Monday, November 14, 2011


I suppose I’m writing this out a (vain?) hope that this might help things to make more sense. That it might palliate my fears in some way, and maybe settle the sourness in my stomach. James Altucher, a blogger who I like, advocates a sort of radical honesty that I find attractive, and following his example, I want to use this blog not only as a mouthpiece for my esoteric ponderings on wine and philosophy, but for my other thoughts and feelings as well.

I find myself back at the crossroads. The one I left a few weeks ago, at the suggestion of a guide, to travel down a very particular road I hadn’t considered traversing before. Having never paid this road much attention, I found myself thinking a lot about it, and let myself get a little too attached to the possibility of reaching a rather attractive destination at the road’s end. It appeared to be everything I wanted: challenging, rewarding, and rather obscenely lucrative, assuming it worked out. And it was dropped into my lap (because of the blog!)—even better! But I’ve found the way immovably blocked (at least for now), at least until I find a way to clear it, or a detour opens up. Neither can happen overnight.

By way of rationalization, it was a long shot—not something I should have assigned as high a probability as I find I did. Ah, but hopes and dreams are not probabilities in the human heart, even in one as ambitiously rational as mine. And rejection never feels good, regardless of the extenuating circumstances. Turns out I lack a heart of machine-like functionality, despite possessing sincere admiration for Crocker’s Rules.

So I’m back at the crossroads. Staring at all these roads again. Roads that feel stale, roads I am sick of considering, that I now have to triple- and qualdruple-check for soundness and compatibility with my goals. Wait—what are my goals again?

What’s worse is that I find myself under more pressure this time. Ever-increasing pressure, as these weeks turn into months, as my wife’s belly continues to swell in inverse proportion to her energy level, and the potential of losing her (substantial) monthly contributions to our income becomes more real. I’m not sure whether this pressure will make my search for more profitable and fulfilling employment easier or harder*, but either way, I’ll have to figure out a new way of dealing with the leaden feeling in the pit of my stomach, and move on.

I hope my little allegory is clear enough to count as honest. I’m looking for a new job, just in case it wasn’t clear. I feel like I’m considering too many different options, none of which I find terribly compelling (at least for longer than a few weeks), and this recent foray toward a job was the furthest I’ve traveled in any one direction for quite some time. Now, back at square one, I feel paralyzed by pure possibility. Of course, it makes sense that nothing would tickle my fancy right on the other side of rejection, so instead of just feeling rejected, I feel rejected and hopeless. Uninspired. Worried. So I’m lying on the world’s couch, spilling my guts in metaphors, caring very little what you write on your notepad, hoping for some relief, some encouragement, and perhaps some clarity and inspiration. Anyone have any they can spare?

*After thinking about it a bit, if forced, I’d guess that the proportional graph between pressure and success (at least in my own life) looks like a big hump with a sharp spike up and then down again at the far end. That is to say, success correlates positively with pressure at first, then levels off and sinks as pressure increases. Finally, when the pressure builds enough into a sink-or-swim scenario, success spikes back up, then right back down when it becomes too much for anyone to bear while remaining psychologically intact.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Clarifications on the Subject of BioDynamic Farming

People say a lot of stuff about BioDynamics, and most of it not very carefully, that is to say, what is said tends to lack philosophical or logical rigor. I’m not going to link to anything or refute anyone in particular, but instead I’ll simply add my two cents on what I think is the real issue, the epistemology of the matter, or on what we can and cannot say about BioDynamic farming.

Briefly, by way of introduction, from Wikipedia, “Biodynamic agriculture is a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants and animals as a self-nourishing system without external inputs insofar as this is possible given the loss of nutrients due to the export of food.” More specifically, BD is a farming method that requires the use of various “preparations” during the farming and harvesting processes, most famously (and controversially) the burying of a cow’s horn at a depth of 40–60 cm below the ground in the autumn, which is left to decompose during the winter and recovered for use the following spring as an anti-fungal treatment for the vines. BD sprang from a series of lectures given by philosopher/intellectual entrepreneur Rudolf Steiner in 1924. Now, it seems relatively uncontroversial that Steiner himself was located somewhere on the spectrum between slightly loony and full-blown charlatan and fraudster, but hopefully no one is trying to commit a genetic fallacy here, so let’s put that consideration aside.

These days, if you want to get “certified Biodynamic,” you get an organization called Demeter to come certify you and give you permission to use the label. They charge you for doing this, so Demeter has an economic incentive for keeping the philosophy of BD alive (a much belabored point by certain critics, most especially Stu Smith of the blog Biodynamics is a Hoax). Again, this particular point doesn’t concern me, since the existence of economic incentives can’t logically prove anything about BD, though I will say that people don’t generally start businesses that sell products they don’t believe in, so the “hoax” part seems a stretch to me.


While I can’t find any sort of statement on Demeter’s website about what exactly BioDynamic viticulture will change about a given agricultural environment, or any guarantees about increases in quality (the focus instead seems to be on overall environmental health and sustainability), I think it’s fair to assume that Demeter or any proponent of BD must assert that (at bare minimum):

BD1. The farming practices prescribed by Biodynamics’ ecological farming system directly contribute to greater vineyard health/vitality than non-BD vineyards and (therefore)

BD2. Biodynamics is directly responsible for the production of wines superior to those produced non-Biodynamically (or more precisely, better than would otherwise be produced on the site, all other things being equal).


And more importantly, how do we measure it? I take it that BD1 is easy to measure (could be as simple as the overall robustness of the plants), but the issues enclosed in BD2 are of course a hornet’s nest of debate and confusion. I fear that what makes a wine better or worse than another is an issue forever damned to the realm of the subjective. We know from innumerable examples that virtually no two critics can be made to agree across the board about which wines are better than others. There isn’t even any (non-anecdotal) evidence, so far as I know, that anyone can tell BD wines from non-BD wines (even winemakers themselves—see the recently released documentary Wine from Here). But nevertheless, something like BD2 is necessary, because unless this method creates better wines, why do it (perhaps with philosophical or ecological benefits creating additional motivations)? But with regards to whether it works, I take it that no scientific study has shown significant differences in plots farmed BioDynamically vs. those farmed organically. This does not mean that there won’t be a study showing just that, as science is not about proving anything, but rather about falsifying hypotheses, but nevertheless, there is no evidence that Biodynamics is efficacious relative to BD1, and, if BD2 follows from BD1, BD2 fails to be supported as well.


What we get to say about it depends on how we think about BD. I take it that there are two schools of thought here: first, there are those who think the scientific method applies to BD, that is acts through a series of naturalistic (read: empirically measurable) processes. In other words, you don’t think BD works because it allows the vine faeries to perform their grape-ripening magic. Rather, you think that all the forces at work seem to be physical forces, and are at least possibly knowable by human agents (they don’t have to be actually known in reality...obviously our scientific knowledge isn’t perfect). If you’re in this first camp, and you agree that what BD claims to do is unclear, and that good science has thus far failed to show that BD has positive effects, well, then you can’t say much about it. You can say that it needs to make a hypothesis and subject it to experimentation. In the second camp, there are those who think that the scientific method DOES NOT apply to BD (or cannot apply, or ought not to be applied). If you’re in this camp, then I’m not sure what exactly you think the efficacy of BD can be attributed to, but you’re probably inclined to appeal to the complexity of the interactions of all the forces in the vineyard as a sort of explanation. If so, please read that essay I just linked. It explains why appealing to complexity is not an explanation. Also, you can watch this video (starting at 1:19), which explains the “Special Pleading” fallacy, which is more or less the same thing. To me, this claim that it is even possible to understand BD at a fundamental level is very strange, and of the fideistic character that you find in much of religious belief. And just like advocating the existence of a non-empirical deity, it seems the burden of proof is on the proponent of BD to explain how her system works.

One way to respond would be to say that one doesn’t need to understand something to be able to recognize its effects, i.e. we can oftentimes see the good (or bad) a thing does without perfectly understanding how the effect is caused (it is in fact really important to keep these two things separate, the what-is-the-case, or “metaphysics,” from the what-we-know-about-it, or “epistemology”). However, this doesn’t do anything to demonstrate the essential and irreducible complexity of BD, and it seems relatively easy to undo the claim of irreducible complexity that this sort of BD proponent is advocating. We could run some simple experiments where BD grape-growing was practiced on a given plot of land, while on similar plots, the grape growing was carried out in a variety of different forms, all of them close to BD, but not quite. So for instance one plot might leave out the cow-horn preparation, while another might ignore the moon phases with regards to picking schedules, etc. Variations on the theme of BD would, with a large enough sample, give us data about the most effective and ineffective aspects of BD farming. If you’re like me, you find it intuitive that some of these changes would help, some would hurt, and overall most of the slight variations would garner extremely similar end results to the pure BD farming. If that’s the case, then there wouldn’t be any logical reason for supporting BD as an irreducibly effective farming method, and Steiner’s spell would be broken.


But these experiments haven’t been done, and I don’t see anyone lining up to perform them. So here’s the bottom line. You can’t claim BD is the solution to a fundamentally complicated problem. Or that it itself is irreducibly complex (could this be demonstrated? I’m not sure “irreducibly complex” has a scientific definition). At least, not if you want to be considered rational. What you can say is that BD seems to do x, y, and z (and enumerate and articulate these phenomena), and conduct a scientifically sound experiment to see if your hypothesis (BD) is really best explanation.

Whether BD works remains to be shown, and this is the point I want to stress: it can be shown. Neither grape growing nor wine making are fundamentally complicated things. They are reducible to a finite number of possible influences. If we don’t perfectly understand the influences, well, so much the worse for us, but if the scientific progress of the last 200 years has shown us ANYTHING, it’s been that mysteries don’t stay mysterious for too long once science gets its teeth into them. So, seriously, you mystery mongers, have a little faith.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What Does Terroir Taste Like?

In this article, Jaime Goode asks an interesting question: what does Terroir taste like? Seems to me there’s a simple answer: it doesn’t taste like anything. Or rather, it doesn’t taste like anything else. Every terroir, if it exists, is by definition unique, and so if a wine possesses terroir, it will not taste like any other wine with terroir (it could conceivably taste like a “manipulated” wine, if the manipulators are good enough at mimicking the taste of the original terroir wine (I don’t think they are yet, but given a perfect understanding of chemistry it’s possible), or if they’ve matched it by accident, I suppose.) I think this provides an explanation for the answer to his second question of the article, which is essentially “can people blind taste terroir?” (answer: not really, at least given some recent anecdotal evidence). Because if terroir doesn’t taste of anything in particular, then unless you’re really familiar with a particular terroir, you won’t be able to spot it. Though, you could conceivably get really good at tasting “manipulated” wines, i.e. know what all the tricks of the trade do to the taste of wines, and then apophatically (i.e. by process of elimination...can I use theological terminology in this forum? Perhaps there’s a better word that this, but I don’t know what it is.) spot the terroir wines.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Brain Food Week of 22nd

1. We think we see more of people’s character than they think we do. And they think the same about us.

2. They should show this at movie theatres right before the previews. Though it may still be too subtle for some people.

3. Us poor introverts.

4. Today I found out about a really cool website.

5. Turns out learners/viewers don’t like indirect language: they like being told what is going on, or alternatively what conclusions to draw. I’ve always enjoyed having spoilers before seeing films, so this makes sense to me. I’ve also always hated the Socratic method (that is to say, the “read-my-mind” method of teaching), so I like it from that perspective as well. The latter is obviously the more important, as this is great to know from a pedagogical standpoint: this teaches us to not let students infer. Instead, be explicit about the conclusion, and work backwards to make sense of it.

6. This is a GREAT article I just found about Philosophy as a discipline. Or really, how it really ought to be done. I am nearly in 100% agreement. Worth your time. So is studying philosophy, which is where the author and I may differ. Logic, in particular, has probably been the most influential subject to ever hit my brain.

7. I really liked The Omnivore’s Dilemma. This article talks a bit about the shortcomings of Pollan’s pithy philosophy“Eat food. Not a lot. Mostly plants.”

8. Good older essay at Less Wrong about the first experiment every conducted. It’s probably good that we don’t execute scientists whose hypotheses get disproved, right?

9. I am slowly learning Bayesian epistemology. I’m not naturally good at math and statistics, so it’s an uphill battle, but a rewarding one. Here’s an interesting lecture at Google by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, author of "The Theory That Would Not Die,” a history of Baye’s Theorem. Interesting stuff.

10. Great article at Philosophy News on the subject “What is Philosophy.” Forward this to all your friends.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Brain Food 8/12/11

Slow week, I guess.

1. A blog post from a guy I just discovered, Ben Casnocha, on the “stability/stimulation tradeoff,” i.e. the either/or situation people find themselves in with regards to careers-do I pick the stable one, or the stimulating one? This is a dilemma that’s hitting me especially hard as I try to figure out what to do with my life.

2. Good article about the things you get to know about someone with years of marriage.

3. Mega Purple is a bummer. I’m not even a real “natural wine” freak, but this stuff is just makeup that doesn’t really help. I vote for the mandatory full disclosure of ingredients on wine labels.

4. Canned Tuna or canned Salmon? Easy. Salmon. Here’s why.

Monday, August 8, 2011

I Get It Now. Burgundy is Sexy.

Ok, ok, I get it now. Burgundy is sexy as hell.

All the wine nerds love Burgundy. ALL of them. But until recently, I didn’t. It had just never really done it for me. But in trying to follow my own advice from Things A Wine Newbie Should Do, I went to a Burgundy tasting the other day with my buddy Jonathan (wine tastings are no fun solo). The wines were all Becky Wasserman (the legend) selections, and it turns out there IS IN FACT a difference between New World Pinot Noir (had it...not that exciting...even the expensive stuff), and (even more expensive) Grand Cru Burgundy (hadn’t had it...turns out, it's pretty fantastic).

Overall, my impressions were really positive. Some really fantastic wines, though very few values. Interestingly, a lot of them were sort of “late finishing” wines. Like they don’t have much or any power on the attack, and then they would explode on the midpalate and finish. I’m not sure what causes this, but it’s an interesting phenomenon I’ve only recently put my finger on, and if know anything else about it let me know. In any case, I find that I prefer wines that grab me at the beginning rather than the end. Perhaps it’s because I don’t like surprises. My winemaker uncle has described wines of this sort (up front wines, that hit you right away) as “slutty” (though, probably what he also means is that they lack depth and complexity post-attack...and these wines didn’t lack for complexity). So that's kinda fun.

Anyway, to the wines. We tasted 7 whites first. All white Burgundy is made from the Chardonnay grape, for the uninitiated. Good wines all, ranging in price from about $30 to $120. But because we all know price and quality (especially as a subjective thing) do not correlate very strictly, the most expensive (‘09 Jean-Noel Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru ‘Les Caillerets’) was definitely not my favorite. Instead, the second most expensive was. The $110 ‘09 JP Fichet Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru ‘Referts.’ I actually didn't like the Jean-Noel much at all, or at least, it was not what I was expecting, because it was much lighter than the surrounding wines. But it’s obviously fallacious to equate quality with high viscosity, and I wonder if the sort of “Parker effect” is in part or whole the cause of that link in my mind...that “better” (higher scored) wines are the thicker ones. It usually seems to be the case.* Had some other good learning experiences - most importantly, I put a name to a particular flavor that I get in fruity, acidic Chardonnay. Gummi Bear! It's totally yellow or white gummi bear! Go get some gummi bears, you'll see. Actually, knowing the flavors of a bunch of different candies (yes, with artificial fruit flavoring) is a great way to prepare yourself for tasting wine, since those aromas and tastes often show up in wine. For example.

But I knew that I liked white Burgundy. It was the reds that were the real eye-opening experience. Good overall, and the barnyard was under control (not a fan of the poop). My favorites were the 2008 Digioia-Royer Chambolle-Musigny VV ($65) and the 2008 Camille Giroud Corton ‘Le Rognet’ Grand Cru ($95). The two really expensive wines ($198 and $180) were both good, especially the 2008 Cecile Tremblay Chapelle-Chambertin Grand Cru. Pity they’re so expensive, because unless someone else is buying, I'll never get to drink them at home. And that’s really in essence my problem with Burgundy. It’s hard for me to get really excited about these wines, because most of them I simply cannot afford. In fact, most of them I would not purchase if they were HALF their listed prices, and at their current way. There were maybe two wines at the tasting that I would buy, out of 20, and both were under 30 bucks.

But all in all a great learning experience, and fun to get to taste $1300 worth of wine for a small fraction of the cost.

Ok, wrapping up, OH YES. ATTENTION SINGLE LADIES! Wine tastings are a GREAT place to meet men! Not only is the crowd 75% male, but they’re automatically men of (at least some) taste, (at least some) sophistication, and (very likely) vocation (i.e. they have jobs...cause wine (esp. Burgundy) costs some serious cash money bling bling).

Finally, I learned something from Jonathan, that Teetoalism was actually named like "Tea total-er" in, the total stimulants we consume are tea and only tea. Apparently the pledge of the first teetotal society was "We agree to abstain from all liquors of an intoxicating quality whether ale, porter, wine or ardent spirits, except as medicine." I actually think I can get on board with that, allowing a someone loose definition of "medicine." Also, you should check out that Wikipedia link because it contains a list of famous teetotalers, like Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Billy Connolly(!), Natalie Portman, and Bruce Willis. Some real surprises. Poor lambs...don’t know what they’re missing**

*There are several cases of the Robert Mondavi chard (a big, oaky monster of a wine) beating out the world-renouned Raveneau Chablis (a delicate, elegant, and apparently quite enchanting wine) in blind tastings with both American and French tasters who would be quicker to praise the Raveneau if they had known what the glasses contained.

**Obviously, abstaining from alcohol if you’re an alcoholic is different, and very possibly the cause of the teetotalism of some of the people on this list. It goes without saying (but this is for the public, so I’m saying it) that they have my full support.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Brain Food 8/4/11

This is really a couple of days worth of stuff, because I didn’t get around to posting yesterday or the day before.

1. Philosopher argues that evolutionary metaphysics isn’t akin to the faith claims of religion, specifically advancing the thesis that “every question that used to be answered by appealing to God can be answered better by appealing to some form of evolution.”

2. You could be wrong. Really. Consider it carefully, because it’s better to know sooner than later. The best part of this is her “Series of Unfortunate Assumptions” people make about why people disagree with us: the ignorance assumption, the idiocy assumption, and the evil assumption. Nicely done.

3. El Bulli has closed, which is sad. This is a great post outlining one diner’s experience at the legendary restaurant.

4. Bertrand Russell: not right about everything, but a wise man nonetheless.

5. This is pretty fascinating. An article about the difficulties cryonics faces in attempting to market itself to the world.

6. An interesting article about the frustrating and endless task of trying to find out what is REALLY wrong with or about religion (as a whole or in general). The conclusion he come to and only briefly comments on is that faith is the only truly unsalvagable part of religion.

7. Some video highlights of Jancis Robinson’s keynote at the 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference

8. I wish I had been at this concert.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Brain Food 8/1/11

1. A good listing of the up and comers of the Washington wine scene. I’ve tried a few of these wines, and they aren’t joking around.

2. Great article in the New Yorker which summarizes the May 1st mission that ended in the death of Osama bin Laden, and the events preceding and following. Excellently written.

3. A video of the legendary Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards (one of my favs - Central Coast CA represent) talking about the history of Ridge.

3. A security expert talks at TED. Best quote “It if happens in the news, don’t worry about it [happening to you].”

Friday, July 29, 2011

Brain Food 7/29/11

Missed yesterday because I was home taking care of a sick wife.

1. Amazing story. First American to make Grand Cru Burgundy. And he did it BEFORE HE TURNED 30.

2. Good article at Terroirist concerning the oversimplification of marketing to Milennials. Mr. White is correct - all those things he points out are indeed flat-out incorrect assumptions. The dumbing-down of wine theory for this new generation is pretty insulting, frankly. And gross.

3. I have a friend with cancer, and this seems about accurate. Treatment is more complicated than you think.

4. A fun list of words that you should know, from the New York Times. I’m about half and half. Let me know if you want to make some flash cards and have a study session.

5. Great article on parenting - not only on what you need to be a parent, but on how to enjoy it. That is to say, DON’T GET OVERLY ROMANTIC. It’s WORK. My experience of being a parent has been overwhelmingly positive, but it’s certainly been a challenging adjustment, turning what seem at first like burdens into pleasures. It requires a major shift in perspective, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Good advice.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Brain Food 7/27/11

This is what I've been consuming today.

1. This article argues that while Atheists are skeptics by nature, they are also obligated to hold positive speculative beliefs, because of course you must speculate in order to propose testable hypotheses...the very meat and potatoes of the science. “By refusing to endorse any speculative explanation for the universe, you’re saying that the existence of the universe is mysterious. But with that, you’ve handed the whole topic over to the religious mystery-mongers.”

2. I have been recently obsessed with Inside the Actors Studio, which I’ve been watching on YouTube virtually all day while doing this dull project at work. It makes me wish desperately that I had more time for film. Here are a couple of my favorites so far:

Robin Williams
Julianne Moore
Anthony Hopkins

3. I’m not currently an investor, but I will be soonish, and most of my intuitions that I’m willing to bet on are tech stocks. This is a short piece on Warren Buffet’s different perspective.

4. A professor of mine wrote a short article about a longer article that I sent his way, which argued that a degree in the humanities (specifically philosophy) is a great prerequisite to working in technology.

5. I really like Freakonomics Radio. This one is interesting, and features a writer I this is very interesting (and unconventional), James Altucher, whose worthwhile blog is here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How Bottle Prices are Set

Great article here by Terry Theise, a wine writer and importer, about how the cost of wine is determined. He makes two great points that you don’t hear too often - first, that “Those $6.99 bottles actually represent poor value, whereas a trade-up to $9-10 gives you twice the wine, because the fixed costs of freight and duties are the same.” That is, because importation costs are roughly fixed (it doesn’t really cost much more to ship wine that will end up being $5 a bottle than it does to ship wine that will sell for $100), spending just a few more dollars on an (imported) bottle can get you much better wine, or really, much more wine for you money, since a higher percentage is actually being spent on the juice, not on importation and distribution costs. Those costs can make the USA retail price exceed 200% of what it was originally sold for by the producer. Think about that next time you’re trying to decide between a $6 and a $12 dollar bottle (or a $12 and a $20). Second, when you buy from the big guys, you pay a premium for advertising, and when you buy from new wineries, you pay a premium for their startup costs. You can get more juice for your dollar, Theise argues, by “betting against the crowd,” especially by buying from small, family-based Old World wineries (that own their land and don't pay for anything but upkeep). Overall, this fits my experience - the best values I’ve found have been from small French producers. This is a good article, and a great little primer on wine economics - absolutely worth a read.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Things Wine Newbies SHOULD DO.

This is a companion piece to a post i wrote previously on Things a Wine Newbie SHOULD NOT do. Come to find out, writing about what NOT to do was easier, for some reason. Giving positive advice is more difficult, and as a result my list is shorter. I will update if I think of anything else. The generalities about what I assume make a “newbie” are listed in my previous post, which again is here.

Things Wine Newbies SHOULD DO

1. DO taste wine blind, especially with people who know more and are better tasters than you. But why blind? Because once you get a basic feel for varietal or regional characteristics, you can get lazy. Having to taste wine without knowing certain details forces you to pay attention to the minutia, making you a better taster, able to notice (and appreciate) the subtleties in the wine you drink. It's also a fun thing to do with small groups of people who are interested in wine. While a lot has been written about wine tasting (this is an example), it is a thing best learned, I think, by apprenticeship.

1a. While you do this, DO take notes. Physical sensations like taste can be difficult to remember, and words can help. Plus, standardizing the language you use can help you to figure out which wines you prefer to others.

2. DO decant. Especially those young, ageable reds you buy off the shelves, and normally pop and pour. Most good wine improves with decanting, especially young red wine, as it takes the edge off of the harsh and overly astringent tannins, and usually results in a fuller, more balanced, and more complex nose. If you don’t believe me, next time you open a bottle, plan a bit in advance and do an experiment (decanter not required). Pour a glass, cork the bottle, and wait an hour. Then pour another, recork, and wait another hour. Repeat a third time, then wait again and pour a final glass, and taste all four glasses against each other. You’ll be amazed at the differences between the glasses - blind, you’d easily think they were different wines. And I bet you’ll prefer one of the ones that’s had time to breathe.

3. DO expand your palate. Try new stuff. All the time. Especially if you're young like me, spend your early wine years trying everything you can get your hands on, finding the stuff that you REALLY like (not buying a bunch of high-scoring bottles to save for 10 years before you taste them), then you can spend your years of wine maturity buying that really good stuff, not wondering or worrying if you could get better (subjective) bang for your buck somewhere else.

4. DO challenge your presuppositions. Think you don’t like, for instance, Chardonnay? Walk into a wine store, find a knowledgeable clerk, describe what you don’t like about Chardonnay (or Merlot, or Riesling, or pinot noir, or whatever) and then ask him or her to please recommend a Chardonnay that they think avoids all the characteristics you described (my own initial dislike of Chardonnay came about by tasting a few that could be described as tasting like a bunch of sawdust floating in a vat of movie theatre popcorn butter with a sprinkling of liquid smoke). Challenge your preconceived notions, and find new things.

5. DO buy some nice wine glasses. This is obvious, but some people don't. Crystal, or at the very least good glass, with a cut rim and a big, convex bowl (where the rim has a smaller circumference than the widest part of the you can swirl). You really only need red wine glasses - they're even fine for sparkling wine, and don't let anyone tell you different.

6. DO eat wine with food, and learn something about wine and food pairing. I heartily recommend this book. Wine IS food (a luxurious food item certainly, but food nonetheless), and should be treated as such. Like enjoys like. Additionally, one of the great pleasures in having a wine collection is having a perfect bottle to go with a special meal you're preparing (or you've ordered at a restaurant).

Update: Here is a great little video by Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon vineyards, who adds a couple of very good points to this list, namely, try wines in context (i.e. try several similar wines together), taste in a group (but don't let others' opinions influence your own too much), and don't think you can understand a (great) wine in 5 minutes.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Déjà Vu for the Proximal Senses, AKA Olfactory Transportation

Had a funny experience the other day. They say the sense of smell is the sense most intimately connected to memory - and I believe it. Have you ever had that experience when a smell reminds you of a place? Not just smelling some thing in wine, e.g. "this wine smells of strawberry" or blueberry or lemon starburst or green beans or sticky toffee pudding or moldy hummus (no joke - come to think of it, I really shouldn’t have told the wine rep), but when you catch a whiff of a scent that sort of transports you to some place you've got locked in your memory. I've revisited my great grandmother's old kitchen in this fashion (haven't been there since I was about 10), my grandparents’ bathroom, and a good friend's house, among other places. With objects it’s less profound, but even more common - I can’t count the number of childhood treats I’ve been reminded of since I’ve started seriously tasting wine. It's a sort of déjà vu for the proximal senses. A fascinating feeling. But while again I've obviously smelled things in wine, plums, prunes, my wife's hairspray, etc., and occasionally gotten tiny doses of that fun olfactory déjà vu feeling, nothing that I can recall that was not in fact wine has ever reminded (in the same visceral sense) of wine. Until the other day. Anyway, on the bus a little while ago I opened a tin of Altoids and got hit with that blast of menthol, which is normal, but for some reason totally piqued my sense memory and gave me a curiously strong (get it?) sensation of fresh mint leaves, which immediately sort of transported me to red wine. I "remembered" a wine smelling strongly of menthol...though I rarely identify that characteristic in red wines, and never so clearly (so it wasn't a particular wine I was "remembering"). Really fascinating, and really puzzling, but fun. Amazing how our minds can create complex compound sensations out of disparate atomic parts. It’s days like these that I’m thankful for my cerebral cortex.

Monday, July 4, 2011

How to get 20 bottles of legit wine for <$200

Aren't they pretty? And don't they look a little funny? Since they're all the same size, it might be difficult to tell at first, but these are half bottles, containing 375ml of wine instead of a "full" 750ml. I ordered them from Half Wit Wines, a cleverly-named internet wine store entirely devoted to the sale of half bottles of wine. The novelty!

Half bottles are perfect for my wife and I because we don't often want to drink more than a half bottle per night, and if we do open a full bottle, we usually drink a third or a half, and get less pleasure out of it the next night(s), be it due to oxidation, drinking it with food that's a less-than-perfect pairing, or simply from the boredom that comes with repetition. So we get pretty much 75% of the utility (pleasure) out of the first half of the bottle, and only 25% out of the second half of the actual wine. By buying half bottles, I think we can avoid this imbalance (The only downside is that it's very educational to taste wine over a day or two or three, to observe the oxidation effects upon the wine). But in addition, half bottles allow us to try more stuff on the same budget. They're how I could manage to get 19 different wines, not a single stinker among them (at least by reputation - though I'm a little worried about the ullage level on the Vouvray), for under $200 bucks ($186, to be exact-every single bottle I ordered was on sale, that is, selling for half or less than half the MSRP of the normal 750ml bottle). Got some really killer deals.

They are, from left to right, with prices...

Ridge California Red Santa Cruz Mountains 2004 $13.00
Ridge Estate Red Santa Cruz Mountains 2006 $15.00
Ridge Geyserville California Red 2005 $9.00
Ridge Lytton Springs Red California Dry Creek 2006 $13.00
Lopez de Heredia Vina Cubillo Rioja Crianza 2005 $15.00
Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant 2004 $9.00
Bonny Doon Syrah Le Pousseur 2005 $6.00
Chateau de Bellevue Lussac Saint-Emilion 2005 $10.00
Chateau du Hureau Saumur-Champigny Rouge Loire Valley 2006 $6.00
Chateau la Coustarelle Cahors Grand Cuvee Prestige 2004 $7.00
Joseph Drouhin Chablis-Montmains Premier Cru 2006 $9.00
Domaine Herve Azo Chablis Premier Cru Vau de Vey 2006 $7.00
Marc Bredif Vouvray 2006 $7.00
Lucien Crochet Sancerre 2006 $9.00
Lucien Crochet Sancerre Blanc La Croix du Roy 2006 $9.00
Lucien Crochet Sancerre Le Chene 2006 $9.00
Chateau Clos l'Eglise Cotes de Castillon 2003 $12.00
Chateau Ferriere Margaux Grand Cru Classe 2003 $15.00
Domaine de Beausejour Chinon Rouge Loire Valley 2004 $6.00

So the other night when I typed "half bottles of wine" into Google, the Half Wit Wines website was the first hit, both sponsored and unsponsored. The second hit was this article, written by Lettie Teague, a wine columnist for The Wall Street Journal. While I usually like Teague's writing, I found this column to be poorly argued and a bit insipid. This is an excellent example of Wine Critics Reasoning Poorly, about which I will write more in the future.

Her objection to half bottles is this: (I'm going to simply roll my eyes at the objection that restaurant staff will make fun of you for bringing one with you when you dine) they age the wine faster, since in a smaller bottle, the oxygen to wine ratio is greater, thus causing oxidation (aging) at a more rapid pace. It's not explicit that she sees this as a negative quality, but it seems clear from the context that this is a criticism of the half bottle format. However, it's about as toothless a criticism as I can think of. The first and most obvious reply to such an objection is that it is not necessarily true. Looking at the bottles and their level of ullage, some have very small amounts of air floating around it there, and it doesn't seem that her claim about air to wine ratios can carry any deductive certainty to it. It all depends upon the machines filling the bottles. Secondly, you could employ a philosophical move known as "the incredulous stare." Perhaps you can accompany it by a flippant "So what?" (if you use this in the field, your opponent will most likely sputter and fail to respond meaningfully). You may then expand, "in a wine culture where 95% of bottles purchased are consumed within one hour (please someone find where this statistic originated, because of course now that I need it, I cannot), what does it matter that a bottle which would normally age for, say, ten years, will only age for five?" This is key: virtually no one (in America, at least) ages wine. And when they do, it's virtually never long enough for even accelerated bottle aging to negatively affect the wine. In other words, the contingent of persons, or really of wines, that's she's referring to with this critique is vanishingly small. So, don't buy older-vintage half bottles, and for those of you who want to age wine: buy regular and large-format bottles.

But I could be wrong. I'll have to drink the wine, and then I'll let you know.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

How to Drink World-Class Wine Without Paying World-Class Prices

This is a picture of the latest additions to my (very small) cellar. Through my winemaker uncle I have access to pretty much unlimited wine storage in their facility in Portland (granted, it's three hours away, but all the better to forget about the bottles for a few years, and hell, it's FREE). From left to right, they are:

2004 Dominus Estate
2008 Christian Moreau Chablis Grand Cru
2005 Produtorri del Barbaresco Pajè
2005 Produttori del Barbaresco Moccagatta
2008 Nicolas Joly Savennières Les Clos Sacrés
2009 Ridge Geyserville (375ml)

Thing is, I can't really afford any of these wines (except the Ridge wine, though esp. the Dominus, which retails around $125). The fact that I possess them is a testament to my luck and my hawk-like deal-finding ability. The Dominus I got from my dad who won it in a raffle in 2009, and after seeing it sit on his shelf for nearly two years in imperfect storage conditions (he's not much of a drinker...he'll have a very occasional beer, but I'm not sure I've ever seen him open a bottle of red wine), I gave him a lecture about wasting fantastic wine, told him I would store it for him, and that we could open it together in 10 years. It hope it's still good. But I saw him recently, and he asked if I had drunk it yet, so he's obviously not attached to the idea of trying it himself. Nothing cool happened to me in 2004 (Junior-Senior year of High School...unremarkable), so I'll just have to find an arbitrary special occasion...maybe if my band ever has a reunion...

But the rest I did purchase, at or near 50% off. The Chablis, the Barbarescos, and the Geyserville were all half-price purchases I got from after they put out a couple of 50% off coupons on some deal-of-the-day sites I watch. The Nicolas Joly I got for $30 (reg. $40-$50) from Lot18, a well-known wine flash sale site (I didn't even pay for shipping-I put a bottle in my cart, then left it, and they sent me a $10 credit to use on my first purchase, so shipping was free), which is only one of several sites I watch daily for wine deals. Others are Invino, cinderella wine, vinfolio (pricey stuff...I just look, I can't buy), and WineShopper. There are several others, but these are the best I've found. Any new good ones I haven't heard about? Woot Wine is ok, but they only do domestic stuff.

Anyway, I'm really excited to try all the wines, but the Ridge I'm especially excited about, because it holds quite a bit of sentimental value; 2009 is the year I got married and the year my daughter was born, and this is the FIRST of the many 2009 vintage purchases I will be making over the next several years to be stored and opened at anniversaries, birthdays, and other special events over the next century.

Check back in 10 years and I'll probably have consumed and written about all of them.

So what's in your cellar? And what else should I put in mine?

Friday, July 1, 2011

8 Things Wine Newbies SHOULD NOT Do.

A couple of years ago I got bit by the wine bug. Not sure exactly how it happened. I really seriously started my wine education about 18 months ago, though I had worked in a tasting room during the summer of 2008, and tasted not an insignificant amount of wine, including some very serious stuff with my uncle, who is a winemaker (formerly in Napa, now in Portland). But only about Febuary 2010 did I really start to go to wine tastings, purchase wine (what little I could afford-I got really good at finding the free tastings around Seattle), and explore the intellectual side of wine. This post is for the reader in my position 18 months ago. A newbie: someone interested, fascinated even, and wondering how best to go about spending limited time and cash (...oh, especially cash) on wine. Here’s what I wish someone had told me. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes.

1. DO NOT put a blanket “I don’t like it” label on something general, like a particular varietal (e.g. “I don’t like Merlot”). Wines today are made in such a variety of styles that regardless of varietal (and even, these days, region) it’s a near-guarantee that one can find a wine that constitutes an exception to the preferences one discovers when only beginning to categorize and understand wine. Larger, general-level opinions should be left to the veterans who have tasted thousands of Merlots from all over the world.

2. DO NOT taste just anything from anywhere. If you’re motivated to learn about wine, then you need to start with the classics. Taste the benchmarks, the wines that have been made the same way for hundreds of years. You don’t really need to spend your limited wine budget on the Tempranillo from California grown from 10 year old vines and vinified by a wet-behind-the-ears winemaker, no matter what the critics score it. Instead, get an old-school bottle of Tempranillo from Muga, in Rioja. Or a bottle of classic Burgandy, for Pinot Noir, or Bordeaux, for Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.

3. DO NOT think that all tasting is subjective. While the fallibility of tasters has been well-documented (people are gullible, and in blind tastings, thinking that a bottle is expensive causes them to assign it a higher score), and wine tasting is obviously not an exact science, there is general expert consensus, just like in science itself. This consensus is what helps to set prices and separate the good wine from plonk (And oh boy is there a difference between good wine and plonk. Try a jug of Carlo Rossi against a RIDGE wine sometime. Go on, I dare you.). Though do keep in mind that numerical wine ratings are nonsense (more on this later).

4. DO NOT, therefore, think that because you like it, it’s good. Some people will tell you that this is the case, but unless they’re true relativists (virtually no one is-it’s very difficult to defend philosophically) they’re either misguided or don’t really mean what they say. Our notion of “good” is informed, or really is constituted, by engagement with particular wines. So, as you taste more wines, your definition of “good” will change. In addition, real experts and connoisseurs are people who differentiate between “good” meaning well-made, and “good” meaning matching their personal taste. And that capacity takes a long time to develop.

5. In addition, DO NOT always worry about whether or not you like a wine, especially with benchmark and iconic wines. Yes, drinking wine should be pleasurable, but when one is seeking to truly understand wine, one’s subjective pleasure should come second to whether or not the wine is objectively good. Every expert knows that there are all sorts of wines that are well-made and yet don’t seem worth the money - that’s just the way subjective taste is (Here’s a personal example). And while you can easily get two experts to disagree on the quality of just about any bottle of wine, an objective, impartial, and non-contexualized analysis of a wine is what we should all strive for, despite the impossibility of achieving it. The first few sips: analyze, process, study. Then enjoy, while periodically returning to critical analysis of the wine as time passes and oxygen changes the aromatic and taste characteristics.

6. DO NOT buy by the case. Once you start tasting and drinking wine seriously, it’s been my experience that one’s tastes can change very quickly. Trust me, you’d rather NOT get stuck with 10 or 11 bottles that you’re not thrilled about. Unless it’s very difficult to find, you can probably track down some bottles if you wait a few months to make sure you’re still in love with the wine.

7. However, DO NOT buy just one bottle. If you taste it and you love it, buy two or three. Not only does this mean you can drink one in the near future with the exact flavor profile in mind (all the better for pairing it with food), but you can drink the other(s) a year or two down the road, comparing its aromas and flavors to your notes from the previous bottle, learning firsthand about how wine changes in bottle.

8. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, DO NOT think that wine is “just grape juice.” Wine can be a very heady and esoteric subject, and there is a tendency these days to simplify wine in order to appeal to a wide audience of people, especially by avoiding any semblance of snobbery that could intimidate and scare them away from the subject. This is admirable, but reductionism of the “just grape juice” sort goes too far. Wine is beautiful and fascinating, and in a very real sense more than the sum of its parts - if you don’t think so, I’m not sure why you’re reading a wine blog. But if you’re not sold, then think of similar sorts of reductions; is love “just a collection of hormones bouncing around in your head”? Is fine art “just a collection of blobs of pigment on a canvas”? No, they’re more than that, in what they inspire in the subjects they act upon, emotionally and intellectually. Grape juice, though possibly delicious, is just not that interesting. Wine is a nearly ubiquitous cultural touchstone, and has stimulated the minds and imaginations of people for thousands of years.

Next time, things a wine newbie SHOULD do. Thanks for reading, and give your own advice in the comments.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

2000 Lopez de Heredia Rosé

While I would love my first blog post to be something more substantive, I’m likely to doom myself before I even start if I set my standards too high. Nevertheless, there are worse ways to kick off summer than Lopez de Heredia.

I have been drinking wine seriously for about 18 months now - long enough now to have had my fill of what’s being commonly lamented among wine writers as the "New World" or “international” style (among much more derogatory names - see Alice Feiring or other less radical writers to get an idea of what I mean) - you know what I’m talking about. Big sweet fruit, high alcohol, low acid, not too much complexity. Wines designed for immediate pleasure, not for examination. Anyway, most days, I’m over that, and the new, the weird, and the eccentric is what charms me, even if I don’t end up particularly loving the bottle. Case in point: Lopez de Heredia, an old, traditional, geeky winery in Rioja (Spain). They do it old school - ageing their wines for substantial periods before release (their current release for their gran reserva wines, until just recently, was 1987...the year I was born). This current - release rosé is from the 2000 vintage, and in a world were virtually all rose is consumed within 12 months of the grapes leaving the vines, ageing this wine for over 1000% of the average time frame is pretty exceptional.

Anyway, to the wine itself: suffice it to say, it was pretty fascinating stuff. Again, here’s the fuzzy grey zone between like and dislike, because while this is not really my cup of tea, it’s so unique that I found myself charmed, despite a lack of desire to ever buy another bottle (at least for a couple years). We drank it slightly chilled - about cellar temperature. It had great floral and fruit characteristics on the nose - very pure - nothing fake or manufactured about this wine in the least. The mouthfeel was full, the wine was complex, especially for a rosé, and carried more earthy tones than any rosé I’ve ever tried. But it was the finish that was especially fascinating. To me there are two sorts of things acid in wine does to the palate, the first you notice right off the bat, the zip as it hits your tongue and stings your mouth - the second being the residual pucker and knee-jerk salivation response once you spit or swallow. This lacked the first kind, but had the second in spades. It was probably the most acidic wine I’d ever tasted, and not in a bad way. Still, at the end of the day, too acidic for me to be a real winner - it took us a couple of days to get through the bottle, since you don’t want more than a glass of this stuff. But it was worth the $25, just for the experience.

So, now, you interact with me: what wines fascinate you, even if they don’t appeal in other ways? Do the two categories collapse? And are there any other things that you get excited about for the sheer novelty?

Finally: A brief look ahead at some blog posts I have in the works...

Wine Scores, And Why They Fail
What is Terroir?
How A Wine Review Should Be Written
Dos and Don’ts for the New Wine-Drinker
Subjectivity/Objectivity in Wine Criticism

These more substantive/theoretical posts will be interspersed with ones like this one, about the wines I drink and my thoughts. Plus, maybe some philosophy and miscellaneous, we’ll see.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What is The Examined Wine?

From Plato's Apologia,

“Perhaps someone might say, ‘Socrates, can you not go away from us and live quietly, without talking?’ Now this is the hardest thing to make some of you believe. For if I say that such conduct would be disobedience to the god and that therefore I cannot keep quiet, you will think I am jesting and will not believe me; and if again I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me still less. This is as I say, gentlemen, but it is not easy to convince you.”

While few of us are forced to make a choice between philosophy and death, all of us are faced with opportunities to decide between convenient conventionality and (sometimes inconvenient) devotion to discovering the truth through reason. How we choose determines whether we, like Socrates, deserve to call our lives “examined.”
So what does this have to do with wine? Well, frankly, nothing in particular. Except that the serious examination of anything, wine included, pays dividends to the faculty of examination itself, which as Socrates asserts makes life worthwhile. As philosopher Simone Weil (link) put it,

"Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul."

In summary, while this is ostensibly a wine blog, my hope is that this project will turn into a paean to the examination and enjoyment of all the rich things that life has to offer. Wine is but one of many pleasures in life worth some serious thought, and the examination of it can serve as a unique gateway into the examined life as a whole, because as Weil reminds us, “Intelligence can only be directed by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy. Intelligence only grows and bears fruits in joy.” And wine, needless to say, is a joy.