Category Archives: ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA

The story of the underground rock star winemakers of America.

Berlin Wine Diary: Day 11 – My (56th) Birthday Backstory

Every story has a backstory, and the backstory to my 56th birthday yesterday was one of the hardest years I can remember. For anyone who wants to know what that means I recommend my recently published e-book “ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra with KJR – This is a Love Story”, about which there is plentiful information below (just scroll down). People keep on telling me that I should make the message here on my blog, in my e-books, and on the social media super-positive, consistently upbeat and be as cool as humanly possible in cyberspace. I’ve nothing against any of those things, but for me the most important things in life and art are honesty and compassion. Remove them and very quickly everything descends to a low level where greed and opportunism dominate everything else. That is a place I am anxious to avoid at all costs.

The photo shows me in the jacket that Berlin-based fashion designer Vita Datura, a.k.a. Viktoriya Zyubyairova, just custom made for me. It was completed in the early hours of my birthday morning at her studio, so dinner at Nobelhart & Schmutzig in Berlin last night was its debut. Needless to say, it turned some heads. The photograph was taken by my mother under less than ideal circumstances, so it is neither technically perfect nor a great artistic statement, unlike the jacket! The Fornasetti tie I am wearing in the photograph was also on its last legs, and I was glad to get home last night without it falling apart around my neck. All of this was in the Vita Datura spirit best summed up by her slogan: Manuscripts don’t burn and Couture never dies: both can fly!

In spite of the enormous practical problems, the emotional turmoil and suffering of the last year was very productive. Looking back I feel confident that my first three e-books are the best things I have ever written in the English language. This is gonzo wine journalism as I first conceived it when during a press trip to the Atlantic island of Madeira in the summer of 1991 a colleague called Dee Lite said those words to me. Some of the books I wrote between 2003 and 2009 also realized that goal, but they were all in German and almost nobody outside Europe read them. Now the ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA series of e-books is making this wildly intoxicating, highly addictive and extremely dangerous substance available to an English-speaking audience around the world.

No doubt some of you are wondering what my birthday dinner at Nobelhart & Schmutzig in Berlin was like. Here is the white asparagus course from the menu with a super-intense wild garlic sauce on the left and fresh cheese on the right (Spargel / Knoblauchkrauke / Quark) that was also surprisingly intense. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry about this revolutionary reinvention of one of the Germans’ favorite spring dishes. But, hell, this is the kind of reaction my e-books are aiming to achieve, so I can hardly complain, can I? In spite of that I definitely preferred the char with onions and dill flowers (Ike jime Saibling / Zweibeln / Dillblüte) and the oats with fresh goatsmilk cheese and sorrel (Nackhafer / Ziegenfrischkäse / Sauerampfer), both of which were extremely delicate. At the full-throttle end of the scale it was the potato soup with blood sausage and mustard (Kartoffel / Blutwurst / Senf), another reinvention of a German classic, that blew my mind. It was also amazing with the wine in my glass

And what did I drink? My mother can’t really drink at all, but she treats herself to just one glass of sparkling wine in a situation like last night. Billy Wagner of Nobelhart & Schmutzig opened the Éloquence Blanc de Blanc Extra Brut from Champagne Marie-Courtin to pour my mother and I a glass each and I ended up finishing the rest of the bottle. Billy also poured me a couple of tastes of other wines of which the 1992 Riesling Auslese from Martin Müllen in Traben-Trarbach on the Mosel, and that still lively, only slightly sweet wine was my only sip of Riesling yesterday. However, every day, also every birthday, doesn’t have to be a big Riesling day. The world of wine is very large and colorful, and that’s why I love it!

THANK YOU ALL FOR YOUR BEST WISHES!!!

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 7 – The Missing Pieces of the Great FLXtra Puzzle

 

There has been some criticism of “ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra with KJR – This is a Love Song” because of things that are missing from my latest e-book, and not without some justification. The problem is that it had already ballooned from the planned 100 manuscript pages to 125 pages. I decided to stop it there before it resembled a 19th century Russian novel more than a piece of 21st century close-to-the-ground / gonzo journalism! There are already a couple of dozen major characters and the range of subjects that is at least touched upon is vast. I wanted to avoid massive overkill and the widespread yawning I feared that this would lead to.

One of the things that definitely gets too little space is the snow and ice of winter. I only hinted at that by comparing the mild conditions of March 2016 with the arctic ones of March 2015. The impressive thing about the FLX community is how resilient it is in the face of major snow and ice, nearly all the roads remaining clear. The price of that it is high banks of snow at the sides of major highways and a miniature version of the Himalayas along the sides of smaller streets in places like Geneva (something I did mention in passing).  Life and business continue, even if the life of some wines stops dead in its tracks during the Big Freeze.

The picture above of KJR (Kelby James Russell) was taken in March of last year and shows him with the outdoor tanks at Red Newt Cellars where he has been winemaker since December 2012. The wine in those tanks was partially frozen for many weeks, which is pretty unusual on Planet Wine and would have deserved some serious examination. Basically, much of the water in the wine becomes a thick layer of ice directly behind the stainless steel skin of the tank, with highly concentrated liquid wine in the center of the tank. (No, I don’t know what that stuff tastes like, but I will find out at the next opportunity). This is then diluted back to its state before freezing when spring comes and the ice in the tank melts. That’s a dangerous process, because around freezing point wine is most susceptible to oxidation. I know that all sounds a brutal attack on the fragile thing we imagine wine to be, but some of my favorite FLX Rieslings went through all that!

Another criticism made was that I didn’t spend enough time eulogizing the beauty of the region, which is considerable. In this case my preferred method was understatement, and I think that in an understated way there’s plenty of  graphic description of the region’s landscape, most of it positive. Of course, poverty isn’t pretty, there’s some of that in the FLX, and I didn’t pretend there wasn’t. However, there’s no doubt about the fact that I avoided writing pages of luscious description of my favorite ravine and/or lakeshore, since I figured this stuff is widely available on the Internet and on those most old-fashioned of things, postcards. I’ve never been out on one of the lakes on a boat so I would have had to set that up to describe it, and every serious gonzo journalist avoids set-ups like that on the grounds that they are predictable and boring.

What I do think is missing without good reason is some more detailed description of the domestic worlds of my main figures. For example, the above is the political button collection of Julia Hoyle and, of course, this says something important about her. Here too space was the first problem, and in this case there was also the desire to avoid repeating  things I reported Julia saying to me. I did mention that her and KJR’s cat Cannonball likes to sit inside their fridge, and there were requests for me to show what that looks like, so for once this very serious gonzo journalist has caved in and is posting a cute furry animal photo. But, remember, I’m not doing this trying to ratchet up the number of hits on this website or of my Facebook “friends”!

There is much else to say about the FLX that I couldn’t fit in my e-book, and there will be more about that shortly on this page. May the FLX Force be with you!

WATCH THIS SPACE!

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New York Wine Diary: Day 8 – Vita Datura is the Epilogue of ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra with KJR – This is a Love Story

Manuscripts don’t burn and Couture never dies: both can fly!

Writing this e-book was a very special experience because the events described were still unfolding as I was working, and sometimes it felt like they were tearing me apart. I was lucky though, because then this story grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me along with it. Again and again I stumbled as I struggled to keep up with its relentless progress, but I gladly abandoned myself to its will, knowing that it was saving me from a collapse that often felt imminent. The paradoxical thing about this situation was that it poured more light into my story, rather than pushing it into some horrible dark corner. However, there are still enough shadows that I can’t imagine anyone accusing me of writing covert FLX PR.”

Those lines are from the introduction to my latest e-book ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra with KJR – This is a Love Story, and give a good idea of what it was like writing what some friends have rather bluntly called a “brain dump”. The truth is that my e-book tells of some of the greatest highs and lows in my entire life, and sometimes flips dramatically from one to the other. In case you haven’t read it yet, hat’s how the story starts and ends.

For most of the time I was writing the book I was deeply depressed, which definitely isn’t the ideal state for any writer to be in. The tortured artist is a tired cliché and total bullshit. I’m really thankful for the way manuscript pulled me back to it again and again, demanding my attention, because it repeatedly saved me from collapse. That’s more than I can expect from any manuscript and I’m really grateful to it for that.

For a long time I was worried that the story about me that was interwoven with my story of the new generation of FLX (Finger Lakes) winemakers was way too negative. Then I realized that love found and love lost maybe as old as hills, but this kind of story has a beauty that no other kind of story the world has come up with in the five thousand year history of writing has been able to top. So, I embraced the bitter-sweet aspect of my story completely, and from that moment it gained something which a wine story that remains firmly a wine story can never have. That’s when I added This is a Love Story to the title.

The turn that events took after that was a bit spooky. When I arrived in Berlin from Vienna on Thursday, April 7th I was still seriously depressed despite having taken that important decision. The friends who I saw during the six days I spent in my European HQ can report how down I was and how bleakly I saw my own future, both professionally and personally. It really was as if a spell had been cast over me (by myself?) during the early hours of January 1st, 2016 and however much I had twisted and turned since then I had been unable to escape its grasp. Then I had an amazing experience that might strike you as not being entirely believable.

Since the fall of 2012 I’ve seen an American cognitive therapist in Berlin called Dr. Brian Pheasant. During those three and a half years I must have seen him about thirty times, and he helped me enormously to reduce the negative effects of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) upon me. Rather early on I told Brian that he was my witchdoctor, because I couldn’t explain how with so few words he could have such a great effect upon me, and he really liked that description. Often he’s just my confidant and good my conscience, the listener who then tells me how much better my life would be if only I could drop those negative patterns of thought and the behavior they result in. It helps that I know he’s nearly always right!

On Wednesday, April 13th Brian was all those things for me, first listening patiently to my turgid tale of woe, then lapping up my daring plans for a revolutionary new type of wine bar. Finally, as the session was nearing its end I flipped back into the negative mode in a way I find gruesome to remember. How could I paint myself and my world black like that, when I know full well that the world is always fifty thousand shades of grey?

Brian told me that I must drop this way of thinking right now, and I said how I wished I could, but none of the things I’d tried to do that had worked. “It’s like a heavy suitcase you’re lugging around with you. Kick it out!” he told me. I lamely repeated my statement that nothing had worked, but he kept hammering away at me with his demand that I kick the suitcase out as I pulled on my jacket and put my bicycle helmet on to leave.

As I cycled away down the small street in Berlin’s Prenzaluer Berg district back towards my new place in the city I sensed that something had just changed dramatically. It wasn’t that there weren’t any more shadows in me, but suddenly they weren’t pressing down on me any longer. What had happened? I still can’t explain that, except to repeat that Brian is my witchdoctor and he had just exorcised a demon.

However, this is far from being the end of the story. A couple of days earlier when my American friend in Hamburg, Rienne Martinez, had told me that I must try internet dating and I had put up the same kind of resistance to that idea as I did to Brian’s demand that I kick the suitcase out. So, immediately I got home from my appointment with Brian I signed up with the dating site Rienne had recommended, OKcupid, although I felt very silly doing so. The response was way more than I’d expected, and although all the women you sent me messages looked good and sounded interesting one of them stood out from the crowd: Vita Datura, a fashion designer who modeled her own creations on OKcupid.

A week later we had our first date, which was more than a little crazy and probably even more confusing for her than it was for me. However, it’s not an easy process for two strong and complex personalities to find their way to each other, and with each meeting we got closer. Right from the beginning it was clear to me that she is enormously talented and will have a major international success. Here is the proof of that for anyone who has the patience to immerse themselves in the most striking new fashion I’ve seen in years:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhe6UMOjZvs

By the time I returned to NYWC (New York Wine City) on Tuesday, May 3rd the story of love found and love lost that I was telling in ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3 had taken another dramatic twist. Either I would have to add the most recent events to the book or find another way of incorporating that twist into my story. Because I was already up to 125 manuscript pages after promising myself I would keep FLXtra down around 100, I decided simply to add a dedication, but to place it chronologically, i.e. at the end of the book.

Obviously the end of one story is the beginning of another, and this is also the nature of love. However, it’s very important as a writer or an artist not to get into the habit of thinking it’s been done before so there’s no point in repeating it, because giving to that perspective is the road to artistic nowhere. For me FLXtra was a long path from darkness to light and writing it really was cathartic – more stuff as old as the hills! – and my big hope is that this shines through in the result. My work is undoubtedly imperfect and cracked, but as Leonard Cohen sang in his song Anthem, “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

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New York Wine Diary: Day 6 – Accusations Fly, but so does ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra with KJR – This is a Love Story

The novelist and co-inventor of The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe, famously hates understatement. He once said that the problem with understatement is that people can mistakenly think you haven’t said anything at all. Obviously, I’m on the same page as Tom about that, as my new e-book for Kindle, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3 with KJR: FLXtra – This is a Love Story, proves. The problem with being as loud as I have and sticking your neck out as far as I’ve done, is that people realize you really said something, they more or less get what it was, and some of them want to hack your head off for having dared to write it!

A second, fractionally less rabid group of opponents, are trying to talk my book down by making gross accusations about it. Firstly, the unashamed sexual aspects of RCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #1 and #2 have lead some people to claim that #3 is also just “wine porn”, in spite of the introduction explaining that it’s not. #3 does not carry the “PARENTAL ADVISORY: Explicit Content” sticker. If it was a movie I’d want a PG rating, because it certainly isn’t the stuff of Walt Disney cartoons. However, all I’ve really done is be honest about what life is like if you’re not in a stable and harmonious long-term relationship. The idea that the highs and lows of love would not affect the way wine tastes strikes me as absurd. Then there’s the striking parallel between my sexual love story and the story of my love for the FLX. It would have been dishonest of me to pretend otherwise. So, yes, there’s plenty of sexual tension in my new book, and I try to describe the emotional truth of love lost and love found, but there’s no graphic sex.

The next allegation is that all I did was to picked out a handful of my favorite young FLX winemakers, most notably KJR (Kelby James Russell of Red Newt Cellars, pictured above left in Berlin), and idealized them. It has been suggested to me that this lack of a critical perspective makes the book one-sided and flimsy at best. Possibly it isn’t up there with Dostoyevsky or Tom Wolfe, but I suggest there are far too many winemakers featured in the book for that particular accusation to be true. Then there are other figures like Bob Madill (pictured above right) who just don’t fit into that young winemaker mold. Bob’s not even a winemaker, but he’s been a tremendously important loose cannon in the FLX wine industry for many years. The idea that he’s somehow a safe and uncomplicated guy – he’s a Canadian outside/insider with a radically alternative perspective to other local industry figures of his age – so his presence in the book doesn’t count is ridiculous as the photo of him with his trashed old car below proves.

My goal was to portray as many members of the new generation of winemakers in the FLX as possible, and to do so in a way that accentuated their enormous diversity, rather than homogenizing it (a common fault of wine journalism). For that I had to get close to a bunch of the youngsters, and some of the old hands too. That required as much patience and as little ego as possible, then a razor-sharp quill – gonzo journalism! – but I couldn’t have done it if they hadn’t accepted me and taken me into their circle. If this indirectly led to some idealization, then I accept as a necessary “evil”!

I worked very hard to present each of the people featured within the network of their wine community. The wine community of the FLX, and particularly of the town of Geneva, is the real star of my book. I tried to become its medium, so that when I tell its story I did so from the inside. If there is too little critical comment – that accusation has also been made – then the reason is that I was focusing on a community of tremendously talented and positive people. I did taste some poor wines, but not from those who I portrayed. That’s the reason no wines described in any detail have been sharply criticized. It just wasn’t necessary. OK, some people want me to shit on some wines and their makers. I accept that I could go out and seek victims, but is that serious journalism?

Of course, my story has some weaknesses, but when you are describing real life it rarely gives you a story with a progression of events that has a compelling emotional logic to it that sucks the readers in and makes them sweat and shake with excitement as they turn each of those pages. I did my best to get there without falsifying anything, and I don’t think that you can tell where I took a few liberties with the chronology of events to accentuate the emotional logic. If you can let me know and I promise I won’t take that as an accusation!

 

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New York Wine Diary: Day 5 – Meet Kelby James Russell, the Star of “ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra with KJR – This is a Love Story”

This is Kelby James Russell, the KJR in the title of my new e-book on Kindle, and one the FLX (Finger Lakes) Rock Star Winemakers the title refers to. The unlikely hero of my new work is pictured in the lab of Red Newt Cellars, the wines of which he’s only been fully responsible for since the 2013 vintage. In that short time Red Newt has gone from being an extremely reliable producer of elegant and charming Rieslings, mostly in the medium-sweet style to a daring innovator in the field of dry and medium-dry Rieslings. KJR is also responsible for making most of the wines for Bruce Murray’s small, but very ambitious Boundary Breaks winery, for the Empire Estate dry Riesling brand launched with the 2014, and for his own Kelby James Russell label. Taken together these wines have already exerted a significant impact on the perception of FLX wines in the Northeast of the US, and this effect will increase significantly during the next few years. The situation just a few years ago in which Hermann J. Wiemer was (rightly in my view) regarded as the sole star producer in the region has changed for this reason, but also others that I will go into over the next days. Given that Kelby is only 28 years old and gained his first experience of winemaking at Fox Run Vineyards on the other side of Seneca lake from Red Newt in the fall of 2009 this is an extraordinary achievement. This is the main reason that I chose him for the cover and title of my in-depth study of the new generation of FLX winemakers.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook will have already read the quote from Clarke Smith (the author of Postmodern Winemaking) that follows, but it’s so important I think that you should read it again along with everyone else: “The revolutions in winemaking are not the work of scientists, but of lunatic heroes who try stuff which orthodox thinking says never should be tried.” Clarke then added some further explanation that makes it clear he doesn’t regard this as being something specific to winemaking, but a much more general phenomenon: “Any paradigm shift is caused by such people. But the Scientific Method does not generate new hypotheses, rather merely tests them – a mopping up activity that constitutes the bulk of scientific enterprise. Revolutions are risky behavior for which you have to be a little bit nuts.” Although he doesn’t scream and shout about it, as you can see from the above photo of KJR he’s on the same page as Clark Smith. He certainly isn’t the only one of the new generation of winemakers in the FLX to see things that way, but he struck me as the right figurehead for this movement that might well be the Second Great Wine Awakening in New York State.

No revolution was ever the work of one woman or one man alone, and in this case the owner of Red Newt Cellars must take a very substantial amount of credit for recognizing KJR’s talent, seeing that this represented a great opportunity rather than a ton of complications, and giving him all the support he needed to realize his ideas. The results speak for themselves and would have had a great success in the marketplace even if I had written nothing whatsoever about them. However, maybe “success” is way too simple a word for the myriad reactions to the new wines from Red Newt Cellars. I have already noted much astonishment on the faces of leading Riesling winemakers like Cornelius Dönnhoff of the Dönnhoff estate in the Nahe, Germany, critics like Stephan Reinhardt of the Wine Advocate, and experts like Lisa Granik MW in NYWC (New York Wine City). As the wines get tasted by more and more people some critical voices are bound to become loud, because wines with this kind of dramatic personality are polarizing. I like the way that both KJR and Dave Whiting have a relaxed “so what?” attitude to this, because it’s inevitable and by no means will it always be bad publicity for them.

Great wines are impossible without excellent quality grapes, and with Riesling there’s very little possibility to hide inadequate fruit quality with winemaking bells and whistles. What you see (when the grapes come into the cellar) is what you get (in the bottle) when it comes to quality. The rise of KJR and Red Newt wouldn’t have been possible without the man pictured on the left in the above photograph, Harlan Fulkerson, a.k.a. The Big H, of the Lahoma Vineyard on the western bank of Seneca Lake. They are standing in a block of the vineyard that KJR christened The Knoll, because although the vineyard has several knolls this is the one planted with Riesling. From the 2013 vintage Red Newt  have produced a very special dry Riesling under the name The Knoll, and that first vintage is just coming into its own. Soon to follow from Red Newt is a new top medium-dry Riesling called The Big H. from another block in the Lahoma Vineyard.  The praise for these wines will be a vindication of Harlan’s precise vineyard cultivation no less than of KJR’s winemaking. Harlan also gets a big splash in my e-book, but a larger than life personality like his is incapable of making a small splash!

For more information about Kelby Russell go to

http://rednewt.com/ww4/?page_id=217

And for the full, unexpurgated story of the new generation of FLX winemakers and much, much more head to the Kindle Store on Amazon and purchase my book:

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

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New York Wine Diary: Day 5 – “ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra with KJR – This is a Love Story” is finally published on Kindle!

I write these lines in a state of exhaustion and euphoria after a two day marathon completing the latest e-book in my series ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA and publishing #3: FLXtra with KJR – This is a Love Story on Kindle late yesterday evening. It’s subject is the new generation of winemakers in the Finger Lakes (FLX) in Upstate New York and the events described in this roller coaster work of gonzo journalism span the period June 15th 2015 thru March 17th 2016. KJR is Kelby James Russell, the 28 year old Rock Star Winemaker of Red Newt Cellars on the eastern side of Seneca Lake, and it is his face on the cover. More about him tomorrow. Once again the cover art was drawn and stitched, then the cover designed by Angelyn Cabrales. I must thank her for giving the cover a very different look to either #1 or #2 that communicates the daring, optimism and openness of the new generation of winemakers in the FLX. They deeply inspired me.

In spite of increased media coverage of the FLX during the last years – a reflection of the rapidly improving quality of the wines – I don’t think any of my colleagues really wrote a comprehensive portrait of the new winemakers that captured their spirit and society. Nor did anyone describe in detail how they are part of a network of creative exchange between older and younger winemakers. This is not a sales pitch – I need several days of R&R before I can write anything resembling that! – merely an observation that this subject was rather inadequately covered, because nobody considered it important enough to invest the considerable amount of time and effort that I did. However, during the months since I began writing it on a flight from Berlin to New York on December 18th 2015 I was often a bit worried that I might be scooped by some colleague. The FLX are about to be discovered by the mainstream media big time!

Look at those dates and you will see that I was writing for almost full three months before the events described ended. This alone makes #3: FLXtra gonzo, for I was often writing about what had just happened, lifting quotes and impressions from my notebook into the text the very next morning. This meant the text was developing as the story happened, and I decided not to shy away from telling that story with all its highs and lows. Those who have read #1 and #2 will note the absence of the PARENTAL ADVISORY: Explicit Content sticker from the cover of #3. This is a risk I’m taking, because there is some sexual content in #3 (I’m rating it PG), but the more unusual thing for a wine book is that emotional intensity. In recent years several colleagues (most notably Alice Feiring) wrote wine books that went some distance in this direction, but I don’t think anybody did so in the radical way I have done. By the way, I tried to do so in a spirit of compassion rather than to be judgmental of others in any way or form.

#3 is gonzo in a more fundamental way too, for I worked hard not only to be accepted by my subjects, but also to become part of their world, so that when I wrote about it I would be doing so from the inside. Many of the new winemakers of the FLX trusted me completely, and that made this dissolving of boundaries possible, so help me God. Here is the outrageous result. The price is $4.99 and all you need to do to read it is download the free Kindle app onto your device before purchasing, that is if you don’t already have a Kindle or an iPad/iPhone/etc with the Kindle app on it. ENJOY!

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

 

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 3 – BE HERE soon for ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra

This is where it all started. I took the above photo at almost exactly the moment when the story of my forthcoming e-book begins. Finally, ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra about the Finger Lakes (the FLX) in Upstate New York is almost ready for publication. Pictured above is the team responsible for the Empire Estate brand of dry FLX Riesling, Kelby James Russell, the winemaker of Red Newt Cellars on Seneca Lake and Thomas Pastuszak, the sommelier of the Nomad Hotel on Broadway in Manhattan. I took it just a few blocks from the Nomad Hotel at the launch of Empire Estate on the evening of Monday, June 15th 2015. The story of FLXtra spans the nine months from then until March 15th 2015, a period during which I experienced incredibly personal highs and lows as I researched the new generation of winemakers in the FLX.

Now the question is WHO are the Rock Star Winemakers that my book praises most highly and WHO is the winemaker pictured on the cover? This blog posting is low on text, but introduces you to some of the most important candidates.

The Dr. Konstantin Frank / Chateau Frank winery was the pioneer of high-end wines from the Vitis vinifera  (think Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but also Saperavi and Rkatsiteli!) in the FLX, and Meaghan Frank (on the left) is the fourth generation of the Frank family to direct the family winery on Keuka Lake. She’s pictured with her father Fred (on the right) at the 30th anniversary celebration for the Chateau Frank sparkling wines on July 5th last year.

Fred Merwarth (above left) and Oskar Bynke (above right) have done an amazing job of taking the already highly regarded Hermann J. Wiemer winery to the premier position in the states along the Eastern Seaboard of the US.  Their Riesling are the benchmarks against which ambitious young winemakers measure their own achievements.

Tom and Susan Higgins (above left and right) left NYC and the computing business less than a decade ago to found Heart & Hands, a small winery on Cayuga Lake dedicated to Pinot Noir reds (for which they already have quite a reputation) and Riesling (for which they’re not so well known). Tom also introduced me to some of the extraordinary geology and wildlife of the FLX.

Bruce Murray is an even more recent arrival in the FLX from NYC where he was a market researcher. The first vintage for his Boundary Breaks Vineyard Rieslings was 2011, and it was amazing for me to see what he’s achieved on Seneca Lake without actually having either a winery of his own and working with a team of winemakers. Regular readers will already know how highly I regard the 2014 vintage wines from Boundary Breaks.

Mark Wagner of Lamoreaux Landing winery on Seneca Lake is an old hand compared with the new winemaking immigrants, but the steadily rising reputation of the FLX during recent years has a great deal with the consistent high quality of wines like his medium-dry single-vineyard Rieslings: Yellow Dog, Round Rock and Red Oak. And he’s also the inventor of the un-oaked style of Cabernet Franc rapidly gaining ground in the region.

Peter Bell of Fox Run winery over on the other (western) side of Seneca Lake not only made the first FLX red wines that I found completely convincing, for example, the stunning 2005 Cabernet Franc Reserve. He also played a vital role behind the scenes in training a large part of the new generation of FLX winemakers. For this alone somebody should give him a medal!

Julia Hoyle, now the assistant winemaker at Sheldrake Point winery on Cayuga Lake, was one of Peter Bell’s best students. She is one of the new winemakers to watch closely during the coming years, and already her example is inspiring other young women – some with no wine background like her – to enter the NY wine industry.

August Deimel (pictured above in a scene from FLXtra) took the more conventional route of the Oenology Program at nearby Cornell University, but I don’t think anyone could accuse August or his wines of being conventional. I thought that I was done with Gewürztraminer until I tasted those he makes at Keuka Spring Vineyards on Keuka Lake. His Dynamite Vineyard Gewürztraminer really is (dry) dynamite!

California star winemaker Paul Hobbs and Mosel star winemaker Johannes Selbach (pictured above right with Paul’s younger brother David, left) recently started the most daring new vineyard project in the FLX. They are pushing more envelopes simultaneously then I could cope with, but this is how you find out what’s really possible in a young wine region like this (the first vinifera was 1962!)

I wish there was space for everyone in this blog posting, but there isn’t, and I have to admit that the above selection was also influenced by photo quality. To find out who the biggest Rock Star Winemakers of the FLX are for me you will have to head to the Kindle Store on Amazon sometime from Sunday, May 8th and purchase ROCK STAR OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra for $4.99. By the way, only then will the full title of this most daring of my wine books be revealed. Perhaps you can sense my own excitement about this impending publication in the above short texts. WATCH THIS SPACE!

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 3 – Anna Leonhardt and Her Ironically Cryptic Paintings

Wine takes me to all kinds of places and introduces me to all kinds of people, and one of the most interesting recent introductions was to the German painter Anna Leonhardt who’s first NYC show opens at 6pm tonight (Sunday, April 10th at Marc Straus Gallery, 299 Grand Street in Chinatown). In the photograph above she is pictured in her grungy NYC studio - it’s cold even on a warm day, and at one point when she was working several bucket loads of water suddenly dropped in through the ceiling - just a few doors down the street from the gallery where where she did most of the paintings that go on show tonight, a process I was able to follow. If you can’t get to the gallery before the show closes on May 15th, then you can get a get a good idea of how it looks by clicking on the following link.

http://www.marcstraus.com/exhibitions/anna-leonhardt-april-2016/

I won’t get to see the show until after I return to NYC May 3rd, so what I see when I think of Anna’s work looks more like the photograph below that was taken in her studio the last time we met. It shows the largest of her recent paintings, and although it may not look it, this thing is 3.5 meters long and barely fitted in through the studio front door!

All of Anna’s paintings function in the same basic way, having a landscape-like background – that is one element covering the entire surface of the painting that we read as being a landscape type space – and a number of strokes in the foreground – that is a number of elements superimposed on that background that we read as being like figures standing closer to us than what we read as being behind them. This clumsy piece of description is necessary to point out that the way Anna’s paintings function is all about how we interpret them, a process I’ve only described the most banal aspect of. However, it is the basis upon which all the other interpretations we make are based, as it were the foundations upon which many floors can be built.

It’s a long time since abstract paintings fascinated me as much as Anna’s do, and they do so because they are ironically cryptic. That means, when I look at them my mind jumps to the conclusion there is a puzzle to solve, but I also see my mind doing that and observe the way it jumps to that conclusion. And what a (non-)puzzle it is! New pieces of (non-)it drop into my mind each time I look at one of Anna’s paintings, yet my head doesn’t just fill up with a growing pile of mental debris, rather space for further interpretations always remains available. That’s the reason that they are ironically open-ended, because I also observe the way they always remain open-ended, and any conclusions I come to are delightfully inconclusive. That might read like some kind of complicated word game, but really it’s not like that at all. Anna’s paintings communicate a special kind of freedom and it’s something I could never have thought up before I hadn’t encountered them.

I like this small painting a lot – Anna’s work on a small scale is every bit as strong as her larger paintings – and the way it looks in this deliberately awkward photograph. I took a number like this, because they seemed to capture the very particular atmosphere in her anarchic studio best. Anarchic? What I don’t mean is that this place and what she did there were chaotic in any sense at all, rather she gave the place a spirit that refuses to adhere to any rules, but then pragmatically goes through the motions of playing by the rules in order to get somewhere and take us there with her.

Now I’ve said too much already, or possibly nothing useful at all, but you read this far and some of you will go and see the paintings, which is the most important thing. On the side, being introduced to Anna Leonhardt by wine one evening in a Japanese restaurant (1 or 8 on South 2nd Street), then getting to know her work pushed me to reconnect with the painterly creative process and write something about it. That’s something I haven’t done for many years. No doubt the lack of practice shows!

 

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 1 – Why Dan Dunn’s American Wino is a Gross Outrage that You Must Read

Let me be completely frank with you: I don’t like Dan Dunn’s book AMERICAN WINO, in fact I find it extremely frustrating, so frustrating that while I was reading it I said, “what the fuck?” I don’t know how many times and I threw it against the wall a couple of times too. So you’re probably wondering why I’m bothering to review it here, or even why I made the effort to struggle through its 338 confused and confusing pages. Maybe you’re also now wondering if I’m taking a sadistic thrill in craving this new wine book into pieces in the public place that is cyberspace. The truth is the opposite though, for I have forgiven Dan, although his book is a gross outrage. Why did I do that?

The worst thing about Dan’s book is the he keeps on losing it, by which I mean the thread of his story about a coast to coast journey of discovers through the mostly unknown grape growing regions of the United States of Wine, by switching his attention at exactly the wrong moment. In particular, just as you think he’s going to tell you something really interesting about obscure American wines he’s promised to give you an intro to he gets completely distracted by his dead brother, ex-girlfriend or their dead dog! We end up learning more about them and his inability to pick up girls (often much younger than him) than we do about American wine; inexcusable unprofessionalism!

His admission that, “luckily, the one thing that doesn’t scare me is actually being full of shit. I’ve known that I ‘m full of shit for a very long time. It’s pretty much the only thing that I’m comfortable with in life,” is a typical example of his humor, but it doesn’t makes this situation any better. Sure, his frequent attacks on the “snootytorium” that is the wine scene are well deserved, but they are as often off-target and off-subject as they succeed. Much of this crap-shoot is packed into “wine-centric sidebars” that result in those weak moments when I gave into anger and proved to myself that I have more upper body musculature than I admit to.

OK, sometimes – often just when you gave up hope that this wine book would discuss wine in any meaningful way – Dan does tells you something fascinating about little-known and under-appreciated American wines like the Muscadines of Georgia, but there is no consistency to this at all. For example, after he left Sonoma County, California – not exactly the least important winemaking location in the US – I felt I had learned exactly nothing about it, nor had he expressed a serious opinion about it; scandalous incompetence! But I kept reading. I always kept reading AMERICAN WINO even when I was totally infuriated by Dan’s perverse personality and by his inability to tell a coherent story, and even when I was bored by a his compulsive rambling.

Clearly he has the same writer hero as me, Hunter S. Thompson (who I also find infuriating and rambling) and he also writes about some of the same winemakers as I do, such as Maynard James Keenan (yes, the singer of Puscifer and Tool), who makes the Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards wines in Arizona (see my ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #2: AZ with MJK, available on Kindle). So please dismiss this tirade as jealousy for a colleague who made it into out-dated print when I didn’t.

Why did I forgive Dan then? Not because his book enormously helps me to establish Gonzo wine journalism as category (which it does!), or because it takes a bunch of unfamiliar winemaking locations in America as seriously as I believe they deserve to be (which it does!) but because again and again AMERICAN WINO excited me in ways little other wine storytelling or other storytelling ever does. The book is worth $16.99 (published by Dey St.) just for Dan’s description of seeing rock group U2′s movie Rattle and Hum for the first time!

Be warned, at times this book could make you so frustrated that you will commit violence against it and/or your own person, but you must suffer all that for the outrageously things it will also to do to you, and to get to them you must read it right to the end!

PS Publication of ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3 on Kindle about the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York will be May 2nd.

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New York Wine Diary: Day 16 – Truth Before Feel-Good

Regular readers will have noticed a change of tone in many of my postings from the last weeks, and several of you guessed rightly what lies behind this. A number of people told me that I should be careful not to let private things creep into my social media or blog postings. They meant well, but following this advice would lead to self-censorship and that’s something I cannot do. The problem is that a “harmless” element of self-censorship is the thin end of the wedge, and you can quickly move from there to small lies, then on to larger ones. For example, if I were to claim here that I have been doing fine that would be a lie, as would the statement that I’m doing fine, although just the last couple of days I’ve been doing somewhat better.

Of course, I don’t need to tell you all the dirty details of the rough ride I’ve had since the early hours of January 1st (no names mentioned), but I can’t hide the emotional truth of what happened without taking something away from the Big Story that all of these smaller stories add up to. The painful experiences and the problems that I’ve faced since 2016 have been many and varied, and they lead to a battle with depression, something I’ve had to deal with several other times in my life: you learn how to deal with it, and practice makes you better at it, if not perfect. Of course, this has influenced what I have written, some of the shadows have crept on to this page, just as my attempt to find the positive things has too. However, before leaving NYWC (New York Wine City) for a month in Austria, Germany and Switzerland it seemed essential to me to be completely straight with you all.

One reason that I feel rather better since a couple of days is no doubt my impending departure. I really need to breathe other air, see very different people and do everything else possible to refresh my mental state. This does not mean I’m turning my back on NYWC or the United States of Wine, rather that I need to try and return with a fresh approach that isn’t heavily weighed down by memories of the pain of the last three months. When I get on the plane the two-thirds completed manuscript of my forthcoming e-book ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3 about the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York, but also love and love lost (an important part of the last months), will be in my bag. I will complete it in Berlin and on the road in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Publication on Kindle (you can download the Kindle app free of charge on just about any device!) will be May 1st, immediately before my return to NYWC. Of course, during the next weeks there will be plenty of blog postings and the new vintage in Europe will be covered in some detail. I guarantee a high Riesling content!

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