Arizona Wine Diary: Day 4 – Singer-Winemaker Maynard James Keenan, or Quo Vadis AZ Wine (Part 4)

No direction but to follow what you know,

No direction but a faith in her decision,

No direction but to never fight her flow,

No direction but to trust the final destination.

You’re a stranger ‘til she whispers you can stay.

You’re a stranger ‘til she whispers your journey’s over.

Weigh your worth before her majesty the Verde River.

From The Green Valley by Puscifer

I never suffer from that vile disease called writer’s block, and I therefore never sit in front of a piece of virtual or real paper blinded by its whiteness and haunted by my own emptiness. However, I do have occasional crises when I just can’t figure out how to make sense of all the material I’ve gathered during a major piece of research. That’s always a problem of fullness, of feeling that what I now know is so rich that there are a dozen, or even dozens of ways in which the story could be told. Then, I feel too feeble-minded to recognize the right direction my storytelling should take. Paralysis results, and that’s the state I was in yesterday evening sitting alone in front of my computer in this airstream trailer parked at Maynard James Keenan’s Merkin South vineyard in the Verde Valley of Northern Arizona.

I decided to give in and admit that I didn’t know which way to answer the two tightly intertwined questions I posed in the first of these blog postings. So, I switched off the computer, closed the analog notebooks, then removed some of the agricultural riches of this green valley from the fridge, and cooked them instead of stewing in my paralysis. And, because the fridge was full of half full bottles of wines from singer-winemaker Keenan’s Caduceus Cellars & Merkin Vineyards I pulled them out and “tasted” them again. By that I mean that as I blanched green beans and spinach, sautéed carrots and beetroot I  drank at least sip, and sometimes as much as a small, of each. Several of the young wines I’d tasted with Keenan during the lass days tasted much better than when I’d first tried them, most notably the 2013 Marzo red (Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon) and 2013 Marzo rosé, both of which were way more elegant than when those bottles were freshly opened, and the 2013 Agostina red (Mourvèdre) that had a great herbal freshness. That had surely comes from this cool site – it grows right next to the airstream down here in the valley bottom.

While I was doing that I went back in my mind over the intense conversation with Keenan I had yesterday afternoon at the tasting room of the Four Eight Wineworks (a cooperative winemaking facility where a handful of winemakers in orbit around the Singer-Winemaker make their wines) in the Old Town of Clarkdale. I can understand that the Singer-Winemaker is sparing with personal stuff when I’ve got my black notebook open on the table and I’m scribbling in it like crazy. That sight might be intimidating if you’ve had so-called journalists treat things you told them, including that detail called the truth, like an elastic band that can be pulled and twisted this way or that at will.

What he told me about growing up in small town Michigan and his later experiences in the sprawling Moloch of LA before coming out here to the colorfully alternative wilderness of Northern Arizona and his life here was low on directly expressed strong emotion, but in spite of that, paradoxically, the material piled up until I felt overwhelmed by it as if I was standing in front of the edifice of a great Gothic cathedral for the first time. And the emotions were there, like shadows cast by the sculptures decorating that elaborate edifice.

On the drive back to Merkin South Keenan’s vineyard manager Chris Thurner and I talked about his complex boss, and that piled the stack of impressions even higher. “You know at the beginning of each year he hands me a schedule that tells me where he’ll be each day of the year, in case I have to contact him,” Thurner said, deeply impressed by this herculean labor of planning.

Although Keenan and I had talked about music, that was all about the process of writing – as different as our writings are, we have much in common there – not what the life of a rock star is like. “And he has this complete other existence as part of Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer!” I threw out at Thurner.

“Yes, its amazing how he balances the two things, but during the harvest he’s totally here the entire time,” he replied, “I remember one night I arrived at the Jerome winery with a refridgerated truck full of grapes from the South at 1am and he jumped to the job of crushing them. At something like 2am he was busy cleaning the bins the grapes had come in with a high-pressure water cleaner.”

“I’ve done that job, so I know what it’s like,” I said, “he doesn’t need to do that does he?” “No he doesn’t,” Chris answered, “but he wants to.”

When I woke this morning the seriously dazed and confused feeling of yesterday evening was thankfully gone. I felt calm and steady as I went out for a run shortly before 8am and it was cooler than the previous days. As I wound my way through the valley catching glimpses of the wide Verde River below me I remembered some lines of the Puscifer song The Green Valley. Little by little, the conviction grew in me that I have no choice but to follow what I know even if it sometimes overwhelms me; no choice but to accept the flow of this story whichever way it turns; no choice but to trust in the final destination whatever it is. Because, only then will there be a chance that at some point I might cease to be a stranger in this strange land. Your majesty, I am Gonzo, and I am yours.

There are two versions of Puscifer’s The Green Valley

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Arizona Wine Diary: Day 2 – Singer-Winemaker Maynard James Keenan, or Quo Vadis AZ Wine (Part 3)

By 10:30am yesterday, the only hints of the huge electrical storm of the previous evening were a few wisps of white and grey cloud slowly dissolving into the azure above the Verde Valley.  That’s when the Maynard James Keenan and his vineyard manager Chris Thurner picked me up for a tour of the vineyards owned by Singer-Winermaker in Northern Arizona began. It ended up filling almost the entire day and wiped me out. What made the day so demanding was the thoroughness with which Keenan and Thurner presented the five vineyard sites, and how we tasted wines wines harvested in each during that tour.

The only problem with this situation, is that it makes me feel like a photographer challenged to capture a panoramic landscape of the kind that Arizona is so rich in into a conventional 3:4 format photograph. The only way to get close to that is to pull the zoom lens all the way out, so that it take in the widest possible field of view, then to select a section of the panorama that gives the best idea of the whole. How can I cram into a regular length blog posting all that I experienced and was said without dumbing it down? You see, over-simplification to the point of falsification is the commonest and worst mistakes of wine journalists, it isn’t an option for me. So I’m pulling my storytelling zoom lens out as far as it will go, and selecting moments that I hope give you a feeling for the whole ball of wax.

Let me start by pointing out that the photo above shows Keenan in his Merkin East vineyard site where the Caduceus Cellars Marzo red wine and rosé grow. It takes just one glance for it to demolish one of the commonest misnomers about wine growing in Arizona. This vast state is not a uniformly barren desert dotted with cacti, where the wine grape is destined to struggle hopelessly and ultimately to fail. Although barren reddish cliffs tower over the vines at Marzo if you look at the vines of the Tuscan Sangiovese grape variety (pictured below) instead of those rock faces, then you can immediately see why the Spanish christened this the Verde, or Green Valley.

Now we need to backtrack an hour to the more rocky and arid looking Elephante vineyard on a hilltop with gentle slopes overlooking the valley, which was first stop on the tour. In a few years will be the major source of grapes for Keenan’s Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards here in the north of the state, so it deserved particular attention. As we arrived at Elephante Keenan listed the major obstacles to success with wine growing in Arizona in order of importance beginning with the paradoxical Problem Numero Uno, “Frost kill in winter and frost damage to the young vine shoots in spring…we also get monsoons, strong winds and dust devils.”

Then he passed the baton to Thurner (pictured below) for an explanation of how they’re trying to deal with this slew of problems, and before he did so Thurner added a couple more to that list, for example, too much potassium in the soil, which can result in flabby wines lacking in freshness. However, Thurner has a calm confidence in his power of creative deduction, and with good reason. In just a couple of years he’s figured out a bunch of strategies for tending the Elephante vines that look like  partial or complete solutions to those problems. The proof of this is that except where frost killed them in winter, the young vines at Elephante looked like they’d made a good start in life. I can’t wait to taste the wines made from these grapes.

Although he professes to have little idea about vineyards, Keenan’s also had a couple of good ideas. “He’s so smart!” said Thurner, “He came up with the idea of funneling the rocks on the surface of the soil under the rows of vines where they can work as reservoirs for daytime heat during the cold nights.” “I’m so smart I can’t stand next to myself!” Keenan retorted ironically, hopping awkwardly aside and adding, “I only came up with that idea after spending a lot of money removing rocks from this vineyard!”

Wine growing maybe a science, but it isn’t rocket science, and you can never be sure that you’ve found the right solution to a problem, particularly in a situation like that in Arizona where there isn’t the experience of earlier generations of winegrowers to draw upon. Prohibition killed off the Arizona wine industry on January 1st 1915 when it was introduced in the young state (founded 1912).

Keenan hopped awkwardly, because he had major hip surgery on Monday, is currently walking with a stick (he will continue to do so for several more weeks), and has to wear support socks that give his feet a seriously odd appearance (see the photo below, and note the rocky soil of the Elephante Vineyard under his feet!) The day must have been far more of a challenge for him than it was for me, but he didn’t complain even when, quite late in the evening, he had to retreat to bed. That’s just the kind of determination I’ve come to expect from him.

The problem with the monsoon in Arizona – I’ve already experienced how rain here can be on a biblical scale, but that wasn’t the actual monsoon – is that this landscape, including the vineyards, can then flip over almost instantaneously from desert to jungle. As Keenan observed, “Every seed in this soil has evolved so that when a few drops of rain hit the soil it shoots up…like six feet!” Those are the kind of killer weeds no crop shakes off a confrontation with, but that applies particularly to the sensitive grape vine. And at the 30 acre Elephante vineyard Thurner cultivates 15 different grape varieties, each of which reacts differently to every change in conditions, therefore requiring individual care. That’s the demanding everyday task for this Master Gardener of the Wine Grape.

Last stop on the vineyard tour was the small Judith vineyard below the Bunker, as Keenan calls the complex that is both his home and houses the winemaking facility for Caduceus Cellars. The first time I saw this extreme terraced vineyard (pictured below), perching on a precipitous hillside on the edge of Jerome in November 2014 I thought, if this location doesn’t give great wines at some point, then I’m a complete idiot. However, turning the potential of a special vineyard like this into wines that blow people’s minds is a very major challenge.

As impressive as some of the first wines from the Judith vineyard were (the first vintage was 2007), they left wide open the question whether Keenan, Thurner and team could really crack that challenge. The fact that during the last few years all the vines growing on Judith’s terraces had to be pulled out and the vineyard planted a second time, because the original vines were attacked by the deadly Pierce’s disease, inevitably cast even greater doubt over the feasibility of this undertaking, making it seem way more daring, risky, and yes, downright crazy. I therefor expected it to take another 5-10 years to get a conclusive answer to that question.

Then, suddenly and completely unexpectedly, at the end of yesterday evening after a simple but delicious pasta dinner in the octagonal living room of Keenan’s house that answer gently flowed into my wine glass. From the moment that I first sniffed the 2013 Judith red made exclusively from the Tempranillo grape the delightful chill of discovery that crept over my whole body told me, that the Singer-Winemaker and his team had made a unique wine and it had me in its erotic grip. It combined the darkness of black olives with the intense perfume of the wild herbs on the hillsides around Jerome, and the freshness of the early morning air below Mingus Mountain. Delicious already, I feel sure that it has decades of life ahead of it, and I hope to report on it to you again many times. This all has a soundtrack and it is Puscifer’s gentle anthem to the power of teamwork, The Humbling River:

Thanks to Erika Smatana for the opening photograph.


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Arizona Wine Diary: Day 1 – Singer-Winemaker Maynard James Keenan, or Quo Vadis AZ Wine (Part 2)

Yes, I know, this is supposed to be a story about the Singer-Winemaker Maynard James Keenan, the wines he’s making in Arizona and the work he’s doing to move that state’s embryonic wine industry forward, and, of course the above photograph is of someone completely different. However, this isn’t just any old coffee guy, it’s Alan Bur Johnson, “Barista and Wine Slinger” in the tasting room of Caduceus Cellars in Jerome, Arizona the public address and retail outlet of Keenan’s wine operation. He demands and commands this space by virtue of the amazing coffee he prepared for me and my companions yesterday afternoon after our arrival. I promise you that I am not the wine critic for whom every bottle is either “awesome” or “disgusting”. At least on a good day, I am Mr. Nuance, and on top form I am Prof. Analyze. So, I mean it when I say that this really was the most delicious cup of coffee I’ve had in a long time, and as evidence to support my case that the Caduceus Tasting Room at 158 Main Street, Jerome is one of the best cafés in America I present this tantalizing photograph.

Have, I lost the thread of the story? No, I don’t think so, because while I was drinking that coffee Brian Sullivan, the Tasting Room Manager told me that he well remembers the first time in the early 1990s when Keenan came into the café he than ran in Jerome. He said that the availability of really good coffee might have been a major factor in the Singer-Winemaker’s decision to move here in (I think) 1995, rather than somewhere else in the Southwest. And I promise you that this was not a joke Brian was making, because Keenan is as fanatical about coffee as he is about wine!

Yesterday Kennan was on the road back to Jerome from a distant city where he had important business, so we were “on our own”, which actually means in the hands of the Caduceus Cellars vineyard manager Chris Thurner. I’m saving his story for when I write about the vineyards he tends as if they were gardens. I mention him them now, because I am staying in one of those vineyards during my time here in the north of Arizona, and exactly where I’m sleeping leads me to the trivial topic that has elbowed it’s way to the front of the queue in a rude manner. Please bear with me just a moment!

I’m talking about the airstream trailer pictured above in which I spent my first night here in the Verde Valley. Ever since I first saw ads for the airstream in American magazines (I think it was National Geographic) from the early 1960s I wanted to sleep in one of these things that I associate so much with the Space Race, John F. Kennedy’s glowing optimism and Marilyn Monroe’s voluptuous curves. All of this came back to me when I saw a small airstream in one of the Puscifer music videos staring Keenan, and when I first visited Jerome in November 2014 I was delighted to see it parked outside his house; “it’s real!” I’m now pleased to report that I slept extremely well in it, and that’s where I’m writing this blog posting. The door is open, the heavy electrical rainstorm of yesterday evening has passed, the early morning sun is streaming in, I can hear the water in the stream that runs through the property, the birds are singing and I’m drinking a cup of tea. More importantly, I feel confident that this will be an exciting day with Keenan, during which I will learn more about my host and his Great Arizona wine quest. Watch this space and while you are doing so listen to Puscifer’s Breathe, a song about needs and expectations:

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Arizona Wine Diary: Day 0 – Singer-Winemaker Maynard James Keenan, or Quo Vadis AZ Wine Industry? (Part 1)

I’m just about to jump on a plane to Phoenix and until June 13th will be reporting from the wine trail of Arizona. I am returning to the same places I visited for the first time six months ago. This second time anywhere is a crucial step, because then the charm of novelty has worn off and you start sinking into your subject’s world. At least, that’s the theory and the justification for considerable expense and effort.

 “I’m sorry, but I don’t know what Tool or Puscifer sound like,” I said to Maynard James Keenan, the singer of both those bands, dryly from the back seat of his all-black cop car as we drove me through his vineyards close to Wilcox, Arizona.  The Buhl Memorial Vineyard nestles on a dusty plain between the hills where the Apache warrior Geronimo hid from the US Army for decades, an achievement which I’d learned had deeply impressed the young Keenan. We’d been talking animatedly and the abrupt silence from the driver’s seat was deafening.

Earlier that day, Keenan had told me about the problems he has with stalkers around his home to the north in Jerome, AZ. “The one’s who you can see are crazy aren’t the problem, because you see them coming, “ he said, “the frightening ones are those that seem completely normal at first, who you only realize are stalkers when it’s already too late.” I’d just admitted to being an anti-stalker! Although he didn’t say so directly, when he started talking again, I could tell that Keenan was pleased with what I’d said. Had I won his trust? Maybe.

There’s a simple explanation for this odd situation. Because wine is my subject, when I accepted the invitation on that press trip to AZ back in November 2014 it was to see the state’s vineyards and taste its wines for the first time. In contrast to California, the established top dog of American wine that produces 90% of the nation’s wine – everything from the super-popular “Two-Buck-Chuck” to hyper-exclusive Screaming Eagle for a four-figure bottle price – Arizona’s wine industry is tiny and almost nobody in the American wine scene takes it seriously. This is a classic underdog story, and that was its appeal to me. Some days before I climbed on the plane to Phoenix the Dada PR man who organized this junket, David Furer of Austin Texas, explained to me that I’d soon be meeting Maynard James Keenan the winemaker of Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards who is also the figurehead of cult metal band Tool with a long-term solo-project called Puscifer, but my attitude was, “so what!” Normally, I do some prep for a trip like this, but I struggled to finish a couple of stories before leaving and didn’t even get around to the half hour of YouTube music videos I’d promised myself. A feeble excuses for a journalist, but par for the course if you’re the anti-stalker of a rock star!

Of course, at that moment in Keenan’s car I realized my unfamiliarity with his music had to end fast, because this was the last night of the AZ wine tour, and I couldn’t go home in the same state of ignorance I’d arrived in. So after he dropped me off at the Sheraton Hotel next to Tuscon airport the moment I got to my room I was on YouTube belatedly finding out what he sounds like. It immediately clicked that back in the 1990s I’d heard some Tool tunes, but never bothered to find out who the band was, because they didn’t excite me. It isn’t my sound today either, although some of the visuals are impressive. Do you need to like a piece of music or a wine in order to write about it? No, but being fascinated by it sure helps. Then, I listened to the Puscifer song Horizons, and from the first bars I was hooked. My first encounter with those darkly beautiful sounds in my Anywhere in America hotel room felt like destiny, and threw up two intertwined questions in my mind: How did this musical multiple-personality mutate into a winemaker in Arizona? And, could he succeed in realizing his goal of putting the state’s wine industry on a solid long-term footing?

I’d already realized that Keenan’s not just another face in the crowd of rock stars and movie stars making wine. Most of their products don’t taste great, and they often get trashed by the wine critics. Mick Hucknall’s Il Cantante red and dry white from his vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily are exceptions to this rule, and they only up how badly folks like Gérard Depardieu (grossly over-priced), Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie (totally boring) are playing the wine game. The difference is that they have professionals making those deeply unexciting wines for them, whereas Keenan is making the Caduceus and Merkin wines himself, and they’re not only very good, but they also taste distinctive. That’s even more of an achievement than good quality, because it’s much rarer. I was fascinated from the first sip.

I figured out all this, and a bunch of general stuff about the Arizona wine industry during that press trip, but a junket is a junket. By the time I’d heard Puscifer’s Horizons for the first time I knew that I must return at my own expense with my own itinerary and try to answer those questions.

There are two versions of Puscifer’s Horizons, and I am torn between them:

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 21 – Essex Street Market is 75!

Essex Street Market at 120 Essex Street in the Lower East Side (LES) is celebrating its 75th birthday, having opened back in 1940 when the LES was anything but cool. I bumped into it back in May 2012 shortly before my first lengthy stay in the city. Because the first place I lived in New York Wine City (NYWC), the “Hotel of Hope” on East 7th Street in the East Village, was just a few blocks north of Essex Street Market it became a regular shopping destination. Although my current abode in NYWC is 9 blocks yet further north and 3 blocks further west I still head back to Essex Market at regular intervals, because there are some great deals there, and also because I love the place.

Although plenty of gentrification has happened in the LES in recent years, and this has undeniably had some effect on Essex Market, the great thing about the place is that the mix of customers in terms of income groups, ethnicities (I belong to one of many minorities there), and background is great. A lot of Spanish is spoken inside and out on the street. This is definitely not a hipster enclave where only politically correct, biodynamic products are sold to people who are only there, because it is one of the places you’re supposed to shop for them. This is still the real world with all its contradictions and some all too human failings, and this means there’s no pressure of any kind to do the right things or disqualify yourself from membership of the tribe of the cool.

Yesterday, I purchased some vegetables at the stand pictured above. After three years of shopping here I just had to look up the name (Essex Farm Fruits & Vegetables)! I also had to look up the name of the fishmongers’ stand where I bought a piece of salmon (New Star Fish). In contrast, I learnt the name of the bakers Pain D’Avignon on my first visit, and by the second visit I realized that you have to get there early enough in the day if you want to be sure they aren’t sold out of the loaf you want. Yesterday, it was the whole wheat sourdough and I got one!

Cheese is one of the highlights of Essex Market, because there are two excellent purveyors with contrasting ranges. At Saxelby you find only cheeses from the Northeast and even those of them that you can easily pick up elsewhere like the Cabot Cheddar tastes much better from Saxelby than places like Whole Foods. My guess is that Saxelby get first pick in the Cabot aging cellar in the same way that Neal’s Yard of London do of the superb Montgomery Cheddar. This stand in Essex Market is where my journey of cheese discovery in this part of the US began and continues. If only there was a stand that sells the wines of the Northeast with the same commitment to quality and individuality as Saxelby has for cheese!

Pictured above is Andrew Clark of Formaggio Kitchen with his superb range of imported French, Italian and British cheeses. This tiny store at the rear of the building, just a couple of doors down from the even smaller Pain D’Avignon booth, also has a terrific selection of charcuterie, pasta, olive oils, and, and, and. I guess that it’s fair to say this is the “fancy” end of Essex Market, but every time I compared prices Formaggio beat the grocery stores closer to my NYWC home just off Union Square, sometimes by a wide margin. Yesterday, I bought some cheese, oatcakes and date and walnut cake from Andrew as emergency supplies for my trip to Arizona that begins tomorrow. I will, of course, be reporting in full. Wish me luck!




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New York Riesling Diary: Day 18 – Downtime on Fire Island, or What Journalistic Independence Really Means

I spent an oddly wonderful weekend on the construction site on Fire Island, New York pictured above. I’d not only never been to Fire Island, a long sandbar off the southern coast of Long Island before, in fact, I didn’t know where to look for it on the map, much less did I realize what a “special” place this is. Although it’s so close to the Hamptons where the lawns are wide and consumption is expansively conspicuous, Fire Island is packed tight with (mostly wooden) cottages and consumption is discretely inconspicuous. This is a delightfully leafy retreat with some of the most beautiful gardens I’ve seen in the US, and some of the highest grocery and wine prices too.

Maybe that sounds a bit griping, but I promise you I felt very much at home in what struck me as the Carmel of New York State. I just wish I could have done more to help my friends Jenn and Don’s with their construction project, but it was very heavy work to which my upper body musculature is not well suited. Instead, I helped cook, washed up dishes, cleaned floors, went to the store for missing ingredients and helped manage the trash. I also had a good look around the island on foot and bicycle. When I mentally blotted out the row of immediately beachside houses on wooden stilts (out of frame, below picture right), then the beach reminded me very much of Margaret River in Western Australia. There too a strip of sand that looks as straight as a laser beam extends as far as the eye can see in both directions and in front of it is water as far as the eye can see; in Margaret River it’s the Indian Ocean, on Fire Island it’s the Atlantic.

Of course, nothing in this world is as straight or as logical as it seems at first glance. During the last week I had tweeted a bunch of stuff about journalistic integrity, and while I was doing all those chores for Jenn and Don, and they were doing all that heavy lifting, I got to doing some long slow thinking about all those things and the stuff I’d written about them. The first thing that struck me is how there’s a fine line between having positive journalistic principals and becoming obsessively moralistic about those same things. Where does the point lie where the courageous adherence to journalistic independence, honesty about your methods and results, and the strict avoidance of undeclared agendas  tip over into rigidly demanding the adherence to rules instead of cultivating inner strength and a self-righteous sense of one’s own integrity that starts denigrating others who work well in a different way to yourself? There certainly is a place where one ends and the other begins, and I may have have stepped over it at some point.

Was it the calm of the car-less (except for police and fire dept.) island, that is as far removed from the hustle of NYC as you can imagine that lead my mind ever onward into this mental territory, or was it just the simple nature of the tasks that I was doing that gave my mind the space to wander? Maybe it was both, but regardless of the explanation, I feel the results are worth sharing, because this is talked about so little about. Firstly, I always admired the commitment of certain American publications to journalistic independence – the New York Times immediately comes to mind, but my practical introduction to it was at the Wine Spectator for which I was a freelancer from ’86 thru ’96 – and this is still an ideal for me. However, since 9/11 not one newspaper, magazine or website that employed me with any regularity was committed to covering the expenses of my research. They all expected me to solve that problem by myself, and it wasn’t very long until that situation was something also I took for granted. In Germany, where the majority of my journalistic work is still published, this was situation was and is considered normal. Very few freelance colleagues enjoy real support from their employers with the burden of their legitimate expenses, and this influences the way they work, can afford to work.

With rare exceptions, for 15 years I paid them myself as far as I could, and those costs were often substantial. For example, a month in Japan back in 2007 cost me around $10,000. In fall 2014 I was in Israel for two weeks, a trip that cost me about $5,000. In both instances, I accepted no kind of financial assistance from any wine producer or any regional/national promotion board. The modest amount of hospitality I accepted from wine producers never extended to a room for the night or a lavish meal. (To be frank about my methods, although I rarely go on all-expenses paid press trips, I sometimes accepted hospitality from producers on the basis that I would return this when they come to one of my home cities). The vital difference between these two examples, is that back in 2007 I had a publisher who paid generous advances for books packed with daring reporting. Since the financial crash advances of that kind for this kind of material have all but disappeared, so the Israel trip was much more difficult for me to afford than that to Japan although only half the cost in absolute terms.

I write all this not to win your sympathy, but to point out the realities of much contemporary journalism. I am lucky to often be better paid than many of my colleagues, and if some of them accept more assistance from wine producers or promotional bodies, than I ever consider acceptable, this often has something to do with them having a lower income than I do. I am not handing out some kind of blanket excuse for freeloading to all wine journalists, much less all journalists, I’m  just saying that this job is rarely well paid, and when it is badly paid this inevitably exerts serious pressure on those affected.

Now, it’s time for full disclosure: on Fire Island, I accepted a bed for the night from a wonderful little old (sorry, I mean this in the nicest possible way!) lady from Brooklyn called Oona who spends most of the summer out there and knows the place better than anyone else I encountered. It was a great pleasure listening to her stories told with a broad Irish accent. All of this had a lot to do with the high spirits at the lobster fest Jenn and Don served us on Saturday night. As you can see in the above picture, Don cut up the lobsters on his surf board at the edge of the deck where we ate. Oona drank an impressive amount of whisky and was in top form; I was on wine of  non-fancy kinds and forgot a lot of the minor troubles I too often let bother me.

During the night in one of Oona’s guest rooms I woke and lay there listening to the waves of the Atlantic on the nearby beach. All of the stuff I’d been thinking about during the day went through my mind again, and I came to the conclusion that journalists who were lucky enough to spend their entire working lives employed by publications that pick up their expenses must have a hard job understanding what the life of the freelancer employed without expenses (the juggling act between avoiding bankruptcy and maintaining some kind of journalistic independence), just as those freelancers must find it tough comprehending what journalism is like with the safety net of paid expenses and the strict codes of conduct that comes with that. The hard fact of this journalistic age, is that the latter situation is fast becoming an island of old-style professionalism in a sea of badly-paid advertorial and internet (dis)-information. That is something readers and journalists alike need to face up to, before the endangered species called the “free press” becomes extinct. We get the journalism we are willing to pay for and deserve, also the wine journalism we are willing to pay for and deserve.

The train I wanted to take back to NYC Sunday afternoon wasn’t running because of some technical problems, so I was forced to take a shuttle bus, which got caught in the massive thunderstorm that afternoon and evening, and the resulting gridlock on the Upper East Side. I don’t believe in omens, but it was difficult and slow – plenty of “down time” – getting back to my desk, my deadlines and the expenses I shoulder myself.

PS Many thanks Jenn, Don and Oona for your hospitality!


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New York Riesling Diary: Day 14 – The New Hugel

Maison Hugel of Riquewihr long seemed like the bastion of tradition in Alsace/France, but last night at the tasting dinner they and their US importer Frederick Wildman staged at Zuma Restaurant at 261 Madison Avenue that image cracked, dissolved and began to coalesce in an entirely new form. The agent of this metamorphosis from old to new was Jean Frédéric, 27, son of Etienne Hugel, the Hugel brother in charge of marketing. Two points need to be stressed here to prevent the wrong impression being given: 1) this is a genuine metamorphosis in which the same creature changes from one form to another, 2) it is still in progress.

Jean Frédéric likes saying some radical things like, “the biggest drama of Alsace is that we’re losing our style. 20 years ago people knew they would get a dry Riesling, a dry Pinot Gris an a food friendly Gewürz, but now there are too many easy-drinking sweet wines. This is a terrible mistake.” However, they are all deeply rooted in what it’s fashionable to call the brand DNA. I use this expression, but Jean Frédéric said, “I prefer to say family than brand, because it’s been a family company since 1639.” “You don’t look that old!” somebody heckled. “We’re all getting older!” he quipped back. That’s the sense of humor he displayed all evening, but that joke doesn’t alter the fact that some serious rejuvenation isn’t happening to the Hugel wines and some aspects of the way they are marketed.

One of the biggest changes Hugel are making became apparent when one of the first wines was poured, the 2012 Pinot Gris Classic showed. I could describe the label which features a Ralph Steadman cartoon of an Alsace winegrower in tradition costume (now rarely seen), but it makes way more sense to who it to you, see above. Superficially, the only thing the new Hugel label has in common with the old one is the yellow background color and the company name in that very distinctive red script. However, when the old label was introduced back in 1921 it embodied the very latest thinking in brand marketing, and was based upon the design of the Maggi spicy cooking condiment; a huge brand at the time. Maggi had conducted modern-style consumer testing of alternate designs and found that a red brand name on a yellow background was most easily recognized by them. A member of the Hugel family who worked for Maggi for  a while brought that discovery with him to Riquewihr. Now they are taking a similarly radical step for their Classic range of varietal wines, which will all switch to the label above. By the way, that Pinot Gris is a delicious wine, with the richness and suppleness of the variety when the grapes are picked ripe (and the vines weren’t over-cropped), but properly dry and clean.

It made complete sense staging the tasting at Zuma, because the Asian-fusion cuisine matched the dry Hugel whites beautifully. The excellent sushi and sashimi really lit up the 2013 Riesling Classic, that had seemed a little sullen (too young) when first poured. As you can see from the above image, the affinity of their wines for this kind of food is a card that Hugel is now playing big time and with some panache. No doubt this also aligns with Jean Frédéric’s personal taste, for otherwise he couldn’t have spoken with such enthusiasm about this subject. And this is by no means the end of this story. At the end of the summer Hugel will launch their first wine with a Grand Cru vineyard designation on the label, the 2007 Riesling Grand Cru Schoenenbourg. Watch this space!

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 13 – 55 and Still Alive / Frappato, Egon Müller Riesling & American Grooner

Yes, that crazy color is very real!

This picture was taken with the iPhone of the Special Person who generously took me out to dinner at Gramercy Tavern at 42 East 20th Street last night. The wine in that glass was my 55th birthday party, and I promise you the color has not been tweaked, altered or paint-shopped in any way. The 2013 Frappato from Manenti in Sicily, a producer I’d never heard of before, and the first wine from the Frappato grape that ever lit my fire. I know I was quite intoxicated by that point, but I remember saying, “this tastes better than any Beaujolais I ever drank!” You see, I love well-made Beaujolais, but this was just drop-dead delicious.

It was a great meal with many memorable courses, most notably the Thai-style spicy scallops and the pea, asparagus and garlic soup. For a restaurant that draws this many non-foodies, they both packed an uncompromising punch of flavor. In contrast, the 2008 Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett from Egon Müller on the Saar/Germany was about as subtle and delicate as wine gets, period. In spite of that, it held its own against the full-on intensity of those dishes, which proved again how Riesling with a few years of aging on its back is one of the world’s great food wines. Of course, that’s no news to regular readers of this blog.

Another grape I find inspiring is Grüner Veltliner, aka Grooner. Austria’s most important indigenous grape variety (almost 30% of the total vineyard area) has only been in commercial production in the US since 2005, and when a colleague told me she was writing a big article about the grape and wanted to taste a range of American Grooners this proved me into action. Yesterday afternoon the First US Grooner Tasting took place at Aldo Sohm Wine Bar on at 151West 51st Street, and it gave all who attended plenty to think about. As one of the tasters observed at the end of the tasting, a work-in-progress like this group of wines is much more challenging to make sense of than a well-behaved group of wines of an established category, precisely because there are no lines marking out the playing field.

Tasting the seriously dry, aromatically and texturally complex Sohm & Kracher Grooners from the Waldviertel/Austria was a great introduction for the American wines. Aldo Sohm, pictured above, concisely analyzed how his and Gerhard Kracher’s wines tick, I learnt a bunch about Austrian Grooner, and along the way found out that most white burgundies are fined and the winemakers are convinced this makes them taste better. That’s exactly the opposite of what the Great Burgundy Wine Myth says!

Graham Tatomer of Tatomer Wines in Santa Maria/California not only made the most    exciting American wines in the tasting – I particularly loved his fresh and fleshy 2013 Paragon Vineyard  - but also said some important things, no least, “One of the big draws, why we are planting so much Grüner Veltliner in the US, outside Austria, is that it has at least as great a range of styles as Chardonnay.” This very well described the dozen American wines which went from the Sauvignon-like freshness and vitality of the 2014 from Dr. Frank in the Finger Lakes/NY (12% alcohol) to the peachy and floral richness of the 2013 Steiner Vineyard from Carlisle Winery in Windsor, Sonoma County/CA (14.1% alcohol, but not directly perceptible). Who thinks of Grooner when they think of Oregon wines? Almost nobody, because of what I call the Pinot Fog (plantings of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris dominate the state’s vineyards). However, the 2014 from Chehalem in Newberg in the Willamette Valley has a great nose of herbs, white fruits and lemon, was succulent and very bright. I never tasted an Oregon Pinot Gris that good! Most surprising of all were the concentrated and still embryonic 2014s – Stone Cellar and Stone Cellar Reserve – from Galen Glen in Andreas/PA. Yes, Pennsylvania makes serious Grooner, and Galen Glen makes serious Riesling there too!

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 9 – Proud to be a Small Cog in the Great Machine that is SUGAR AND SWEETS!

I just received my copy of  The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, edited by Darra Goldstein, one of the world’s best food writers. I received it, because I was one of the 265 experts who contributed to this comprehensive introduction to all things sweet. I wrote just two of the roughly 600 articles accommodated in the almost 900 pages. It was a serious challenge to condense the enormous diversity of sweet wines and sweet fortified wines to just a few pages, that explained how they are made and put them in the wider context of sweet beverages and foods, historic and contemporary. I hope very much that taking a very logical approach to this (the different wines are arranged by production method) enabled me to find a good solution for readers unfamiliar with these technicalities. Since unpacking the book I’ve been enjoying reading what my colleagues wrote about all things sweet. Although I’d already read quite widely on this subject, I’ve been learning so much it feels like I’ve just arrived in a new world of taste. That strikes me as a very positive sign, and I recommend this standard work to you if you are fascinated by sweet things, because it is so much more colorful and readable than most such tomes are. As the title say, I’m proud to be a small cog in the great machine that is Sugar and Sweets!

Here is one place that you can buy Sugar and Sweets for less than $50. It’s also available as a Kindle e-book:

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 7 – A Tale of Two Wine Cities

Everyone has their blind spots, including me, and some of them are the product of the town you live in, as something that happened yesterday afternoon here in NYWC (New York Wine City) reminded me. It wasn’t the first time this has happened, and each time what happened was almost identical. That’s what convinces me that the story needs to be told here.

Yesterday, I met up with a friend in the NYWC industry for a glass of wine, and as we parted she told me that the wine she was lugging around in a rucksack was Chablis; a famous French wine that stands for dry white wine elegance, at a price! I told her how in my other home city of Berlin (pictured above) it’s really difficult to find top class Chablis, and that if you do the price is even higher, way higher than in NYWC. She found that very hard to believe, so to back up my argument I told her that the entire allocation for Germany from of the most famous Chablis producers is about the same quantity as just one top restaurant in NYWC buys of those wines each year from the local distributor!

The truth is that most top class Chablis goes to Paris or New York, and elsewhere this famous kind of French dry white wine elegance is spread pretty thin on the ground. The extreme shortness of supply of those wines in Berlin allows the one completely reliable source, the KaDeWe department store, to charge high prices that nobody in NYWC would pay. My friend still seemed unconvinced.

Why? Because the assumptions of our home town are deeply ingrained and get reinforced by daily contact with other people who are equally afflicted by them. The worst NYWC assumption is that everything on Planet Wine that’s any good must inevitably be obtainable here. The complete lack of distribution for many of Germany’s Jungwinzer, or young winemakers, is just one example of an NYWC blind spot. The other assumption that’s endemic to this city’s wine scene is that what is available here must also be available in all the other sophisticated cities around Planet Wine, which the example of top class Chablis reveals to be far removed from the truth. Sadly, as I told me friend I really like to drink Chablis, but only the top class stuff.

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