Notes from Georgia, i

7 September 2017

Brief impressions from the a weeklong wine trip I took to the Republic of Georgia this summer, hosted by Wines of Georgia.


Pictured: Keto Ninidze’s first wine. Keto’s a university-trained philologist, social activist & wine writer, one of Georgia’s very few female winemakers, and she moved out west from the capital just last year to Martvili, in Samegrelo. There are a lot of hazelnuts here—it’s a cash crop—and the soils are predominately limestone. Her husband Zaza works with the national parks service (I am paraphrasing—I don’t know the official name, but it’s involved with natural wonders & attractions in the area like the Martvili canyon) and also makes wines under his own label.

Keto’s much smaller winery, which just received its qvevri, is in the home, at cellar level, with a dress on a hanger in the center column. It’s named (“Oda”), the word for the traditional wood houses of the region. They’re two stories, with the front door on the second floor, approached by an outdoor staircase & an elaborate balconey. Next to the house are her baby vines, one and two years old.

Ojaleshi is a variety (actually there’s two, unrelated to one another) whose name roughly translates to ‘sun-lover’—it used to be trained up persimmon trees. The Soviets encouraged its planting for sweet red wine. Here, instead, she’s made a direct-press white in stainless steel. (She didn’t have qvevri yet, and it’s purchased fruit as her vines are growing.)

The Georgian characters on the top of the label read, “TERROIR VS TERROR”. The woman on the right is imprisoned in the sort of typical Soviet-era drinking glass old men in the countryside fill to the brim & toss back.

There’s a tension in natural wine, maybe a useful dialectical tension worth exploring, between its traditionalism (“I’ll make wine the way my grandfather did”) & its progressivism (“I won’t use chemicals the way all my neighbors do; I’ll experiment with aging vessels & technique; I’ll make wine even though in my grandfather’s day people like me didn’t”). I think it’s one that Keto inhabits consciously, and it’s one that we should think about as wine professionals who sometimes fetishize the traditional or the premodern.


Tomato or dance

23 June 2017

I woke up this morning out of a service dream in which I was trying to reassure a guest during the dance about price:

— The bottles of wine on our list start at $36 and go to the four figures, and anywhere along the way we can find you something delicious & honestly made, I said.
— Well then what, the guest said (in the mood to press me a little), is the difference between that $36 bottle & those four-figure ones?

What I said (in the dream) is something I’ve been meaning to work out in writing, at a little more length. But instead of that I’ll just tell you, if I can remember, what I said in the dream.

— At the everyday end of the market, wine is basically a grocery; at the high end, it’s an art collector’s game. In the everyday, you’re buying a perfectly ripe tomato. At the high end, you’re buying a Picasso.

(I thought for a second, or pretended to look thoughtful.)

— Of course, you’re also drinking the thing for dinner! So it’s not really a Picasso you’re buying, unless everyone is burning their Picassos after they look at them. (And also, unless Picasso was actually simultaneously painting a couple thousand replicas at once…you see how analogies break down if you let them.) If it’s art, it’s an art we consume, something momentary & irreplicable, but something that can be restaged later under different terms. A jazz concert, say, or dance.

And so I woke up this morning thinking, ‘tomato, or dance?’

And I think that’s a nice way to think about the wines that I love and that give me pleasure, to unite a simultaneous appreciation for honest, unpretentious juice you guzzle out of a bottle* & oh, that ’96 Priuré-Roch Clos de Corvées that I tasted Wednesday night, mythic, crystalline, unsulfured & unsurpassed red Burgundy that could have covered a month’s rent in my college apartment in Boston ten years ago.

*I nominate Lauer “Barrel X” riesling for this ‘adult juicebox’ category, if you want an example. I also encourage everyone to look closely at the now-modish Instagram trend of drinking straight out of bottles and see if they’re actually drinking, because in many cases I feel like the foil’s still on that thing.

Now— if you’ll allow me to continue stretching analogies around the room— everyday wine is a perfectly ripe tomato only at the best of times. Sometimes it’s one of those tomatoes that was picked green in Florida so that it didn’t bruise in the truck and then gassed to color. Sometimes it’s an heirloom tomato that has little splits in it, one of the big ugly ones, and your kid starts crying because it doesn’t look like the tomatoes in the grocery store, the color’s wrong, why isn’t it perfectly round… Sometimes the tomato is spoiled. Sometimes it’s more like a can of Bloody Mary mix.

And while it’s nice to think of blue chip wine as art, as dance, while wine pricing for blue chip bottles works like the art collection market in a lot of ways— they’re even sold at the same auctions!— expensive wine can also work more like a luxury branded good. A Luis Vuitton handbag, say. (And the wine and the handbag will be owned, you guessed it, by the same company.)

I’m losing the thread. I can’t remember how the dream ended; I think I woke up before I’d convinced the table to order any wine.


This is not an essay reviewing Bianca Bosker’s Cork Dork (although I read it last week). It doesn’t actually fact-check Cork Dork. It’s not even really about the New York Times op-ed, “Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine”, which is excerpted/repurposed from the book’s seventh chapter, “The Quality Control”, and has occasioned a lot of consternation, thought, and response from people who care about wine. This is because the op-ed is, to put it mildly, not very good, and also bad.

What I want to do instead is talk about something a little to one side of the larger questions being grappled with by the rest of the wine internet, something near and dear to my withered heart: fact-checking.

One of the big potential virtues of a book by a journalist & writer who is willing to quit their day job and spend a bunch of time immersing themselves in (to be clear, mostly a very specific, New York wine-service professional version of) the wine world is that the result will be that rare combination of industry knowledge & outsider research, something more granular & textured than the usual hey-don’t-be-intimidated-by-wine-here’s-five-rules book but less insider baseball-y than an importer’s memoir.

And indeed, there’s something to be said for, you know, reporting. Most people have a pretty dim sense of wine additives and manipulation, and actually gaining entrance to one of the large companies that pumps out the sort of industrial grape beverages that control the majority of the market, going to a trade show for those products, etc is effective & important. Thinking about where the grapes come from and looking at herbicide runoff and water use would have been a good step, too.

Reviews of Cork Dork, which is hitting bestseller lists & is worth talking about because it will become a conversational entry point for the people I serve wine to at night, are going to invariably use the phrase “deeply researched”. The Times book review at one point calls it a “compendium of facts”. Because of all of those things—original research being something the book brings to the table that a lot of wine books don’t; praise for said—it’s worth evaluating the reporting in and of itself. In the midst of all of the other responses to “Ignore the Snobs” (which are all good in their way, even if they are often spirited defenses of #realwine that have been ably trolled by the headline), one aside in Alice Feiring’s post made my ears prick up.

“As a trained sommelier”, Bosker writes in the op-ed, “I spent long days studying the farming practices that distinguish the Grand Crus of Burgundy and learning to savor the delicate aromas of aged Barolos from organic growers in Piedmont.”

Feiring rightly observes that this is a kind of expertise word salad meant to establish bona fides—and also that everything about it is slightly wrong. At most, generously, you could say that the appellation laws for a Grand Cru AOC in Burgundy like Bonnes Mares might mandate, like, slightly lower yields than those for the 1er cru “Les Fuées” it borders (I just checked, pointlessly: it’s 42 hectoliters per hectare versus 48). And yields imply stuff you would do, as a farmer? But actually, no; farming practices have nothing to do with what distinguish these little special postage stamps of land we call ‘great growths’ in Burgundy, and anyways the vines within a given Grand Cru are owned by a whole mess of different people, all of whom are farming slightly differently.

(I’m trying to show my work. Feiring, much more gracefully, does the above in a sentence: “Farming practices do not separate the Grand from the Village, geology and micro-climate do.”)

Same obviously for aged Barolo = organic growers, since the further back you go (what are we talking about here, the ’70s?) the more likely it is everything in the Piedmont is just doused in chemicals. You’d have to keep going until you got a bottle old enough that it predated the invention of conventional agriculture, cutoff for which would be around the Second World War. Or talk specifically about the rare exceptional growers who didn’t adopt herbicides & synthetics.

I am being as joylessly pedantic as possible here and probably sound a little like an asshole, especially to those of you who tuned out right around the time the phrase “appellation laws for a Grand Cru AOC” was deployed. The language is charmless, I admit. But this sentence (not in the book) is, in a very ideal world, the sort of thing that would get underlined in pencil and then be subjected to a few minutes of consideration by a similarly pedantic third party. (By the way, by all rights an evaluation of Bosker’s work shouldn’t hinge on whether or not she’s a wine expert, since that would be impossible to accomplish in 18 months. What she’s offering is research, reportage, letting experts turned characters have their say, voice, style, a certain amount of personal involvement, organizing and deploying all of that in a coherent narrative—you know, writing.)

Anyways. I wondered, when I finally sat down to read Cork Dork, how many and which bits of the book had been fact-checked. The chapters divide nicely into setpieces that could be pitched separately as features to a variety of outlets. (To Bosker’s credit, if you compare the tasting notes chapter, “The Ten Commandments”, to the New Yorker piece “Is There A Better Way to Talk About Wine?”, there’s nothing too obnoxious about the recycling; everything’s been rearranged, rewritten, and expanded for the book. This is less common than you might imagine.) And so at some point, some of the stuff that’s related to what ended up in the book probably ended up on a fact-checker’s desk.

Sometimes books are checked  by a third party with the same rigor & care as a New Yorker feature. Usually not, though. And given the number of people I know who were mildly suprised to find themselves in its pages, I don’t imagine anyone was on the receiving end of the sorts of phone calls I used to make to quoted—even anonymously quoted—sources.

I’m not saying that the book is riddled with factual errors or anything, by the way. (Although, opening it at random to chapter six right after I write that sentence, I can’t help but notice an almost-right but actually wrong technical description of malolactic fermentation.) This is more in the line of professional curiosity—how did this thing get made?

Because I am the kind of person I am, I took a paragraph and pretended I was checking it while I was halfway through reading the introduction a couple of days ago. Looking at a piece of writing through a fact-checker’s eyes partly means grappling with the question, ‘what is truth?’, always a fun one, but mostly means being as obtuse as possible:

“Spend enough time in the wine world, and you’ll find every connoisseur has a story about the bottle that launched their obsession with wine. Usually, their Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment arrives via, say, a 1961 Giacomo Conterno Barolo sipped in a little restaurant in Piedmont, Italy, overlooking the Langhe hills, the beech trees swaying as a gentle fog curls up from the valley floor. It’s something of a formula: Europe + natural splendor + rare wine = moment of enlightenment.”

First question, is this a fictitious example or (just as likely) something that a particular person said in an interview? If so, who was the person, and is this accurate? Do they remember the name of the restaurant? Let’s call them and find out.

‘Every’ is hyperbole but root around google/stack of books for a few more wine people who have stories that follow the formula.

Check Saul, Damascus.

1961 Giacomo Conterno Barolo. Okay, estate founded in 1920, so they were producing wine by 1961. Most famous for Monfortino; did they bottle a regular Barolo back then as well? Would it have been labeled ‘Riserva’?

Yes, yes; the acquisition of the great single vineyard the estate is famous for in Serralunga, Cascina Francia, was not until the ’70s. An auction catalog image search turns up a picture of a bottle of ’61 Giacomo Conterno Barolo, no cru or reserve designation appended.

the beech trees swaying as a gentle fog Would they be beech trees?

Searching a catalogue of trees common to the Langhe turns up a taxonomy of truffle terroir, with truffles in Alba attached to three types of tree, oak, beech, or cedar, yielding differences in color and aroma.

The oak trees likely growing alongside the beeches are probably too big to sway.

Can we find video of the fog in the Langhe?



30 January 2015

It’s easy to make fun of the wine-critic word salad Robert Parker invented, all layers & ripeness & things leaping from glasses–easy, too, to talk about ‘Parkerized’ wines, the style of winemaking that he is said to represent. Did he do a service, when he began to write about wine for Americans stressed out over buying $40 birthday presents for their bosses in more or less the same way that Consumer Reports reviews washing machines? In a very specific, very real way: yes. Has the idea of rating an idiosyncratic, living agricultural product in the same way as a washing machine done measurable harm? Well, yes.

And in the decades that have followed, and with all of the objections to for example the point system pretty much canon now, the wines that he got most enthusiastic over and the way he wrote about that enthusiasm have been caricatured so thoroughly that sometimes instead of attempting to parrot received wisdom it really truly is instructive to just survey & report. To put in another way: I could not write a better parody of Robert Parker’s prose, or describe the kinds of wines I’m told he liked, better than presenting his own writing with as little commentary as possible.

I came across this particular collection of text while looking for something more or less unrelated. (How a particular vintage of a modernist Barolo producer was received a decade and a half ago, if you’re curious.) So! Here are some words & phrases used by Robert Parker when he likes something. They appear, all of them, exactly as written, on a single page of his 2002 Buyers Guide. A dozen or so wines, all told. And without me saying anything more, maybe you can decide for yourself what he values in a bottle of wine, and what kind of things he likes to drink, and how he likes to write about drinking them:

up-front, sexy
sexy, in-your-face
a provocative bouquet
a luxurious bouquet
a hedonistic, explosive nose
big sweet perfume
supple and velvety
velvety and forward
ripe, and attractive
aromas jump from the glass
flavors cascade over the palate
Powerfully, unctuously textured
awesomely layered texture
with additional levels of glycerin and flavor
layers of glycerin
stunningly concentrated
fabulously concentrated
decadent level of richness
Pomerol-like lushness
Full-bodied, ripe
Full-bodied-and lush
opulent, lush, fleshy
fleshy and flamboyant
sexy, hedonistic, seamless
Rich, full, fat, opulent, and decadent
copious spice, glycerin, and alcohol
fleshy, and flamboyant, with huge glycerin levels
this textured, full-bodied, fat, lush wine.


25 October 2014

“The sheer profusion of qualities that Americans discovered in the apple during its seedling heyday is something to marvel at, especially since so many of those qualities have been lost in the years since. I found apples that tasted like bananas, others like pears. Spicy apples and sticky-sweet ones, apples sprightly as lemons & others rich as nuts. I picked apples that weighed more than a pound, others compact enough to fit into a child’s pocket. Here were yellow apples, green apples, spotted apples, russet apples, striped apples, purple apples, even a near-blue apple. There were apples that looked prepolished & apples that wore a dusty bloom on their cheeks. Some of these apples had qualities that were completely lost on me but had meant the world to people once: apples that tasted sweeter in March than October, apples that made especially good cider or preserves or butter, apples that held their own in storage for half a year, apples that ripened gradually to avoid a surfeit or all at once for an easier harvest, apples with long stem or short, thin skin or thick, apples that tasted sublime only in Virginia and others that needed a hard New England frost to reach perfection, apples that reddened in August, others that held off til winter, even apples that could sit at the bottom of a barrel for the six weeks it took a ship to get to Europe, then emerge bright and crisp enough to command a top price in London.”

The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan (p. 48–49) touring the Lake Geneva Plant Genetic Resources Unit.

Year in review

2 July 2014

From Twitter, between January 1 and December 21, 2013. Question for the day: how do you archive & resurrect experience of the digital over time?


My sister at breakfast: “Do you know what the German word for birth control is? ANTIBABYPILLEN.”
4 January, 3:44 p.m.

On the Difficulties of Recollecting the Plots of Novels One Has Partly Read While Drunk. #unwrittenessays
10 January, 12:48 a.m.

“…but those who believe, that Abel lived an hundred and twenty nine Years, think it improbable he should die a Batchelor.
10 January, 1:06 a.m.

“If you put front vowels in your language, nobody will take it seriously as a language of Orcs.”
11 January, 4:47 p.m.

Tarantino films that feature scenes in which characters literally give each other acting lessons: Django Unchained, Reservoir Dogs.
17 January, 1:28 a.m.

“There you are, like butter in sunshine.” Martin Luther insult randomizer:
20 January, 12:50 p.m.

RT: Thank God for technology. Before Twitter, I just used to go up to strangers and whisper in their ears. @tejucole
26 January, 1:42 p.m.

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Primo Levi on distillation

26 February 2014

Distilling is beautiful. First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think about other things, a little like riding a bike. Then, because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapor (invisible), and from this once again to liquid, but in this double journey, up and down, purity is attained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by the centuries, almost a religious act, in which from imperfect material you obtain the essence, the usia, the spirit, and in the first place alcohol, which gladdens the spirit and warms the heart.

— p. 62, The Periodic Table