Category Archives: ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA

The story of the underground rock star winemakers of America.

Berlin Wine Diary: Day 3 – How The Hipster Somms Could Get Away With Murder And How We Can Stop Them

Never are the hipster as cool or perfect as when sipping the right “natural” wine!
How The Hipster Somms Could Get Away With Murder And How We Can Stop Them

Yes, Part 4 of my series of outrageous stories about the hipster somms of NYWC (New York Wine City) was just published on the Grape Collective website and the flack has been flying in my direction. Needless to say, some readers were sure before they read a single word – some of them didn’t seem to bother to read a single word! – that they hated what I’d written and they hated me for having written it. Others seem incapable of grasping the idea that I am trying to describe a concrete phenomenon in the smallest number of words (i.e. an article, that is a series of them, not a damn fat book) and through the use of satire to make this seriously entertaining to read. You see, I really do want you to read it and make up your own minds if, as I hope, I have come rather close to describing the true situation in NYWC. Part 4 tries to analyze how the wine city functions as an ecosystem which competing organisms cohabit; a food web! I gratefully acknowledge the inspiration of Jonathan Swift and William Hogarth (18th century Britain), along with that of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolf (late 20th century America). As we Brits say, the truth will out, and if I’ve done my job well, then I have been its medium. As with the publication of Parts 1-3, I am in Berlin, and it is a weird experience to be on the other side of the Big Pond to where the action is. So be it!

Here is the link to the Grape Collective story:

https://grapecollective.com/articles/how-the-hipster-somms-could-get-away-with-murder-and-how-we-can-stop-them

Posted in Home, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA | Leave a comment

New York Wine Diary: Day 11 – ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA Celebrates It’s First Anniversary

The humble beginnings of ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA in Brooklyn

Exactly one year ago today I began work on my e-book series (for Kindle) ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA. The photo above shows what that looked like. At that point I was de facto homeless both in NYC and Berlin, so this was a bold decision and I had no idea where this serious commitment to gonzo wine journalism in the land of the free would lead me and an unsuspecting world.

Since then I’ve published three volumes: #1, describing my first trip to the US – Baltimore – in September 1985, described as if it happened yesterday; #2, a report of my encounters with Maynard James Keenan – the singer of Puscifer & Tool – and the other pioneer winemakers of Arizona, most notably Kent & Lisa Callaghan and Kelly & Todd Bostock; #3, the story of the new community of young winemakers in the FLX (Finger Lakes, Upstate New York) including Peter Becraft, August Deimel, Julia Hoyle, Nancy Irerlan and Bruce Murray. #4, about the non-Pinot Noir wines of Oregon is a work-in-progress, publication date to be announced.

It all feels good now, although there was some difficult moments along the way. The sexually explicit material in both #1 and #2 was widely criticized and #3 was damned for the lack of sexually explicit material!  Many thanks to everyone who bought and/or read and/or talked bout this radical new form of wine literature. Also a special thank you to Kate Fitzgerald-Groby for allowing me to house, garden and cat sit for her in Brooklyn while I started work on this project. I greatly appreciate all your support. By the way, not only is no end in sight, but I intend to continue working on this series for the rest of my days, so help me God!

The strange looking link below takes you to the ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA page at the Kindle Store. Once again, you don’t need a Kindle to purchase or read, just download the free Kindle app onto your device. The iPhone and iPad both display these texts in a form that makes them easy to read.

 

Online shopping from a great selection at Kindle Store Store.
AMAZON.COM
Posted in Home, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA | Leave a comment

New York Wine Diary: Day 6 – Maybe I’m Amazed by Günter Seeger’s New York Restaurant!

I’m frequently asked what the best wine in the world is, what my favorite wine of all time is, which the best of this or that category of wine, food, restaurant or bar is. The first couple of these questions are completely absurd, because how a wine tastes depends enormously on how you feel, your mood, what you just ate or are currently eating, and the entire situation. Therefore, what feels perfect one day won’t the next. However, even the latter questions that are much more specific are often not easy to answer, because even within a seemingly arrow category like Chinese restaurants there are great differences. In this instance they begin with the fact that there are eight main schools of Chinese cooking and each of these has many local variations. However, occasionally something comes along that is so sensational that I end up saying something like my words at the end of yesterday evening: “that was the best meal I ever had in a New York restaurant!”

I had been invited by a couple of friends to a new restaurant in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan called Günter Seeger after the chef and patron. I first heard about Seeger and his new restaurant a good year ago, long before it opened. Rudi Wiest, a German wine importer based in Southern California with a great feeling for fine cuisine, told me that it was coming and it would be something special. I made a mental note, but did no more about it. I was therefore hardly well prepared for what came. Perhaps that was a good thing though, because the element of surprise definitely added something to the whole experience.

Since I had my first fine dining experiences as a teenager I’ve loved the buzz I get when I walk into a restaurant where hedonism hangs heavy in the air, but I don’t feel that I’m in a temple where I shouldn’t laugh loudly and must show some kind of exaggerated respect for the food on the plate beyond what I show any artist or crafts(wo)man with a special talent and the determination to develop its potential to the full. That’s exactly what it was like last night when I stepped into Günter Seeger’s restaurant, and as the evening progressed the precise, but friendly and unfussy service confirmed my impression this is an establishment that completely rejects all the show, glitz, tricks and BS that so many other fancy NYC restaurants are crushed under the weight of. The problem with all that fancy stuff which has nothing whatsoever to do with the food on the plates and the wine in the glasses is that I also feel crushed by it!

The next thing that stunned me was the wine list, a single large sheet of paper on one side of which were German wines and on the other a selection of wines from all kinds of other places. Finally a German chef in America who isn’t pretending that he’s some vague kind of European, but not actually German. There’s a great German word for that: Lebenslüge, or a life-lie, i.e. being in denial big time. This wine list has a smattering of famous names, but also a healthy number of excellent wines from small producers at friendly prices. For example, amongst other things, we drank the 2013 Spätburgunder from Shelter Winery, a start-up in the Baden region of Germany founded in 2003 by a young couple from the beer-drinking north of Germany.

The reason that I come to the food first in paragraph five is that this is the nature of the restaurant experience when you dine at a high level; a lot happens before that first plate arrives. The Ceviche of Kona Kampachi with Cilantro and Habanero was hardly a radical innovation, but the texture and super-fresh flavor of the fish, together with the balance of the citrus and chilli flavors was exactly spot on. Optically, the food itself was very simple, but the presentation on a porcelain bowl by the Berlin-based ceramicist Stephanie Hering that looked like a snowstorm of diamonds was stunning. This was the moment when I thought to myself, why didn’t I find out more about this chef before I came out tonight? That was the best ceviche I ever had!

Summer Salad with Tomato Sorbet – the second dish of the six course menu – sounded like a cliché, and I feared it might be a nod to vegetarian PC, and possibly even be a filler. How wrong I was. Every type of tomato, the long red pepper of a familiar kind, a piece of perfectly ripe white peach, and the eggplant of a variety I’d never encountered before each had a completely distinctive taste. The intensely flavored tuna sauce (think Vitello Tonato) and tomato Sorbet added decisive accents that unlocked new flavor dimensions from the fresh tomatoes. This is the summer I was missing until that moment.

Grilled Solette Grenoble style is not really my mind of dish, also because normally a punch of caper flavor this powerful is too much for me. However, the fish was also no slouch and dodged that potential blow with the butterfly deftness like that of Mohammed Ali when he was right at the top.

Then came the next sensation. I thought the 50-dayDry Aged Creekstone Farm Beef, Local Chanterelles with Marrow would be a rather conventional dish – hell I cook stuff vaguely like that and I’m not a particularly talented hobby cook – and when it arrived on the table the only unconventional thing about it was the thinness of the steak. What was Günter Seeger doing serving steak? One bite was enough to persuade me that this was the most complex steak I’d ever eaten. The thinness of the steak meant that almost the whole of it was external surface, dramatically increasing the roasted flavors to weight ratio. The marrow added richness to the texture and I felt like I was melting in my own mouth!

I will omit description of the excellent local cheese and the great dark German style bread served with it, but only for reasons of space. The Balivet Bubbles with Rose Petal scented Raspberries was so very delicate and literally almost lighter than air. Then I realized how soothing the interior décor of the restaurant was, although I couldn’t do more than point to the well-judged subdued lighting if asked to explain that more. I had been somewhat distracted by the “action” in the open kitchen, because we were at the Kitchen Table right next to it. What I saw there was exactly the opposite of the Gordon Ramsey mud-wrestling-style theatrical violence. Instead Seeger’s kitchen is a place of Zen-like calm.

Finally, came one of the simplest and most satisfying deserts I’ve had in a long time. However, I have to warn you that the Wild Blueberry Soufflé Glacé with Candied Lemon Peel and Spearmint is packed with heavy cream, but its there for a purpose (a seriously erotic texture). How could the humble blueberry become the basis of a desert at once so rich and so pure in flavor? Right now I can only begin to explain it. Indeed, those words describe Seeger’s cuisine as a whole. And unusually, I felt like the best thing that I could do tonight would be to return and savor those things once again. Neither was I physically over-satiated, nor was there any sense of sensual overload as so often is the case after eating at restaurants working at this level. Maybe I’m amazed by Günter Seeger!!!

For further information see: www.gunterseegerny.com

Günter Seeger NY, 641 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014

Tel.: (1) 646 657 0045

Posted in Home, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA | Leave a comment

New York Wine Diary: Day 5 – The Sea Change in the FLX and the Vineyards Behind It

Harlan Fulkerson, “the man, the myth, the legend!”

Why write yet another blog posting about developments in the FLX (Finger Lakes in Upstate New York) wine industry, and why begin with this photograph? Both are the result of reactions to my previous posting (scroll down to the bottom of this story to find it). You see, some people in the FLX reject my view that the top 2015 Rieslings from the region are great wines, instead considering them “atypical” and therefore inferior to the wines from “normal” vintages. Of course, they’re entitled to their opinion, but I’ve been to this place before and saw what happened.

This situation reminds me strongly of the reception that the 2003 vintage German Rieslings received both at home and abroad.  They too, were rejected as atypical because they were rich, ripe wines, many with a considerable amount of power, but only moderate acidity. It was often said that they couldn’t age although they closely resembled the 1959 vintage, the best wines of which have aged magnificently. And sure enough the best 2003 German Rieslings are aging very gracefully. Of course, if you desperately wanted light, sleek, crisp wines, then the great majority of German 2003 Rieslings didn’t fit the bill, and either the 2002s or 2004s were far more likely to please. However, the whole point of Riesling is the extremely wide spectrum of wine types and styles that this remarkable grape makes possible. Anyone who insists on Riesling wines conforming to one narrow taste profile is rejecting that diversity, but even supposedly sophisticated wine professionals who praise that ability of Riesling to be versatile do this!

Back to the FLX though. 2015, like 2014 before it, was a vintage that can’t be described in just a few words, not least because it has two distinct sides: success and failure with rather few wines in the middle between them. In spite of the differences between the two growing seasons, in both cases success was all about excellent viticultural practices that prevented rot gaining an early foothold on the grapes. When that enabled they could  hang on the vines ripening further well into October, and in 2014 sometimes into November. For reasons that probably relate to the small size of the crop, the ripeness in 2015 was even higher than in 2014, the aromas of the best wines often heading in the exotic fruit direction, rather than the peachy and citrusy directions that dominated in 2014. Exotic fruit aromas in young FLX dry Rieslings is something many people in the industry aren’t familiar with, although, for example, some of the 2001s showed this kind of character.

The two things which have changed since then, since I first visited the region in October 2004, are the winemaking and the viticulture. The former has been written about at considerable length (though often inadequately), but the role of the latter in the sea change that’s occurred in the FLX is rarely more than mentioned in passing. However, it is cleaerly the more crucial factor responsible for the leap in quality at many producers.  That’s the reason I put a photo of leading grape grower Harlan Fulkerson of Lahoma Vineyard on the west bank of Seneca Lake at the top of this post, and another picture of him with Kelby Russell (right), the winemaker of Red Newt Cellars on the opposite bank of the lake.

Harlan has just shy of 100 acres of vineyards of which almost 40% is planted with vinifera grape varieties, of which the most important is Riesling. He was encouraged to plant this grape by Dave Whiting, the owner of Red Newt, and the first vines went into the ground in 2007 (internally referred to as the “7er block”). Harlan, or The Big H as he is often referred to, is a larger than life personality who combines great determination to perfect grape growing in the FLX with a wicked sense of humor. For example, the last time I visited Lahoma Harlan said that 2016 was, “the driest goddamn year I ever saw. The corn is so short a racoon has to bend down to pick it!” A typical Harlanism! More important for the subject of this posting though was the impeccable state of the vineyards when I saw them last week. There was no sign whatsoever of the powdery mildew I saw in some other vineyards, and the balance of canopy to fruit at Lahoma was just about ideal.

Nobody can quite figure out how Kelby and Harlan make such a great team, maybe it’s because their both unconventional perfectionists. Two of the most important new Rieslings in the region, the dry The Knoll (first vintage 2013 recently released) and medium-dry The Big H (first vintage 2014, set for fall release) from Red Newt Cellars are sourced from Lahoma Vineyard and are therefore the result of this collaboration. Like so many of the other new wines in the FLX they represent radical stylistic innovations. No attempt has been made to imitate the elegant and finesse of the Hermann J. Wiemer wines, instead Kelby has sought the maximum of expression and not shied away from radical aromas and flavors that will polarize opinions: yellow grapefruit including a hint of the pith and smoke of the kind that wafts long distances so you can’t figure out exactly where it came from. This is spirit also fits the 2015 vintage like a glove. You have been warned!

Posted in Home, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA | Leave a comment

New York Wine Diary: Day 2 – More About the Awesome 2015 FLX Rieslings

It has been suggested that I should supply much more information about the 2015 vintage Rieslings in the FLX (Finger Lakes in Upstate New York), also that I should come out and say which are the best wines sooner rather than later, if possible right now. “Stop pussyfooting around! You didn’t do that when you wrote about the hipster somms on Grape Collective, so don’t do it now!” This thirst for information is understandable, and given the title and content of my last posting I can fairly be accused of having encouraged this thirst, these expectations. However, accommodating them is not as easy as it might seem. Let me try and explain.

Even at the FLWA (Finger Lakes Wine Alliance) event at the Three Brothers winery that I reported on the other day there were a number of wines that had just been bottled and were seriously closed up and therefore difficult to taste as a result. Just imagine how you would feel if someone had pushed you into a narrow prison cell, then slammed the door shut! In some of those cases – Boundary Breaks and Sheldrake Point – I’d tasted the wines from tank before bottling, and therefore had more to go on than the immediate taste impression. I feel confident they’re really good wines, but to nail them with a precise description and/or a rating would have been unrealistic the way they currently show. On top of that there were also a couple of cask samples from Heron Hill that were still hazy due to suspended yeast. That makes it even more difficult to make a professional judgment, but I’m not going to risk it because the impression the wines made was good. However, it was so much easier to see the quality of wines that were bottled and already open like the Dry Riesling and Semi-Dry Riesling (full of citrus, apple and tart peach aromas, the cidity crisp but not piercing) from Fox Run on the west side of Seneca Lake.

That was the wines that were at Three Brothers. However, several FLWA members had decided (possibly for entirely practical reasons) not to take part in this event. Here I’m thinking particularly of Lamoreaux Landing and Red Newt, both on the eastern side of Seneca Lake. When I tasted the Dry Riesling, Semi-Dry Riesling and the three medium-dry single vineyard 2015 Rieslings from Lamoreaux Landing with owner Mark Wagner (pictured above) back in early June they were still in tank, but ready for bottling. That’s an ideal moment to taste, because nothing is getting in the way of the wine showing you everything it has (particularly if you are a patient taster), and they were an impressive group of wines. In fact, the Red Oak Vineyard may well be the best Riesling Mark Wagner has ever made. In spite of the ripe pineapple and kiwi aromas there was nothing exaggerated about this wine, and it got better and better as it aerated and warmed in the glass (always a very positive sign for very young wines).

In spite of that it’s always good to remember what leading dry Riesling winemaker Martin Tesch of the Nahe in Germany says: “tasting cask samples is science fiction”. However, convinced you are that the future of the wine lies in a particular direction the real test is to sample the finished wine. That means the fact that Mark Wagner has been the most consistent Riesling producer in the FLX in recent years is not a cast iron guarantee that these wines will turn out as good as I think, any more than tasting cask samples at the Bordeaux 1er Grand Cru Classé Château Margaux is (an example I give as a result of some disappointing experiences with those wines). In the world of wine there really are no cast iron guarantees.

In the case of Red Newt the top Riesling wines of the vintage won’t be bottled until late August. This is a daring move on the part of winemaker Kelby Russell, but it looks like the right call to me. I got to taste them the day before the FLWA while they were still in tank sitting on the full deposit of fermentation yeast (technical term: lees). A handful of them are hot candidates for the title of best wine of the 2015 vintage, most notably the Dry Riesling and the dry The Knoll, both sourced from Lahoma Vineyard on the west side of Seneca Lake, and the dry Tango Oaks Vineyard bottlings. However, these are wines that will need some time in the bottle to show their true colors, that is for the grapefruit and passion fruit aromas to unfold and for the interplay of fruit, acidity, lees and mineral character to become apparent. That’s the technical way of saying that I’m expecting them to be like tuning forks vibrating on my palate when they’re released next year.

Not every FLX winery is a member of the FLWA and a couple of non-members need to be mentioned if the picture is to even halfway complete. The 2015 Dry Riesling from Red tail Ridge on the west side of is an “oddball”, because the limestone soil hear leads to wines that are significantly softer than the norm. The floral and candied ginger aromas of this wine are also positively untypical. It’s another wine that needs some time to unwind. There are a bunch of other wineries, particularly small producers who would deserve a mention here, but either they haven’t let me taste any 2015 Rieslings yet, or I couldn’t find the time to visit them. My apologies to the latter group. Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten you!

In early June I also tasted Hermann J. Wiemer’s 2015 vintage wines and apart from some of the components for the Dry Riesling they were seriously embryonic wines, and a couple of them were still fermenting! Here I have to trust what my intuition tells me, and hope that it doesn’t fail me in this exercise in science fiction. Certainly these are remarkably concentrated and complex wines that retain the hallmark elegance of Fred Merwarth and Oskar Bynke’s wines. Let me risk a great deal and say that I think they – from the regular Dry Riesling up to the Josef TBA – will become the best wines this producer ever made! Add up all these impressions and I think you can see why I’m so excited about the 2015 vintage in the FLX.

For those looking for a more in-depth report on the FLX region please consult my e-book ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra with KJR – This is a Love Story. Here’s the link to the page on Kindle Store on Amazon where you can find it:

https://www.amazon.com/ROCK-STARS-WINE-AMERICA-FLXtra-ebook/dp/B01FBI0STS?ie=UTF8&keywords=stuart%20pigott&qid=1462714774&ref_=sr_1_1&s=digital-text&sr=1-1

Posted in Home, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA | Leave a comment

New York Wine Diary: Day 1 – The Best 2015 Rieslings are New High Point for FLX

No doubt you’re wondering what Tony Cardova, brewmaster for the War Horse Brewing Company belonging to the Three Brothers winery in Geneva in the FLX (Finger Lakes in Upstate New York) is doing pictured at the top of a Riesling story on this wine blog? Well, amongst other beers, Tony brews a Riesling wheat beer and a Riesling sour beer, and these were amongst the many new products I tasted during the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance trade presentation of the 2015 Rieslings when I was up in the region during the last days.

The fine weather meant that the wine presentation could take place in the garden that separates the various buildings that make up the Three Brothers complex (there aren’t actually three brothers, rather three wine brands each with a strikingly different marketing concept and its own space). However, I had to go into the bar of the brewers to taste those beers. Good as the Riesling wheat beer is, with a somewhat more fruity citric taste than is normal for this category, it was the Tarty McFly Riesling sour beer that got me, because it has a crispness genuinely reminiscent of Riesling wines. So beer and wine can share some common ground, in spite of all the important differences between them.

The wine tasting was important because it was the first time that I’ve been able to sample a bunch of FLX Rieslings of the new vintage from different producers next to each other. Undeniably, some of the best wines (Boundary Breaks and Sheldrake Point, both of whom haven’t released any 2015 Rieslings yet) were rather closed, because they were bottled just a couple of weeks ago. However, the overall conclusion was very clear: the best 2015s are the most exciting FLX Rieslings made this century, and that in spite of the tough competition from the best 2014s!

In fact, one of the innovative wines at the event was the 2014 Riesling (medium-dry) from Bellangelo that has only just been released. Making wines like this that need this kind of maturation before release is a new idea in the FLX and I feel sure that this is an important new development. In this case it enabled quite a strident acidity and a flinty-funky note from extended lees contact to become well integrated, and a serious aromatic and textural complexity to develop.

At the front of the pack of 2015s I tasted was the Dry Riesling from Dr. Konstantin Frank, the founder of the vinifera wine industry in the region and in the Eastern Seaboard states. This has really intense floral and herbal aromas that literally leap out of the glass at you, and for all its power the wine remains as sleek and sinewy as a marathon runner. The acidity is energizing, but far from sharp. Anyone who doesn’t yet know what the mineral aspect of Riesling tastes like is directed to this wine! It has all the virtues of the 2015 vintage in the FLX with none of the down sides. They resulted from the wet early summer when Botrytis (in this case ignoble rot) from getting an early foothold on the grapes in some vineyards. That either resulted in full-blown rot later in the summer or the imminent threat of rot forced an early harvest before the grapes had achieved full ripeness.

The big surprise of the tasting was the new wines from Lakewood Vineyards on the west side of Seneca Lake. These have long been good wines, but since Ben Stamp joined his father Chris in the cellar they took a jump up. “I like wines that teeter on the edge, wines with tension,” Ben told me, and that is an excellent description of the winery’s 2015s. They also have the ripe passion fruit, peach and citrus aromas that are typical of the vintage.

It’s a little known fact that Three Brothers produce almost 120,000 bottles of Riesling per year and are therefore one of the major players in the FLX with this variety. They have a simple, but radical marketing concept for these wines which is directly linked to the IRF (International Riesling Foundation) taste profile on the back label of each wine. It divides the Riesling taste-spectrum into four bands: dry / medium-dry / medium-sweet / sweet. The Three Brothers 0 Degree Riesling is dry, the 1 Degree Riesling is medium-dry, the 2 Degree Riesling is medium-sweet and the 3 Degree Riesling is sweet.  They are all unashamedly fruit-driven wines and the 2015s are very clean with a lot of charm.

2015 is a vintage with which the FLX is going to win friends and influence people, also NYC, DC and beyond! Watch this space for more information as more wines are released.

Posted in FLXtra, Home, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA | 1 Comment

New York Wine Diary: Day 2 – The Continuing Saga of My Friend Delicious

The wines in the photograph above are certainly delicious, the Egon Müller-Scharzhof  estate on the Saar makes some of the finest medium-sweet and sweet Rieslings on Planet Wine, however, when I pressed the shutter there was someone on the screen of my camera I was trying and failed to capture.

Delicious and I have been dating for a long time now and it feels really good, but there’s no way around the fact that we make an odd couple. You see, she’s always so phenomenally gorgeous and so unbelievably charismatic, and I’m so rough and ready however much effort I make to look good. That’s why at social events when people ask me who I am I frequently answer, “I’m with Delicious,” and gesture in her direction. Mostly guys cast an envious glance at her, then give me a look that says, “you lucky guy!” Sometimes though I can tell that what people are actually thinking is,  “how come that awesome beauty picked you when should could have had any guy in town?”

What exactly does she look like? That’s the strangest thing about her. You see she looks really different at each of our dates, but people always recognize her and get really excited, as if they were meeting some huge celebrity. So a lot of people are taking photos of her and selfies with her, but however good the image on the cellphone or camera screen looks when they press the shutter Delicious is never there in the finished photo, only an odd empty space where she was standing. For some reason people just shrug their shoulders and don’t mind that at all, indeed, they just seemed overwhelmed to have met her.

Perhaps that has to do with the fact that wherever she goes and whatever she does her presence makes everybody feel good. People stop dead in their tracks in front of pictures on the wall or vases of flowers totally captivated by them. They take a sip of their coffee, their glass of water, their cocktail or their wine and they swoon.  Or they start jigging rhythmically to the music that’s playing because, try as they might, they can’t keep their feet still. Many of them don’t hesitate to dance, even if there’s nothing resembling a dance floor, and it doesn’t stop there. Whenever I leave the room I see or hear couples making out in whatever halfway inconspicuous corner they can find. I can’t begin to explain how it works, but this is the effect she has wherever she goes. It feels good!

Posted in Home, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA | Leave a comment

New York Wine Diary: Day 7 – Delicious and I, a Love Story

Delicious and I go back a long way. We grew up together and have been close friends since as long as I can remember; sand box stuff. Looking back I was very lucky to have had that particular kind of happy childhood, and must thank my parents and grandparents for that, but at the time I took it all for granted. Then, one day a glass of wine stopped me dead in my tracks and changed everything in a way I could never have imagined beforehand.

It was the spring of 1981, and I was 20 years old student in London working as the barman at the restaurant of the Tate Gallery to pay the rent. One lunchtime not long after I started working there an American guest insisted that the remainder of the bottle of red wine he’d drunk with his meal, the 1971 Château Cheval Blanc from St. Emilion in Bordeaux, now belonged to me. After the last guests left I poured it into a glass and took a big mouthful. Suddenly there was a very different Delicious and I was hers from that first moment.

Of course, I could try and describe what I tasted, and words like, “intense yet delicate, strong yet caressing,” do say something about the experience, but they barely scratch the surface. “Rapture and revelation,” come closer, but only a little. I’ve thought about all this many times over the 35 years since, and recently writing my series of three stories about the hipster sommeliers of New York for the Grape Collective website made me do so yet again. Then it became clear to me how over the years the infatuation for Delicious that began on that day slowly turned into something deeper that I can only call love.

Initially though, I made a serious mistake. I thought that the more I learned about wine the more often I would encounter Delicious, and I was desperate to see her as often as possible.  I don’t regret learning all of that stuff, even though I have revised much of it since, just the assumption I made that piling up “knowledge” in my mind (it was actually often supposition and sometimes even prejudice) would transform me as a person. Mine was the typical folly of geeks, regardless of what they’re geeking out about.

Later, I recognized how on that day I’d actually made a very important discovery. You see, I’d tasted that wine – a tiny sip taken in a hurry to check the bottle was in order before sending it out to the guest who’d ordered – many times already. Then it had not made a big impression on my, but that big mouthful I savored did. The circumstances always shape your experience of wine fundamentally, and help determine if you encounter Delicious or not. It took me many years to realize that all I needed to meet her was a good bottle – color, variety, place of origin, price or a critic’s praise say little or nothing about how good a wine will be – and an open mind. After I got that we became a lot closer rather fast, and wine began taking on a new significance for me.

Of course, some people are going to object that by personifying the experience of wine in this way I have sexualized it in an inappropriate manner. Let me explain. Delicious is female for me, because I’m a heterosexual man and of course there are people with other sexual orientations for whom Delicious is male, and other’s for whom Delicious is asexual. All of these things are possible and none of them stands in the way of any of the others. I’m no less convinced that the various pleasures aren’t neatly separated from one another, but always interconnected, not least because sex cannot be fenced off in a corner by itself.

For me, Delicious has many looks and faces, sometimes she’s an elegant lady and sometimes she’s a raunchy rock chic, she can be a ravishing vamp or an at once calming and inspiring muse. The photograph above is from a recent moment when she was the latter. (For the curious I was sitting at the bar of Maison Premier a few doors down from my room in Williamsburg/Brooklyn). But I can’t tell you which she will be the next time I encounter her, only that she’s always just a sip away.

Posted in Home, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA | Leave a comment

New York Wine Diary: Day 4 – My Heinous Method of Wine Tasting Explained

The above photographs shows me seen from the viewpoint of a glass of wine while I’m tasting, and I have to admit that it’s a pretty scary sight! If I was that glass of wine I would be seriously worried about how Stuart Pigott was eyeing me up, and about how he would treat me when he sniffed and sipped me. I mean, the man  has a reputation for heinous crimes of gonzo journalism, so surely his method of tasting and assessing wine is a reflection of that? What terrible fate awaits me the glass of wine at his hands?

The purpose of this blog posting is to explain how I actually go about my work as a wine taster (as apposed to a gonzo journalist, which is another matter), and it is in some degree an answer to all the shock and awe that my series of stories about the hipster somms of NYWC (New York Wine City) for Grape Collective unleashed since the first of the three parts was published June 17th. However, I am under no illusion that my most ardent critics, the hard core of the Anti Pigott Front that seems to have formed during that period, will take what I have to say seriously, although for me this is a serious matter.

Let me start by saying that I wasn’t always as thorough in my approach to wine tasting as I am today. If we turn the clock back 20 plus years I had the right general idea, but I sometimes got a bit emotionally involved in the wines I was assessing. Today, the most important thing for me is to taste with a cool head, because this is what’s necessary to get as close as possible to my prime goal of openness and fairness, that is treating every wine the same in order to give each of them the same chance of impressing me.

This isn’t only a question of not favoring certain wines I have positive associations with, but also not mentally marking down those with which I have clear negative associations. For example, it shouldn’t matter if the winemaker is a wonderfully generous person or a complete asshole (and of course some winemakers are complete assholes). Nor should it matter if the brand is famous or completely unknown, the retail price high or low, what  grape variety/varieties it was made from, the region of origin, etc. When tasting I often remind myself that all I have in front of me is another glass of wine and that it deserves to be taken as seriously as all the other wines I have tasted and drunk.

This is, I think, where I run into trouble with certain members of the “natural” wine crowd. You see, I have nothing against this category of wine whatsoever.  On the other hand, I am not prepared to give these wines a bonus or the kid gloves treatment because they belong to a cool, fashionable, politically correct or otherwise “special” category. They get the same chance as all the other wines I taste, even wines made in huge industrial facilities using all the most modern technology in a programatic way, and/or from vineyards where chemicals were chucked around thoughtlessly and/or scant irrigation water used irresponsibly. Don’t get me wrong, I’m against those things too, but for me they are separate issues from the taste of the finished product.

What am I looking for in a wine, any wine, also a “natural” wine? First of all cleanliness, secondly liveliness, then thirdly harmony. Why those things? Without them the chance that I would want to drink the wine much less serve it to anyone else is very low indeed. Some analytical tests can identify problems of this kind, since, for example, microbial spoilage sometimes results in very particular substances entering the wine (TCA, the cause of cork taint is one very obvious example) that can be measured. However, in the end it is about the impression I get of the smell and taste, and this is relative. What one person calls clean is already dirty for someone else, what is tired for one wine drinker is fresh enough for another. Here there is no choice but to go by your own palate, because that’s what you’ve got to work with, although I do listen and note the opinions of others to see if I am wildly out of step with them. That’s always reason to reconsider, and if possible retaste, before either altering my opinion or deciding to keep sticking my neck out.

An important point to make is that I am not a special person with a remarkable talent. I have gained a certain amount of experience and practice, but that doesn’t make me exempt from the enormous impact that the circumstances of a wine tasting have on its results. The circumstances – in the usual external sense of situation, glassware, weather, etc, but also in the internal sense of what’s going on in my head at the time – greatly shape the way a wine tastes. Retasting is also important for this reason, because one wine doesn’t have a singular immutable taste, rather it tastes a bit differentl every time according to the circumstances. No wine taster is exempt from this effect.

I listed “harmony” third, after cleanliness and liveliness, because it is the bridge to all the more subtle and aesthetic qualities that make certain wines fascinating, delightful, exciting, inspiring and unforgettable. These things are also influenced by the external and internal circumstances. No wine, however lofty its reputation, is exempt from this effect! If “natural” wines often get special treatment today, then it’s important to remember how the Grand Crus of Burgundy and the Grand Cru Classé of Bordeaux also get special treatment in certain circles. And I sometimes make that mistake too when one of my favorite wines is on the table, because I am only human. However, as a wine professional I to always keep at least one eye open for this happening.

That’s a pretty accurate description of how I approach wine tasting, but I forgot just one thing. It’s a prejudice of mine that I’m hoping you will forgive me for, you see I would prefer the wine to be delicious.

Posted in Home, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA | Leave a comment

Berlin Wine Diary: Day 17 – Happy Independence Day!

Today is not only the Fourth of July 2016, that is the 240th anniversary of the ratification of the United States Declaration of independence, it is also just two days shy of the 30th anniversary of the completion of my studies (with an MA in cultural history at the Royal College of Art in London), and the moment back in 1986 when I became a full-time independent journalist. That gives me an extra special reason to send my best wishes to you all in the spirit of American Independence that has been such a vital roll model for other independence movements around the world. Open a good bottle or two of wine and enjoy! I will certainly do so and I will share them with friends – and if any of my enemies come around, then they will get a glass too.

There were some moments during those 30 years when things were not going well and I wished that I was the full-time employee of some major media corporation with a regular salary, health and retirement benefits, in short security. But isn’t security always illusory, that is always capable of suddenly and unexpectedly cracking (think 9/11) when it looks most solid. At least I think it helps to try and keep that thought in mind, rather than to lull oneself into a false sense of  comfort and ease.

Although the last year brought a great deal of discomfort and I often felt painfully ill at ease, it was an extremely productive year both in terms of quantity and the quality of writing. Most importantly, I published #1, #2 and #3 in my series of short e-books ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA. They are highly autobiographical stories about different wine locations in America, #1 taking place in Baltimore in 1985 (my first visit to America and the beginning of a love affair with this country), #2 tells the story of the new wine industry of Arizona (and its roots going back to c.1550), and #3 is an in-depth exploration of the new generation of winemakers in the FLX (Finger Lakes of Upstate New York), and as the title declares is also a love story. In fact, it is the first story of a love affair I ever told.

The current three part story I wrote for the Grape Collective website about the rise of the hipster sommeliers lies at the other end of the storytelling scale. These are brief, satirical texts about the youngest active members of  NYWC (New York Wine City). The sheer number of comments to these stories – 665 at the moment of writing – makes it impossible for me to answer them. Grape Collective will certainly invite at least one of the most vocal and articulate of my critics to write an answer to my trilogy, but I feel it is necessary to say a few things here and now. Firstly, I do not consider these stories to be rants as many of my critics have described them, because they are far too analytical for that. They do, however, clearly fall into the category of gonzo journalism. As I pointed out in Part 3, there is nothing original about the material. In fact, there’s nothing original about the style either. I have stolen freely from Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Roland Barthes and Jonathan Swift, to mention just a few. And yes, I was as little afraid of entertaining my readers as those writers were of entertaining theirs!

Anyone who thinks that I can only write the way I did in the hipster somms series is directed to e-book #3 where the tone, pace and range of the material is very different. To me, one of the most important things about being an independent journalist is the chance to write in many different formats and styles and to learn something from them all. However, to my mind regardless of the style the basis of all serious journalism is the search for the truth, and what makes great journalistic writing possible is the same thing that makes great fiction possible: the determination to write down your own life and the world around you. This is what I have tried to do systematically this last year in my mother tongue, and I will continue to do so with the same fearlessness. That is the essence of independent journalism and I see no reason to change after 30 years, although many people clearly loath the true stories I have written.

The criticism of my work is understandable, and I suggest that I am guilty as charged, although I find the suggestion that my approach is like that of Donald Trump truly breathtaking! I just read something that I think throws some light on my situation. After the Wall Street Crash of 1929 Scott Fitzgerald’s reputation took a mighty plunge, because he was widely associated with the high society who’s greed was seen as being behind the Great Depression. I am nowhere near as successful as Scott Fitzgerald was, and I have not written the Great American Novel as he did (The Great Gatsby). However, I identify with his reply to the accusation that he had chosen the wrong subject for his work. “But, my God, it was my material, it was all I had to work with.” I too have written about what was right in front of my nose since I began immersing myself in NYWC four years ago.

Happy Independence Day!

Posted in Gonzo, Home, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA | Leave a comment