Category Archives: Gonzo

Eppstein Wine Diary: Day 9 – READ THIS BOOK! Bianca Bosker’s CORK DORK is the Best and Most Innovative Wine Book of the 21st Century!

Cork Dork

Maybe this is the first time that the category’s existence been openly declared, but I have no doubt that something worthy of the name New Wine Journalism is out there and that it came into existence shortly after the last turn of the century. Anyone who thinks that these are yet more Alternative Facts should buy and read Bianca Bosker’s brilliant new book Cork Dork, for it is irrefutable proof that this is not bullshit.

Let me give you a brief introduction to the intoxicating nitty-gritty of the New Wine Journalism. It is never directly concerned with which wine of a particular type and/or vintage is the best and it never uses numerical or other ratings of the conventional kind, e.g. five star system. Instead, just as New York-based Bianca Bosker does in Cork Dork, it delves into the guts of the wine world and after the writer’s deep immersion in it she returns to what is oh so glibly referred to as the “normal world” to report on this strange and still largely unknown – to “regular folks” – other reality just around the corner.

Of course, the name I’ve given to this new category is deliberate plagiarism of the New Journalism that developed in America during the 1960s and flourished there during the 1970s. I’m claiming that this theft is fair game, because the proponents of the New Wine Journalism – let me be straight with you in case you didn’t guess, I’m one of them too – make liberal use of the tools that were developed by Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe & Co. Bianca Bosker does this with aplomb in Cork Dork, but these are far from being the only means she employs to explore widely differing aspects of obsession with wine, and how it changes those who befall this terrible infectious disease. By the way, as the story of her 18 month long deep immersion in wine unfolds she too develops all the symptoms and becomes a sufferer. That, more than anything else about Cork Dork, is truly gonzo!

One of things that makes Bianca Bosker’s book such a racy read and an impressive piece of journalism is the way her texts morph with each change of viewpoint, for example from her review of the science of olfaction (Chapter Four, The Brains) to how dinners are treated by the somms in top NYC restaurants (Chapter Five, The Magic Kingdom), then on to the hedonism of wealthy wine collectors (Chapter Six, The Orgy). As she flips with agility from one side of the wine world to another her writing style effortlessly changes to fit her new subject. As a result almost every chapter in the book can be read as a self-contained work with its own logic. In spite of that, each of them has one or more stunning surprise for you, like  the story of the scent of her grandmother in The Brains or that of “normal somm” Annie Truhlar of Virginia Beach, VA in The Trial (Chapter Ten). I didn’t see the end coming either. The things that holds the wild and fascinating human cocktail of Cork Dork together are Bianca Bosker’s sociological / anthropological approach to analyzing each individual and sub-culture she encounters, and the way she does so both with compassion for her subjects and an eagle eye for the absurdities of their lives.#

All this makes Cork Dork much funnier, more compelling and richer than any other work of New Wine Journalism I know (including my own Rock Stars of Wine America e-books). How, then, can I adequately describe it in a short review like this? The best I can do for you is to say that Cork Dork is the journalistic equivalent of a great 10 course tasting menu in one of the NYC restaurants Bianca Bosker investigated. Even if you have even only a little curiosity about wine her book will pull you along then suck you in, as it did to me.

Cork Dork is published in paperback by Penguin Books, New York and costs $17.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 8 – The Daring of Cornelia Heymann & Reinhard Löwenstein

Wine is not only an emotionally charged product, it is also a catalyst of emotions. You want to go one way and it leads you another, sometimes dragging you by the scruff of your neck while you kick and scream. On Saturday evening I’d planned to say completely different things to those I actually said, and it was the wines that forced my hand.

I was part of the annual wine Heymann-Löwenstein (H-L) dinner at the Weinstein wine bar in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin. It was there that I took the above photograph of H-L founder Cornelia Heymann which captures the serious side of this event. 8 dry H-L Rieslings of the 2012 vintage from different terroirs around Winningen, Terrassenmosel were poured. The H-L wines should be world famous not only because of their remarkable character, but also for being the original New-Old style Mosel Rieslings. They were the stylistic model for producers like Clemens Busch and Lubentiushof (also Terrasenmosel) along with Peter Lauer and van Volxem (Saar), just to name the most obvious examples. It was Cornelia Heymann and Reinhard Löwenstein, pictured below, who back in the early 1990s showed that Mosel wine could not only taste different to the “classic” wines with their light body and intense interplay of acidity and sweetness, but a dry yet richly textural style that was spicy and mineral-driven was not only possible, but exciting. None of this is widely appreciated internationally. For example, in New York Wine City (NYWC) Clemens Busch is presumed to be a rather new producer, although when I first met him in 1987 and his current style goes back to the 1999 vintage.

Perhaps the reason for this is that from the moment they founded H-L in 1980 until only a few years ago what Cornelia and Reinhard did was considered by the majority of Germany’s wine establishment to be incorrect. That was in spite of the fact that H-L had a cult following here, often topped blind tastings, and received some major foreign accolades such as the top prize in France for the best non-French wine. This, the way the wines tasted, and a small incident at the beginning of the evening when a guest asked Reinhard Löwenstein for analytical data – he was desperately trying to “make sense” of the wines rather than letting them make an impression upon him – made it necessary to incorrectly describe them to the guests.

There’s a bunch of things we can explain about terroir, such as how a high chalk content in the soil tends to make white wines that have a certain roundness, but in this there isn’t yet a scientific explanation for that. Knowledge and mystery go hand in hand, and in this case they not only get along really well with each other, they’re actually in love. That’s what 2012 Uhlen Blaufüsser Lay made me say. It is one of three very different dry Rieslings H-L produces each vintage from the Uhlen site of Winningen, the others being the Uhlen Laubach and the Uhlen Roth Lay. Each comes from terraced vineyards sitting on a different geological formation . The Uhlen Laubach is on chalk-rich slate (which is very rare) and has a round, almost creamy texture every year. The Uhlen Blaufüsser Lay is on hard blue slate, is the sleekest of the Uhlens in body and the coolest in aroma. Finally, there’s the Uhlen Roth Lay which is the most powerful and rich, but with an astringency that you either find taxing or enticing.

All of this is old hat to German H-L fans, but I’m guessing that for most readers in the English speaking world it’s all new. The 2012 Uhlen Roth Lay and the 2012 Röttgen – another site close to Winningen, one that gives wines with a tropical character (think durian!) – messed with my head in a pretty serious way, dragging memories of moments in movies that had made a deep impression upon me many years ago. The 2012 Röttgen reminded me of that scene in Dr. No, the first James Bond film, where Ursula Andress climbs out of the tropical surf in a white bikini with a big diver’s knife in her hand. Regardless of what you think of the scene, I don’t think anyone who saw it could forget it. The same applies to the moment in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet that the 2102 Uhlen Roth Lay reminded me of. I’m thinking of the one when the youngster played by Kyle MacLachlan emerges from the closet after having watched the strange tryst between the singer played by Isabella Rossellini and the gangster played by Dennis Hopper. When the youngster ends up in her arms, she tenderly asks him, “hit me.” Now that was definitely an incorrect way to describe those wines, but the wines wanted it that way and I did their bidding. Afterwards, it struck me that this was appropriate given the daring course that Cornelia Heymann and Reinhard Löwenstein have taken and continue to take.

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FLXtra: FOURTEENTH EDITION! – Winemaker Julia Hoyle and the Future FLX

IMP. NOTE: I only ever accept hospitality from wine producers on the basis that I will offer them equally generous hospitality at some point in return. I stayed with Julia Hoyle from June 20th thru July 16th and the most valuable thing she gave me during this time was her thoughts. This was definitely a piece of Gonzo research during which I got much closer to her than I do to the winemakers I only sit across the table from for a couple of hours, and without that the following wouldn’t have been possible.

THIS STORY is about a woman winemaker called Julia Hoyle of Geneva, FLX, but it is and is also not a story about women winemakers. Julia was in full agreement what I did when a couple of years back I turned down a well paid commission to write a story about women winemakers in Germany, saying to the editor of the magazine, “it’s not a story any more.” “Yes,” she said, “that’s how it should be. I’m a winemaker who happens to be a woman.” I’d written my first story on that subject almost 20 years earlier and after I’d done a handful of them I realized that a seriously large number of the best winemakers in Germany were women, and the situation was moving steadily in the direction of female/male parity.

It was a shock for me to discover that in the FLX and the US of Wine the position of women winemakers isn’t nearly as positive as in Europe, and I have quite often experienced openly sexist attitudes towards them that shocked me. However, while I as in the FLX this time I slowly realized how many women winemakers there were. The most notable of them is Nancy Irelan who founded Red Tail Ridge together with her husband Mike, but she is solely responsible for the winemaking. The across the board excellence of her wines certainly puts her in the first league of American winemakers. Slowly, the wine scene outside the region is waking up to the scale of her achievements and that she did all this from scratch in just 10 years.  During that time there’s been a big change for women winemakers in the FLX and Julia is part of that. The remarkable thing about this is that she is a native of Philadelphia, PA and comes from a family who had nothing to do with wine. She didn’t study winemaking and only got into it “accidentally”.

We were heading to a wine tasting in her car when she tole me that  she graduated from William Smith College in Geneva with a BA in Women’s Studies and French & Francophone Studies in 2011. “By that time I was already really interested in winemaking.” That radical change of course began with working part-time in the tasting room of Fox Run winery on the west bank of Seneca Lake from the fall of 2009. This situation lead to contact with Fox Run winemaker Peter Bell and his assistants, including Kelby Russell who she married in June 2014. Through talking and tasting with them wine got a hold of her on many levels.

“I just gently slid into it. My first harvest was 2012 at Fox Run. I’d just got back from my second long stay in Senegal in Western Africa and a few weeks in France on the way back. I worked a solid half of that harvest. Then in 2013 I worked the entire harvest at Atwater on the other side of Seneca Lake, and from December 2013 I began working some days for Dave Breeden, the winemaker at Sheldrake Point. That slowly turned into my current position as assistant winemaker there.”

Senegal might seem like an incidental aspect of this story, but her two long stays there made a deep impression on Julia and she talked at length about how very different the Senegalese culture is to mainstream America – “the spirits of the dead are so much more present there than they are here” – and the way French became her second language often and at length. My gut doesn’t lie, though it may sometimes accords certain things an exaggerated importance, but I don’t think that’s happening when I say that these experiences of another culture made it easier for her to step into the special society of winemakers and grape growers that is now a kind of home for her.

Dave Breeden has the reputation of being a complex guy, and it was no surprise the other day that when he told me about a tasting of the FLX winemakers group at which his tasting note for a particularly ugly Riesling read, “die, die, die!” It reminded me of how a quarter of century ago at a wine show I described another ugly wine as, “Rocky Horror Riesling Show!” Julia seems to take this side of his character in her stride, as few people do, the two of them have clearly become a really creative team and the wines of Sheldrake Point were never better than they are now as a result. Julia made the winery’s 2014 Pinot Noir Reserve alone and the result is a rather daring reinvention of one of the FLX’s few cult Pinots. I love the bold, but not aggressive dry tannins in this wine and the combination of ripe cherry fruit and earthy notes. Sure, the dry 2014 Muscat she made is a bit less exciting, but that wine is 100% Muscat Ottonel, and that is seriously challenging grape to make a varietal wine from due to it’s full muscat type aromas, but lowish acidity. I don’t know any exciting varietal wines from this grape either in FLX or on Planet Wine!

“The things that interest me are inherently challenging. I was really interested in figuring out how to describe wine. I’m also really interested in hands-on work, and love the fact that it’s never the same.” Without any evidence to support it some people in the FLX wine industry have suggested to me that Julia has ridden on her husband’s coattails, but all I heard and saw suggested this is people jumping to the old bullshit chauvinistic assumptions. That also makes me feel angry, because the fundamental issues of equality – regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, creed, etc – should all have been dealt with long ago. How did America fall back after the great progress achieved in those struggles during the 1960s and ’70s? There’s no time now to delve into that mire though.

“Every time we open a bottle of wine Kelby and I bounce ideas off each other. It doesn’t feel like work,” she told me and that’s also how it was when I watched her tasting wines with colleagues or she was tasting wine with me. She never hesitate to adopt a position that was contrary to mine or anyone, everyone else in the room. Or would you call describing the aromas of a sweet Riesling as being, “curry and chocolate” conventional? Even more importantly, she argues her case lucidly and confidently, but always has her antenna out to pick up things she didn’t spot or understand fully from colleagues.

For someone who never studied winemaking formally and came to it from right out of field left that’s quite something. Considering the fact that she’s only been in the FLX wine industry a few short years this is more remarkable. No wonder her talents are beginning to be recognized by the bright people in the region even though she is “only” an assistant winemaker. This all convinces me you will be hearing a lot more about Julia Hoyle during the coming years, and this will make hers an example that others will follow: other women, other young people with a non-wine background and non-wine education. It is they, no less than the locally born and formally trained winemakers, who will shape the Future FLX!

PS: The first photograph of Julia accompanying this posting was her own choice.



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Arizona Wine Diary: Day 8 – Unsung Winemaker Heroes of the South (Part 2)

Although it doesn’t look like it, this photograph of Todd Bostock of Dos Cabezas winery in Sonoita is missing something vitally important: Todd’s wife Kelly Bostock. I’d already left Sonoita for Tuscon with Todd late yesterday afternoon when I suddenly realized that I’d forgotten to get a photograph of Kelly, at least one in which her equally strong personality comes across as like Todd’s does in the picture above. My humble apologies to Kelly and to you the readers for this omission, because it skews this story somewhat as a result. You see, there are plenty of winemaking couples around Planet Wine, but Todd & Kelly Bostock really are shaping the Dos Cabezas wines and their marketing as a team, and that’s still rather rare in the conservative world of winemaking.

The only point where there really seems to be a division of roles in this partnership is the job of spokesperson for this two person “politburo”, which is something that Todd appears to do more of than Kelly. No doubt some of my colleagues would say that’s because he’s got the gift of the gab – he can talk very articulately at quite a pace for a seriously long time – however, his real gift is for finding a few words that vividly describe the most important things about Arizona’s rapidly developing wine industry, the extreme environments of Wilcox and Sonoita where the Bostocks’ vineyards are, and the remarkable Dos Cabezas wines. But sometimes what he said yesterday went way further even than that.

“All the beautiful stuff comes from the edge of disaster,” came just before we sat down for lunch yesterday after a tour of the Bostocks’s Sonoita vineyard. That made straightforward sense after what he’d told me about the problems the’d had with raccoons, deer and lightning. I mean in addition to the problems of frost, hail and rain discussed in yesterday’s blog posting. That means that winemakers either go under or they find creative ways to deal with this multidimensional adversity. And together the Bostocks’ have done that in way that leaves me breathless, but which a regular visitor to their beautiful tasting room in Sonoita will not necessarily get, that is unless they decide to ask the kind of questions I do.

The photo wall behind the bar of the Dos Cabezas tasting room is one good reason why some of them do ask those kind of questions. It not only shows aspects of the savage sublimity of this place that visitors might not get during their often brief visits to the area (this applies to me too), it also tells the Bostocks story in a way that takes you close to the edge where all that beautiful stuff happens, and it provokes visitors’ curiosity to find out much more than just how the remarkable Dos Cabezas wines taste. I guess that marketing people reading this will think to themselves, “that’s just using instagram for experiential marketing!” but if it is that, then it is a special experiential marketing that retains an unusual down to earthiness.

Meskeoli is the name of Kelly and Todd Bostocks’ main dry wine and some readers will remember me singling this out as the Riesling Innovation of the Year some months back. For those of you who missed that I should explain that the 2014 tastes a bit more of the Viognier grape (melon and a hint of apricot) than the 2013, but this grape accounts for just 25% of the blend, followed by 21% Roussanne, 19% Riesling, 17% Picpoul, 11% malvasia, 6% Albarino and 1% Muscat. From a New York Wine City (NYWC) or a CA somm perspective this is a mad, bad mix of grapes that shouldn’t add up to anything more than confusion, but the startling reality is that it adds up to way more than the sum of these parts. That strikes me as being the basic idea behind most of the good and exciting wines made in Arizona (that are often unconventional blends), but in this particular wine that principal is raised to the power of ten. Wines that give me strong personal associations are something I live for, and this one has a floral note that reminds me of the smell of the room where my grandmother used to dry flowers from her garden (for flower arranging), but it also has a grapefruit note that’s way more subtle than this aroma usually is in white wines (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc, Scheurebe). And the finish is seriously saline, which means the wine is intensely mineral, but also excites me because it reminds me of exploring rock pools on the coast of Cornwall, England as a child.

OK, Kelly and Todd Bostock’s Meskeoli isn’t the most elegant or subtle dry white on Planet Wine, but it is one of the most startling and expressive I can think of, and I’d rather have that than a polished but predictable taste any day, even if that polished taste is deemed “classic” by NYWC and CA somms. I also think it’s important to remember that the 2014 Meskeoli isn’t one year, and is therefore currently in a state of youthful exuberance. Todd told me he doesn’t think it will age, but I think this is because he almost only experiences it when it’s this young. My gut tells me it will also be great at 5 – 10 years of age, but probably I’m underestimating a marathon runner.

Like their leading colleagues in AZ, most of Kelly and Todd’s production is red wine, and not without good reason. None of those wines are aged less than two years until release, some of them three or more, so tasting the 2013 vintage wines was a lesson in science fiction, because the best of them aren’t even bottled yet. However, they are ready for bottling and that’s a great time to taste young reds. It’s plain to me from the cask samples I tasted that several of these wines, most notably the 2013 El Norte (a Grenache-based blend with a lot of richness, but also a great herbal-citric freshness) and the 2013 Aguileon (a powerful Tempranillo-based blend with aromas across the spectrum from black olive to pomegranate) are the best vintages of these wines to date. About the second of those wines Todd observed, “there was the wine we could have made to meet out production goal in terms of quantity, and there was the best wine we could blend from the barrels we had. Kelly was right that we had to make the latter.” I’d say that she was spot on, for this wine is going to make some of the people who have been talking down AZ wine sit up and take notice. Then there’s the 2012 Montana, a spectacular blended red that is as “crazy” and “right” as the Meskeoli, and is single the most exciting wine from Wilcox I tasted so far.

Yesterday evening I was inspired and enlightened by dinner at Pizzeria Bianco in Tuscon, but I feel that subject remands and deserves a posting all of its own with the title BEST PIZZA ON EARTH – The Chris Bianco Story. Please be patient! After that pizza, Todd and I wandered down East Congress Street to the Unplugged wine bar for a glass of 2013 Riesling Unplugged from Martin Tesch in the Nahe, Germany. That was like suddenly being beamed from one planet to another, but this is what wine in the 21st century is all about: connecting those dazzling aroma and flavor dots over vast physical and cultural distances. And, as you can see from the photo above, the pace has a special vibe. And it could only be in Tuscon, a city I immediately fell in love with. So, I have plenty of reasons to return, apart from the fact that I’m still not sure how I should best answer those tightly intertwining questions that popped into my head in the first of this series of postings about the Arizona wine industry. Give me more!

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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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