Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 4 – The Surprising HOW of AZ Wines (Believe Me, this Place isn’t all Desert)

The Big Problem with figuring out how Arizona can make exciting wines – scroll down to see how I became aware that it can do that – is the rigid stereotypes in my head, in our heads. The most obvious of those stereotypes is the one that says AZ is a rocky desert filled with cacti, and it is the most difficult of them all to overcome. You see, large chunks of AZ are rocky desert filled with cacti, and other parts would be if man hadn’t brought in huge quantities of irrigation water in order to grow the cities there. That fact only ingrained the stereotype more deeply. So the above photograph, poor in quality as it is, is essential to try and revise that deeply rooted perception. It shows the vehicles carrying the group of (all expenses paid) journalists I currently belong to fording a river in order to visit Caduceus Cellars’ Eliphante Vineyard, the largest of their sites in the Verde Valley of Northern Arizone. As you can see, there was enough water that the drivers needed to proceed cautiously, although it’s a long while since the last rainfall in this part of the state.

The fact is the landscapes and natural vegetation of AZ are way more diverse than outsiders imagine, and there are ecological niches were wine growing can function really well as long as some irrigation water is available. Annual rainfalls in these locations vary between about 8 and 20 inches, which is comparable to Eastern Washington State (a slightly cooler and distinctly less humid desert). Summer highs may go slightly over 100° F/40° C, but they go higher in Napa or Sonoma/CA, for example. The AZ wine growing climate has its foibles, most notably the danger of frost in April when the vines have just began growing after their winter dormancy, then the way later in the growing season the weather flips over from windy and dry to hot and humid. However, as a whole it isn’t nearly as extreme as most people imagine it to be.

The picture of the Eliphante Vineyard below serves to undermine the preconception amongst wine pros, that while AZ may make a few drinkable wines these belong in the world of small scale semi-hobby production that doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously by the mainstream wine media, somms, etc. The Eliphante Vineyard is around 30 acres/12 hectares in size and as you can see much of it isn’t old enough to give a crop yet. Owner Maynard James Keenan (yes, the rock star) has planted a slew of grape varieties here, many of which are Italian, on the basis that since Sangiovese does really well in AZ it’s worth taking a bet on others like Nebbiolo (from which Barolo, Barbaresco and many other high-end reds are made in Piemonte/Italy). That’s a risky policy, but he’s well aware of that. As he told me, “I’m not delusional. Nebbiolo could fail, because that’s been the broad trend around the world.” I seriously admire this serious daring.

No less striking is the hidden side of Keenan’s approach to cranking up the rapidly developing AZ wine industry that involves a lot of systematic thinking. He’s incredibly focused and has done a great deal of thinking to try and avoid wasting time, energy and money on going down dead ends that don’t lead to wines that are capable of exciting and surprising. His wild sense of humor and boundless self-confidence never seem to get in the way of the question that lies behind the complex strategy to put AZ wines on the map he’s developed over the last years. But more about the man later, let’s get back to the wines, which have been a font of surprises.

I would never have imagined that one of the wine categories in which AZ would shine is rosé, but the three (!) different rose´s that Caduceus Cellars produced in 2013 are conclusive proof of this. They’re anything but flimsy blushing maidens, rather they’re like the strong, loose women I imagine hanging around saloons in this part of the world more than a century before there was a state of Arizona (founded 1912). The picture below shows these three femme fatales, from left to right the ‘Marzo’, the ‘Lei Li’ and ‘GSM’. They taste as different as those colors look, too. The ‘Marzo’ is 100% Sangiovese and has the bright fruit and acidity I associate with this grape married to considerable power and a candied orange note. Anything but superficially charming the ‘Lei Li’ is 100% Nebbiolo and a big, warm non-fruity rosé that I struggled to adequately describe this unique wine. ‘GSM’, a blend of  the Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre grapes (hence the widely-used acronym for this combo), was more like a big meaty red wine, but had a freshness that enabled it to just about fit into the rosé category. $40 per bottle isn’t cheap, but these are big personalities like their maker.

So, even before we left the North of AZ on the four and a half hour drive that brought us to the utterly different world of wine growing here in the Southeast of the state a bunch of preconceptions had to be slammed into the trash can of useless ideas. That was an exciting process that continued yesterday afternoon and will proceed further today. The next posting may also take a little while as the program is pretty intense and many of my colleagues in the group have a lot of experience and ask the wine producers strings of probing questions. As astonishing as the best wines have been it has been tough to keep up with the pace. The effort has been more than worth while though, because here is what I call a Big Subject. I will return!

Posted in Home, STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL | Leave a comment

Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 2 – How AZ is About to Change the Way We Think about American Wine

Fully aware of the journalist’s saying that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, I must report that during a generous and rather tasty dinner last night at The Asylum Restaurant in the Jerome Grand Hotel I had a moment of revelation about #AZwine. In fact, there were two moments, one of which was directly the responsibility of Maynard James Kennan, the man pictured above, the second of which he was indirectly responsible for. You can look up more biographical information on this winemaker and rock musician on the internet than I can usefully give you here, so let’s go to the wines that convince me Arizona is about to change the way we think about American wine.

The first moment of revelation when I tasted the first white wine with dinner, the 2013 “Meskeoli” from Dos Cabezas Wine Works in Sonoita down in the southeast of the state, which managed to be simultaneously bold and richly expressive, but also cool and lively. The back label detailed a blend of grape varieties so crazy and complex that not only could I never have dreamed it up, but I can’t understand how anyone managed to get all those components to give a wine so precisely balanced and delicate in flavor. Amongst them was 15% of Riesling, that somehow seamlessly ran through the body of the wine like a silver thread. The majority of the blend was composed of Picpoul, Viognier, Roussanne, plus a splash each of Albarino, Muscat and Malvasia. I would place this wine firmly in the Mediterranean-type dry whites category, but I don’t know anything else in that category that comes close to this. Congratulations are due to Todd and Kelly Bostock for this delicious curveball of a wine!

They are good friends of Maynard’s and that was, I guess, as much the reason their wine being on the table as its inherent quality, but that is not the issue. I was far from being alone in singing its praises. The same could be said of the 2012 “Kitsuné” Sangiovese red from Maynard’s own Caduceus Cellars here in Jerome, a slightly eccentric corner of which is pictured above. American Sangiovese usually taste a bit tart, lean and rough, even when it manages to have 13.5% natural alcohol like this wine. There wasn’t a hint of that in this wine, also sourced from a vineyard in the far south of the state. Instead it had the ripest and brightest cherry aroma wrapped in a slew of dark aromas that ranged from violet to star anise. And I promise you all that I’m not the guy who normally writes descriptors like that. It was seriously tannic, but those dry tannins were wrapped in something that felt like velvet on my tongue, so that even at this young age the wine slipped down almost effortlessly while touching nerves I didn’t know American Sangiovese could reach.

Of course, dinner had been bought for us all and there’s no denying the intention of this on Maynard’s part was to impress us. Please dismiss all the above if you think the situation makes the impressions I gained invalid, but in that case you might have to permanently avoid this blog. You see, if I think that it helps me find out something valuable I am going to let a winemaker entertain me, and I will always bring my own attitude to that dinner table. I think that it is also significant that several other wines were served that were either very good but not mind-blowing, and one (the 2013 Dos Ladrones, a dry white from Caduceus Cellars made from a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Malvasia) that was technical spot on, but left me cold. That strike rate tells me that the best winemakers of this state are just getting into their stride. However, it already seems clear that the best wines of the future from here will not be pure varietal Cabernets, Merlots or Chardonnays, but will lie outside the current American Wine Box in which most of the nation is drinking. For #AZwine to be fully successful it will have to persuade some of them to drink outside that box with relish.

Posted in Gonzo, Home, STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL | 1 Comment

Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 1 – AZ Contradictions as Seen from the Gonzo Perspective (Part 2)

Of course, this is how many readers imagine my trip thru Arizona in search of unknown  Great American Wine, and, as you can gather from this photograph which I took on Highway 17 heading north from Phoenix to Jerome this afternoon, at least some of the time it looked exactly the way you expect. However, beforehand at the 6th Annual Festival at the Farm of the Arizona Wine Growers Association at Maya’s Farm in Phoenix, pictured below, it looked exactly the way you would imagine an al fresco wine tasting in California would. The wines were very different though, in fact they were very different from any other wines I’ve tasted from the Western side of the United States. Here the acidities are sometimes moderate, but rarely  too soft in the way they often are in California, and the best wines have a lively acidity that I found appealing rather than tart. I have to admit that the sample was a bit erratic, because I deliberately left out the wineries we’ll visit during the coming days, but I felt the pattern was rather clear. Only a couple of the wines – reds from low acid varieties like Grenache – were a little bit on the warm and broad side due to pronounced alcohol and lowish acidity.

This acidity was part of the explanation for several very good white wines I tasted, although none of the Rieslings were more than solid. The most delightfully surprising of these whites was the dry 2011 Chenin Blanc from Carlson Creek Vineyards close to Wilcox in the southeast of the state. It had attractive apple, pear and honeysuckle notes as well as a touch of what I call wet wool (a rather common aroma with this variety in my experience). Better still the wine was crisp and bright with a pronounced mineral freshness and the 13.5% wasn’t perceptible. A mineral flavor in a Chenin Blanc from Arizona! That was really a shocker in the most positive sense of that word.

No less striking was what the Pillsbury Wine Company in Cottonwood, a short drive south of Flagstaff, has done with a new white grape called Symphony during the last few years. The dry wine Sam Pillsbury made from it in 2012 was slightly reminiscent of a rich Gewürztraminer, but with more freshness and a great apricot aroma as well more spicy notes. In spite of 14.7% alcohol it was not heavy, finishing deliciously clean and fresh. The same winemaker’s 2013 “Sweet Lies” is also made from Symphony and the complex dried fruit aromas of that wine were stunning. If only it had a little more sweetness and a little less alcohol, then it would have a really satisfying balance and be a great sweet white, but in spite of that it didn’t have any alcoholic burn with 15%. That says how fundamentally right the combination of this location, this grape and this style are.

The drive north to Jerome was fascinating not just because of the frequently changing scenery, but also because the flow of no less fascinating stories from Maynard James Keenan of Caduceus Cellars, seen at the wheel in the above picture. Please be a little patient, because I’m still getting a grip on the multidimensional personality of this winemaker and musician in order to give you a story that doesn’t reduce him into a journalistic cardboard cutout. Here’s one of the phrase he uttered that I jotted down as sped across the dessert. “Rule one: be nice to other people. Rule two: don’t eat other people’s shit.” He meant it literally as well as metaphorically and saw no contradiction between those two rules. That’s Arizona at its best.

Posted in Gonzo, Home, STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL | 1 Comment

Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 1 – AZ Contradictions as seen from the Gonzo Perspective (Part 1)

Welcome to green Phoenix! 

Normally, I reckon that the ideal blog posting is about a Great Wine Personality unfamiliar to the majority of readers and the ideal picture at the top of that ideal story is a photograph of that Great Wine Personality. Measured against that ideal this first posting from my Gonzo #AZwine Adventure is a major flop, and this journalistic undertaking perhaps doomed to abject failure. Let’s face it, that kind of failure is not exactly an All American option. However, only the above image can adequately convey my sense of shock when the sun came up this morning at The Legacy Resort in Phoenix and the landscape became clearly visible, in contrast to being bathed in a dull glow of streetlight when I arrived last night. And I promise you, that I didn’t tweak the above image with Photoshop, by which I mean that this is not the Kim Kardashian of lawns! That’s how it actually looked.

On the way to breakfast at Maya’s Farm with Gonzo PR David Furer (the organizer of this   press trip) I passed the totally contrasting chunk of landscape seen above. Cacti like these can make it here in Pheonix without any irrigation, because they’re perfectly adapted to this desert environment, but my guess is that at this nursery they’re probably befitting from a little bit of extra water out of the pipe to grow them faster. Nearly all the water in this city comes from the Colorado River, which is the prime water source for about 40 million people in seven states here in the Southwest. Californian agriculture, including grape growing in the Central Valley for cheap branded wines, also depends upon this H2O. On my early morning run I passed the canal that brings this water to Phoenix, but also a street called East Desert Drive and a real estate development called Villas at Tuscany. When I got to Maya’s Farm, one of the last urban gardens that survived the Sunbelt Boom, I found the rows of some member of the cabbage family (some kind of kale?) pictured below. The combination of all these things with the hyper-real greenness of the lawns at The Legacy adds up to a pile of AZ contradictions that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

The question for me now is, of course, how wine fits into this landscape. How do vines adapt to these growing conditions? This morning at the Arizona Wine Growers Festival at the Farm, which is also at Maya’s, I will start figuring that out. During the excellent breakfast there – when did I last eat fried potatoes this early in the day?  - I heard that today temperatures will “only” go up into the lower 70s Fahrenheit today. However, the harvest here must have long finished (under much warmer conditions) and the contrast to the Big Freeze in most of the country is dramatic. Let’s face it, these are extreme growing conditions all the regular American stuff like those lawns is also extremely odd in this desert location.

 

Posted in Gonzo, Home, STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL | Leave a comment

New York Riesling Diary: Day One – Before My Gonzo AZ Wine Adventure

Which is the wrong wine direction, and how would you know that it’s “wrong”?

Promptly timed for my return to New York Wine City (NYWC) today the weather turned grey and wintry. It seems a bit early for that seasonal twist – for example, I remember how outrageously warm it was here on December 8th 2012 – but it doesn’t really bother me, because tomorrow evening I’ll be flying to one of the warmest places in the country for a five day Gonzo Wine Adventure. Let’s face it, here in NYWC almost nobody thinks about Arizona when it comes to wine. Seen from the perspective of this self-consciously cosmopolitan metropolis AZ is one of the wrong wine places. The fact that New Jersey also falls into this category, proves that AZ’s fate isn’t directly the result of its physical remoteness from NYWC. Instead, it has to do with the fact the wine growing regions, along with many other things in our world, is subject to hierarchical thinking. The somms, wine journalists, dealers and many consumers in NYWC, like everywhere else wine is drunk, have a mental A-list of wine growing regions that are cool, also a B-list of those that are OK, and also a C-list of those which don’t count and who’s wines rarely, if ever, get taken seriously.

The reason for AZ being firmly on the C-list is that so far nothing dramatic ever happened that lifted its wines out of the mist of obscurity and on to the B-list. I don’t even think the involvement of Maynard James Kennen of the band Tool has done more than raise a ripple, also because way too few people have tasted the wines from his Caduceus winery that won a bunch of prizes (including at the San Francisco International Wine Competition). To be frank I haven’t either. Then, there’s the cumulative effect of the daily TV and internet weather reports from Phoenix that suggest to many who aren’t familiar with AZ that the entire state is so fiery that the sun must burn every grape there to a cinder. The inability to think further than such simplistic assumptions is, of course, a fundamental human weakness. The problem with all this is that some NYWC wine pros simultaneously act in a way strongly influenced by those mental lists while promoting the virtues of wine democracy, that is of giving every wine the same chance on a level playing field. Of course, those positions are contradictory. But please don’t think that purpose of this message is to gripe about this situation (though that would be an understandable reaction). I’m observing all this, because it’s the background to the Gonzo Arizona Wine Adventure I’m about to depart upon. You need to know this in order to make full sense of what follows during the next days. WATCH THIS SPACE!

PS I rarely go on press trips, but this is one. My flights, accommodation and food will be paid for by a loose affiliation of Arizona wine producers which is being dubbed “A2Z”. Gonzo PR man David Furer has organized this press trip for them and his involvement is the reason I put aside my usual rejection of press trips and signed up. The list of other guests only seemed to confirm the rightness of this decision.

Posted in Home, STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL | Leave a comment

Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 17 – NO, this Blog Posting is NOT About Dentistry, it’s All About the 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

While the rest of Berlin was watching 7,000 balloons ascend poetically from the the line of the former Berlin Wall I was pulling my mouth open as far as I could for Gerhard Gneist, my dentist (pictured above in his Berlin-Wittenau surgery) to see the gaping hole left when a chunk of one of my dead teeth fell out a couple of hours earlier. Yes, bizarre as it may sound, we were celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, at least we were about to do so at the Kurpfalz Weinstuben in Berlin-Wilmersdorf, just off the Ku’damm (West Berlin’s main drag).

Gerhard and I go back a long way, in fact just a few days short of the twenty years that Berlin has been my base. At that point it was very difficult to find any dentist in the city willing to take on new patients and Gerhard was the only one I could get an appointment with. The timing for that first appointment was all wrong, because I had to go for my first appointment with him straight after a pretty serious wine tasting. As I sat down in the big white chair and he peered into my mouth I was sure he would smell alcohol. Then he asked me, “do you by any chance drink a lot of…tea, because there’s a brown stain on your teeth.” I explained to him that he was spot-on about that, but that he might also be able to smell the alcohol from the wine tasting. He admitted that he couldn’t, but was more of a beer drinker, which was logical since he comes from the beer city of Hamburg.

After that Gerhard did a lot of root canal treatment on me – I can still see all those needles going deep into my jaw! – that left me with the dead teeth. In return, I introduced him to German Riesling and the wine world, beer lost much of its appeal to him and bit by bit he built up a pretty serious wine cellar. Unfortunately, one of those dead teeth collapsed punctually for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was much less poetic than all those balloons. But as I said, NO, this blog is NOT about Dentistry, it’s about wine, so back to that celebration…

A dozen friends and I gathered in the Kurpfalz Weinstuben (one of the city’s best wine bars) last night to drink a string of wines from the 1989 vintage and a handful of other bottles that seemed desperately in need of having their corks removed by force. We only had one red, but thanks to the generosity of the Kurpfalz’s ruler Rainer Schultz, pictured above, it was 1989 Château Mouton Rothschild, one of the richest and most meaty wines of that vintage in Bordeaux. It also smelt like an entire pack of Hells Angels dressed in leathers; an aroma that will either turn you on or completely turn you off. “Thank you Rainer! That’s a beautiful wine!” exclaimed Vuk Karadzic, the Berlin photo-artist. “No, you’re the beauties!” Rainer retorted with great conviction.

From there we proceeded to the lighter Rieslings, of which the 1989 Wallufer Walkenberg Riesling Spätlese from J.B. Becker in the Rheingau was definitely the group’s favorite. It’s now almost dry and remarkably vigorous in flavor with dried apricot (the dark ones, not the bright orange stuff) and quince bread character. The trio of Riesling Auslese that followed were anything but light, but they made me completely forget my damned tooth. It was hard to believe that the 1989 Saarburger Rausch Riesling Auslese from Zilliken on the Saar was only the 8th best wine this producer made that year so amazingly fresh and floral did it smell, but the number 8 printed in bold type on the label left me in no doubt about that fact. “The wine is so wild, but so very elegant,” was the fitting comment of Frank Krüger from the Berlin wine merchant Wein & Glas. When it was young the intensity and brilliance of the 1989 Maximin Grünhäuser Herrenberg Riesling Auslese Nr. 137 were almost too breathtaking, but a quarter of a century of aging have turned those qualities into something  super-fine and super-erotic. It was hard to believe that the 1989 Scharzhofberger Riesling Auslese Gold Cap from Egon Müller could top that, but it did with its supernatural concentration of dried fruit aromas and a balance which turned that awesome power into something mere humans like us can savor and swoon about. The photo above shows Roy Metzdorf (right) of the Weinstein wine bar with that bottle.

Of course, the real world doesn’t go away when you open and share bottles of that kind, although sometimes, like last night, it feels as if it does for an hour or two. Today I had to fly down to Vienna and back to commentate a tasting of Blaufränkisch reds from the Eisenberg appellation in Burgenland, which was seriously exhausting day. Worse follows tomorrow though, because I have to go to Gerhard’s surgery for the second time during this stay in Berlin in order to get that tooth patched up, but as I said, NO, this blog is NOT about dentistry, it’s about the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

PS When I visited Gerhard Gneist for the treatment of that tooth I found out that it was actually still alive and I was therefore lucky not to have experienced some severe pain. 

 

Posted in Home, STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL | Leave a comment

Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 11 – Flowering Wine & Cheese Landscapes in and around Berlin

It’s a couple of years since I’d seen Sabine Denell of the Capriolenhof farm close to Fürstenberg about an hour’s drive north of Berlin, but it felt like we picked up our conversation where it left off just a day or two ago. At the Capriolenhof she and Hans-Peter Dill produce some of the best goats milk cheese in Germany and the world. My favorite is called Blühende Landschaften, or flowering landscapes, a quote from a famous speech by Helmut Kohl during the German reunification process. That’s what he promised the East Germans, but a quick comparison of the contemporary unemployment rates and average incomes in the East and West of Germany shows that on the macro-economic level the landscapes of the East failed to blossom. This wonderfully creamy and delicately flavored brick-shaped goat cheese topped with a sprig of lavender is therefore both a completely unexpected realization of Kohl’s promise in miniature (180 goats is tiny compared with the human population of Germany’s East) and an ironic comment upon the hollowness of that promise.

An important reason for the wonderful texture and flavors of the Capriolenhof cheeses the pair produce here is the 250 acres of heathland on which the goats graze. This landscape would lose it’s heather and the flora and fauna associated with it (it would turn into forest) if the goats didn’t graze it, so they perform an important ecological role. It was great to hear that their company has blossomed since our last contact, and to take home some cheese and find that it was even better than I remembered it. If anyone doubts that the Berlin area could have its own “terroir”, that is a taste of the place, then they should taste this amazing cheese.

That meeting took place at the third ‘Cheese Berlin’ fair in the Markthalle Neun, a late 19th century covered market that has become a focus for the rapidly developing regional food culture of Berlin. Although extremely spacious the place was packed out from the moment that doors opened at 11am on Sunday, and the crowd was dominated by young people. I had to choose a slightly quieter corner and then wait for a slightly quieter moment to get the shot above, which gives a good ides of the atmosphere. The exhibitors ranged from local producers like the Carpiolenhof to Berlin cheese merchants like Kippenbergs and Maitre Philippe & Filles, but there was also a strong international presence thanks primarily to Neal’s Yard in London. For more information see:

www.markthalleneun.de

www.ursulaheinzelmann.de

What made Sunday such a special day is that the ‘Weinbund’ association of Berlin wine merchants also held their annual public event jet around the corner, so that many people moved from one event to the other. This event really brought home how the city now has a string of the best wine merchants in the country. Here too, I think you can speak of a flowering landscape, and this too is a well-kept Berlin secret, at least outside Germany.

At the ‘Weinbund’s event I bumped into winemaker Jens Heinemeyer of Geisenheim in the Rheingau, pictured above. I’ve been following Jens’ progress for more than a quarter of a century and during this time he’s developed into one of Germany’s top producers of Pinot Noir red wines. This fact is not widely appreciated, also because Jens’ career didn’t develop in a neat linear fashion. Recently he created his own solo-label, Weingut Solveigs, having previously been part of the Johanninger team (a small group of winemakers marketing under one label). Jens doesn’t like the taste of new oak and he’s obsessed with the taste of good Pinot Noir. His most important winemaking tools are hygiene and patience. He takes the latter much more seriously than most of his colleagues, and the youngest wine he was showing was a 2009! His top wine is the ‘Present’ Pinot Noir from a single block of ancient vines in the Höllenberg site of Assmannshausen. The not very special 2006 vintage tasted very special indeed to me and you can still buy it from Paasburg’s in Berlin for Euro 35, which is moderate for top quality Pinot Noir at peak maturity.

Sadly, there’s too little time for me to tell you about all the winemakers, but I was very impressed by the wines shown by Matthias Adams of von Racknitz of Odernheim in the Nahe, Kurt Angerer of Langenfeld in the Kamtal/Austria,  Florain Fauth of Seehof in Westhofen in Rheinhessen and Anthony Hammond of the eponymous estate in Oestrich in the Rheingau. More on them another time!

 

Posted in Home, STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL | Leave a comment

Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 9 – Why I Will Continue to Shoot from the Hip

I humbly apologize for the enormous gap sine the last posting, but when I arrived in Berlin from Israel I was suffering from a viral infection that didn’t want to go away. In spite of this there was a very long “to do” list, not least preparing for moving STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL’s across the city yesterday. Thankfully, that went very well and this blog is now up and functioning in its new Berlin home. Here is the much delayed story on journalistic ethics that I promised my twitter followers a few days back. It’s theme is the liberty of the freelance journalist to shoot from the hip that I consider essential if really good writing is to be the goal (which it certainly is for me).

What is the right way for freelance journalists to work, behave, live? In recent years this was a question I don’t think much about, because many years ago I figured out what seemed right to me. However, an exchange on twitter the other day dragged me by the scruff of the neck back to this question. I decided that freelance wine journalists don’t need to be saints, but we do need to straight with our readers and to be fair to the winemakers who’s products we write about.

One obvious objection to this is, that although it sounds good this statement isn’t even close to being a clearly laid out code of practice. Principals, however strongly held, are always vaguer and more abstract than a written book of rules. But would an industry-wide code of practice really function in the rough and tumble of freelance journalism? I’m very skeptical about that for a bunch of reasons. The truth is that, with or without rules the world in which freelance journalists operate would continue to put good intentions and lofty principals to a severe test. It’s about as far removed as you can get from the lives of people with 9 to 5 jobs and regular paychecks, as long they follow the rules.  Sometimes it’s closer to navigating uncharted waters with a coastline as confusing as Norway’s, and I mean that in the moral sense too.

Nobody does that for many years without making a few compromises – I know I made some small ones that I hoped weren’t harmful (more about that below) – and a code of practice wouldn’t change that fundamentally. Actually, I fear that it would only encourage weak-willed journalists who sell stories and their souls for short-term profit to become more clandestine about their unsavory activities. The most important thing as a writer is to stick to your core values (and to write great stories, of course), and to my mind this is better than doing everything by the book, because that so easily gets reduced to going through the motions. Sure, the situation is different for major news publications that need books of rules to discourage corruption amongst their employees, but that’s one reason I remain a freelance journalist, in order to shoot from the hip.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m also completely convinced that readers are right to expect journalists to report what actually happened rather than make up their stories, or, worse still, dress up advertising as objective reporting. Most of us recoil from things that pretend to be something they’re not and rightly so. Modern history is full of that stuff. Any intelligent person ought to realize that although one end of this wedge is thin, it quickly becomes a lot thicker as you get farther down. If the subject is wine, merchant banking, football or the US President, the moral question remains the same.

In the front of my 2014 diary I wrote two quotes from Georg Orwell, the first of which describes most crucial issue I confront in my work everyday. “Journalism is printing what someone else doesn’t want printed. Everything else is Public Relations”.  Without the willingness to write things some people don’t want to see printed criticism becomes a hollow word. The second Orwell quote is about what happens to journalism when it loses touch with those core values and becomes subservient to unscrupulous people.  “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”

That is also the reason why a freelance journalist needs to have a considerable freedom of action, including sometimes doing the “wrong” thing. I loath and despise organized press trips on which all expenses are covered, not only because they encourage journalists to have a good time at someone else’s expense (that’s why we in the biz call them Junkets), but more importantly because they encourage the participating journalists to go home and all right the same lame tame story. However, a couple of the best stories I ever wrote were the result of my breaking my normal rule and going on press trips. Of course, I went on them with an attitude that was anything but devoted. One of those stories, so far untold in writing, will form the first chapter of my next book (codename WAM).

My impression is that those freelance wine journalists who have a reputation for moral straightness and independence of opinion rarely get bugged by the purveyors of wine products trying to more or less subtly buy their praise. Over the years you not only get a reputation, but also build up something like an aura. My aura sometimes make readers too reverential towards me, which bugs me, but it also frightens off those people with a lot of wine to sell who would be willing to pay to have me puff their products, and I’m extremely glad it has that effect. Hard to believe?

It has been suggested that the real solution would be if we all wine journalists and critics pay for the wine we taste, or declare the fact every time we didn’t. Sure, if the wine is, for example, Château Lafite Rothschild, that sip could be worth a significant amount of money, but mostly it lands in the spit bucket. Not only am I against the rigidity of this proposed rule and the creeping Moral Correctness that lurks behind it (MC is as bad as PC), but no media outlet that I know of would be willing to finance these costs. That would mean that my colleagues and I would have to finance it out of our own pockets, and in turn that would immediately and dramatically influence which wines we tasted. Sometimes wine producers refused to let me taste their products, so I went out and bought them to do that, but no way could I afford to do that for every wine I taste.

This leads me to the simple and painful truth that freelance wine journalists are rarely well paid. None of the publications I work for pays any of my research expenses and this blog earns me zero income. Perhaps it sounds like I’m complaining in order to gain your sympathy, but all I’m doing is introducing you to the economic realities of wine journalism, in case you’re not familiar with them. Let me give you an example. I just returned from two weeks of wine tasting in Israel, which cost me more than $3,000. That figure is so high because of the price of airline tickets to Israel, but also because no wine producer provided me with accommodation or invited me to a meal in a restaurant (although one wine merchant did, to say thanks for a favor I did for him). I will make a substantial loss on the article that I was commissioned to write about Israeli wine.

One of my core values is, that if a subject strikes me as being really important, then I must research it without regard to cost and effort, but no way could I afford to do apply that principle to every single article, column and blog posting I write. You can be sure though, that I will tell you if anything made me feel someone was trying to pushing me into writing something they wanted to see printed. And after 30 years as a journalist I’m all to familiar with how subtle and gentle that pushing can be. It comes with the territory through which I ride every day.

 

Posted in Gonzo, Home, STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL | 1 Comment

Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 0 – My Suitcase was Lost on the Way to Berlin from Israel, But I’ve still got a “Suitcase” of Dreams of Israel!

I only just got back to Germany after leaving Israel early this morning and am still a bit ragged from two flights and a long express train journey, the whole procedure made greatly more stressful by the fact that Pegasus Airlines lost my suitcase somewhere between Tel Aviv and Cologne. However, I’ve still got a “suitcase” of dreams of Israel with me on my computer. By that I mean a collection images of things and places that surprised so much they stopped me in my tracks, as well as those things I expected to find there like the palm and citrus trees, vineyards and olive groves, the beaches, mountains and between them the ancient ruins. You can look all the latter up on the internet and find many better photographs of them than I took during the last weeks, so there’s no point in showing you many of them (I’m making just a single exception below). I’m also leaving out all the things that I’ve already shown you in the blog postings headed “Israel Riesling Diary ” during the last two weeks. Instead, I decided to concentrate on the surprising Israel, because it normally gets so little attention in the West. Hence the following gallery of images, that I snapped up and when they suddenly grabbed me. Above and below are the sole wine images I have to offer in this category, and the contrast between them strikes me as saying something important about Israeli wine.

As this image, taken in the cellars  of one of Israel’s large Kosher wineries (all of Israel’s large wineries are Kosher) shows, the wine industry is one of many places place where the nation’s twin obsessions with profits and prophets meet.

Often Israel is many things at once that seem contradictory at first glance. I began wondering if – in the non-spatial sense – Israel is actually infinite. However, sometimes it was the simple things, like a plate of bread and salt, which touched me most.

History may not be everywhere in Israel as is sometimes claimed, but you certainly keep bumping into it, and repeated collisions with it drove home how what you see is always like a half-eaten slice of layer cake.

The contemporary reality of Israel is much more difficult to decipher than the past, because it isn’t divided up into neat portions (e.g. Roman, Crusader, Ottoman), and every time you think you’re beginning to make sense of it it knocks you off balance yet again.

Of course, you can’t avoid the military situation if you spend two weeks traveling around the country as I did. One side of this was talking to and hearing about young Israelis who served during the nation’s recent war with Hamas in Gaza, and the other was what I saw myself. Israel’s military strength struck me as being much greater than many of its older people realize, but the psychological price of its wars on its youth is also much  greater than they usually acknowledge.

Profound as they are, Israel’s conflicts tend to be over-emphacized by the international media, because they tend to ignore the peaceful coexistence of Arabs and Jews in many parts of the country. Experiencing that made me wonder if a federal Israel with autonomous Arab provinces might not be the best solution. Of course, this would require the laying down of arms and increased cooperation on the basis of mutual interest.

I hope that in an elliptical way this gallery and my picture captions give an idea of how wonderfully disorientating my experiences of Israel were, because a few images couldn’t do justice to the rich human diversity (Jewish, Arab and other) of the place.

One experience could never be captured in this way, also because photography is forbidden at Yad Vashem, the Memorial Museum to the victims of the Holocaust. The enormity of the historical fact and its continuing reverberations in our world also make that impossible. I felt an enormous sense of loss for the six million Jewish people murdered by a coalition of German Nazis and their brutal cohorts of many other nationalities. (Yad Vashem makes it easier to grasp these basic and terrible facts than any other Holocaust exhibit I’ve seen). I also came away with a much clearer impression of the indifference of the Allies who said some fine words when it suited their purposes, but always had a good reason not to actually do anything about this terrible crime. That makes, “learning from history,” an obligation rather than just a good idea.

 

Posted in Home, STUART PIGOTT RIESLING GLOBAL | 1 Comment

Israel Riesling Diary: Day 13 – “That’s Israel !”

Sometimes when I’m on the road visiting winemakers, tasting their wines and trying to make sense of the world into which those people and products fit I feel like an anthropologist. Every good anthropologist will tell you that in order to try and understand a foreign culture you need not only to be continuously observant and as aware as possible of the fact that other people see the world differently from yourself (and therefore act differently), but that you also need at least one good informant. An informant is a member of that foreign culture you’re studying, but she or he must be able to communicate easily with you. The help of such a person enormously increases the degree to which you can make sense of what you observe and avoid twisting it to fit in with your own way of seeing the world. Donna Gershowitz of Even Yehuda, a short drive north of Tel Aviv, was my Israel informant although she would probably say that all she did was play the tour guide for a few days.

Donna was indeed an excellent tour guide and spent quite a few days introducing me to various parts of Tel Aviv, the centre of contemporary Israel that is sometimes referred to by Israelis as “Sin City” and even “Sodom and Gomorrah”, and a number of important historical sites ranging from the Roman to the Crusader periods. Of course, neither of these sides of the country is sealed off from the other, there was some important history (roughly the half century prior to the foundation of Israel in 1948) in the Tel Aviv area, and those ancient sites were surrounded by contemporary Israel, in the foundation myth of which they play an important role. Even when she wasn’t intending to do so, Donna’s comments told me a great deal about the way this small but complex country and its extremely diverse people tick.

“That’s Israel!” she would say when something surprising (to me) or frustrating (for us) happened, and rather quickly I found myself saying those words alternately in wonder and annoyance. She also put me right on a couple of things that I failed to understand, because this is my first time here and “discovering” a country as vibrant and dynamic as this generates a certain euphoria that blinds you to certain negative things. For example, although I didn’t miss the arrogance of some Israelis (particularly men in the 30-50 age group), I failed to pick up on the cynical side of some Israelis.

Donna, who is a lawyer and emigrated to Israel from New York many years ago, also likes wine and took the role of driver for a bunch of my appointments with the leading Israeli winemakers. She found this experience much more interesting than she expected, and it opened her eyes to just how many-sided the wine industry is, even in Israel with its mere 5,500 hectares / 13,600 acres of vineyards. Although more a red wine drinker, during those days she figured out that there is a type of dry white wine that suits her very well (aromatic but not loud, medium-bodied with crisp acidity). I hope that in a small way I was able to give something back to her in this. How I can properly say thank you for her hospitality during much of my visit is another matter. That will take some thinking out. I’ll begin working on that during the plane and train to Berlin tomorrow, when I also hope to post a final episode of this Israel Riesling Diary.

Posted in Home | Leave a comment