s about „deeper needs for love and happiness… other nourishment, and tolerance and compassion for it“. But then I’m afraid her honest answer in the foreword of The Gastronomical Me might sound too sentimental, and I say something more sober and sensible, in a Michael Pollan way, like food being central to our life, being crucial in a social, political, and economical dimension. The next question mostly is how I came to write about food, to which again there are several possible answers, depending on my mood and the occasion: because that’s what I feel I know most about, because it reaches out to everybody, because I started my career as a chef… But that last point of course leads to how I started to cook before I could even write – it seemed the natural thing, how could you not, my mum did it, and my grandmothers did it, and you had to do in order to eat, and I’ve always loved eating… so to cut this short, in the end I’m saying „thank you mum“, and that feels sentimental too for a Prussian Berliner.

To tell the truth, the US of A are to blame for it, and that includes MFK’s books, a meal at Charlie Trotter’s back in 1994, a bottle of Randall Grahm’s Cigare Volant, many bottles of Russian River Pinot Noir and a tasting of American goat and sheep cheeses held by Rob Kaufelt of Murray’s fame at the Slow Food Cheese show in Piemont, only days after 9/11. Together with the enthusiasm many of our American friends showed for life in general, all these things opened my eyes to how much more there was to discover in food and drink. When I travelled to California in 2003 to meet some of the relevant cheesemakers and admitted to them how heavily prejudiced I had been towards American cheese prior to that tasting, I gradually started to see things back home differently as well, and in 2009 my book on the new German cheese was published.

My (English winewriting) husband and I kept travelling to the US all through the W era to see our friends and make new ones, and we still keep refuting stoically people’s prejudices about American wine (supposedly all heavy and jammy) and food (all junky and mcdonaldised). I’m looking forward to every single copy of magazines like Gastronomica, The Art of Eating, Culture, Meatpaper and Saveur. This last one however has recently started to give me much more food for thought than I’d wish for. I’ve noticed how reading it – once an inspiring experience that would send me almost automatically to my desk – makes me feel itchy, even angry. It took me quite a while to work out why. Only after I reread Tom Wolfe’s piece about the New Yorker and found out more about the Smithsonian controversy about the dispute of the the Enola Gay display on the fiftieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, did I realize that I strongly dislike the politics showing behind what Saveur claims is an authentic world of food.

Anybody who is familiar with Saveur magazine will undoubtedly object now that there doesn’t seem to be a political side to it. Exactly. And on the other hand, ah well and ho hum, as MFK would have said – we all know food is political. Let me explain why I feel like the good folks at Saveur are trying to forcefeed me their version of the food world. Of course, none of us writers can claim objectivity, especially with food. The mere idea of it is wrong, an illusion. However, that’s not my point. No, I get the horrible impression that in that wonderful test kitchen with its surrounding offices staffed by all those immensely hard working, „insanely busy“ people, the food world is being reinvented and reshaped to a cosy, warm-glowing nostalgic cloud-cuckoo-land. American food (of almost any kind) according to Saveur is of heroical meaningfulness. Don’t get me wrong – of course it is, at least some of it, and of course, Saveur also gives us plenty of stories about the rest of „a world of authentic cuisine“. But politics, the economy or social problems are completely invisible in those glossy pages.

It is as if somehow somebody in that office in the midst of Manhattan has drunk an awful lot of Boston tea recently: I counted two black persons in the last three issues (and that is including some in ads that were obviously concerned about PC), a search for „native american“ on saveur.com came up with only four results of which three were not what I had in mind, and perhaps worst of all, sentimental, often nostalgic goo drips out of it all. It sticks to the excellent technical explanations, and it covers the honest excitement with which most writers present their stories. It allows a whole string of undoubtedly well-meant, but otherwise horribly ordinary to downright horrible „home“-recipes to be presented like wonderful new recipes worth of exploration at my own stove.

It’s probably neither wise nor diplomatic of me to object to a sentence like the following: „Watching as folks line up to ladle out lamb stew or help themselves to another serving of baked delicata squash, listening as everyone catches up on news about kids and grandparents and work, I feel thankful to have discovered this way to fit into my community.“ But I do, strongly, and with all my senses. When I’m invited to dinner at somebody’s home and presented with a… well, just about edible dish which in a restaurant I’d probably return to the kitchen, but my host has been cooking for me with love and honesty, I’m trying to enjoy it. It’s the spirit that counts. But that doesn’t mean that I’ll be asking for the recipe and publish it in my next article or book. We all know that we can unite and talk and fall in love over a big chain’s burger and a soft drink, just like dinner in a Parisian bistro might be completely void of romance. But that doesn’t turn the burger into fantastic food. And it doesn’t justify writing about it without mentioning the severe problems the current structure of the food industry causes of which it is part. You can call it ignorance, deliberately wearing blinkers or Palinisation – whatever it is, it makes me feel sad, because it does food in general as well as the American spirit, a disservice they don’t neither need or deserve.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I could come up with similar quarrels in the case of some European food and wine publications. Glorification of the supposedly buolic countryside is rampant, and often a romanticised idea of Nature is worshipped as if the very notion of culture had never crossed our lips. But then the standards over here never seemed as rigorous, the enthusiasm and consistency never as infectuous, the intellectual independance not equally important than in the USA. That’s why my disappointment almost feels like anger whenever I now look at a current issue of Saveur magazine.

by Ursula Heinzelmann

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