Monday, September 28, 2015

America's Next Top Somm!

“Good evening, and welcome to America’s Next Top Somm Live! Here’s your host, Larry Anosmia MS!”


“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Tonight is the season finale to America’s Next Top Somm. One of our finalists will be named America’s Top Somm. He or she will receive $25,000, and a prestigious contract with Jackson Family Estates, our generous sponsor. Yes, that’s Jackson Family Estates—Where People with Important Wine Credentials Go to Die™. And now let’s meet the judges!”

(The three chairs onstage, each in the shape of a giant tastevin, revolve to reveal the three judges, to a thunderous ovation.)

“First, he’s often referred to as America’s greatest chef, mainly because it’s one of his job requirements. Known for underpaying sommeliers because he knows they want his name on their resumés, he’s a hero to restaurant owners everywhere, it’s Thomas Keller!” (Applause) “How are you, Thomas? Are you ready to go?”

“I am Larry! I’m kinda choked up. I can hardly breathe. I feel like a force-fed goose that will make amazing foie gras! I’ve sold so much foie gras, Larry, I have a three-car gavage.” (Laughter, and applause)

“Classic, Thomas! Our next judge is the publisher of the world’s most influential wine magazine, and something of an overstuffed goose himself!” (Laughter) “Each year, his magazine allows restaurants all over the world to pay him to declare their wine lists excellent. They’re not called the ‘Grand Awards’ because they’re cheap! Let’s hear it for Mahvelous Marvin Shanken!” (Applause) “Marvin! Ready to do this?”

“I’m so excited to be here, Larry. I’ve never done a show like this before. I feel like Mark Cuban cigar!” (Laughter) “Put me in your mouth and smoke me!” (Applause)

“I would, Marvin, but I’m trying to quit. It’s how I got my MS. Though I’m thinking Thomas might! Or our third and final judge might, too. She’s famous for being famous; the perfect judge for America’s Top Somm because she understands and embodies Narcissism, Kim Kardashian!” (Applause) “Kim, are you ready?”

“I’m ready, Larry. Oh, and Marvin, I don’t know about cigars, but I’m big on butts! Mine can disgorge Champagne!” (Laughter, as she demonstrates it.)

“I’ve got news for you, Kim, you’re the third biggest ass on this panel!” (Laughter)

“OK, judges, over the past weeks you’ve narrowed the field for America’s Next Top Somm down to three. Tonight, those three sommeliers will compete for your votes, and for the votes of our live television audience out there! Those of you watching at home will be able to vote for your favorite somm at the end of the broadcast. Your votes will count! And we’ll crown America’s Next Top Somm at the end of tomorrow's show. The winner gets a check for $25,000, a job with Jackson Family Wines, and, listen to this, their very own MS!” (Cheers, and applause) “Yes, Master Sommelier—the Myspace of Wine Diplomas.”

“Our first sommelier is from Las Vegas, Nevada, where she runs the wine program for Las Vegas’ hottest steakhouse, Meat Compass. Let’s hear it for Annie Oakchips!” (Applause) “Annie, tell the judges, and the audience out there, what you’re going to do for us tonight.”

“Well, Larry, I’m going to identify all six of the wines in these glasses in front of me blind.” (Audience gasps) “In sixty seconds.” (Applause) “While you grope me!” (Cheers!)

“Wow. So, Annie, this simulates what it’s like for you to work in a Las Vegas restaurant, is that right?”

“Not just Las Vegas, Larry! I’m a woman!”

“OK. Are you ready? Let me get behind you. Now, when I say, ‘Start the clock,’ Annie, you have sixty seconds to call out the variety of each wine in the glasses in front of you. The audience at home will see the correct answers, as will our three judges. OK. Start the clock!” (Larry grabs her ass.)

“OK, the first wine is, uh, Viognier, probably Virginia. Hey, that ass is not on the list for sale, buddy. The second wine is…Zweigelt. Pretty sure. Touch that again and I’ll Coravin™ your leg bag. The third glass is, oh, hmm, this is hard, maybe Meiomi Pinot Noir? Smells like God gave up. And, listen, touch those again and I’ll make you drink this crap. Number four is, wait, I can’t smell anything, it’s gotta be Pinot Grigio. Don’t stand so close or I’m charging you a porkage fee. Five smells like…oh, wait, is that Ruché? Is that a .187, or are you just happy to see me?” (Ten seconds!) “Six is, oh, oh, wait, six is…Pignolo!” (BUZZER) (Applause)

“That was amazing, Annie. Now, judges, tell us what you think. Thomas, you go first.”

“Very impressive, Annie. I liked how you handled Larry groping you. Larry, you can stop now. Though I was surprised you got the Viognier wrong.” (Audience moans) “That was shampoo. But you did great, and, if you want to work for me, not a problem. And minimum wage will soon be $15/hour in California!”

“Thanks, Thomas. Tough about the Viognier. But let’s move on to Marv. Marv?”

“If I’m not mistaken, Annie, didn’t Meat Compass receive a Wine Spectator Grand Award? That’s quite an honor. So I know you are comfortable with ridiculous prices and customer intimidation, which is important. And I liked that you pegged the Meiomi. It fooled Laube. So I think you did great, and you’d be a great America’s Next Top Somm!” (Applause)

“OK, Marvin, well said. Now, Kim, what did you think of Annie?”

“I like your dress. It shows off your ass, and that’s really important for women.” (Applause)

“Thanks, Kim. Our next finalist is from Los Angeles, California, where he runs the wine program at the restaurant for Cedars Sinai Hospital, The I.V. at the Shore, by night, and is practicing ventriloquism by day, please welcome sommelier Price Gouge!” (Applause) “Welcome, Price. Now how are you going to top Annie and become America’s Next Top Somm?”

“Well, Larry, I’m going to present each of these remarkable judges with a wine list I put together that doesn’t have a single wine the judges will recognize!” (Oooh) “And, while they’re trying to figure out which wine to order, I’ll disappear!” (Applause)

“That’s astonishing, Price. Those of you who have never been a sommelier may not understand how hard it is to actually create a wine list that makes no sense to anyone, yet, for many new restaurants, that’s the current trend. It’s important that the sommelier be far more important than the guests, I think we all agree about that. Alright, Price, go ahead and give Thomas, Marvin and Kim their wine lists.”

“Now, Price, I…wait, where did he go? Judges? Anyone seen Price? Well, when it comes to wine lists, I guess Price is the hardest to understand. So? Marvin, what do you think?”

“I don’t have the slightest idea what to make of Price’s list. There are, like, 80 wines, and I don’t recognize a single one. Wow. That’s unbelievable. And Price isn’t here to help. I don’t know what to say, Larry. I’m deeply impressed, and I think that’s what people are looking for nowadays from their sommeliers. In the old days, I’d look at a wine list and see dozens of wines I wanted to try. That seems selfish of me in retrospect, but it was just the way service worked. I think it’s great that so many young sommeliers are more focused on their own taste, on fooling the customers into ordering their pet wines, their Pet Nats as it were. If I were at I.V. on the Shore, I’d definitely have to spend a lot of time talking to Price about what wine to order—time I’d otherwise have to spend with my wife and friends. It’s all about him! Price is the epitome of America’s Next Top Somm!” (Applause)


“He’s pretentious, he’s self-centered, he’s all about being the star of the show…he’s perfect, Per Se!” (Cheers)


“I like that he was staring at my ass. That’s important for a woman.” (Applause)

“OK, judges, so far we’ve had Annie blind taste and identify six wines while I groped her, while Price dazzled us with Narcissism. Let’s move on to our third and final contestant. He’s from New York, where he just recently returned after a short time serving with ISIS, and is the sommelier at New York’s hottest spot, Tavern on the Landmines, please welcome Hugh G. Markup!” (Applause) “You’ve got two tough acts to follow, Hugh. Dazzle us!”

“I’ll try, Larry. Those ISIS guys didn’t know much about wine, but they taught me a thing or two about sales techniques!” (Applause) “I’m going to ask each judge to look at my wine list. When they’re ready to order, I’m going to intimidate them with a few choice words into spending more money than they intended.” (Applause)

“That won’t be easy, Hugh. These are experienced wine professionals with four large breasts between them. Good Luck. Let’s start with Thomas.”

“OK, Hugh, let me have a bottle of Spottswoode Cabernet, the 2009.”

“And six glasses?”

“Yes. There are six of us.”

“Very well. I’ll bring the smaller stems.”

“Oh, I meant two bottles of Spottswoode.” (BUZZER. Applause)

“Nicely done, Hugh. Now, Marvin, see if you can outsmart our somm.”

“No problem. So, Hugh, I’d like to order two bottles of Montelena Cabernet 2001, please.”

“You’ve had the Screaming Eagle, yes?”

“Of course, many times, Hugh.”

“And your guests?”

“Well, I, uh, don’t think, I, uh…I doubt it. Let’s start with that, then.” (BUZZER. Applause) “Oh, BLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP you, you BLEEEEEEEEEP. You got me.” (More applause)

“That leaves it up to you, Kim.”

“OK. Bring whatever damn wine you want, Hugh. My ass is paying.”

“Nicely played, Kim! You win, and Hugh wins. Spending other people’s money is what a great sommelier learns to do. Hugh, that was fantastic.”

“There you have it, folks. Now it’s up to you. You have the rest of the evening to phone in your votes for America’s Next Top Somm. Be sure and tune in again tomorrow when we’ll find out which sommelier will win $25,000, a job with Jackson Family Estates—Where People With Important Wine Credentials Go To Die™, and an MS. MS! The Myspace of Wine Diplomas! This is Larry Anosmia MW wishing you a good night, and reminding you that it’s not important to drink the wine you like, it’s important to drink the wine we like. GOOD NIGHT!”

Thursday, September 24, 2015

EPHEMERA: Hugh Johnson and the HoseMaster of Wine™ at the 2016 Wine Writers' Symposium--Every King Needs a Fool

My brother in satire, Chris Kassel, recently wrote a piece on his blog (and if you don’t read his blog, you’re missing the funniest and smartest wine writing anywhere) featuring himself as Butch, from the Little Rascals, and me as Alfalfa—what I wouldn’t give for Alfalfa’s hair. His piece speaks wisely to the vicissitudes of writing wine satire. There are other bloggers writing comedy, though not many, and most not well, but satire, the art of being genuinely vicious, and unblinkingly honest, and, with any luck, funny, is rare in wine writing. And for good reason—it’s hard to do, it takes a bit of courage, and a lot of fearlessness. I can’t speak to Chris’ motivation, but my motivation boils down to the simple joy of being the kid who’s pointing to the naked emperor. Lots and lots of folk hate what Chris and I do, but I believe we’re necessary to any healthy conversation about wine and the wine business. There is far too much bullshit in wine writing. Not a little bit too much, but way, way, way too much. Not many people would argue against that point of view, but feel free.

All that to say that I’m surprised, and deeply disappointed, that Jim Gordon asked me, as the HoseMaster of Wine™, to speak at the 2016 Napa Valley Wine Writers’ Symposium at Meadowood next February. Yes, friends, I’m putting the “simp” in symposium, if not the “poseur.” Jim approached me with the idea that the HoseMaster might open the symposium and speak to the previous year’s worst wine journalism. Not just mine, but others, and in a satiric vein. I know how prestigious the Napa Valley Wine Writers’ Symposium is, and I knew the other people invited to teach and speak would be wine writer heavyweights. And, indeed, I am way out of my league.

Check out the press announcement. I think I’ve insulted almost everyone listed. So, yeah, this will be fun. Asimov, McInerney, Lee, Goode, Boone…where are Jancis Robinson and Natalie MacLean when I need them to lynch me? Not that a single one of those people has heard of me, but they just might Google my ass, which wouldn't bode well. Nevertheless, it’s important, and it’s wonderful, that Jim Gordon invited me to be part of the Symposium. Satire deserves a place at the table, even if it’s sitting in the folding chair next to the troubled kids. I’m far from a gifted public speaker. I wrote standup when I was young, but I’m not especially gifted at making people laugh as a performer. I’m scared Meomi-less. But I didn’t feel I could refuse. I felt I had to take one for the satire team.

The keynote speaker for the Symposium is Hugh Johnson, who I think I’ve heard of—he wrote the Dr. Doolittle books, right? Somehow, he got top billing. There are a handful of wine writers for whom I have great respect, and Mr. Johnson is one of them. He doesn’t care. I’ll be honored to meet him. He'll give me a puzzled look. When it comes right down to it, there isn’t a single other person speaking or teaching at Meadowood who is worthy of even carrying Mr. Johnson’s luggage when it comes to wine writing. My reward for my predictable humiliation and failure is I may get to meet him.

I’m bragging now. Read the press release again. I’m no longer the guy who “claims to be a satirist,” in the immortal words of a guy who claims to be a journalist, I’m “satirist Ron Washam.” It's on the intergnats, it has to be true. If you’re one of the wine writers who is lucky enough to attend the Napa Valley Wine Writer’s Symposium this February, and you read this stupid blog, please introduce yourself. I’m not a jackass in real life. OK, I can be, but I’ll try not to. And cut me some slack. I haven’t given a speech since I was best man at the Charles Manson wedding. Laugh like a bad sitcom sound track. I'd appreciate it.

Most of the recognition I get for my work here comes from attorneys. I’m honored by Jim Gordon’s invitation. And I won’t pull any punches. I intend to have a good time, and, perhaps, inspire someone else to join Our Gang of satire, Chris Kassel’s and mine. That would be my idea of a perfect outcome.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Lo Hai Qu Rides the Napa Valley Wine Train

It's been quite a while since my crazy intern, yup, still an intern, Lo Hai Qu asked to take over HoseMaster of Wine™. I never quite know what to expect. Oh, well, here we go again...

So, like, me and my girls Loqueesha and Shizzangela, and Loqueesha’s weird cousin Klamydia, who was visiting from planet Dumbshit, which is right next to Uranus if you know where to look, decided we’d go to Napa Valley and ride the Napa Valley Wine Train. What a stupid fucking idea that was. Might as well ride the Napa Valley Wine Bus. It’s cheaper and you can get off when you want to, like the guy in the back playing with himself. I mean, I guess some people find trains romantic. Like the same people who think square dancing is cool. You’d never get me into one of those gigantic square dancing skirts, not me, I’d look like some fucked-up Tiffany lampshade for orphans or something. But Loqueesha had to take Klamydia sightseeing and she talked me into going. I don’t know what Loqueesha was thinking taking Klamydia there—yeah, that makes sense, take a fucking train wreck to a fucking train wreck.

Of course, Shizzangela is wearing her usual tight shirt that shows off her gigantic rack. This one says in big, sparkly letters across her boobs, “ALL ABOARD!” Klamydia’s wearing some bright orange blouse with tassels that says, “In Emergency, Pull Cords,” which I can tell Shizzy wants to steal, only it would never fit her, it’s way too small. If she put it on it would be like trying to shove a cantaloupe into a condom, but she wants it anyway. So already I’m thinking there’s going to be some trouble. But I don’t give a shit, I’m just looking for somewhere I can smoke. I just figured you could smoke on a train, but the annoying train boy, or train steward, or train dick, or whatever he was, tells me I can’t. Really? Like what if I hang out the window, who’s gonna know that it isn’t the train belching all the smoke? How am I supposed to drink if I can’t smoke? I just got on this stupid train and I’m already in a bad mood. And Loqueesha is none too happy either cuz they put us in the Chardonnay car. “Like we’re a bunch of Oakies,” she says. Klamydia doesn’t care, she’s climbed up in the luggage rack and is making choo-choo noises. She’s pretty weird, but Loqueesha told us her mom drank a lot of Barefoot when she was pregnant so Klamydia’s got Feetal Alcohol problems. It’s gonna be a long train ride.

I don’t think I was ever on a train before I went on the Napa Wine Train. Maybe at Disneyland, but that’s not the same, that’s like saying you’ve had wine before but all you drank was Meiomi Pinot Noir, which isn’t wine, really, it’s kinda more like a Hostess Cupcake, you just think you had wine. And why does anybody go to Napa Valley, one of the most famous wine regions in the world, as famous as, like, Champagne or Spumanti, and then ride a train through it? It’s like going to Vegas for the culture. There’s like 200 tasting rooms, and you’re riding around in a steel box like you’re Houdini, or some fucking wine country astronaut gazing out the little window at the Earth and drinking Tang and recycled urine, which I had a glass of at Castello di Amorosa. Plus riding that train is like going around wine tasting with a bunch of strangers piled into your car. Strangers that don’t like you, not that I give a wet Bieber. I mean, the four of us get on that train, the little Asian girl and her friends of a certain color, and Shizzy’s titzillas are all up in everybody’s face introducing themselves, and Loqueesha is carrying a foreign load from drinking rosé all through breakfast to put up with Klamydia building sausage robots, and Klammy is making choo-choo noises, and I can see the other people in the Chardonnay car making stony faces at us like the woman in the rocking chair in that famous old painting, “Kistler’s Mother.” I’m pretty sure nobody wanted us there as soon as we got on. Which makes all of us.

Pretty soon we were chugging up the Valley. So was the train. Haha, good one, Lo! I put the L-O in LOL. I’m actually starting to enjoy myself. The train isn’t going very fast, which is a surprise to me, actually, because Loqueesha told me it was a bullet train through Napa Valley, so I thought we’d be going up and down the Valley faster than divorce attorneys. I’m thinkin’ the ride might last about ten minutes, so I’m drinking wine like it’s ipecac and I’m a runway model for Donna Karan. So are my girls, and now the fun begins. All the people in our Chardonnay car are staring at us, and not just because Shizzy is makin’ up rap songs about the wineries we’re passin’. She’s rappin’ into a bottle of Cabernet like it’s a mic, shit like, “Frankie Ford Coppola/owner of Inglenookie/Here’s an offer you can’t refuse/come eat my cream-filled cookie.” Klamydia is laughin’ so hard she falls out of the luggage rack and breaks wind when she hits the floor, which makes me say, “Hey, don’t worry, that wasn’t a fart, she’s just playing her Duck Horn.” OK, not that funny, but I was pretty lit. Now people are shushing us, which doesn’t go over too big with Loqueesha. “It’s the Napa Valley WINE Train,” she says, “the ‘wine’ part is the point. We’re just havin’ fun.”

Now the wine dick comes over and asks us to keep it down. He’s telling us that if we don’t, he’s going to have to stop the train and have us removed, like we’re skin blemishes that are the wrong color and might be cancerous. I can see Shizzy is pissed, but I get it. Maybe we’re a little loud, but we’re just having fun, not trying to ruin anybody else’s vacation. Everybody was laughin’ at Shizzy’s rap, and Loqueesha was taking pictures with everybody, but I guess there were a few folks that didn’t like it and kept complaining to the wine police.

And, well, fuck, it’s an Asian chick and some black chicks in the whitest of white counties outside of Racist Cop, Idaho. I know, dropping the race card kinda upsets folks in the Napa wine biz because they’ll swear up and down that it wasn’t about us being minorities, it was about us being rude. All these white people, white wine police and white marketing people and white wine writers, talking about how marching a bunch of women of a different color off of their tourist trap wine train into the arms of the local cops they’d called wasn’t about racism at all, it’s because we didn’t behave ourselves. People like us should know better, right? Stay in our place. No, hell, no, it wasn’t racist. They always call the fuckin’ cops to take dangerous people off the train, right? And people sayin’ it can’t be racist because, hey, I’m married to a minority person, so I know racism when I see it. Yeah, marry a sheep and then you’ll stop wearing wool, too, I guess. It’s all bullshit, it was all about my girls being the wrong color, like they’re Negroamaro at a clambake.

They tossed our sexy asses off the train, well, once they got Klamydia out of the luggage rack even though they didn’t have the right baggage claim check for her. The local cops had the sense to see it was stupid, that four slightly buzzy chicks weren’t much of a threat to the community, and they split, though Shizzy has this thing for guys in uniform and she offered the cute one a complimentary cavity search, which she thinks is what dentists do, so luckily the cop declined. The wine train police wouldn’t let us back on the train. We could hear the people in the Chardonnay car clapping when we left, but those smelly old white people probably thought that the clapping would turn the lights on and off, or their pacemakers.

Me and my girls, we’re used to being stared at in wine country. It’s why Shizzy wears those crazy, sparkly shirts—people see those instead of her skin color. I was mad as a proctologist with a Latex allergy, but Shizzy and Loqueesha just shrugged. I guess that says it all.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Larry Anosmia MS at TexSom--Orange is the New Blech

I don’t know about you, but I think that “Texas” and “Sommelier” are about as natural together as “Utah” and “Jazz.” Or “Craft” and “Beer.” The words together don’t make any sense. There’s no jazz in Utah any more than there are Mormons in New Orleans. If there were, they’d rename the football team the New Orleans Latter Day Saints, and play their games on Lun-Day. Jackasses. And beer is not a craft. Nobody thinks beer is a craft. Basket weaving is a craft. Making furniture is a craft. Coopering barrels is a craft. Beer? Beer is glorified soup. Nobody makes craft soup. Can we just move on from all the “Craft” stupidity before the craft cheese people move in. Oh, I’m sorry, I meant Kraft cheese. You know, there’s Cheese Whiz and there’s beer whiz. Not much craft involved.

I was invited to speak at TexSom, conduct a seminar with another wine expert, and attend the tastings and events. I can understand why I was invited. I’m a Master Sommelier, and there are only 230 of us in the world. That’s not very many. People think there are a lot more of us, just like they think there are a lot more serial killers than there really are. I’m not sure, but I think Fred Dame is both. Just a joke, Fred. Or is it…? Of the 230, it seems like 100 of us were in Dallas for TexSom. It was so hot in Dallas, you could hear our hair gel crackling. Sounded like small arms fire, which they love in Texas. What do you call that many Master Sommeliers in the same building? Timothy McVeigh’s next job.

My seminar was entitled “Natural Wines—Orange is the New Blech.” When my seminar was first announced, I was worried because it didn’t sell out immediately. First of all, you won’t be a Master Sommelier for long if you don’t sell out. We all sell out. But, of course, the stupid Burgundy seminar sold out first. Wine beginners always jump on the Burgundy seminar first. And it’s always the worst seminar in the lineup. Always. Why? Because Burgundy experts are the dullest people alive. It’s true. All they talk about is terroir, and Premier Crus, and the influence of the Thelonius Monks in Burgundy. It’s a bigger snorefest than a Michel Chapoutier lecture—it’s why Chapoutier has to have Braille labels, everyone’s eyes are closed when he’s talking. Always avoid Burgundy seminars! Just forget about them. Otherwise, check your Côtes and drop your Clos, bend over, and let them drive it up the Seine.

My seminar was set for the morning of the second day of TexSom. So I had the first day to get shitfaced and cruise for MS groupies. I don’t think every MS has groupies, but Larry Anosmia MS has groupies! Most of them think the short cut to an MS is through Larry’s deep dark wine cave. I don’t know what the women think. Doesn’t matter, there aren’t a lot of female Master Sommeliers, or, as we like to call them, Sommeliettes. We’re still sort of a boys club—you know, lapel pins, secret handshakes, constant circle jerks. But we have to let a few girls in now and then or there’d be a lot of flack, so we do. We know that most folks don’t take the Sommeliettes seriously, anyway, so it’s OK.

Though I’m the last guy who needs to, I attended a couple of seminars that first day. It was hard to choose which seminars to go to. I really wanted to attend my own seminar most of all. I do love to hear myself speak about wine. Master Sommeliers and Sommeliettes are wine’s ambassadors. Where would the image of wine be without us representing it? Why, people would think wine was easy to understand, that it’s not intimidating. They might think that spending your life accumulating wine knowledge was a complete waste of time—like knowing every character in “Game of Thrones,” or golf. People might buy wines they like rather than wines we tell them to like. Without Master Sommelier and Sommeliettes it would be wine anarchy. You’re welcome.

Like the Burgundy seminar, there’s always a Bordeaux seminar. You must also avoid the Bordeaux seminar. Bordeaux’s nothing special, it’s just Cabernet in lipstick, Merlot in a thong. Don’t choose the Bordeaux seminar! It’s like going to a sushi bar and ordering chicken. Idiot. I passed on the B & B seminars and, instead, attended a seminar on Carignane. Carignane is its French name; in Spain, it’s Cariñena, in South Africa it’s Carinblixen. Whatever you call it, it’s a grape I usually like. But the seminar was a Carign-yawn. Duller than a ten dollar Prosecco. They served six different Carignanes at the seminar, and needed five guys to talk about them. There’s one guy running the Burgundy seminar, and two at the Bordeaux, we need five for Carignane? One guy and a mime would have been enough. I did learn one thing at the Carignane seminar—it’s overrated. It’s the CSW of grapes.

Between seminars there were sponsored luncheons. A winery, or perhaps a regional wine consortium, comes to TexSom and provides a lavish lunch, with plenty of their wine, for the attendees. This is a perfect way to introduce budding sommeliers to their future career as industry freeloaders. I had hoped there might be a seminar about junkets. There wasn’t, but the sponsored luncheons were an adequate replacement. One doesn’t go far in the wine business unless you know how to take advantage of wineries who try to buy your loyalty and affection with food and trips. TexSom wisely showed its attendees how to grab a free lunch and offer nothing in return but an enthusiastic Thank You. This will serve them well in the future.

But you don’t want to hear about other seminars, you want to hear about Larry Anosmia’s seminar, “Natural Wines—Orange is the New Blech.” I was brilliant, though unappreciated by my civilian crowd. I presented ten wines blind and asked the attendees to guess which were “natural,” which were “authentic,” which were “honest,” and which were “the same old crap.” I thought that would be easy. Turns out, without seeing a label, no one could tell. But as soon as I told them which wines were “natural,” everyone decided they liked them better. Wine as boobs. We talked about what makes a wine “natural.” Didn’t take long. The industry standard for what qualifies a wine as “natural” is, “Because I said so.” It’s known as the Riedel Standard, and it’s foolproof. All in all, it was an entertaining and fascinating seminar, and it was clear that all of the attendees learned a lot from me. They both shook my hand afterward, though I think one stole my watch.

No matter what people tell you, TexSom is about wine, wine knowledge, alcohol abuse and exploring your Texan sensuality. Not in that order. I haven’t seen that many wine professionals that drunk since Jon Bonné announced his retirement from the San Francisco Chronicle. It was like a good old fashioned Texas rodeo—only at this one, the clowns far outnumbered the cowboys.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

EPHEMERA: Captain Points!

Jancis Robinson wrote a thoughtful and incisive piece about wine criticism recently. It’s perhaps a bit defensive, but that’s my interpretation. It seems all anyone writes about these days boils down to the uncertainty the universality of the internet brings to the wine business. Where, in other words, will Robert Parker’s power end up? Everyone wants a piece of it; most want all of it. There’s something tempting about possessing the ability to make or break a winery with your palate. It’s like being some sort of nerdy wine Marvel superhero—Captain Points! Making the world safe for hapless wine buyers! I have always been amazed at how many wine writers disparage Parker’s contributions, while at the same time clearly desiring his influence. There’s something wonderfully Oedipal about it.

After reading Robinson’s piece, typically well-written and articulately argued, I happened upon a post by Jamie Goode. In the piece, Goode advises new wine writers not to be too smart. Which is like advising suicide bombers not to plan for retirement. Goode writes, “Generally, in life, I reckon that less smart people are often happier.” A wonderful argument for reading more wine blogs to increase your happiness, I guess. Goode’s point is that he felt established wine writers were more helpful to him before they saw him as a competitor. Which, if I’m Jancis Robinson (only in my dreams), begs the question, “Competitor?”

Not long after reading Goode’s thoughtless piece, I read the news that there are now 19 more Masters of Wine (speaking of Marvel superheroes). It was like reading there are now 19 more zeppelin pilots, or 19 more Le Petomane impersonators. Impressive accomplishments, if a bit anachronistic these days. I know quite a few M.W.s, and most are very talented and very smart people. So they must not be very happy. But I’m sure even the Court of Masters of Wine must be astonished at how many applicants they have compared to, say, a generation ago. I wonder why that is.

Robinson writes about how she feels the need to constantly compete for attention now that there are so many ways for consumers to access the seemingly bottomless pit of wine reviews. And I think that’s the answer. A need for attention. In the past six weeks I have been around a gaggle of M.W.’s, a large pile of M.S.’s, and dozens of young people wanting to be one or the other. Some made a great impression on me, others not so much. Now, don’t get me wrong. Nobody sets out to impress the HoseMaster of Wine™. No one sane, anyway. But I realized that I didn’t care one teeny tiny bit whether a person had letters after his/her name, that it told me absolutely nothing about their wine IQ. Though they certainly make a point of telling you they have letters after their name. In the same way doctors always make a restaurant reservation with “Dr.” in front of their surname. You ask, “Last name on the reservation?” And they say, “Dr. Seuss.” Never just “Seuss.” And we are duly impressed. 

More and more I find I judge wine experts on their simple passion for wine, not for their passion to be somebody. I don’t recall that I thought about it that way in the past. In Texas, I met, and listened to, some folks who were severely impressed with themselves when it came to wine. It was clear to me that they knew a lot about wine, but I’d never take advice from them. It was the strange prestige of wine they were after, not the passion for wine that drove them. A longing for respect that they think letters will grant them. Only, ultimately, they won’t. I can tell them, as a guy who spent a long time in the trade, that respect flows directly from the respect you show other people in the trade, down to the poor clown schlepping eight dollar Bordeaux.

The eager wine people I met who are chasing their passion for wine impressed me no end. I learned a lot listening to them. Their ages are irrelevant. The most passionate people I know in wine are ageless. Some had degrees, many did not. I don’t have a degree, unless you count my satiric HMW, but there was a time in my life when I might have tried to earn one. This Ephemera is not a putdown of wine degrees, for a change. I’m madly in love with an M.W. (you know who you are), and admire her greatly. Any wine she loves, I know I’ll love as well. I sat and listened at a Tuscan wine seminar at TexSom given by Alfonso Cevola and Shelley Lindgren, and I gained great respect for their insights and, above all, their passion. I left loving wine more than I had when I sat down—and that’s a rare gift. The only letters after their names are Shelley’s A16, though I think Alfonso will soon have a DOCG after his. Believe me, many of the seminars were about the people conducting those seminars, and only peripherally about the wines. I walked out of those like they were yet another Tom Cruise vanity project, another “Mission Grape: Impossible.” I recently met a young sommelier, Marissa Payne, who impressed me with her passion for wine. She radiated joy when she talked about wine. She was eager to learn more, and unimpressed with herself. She’ll go a long way. I’d listen to her, give her recommendations a chance, because she is chasing wine, not power or fame in the wine business.

I started writing about wine because I wanted to have some fun with it. My attitude offends a lot of people, for which I’m grateful. But you might notice that the folks I offend are usually the folks who desire wine’s power and prestige to rub off on them. They want Parker to die by their metaphorical hand, and then they want to be him. They want to be seen as wine superheroes. They’re tiresome drudges. They’re welcome to walk out on my blog.

The longer I'm around wine, the more I surrender to my vast ignorance of the subject. I'm going to keep saying this until it sinks in. Wine outclasses us. Humans do not possess the sensory equipment to grasp it adequately. We don't understand much of the actual chemistry of wine. Our language skills are tested daily when we write about wine, and we nearly always fail. No one, and I mean no one, is any better at this than anyone else. Some work harder, some are indefatigable, many exaggerate their sensory talents and influence. But being human is our downfall. The wonder of wine lies in its ability to make us feel more human by showing us our limitations, teaching us humility and a love for the earth we so foolishly take for granted, while rewarding us with beauty and a sense that life has purpose. Plus, drinking it fills us with a false courage to go on living.

So here’s my advice. Be smart as hell about wine. If you’re new to it, be fucking brilliant, passionate and humble. Talent comes in many forms. Some can write. Some are uncanny at discerning great wine. Some are great communicators. Very few are all three. Don’t compete for attention. Now you’re just the guy waving in the background during a live newscast—an asshole. Persist, have fun with your passion for wine, enjoy the great gift of being able to pursue a wine career, never believe your own press, and you’ll garner attention eventually--more than you may even want. Just make sure that it’s not the attention that you really desire.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Wine Time Capsule from 2015

I’m not sure what motivated my ancestor to bury a wine time capsule back in 2015, but I felt that after two hundred years it was time to dig it up. In preparation, I’d been reading up on the history of wine in the 49th Edition of “The World Atlas of Wine” by Hugh Johnson. You’d think Hugh would be pushing up roses by now, but, no, he’s still cranking out sequels. Like all famous wine critics, he has an artificial heart. Well, many are not artificial, but they’re certainly all vestigial. Of course, if you think about it, being a wine critic is just a really bad nose job.

You'll have to pop over to Tim Atkin's site to read what was unearthed in 2215 from the wine time capsule. Strange artifacts from one of wine's worst eras. Though, shit, someone forgot the Coravin. Or everyone did. As ever, feel free to comment on Tim's site, or send me a threatening letter from an attorney here.


Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Spitbucket--Part Two

Oliver Sacks died last weekend, and I suddenly remembered that a few years ago I wrote a parody of his fascinating works describing the remarkable landscapes of the human brain. I've read nearly all of Sacks' books, and they are travel books of the most human kind, travels through our strange minds. I felt a pang of great sadness upon reading of his death. And when I reread this piece, originally published in April 2012, I found that I actually liked it. Which shows you how perverse and unpredictable human consciousness can be. So, from 2012, my insignificant tribute to Dr. Sacks, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Spitbucket."

Imagine wine critic Tim Foyer’s predicament. He now tastes wine as numbers. Once upon a time he drank wine for the pleasure it gave him, as it gives most humans pleasure.[i] After that, Tim became a critic for a major wine publication where his reviews had the capacity to make or break a winery. His palate was viewed by many consumers as skilled at detecting nuance and quality in wine.[ii] Now a neurological imbalance had Tim’s brain generating only numbers when he tasted wine. He wasn’t enjoying the wines at all. Which might be fine when you consider that a wine critic’s job is to ensure that others get less enjoyment out of wine.[iii] However, Tim’s job was at risk should consumers discover his puzzling brain malfunctions.

His newly developed disability had affected Tim in other ways as well. He seemed depressed, and not just from ingesting all of that alcohol.[iv] Tim’s self-perception revolved around his wine tasting abilities and the power he had in the wine business. He felt that slipping away, though, from what I could gather, it had been slipping away long before his recent taste problems had arisen. A new generation of wine consumers, from the so-called Millennial Generation, were getting their wine advice from other sources and ignoring the “wisdom” of the establishment wine critics. Foyer’s scores were having less and less effect. And his wasn’t the only opinion that had lost influence. Impotence was rampant among wine critics, which may have been age-related but was most likely caused by infrequent use.[v]

Tim worked for several years at his wine critic position while suffering from his very unusual affliction. He was experienced enough though, and well-versed enough in his chosen wine regions, that he could taste a wine, write down the number that instantly appeared in his mind, and then fabricate a tasting note. No one questioned his authority, or even bothered to read his tasting notes. In fact, it might take but thirty minutes of reading wine tasting notes for the average person to suffer some sort of brain damage.[vi] But Tim’s condition started to worsen.

Tim’s brain began to muddle everything to do with wine. At an important blind tasting of Sonoma County Pinot Noir, Tim tried to remove the corks with his publisher’s suspenders. An embarrassing moment ensued when Tim said to his boss, whose pants[vii] had puddled on the floor, “I can’t kiss it now, I’m trying to open these damned wines.” No matter how many times he was shown, he couldn’t recognize a corkscrew. He was certain it was Eric Asimov. An understandable mistake, but it won’t help you get the corks out of the bottles.

Mishaps with wine happened on a daily basis, but only with wine and wine paraphernalia. It was as though everything to do with wine for this major wine critic was a hopeless confusion. Yet, remarkably, he continued to rate wines with such conviction that no one suspected his brain disease. Consumers continued purchasing expensive wines unaware that they were following the advice of someone brain-damaged. Perhaps this is not so astonishing, as that has almost always been the case in the wine business.

The deal breaker came when Tim visited a winery with his lovely wife. He knew that he wouldn’t have to open any wine bottles himself, though he’d invited Eric Asimov along just in case, and that he wouldn’t have to do much more than taste a few wines, nod his head knowingly, pretend to write tasting notes in his journal, and spit. He usually spat anyway, and always pretended to write down tasting notes—he’d done that for twenty years. His host served him a glass of his finest Cabernet, hoping to impress the important wine critic. Tim savored the wine, swishing it about in his mouth, he thought only the number 91, and then he quickly and efficiently spit the wine all over his wife. He was certain she was a spit bucket, though she bears only a passing resemblance to one.

His wife, an innocent victim of his delusions, was astonished, but not more so than the winery owner when Tim said, “Hey, I’ve got Eric Asimov in my pants if you want to talk to him.”

Though I worked with Tim for many months, and ran many brain scans,[viii] I have never been able to pinpoint the cause of Tim’s problem. Perhaps it’s psychological, his desire to finally leave wine criticism before he becomes entirely irrelevant. Or maybe my hunch about a parasite is correct and his brain has been hijacked by a one-celled animal, similar to what happens to women who are groupies for serial killers. At this point, we don’t know. There are mysteries to the human mind that may never be solved.

Wine critics may just be one of them.

[i] It was Ben Franklin who said, “Wine is proof that God loves us, and really hates Mormons.” Which is miraculously prescient considering there were no Mormons at the time.
[ii] An opinion not shared by winemakers, unless they received a score of 95 or higher.
[iii] Numerical scores are seen by the critics who use them as “necessary and consumer friendly,” yet their sole purpose is to sell subscriptions and dictate consumer tastes. Which everyone managed to do for hundreds of years before numerical ratings.
[iv] Alcohol is a serious depressant, equivalent to thinking about Rick Santorum as President.
[v] See my article, “Soft or Firm? A Wine Writer’s Answer is ‘Yes’”
[vi] In a famous case, a man read an entire issue of  “Wine Advocate” in one sitting and subsequently believed he was a spice rack with balls. While ostensibly sad, he did spruce up the kitchen.
[vii] Originally made for Ringling Brothers
[viii] They all revealed Nothing.