Category Archives: Gonzo

New York Riesling Diary: Day 3 – Looking Back in Space-Time at Maynard James Keenan

TIME PAST AND WINES PAST! There’s no way round it, now I’m looking back both in time, and across diverse mountains, plains and rivers between my desk on the East Coast and the American Southwest and my actual Gonzo #AZwine Adventure. Of course, it ended three days ago with the long flight back to New York Wine City from Phoenix/Arizona, most of which I passed by in a seriously dazed and confused slumber. Done is done! But what is every really done? It’s an everyday paradox that memories are right now, even if they’re like albums of faded photos. Time past and wines past?

Some of you are surely well aware that my host and guide Maynard James Keenan (MJK), pictured above, split from his business partner in the Arizona Stronghold wine project, Eric Glomski (EG), back in the spring of 2014. I can well understand how you might consider that with this move the really exciting phase of the #AZwine story ended. Famously Punk Rock was already dead back in 1979. I remember graffiti in rural Switzerland telling me that piece of news.  Undeniably, it was Arizona Stronghold, founded 2007, that first made a noise about the state’s wines (distributed in 38 states plus some exports!) thru the promotional tour MJK and EG undertook when their first wines came onto the market and the 2010 documentary movie about the pair ‘Blood into Wine’ Stuart! It’s way too late for reporting. If you really must write something, then it will have to be The Official History of #AZwine (Part 1)!

I have to admit I was unaware of the above history when I set off for AZ just over a week ago and I’m really glad that I was, because that Divine Ignorance enabled me to absorb everything around me in a nonjudgmental, sponge-like manner, though obviously, some wines did more for me than others, and some people fascinating me more than others. However, what I experienced most intensely was not the bunch of extreme individuals I encountered, but the complex network of business (not only money, also goals, ambitions) and other relationships (blood and other bodily fluids) that bind them together in a wine community like I’ve never experienced before. And I’ve been doing this thing long enough to have seen many wine regions come up, and a few go down too.

When I get down to writing the Big Story of #AZwine, MJK and his Caduceus Cellars some time next year after another visit to the state, then it will be about that network, although I’m not quite sure how to pull that off without turning it into an #AZwine version of a Russian novel. Certainly it will need some history of the kind outlines above – how else could you figure out how all these people got where they are now? – but I promise you it will be all about what’s happening in the fiery crucible of the  Storytelling Now, all about the moment of wine becoming. I hope that doesn’t sound too fine and fancy, because it certainly isn’t intended to do so, in fact, this story is caked in a gooey-gritty mix of dust and grape juice that sticks to everything it comes into contact with.

WHO EXACTLY IS THE MAN? An important side-effects of my deliberate lack of conventional journalistic focus, was that I took MJK almost exactly the way I found him. Sure, I’d heard he was the singer of a gigantically successful heavy metal band called ‘Tool’, but I didn’t know their music, and, although I’ve now heard a bunch of MJK’s work with ‘Puscifer’, I still don’t know what ‘Tool’ sounds like! Sure, I listened carefully to the music he played on his car radio and in his house; a musician’s taste in music surely say something about him, though it may be damned hard to figure out exactly what that really is. I noted Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch, because I was surprised to find that MJK also enjoys music I do. This relaxed way of doing my job is no doubt naive, but it meant that I wasn’t dazzled by the aura many of his fans clearly see around him. For me he’s a complex guy who’s done a bunch of stuff in his life and recently mutated into a creative winemaker. I promise you, amongst them that’s a horribly rare thing, although a slew of the rich and famous are making wine. Let’s face the truth, most of them are employing people to make wine for them and taking the credit for the, because it means magazine covers. Often the result taste remarkably dumb and are way too expensive on top of that. Did I mention Gérard Depardieu? It seems I did, because I just read his name on the screen and felt slightly queasy. Forgive me for digressing…

I took MJK to be a creative winemaker from my first encounter with him was at the Festival at the Farm of the Arizona Wine Growers where he presented a tasting-seminar devoted to a method of red wine production called Submerged Cap Fermentation (which is what the tank he’s pictured with below is for). He was obviously right on top of this thing in the technical sense, but – as every good winemaker exploring some new technique is – and from the four very different 2104 Sangiovese red wines we tasted he’s also relentlessly running down exactly the right way to use it. In winemaking the difference between more or less right and exactly right is often also the difference between a very good wine and a mind-blowing one (although getting up to either of those levels demands the use of excellent quality grapes). Although we talked about all kinds of things during the following days – I was actually listening far more than talking, because that’s what a journalist after a True Story has to do – we always swung around the next corner back to wine growing and winemaking. Although music is still important to him, this creative process which turns solid grapes into liquids in barrels and tanks no less defines who he is, not only publicly, but also in his own mind.

Obviously, the wines MJK makes, mostly powerful and tannic reds, plus some rich dry rosés and dry whites, are far removed from those that usually dominate this blog (Riesling & Co.) but that isn’t the point. As Michael Pierce of the Saeculum/Pierce winery in Wilcox and Enology Director of the Southwest Wine Center in Clarkdale said, “Nature will prove you wrong if you plant the wrong grape varieties!” The growing conditions dictate what will work best in a particular location, be it in a long-established wine region or out on the enological edge in the mountains of Northern Arizona, and whatever the location if you want to be succeed in making wines that excites people and sells well, then you better pay attention to the growing conditions before you plant the vines. In fact, you’ll need to kneel at the altar of the weather’s caprioles – good, bad and ugly – for the entire lifetime of your vines if you want to play in the Wine Major League. That’s more important than it the wine happens to be Riesling, even if it is the Best White Wine on Earth. Please give me a delicious Big Red, rather than a mediocre Riesling. “It works” is a rather compelling argument in the world of wine!

AN EVENING AT THE BUNKER: Suddenly I was sitting in MJK’s house in Jerome with another four glasses of red wine were in front of me again. Clearly, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape that dominated the ‘Judith’ vineyard below his house when he first planted it is a grape that’s well adapted to the conditions in the mountains of Northern Arizona, otherwise the 2008 ‘Judith’ (100% Cabernet Sauvignon) wouldn’t be at once imposing and so well adjusted at six years of age that it could both delight and challenge me. However, I greatly preferred the 2012 ‘Judith’ and it’s one third Cabernet Sauvignon and fully two thirds the Spanish red wine grape Tempranillo. The perfume of this youngster reminded me of violets and hot dry earth, which is crazy, because violets naturally grow in cool, damp woods; the tingling suspense of contradiction! This is one seriously intense wine, boldly sexual in a way some will find too domineering, others maybe too darkly feminine, but that’s my wavelength and I’m not talking FM rock. On the basis of that I’d say that Tempranillo digs the narrow stone terraces of the ‘Judith’ vineyard even more than Cabernet Sauvignon. Maybe the 2014 ‘Judith’ that we tasted  from the barrel later that evening will be even better. If so, then it will be because of that Submerged Cap that MJK has prescribed for the wailing newborn that are his fermenting wines. As I said, the man is a creative winemaker.

And I still feel that I’m scatting the surface! Bear with me while I scratch some more and be prepared that I might draw a drop or two of blood, because it’s down there.

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Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 5 – Drawing Big Conclusions about #AZwine on Down South Road Trip

The official program of the A2Z press trip to the wine regions of Arizona ended last night when I got back to the Four Points Hotel next door to Tuscon Airport from dinner at Augustin Restaurant. Full stop, end of story? No way. My flight back to NYC via Phoenix  doesn’t leave until early afternoon, so I’m hunkering down in the hotel room this morning to tell the next episode of the story of my gonzo #AZwine adventure. It takes us Down South, or to be more precise, to the Southeast of the state where about three quarters of the wine is currently grown.

I took the picture above that thru the windshield of Maynard James Keenan’s car (MJK seems to be an established acronym) and it gives a pretty good idea of what the latter stages of this journey looked like, but first we had to get the four hour drive south from Jerome past Phoenix then beyond Tuscon behind us and it was a grind. I mention this to give an idea of the huge physical separation between the vineyards of the North and those in the South of AZ. As we approached Elgin-Sonoita the landscape reminded me of intensely of the sixties TV series ‘Bonanza’, with which I’d had a love-hate relationship (I found some other westerns were more exciting). It was a bizarre thought that in just a moment the first vineyards would swing into view and we would be in a wine region.

This is not the time to go into great detail about the Elgin wines that we tasted at Lightning Ridge and Callaghan, because the general conclusion of those tastings is more important: although winegrowing here is just one generation deep this is clearly a great location for growing powerfully tannic and generously aromatic reds, possibly also for full-bodied whites. Again and again I was stunned by how bright and fresh red wines with a stack of dry tannins and 15% or  more alcohol tasted; a complete contrast to California, where those kind of numbers almost invariably mean  a porty and ponderous or even monolithic brute in your glass. At the moment the best wines are blends like Kent Callaghan’s Petit Verdot & Cabernet Franc driven ‘Caitlin’s’, to give just one stunning example. That may be a reason the varietal-obsessed mainstream wine press has so far paid little attention to these wines. When they did take notice they tended to grossly underrate the finest products of this industry for no better reason than Arizona was on the label. Wrong wine style, wrong state! Where’s my 100 point California Cult Cabernet, God damn it!  

Calling wine growing in Elgin-Sonoita  an “industry” gives a rather false impression, because there’s a drive from one vineyard to the next and during it you rarely see any vines in the gently undulating landscape that is primarily devoted to cattle ranching. The problems begin with the fact that the hollows are no place for vines, because of the very real danger of late (i.e. spring) frost damage. The availability of well water for irrigation is also a major limitation for wine growing, ruling out many potential sites. That, as much of the early stage of development of winegrowing here and under-capitalization, results in the wide open spaces between the vineyards through which a group of cowboys could easily drive a big herd of cattle.

The distance between Elgin-Sonoita (the only AVA, that is official appellation for wine, in AZ) and the Wilcox region is more than two hours drive, but doesn’t look like much on the map. There’s an utterly different landscape there, pictured below, the vineyards lying close together on the flat valley bottom between mountain ranges that were well-known to Jeronimo. The red wines from here share the chewy tannins of those from Elgin-Sonoita, but are usually a shade fleshier and more supple. The excellent blended reds like the ‘Le Norte’ made by Todd Bostock at Dos Cabezas epitomize this type, but Sand Reckoner (first vintage 2010) and Deep Sky (first vintage 2013) are hot on his heels with their new wines.

At Saeculum/Pierce (first vintage 2011) Michael Pierce is plowing a different furrow with lighter, fresher reds like the elegant ‘Gallia’. The floral and juicy dry whites with fresh acidity that Pierce and Sand Reckoner made from Malvasia Bianca this often overlooked grape is extremely well adapted to growing conditions here. It’s also a great grape for white wine blends as Dos Cabezas ‘Meskeoli’ already proved (scroll down for more). So Wilcox isn’t turning out just one type of wine, much less shifting standardized wine units, in fact there seem to be a couple of dozen different grape varieties that do so well here that they may have a long-term future. That means the possibilities are enormous and even the daring young winemakers of this region are still just scratching the surface.

HANG ON JUST A MOMENT! These lines all seem way too pedestrian to me as I read them back, so let me add some more direct and spicy words that will hopefully drive those people who want the world to stay put and confirm to their preconceptions crazy. Arizona is not only making many really good wines and some great ones, but one day this state will one day be famous across America and around the world for its wines. The fact that MJK became the sole owner of the 80 acre Buhl Memorial Vineyard here early this year, and his team are rapidly knocking that site into great shape means that this recognition may come sooner, rather than later. Because he’s planning to sell about half the fruit he grows there, this site will be a major source of grapes for many producers as well as fuel his own brands. As he told me, his team, “have pulled a white rabbit out of a hat” in knocking the vines here into shape in a single season. Even without that though, the smaller producers mentioned above are all pursuing the goal to top quality and distinctive flavors with great determination, and that’s what a new wine region needs to grab the attention and capture the imagination of media and consumers alike. Here in Wilcox are enough grapes, and enough land that can be quickly planted, that a new out-of-state demand could be supplied.

With each vineyard visit and each tasting not only did the layer of dust on my boots grow, so did my conviction that although there’s only be a small amount of Riesling here (scroll down for more), this state’s improvised and sometimes chaotic wine industry is a great story for me. The #AZwine spirit I breathed in deep made me feel more alive than when I got on the plane from NYC to Phoenix just 5 days ago. Was it really that short a time? It’s very hard to believe The somewhere-or-nowhere-in-America ambience of this hotel room is hardly compatible with the gonzo ethos of this undertaking, but that doesn’t alter the basic fact that a great new wine adventure has just begun for me. The best thing of all is that in spite of absorbing a huge mass of impressions I can’t give you any idea where this will all end.

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Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 2 – How AZ is About to Change the Way We Think about American Wine

Fully aware of the journalist’s saying that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, I must report that during a generous and rather tasty dinner last night at The Asylum Restaurant in the Jerome Grand Hotel I had a moment of revelation about #AZwine. In fact, there were two moments, one of which was directly the responsibility of Maynard James Kennan, the man pictured above, the second of which he was indirectly responsible for. You can look up more biographical information on this winemaker and rock musician on the internet than I can usefully give you here, so let’s go to the wines that convince me Arizona is about to change the way we think about American wine.

The first moment of revelation when I tasted the first white wine with dinner, the 2013 “Meskeoli” from Dos Cabezas Wine Works in Sonoita down in the southeast of the state, which managed to be simultaneously bold and richly expressive, but also cool and lively. The back label detailed a blend of grape varieties so crazy and complex that not only could I never have dreamed it up, but I can’t understand how anyone managed to get all those components to give a wine so precisely balanced and delicate in flavor. Amongst them was 15% of Riesling, that somehow seamlessly ran through the body of the wine like a silver thread. The majority of the blend was composed of Picpoul, Viognier, Roussanne, plus a splash each of Albarino, Muscat and Malvasia. I would place this wine firmly in the Mediterranean-type dry whites category, but I don’t know anything else in that category that comes close to this. Congratulations are due to Todd and Kelly Bostock for this delicious curveball of a wine!

They are good friends of Maynard’s and that was, I guess, as much the reason their wine being on the table as its inherent quality, but that is not the issue. I was far from being alone in singing its praises. The same could be said of the 2012 “Kitsuné” Sangiovese red from Maynard’s own Caduceus Cellars here in Jerome, a slightly eccentric corner of which is pictured above. American Sangiovese usually taste a bit tart, lean and rough, even when it manages to have 13.5% natural alcohol like this wine. There wasn’t a hint of that in this wine, also sourced from a vineyard in the far south of the state. Instead it had the ripest and brightest cherry aroma wrapped in a slew of dark aromas that ranged from violet to star anise. And I promise you all that I’m not the guy who normally writes descriptors like that. It was seriously tannic, but those dry tannins were wrapped in something that felt like velvet on my tongue, so that even at this young age the wine slipped down almost effortlessly while touching nerves I didn’t know American Sangiovese could reach.

Of course, dinner had been bought for us all and there’s no denying the intention of this on Maynard’s part was to impress us. Please dismiss all the above if you think the situation makes the impressions I gained invalid, but in that case you might have to permanently avoid this blog. You see, if I think that it helps me find out something valuable I am going to let a winemaker entertain me, and I will always bring my own attitude to that dinner table. I think that it is also significant that several other wines were served that were either very good but not mind-blowing, and one (the 2013 Dos Ladrones, a dry white from Caduceus Cellars made from a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Malvasia) that was technical spot on, but left me cold. That strike rate tells me that the best winemakers of this state are just getting into their stride. However, it already seems clear that the best wines of the future from here will not be pure varietal Cabernets, Merlots or Chardonnays, but will lie outside the current American Wine Box in which most of the nation is drinking. For #AZwine to be fully successful it will have to persuade some of them to drink outside that box with relish.

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Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 1 – AZ Contradictions as Seen from the Gonzo Perspective (Part 2)

Of course, this is how many readers imagine my trip thru Arizona in search of unknown  Great American Wine, and, as you can gather from this photograph which I took on Highway 17 heading north from Phoenix to Jerome this afternoon, at least some of the time it looked exactly the way you expect. However, beforehand at the 6th Annual Festival at the Farm of the Arizona Wine Growers Association at Maya’s Farm in Phoenix, pictured below, it looked exactly the way you would imagine an al fresco wine tasting in California would. The wines were very different though, in fact they were very different from any other wines I’ve tasted from the Western side of the United States. Here the acidities are sometimes moderate, but rarely  too soft in the way they often are in California, and the best wines have a lively acidity that I found appealing rather than tart. I have to admit that the sample was a bit erratic, because I deliberately left out the wineries we’ll visit during the coming days, but I felt the pattern was rather clear. Only a couple of the wines – reds from low acid varieties like Grenache – were a little bit on the warm and broad side due to pronounced alcohol and lowish acidity.

This acidity was part of the explanation for several very good white wines I tasted, although none of the Rieslings were more than solid. The most delightfully surprising of these whites was the dry 2011 Chenin Blanc from Carlson Creek Vineyards close to Wilcox in the southeast of the state. It had attractive apple, pear and honeysuckle notes as well as a touch of what I call wet wool (a rather common aroma with this variety in my experience). Better still the wine was crisp and bright with a pronounced mineral freshness and the 13.5% wasn’t perceptible. A mineral flavor in a Chenin Blanc from Arizona! That was really a shocker in the most positive sense of that word.

No less striking was what the Pillsbury Wine Company in Cottonwood, a short drive south of Flagstaff, has done with a new white grape called Symphony during the last few years. The dry wine Sam Pillsbury made from it in 2012 was slightly reminiscent of a rich Gewürztraminer, but with more freshness and a great apricot aroma as well more spicy notes. In spite of 14.7% alcohol it was not heavy, finishing deliciously clean and fresh. The same winemaker’s 2013 “Sweet Lies” is also made from Symphony and the complex dried fruit aromas of that wine were stunning. If only it had a little more sweetness and a little less alcohol, then it would have a really satisfying balance and be a great sweet white, but in spite of that it didn’t have any alcoholic burn with 15%. That says how fundamentally right the combination of this location, this grape and this style are.

The drive north to Jerome was fascinating not just because of the frequently changing scenery, but also because the flow of no less fascinating stories from Maynard James Keenan of Caduceus Cellars, seen at the wheel in the above picture. Please be a little patient, because I’m still getting a grip on the multidimensional personality of this winemaker and musician in order to give you a story that doesn’t reduce him into a journalistic cardboard cutout. Here’s one of the phrase he uttered that I jotted down as sped across the dessert. “Rule one: be nice to other people. Rule two: don’t eat other people’s shit.” He meant it literally as well as metaphorically and saw no contradiction between those two rules. That’s Arizona at its best.

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Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 1 – AZ Contradictions as seen from the Gonzo Perspective (Part 1)

Welcome to green Phoenix! 

Normally, I reckon that the ideal blog posting is about a Great Wine Personality unfamiliar to the majority of readers and the ideal picture at the top of that ideal story is a photograph of that Great Wine Personality. Measured against that ideal this first posting from my Gonzo #AZwine Adventure is a major flop, and this journalistic undertaking perhaps doomed to abject failure. Let’s face it, that kind of failure is not exactly an All American option. However, only the above image can adequately convey my sense of shock when the sun came up this morning at The Legacy Resort in Phoenix and the landscape became clearly visible, in contrast to being bathed in a dull glow of streetlight when I arrived last night. And I promise you, that I didn’t tweak the above image with Photoshop, by which I mean that this is not the Kim Kardashian of lawns! That’s how it actually looked.

On the way to breakfast at Maya’s Farm with Gonzo PR David Furer (the organizer of this   press trip) I passed the totally contrasting chunk of landscape seen above. Cacti like these can make it here in Pheonix without any irrigation, because they’re perfectly adapted to this desert environment, but my guess is that at this nursery they’re probably befitting from a little bit of extra water out of the pipe to grow them faster. Nearly all the water in this city comes from the Colorado River, which is the prime water source for about 40 million people in seven states here in the Southwest. Californian agriculture, including grape growing in the Central Valley for cheap branded wines, also depends upon this H2O. On my early morning run I passed the canal that brings this water to Phoenix, but also a street called East Desert Drive and a real estate development called Villas at Tuscany. When I got to Maya’s Farm, one of the last urban gardens that survived the Sunbelt Boom, I found the rows of some member of the cabbage family (some kind of kale?) pictured below. The combination of all these things with the hyper-real greenness of the lawns at The Legacy adds up to a pile of AZ contradictions that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

The question for me now is, of course, how wine fits into this landscape. How do vines adapt to these growing conditions? This morning at the Arizona Wine Growers Festival at the Farm, which is also at Maya’s, I will start figuring that out. During the excellent breakfast there – when did I last eat fried potatoes this early in the day?  - I heard that today temperatures will “only” go up into the lower 70s Fahrenheit today. However, the harvest here must have long finished (under much warmer conditions) and the contrast to the Big Freeze in most of the country is dramatic. Let’s face it, these are extreme growing conditions all the regular American stuff like those lawns is also extremely odd in this desert location.

 

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 9 – Why I Will Continue to Shoot from the Hip

I humbly apologize for the enormous gap sine the last posting, but when I arrived in Berlin from Israel I was suffering from a viral infection that didn’t want to go away. In spite of this there was a very long “to do” list, not least preparing for moving STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL’s across the city yesterday. Thankfully, that went very well and this blog is now up and functioning in its new Berlin home. Here is the much delayed story on journalistic ethics that I promised my twitter followers a few days back. It’s theme is the liberty of the freelance journalist to shoot from the hip that I consider essential if really good writing is to be the goal (which it certainly is for me).

What is the right way for freelance journalists to work, behave, live? In recent years this was a question I don’t think much about, because many years ago I figured out what seemed right to me. However, an exchange on twitter the other day dragged me by the scruff of the neck back to this question. I decided that freelance wine journalists don’t need to be saints, but we do need to straight with our readers and to be fair to the winemakers who’s products we write about.

One obvious objection to this is, that although it sounds good this statement isn’t even close to being a clearly laid out code of practice. Principals, however strongly held, are always vaguer and more abstract than a written book of rules. But would an industry-wide code of practice really function in the rough and tumble of freelance journalism? I’m very skeptical about that for a bunch of reasons. The truth is that, with or without rules the world in which freelance journalists operate would continue to put good intentions and lofty principals to a severe test. It’s about as far removed as you can get from the lives of people with 9 to 5 jobs and regular paychecks, as long they follow the rules.  Sometimes it’s closer to navigating uncharted waters with a coastline as confusing as Norway’s, and I mean that in the moral sense too.

Nobody does that for many years without making a few compromises – I know I made some small ones that I hoped weren’t harmful (more about that below) – and a code of practice wouldn’t change that fundamentally. Actually, I fear that it would only encourage weak-willed journalists who sell stories and their souls for short-term profit to become more clandestine about their unsavory activities. The most important thing as a writer is to stick to your core values (and to write great stories, of course), and to my mind this is better than doing everything by the book, because that so easily gets reduced to going through the motions. Sure, the situation is different for major news publications that need books of rules to discourage corruption amongst their employees, but that’s one reason I remain a freelance journalist, in order to shoot from the hip.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m also completely convinced that readers are right to expect journalists to report what actually happened rather than make up their stories, or, worse still, dress up advertising as objective reporting. Most of us recoil from things that pretend to be something they’re not and rightly so. Modern history is full of that stuff. Any intelligent person ought to realize that although one end of this wedge is thin, it quickly becomes a lot thicker as you get farther down. If the subject is wine, merchant banking, football or the US President, the moral question remains the same.

In the front of my 2014 diary I wrote two quotes from Georg Orwell, the first of which describes most crucial issue I confront in my work everyday. “Journalism is printing what someone else doesn’t want printed. Everything else is Public Relations”.  Without the willingness to write things some people don’t want to see printed criticism becomes a hollow word. The second Orwell quote is about what happens to journalism when it loses touch with those core values and becomes subservient to unscrupulous people.  “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”

That is also the reason why a freelance journalist needs to have a considerable freedom of action, including sometimes doing the “wrong” thing. I loath and despise organized press trips on which all expenses are covered, not only because they encourage journalists to have a good time at someone else’s expense (that’s why we in the biz call them Junkets), but more importantly because they encourage the participating journalists to go home and all right the same lame tame story. However, a couple of the best stories I ever wrote were the result of my breaking my normal rule and going on press trips. Of course, I went on them with an attitude that was anything but devoted. One of those stories, so far untold in writing, will form the first chapter of my next book (codename WAM).

My impression is that those freelance wine journalists who have a reputation for moral straightness and independence of opinion rarely get bugged by the purveyors of wine products trying to more or less subtly buy their praise. Over the years you not only get a reputation, but also build up something like an aura. My aura sometimes make readers too reverential towards me, which bugs me, but it also frightens off those people with a lot of wine to sell who would be willing to pay to have me puff their products, and I’m extremely glad it has that effect. Hard to believe?

It has been suggested that the real solution would be if we all wine journalists and critics pay for the wine we taste, or declare the fact every time we didn’t. Sure, if the wine is, for example, Château Lafite Rothschild, that sip could be worth a significant amount of money, but mostly it lands in the spit bucket. Not only am I against the rigidity of this proposed rule and the creeping Moral Correctness that lurks behind it (MC is as bad as PC), but no media outlet that I know of would be willing to finance these costs. That would mean that my colleagues and I would have to finance it out of our own pockets, and in turn that would immediately and dramatically influence which wines we tasted. Sometimes wine producers refused to let me taste their products, so I went out and bought them to do that, but no way could I afford to do that for every wine I taste.

This leads me to the simple and painful truth that freelance wine journalists are rarely well paid. None of the publications I work for pays any of my research expenses and this blog earns me zero income. Perhaps it sounds like I’m complaining in order to gain your sympathy, but all I’m doing is introducing you to the economic realities of wine journalism, in case you’re not familiar with them. Let me give you an example. I just returned from two weeks of wine tasting in Israel, which cost me more than $3,000. That figure is so high because of the price of airline tickets to Israel, but also because no wine producer provided me with accommodation or invited me to a meal in a restaurant (although one wine merchant did, to say thanks for a favor I did for him). I will make a substantial loss on the article that I was commissioned to write about Israeli wine.

One of my core values is, that if a subject strikes me as being really important, then I must research it without regard to cost and effort, but no way could I afford to do apply that principle to every single article, column and blog posting I write. You can be sure though, that I will tell you if anything made me feel someone was trying to pushing me into writing something they wanted to see printed. And after 30 years as a journalist I’m all to familiar with how subtle and gentle that pushing can be. It comes with the territory through which I ride every day.

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 11: Riesling Fans of New York unite at Wine Riot! / See you Tonight art the New York Premier of WATCH YOUR BACK – The Riesling Movie

My strong belief in the power of the new generation of Riesling fans was enormously strengthened by those I met at the New York Wine Riot yesterday and the day before. I don’t know the names of any of these people, but I do know that even if they didn’t all yet love Riesling when they walked into the New York Wine Riot they certainly all do now!

Sometimes people called me the “Pope of Riesling”, the “Emperor of Riesling” and similar stuff, but all I’m really doing is being a catalyst that brings these people together in a peaceful and, hopefully, exciting way. Maybe, sometimes, I give them some nugget of information that helps to stimulate their interest and curiosity. If so then that’s great.

In fact, this time they all did me a great service, because they forced me to fill the space that was provided and gave me the energy to do so. I used to laugh when people talked about “Rock Star Wine Guys”, but now I’m beginning to see that it’s literally possible. Why did I make this discovery at Wine Riot? Because the average age of those who took part was just under 30!

What the Wine Riot convinced me of is that it may “only” be wine and “only” Riesling at that, but if you do it right you can crank up the volume and turn that into a rock culture phenomenon, and those rock culture things all grow the largest size in America! You can be sure that I intend to part of this thing whatever it gets called.

That all seems to me to be some kind of omen of things to come, although what they might be I certainly can’t tell you know. Tonight at 10pm at Terroir Murray Hill (439 Third Avenue, between 30th and 31st Streets) when my WATCH YOUR BACK – The Riesling Movie receives its NYWC premier. Below is a picture of the amazing daredevil Riesling Road Trip driver Devin (left) and my cameraman Marcarthur Baralla setting up one of the shots for the movie’s final scene. Hope to see you there.

PS If anyone decides they don’t like appearing on my blog just let me know which image you’d like to remove and I will do so.

 

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 15 – Dr. Riesling’s Gonzo Stocktake (Part 2) – 93,763 Machine Guns is Paranoia

 

Events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere subsequent to the publication of this posting in no way alter my conviction that what we saw there during the days immediately following the shooting of Mike Brown was the result of a system that has become paranoid. The mainstream media are giving the racist aspects of this story the attention they deserve, but are still weak on the paranoia that was so clearly visible.

Perhaps because it’s now only a few days until I return to Europe that the events of the last bad days in Ferguson, Missouri have made such a deep impression upon me and the sudden turnaround in the situation there seems like reason for real hope. Like many other people both in America and around the world I was shocked by the shooting of an unarmed African-American youth, Mike Brown, by a policemen. Then came the demonstrations in Ferguson by the African-American community, the looting, and an extreme police response that included the liberal use of tear gas, rubber bullets and the arresting of journalists who’s only “crime” was being in McDonalds.

I know that some of my readers are annoyed when I turn my attention to stuff like this, because they feel it lies “outside” my subject. They would prefer me to focus solely on wine, that is to “stick” narrowly to my subject. Of course, one reason some people try to focus exclusively on wine is status; they use it to make themselves feel more important than others, or even to demonstrate that they’re more important. I don’t think many of my readers have that mind, though. However, some of you do seem to want wine to be like an island of good, fine, authentic, unsullied or noble things in the high seas of trouble and strife, or at least of banality and boredom. “Ein Fels in der Brandung,” or a cliff in the swell that withstands it, is a German expression which describes this perfectly. I ask you to bear with me, for I will return to wine before the end of this posting.

The problem with this narrow focusing upon the contents of the glass is that wine never was or is disconnected from the rest of the world. It never was or is only a “natural” product, although in certain situations (for example, fancy restaurants) it is made to look as pristine and inevitable as a luxury handbag in a designer store. In fact, it is shaped by economic, social and cultural forces, just like everything else in the world. In common with other journalists reporting on what’s going on in this world, work under conditions that both limit and shape the results that I can achieve. I am no more a “Fels in der Brandung” than any bottle of wine is! A good journalist  wants to understand the situation they find themselves in, because, as Nietzsche wrote, “the context is the facts”.

Those ugly events in Ferguson interest me not only for themselves, but because they seem to be part of a much larger ugly pattern. With good reason Senator Rand Paul (Rep. KY) has written a piece on TIME.com attacking the militarization of law enforcement in the US. ‘The New York Times’ has revealed that since 2006 state and local police forces in the US acquired 435 armored vehicles, 533 military aircraft and 93,763 machine guns. The use of SWAT teams by the police seems to have increased by a staggering 1400% since 1998. It’s important to find all this grisly stuff out, and much other reporting on this issue by mainstream US media (congrats to ‘The Washington Post’!) has been great, but they have failed to say one thing which seems so obvious to me that it stick out like dog balls. Hence, this posting.

The photographs by Whitney Curtis published in ‘The New York Times’, some of which were also all over the social media, document what happened in Ferguson with startling clarity. For example, on the cover of yesterday’s issue (online and printed version, Thursday, August 14th) there’s an image of a row of police officers in combat gear totting high-powered M4 rifles in front of an armored vehicle of the kind used in Afghanistan, on the roof of which is another policeman with a similar weapon with a telescopic sight mounted on it. He is clearly a sniper aiming at demonstrators outside the picture. Other photographs by Whitney Curtis show police officers in both firing of tear gas and rubber bullets at unarmed demonstrators and threatening them at almost point blank range with those high-powered rifles. On Wednesday several journalists got caught up in all this and were arrested  (Wesley Lowery of ‘The Washington Post’, Ryan Reilly of ‘The Huffington Post’ and local reporter Antonio French) or fired upon (the ‘Al Jazeera America’ TV team), because they dared to do their jobs. The armed police applied the same policy of violent intimidation to them as they did to everyone else in town!

President Obama was right to harshly criticize this, saying, “Here in the United States of America the police should not be bullying and arresting journalists who are just doing their job.” He also correctly saw a constitutional problem with the police action, “There is no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protestors in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.”

In the light of this it was gruesome reading local police chief, Thomas Jackson’s assertion that his had been a measured response to events, although the only people killed in Ferguson were shot by the police. Criticism of his actions goes right across the US political spectrum, which is very encouraging. However, no politician or journalist has so far seriously asked the question why the police wanted to turn Ferguson into a war zone, much less answered it. The abrupt change of policing policy there, and the way it has defused much of the tensions is great news, but that question needs to be posed. How could it happen?

The brutally simple answer to that question is official paranoia, and anyone familiar with the Cold War ought to be familiar with the harm paranoia has wrought on our world within living memory. What Thomas Jackson doesn’t seem to realize is that his reaction to the protests and unrest following Mike Brown’s shooting was effectively to suspended the Constitution in Ferguson and replaced it with martial law. He moved in that direction although on paper he lacked anything like the authority necessary for his actions.  He clearly never questioned whether he was right, indeed was utterly convinced that he and his officers were the , “good guys with guns”, and the other side (as we’ve seen the police lumped everyone else together) was dangerous in the way terrorists and insurgents are.

Paranoia has been building in America, and the West as a whole, since the “War on Terror” began back in 2001, and although under President Obama the rhetoric of that conflict has changed, in essence it has continued to this day. Looked at coolly though, the external terrorist threat to the US since 9/11 has turned out to be way smaller than was feared. Domestic terrorists (for example, Boston) caused more deaths than foreign ones, but they still don’t begin to compare with the carnage wrought by lone crazed shooters (for example in Newtown, Denver and Santa Barbara). However, it is in the nature of paranoia that sufferers ignores the facts and projects threats upon the world around them, even if it is calm and benign. Paranoid people know that behind those friendly faces evil is lurking and wait anxiously for it to show itself.

The fantasy melodrama of good facing evil in a final showdown allied to this paranoia is the stuff of comic books and Hollywood action movies. In recent years it has docked onto the imagery of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that filled the news, and it was this dangerous cocktail which the police pushed onto the streets of Ferguson when they got an excuse to do so. If something doesn’t change it will also be coming to a neighborhood near you soon. Of course, another product of official paranoid is already there in the form of NSA surveillance…

Those readers who focus on the enjoyment wine are right. Sharing the enjoyment of wine with friends is the very opposite of all this paranoia. It’s all about conviviality, which is built upon the foundations of mutual respect. At its best it also helps us relate to distant places and feel something for the people who live there, making us appreciate their tending of the soil, vines, grapes and the wine made from them.  Even when it is geeky the activity is entirely harmless.  That remains the positive focus of this blog.

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 8 – Dr. Riesling’s Gonzo Stocktake (Part 1)

“I couldn’t get your book, because it was sold out at Barnes & Noble,” a New York Wine City (NYWC) somm told me. Those were encouraging words just shy of two months after BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling story (aka #BWWOE) was published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang on June 17th. Writing the book felt like throwing a stone into the middle of a pond. Now the first wave of responses  have reached the shore and are way more positive than I’d dared to hope for.

Since I started writing about wine exactly 30 years ago it often looked like with Riesling I was on a losing ticket, but now it looks like going the distance with my favorite grape was a smart, if demanding, move. What was so long deemed seriously wrong now looks refreshingly right. Riesling is finally being taken seriously by a lot of people.  Those who continue to talk it down are not only looking seriously out of touch now, they’re also fast running out of their last vestiges of credibility. They seem as lost in another time as Dr. Strangelove was in Stanley Kubrick’s movie of the same name.

As a freelance journalist it’s really good to know that you’re more or less on the right trail, because you can do a lot of work and still end up in some obscure corner of the great writers’ wilderness. I’ve been there enough times and I honestly don’t recommend it. However, I’d rather be there than in the verdant gardens of “advertorial” and similarly lucrative forms of blah, blah, blah writing. As George Orwell once said, “Journalism is printing what someone doesn’t want printed. Everything else is public relations.

The entire point of my book was to write the truth about Riesling and about wine in plain language that nobody could fail to understand if they took the trouble to read, and to do so with the necessary energy and clarity that nobody could pretend I hadn’t actually said anything worth understanding. So far it didn’t look to me like any readers had difficulty differentiating between my blatantly stated expressions of opinion and my much more measured statement of facts. Whatever weaknesses and faults my book has (and there may be many) I seem to have succeeded in telling it like it is, at least as seen from my perspective. The same applies to this blog, for which just substitute “publish” for “print” in the Orwell quote.

Several weeks after the publication of #BWWOE one of my most important arguments got unexpected support in an article in the July 12th edition of ‘The New Yorker’ entitled ‘What We Really Taste When We Drink Wine. It reported on how for Columbia University neuroscientist Daniel Salzman wine is a perfect example of how, “no event or object is ever experienced in perfect, objective isolation. It is instead subject to our past experiences, our current mood, our expectations, and any number of incidental details…with something like wine, all sorts of societal and personal complications come into play as well. We worry, for example, about whether our taste is “Good”.

This almost reads like a quote from Chapter 2 of my book, ‘Riesling in the Glass’. Of course, the reason that I also make this argument is that a lot of people – often highly intelligent people – clearly want to believe that you can somehow be objective about wine, so they can treat the reviews of some critic or the opinions of a certain somm, their spouse or friend as hard truth. As if high-grade truth were a copious commodity available at every corner store in regular size and family-sized packs!

At the same time that article appeared I received a slew of messages from Australia about the book, many praising it, but it was a great relief to me that those who criticized never accused me of being eurocentric or otherwise biased. They just felt Australia deserved more space (although the end of the Australian chapter explains very clearly why it wasn’t given more space). However, those comments are every bit as important to me as the one from people I didn’t previously know in America who were excited by the stories it tells and how it tells it, because it means the book is a truly global phenomenon. That is it has connected with pre-existing Global Riesling Network, or maybe I should say reconnected, because it grew out of that network in the first place.

True globalization never was a set of highways that all lead to Rome, NYWC or some other “center”, but a network looping through these places and everywhere else. For goods (including books) there’s the problem of physical transport, which human ingenuity has made more cost and energy-efficient. For information (including e-books) this problem has been obviated by the electronic media. That ought to make truth flow more easily, but sadly nothing in our world is that simple.

Just at the moment truth strikes me as a vital subject we should be talking about more, because its old enemy fear is on the rise. The source of that fear has many names, mostly short, such as Ebola and Putin, others acronyms such as ISIS or NSA and CIA. However, as Richard Nixon pointed out, “People react to fear, not love: they don’t teach that in sunday school, but it’s true.” And that is the greatest danger for truth which has always been like gold: a scarce element that rarely occurs as pure nuggets, generally being found in low grade ore that requires an arduous processing before it is turned into ingots.

Fear enables politicians like Nixon to divert our gaze from the truth and crank up nationalistic fervor, under the cover of which they can implement their own agendas. These agendas are usually identical of those of the establishment, that is the wealthiest 0.1% and their enablers, who typically are only interested optimizing their own situation and have little or no concern for anyone else’s welfare. However, in times like these truth has a force of its own that can abruptly drives it to the surface. The truth will out and I am happy to be its medium. Never again will I compromise on that principal when anything of substance is at stake. I recommend it to you all.

Part 2 follows soon.

 

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 0 – Anarchy in the UK, the USA, the FRG and Everywhere Else on Planet Riesling

Riesling is anarchy!“ The words were like an electric shock that was administered not just to me, but to everyone sitting around the long table in Restaurant Marcorbrunn in Hotel Schloss Reinhartshausen (Rheingau/Germany) yesterday during the press lunch of the International Riesling Symposium. “Growing up in England during the late 1970s the concept of anarchy, if not the practice, was very appealing to me,” continued Andrew Hedley (pictured above), the winemaker of Framingham winery in Marlborough/New Zealand since 2003. “I found anarchy in Riesling and it changed my life. If it can happen to me, then it can happen to anybody, and be something positive in the world.” For a moment there was stunned silence, then spontaneous applause from the entire table. I’ve put some bold statements about the Riesling Spirit up on this blog, but Andrew’s words suddenly made all of mine seem horribly hesitant and cautious.

All of this occurred against the backdrop of the excessively restored architecture that makes Schloss Reinhartshausen a kind of Disneyland dedicated to Prussian history (it used to belong to the Prussian royal family). This gave Andrew’s words a piquancy like that which the Sex Pistols hit ‘God Save the Queen’ had when it was released in Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee year of 1977. Nobody doubted the rightness of his words at that moment for two reasons, most importantly because the tasting of dry European Rieslings that Cornelius and Fabian Lange had just expertly presented had forcefully reminded us all how Riesling’s enormous diversity cannot be reduced to a simple formula of any kind. Also, in the back of all our minds was how the day before at the end of the tasting of “New World” Rieslings I presented the 2013 Auslese “F” from Framingham had stunned everyone with its enormous racy elegance. It was the revolutionary behind that Riesling masterpiece who said those daring words.

Of course, I could have tweeted all of this straight away in so-called “real time”, but the advantage of this blog over twitter is not only that here I have more space than twitter’s pulp-fiction-haiku format allows, but also that the “time-lag” between the events and my reporting of them is time for reflection. During that time it occurred to me that even though the logo on my masthead was developed by young German designer Alexandra Weiss (Danke, Danke!) in the spring of 2012 it is in a tradition whose roots lie in the punk rock graphics of the late 1970s. I fear that it’s often been the most daring thing about this blog! Allowing more of the life-giving anarchy of the Riesling Spirit to express itself here is something I’ll be working on during the coming weeks as the publication of BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story by Stewart, Tabori & Chang in New York on June 17th approaches. As always I’m open for your ideas, particularly if they turn out to be better than my own. That is in keeping with the fundamental nature of anarchy. It’s striking how in everyday situations where theoretically there’s no room for anarchy it keeps breaking through the grid of rules and regulations with which officialdom seeks to force truth, beauty and all that’s good in this world to submit to the stultifying influence of rigid planning and at least play dead. Dear Riesling fans, is that what any of us want?

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