The Lice of Wine Writing Redux

For propriety’s sake, this post must begin with an errata corrige: my recent post on my dinner with Leslie Sbrocco included an erroneous literary attribution (to Eugenio Montale). In fact, it was twentieth-century Italian novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda who wrote: “Pronouns! They’re the lice of thought. When a thought has lice, it scratches, like everyone who has lice…. and they get in the fingernails, then… you find pronouns, the personal pronouns.”

“Ah! the world of ideas! What a fine world! Ah! this, I, I…,” says Gadda’s autobiographical character Gonzalo in Acquainted with Grief, “among the almond blossoms… then among the pears […] I, I… the foulest of all pronouns!”*

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Above: Carlo Emilio Gadda, the great twentienth-century Italian novelist. We’ve all been “Acquainted with Grief,” haven’t we?

Over the weekend, in speaking with journalist and wine writer Peter Hellman about all of the upcoming tastings and wine events in NYC, we shared our dismay at the state of wine writing today and what I like to call the “lice of wine writing”: tastings notes so impossibly subjective, so beleaguered by the presence of the “I,” that they are bereft of meaning.

An avid reader of wine writing, Peter pointed out the absurdity in a recent promotional email where two very famous wine publications were quoted about the same wine:

Parker: “The 2003 Cornas La Louvee is a blockbuster. Glorious aromas of flowers, blackberries, roasted meats, espresso roast, and white chocolate flow from this full-bodied, concentrated, modern-styled, impressively-endowed, full-throttle Cornas. Drink it now and over the next 15+ years. 93pts”

Wine Spectator: “Tight and structured, with lots of iron and mineral notes framing the black cherry, plum, briar, tar and olive paste flavors. Long finish sports mouthwatering acidity. Very impressive for Cornas in 2003. Best from 2007 through 2015. 800 cases made. 92pts”

As Peter pointed out rightly, the tasting notes in the two passages are “mutually exclusive.” As I’ve asked many times before, how can a wine really taste like so many different things? And, come on, “mouthwatering acidity”? What the hell does that mean?

He also directed me to the website of Château Palmer where a similar discongruous hypertext emerges. Of all the I-can-taste-and-write-more-descriptors-than-you descriptions that I found there, the only one that showed some sanity was the wise Jancis Robinson, who, it seems to me, always takes a much more objective approach to wine writing and tasting notes, a style much more real and accessible to both the expert and the lay person:

Very, very deep crimson. Very intense and nervy – impressive on the nose – but more obviously big and fruity than the more delicate Ch Margaux… Slightly charred and smoky. Round and fresh and very beguiling. Real lift and only the slightest hint of inkiness on the finish. Bravo! Very fine tannins – very suave and polished with good density while still being Margaux. Very sweet. Hints of modern idiom but very gentle. Super silky texture. Sinewy – but polished sinews!

Hers is a more poetical approach and she avoids the subjective virtuosismo of the Parkers, Wine Spectators, and Tanzers, who just can’t resist the “I taste this, I taste that” one-upmanship** (as Peter pointed out, Tanzer is probably the only person in the world who knows what “Vermont granite” tastes like… Next time I go to Vermont, I’ll be sure to eat some).

When will wine writers come to their senses (pun intended) and realize that these overblown descriptors are the lice of wine writing???!!!

When I read “blackberries, roasted meats, espresso roast, and white chocolate” and “black cherry, plum, briar, tar and olive paste,” I scratch my head and like Gadda’s Gonzalo, I find lice in my fingernails — the lice of wine writing.

*Gadda, Carlo Emilio, Acquainted with Grief (original title: La cognizione del dolore), translated from the Italian by William Weaver, Braziller, New York, 1969, p. 86.

For the original Italian, see: ibid., La cognizione del dolore, Einaudi, Torino, 1970 (1963), p. 123.

In the passage, Gonzalo (Gadda) tells his doctor that he doesn’t need anyone but himself for a diagnosis of his ills, anyone but his “I.” Then, all of a sudden, a thought bursts from his mouth:

“Ah! the world of ideas! What a fine world! Ah! this, I, I… among the almond blossoms… then among the pears […] I, I… the foulest of all pronouns!”

The doctor smiled at this outburst; he didn’t understand. Still he seized the chance to direct into more serene channels their words, if not the man’s humor and thoughts.

“And why, for God’s sake? [the doctor asks Gonzalo] What have they done wrong, pronouns? When a person thinks something or other, he still has to say, “‘I think…'”

“Pronouns! [Gonzalo answers] They’re the lice of thought. When a thought has lice, it scratches, like everyone who has lice…. and they get in the fingernails, then… you find pronouns, the personal pronouns.”

**I write anti-chauvanistically “one-upmanship” and not “one-up-personship” because I believe that women have finer noses and palates in wine tasting and that they dispense with the ever-present male bravado that accompanies wine enthusiasm and connoisseurship.

Nothing to write home about but a good Bordeaux white

New York is one of the great restaurant cities of the world. So many restaurants and wine bars open and close so quickly in this town, that it’s often hard to keep track. And while there is a lot of great food here, there’s plenty of bad to go around as well. I’ve had a lot of free time on my hands lately and no kitchen to cook in, so I’ve taken the opportunity to try some new — well, new for me — places.

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Above: the only thing I liked about Quality Meats was a few interesting wines on the list, including this Caillou Blanc 2004 Château Talbot.

A few nights ago, Greg and I — we’re both steak lovers — dined at Quality Meats, a recent addition to the Smith & Wollensky mediocrity group. The decor was kinda cool: the restaurant is dressed as a old-school meat locker, with hooks on the ceiling etc.

Our gracious waiter — who later abandoned us when the restaurant got busy — recommended that we not order the rib steak for two (“it can be too fatty,” she said) and so we both ordered the sirloin, bone in, black and blue. Greg’s came so charred that he said it tasted like charcoal. Mine was medium rare and not charred at all on the outside. We also both ordered Caesar salads: the dressing was insipid (“no anchovy,” our waiter said) and the croutons store-bought.

While the wine list was laden with the classic, over-priced, over-oaked, and overblown “Napa Cabs,” there were a few interesting wines like Sinskey, Olga Raffault (we drank the 2002 Les Picasses at a really great price), and a wine I’d never had, Caillou Blanc 2004 Château Talbot, a white made from Sauvignon and Sémillon. You rarely see white Bordeaux in NYC and Greg and I immensely enjoyed this dry, structured wine.

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Above: the chef at Centro Vinoteca needs some Italian lessons.

Another recent outing took me to the very new Centro Vinoteca in the Village to meet a good friend of a friend, Ariel, who has just joined the ranks of us wine professionals. I really wanted to like Centro Vinoteca: the list is all Italian and has some great stuff, including a Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore Vigna delle Oche 2002 San Lorenzo that was fantastic. I got there early (about 5:50 p.m.) and the place was empty and I sat at the bar. My waiter was knowledgeable and skilled and was happy to open a new bottle for me when I told him the wine he had poured — open from the night before — was dead. They serve wines by the quartino there and the prices are very reasonable for the quality (“wine by the quartino,” equivalent to roughly 2.5 glasses depending on how you pour, is a Batali-Bastianich affectation, but more on that below).

But by the time Ariel arrived, about 20 minutes later, the place was packed, we lost our good waiter, and our new waiter simply didn’t know how to open a bottle of wine. Ariel wanted to try the Verdicchio and so our new waiter opened it by swirling the bottle around to rip the capsule off; she inserted the worm incorrectly and broke the cork as she pulled it out; and then — to my disbelief — she inserted the worm again, put the bottle between her knees (!!!), and ripped the cork out. After Ariel tasted the wine and opted instead for a Falanghina, the waiter poured the Falanghina into the Verdicchio glass. Oy…

Trying to move past this mishap, we did order a few things from the menu. The arancine (above) turned out not to be arancine but just simple fried rice balls dusted with some grated pecorino. Throughout Italy, arancini (masc.) are fried rice balls stuffed with meat, cheese, and/or peas. A classic Sicilian dish, the are called arancine (fem.) in Palermo and Western Sicily, arancini (masc.) in eastern Sicily and the rest of Italy.

We also ordered — partly because it seemed so preposterous — the mortadella pate [sic]. I guess the person who types up their menus doesn’t know how to use diacritics. This dish consisted of ground mortadella. I know that mortadella is “in” these days but why ruin it by destroying its texture?

My first waiter, whom I liked, mentioned that the chef at Centro Vinoteca had been Mario Batali’s sous chef on the Iron Chef TV show. Evidently she learned a lot from Molto “make-it-up-as-you-go-along-and-then-claim-it’s-authentic-Italian-food” Mario. The so-called quartino is another Batali-Bastianich affectation that you never see in Italy. It’s really too bad… I really wanted to like Centro Vinoteca. The wine list there is interesting but the service and the affectation just ruined it for me.

An Odd Couple: BBQ and 1996 Barbaresco Pora

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Above, an odd couple, styrofoam and crystal stemware: Produttori del Barbaresco 1996 Barbaresco Pora (Cru) paired with bbq ribs from Dinosaur (take-out from Harlem).

Life has always been full of surprises — some good, some not so good — and I am still coming to terms with the recent changes in my life. Frankly, it’s not been easy. Luckily and thankfully, I have been offered a place to stay through the end of the year by my good friend and bandmate Greg Wawro, who is not only the drummer in my band Nous Non Plus (codename = Prof. Harry Covert) but is also a distinguished professor of Political Science at Columbia University.

Greg is a true gourmand and cheese connoisseur. Over the years, on the road and in the apartment where I used to stay, we have enjoyed many a great meal together and many a great bottle of wine. On the occasion of my first night at his apartment, he ordered ribs from one of his favorite barbeque restaurants, not far from his place near Columbia University, Dinosaur BAR B QUE.

A few months ago, when I had to scramble to find a place to live, Greg generously let me store my wine library at his apartment. While Lambrusco would have been my wine of choice to pair with bbq ribs (which were pretty darn good, btw), the closest bottle at hand was a Barbaresco Pora 1996 Produttori del Barbaresco, one of my favorite crus (single-vineyard wines) from one of my all-time favorite producers. Bottlings from the legendary 1996 vintage in Langhe (Piedmont) will probably drink at their best in another 10-20 years but this bottle drank superbly nonetheless (however oddly paired). The fruit and acidity were vibrant, the tar and rose petal flavors rich, and a few more years in bottle would have softened the tannins, which were still very pronounced.

Of all the Produttori del Barbaresco Crus, Pora tends to be the “softest” and it “evolves” more quickly than the others (Asili is perhaps the most coveted and long-lived).

Here’s what Produttori’s winemaker Aldo Vacca has to say:

“PORA: The Dolce Vita Wine. The sandier soil gives to the Pora wine a smoother character, tannins are soft and the aromas always tend to evolve a little faster. This vineyard shows a more exotic character, sometime earthier, than others; it has a ‘lay back’ attitude and it makes me feel like I want to sip it resting in my comfortable armchair, eating pieces of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, watching an old Fellini movie.”

Although the tanginess of the sauce on the ribs wasn’t the ideal pairing, the wine drank beautifully and opened up nicely, the tannins mellowing by the time we poured the last glass.

Life has thrown me some truly “odd” curveballs over the last few months and so an “odd couple” of Barbaresco and BBQ didn’t seem so strange.

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On November 13, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence. (Unger’s unseen wife slams door. She reopens it and angrily hands Felix his saucepan) That request came from his wife…

“Acidity is like a bra”: Dinner with Leslie Sbrocco

Addendum: please look for another post of the “Lice of Wine Writing” coming early next week.

There are wine writers and then there are wine writers. Friday night found me at an undisclosed location dining with the lovely and immensely charming Leslie Sbrocco, whose entirely novel approach to wine writing and tasting has made her one of the most popular wine personalities in the U.S. today (not to mention the fact that she’s simply a lot of fun to be around).

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Leslie launched her wine-writing career with a book written expressly for women, the aptly titled Wine for Women, and has written for countless newspapers, magazines, etc.

What I like about her approach to wine is that she avoids the canonical wine descriptors and encourages her readers and audience to draw from their own personal experiences to describe the wines that they are tasting.

The celebrated twentieth-century Italian poet Eugenio Montale once wrote famously — or at least this quote has been attributed to him — “i pronomi sono i pidocchi della poesia,” “pronouns are the lice of poetry.”

ERRATA CORRIGE: Montale did not write “pronouns are the lice of poetry.” (I realized my graduate-school-days memory was a little rusty so I did some snooping around until I found the correct attribution.) In fact, twentieth-century Italian novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda wrote: “Pronouns! They’re the lice of thought. When a thought has lice, it scratches, like everyone who has lice… and they get in the fingernails, then… you find pronouns, the personal pronouns.”*

To borrow [Gadda’s] phrase, affected tasting notes are the lice of wine writing and tasting.

Here’s a great example, drawn from the website of a restaurant in Boston:

“2003 (Oregon) Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, Clos du Soleil, Domaine Serene ~ rich aromas of mineral, lime, toast, fig; rich and round palate of peach, pear, star anise, clove, long creamy finish 67.00″

Of all the wine made in the U.S., I find the Willamette Valley’s style among the most palatable and had some great Pinot Gris when I traveled through there with Nous Non Plus. But, for crying out loud, is it really possible for a wine to taste like all of those things? And while there are many wine professionals out there whose noses are so well trained that they can indeed perceive different levels of flavor and aroma (sometimes called secondary and tertiary), is there really someone out there who can taste all of those descriptors? I don’t want to taste wine that tastes like that (if it really does). Of all the affected wine descriptors, I think my favorite is “star anise.” I mean, when is the last time that anyone put star anise in their mouth?

I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen people turned off when they hear some would-be wine expert/snob rattle off a series of descriptors that most people would never have had any contact with let alone relate to. The best way to describe wine is to draw from your own personal experience and memory. That’s what is so great about tasting wine, especially when you taste it in the company of others. That’s the eureka moment of wine tasting: when two people find that they share a common sensation and sensorial memory in the act of tasting wine. (I do like this glossary of wine tasting terms, which eschews the affected terminology that you find among the ostentatious and the barkers.)

This summer when I was invited to a tasting of nine Barolos in the home of Jay McInerny (we also drank a Chablis Butteaux 1992 Raveneau and Hermitage Blanc L’Orée 1991 Chapoutier from his cellar for dinner), he complained to me about how the editors of his wine column insist that he provide tasting notes. Wouldn’t the world be a better place, we mused, if instead of writing tasting notes, wine writers wrote poems about the wine they taste?

As we enjoyed a Chambave Rosso 2004 Le Muraglie Ezio Voyat (from the Valle d’Aosta, one of my favorite wines), I told Leslie how much I admired her for making that break from the conventions of wine tasting and wine tasting notes and how I felt that it resonated with her readers and audience. It’s people like Leslie who are helping to make wine approachable and accessible to a whole new group of people, who would otherwise be intimidated and turned off by wine.

“One of my favorite examples,” she told me, “is how I help people to understand what acidity [in wine] is. ‘Acidity is like a bra,’ I tell them. ‘It holds everything up.'”

*Gadda, Carlo Emilio, Acquainted with Grief (original title: La cognizione del dolore), translated from the Italian by William Weaver, Braziller, New York, 1969, p. 86.