Steve Pitcher RIP

I don't want to mislead anyone: Steve Pitcher and I were not famous friends, but I think we had a friendly and respectful relationship. We were wine judges who talked about the business of wine, of wine tasting, of wine judging, and of everything else that people talk about when sitting at a table with hundreds of glasses of wine and lots of time on our hands. Other than wine, I doubt that Steve and I had much in common though he would always surprise me with his breadth of knowledge about all things cultural, historical and, well, let's just say it right: Steve was very, very smart. There is no death that should pass without regret, and even if Steve was not necessarily a young man, he deserved a longer life. His behavior has been described in the many public remembrances as sober, and there's no question of that, but what I remember was his steadfast integrity, a nearly forgotten attribute in business today. I think his death should not go unspoken by anyone in the wine industry. His honesty, intelligence and integrity touched many of us in the business; I’m sure he had an impact in many other communities as well. Rest in Peace, Steve.

How well does Greek wine age?

There is undoubtedly irony in Greece being known for wines for current drinking, and for being a country that rarely produces wines that will age. After all, this is the country that invented wine, and in ancient Homeric texts, aged wine is celebrated and seems almost commonplace. The rest of the world would take millennia to catch up.

But from the days of the Roman conquest until just the last ten years, Greece has not been able to break into the international marketplace; ageworthy Greek wines had no international customers. Without a marketplace, where is the incentive to make these sorts of cellar ready wines? Even Vinsanto, the brilliant, traditional and nearly eternal sweet wine of Santorini, was quickly supplanted by Vino Santo, Italy’s pale imitator. Vinsanto remains less known than it should be, and even less known than Italian Vino Santo.

So with only a few years in which Greece’s winemakers have had any motivation to make ageworthy wines, which wines are in fact ageworthy? Amongst the white wines, the dessert wines stand out, and Vin Santo is one of the most stable wines that a cellar master will ever purchase; some people believe the wines last a century. But Santorini’s Assyrtiko based dry white wines are surprisingly long-lasting as well. These wines have already proven that they can last a decade or even more.

With red wines, the two best known indigenous grapes, Xynomavro and Agiorgitiko, have already shown their abilities, albeit from only a handful of producers. Agiorgitiko has been combined with other grapes such as Syrah to offer some newer blends that many of us believe are eminently ageable. Xynomavro seems not to need helpmates; it has already shown its cellaring abilities all by itself. Are there other grapes that can do as well? That remains to be seen, and we should hope to see soon, now that Greece’s great winemakers believe that there are international buyers who will reward them for making those sorts of wines.

Change at the Missouri Wine Competition

Plenty of wine competitions get ignored. Once I might have gotten my nose out of joint about the manner in which competitions such as Missouri’s annual Wine Competition are completely invisible throughout the established media. Of course they ignore such competitions. For one, most of these wines aren’t available nationally, and many of those in the Missouri Competition aren’t found outside the state of Missouri. And the traditional wine media have always ignored the rest of winedom, the parts of it not found in the traditional areas. Why not? They’re in the business of promoting their own view about wine. A wine competition is, in effect, providing competition to these magazines and websites. Except here’s the thing, they don’t EVER review these wines, so refusing to report on the results of a competition covers wines they’ve never tasted is, if not willful laziness, just plain ignorance about what’s happening in America today.

Wines are being made everywhere, and some of those wines are excellent. Moreover, some of those wines are IMPORTANT. But these media outlets ignore them because they’re not actually in the business of reporting about wine. They’re in the business of staying alive a few more months, desperately hanging on to their potentially obsolete business models. They’ve decided to report on things about which they’re already reporting. Missouri? Hell, they’re not even talking about New York’s state competition results and New York wine has become mainstream subject matter. And of course, few of the articles they publish provide any historical context. That would be like admitting that they’ve been asleep while all this stuff was happening, and they did promise to report about wine, I think.

So here I am bitching about the lack of attention towards regional wines. Big deal. Nothing new about it, but I regard it as a continued failure of the decimated journalism industry: no one can afford to report anymore. They can’t hire new people to report on new areas, so they don’t. And we’re to blame, those of us who don’t pay for magazines or newspapers. We say that we receive all the information we need from websites and bloggers. Really? Few of them ever speak about regional wines, and those that do, cover only a small subsection of those regions, usually the one in which they’re based.

It’s a crime with faceless victims. Regional wineries, while numerous, remain nameless; vague notes about Finger Lakes, or Virginia, or Texas, or Missouri only highlight the institutional ignorance. But in each individual region, things are changing regardless of media ignorance. How it’s happening is mysterious; even local media offer only superficial coverage. But something gets through, because success slowly presses upon the regional mindset, even success in competitions in those states with decades of experimentation. The local culture begins to notice that certain wineries, grapes and styles receive acclaim and maybe it’s not simply regional pride.

Indeed, with hundreds of wines in the running, the Missouri Governor’s Cup Wine Competition isn’t a pushover anymore, if it ever was. Judges no longer hail exclusively from Missouri (though sometimes we locals are the toughest among the judges); the competition now includes a slate of industry veterans from around the country. But here’s the thing: the wines are deserving of this kind of scrutiny. Vintners have clearly upped their game of late; growers are far more skilled at grapes like Norton or Chambourcin and some of the most exciting grapes, such as Traminette and Valvin Muscat, weren’t part of the mix even a few years ago.

Not long ago, there were heated arguments as to which wines would be awarded the coveted status as Best in Class (as in Best Dry White Wine, Best Dry Red Wine and so forth) and though it may sound odd, the arguments are a bit less personal now, because the wines are better across the board. In the past, some of the wines under consideration might have tasted good to some judges but to others they were unbalanced or even flawed. Faced with the prospect of handing a top award to a flawed wine, conversations in the judging room got pretty testy, if not downright insulting. Aside from questioning the morals of someone’s sister, it can be tough to get through to a recalcitrant fellow judge.

But times have changed: there are lots of good wines in play. So the disagreements about the wines are based upon style not quality, and that leads to fewer bruised feelings. Norton is a particularly good example: Stone Hill’s Estate Bottled Norton 2009 beat out all other Nortons for the C.V. Riley Award as the best in the state (and by extension, the best in the world?), though I thought that others such as Augusta’s 2008, Les Bourgeois’ Reserve 2008, Mt. Pleasant’s Estate 2008 and Stonehaus Strother Ridge’s 2009 Cynthiana had plenty of offer as well. But they were differently styled (more robust, toastier, or riper; each was its own man) and the outcome became a matter not of quality, but of preference.

So change happens, as the phrase goes, and it’s all to the good. And of all of the changes, the Governor’s Cup is the biggest of them: this year, instead of a super sweet dessert wine, instead of Port or Sherry styled wine, instead of one of the rich and powerful dry Nortons of years past, the winner was a Valvin Muscat. Don’t be alarmed if you haven’t heard of it; it’s new. But if things continue in this manner, you will hear a great deal more about it, not only from Missouri, but from the rest of the country as well. Blumenhof’s Valvin Muscat remains the best I have tasted from anywhere, and it was nothing short of delicious. It has the floral intensity of its parent Muscat, as well as citrus and tree fruit notes that give it a dry and tangy finish, despite the sweet nose.

There are other stars amongst the 38 Gold Medal winners at this year’s competition: particularly Stonehaus Strother Ridge Vignoles, but also 2010 Stone Hill Dry Vignoles, St James 2010 Vignoles, Pirtle’s Premium Port, Mt Pleasant’s Villagio, Montelle’s Seyval Blanc 2010, Chambourin 2009 or their Chardonel 2010, Les Bourgeois’s LaBelle, Cave Vineyard’s White Chambourcin, Blumenhof’s Traminette, Baltimore Bend’s Arrowhead Red, Augusta’s 2010 Vignoles or 2010 Chardonel and Adam Puchta’s Misty Valley Vignoles. But I’m collecting bottles of Blumenhof’s lovely Valvin Muscat just to show my friends from elsewhere that Missouri has it going on.

I don’t expect the mainstream wine media to notice. They’re just trying to stay alive. It’s up to all of us who read about wine to talk about it, write about it and read some more about it.

#Drink Local Wine, at least sometimes.

Follies tonight at New York’s Marquis Theater

Marquis TheaterLife is too short for the eternity of emotions, wrote Alexander Doeblin. And faced with a flashing cursor, it seems impossible to start explaining why certain works of art both wound me and sustain me.

I have never been able to leave my dreams behind: I was to write, to act, to sing, to dance, to do all these things, and I did briefly. My wife looks at me in bewilderment (pity or disgust?) and asks why I hang on to those tired rags. Why I want to try them on again, like an old man trying to put on his wedding tux. I played music too, she says. Okay, but unlike her, I thought that those toys were uniquely mine, and that I would be allowed to play with them to my last day. Because I could have. Perhaps. Perhaps.

But how can you say you wanted those things when you left them so long untouched? Now they fill a museum of carelessness. I embraced others, and I dropped all I held to open my arms to them.

Seeing Follies tonight, there is no way that with my particular history I would not be stung with regret. I knew that going in; I was eager anyway. I discovered the musical the summer of my college freshman year; someone I knew was connected to someone else who was going to direct a version and I was told to leave town, forget college and go audition for it. Nothing of the sort happened; I was collecting what dollars I could to head to school, and a theater company at my college had made a few (somewhat empty, it turned out) promises. I wasn’t going to cash it in just yet.

I never really did. But I studied that musical like it was a map to the road I missed taking, and it was. It’s not even important to consider how little my life would have been changed by that audition; it might have been unsuccessful and once the run was finished, what then? Probably back to school.

But Follies is a musical filled with regrets: some are banished with humor and spit, just ask Carlotta who sings the showstopper, I’m Still Here. But for the foursome who anchor the play, the regrets are debilitating: four crumpled, twisted lives. Saddest of all, two of them decide to act against those regrets, they try to alter their trajectories back to their dreams, and those two are crushed at the end of the play. Their dreams were, as Springsteen famously sang, “a lie that don’t come true, or is it something worse.”

Bernadette Peters portrays Sally, the mousy little thing who turns out to have some grandiose ambitions, and I had misgivings about the casting. But I forgot that Peters is a tremendous actress, and she has proven fearless at such roles; her emotions are as raw and present as any Sally we will ever see. Maybe it’s too much for some; I drank it in as if it could answer the questions I have always had about my regrets, my choices, because for Sally, this one moment is taken as her very last chance. I know in advance that it’s a hopeless gamble; we usually call that tragedy. Maybe that statement’s too much for some too; I don’t give a damn. Four figures are portrayed as misguided, hopeful, shaken, destroyed, and all against a background of a theater reunion, the last night before the theater itself is to be demolished. These four people are shadowed by their earlier, more hopeful selves; both present and past will commingle as we watch the younger four commit the mistakes that will guarantee such unhappiness later.

Frankly, it probably sounds a bit trite like a lot of musical theater, unless you’ve seen it fulfilled by brilliant performers like Peters, Jan Maxwell and Danny Burstein. Musical theater is celebrated contrivance; Sondheim’s genius was that by providing ironic back stories to each musical number, the better the characters perform their numbers, the greater their delusions.  We know these contrivances are empty forms, choreographed steps under klieg lights, but the more the characters believe in the songs they are singing, the less in touch with reality they show themselves to be. It’s not a pretty picture of performers, though maybe that’s just how I take the message. I’ve got my issues, as I’ve noted.

This conceit has led to some critical resistance to Follies; the characters are performing song and dance numbers that ostensibly could be part of a “Follies” variety show, and with unusual wit and lacerating irony. The Follies of another time were filled with beautiful girls, smart and sassy characters and all ended well, just like in the movies. For these four, nothing of the sort will happen. In the original production, fantasy won over reality, everyone was made young, confused and hopeful again because regrets so bitter were too much to face.

The new production allows the four to pick up what’s left and stumble out the door. Is it crueler than the original? Perhaps so, their fantasies are sundered along with their lives; the door to the theater slams shut. And that image was one more to add to my own collection of regrets; once again, I walk up the aisle like the rest and away from the theater, nothing more than a paying visitor who once dreamed of partaking in the fantasy on that stage.

Ya gotta look for the good news

After an arduously steamy summer, the weather has broken, though it seems to me that there is absolutely nothing broken about the weather; it’s as right as it could be: cool, breezy, sunny. Amazing. Much of the lawn is dead; work is brain-snappingly crazy, everything’s a mess. Yeah, sports shouldn’t matter, but the Royals remain only a promise (next year, I swear, next year, it’s gonna happen), the Chiefs are just plain gonna suck and the Big 12 is no longer imploding. Now it’s exploding. This is big stuff to those of us in Kansas City. You don’t have to pretend to understand. But look at our sports landscape; the Big 12 is all we got. For as long as I have been here, it’s offered brilliant games and sometimes relentless rivalries. Border War? Lots of teams talk about a Border War but Kansas vs. Missouri was an actual war: it was one of the critical sparks that burst the country into the conflagration of our never Civil War. For some of us Kansans, there is an underlying (or perhaps more visible) sense that some of the folks on the Missouri side are still replaying that particularly ugly moment of American history. Now it seems, it all goes away courtesy of the massive egos of Texas. Thanks, Longhorns. I suppose your record will be better when you’re playing in your very own league against a handful of handpicked non-BCS teams.

K-State, my alma mater, will be even more irrelevant than it already is. KU, where my money (and my kids) go, will hie itself thither to the Big East, I suppose, but am I supposed to like that? Will MU, my wife’s alma mater go to the Big Ten as Missouri’s always triangulating governor had hoped? Or to the SEC? Who the hell knows and now, I guess I’m trying to say, who the hell cares?

My friend JK cracks open a JJ Pruem Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese 1983 and laughs. He only cares about Fantasy Baseball so he’s happy. The wine smells somewhat muted, but then it starts showing fruits that are still fresh and clean. Honey notes are everywhere; citrus, both dried and fresh, sweet pie apples; in the mouth, the sugars are starting to show more complexity than overt sweetness. There is something about these old sweet Rieslings that show less and less sweetness as they age and more and more complexity. What have thosee sugars become?

We watch the Royals give away another game (dammit, they still have a potent offense and they can field now; they don’t stupid mistakes, like they used to, so I care, I really do), and kick back, grinning at the wine. And then there’s something, a bit mushroomy, that pops up. Hmm. It takes another ten minutes or so, deep into the first glass before I state the obvious: uhm, this is corked. Yep, JK replies, since he’s already concluded the same. Hmm. Damn. It still tastes pretty good.

We watch some more baseball; pour a second glass and wait for the corkiness to get worse, like it always does, only it doesn’t. It just sits there, like a fat little annoying troll, but one that is a bit forgetful, a bit off task. That’s to say, you think it’s corked, and then it doesn’t seem so corked, and then it does, and there you go, it’s somewhere in between. Now, this is theoretically impossible: it’s either corked or it ain’t. But this one seems to be neither or both, I’m not sure how to call it. So here’s what I decide: it’s a beautiful day; the wine is cold. Let’s just drink it faster and enjoy it as much as we can. And we do.

In which Doug contentedly consumes Tsantali wines on Mount Athos

Nafplio, Greece – No matter how many times you visit Greece, no matter how traditional some of its sleepy towns may seem, there is plenty of new here. Led by a coterie of (often) French educated, worldly and dedicated winemakers, Greece's historical varieties are undergoing a remarkable makeover. Pleasant Assyrtiko is becoming rich and unctuous Assyrtiko. Pink Moschofilero has lost its color and gained floral intensity and tangy texture. Agiorgitiko has grown from soft and forgettable carafe wine to complex age-worthy vin de garde. Savatiano isn't just for Retsina anymore; Roditis isn't a throwaway pink wine either. Light, bitter and vegetal Xynomavro is becoming a powerful competitor to Italy's Nebbiolo, at least for some wine writers. I prefer to think of it as its own, very idiosyncratic man (think Ross Perot crossed with Russell Brand. Actually, don't think about that at all; that would be really weird).

But just as the culinary world has wakened up to octopus (it's popping up on menus around the country like calamari in the 1980's), the wine world is beginning to grasp that these wines are from grapes that we cannot link to any well-known grapes, and so these wines are indispensable. With continuing wine trends of higher acidity and lower alcohol as the stated goal of the industry (even if high alcohol fruit bombs still get all the press), Greece's red and white wines offer a wealth of novel tastes. And wine drinkers are nothing if not ADHD; they seem to want to try something new everyday and simply changing brands of Cabernet is no longer enough. Instead, Greece offers an entirely new set of grapes, flavors, aromas, histories and traditions of food and wine.

The new Greek wine revolution is only just now beginning and let's face it, this is the most exciting time for bona fide geeks; this time around, we get to play a role in the industry's rediscovery of the world's oldest wines. Case in point? Mount Athos, an ancient Orthodox enclave along the coast of Greece. I took a trip there a few weeks ago and returned hot, dusty, sticky and probably a little smelly. The road to Mount Athos isn't paved; the gate to the property through which we enter intended only for the vineyard workers; we've parked our cars behind the trees and scrambled through the brush. "Hurry, hurry", declares our host, " we need to hurry". I don't see anyone at all, no armed guards, but we slide through the gate and jump into a truck parked on the other side of the nearly hidden entry.

It's okay that we're here; I'm not sure why we're acting like border jumpers. You see, we're males, every one of us, so it's cool. We've left the women in our group behind in their surf and Champagne soaked misery. Gosset Rose. Some misery, huh? But Mount Athos, a religious retreat along the coast in northern Greece, is for men only. However good the wines are here, and they are good, there is one central notion that will never, ever leave the mind of the visitor: why no women?

And make no mistake, the wizened watchers over Mount Athos' traditions do not discriminate against humans only: female animals too are unwelcome here. I'm not making this stuff up; like many aspects of religion, certain ideas have taken root and no matter how bizarre the tree grows, nobody has the nerve to cut off the weirder branches. The only explanation that I'm given is that this area (no small stuff – it's about 400 square miles of someone's estrogen-free concept of heaven) was founded upon the worship of the Virgin Mary. Any whiff of womanhood, other than the two millennia old mother of god, is unwelcome and might distract from the primary focus. Nope. I couldn't make this up if I tried.

We climb a rutty blonde road; it's not paved and not in great shape. We have to maintain it ourselves, explain our hosts, the winemaking team for Tsantali Wines. The company entered a sort of marriage with one of the powers on Mount Athos in the 1970's, rescuing old vines, cleaning and organizing vineyards, planting new ones. These days they're cleaning an abandoned shell of a building; they'll build a winery inside, though it will take years.

They also built a little tasting room high atop their vineyards, with sweeping views down to the Aegean Sea. After our long drive, we take turns using the toilet, as well as making lame comments as to which toilet belongs to the women, or why have walls around the thing at all? Clearly we are not yet in the spirit of the thing.

The wind blows the smell of mastic, and lavender, and wild sage; it is persuasive rather than reproving. It's quiet here; no buzzing bugs, no machines or motors in the distance, just a few birds chirping (ah-hah! Female birds! So even this religion has a bit of real world flexibility). We trudge up to one monastery (there are twenty of them dotting this spit of land as it reaches up to the Mount of Athos itself. Hmm, Athos…ensues a series of mispronunciations of the name.

The Tsantali's have converted one building into a sort of wine museum and guesthouse. One religious pilgrim is staring at me from the balcony: I wave; he waves me away and disappears. Against the backside of the long four-story structure, there is a pen with three boars; two small ones and a full-grown, tusky and busily drooling male. I take pictures as quickly as I can; my compatriots talk to him and he paws the ground and rubs against the fence. More drooling and grunting. He's got to be at least three hundred pounds of muscle and musk (Sorry, Howlin' Wolf). The other two give way to Big Billy the Monk, as I rename him. Later he will feature in my absurd report to the women about the wild gay romp that I was offered on Mount Athos. In your dreams, Billy.

The story of Mount Athos gets odder: the residents pay no taxes and own variously reported portions of Greece's land mass – some say ten percent, some say it's closer to one third. Moreover the taxpayer covers their salaries. And you think you got financial challenges? This nearly thousand-year-old scam is admittedly one of only several systemic reasons for Greece's fiscal crisis, but these guys could make Bernie Madoff blush, I'd bet. Oh, no, that's right, it's all for god. I always forget cause I'm not a drinker of that kool-aid.

The crisis has caused more than a few folks to question the arrangement but in a court of law, ownership is ownership, no matter how poorly thought out the original deal might be. And I don’t see the surprisingly savvy moneyed monks handing all their well-gotten gain over anytime soon. Why should they?

For Tsantali, it's been a fair enough deal; Tsantali does all the work and shares its profits with the monks, sharecropper-like. They've replanted existing vineyards with new material and grapes, created new ones, and they seek to benefit form the place's isolation by hewing to organic viticulture. Think of it: most organic vineyards are uncomfortably close to someone who isn't organic at all. Sprays, pesticides, herbicides and such have a tendency to drift; they rarely respect boundaries.

The wines Tsantali fashions here are delicious if still little known in the U.S, but like all wines Greek that seems to be changing. The wine tasting proceeds at a Greek, languorous pace. The wines are seductive. All is quiet, the sea a languid blue liquid framing the greens and browns in a cold calm. The air is gentle; the mood is anything but dictatorial or judgmental or discriminatory. But soon enough we head down to slide through the little green gate, padlocked again behind us and the sounds are nearly raucous in comparison; buzzes, ringing, clangs, screeches, booming, shouts, yips, barks, caterwauls, for all I can tell. We drive back to the hotel and while we feel rather mellow, the women seemed even more relaxed. I count three dead bottles of Gosset.

at a bar in Des Moines, yep, it’s the good life

Drummie ZebAt the bar sits a thin dreadlocked man; he is being gushed over by a succession of young women. He's the drummer with the Wailers, who have just left the stage on the grassy riverbank next to the hotel. In fact he's called Drummie Zeb. He's drummed for ten years with legendary bass player Family Man (Aston Barrett) who, if you don't know, would be really amazing to drum with, or scary, I'm not sure which. He's very cool with it; Zeb used to play with Kenny Chesney. Paul Simon before that.

It's all the same, he laughs, of course you play different but you have to find your thing, the thing that makes them know who you are. He says, I tell my son who is a drummer to look for the way YOU play. So then I tell Zeb about wine competitions and how it's so important for a taster to be who their palate is, not who they think it should be, not what some more important person's palate is, but who you are. Conversely, it's also important not to be an asshole about it: if everybody disagrees with you, move on and find the next good wine. It's a pretty stupid analogy and Zeb is very polite about it. He's from Virginia; maybe it's southern manners. Later I am reading that Cy Twombly thought that living in Virginia was good preparation for living in Italy: something about faded grandeur.

Who put medicine in my wine?

I've been on a mad tear for three weeks, probably twenty cities, and hundreds more cocktails and wines (beers don't count, or at least I don't count them as they go down) and I've been waiting for today to try to write it down. In some form or other. Some sort of record, but then I always imagine that I will write these things down and time doesn't allow it.

That, and this morning I had to undergo one of those procedures that people of a certain age undergo. It involves 24 hours of gatorade, juice and, well, nothing else, and before the sun came up this morning, I was up and about to go down, at least as long as it took for them to take snapshots of my innerds. For some reason, they feel like it's a good thing to give you a few reproductions of your slimy (but very empty) insides. Thanks. Wait, now that you mention it, I see the resemblance. Wow, it looks just like me. 

But here's the part that was weird. I'm on the gurney, butt exposed to the not yet fully awakened medical team (that should do the trick), when the guy with the drugs gives me the shot. Things start to go fuzzy and wobbly and then there's the smell! What the hell is that? Nap.

When I wake up about thirty minutes later, I'm just been wheeled into the recovery area. The nurse is giving me the okay to sip water, but all I can think about is: what the hell was the smell? So I ask her. Oh, it was the oxygen tube under your nose. No, it wasn't. That was there for about five minutes and it was when he stuck the drugs into my IV that some totally weird, medicine meets plastic meets rubber hose meets artificial herbs or something got up all in me.

I explain to her and she does the, hunh, that's weird (but we've got like 300 more patients lined up so drink your water and go home), and, no, actually, she was quite nice but I got no answers.

That was sixteen hours ago and I can still smell it. Not much of it. I have to really sniff hard to get it, but (sniff) there it is again. Weird. There was more of it earlier today, and I was still a little hinky from that shot and it's lessening.

But now I'm trying to taste some wines, assess them, write about them and be, well, correct as to what's in them and what if that smell is still here? It's one of the many dubious matters of wine tasting: there are always influences, whether smoke, fatigue, the trash needs taking out, the cat box needs cleaning, the cat's butt needs cleaning (you don't know my cat. Couldn't they breed longhairs with shorthairs on their butts?). The list goes on.

We assessors of taste, we try to get it right. But the central issue of wine or any other drink that we hope to limn is: is it good to drink? That too is fraught with influence: mood, season, food, proximity (whether to aromas or just to the wine that came before) and we spend a lifetime trying to sort out a relative mean. Then along comes a new flavor (and somebody squirts it into your veins) and, damn! This shit is hard to do!

Having done this pretty much 24-7 for thirty five years or more, I haven't usually felt that I couldn't put together a reasonable explanation of a wine, even in the throes of a cold or such. But tonight, at least, I'm giving these wines a rest.

UC Davis Sweet Wine Symposium Report

It's almost impossible to imagine today, but a half-century ago sweet and dessert wines in the United States accounted for the majority of wines consumed. Fully two-thirds of all wines were dessert styled wines, including sweet wines made without fortification (the addition of alcohol), as well as Ports and Sherries (albeit of the domestic persuasion), and other fortified wines.

It's easy to sneer at those times because clearly America's passion for wine was fuelled by its sweet tooth, and it's not a pretty world where MD 2020 and Thunderbird far outsell Cabernet. Yes, we are a far more sophisticated bunch today. But while America has learned to love dry wines, it has somehow forgotten that sweet wines can be pretty wonderful too. 

Moreover, one of the unfortunate tendencies of the wine industry is to pretend that, because many wine professionals prefer dry wines over sweet ones, everyone else does too. But that's not true at all. One of the reasons that wine sales historically linger behind cocktail and beer sales is that wine sellers haven't bothered to listen to the people who don't drink wine. For most non-wine drinkers, wine is too bitter, too dry, too tart and, well, just not sweet enough.

But of course plenty of wines are sweet enough; we just don't talk about them enough. The UC Davis Sweet Symposium, which took place on January 12, 2011, was created to offer historical background as well as technical tips to winemakers interested in making sweet wines, but it also took on the issue of sweet wine sales, or lack thereof. Legendary wine expert Darrell Corti began the day with a discourse on sweet wine's once prominent place throughout wine culture, focusing upon its stability in comparison to other styles of wine in a pre-refrigerated world.

Corti explained, "Historically, sweet wines have been considered to be among the finest wines in the world because they were stable, had good longevity, they often required more processing and aging, and they were produced in locations with a history of tradition and practices in place."

In my presentation, I offered a similar perspective. Vinsanto from Santorini is an ancient wine, and is extraordinarily long-lived. Its virtues of deliciousness and stability made its fame throughout the world, though it was in northern Italy that the wine earned the ultimate flattery of imitation. Italian Vin Santo utilized the same grape drying methodology that the producers on Santorini had proven effective, and eventually stole the name as well. But because Santorini is such a dry and windy place, the process can proceed without the massive amounts of sulfur that the Italians utilize.

Master of Wine Tim Hanni's presentation echoed our comments about the past importance of sweet wines. And Tim believes too that the vast majority of people would happily consume sweet wines if only the industry would support those wines, instead of treating sweet wine consumers as somehow uneducated.

"Sweet wine drinkers are not dead, they are alive and well and sipping sweet cocktails," Hanni said. He added, "There are people out there who would love to drink wine, but we won't let them." He suggested "a massive re-education."

The world's greatest wines for centuries: Tokaji, Madeira, Malaga, Port, Sherry, Constantia, Yquem and other Sauternes, and of course, Vinsanto, are just as compelling today and would be just as universally loved, if only people were given a chance to try them. Their rarity and difficulty of production mean that most are too expensive for average folk, though Vinsanto and others can be perfectly affordable as a restaurant available, wine by the glass feature.

Strangely, restaurants don't bother offering the kinds of dessert wine lists that draw sufficient attention, either from customers or servers. Most restaurants list most of their dessert wines by the bottle only, but few customers want more than a small glass of dessert wine, especially at the end of a long meal. Those restaurateurs evince interest in selling dessert wines, but insist that sales are insufficient to justify opening a bottle of wine. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: nobody orders it because it's not available by the glass, so the restaurateur has "proof" that customers aren't interested.

Worse still, restaurant staff are wholly ignorant of the stability of dessert wines. Sure, your average Chardonnay goes south within a few days of opening, but Vinsanto can last for weeks after being opened, as long as it is refrigerated. And there is nothing quite as magical as the dulcet, honeyed character of Vinsanto, with notes of raisin, fig, cocoa, coffee bean (and dozens more flavors) all with the remarkable racy cleanliness of citrus in the finish. There's really nothing like it, though dessert wines throughout history have emulated and even imitated its character. Now if we can just get restaurants to let people try it.

A brief taste

Beaulieu Vineyards George de la Tour 2007 is the best version of this wine I’ve had in years. Some of the greatest California wines I’ve ever had were BV George de la Tour’s, albeit the 1968, the 1970, the 1975 and such. The 1990’s were not so kind; there were some issues with cellar taint and the wines just never seemed right. But all that has been fixed, and last night’s bottle of 2007 had all the richness I expect from that vintage as well as an almost shockingly soft finish. I’m not sure I believe this wine has a long life to it (not like the ’68 or ’70 did) but as with so many wines of this style, I’m not sure I much care. It’s delish.

But because caveats are the bread and butter of the wine writer’s meal, I’ll note as well that the alcohol was a bit too much for one of my sensitive breeding. Okay, yep, there’s self mockery there, but I’m not much of a fan of 15% alcohol dry wines, though some handle the octane better than others. The 2007 George de la Tour is not too hot, but a bit warm from all that alcohol nonetheless. I’m not quibbling; I’m just forewarning any drinkers out there.

Wine consultant & writer, one of only four people in the world to hold both Master Sommelier and Master of Wine titles