The story of the underground rock star winemakers of America.

Berlin Wine Diary: Day 14 – Fear, Loathing and the Death of Delicious in New York Wine City

Photo: Stuart Pigott, as seen in Williamsburg, a.ka. Hipster Central

At 8:30am today Berlin time Part 3 of my utterly outrageous series of stories about the rise of the hipster somms of NYWC (New York Wine City) went online at under the title Awesome Hair and the Death of Delicious. Although almost everybody in NYWC was still asleep then, my smartphone was soon making a lot of pinging noises as the first reactions came in. NYWC has now awoken, but not all the hipster soms of that fair city will yet have actually read what I wrote, i.e. some of the shit just hit that fan, but a ton more is still in mid-flight. Although the series started with a bang it has built to a savage conclusion, and I’d be surprised if any readers saw this coming. Here is the link for those who haven’t read it yet:

Why Stuart, why? In just a moment I will reveal my motive for this heinous crime of storytelling. However, first I want to let you in on the backstory behind these three concentrated doses of gonzo wine journalism. I began writing Part 1 during the flight from JFK to Berlin-Tegel airport late on Monday, May 16th, completing the first draft of it in the Bundessaufstadt (a play on the word for capital city in German that twists it into the drinking capital of Germany). The first drafts of Parts 2 & 3 were then written in NYWC after my return there on Monday, May 30th. I reworked them both during my current stay in Berlin beginning Saturday, June 11th. I feel pretty sure that having one foot inside NYWC and one foot outside (most importantly, but by no means only, in Berlin), together with my frequent changes of perspective gave the story its special flavor, which some people clearly hate.

Some of them will no doubt accuse me of dodging the flak by being thousands of miles away on the other side of the Big Pond when these stories appeared, but when I started work on them there were no publication dates and no deadlines, so there was no such plan. In fact, I would have preferred to be within shouting distance, even if some of the comments shouted at me were personal and barbed. A writer must stand by her/his work, and this applies particularly to non-fiction where the whole point is that the story should be true.

I don’t doubt for a moment that this story, that so neatly divided itself into a beginning, a middle and an end, is fundamentally true. The large e-post bag I already received for Parts 1 & 2 already told me that. The great majority of those people – and they were some very important people amongst them – in the American wine industry who contacted me assured me that my description of the hipster somm phenomenon was spot on. No doubt a lot more post is on the way, including some more hate mail!

The other thing I’m prepared for is the accusation that (once again) I’ve taken the easy way out by, “not naming names”. However, Thomas Pastuszak, the wine director of the Nomad Hotel on Broadway in Manhattan and Pascaline Lepeltier of Rouge Tomate, soon to reopen just a few blocks from the Nomad in Chelsea both appear in Part 3, and they are not exactly small names in NYWC. Pastuszak seems to me a fine example of a hipster somm who has worked hard to overcome the limitations of tribal membership. In contrast, Lepeltier seems determined to be a fully-fledged member with all the consequences. I find that sad, because that’s something different from a young person naively falling into the hipster somm pack and unthinkingly adopting their attitudes and behavior. Why should I name them, when their failing is a minor one? There is no malice in my story!

There’s one point I have to clarify before we get to my motive. I’ve been writing about wine full time as a freelance journalist for 30 years (the anniversary is on July 7th this year!), but this doesn’t mean that I know everything about wine, not even close. As confident as I feel in my own specialist areas (Riesling being only the most important of these) I am painfully aware of my limitations in others (e.g. Italian wines from less well-known indigenous grapes). This makes me feel humble, but probably that will sound absurd to some readers. They will doubtless already be reaching for various A-words, beginning with arrogant and ending much further down the scale. However, what I am proposing is that more somms be more humble and empathize more with the customers they serve.

Stuart, finally tell us why you did it? Ever since I was in my late teens I was convinced that the best story is a true story, and that it’s the people who make a story compelling. I find the hipster somms of NYWC fascinating and I often enjoyed their company. The tensions between them and the customers they serve became ever clearer to me during the four years that I’ve been researching them. This is the energy that drives the story. I believe in delicious, and the wine drinkers of NYWC also believe in delicious. It is their side that I have taken, not just my own, and I did so because we have a shared fear of the Death of Delicious!

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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 8 – By Popular Demand from the Hipster Somms of NYWC Another Explanation of My Grape Collective Series About Them

Since Part 1 of my 3 part series about the rise of the hipster somms of NYWC (New York Wine City) appeared on on the morning of Friday, June 17th all I seem to have been doing is explaining what this story is really about, although the text is totally self-explanatory if you take the trouble to read it properly. Part 2 was published yesterday, Friday June 24th and provoked another wave of demands for explanations and justifications. By then I already felt like I had landed in a court of law and was being pushed into the role of prosector, although I’ve made it plain several that I am not the DA of wine. In view of the possibility that somms – hip and otherwise – may be drawing completely the wrong conclusions from these two texts, and that this might lead to some serious consequences I feel obliged to make the effort to explain yet again. However, this is also a WARNING that I am not turning back, and that Part 3 of the series will appear without correction or abbreviation on Friday, July 1st so help me God!

One night more than four years ago in Restaurant Heath on East 12th Street I realized that there was a new breed of somm (Sommelier/Sommelière – the French word for wine waiter) in New York who was young and hip, also often eloquent and (let’s tell it how it is) attractive. The more I got to know the members of this tribe, the more I was fascinated by this phenomenon. That I have chosen to describe them in eye-popping detail and glorious technicolor based on first-hand observation, then to analyze it with the detachment of an anthropologist, has led some of them to conclude that I must hate them all, but this just is not true. They are colorful and amusing, and although I have described foibles and failings common in the group, that does not mean the I dislike them, much less that for this reason I feel the need to seriously diss them. Read Part 2 and you will see that I am anxious to differentiate among them and to avoid the common journalistic tendency to tar the members of a diverse group with one brush.

However, it seems that in an extreme success culture like the US where life is conceived of as a race in which someone is first over the finishing line and another person is last in the field a lot of readers want me to say who the ultimate hipster somm of NYWC is, then to attack them viciously. What some others clearly want is a High Noon type showdown between that person and myself in which one of us bites the dust spurting copious blood Quentin Tarrantino style. In case you didn’t already get it, I find this idea childish in the extreme. On the other hand, so help me God, Part 3 will name some big names, as I promised at the end of Part 2.

I have to point out that I also received a lot of support from a slew of leading figures in  NYWC and from wine producers across America who all thanked me for saying what they have clearly wanted to say for a long time. Many of them who wish to remain anonymous are pleased that they did not have to stick their necks out for this purpose, and I think some of them are still trying to figure out why I was willing to do so at the risk of my reputation. What I share with them is the belief that however remarkable wine sometimes tastes it is a beverage and not a religion. I have tried to write this series (Part 3 is finished and waiting in a drawer!) in a spirit of honesty, but also with a sense of compassion for those who I describe. Confronting reality can be painful, but as a member of the reality-based community I believe that this is always cathartic. Of course, some people just want to dodge the bullets and cash the check.

Here is the link to Part 2 of my story for those who haven’t read it:


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Berlin Wine Diary: Day 1 – NYWC Hipster Somm-Sation

First of all let me tell you that I am guilty as charged! While I was in full possession of all my faculties I wrote a 3 part series of articles about the hipster somms of NYWC (New York Wine City), Part 1 of which was published yesterday by Grape Collective at around 8pm Berlin time, 2pm NYWC time and noon Aspen, CO time. Why the timings and why the mention of Aspen? Well, because that’s where many NYWC somms are right now for the Food & Wine Classic, a somm / hipster somm feeding frenzy in a beautiful location far removed from the major problems of our world. But there would seem to have been some earth tremors there from about noon onwards.

Being in Berlin I can’t report on how the mood on the ground in Aspen is, but I  can tell you about the flurry of responses I have received. I won’t bore you with the many messages of support, except to say that several people in the wine industry told me the description was spot on not only for NYWC somms, but somms everywhere and for people in other parts of the wine and hospitality industries! That I really hadn’t expected. On various social and anti-social media a number of people contacted me to make clear that they were not hipster somms and therefore did not consider themselves to be the target of my diatribe. However, on twitter one brave soul named Morgan W. Harris admitted to being, “an ostensible member of this tribe…Our crimes will be numbered. Not undeservedly.” I am full of admiration for his unflinching honesty. Also on twitter Jaime Smith agreed with my worst accusation, “a shallow generation.” You may not believe me, but I hope that some of the hipster somms will prove that I am wrong about that one. Finally, on Facebook John Winterman referred to the location of the Food & Wine Classic as “Ass-pen“. He urged me to cross the East River from Williamsburg to Restaurant Bâtard in TriBeCa where he was having dinner, but unfortunately I would have needed to cross the Big Pond first. We have delayed that dinner until I return to NYWC.

Only one name was mentioned in Part 1, that of Christian Navarro, the Big White Chief at a wine store in LA called Wally’s. I met Christian back in the summer of 2000 when he had just become one of the first hipster somms, although he had a very Beverley Hills look far removed from the hirsute contemporary hipster somms of NYWC. This drew an unexpected response from an experienced industry figure who wishes to remain anonymous. He told me that Navarro’s career developed so fast because he licked asses and was a twat who never acknowledged the help of the people who’d given him the breaks that made his rise to stardom possible. Ouch! I guess more of this kind of thing will inevitably follow after the publication of Parts 2 & 3. Don’t worry, names will be named! Of course, many of you have yet to read Part 1 of my story and this is probably a good idea if you want to follow events as they unfold over the coming weeks. So, here is the link:


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FLX Wine Diary: Day 7 – Nancy Irelan of Red Tail Ridge is an Underground Rock Star Winemaker

Let’s face it, some winemakers acquire Rock Star Status because they work really hard to acquire it as quickly as possible. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it, just an observation about a certain type of winemaker personality. Nancy Irelan of the Red Tail Ridge winery on the western side of Seneca Lake lies at the other end of the spectrum of personality types, as I think you can tell from the above photograph. However, her wines are some of the most consistently impressive in the entire region. And what makes this all the more remarkable is that Nancy hails from California. She founded Red Tail Ridge with her husband Mike Schnelle just a decade ago, so this is the result of a very rapid process of adaptation to completely different grape growing conditions and wines that therefore have a very different analytical profile and very different character.

Although you can buy any Red Tail Ridge wine and you will be impressed – last night I had a glass of the semi-dry Riesling in a Rochester/NY bar Good Luck and it was delicious – I think there are two fields in which Nancy really shines. The first of these is dry Riesling, in which context her wines have a remarkable harmony and a totally distinctive personality due to the limestone bedrock under the vines at Red Tail Ridge, as the soon to be released 2013 Riesling 606 (about $30) proves. It has a subtle apricot note and a “chalky mineral quality” that is extremely rare in the FLX, or anywhere else in North America. The wine is just beginning to reach its best youthful form and has the backbone and freshness to age for many more years. Also really impressive is the just bottled 2015 Dry Riesling (all from estate fruit, like the 606) with its candied ginger and exotic fruit character. The hint of bitterness in the aftertaste of this wine only seems to accentuate its vitality. Both of these wines belong in the leading pack of their respective vintages.

The other star section of the Red Tail Ridge program is the sparkling wines that range from a Riesling Pet Nat that comes onto the market the summer after vintage to innovations like the as yet unreleased 2013 Rosé Brut (champagne method) which has some Pinot Noir red wine aromas and a mellowness from some discrete tannins too. It’s sad that for logistical reasons Nancy can only produce this kind of thing in lots of 1,200 bottles. That means these wines are too little known outside the region. You could say that about the entire range though, because she doesn’t send samples to any of the wine magazines due to her disdain for numerical ratings. She and Mike are a rare example of wine producers who have taken a stand on this issue. There, but also in the rigor with which they manage the vineyards (Mike) and make the wines (Nancy) you see the strictness of their commitment to making good wine and only good wine.

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FLXtra Wine Diary: Day 2 – Rosé Soirée Rocks Geneva and My World

Maybe this just looks like another American street party to you, but Rosé Soirée on Linden Street in Geneva yesterday evening was anything but a regular grade American street party. The focus on dry rosé from the FLX (Finger Lakes in Upstate New York) also meant that it was not a regular wine event, because nobody else takes rosé this seriously (there were about three dozen wines to taste). Linden street is the emerging gastronomic centre of the region and because it is so compact (the photograph shows almost the entire street) it is really easy to transform it into a temporary event space.

I was going to call the event “alternative”, but on reflection I think it is actually part of the New Mainstream. I say that because there was something fundamentally open, inclusive and democratic about the event – you could bring your own food or you could just wander in have one glass of wine and enjoy the live music – and I saw nobody who was obviously intoxicated, just plenty of positive high spirits. This was based on the twin pillars of interest in local wine and a spirit of co-operation amongst the producers of those wines. It may have been just one event, but these things are now changing America’s relationship to wine from one of skepticism (of the alcohol it contains, and about how good it might taste) to a friendly warm embrace.

Let’s face it rosé is one of the perfect wines for this kind of open-air event and in recent years the FLX has become one of the premier rosé producers, so Rosé Soirée ought to be a no-brainer. There are good reasons for the rapid advance of the FLX to this position, of which the most important is the aromatic and crisp nature of the region’s wines; ideal qualities for this category. Then comes the rather large area of vineyards that were planted here with red wine grapes like Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir during the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century for red wine production. It turns out that both of these are ideally suited to FLX rosé wine production. The two Katies – Katie Roisen of Hosmer on the left and Katie Roller of Wagner on the right – were showing prototypical examples of these wines. The 2013 Sparking Rosé from Hosmer is 100% Pinot Noir and  has the fragrance – floral and raspberry – and delicacy that this grapes gives in the FLX (when the winemaker handles it right!) The 2015 Cabernet Franc Rosé from Wagner is much more herbal and has the redcurrant character, fuller body and bright acidity that has made it the dominant type of dry rosé in the FLX. Considering this is Wagner’s first vintage of dry rosé it is quite an achievement.

Of course, many of you are interested to know which I thought were the best rosé wines on show. The 2015 Rosé from the 240 Days is also the debut vintage for this brand, and it was perhaps the most delicious sipping/quaffing wine at the event (although there was tough competition from Sheldrake Point’s Cabernet Franc Rosé and the sparkling Célèbre – Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – from Dr. Frank). Congratulations are due to Nova Cadamatre of Constellation Brands for proving that this corporate giant of the wine world can also make wines that are delicious and distinctive. For me, the most complex wine (herbs, herbs, herbs!) and the most exciting for the dining table was the 2015 Cabernet Franc from Kelby James Russell which he makes at Red Newt Cellars where he’s the winemaker. Precisely because it has so much character it is a polarizing wine that you’ll either love or push back in favor of something more fruity and charming.

I have to admit that I have the most fun on evenings that slowly drift out of control, but where that doesn’t end up going so far that the next morning I regretting something I said or did. The night of Rosé Soirée fell into exactly that category and the thumbnail image to the right documents the moment where I slipped off the rails. I was in a great new bar in Geneva called Kashong Creek at 87 Castle Street at the corner of Linden Street. After a drink there I ended up dancing in an empty restaurant with some of the staff and the owner until I realized that it was gone 2am and I’d had enough fun. That my head was clear this morning and I went out for a run without any trouble suggest that I judged it about right. I take it as further proof that Rosé Soirée was spot on!

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New York Wine Diary: Day 3 – Tomorrow is My Next FLX Day Zero!

Tomorrow I hit the road in the direction of the FLX (Finger Lakes) in Upstate New York once again. The photo above shows what it looked like almost exactly a year ago immediately before I arrived in Geneva by Greyhound bus at the beginning of the events described in my new e-book for Kindle ROCK STARS OF WINE AMERICA #3: FLXtra with KJR – This is a Love Story. Tomorrow will be the first time I’ve returned to the region since the e-book’s publication just four weeks ago, and considering that I’ve already had some strong reactions I’m expecting to have to defend what I’ve written. In the end there is no justification for it except that I felt it was right to tell this story in this way. The only reason to make changes now would be if somebody pointed out major factual inaccuracies, but that would surprise me given the five month period during which I worked on it and the six month period before that during which serious research was under way. During all this time I took in the beauty of the FLX and the region’s remarkable new wines, but tried never to idealize them. Did I go too far with my praise? You must decide.

Of course, one of the things I’ll be doing during my forthcoming stay will be to taste a bunch of the 2015 vintage whites, many of which seem to have turned out better than initially expected. For those who worked hard in the vineyard it seems to be an exciting vintage for drier style Riesling so that will be the focus of my tasting. I won’t just be tasting though, but also consuming and not just wine. I’m hoping to make it to Flour City Bakery at the Rochester Public Market where they make these amazing croissants (see above). I never had a croissant anywhere else in America with a texture and flavor like this! The hot pastrami sandwiches (see below) from Fare Game Food at the Public Market face much tougher competition right across America, but to my taste they are a match for Katz’s in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. You remember the one that the character played by Meg Ryan in the movie When Harry Met Sally was eating when she faked that orgasm and the woman at the next door table said whe wanted to order whatever it was that Meg Ryan had

Although the wines of the FLX have been taken much more seriously in NYWC (New York Wine City) the last couple of years, none of the food and restaurants of the FLX have so far attracted much attention yet. This struck me as another good reason to write my e-book now, and it will be interesting if places as diverse as Microclimate Wine Bar, Joe’s Hots, the Red Dove Tavern and Kindred Fare Restaurant all in Geneva see any growth in business as a result of what I wrote. If so my guess is that this will take a few more months to show up, also because the FLX tourist season doesn’t really begin until the Fourth of July and builds for a couple of months after that, before winding down in late October/early November after the trees lose their fall colors.

For those of you who haven’t read FLXtr with KJR – This is a Love Story here is the link to the relevant page at the Kindle Store. If you don’t have a Kindle all you need to do before purchasing is to download the free kindle app on your device. After that delivery is automatic and electronic. I actually prefer the way the book looks on the iPad than the Kindle device, as long as you have reasonable light:

Sadly, I must close there, because a string of appointments in NYWC demand my attention today. Regular readers may well be pleased to hear that my FLXtra reports will recommence in just a couple of days. WATCH THIS SPACE!


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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!


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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!


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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:

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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