I’ve been trying to make sense of Bianca Bosker’s loathsome piece in The Times on engineered swill wine since it first darkened my inbox. I get that it’s opinion, but any editor who lets this kind of crap slip by should be ashamed. If there isn’t a better point to be made, maybe give that space to another writer, or even a remotely entertaining ad. I read a smart and fairly measured response by Rachel Signer, and very much enjoyed Eric Asimov’s sober assessment via Twitter. So now that the rest of the wine world has moved on and no longer cares, here goes.
What irked me so fiercely about that absurd defense of shit wine for schmucks is that it posed industrial engineered plonk in a direct continuum with the current natural wine fad. This completely disregards a profound array of good, honest, tasty wine that is neither, to no discernible useful end.
Many great winemakers are doing things right, being relative stewards of the earth, but still choose to intervene in the process, and/or add a tiny amount of SO2 for stability. These are very often the most consistently pleasurable wines on the market, and are completely ignored by this absurd piece of clickbait penned by the self-styled Cork Dork (a title ensuring that I’ll never read the book). It’s about wine and wine people, not the life and times of the Quercus suber, yes? Oh, I get it; it rhymes, and it’s easy to remember. Anyway, many climates require a little help to produce viable grapes, even if not necessarily every season, and many wines need a little stability so they don’t continue to ferment (or immediately start deteriorating), such that every bottle in the same case tastes different. Neglect and chance are not viable winemaking techniques.
Besides being the ethos of many wonderful dedicated juice artists ‘natural’ is a buzzword used to sell stuff, just as is ‘organic’, and to a lesser extent, ‘biodynamic’. The best of natural wine is most definitely a wonderful and welcome movement, but it’s also a trend to be generous, and a fad if we’re being honest. Many natural wine purists don’t differentiate between good/tasty/balanced natural wine and brutally acidic, unstable, undrinkable crap that happens to fit the criteria. Natural does not mean good, and never will, just as literally will never mean figuratively, no matter how many language shredding Philistines use the terms interchangeably.
Marketeers continue to confuse people for their own obvious ends. More often than I’d like, I’m faced with a customer demanding sulfite-free wine. When I gently (sometimes not so gently) explain that the process by which yeast turns sugar to alcohol also creates sulfites (naturally!), they often look at me as if I’ve just told them, “Your god is dead.” One customer simply told me, “That’s not true”. Since nothing good happens at the intersection of ignorance and certainty, I suggested that she shop somewhere that doesn’t mind lying to her, to preserve her fragile false reality, in order to make a sale.
Is organic farming and biodiveristy in soil a good thing for wine and for the earth? Yes, absolutely. But farming and winemaking are very different endeavors, and both are required to get fermented juice into a bottle. And there are many wines that are organic and/or natural that just plain suck. A shocking percentage of walk-in cold calls to my Brooklyn retail shop are by reps spouting off about how natural and organic their wines are. Which immediately begs the question: Are they any good?
To open a natural wine exclusive shop, bar, or restaurant, and leave wine off the list because of a pinch of SO2 seems to miss the point. There’s a huge difference between adding a little tartaric acid, deliberately manipulating the amount of water during vinification, or using a small amount of egg white to clarify (sorry [not sorry] vegans!), and straight up dumping flavor changing additives into an otherwise finished wine. There are many many wines that aren’t 100% natural, but are doing things mostly right, aren’t raping the Earth with chemicals, and are producing accessible, pleasurable wines.
There will always be purists, and I will always feel sorry for them and their dainty palates. If you ONLY drink Burgundy, or Italian wine, or natural wine, you’re just missing out on piles of pleasure by drawing hard lines where they might not need to be. It’s just as vexing as those who only drink un-oaked Chardonnay and insist that any wood is poison to that venerable varietal, when convincingly enjoyable wines exists on either side of that arbitrary fence. And the very best examples often display some creaminess, but without buttering over the fruit, and maintaining vibrant acidity. I would call it balance, but that term too has had a big steamy pile of dogma dumped on it by those seeking to define (and control) a categorized commodity.
Most wine consumers I encounter- the vast majority of customers at our fair shop- just want to drink something that tastes good and doesn’t have chemical crap dumped into it. Luckily for them, we feel that way too, and have lots of love for everything ignored by Bosker’s ill-conceived two treatises of wine. Beyond that noise, don’t ever believe anyone who tells you there’s only one way to make or enjoy great wine. And if you really want to drink a bunch of syrupy chemical crap, just go have a Coke and a smile, but don’t bother writing an article about how good you think it is.
Well, I’ve just cleaned out a local discount shop of the last of the 12 year, so I can relay the secret, my personal stash secured.
Elijah Craig 12 year small batch bourbon is one of the very best values in American whiskey. Quality and barrel year per dollar, with an age statement of 12 years, it is (was!) almost always available for under $30 per bottle. These are unheard of numbers in the new American whiskey market, and they’ve finally buckled under its weight.
Last year, when the visually prominent ‘12’ was removed from the Elijah Craig 12 Year label, it seemed they’d eventually be dropping the age statement, as so many have, due to the Boom. Until the most recent batch, the 12 year age statement was still in the very first line on the back of the bottle. The trend in the whiskey world is toward removed aged statements and increasingly mysterious blends. It’s the simplest way to increase production and keep up with demand. Regardless of all technological advancement, it’s still impossible to up production of a twelve year old product tomorrow.
As a nerd and a collector, I would’ve preferred the price of the 12 year increase and a less expensive 8 year be released (or even a 6 and a 9 year, or a 6 and 9 year, or an If 6 was 9 year!). I get why that would be less practical, but it would’ve been much cooler.
Now, the tasting. It’s easy to assume the worst, and at this point the age unknown small batch blend likely contains barrels of 6-12 year old bourbon, but with no statement, it can literally be any age combination. It will likely get younger and younger over time as Heaven Hill struggles to keep up with world thirst. As of today, the 94 proof Elijah Craig Small Batch is a little lighter in color than the last of the 94 proof 12 year, a little less red, slightly more golden, visually. The difference in nose is similar, but a less measurable contrast, the small batch comes off as a little brighter, the 12 year a little deeper, more overt wood, and a ghost of faded smoke.
Flavor-wise, the difference between the two is subtle, but noticeable, though it’s hard to say that my beloved 12 year is empirically better. It’s deeper, darker, more complex, greater overt wood affectation- and all the little secondary and tertiary flavors that go along with that. The small batch is comparatively lighter, sweeter, prettier, livelier, but not hotter. One man’s ‘lighter’ is another man’s ‘flatter’. I’m sure many will prefer one over the other, but I don’t think in a blind panel collective preference would necessarily skew toward the elder.
In short, the quality per dollar is still high in the new NAS (no age statement) Elijah Craig Small Batch; this is not just a cheap imitation of the original. That being said, for your own future enjoyment and edification, you may want to check out your nearest retailer, flip the Elijah Craig bottle(s), and if the back label says ’12 year’, maybe squirrel a couple away. Nobody ever said, “What am I going to do with all this nice 12 year bourbon?”
If necessity is the mother of invention, then the mother of inspiration is a deadline… for something else. I’m on the precipice of a comprehensive inventory and professional off-site storage project that will see 200 cases go out the door of my shop- via the cavernous basement, which is far from the front door- and all I can think about is how many blog posts behind I am.
It’s late and I’ve just been to a Theory Kitchen event, and I am again reminded that giving a shit (and attention to detail) goes a long way. The kid who runs the show is the same age now I was when getting obscenely high and paying my rent interviewing (and photographing) musicians, writers, and artists for print magazines back before Seattle died. The ‘90s were a magical time for getting away with it in America (RIP HST!).
I’m drinking, amongst other things, a K Vintners Syrah Morison Lane 2001. Full disclosure, I love the wines of Charles Smith. I haven’t particularly enjoyed the company of the man himself (though I’d certainly give it another shot- over the right Chateauneuf du Pape), but his wines are very good, on the low end, and expansive and otherworldly, at their very best. But it’s clearly on the back end of its plateau. Those dusty tannins and that distinct apply dryness in the back will, over the next few years, head toward the predominant front note, on its way to becoming deep, slightly cloudy, brick-toned water, if stored properly, and eventually a sullen dry vinegar. On the off chance you have any in your cellar, drink it sooner than later.
I’ve been in a prolonged phase of sad cowboy music, the like of which I haven’t seen since first discovering Townes Van Zandt, however many years ago that was. And these days I can’t stop listening to The Dave Rawlings Machine’s Nashville Obsolete. Just now, writing that down, I almost dropped a tear. It’s a good goddamn record, in an era that’s goddamn short on good goddamn records. I’ll admit to having erased “Candy” from the album on my iphone, and it really does feel kind of silly and extraneous amongst the incisive story telling, verse, and chord progression of “The Weekend”, “Shorthaired Women”, “The Trip“, and “Pilgrim”.
Three hours after first opening, this wine- K Vintners Syrah Morison Lane 2001- really smells, in the glass, like a Hermitage twice its age, and the palate really isn’t that far off, minus the nod toward animalia. Deep blackberry fruit, earth, tar, basalt, ancient woodland herbs; an encompassing, pensive mouthful. A pleasantly dark way to end an evening. Thanks for that, Chuck.
Been so buried under the retail business, that I’ve been quite neglectful of these pages this month. But I was sitting at French Louie, after a long day/week/month, enjoying some lovely rare bottles that have been in my Coravin stash. I have had nothing but fun and success with my Coravin, since realizing how important it is to keep the cork wet (from the inside) at all times, when not actively extracting. I did, however, make a couple of cases worth of extremely fine vinegar figuring this out. Overall, the Coravin is unquestionably the best money I’ve spent on my greater wine enjoyment since buying my first VacuVin many many moons ago.
But back to French Louie; it’s late, and I’m sipping on a couple of pinot(s) and one of the finest Bordeaux style blends to pass my lips in recent memory. The Panther Creek Pinot Noir Shea Vineyard 1998 still has surprising weight, fruit, and acidity. It shows a lightly funky/earthy nose and then long dry berry fruit, and almost piercing acidity that extends through a long finish, though it wanes mercifully toward the end. This wine is barely starting to show any age visually, though the weight of the palate feels mature, and the acid leads me to believe that my last bottle of this one has another decade to live, at least.
The Nicolas Potel Volnay Taille Pieds 1999 is damned close to a masterpiece, though this one’s peak drinking window has years left in it. Deep, but subdued dark berry fruit gives way to dry forest floor, into a pool of ancient woodland herbs; somehow both lush and dry. For the darker/bigger side of Burgundy, it doesn’t get much better.
The star of the show, besides the unbelievably pillowy chicken liver paté, was the Andrew Will Sorella 1996. Tasting this blind, I might have mistaken it for a world class Napa Cab, twice its age; like the finest of blends of best-in-class ’86 and ’87 Napa Cab/Merlot/Franc. Blood of the Earth in the glass, deep purple tinged opaque garnet (admittedly, I’m a little colorblind), showing some clouding, but zero oxidation. Tart dry cherries, shot through with dried herbs, black tea, subtle earthen minerality, distant woodsmoke all tumbling into a tapering rabbit-hole finish for days. It’s still juicy, but dry and fully mature; though there may be secondary and tertiary flavors still in its future. This is a very serious wine, in the midst- perhaps the autumn- of its peak drinking years.
There was no impetus, no occasion of note, sometimes you’ve just got to treat yourself to some of the rarest bottles within your reach.
It has been forever and a day since we began (and abruptly discontinued) our coverage of the wave of flash sale wine sites that have come into the national marketplace. In that time, there have been some interesting new players to the game, and a bunch of half-assed pretenders as well. But this is America, and any business concept that gains any media traction at all- even if few players are actually profiting- finds a slew of posers and thieves peddling close facsimiles of the most visible early-to-market examples. But the realities of the intersection of wine buying (and collecting) and the flash sale model caught up quickly, and it is no longer a growing landscape. Besides those with massive personal cellars or substantial off-site professional storage, most early flash sale wine enthusiasts learned to curb their impulse buying out of spatial necessity, and the race to replace them with new users is a costly one.
At this point the growth of flash sale sites has been replaced by email lists which build slower but yield a more consistent audience. But in fairness, the email based offer was the original version of the medium, led by the much lauded Garagiste, with whom I have a long time bone to pick, but that’s a story for another time.
Of the flash sale sites I used to frequent before I had my own retail operation (and access to wholesale pricing) some have undergone unnecessary redesigns, largely for the worse, like the otherwise excellent WineAccess from which I still occasionally purchase west coast wines- for personal consumption- not available in the NY market. My only frustration there involves the ownership of WineAccess and one of our wholesale distributors- here in New York- being the same, but few else will suffer under this conflict of interests, so I’ll spare you my bitching. Before I go a bit more in depth on a couple of standouts in the market, here is a list flash sale sites with which I’ve had multiple positive experiences (and no significantly negative ones):
WineAccess.com – I don’t entirely understand the recent redesign, or why after many years of successful digital service, the site seems to be in beta, but I have been purchasing excellent west coast wine at lowest available prices for many years. So, I have to give them credit where it is due. While I’ve rarely, if ever, purchased European wine through them, WineAccess continues to source some of the finest, best priced, old vine wines CA has ever had to offer. Over the years, they’ve introduced me to a few of my favorites, and one can get a fairly good free education on the history of American viticulutre, and the nature of the industry, from vineyard to consumer. It’s worth getting on their e-mail list, just for the regular info on CA’s oldest vines. *The liquor laws are different in every state and change frequently. Check the site to see if they can ship to your state (today).
Vitis.com – Vitis is the flash sale extension arm of a brick and mortar shop in New York (not The City). They’ve got a couple of fancy MWs making their selections and offer reviews, technical specs, aging potential, cheese pairings, and a suggested recipe for each and every bottle; with a slightly weighted specialty in the Italian direction. It’s a visually attractive site with solid info and little clutter. Every deal I’ve bothered to corroborate has been the best available price in the country. *The liquor laws are different in every state and change frequently. Check the site to see if they can ship to your state (today).
WTSO.com – WinesTillSoldOut is the original version of the Vitis model and they move more units, but their content is far less compelling, and visually, it’s as boxy and unappealing as an ’86 Volvo. While they seem have to long since settled into a groove, where long time users have noticed that they seem to run many of the same labels vintage after vintage, their marathon sales can yield some decent scores, if you have all day to continuously refresh and pull the trigger at just the right moment, avoiding the Whammies. *The liquor laws are different in every state and change frequently. Check the site to see if they can ship to your state (today).
CinderellawWine.com – CinerellaWine is an extension of WineLibrary in NJ, and whatever you buy from Cinderella gets dumped directly into a shopping cart of said long time margin squeezing retailer. Both operations were grown by the infuriatingly ra-ra Jets fan that is Gary Vaynerchuk, but he’s since run off to be some kind of a motivational speaker and half-assed author that really gets the juices flowing of state school communications majors in fly-over regions across the county. *The liquor laws are different in every state and change frequently. Check the site to see if they can ship to your state (today).
Look for the next installment(s), when we’ll go to the mat for the two most interesting players in the flash sale wine market today. Until then, keep on keepin’ on…
While in New Mexico, I became aware of Taos Lightning Rye. Both the craft whiskey thing and the sourced whiskey thing (aka I’m not telling you where the juice is from or how long it was barreled) are getting out of hand. A lot of new whiskey is super-hot brown firewater and there will be a serious reckoning and culling of the population in the coming years.
Taos Lightning, it turns out, is a product of KGB Spirits in Santa Fe, NM. I purchased a number of different bottles from Total Wine and from Jubilation in Albuqurque, the latter of which was offering 2 different exclusive single barrel bottles, at very reasonable prices. If you’re in town, don’t let the odd location and prison-barred windows fool you, Jubilation is an excellent shop for spirits (I honestly didn’t check out their wine selection, but they did acquire a bunch of Merkin Vineyards wine for my neighbors’ wedding- of which I highly approve).
Now, the juice: Taos Lightning Rye 5yr is visually attractive, a medium reddish deep golden brown. A fairly sweet round nose gives way to a sweetly vanilla palate, a touch of bright cherry fruit to the mid-palate, and a nice spicy, medium-hot finish. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Willett’s excellent 4yr Rye– which is amongst the highest praise one can give a younger rye. According to co-founder, John Bernasconi, “All current whiskey was sourced from Lawrenceberg and the 15 year had the Jos. Seagram’s stamp on barrel. We are about to switch to house made with San Luis, CO grain. The aging in NM along the Rio Grande is what gives these products their uniqueness. We have a high elevation, low humidity climate and the river brings constant air flow exchange.” With so many shady stories in the current US whiskey market, we very much appreciate the candor, and anxiously await tasting what comes next from the fine folks at KGB Spirits.
And now, the case…
I was sufficiently smitten with the Taos Lightning 5yr that I was on the hunt for a styrofoam 12-pack shipper, common in the wine shipping world. However, the incoherent and arbitrary nature of state liquor law has left Albuquerque stryo-shipper-free. It’s illegal to ship wine or spirits within the state of New Mexico, let alone to the outside world. Albuquerque is a scorched barren wasteland, where the food sucks, people drive ridiculous cars, and a law abiding citizen can’t get a styro 12-pack. If the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce would like to sponsor this blog, they know where to find me.
Next, at the absurd yet demure, banal megaporium of intoxication that is Total Wine in Albuquerque- I love this town- I ask if they have anything suitable to safely transport at least a dozen bottles through the meathook paws of JFK baggage handlers. There is something they tell me, it’s a rolling travel suitcase fitted with styro insert, cut for .750ml wine bottles, 12 of them. The only one left in stock is the floor model, they’d be happy to take 10% off the sticker price for the pre-scuffed exterior shell and slightly stained interior fabric. Five minutes later, I was in a parking lot, cramming copious piles of fine New Mexican and Californian rarities into my new VinGarde Valise.
First, the idea is great: it’s a rolling suitcase containing 6 inserts, each cut to hold and protect 2 bottles each, such that one can remove as many or as few as necessary to adjust to any clothing and toiletries needed for the journey. But I was already out on the road and had my regular suitcase in hand, and used my new VinGarde Valise to full bottle capacity. Unfortunately, the follow-through is not nearly so inspired as the concept. The materials are fairly flimsy, the foam inserts made to separate the two halves aren’t even cut to the same size (one doesn’t fit at all such that the case will not close), and the bottle slots are cut to a fairly impractical stencil, unless they intend one only to carry obscure sherry. It’s one thing if the owner is going to be extremely careful with the cheap zippers, but on its maiden voyage, mine was tossed by the TSA, and returned to me in less than new condition (and containing the requisite slip letting me know my privacy had been violated). The guts of the bag are poorly constructed of insubstantial materials, and while not space efficient, I’d still recommend a much less expensive styro 12-pack shipper over this unit. Simply put, VinGarde Valise have a long way to go to make the quality of the case fit its $200+ price tag.
Bless me blogosphere for I have sinned.
It has been… a long, long time since my last confession.
I’m in the 3rd airport in six days, after not leaving Brooklyn for more than 24 hours in two years, and not taking a full day off since January 2nd. It has been glorious to get away, but best that Brooklyn is imminent.
Albuquerque is depressing. Luckily the speed limits are about as high as they get in this country, so one can get the hell out post haste. I’ve just returned from a couple of nights in Taos, where I enjoyed a wedding stocked with Merkin Vineyards Shinola Bianca and Chupacabra Red, some great chile relleno(s), and copious amounts of Taos Lightning Rye. The last for which I purchased a bottle-protective rolling bag, so I might transport some local spirits back to Brooklyn- more on that later. I fell hard for the long tall wedding photographer who shot 8000 digital images, while I shot a few rolls of good old fashioned analog- it felt great. Almost as much so, as the shockingly beautiful 23 year old brunette who guessed my age as 33. I asked her to marry me on the spot. It only occurs to me now that she said yes.
The first couple of days away from the shop the umbilical just wouldn’t snap, even though I was in idyllic Lake
Tahoe, drinking wonderful wine with people I love. 2 weddings without a single reading from Corinthians and thousands of air and road miles later, I don’t know that I’m recharged in any substantive way, but real distance from the insular world I’ve created on Atlantic Ave has given me fresh will to plow forth, hopefully with at least a soupcon of new insight.
With most of today to kill and only a couple hours of highway time to come down the mountain to the scorched strip mall hell of Albuquerque, I took a long detour through the tiny sublime Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, where strangers smile at you and say hello on the street. I clearly worried at least one security guard for my facial proximity to some of the works, but I was really just looking for the evolution of brush strokes over time, the density of pigment, and the amount of naked canvas showing through. I’m sure I was grinning like a moron, as I tend to when engulfed in sincerely rendered art, as I did over Sean Thackrey’s 2000 Orion a few days prior.
Before I wander too deeply into the self-indulgent geist, forsaking most things wine, I’ll sign off for now, but we’ll talk again soon.