Category Archives: Gonzo

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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#RieslingRoadTrip Diary: Day 8 – The Best Story on the Bus is Right Next to Me (Gonzo-Gastro Guru Paul Grieco)

The best story on the bus is sitting right next to me, Paul Grieco. the guiding spirit of Hearth Restaurant, the Terroir wine bars in New York Wine City (NYWC) and the self-styled “Riesling Overlord”. When you sit next to Paul for many hours many days in a row as I did during last year’s Riesling Road Trip and am doing this year’s Riesling Road Trip 2, then you can’t help but absorb the many things which make him a remarkable guy. And that doesn’t happen by gentle osmosis, rather it’s like a repeat offending rogue  wave that keeps hitting. For example, on the way to our event yesterday evening at James Beard Award winning restaurant Poole’s in Raleigh/NC he gave a telephone interview to a 12 year old girl for a high school project she had. Time was short (the drive time we had), but he was precise and thoughtful, and I’m sure that he gave her something to think about. He told her that his least favorite time of the day is, “when the coffee machine doesn’t work!” that, “I can teach anyone to hold a plate, but it’s not about service, it’s about hospitality,” but also that his favorite restaurant in NYWC is, “dinner at home with my wife and kids.” This is the guy who often says, “when we make a commitment, we make a God-damn commitment!” and can be focused with a laser like linearity on a goal that he pursues with a relentlessness I find slightly frightening (which may well be a sign of weakness in me – I joke not). Let me show you what I’m talking about with the following three pictures taken in Savannah/GR:

 

 

Every story has a backstory which is a vital part of the context, and you’ll only understand a story when you know at least some part of the backstory to it. For Paul that was, most importantly, a moment of truth and disappointment when, aged 17, he suddenly realized that his dream of becoming a professional soccer player was not going to happen. And he didn’t have a plan B at that point. No doubt the relative ease with which he managed a massive course correction at that age, then navigated a series of further course corrections to became what he is today, has a lot do with the way his father always looked ahead with a, “next!” attitude. That old-fashioned, now so often ignored factor of temperament surely also played a role. By that I mean the fact that Paul was receptive for his father’s attitude, even if the results of it sometimes annoyed him intensely. And every day I’m struck by Paul’s “next!” attitude, in fact, sometimes I’m also a little shocked by it.

Perhaps it is this which makes some people in the NYWC scene regard Paul with awe, even to treat him as some kind of demigod. Their adulation from afar certainly helped to increase the man’s aura, and aura is a positive factor for success, but it also sometimes puts a distance between him and the people he is so desperate and determined to reach. It doesn’t matter if they are wine geeks, regular wine drinkers, young somms or his fellow restauranteurs the Riesling Overlord is on send as soon as they appear. Last night in the belly of our (fully repaired) whale in front of Poole’s he gave back to back award-worthy performances. And the audience of professionals lapped up all the information about German Riesling as eagerly as they did the attitude. I promise you that I’m following him very closely and trying to learn from the Great Riesling Communicator.

Signed by a student at the Paul Grieco University of Life!

 

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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.

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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.

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