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.

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New York Wine Diary: Day 4 – Welcome to Urban Wine Life at “Château Lüttmer” in Berlin!

“The urb it orbs,” wrote James Joyce, and that’s oh so very true of wine, at least since the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands in 1402 and the Portuguese discovery of Madeira in 1419. Wine growing is a thoroughly rural pursuit that during the 21st century has counterintuitively made a strong connection with cities right around the globe. Urban wineries are now nothing new, but it would be hard to find a more grittily urban winery than that hardly of Klaus and Christiane Lüttmer in the very unfancy Wedding district of Berlin. It is solidly blue collar/working class with a high proportion of immigrants, most of them Turkish. This is not what most middle class white people would consider an ideal place for their kids to grow up, although artists and other creative types long ago discovered the combination of low rents and good mass transportation infrastructure. I did that back in the spring of 1994 when I moved there for a stay of almost five years (thanks again to the developer of that building, Johannes Schwarz!) Likewise, the Winzerei Lüttmer is not trying to be cool, rather to make the best possible wine from a challenging vineyard location and to make a modest living from that undertaking.

I have a special connection to the Lüttmers and their wines because I often stay with them when I’m in Berlin. On top of that Klaus Lüttmer, a film cutter and editor for the RBB and Deutsche Welle stations in Berlin, also took those responsibilities – as time went on he took on more and more responsibilities, until he was also the producer – for my 65 minute movie Watch Your Back: The Riesling Movie (Part 1). He’s also the one who does the hard work of winemaking, while Christiane concentrates on the vineyards. There’s therefore no way that I’m claiming any regular grade family pack size journalistic objectivity with regard to either of this husband and wife team, and they wouldn’t claim to be unbiased about me either. We know each other far too well for that, but that is the whole point of Gonzo journalism: to know your subject as well as the back of your hand.

Let’s start with the facts. Winzerei Lüttmer, as they call their micro-winery, effectively began its existence with the planting of 0.5 hectare / 1.25 acres in Weischutz in the Saale-Unstrut region (in the Ex-East Germany) in the spring of 2008. The grape variety was Frühburgunder an early-ripening mutation of Spätburgunder a.k.a. Pinot Noir. A couple of years ago they planted a further 0.6 hectare / 1.5 acres half with Riesling and half with Spätburgunder in Vizenburg (in the same region). That might not sound like much, but these are steeply sloping vineyards, think Mosel Valley steep and rocky and backbreaking vineyard cultivation work. So far the barrels used to mature the Lüttmers’ Frühburgunder were all purchased used from the famous Rebholz estate in Siebeldingen/Pfalz, but a 600 liter / 158 gallon neutral cask from the top Austrian cooperage Stockinger has just been added for the 2016 vintage. 2010 was the first Fürburgunder red wine vintage and the first small crop from the new vineyard is expected this year. That makes it a seriously long-term project rather than just a hobby or a route to hippdom.

Good as the first vintages were, the 2014 wines are a watershed and by far the most exciting reds I ever tasted from the wine regions of the Ex-East Germany. After having harvested very late in 2013 to get high ripeness in spite of the poor fall weather the Lüttmers took the risky step of moving forward the date for the 2014 harvest forward with the goal of getting a wine with more freshness. The results of this seemingly small stylistic change were spectacular, as if a photograph that had been slightly fuzzy was suddenly in sharp focus and the scene it depicted therefore recognizable for the first time (there are two wines, a regular bottling and a richer reserve one called “S” for selection, bottlings, because it is a barrel selection). At first I found it hard to reconcile this super-elegant and subtle wine with the non-designer cosiness of the Lüttmers apartment that is also sometimes my eccentric home in Berlin. Maybe there is an odd connection though, because both strike me as being radically alive in a totally unpretentious manner. For that reason, and because she is depicted on one of their new labels that way, I chose a photograph of Christiane Lüttmer smoking a cigarette to give you an idea what it’s like at what I call “Château Lüttmer”. That image on the label has already seriously shocked some people in the Berlin wine scene, but as I said at the beginning none of this is a pose, rather it’s all true to their everyday life in the vineyard and at their home in Berlin.

The final photo shows Fritzi, perhaps the most important member of the Lüttmer pack and the source of much of the emotional glue that holds this most unusual trio, or perhaps I should say quartet, because I’m now a part-time member of the pack! By the way, although I know Château Lüttmer like the back of my hand I have to admit that I’ve never seen the vineyards except in photos (of precision hand-cultivated rows of vines resembling the best manicured vineyards in Burgundy). Fritzi is rather upset about that and if I don’t solve that problem soon I think he’ll give me the cold shoulder in the future!

The Lüttmer wines are still quite difficult to get, but that will change fast as the 2014s make their way into the market. That word also refers to NYWC (New York Wine City) where Vom Boden (Stephen Bitterolf) is the importer, and they are about to arrive. Be prepared to be amazed!


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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!

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NW Wine Trail Diary: Day 7 – Deep Immersion Therapy at the Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle

My apologies for the delay in getting this story to you, but I refuse to put half-baked material up on my blog, so when the appointments are stacked up as they were the last few days here in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, then it’s necessary to wait. You see, the purpose of this location in cyberspace is to give that old-fashioned thing considered opinions and – however amusing or entertaining the material sometimes is – thoughtful analysis of what’s going on in the world of wine. You’ll also need some patience to read through to the end of this blog posting to find out who the young man pictured above is!

Tuesday night the 5th Riesling Rendezvous conference in Seattle dissolved in a deep pool of wine, beer and cocktails after three days of Deep Immersion Riesling Group Therapy. From all the happy faces I saw I’d say that this was eminently successful and that enormous amounts of positive energy were exchanged between people from all points on Planet Riesling. Suddenly, the global Riesling community was no longer virtual, but real and the Riesling spirit of openness and mutual support (and criticism) was palpable. Dear Mr. Trump, Dear Mrs. Clinton, please note the remarkable possibilities this grape offers, and choose the true path of Riesling before it’s too late!

As at the previous four events many of the most exciting moments were the big surprises in the blind tastings of dry and sweeter Rieslings. This time the big winner was Canada, a Riesling producing nation with about 1,000 hectares / 2,500 acres of vineyards where the leading producers have recently made a leap forward in vineyard management and winemaking. A couple of the producers who’s wines shone – Cave Spring in Niagara/Ontario and Tantalus in Okanagan/British Columbia – were already known to many of the participants of Riesling Rendezvous. However, Martin’s Lane and Synchromesh both from the Okanagan/BC (and both in the tasting of off-dry and sweet Rieslings) were not well known and their wines also wowed the crowd. How they tamed some of the highest acidities of any wines out there and achieved a startling balance was a minor miracle. That is just another sign of the dynamism of the global Riesling community.

Then there was the 2015 Dry Riesling from Scriptorium, the very first vintage from Sean O’Keefe’s new project on the Old Mission Peninsula in Northwestern Michigan with its floral and exotic nose, and a great juiciness. That the wine was bottled just two weeks ago didn’t show at all. At the other end of that scale were several dry German wines from the 2014 vintage that were still very youthful and shy, like the Idig GG from Christmann in the Pfalz and the Morstein GG from Wittmann in Rheinhessen. They clearly needed more time to show their best, unlike the 2014 Kastanienbusch GG from Rebholz that wowed with aromas variously described as licorice and violets and prototypic raciness.

Although the reaction to the wines from the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York was not marked by quite the same degree of astonishment they also made quite an impact too. Just imagine being a young winemaker like Kelby Russell of Red Newt Cellars and finding that your new high-end dry Riesling – 2014 The Knoll, the second vintage of this wine – was placed between the 2014 Kellerberg Smaragd from F.X. Pichler and the 2013 Schütt Smaragd from Emmerich Knoll, two of the most famous dry Rieslings from the Wachau in Austria with track records going back decades. The amazing thing was that although The Knoll is built on a smaller scale than those muscular (but ravishingly beautiful) Über-Rieslings it easily held its own between them.  Although it’s placing at the beginning of the dry wines blind tasting was less challenging the 2014 Dry Riesling from Ravines also shone and had a harmony many people in the audience didn’t realize was possible in the Finger Lakes.

Does the last wine in a blind tasting have a psychological advantage due to its favorable position? Maybe, but that doesn’t alter the fact that at the dry Riesling blind tasting the 2012 Ürziger Würzgarten GG “Reserve” from Dr. Loosen had great succulence, elegance and vitality. For a number of colleagues I talked to this was the wine of the tasting.

The other thing that these events are great for are the astonishing discoveries that just drop out of the sky. This time that was Ryan Stirm of the Stirm Wine Co. in Santa Cruz, pictured above, who has just made some of the most striking new dry Rieslings in California. I say “striking”, because these wines were controversial due to their textural richness and rather supple acidity and 13.5% natural alcohol (in part due to high grape ripeness and in part due to malolcatic fermentation). Is this what dry Riesling should taste like? Clearly not for some people, but for me this is just another possibility within the expansive stylistic range of the Best White Wine on Earth. The 2015 Wirz Vineyard Old Vine Riesling (planted 1964) from Stirm is not yet released yet, watch out for it!

Many thanks once again to Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington State (the world’s largest Riesling producer) and Dr. Loosen of the Mosel for hosting this great event that combines seriousness with a dangerous amount of fun for everyone who attends!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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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