"Go ahead, you don't have to stay with me," Ethel said.
Ethel, that's my no-longer-89-year-old, still doing the daily drive in from Long Beach to 'the place' on the Bowery, Mom. (Jewelry, if you must know. 82 Bowery. Piccadilly)
A few days back she had cataract surgery. At the intake they asked her about her alcohol intake. I answered for her, "Not enough."
The nurse wrote it down as two glasses a week. This showed up on the medical chart as uses two glasses a week.
Uses? Sips for Kiddush.
Glasses? Hah! Thimble-sized vessels! And she fills those thimbles with 5% mega-purple enhanced kosher wine. "The best there is," she says.
Mom passed the operation with courage and flair. Post, she was miserable, pissed off that she still needed glasses, terrified to find teensie balls of crud in the corner of her eyes. She, always negative, was positive the procedure failed. "You really need a drink," I said.
Not until shabbos.
Five days later, I waited for her at the Eye and Ear. She was a half-hour late. "Traffic was impossible. A two-hour trip," she said as I signed her in.
She was feeling guilty. "I can do this on my own. Go. Go." Then she stopped ranting and asked, "What is it you have to do today?"
"A tasting," I said.
"Always with the tastings," she shook her head. "Ah, well, I feel guilty enough for last week."
I was quite stunned, she actually seemed to look burdened by guilt.
"Go live your life. Not that approve of what you do..." She then shot me a look that could defeather a chicken and then added, "Please tell me you don't swallow."
In my life, swallowing is involved.
Just the other night I swallowed a particular wine. It made me happy. I needed to be happy because I was pondering a particularly pernicious oft- asked question, "Have you experienced sexism in the wine world?"
My pat answer has been to say no more than others. Then I often have reconsidered and said that introvertism and lone-wolfism had had more of an impact. "One gets ahead by networking, not sitting alone in the corner," I'd offer, "I rarely can figure out the safety route to the middle of the room."
While my shyness is a liability, so is being outspoken and opinionated, traits that are celebrated in men and in women? Hmm, not so.
Oh, that old boys club. Not exactly as profound as Roger Ailes, but the wine world has had its very own special sand box of changing characters. Finally, even to me, a woman taught to look away, to make excuses, to say, no, that didn't happen, the sexism was undeniable. Under the rubric of satire? An attempt at humor, based in ignorance without point of view is not satire. So, the next time that question comes up? Check. I'm going for it.
That crazy-assed silvaner pulled back the curtain to revelations. It deconstructed fantasy and turned it into reality. Yet at the same time it was one that would scare hoses of all sorts. The wine was 2 Nature Kinder. I knew it wasn't only a wine, for those who don't like this thing called natural wine, it could be a weapon.
The 2 Kinder's feet are in Franken, Germany. A place known for crazy high acid wines and really shitty agriculture. You know, the take no prisoners approach to pests and weed killing.
All that changed when young Michael Völker rode in on his white horse, his beautiful wife Melanie at his side to take back his dad's winery. In only a few years, in miserable weather, the wet, the rot, they showed that wine and the earth could be different. And Franken, could be known for something else other than their Mateus bottles known as Bocksbeutel. In the states they will soon be represented by Jenny & Francois. The price yet unknown. It won't be eviscerating. May they go forward and fruitify.
There's a man people call my boyfriend but-well, he prefers 'friend,' (which makes me think of little girls of the sixties who got their period, but nevertheless). My 'friend' was a little shocked by the wine.
"Is it a little too cidery?" I asked him.
Sitting at the head of the table, his fingers about to pince a green olive, he said yes. But these days he's dealing with IBS or a relative and maybe everything is tasting a little sharp, because usually, he can swing with me on the wine perversion.
"But it's so refreshing!" I declared. "And what about that zingy silver water in there, and its energy?"
The weather was sticky and tropical. The sun so bright the humidity caked. I imagined being in a solid vat of vaseline. The wine swung through it like a hulu hoop. All of the sudden I was a little girl jumping through a hose in the backyard, with Becky barking alongside, egging me to leave the hose behind and celebrate the joy of a sprinkler.
Nice stuff. Metal and cringle and edge. Sprinklers. Waterfalls. Refreshment. A time when my brother was alive. He would have been curious. The wine's finish went on all the way to the next morning. That is wine.
"I suppose it is cidery," I admitted, even though for me it was so alive and quaffable, I couldn't fault it for it, and anyway, I drink Bragg's Apple Cider vinegar by the spoonful. To me this is not a negative.
It was my second experience with the wine. I loved it as much back then when I had it in a blind tasting. Judging, actually. It showed up in April during the VinItaly Wine Without Walls award. I had my judges at my side. It was in the afternoon. This bottle in a green sock appeared. We poured. We tasted. The chorus started to sing and the sprinkler went on high. It was our afternoon beer, our breakfast champagne, it was a palate cleanser sorbet between courses. Love? Five pretty decent tasters? Oh yes. It was fine.
In my newsletter I'd give it these symbols .
No sulfur added. Heart throb. Geek. Cool stuff. Hard core.
Take a look at that symbology, couldn't it describe some love interests in your life? Complex, wild, verbal, cool, and emotional. And don't misinterpret that hard core, please. Take your mind out of the gutter. I mean it here as intense. Thank you.
As my mother said, it's not that she approved of my lifestyle. She actively disapproved. I should have grandchildren by now and make shabbos ever Friday night for my doctor husband. But there I am, approving of a wine that has a good dollop of apple cider vinegar and a whole lot of excitement. I'm dangerous for a mother ruled by fear.
The end of the story? I made my friend happy with the Pignard Régnie. I sat through Mom's appointment and waited for the bus, holding the not yet fragile hand of a woman who cozies up, once a week, to Kedem Matuk Rouge. And as I sprinted off to the tasting, I thought of the paradox of it all.
Alert: There is no wine in this post.
Coat by Linda St. John of D.L. Cerney
Not only that, she is the oldest jeweler on the Bowery. She has a dramatic two-hour-each-way-rush hour commute to NYC from Long Beach five-days a week.
Why there's not a story on her in the Times Metro section I have no idea.
But anyway, people are always asking me for pro tips like how to clean jewelry. Want to know? Give a listen.
My friend was incredulous. Did you say you went on vacation? Did you really use that word?
She had reason to be shocked. For nearly 30-years the only days off I took were the random day or two when traveling, or when I was able to pinch a long weekend. It was all I could manage financially and emotionally. Vacation was a word that was not in my vocabulary.
As a freelancer, envied by employed friends around the world for my 'freedom,' they never truly appreciated how 'un-free' a free-lance writer can be. Yes, I was free to have my own opinions. I was free to be more political and critical than salaried colleagues (is the wine critic the only genre of pundit that is a cheerleader instead of an informed commentator?).
The idea of taking off time, in the end, was far more anxiety-inducing than staying in the chair and pounding out the words.
But the past three years were particularly brutal. And by the end of July when my first draft of the next book was sent in to my editor, I was barely able to grunt. The experience left me feeling trampled by pack of rats and as bloodless as a leftover meal stuck in a web. I determined that I would never write another wine book again. And what's more, I would take a break. Burned out? I was wearing that old dead cat on my chest, still with it's claw and scratch. I could avoid a break no longer, or I would crack in pieces.
Not totally able to leave obligation behind, I lined up a few book events (hey, they are fun, after all), rented a car and headed north to claim it. (Fun tip for New Yorkers, take the train to Hudson and rent from there, about a fifth of the price.)
Me and a car and a road.
Six gorgeous days from Saugerties, to Hudson, to the angel bosom of Vermont.
Want to come with me? Here, take a look.
The next day a little lunch at Fish & Game. Curious about it? It's stellar. Here are bloody mary tomatoes. Heaven. And yes, there's what to drink by the glass and bottle. They're committed to the good stuff.
The next day, For the Love of Wine event at Hudson Wine Merchants. Packed house. Good ego booster.
Went out to Worthy Burger (no, I did not, in fact, but opted for smoked blue fish pizza, bizarre but delish). Somewhere in the night, this happened, I picked it up from Hudson. It's worthy. Trust me.
A wine from the late Baldo's hands. 2004 Nebbiolo recently bottled.
Next day, some hikes with old friends, some fresh laid eggs from Deidre's gorgeous picnic, some cider with new friends and the La Garagista goes to Georgia dinner.
Deirdre's husband and life and work partner, the talented Caleb used recipes from For the Love of Wine. They worked! The food that he improvised was also so very Georgian. We snuck in a little La Garagista Night Music, rare (field blend from the Home Vineyard, vibrant wine) and crab apple pink and rosé delicious.
The next day to the vines, more cider, Shacksbury! Fable Farm! More vines, sunset and capped off with a dinner, which is absolutely perfect, at Hen of the Woods, Burlington with Deirdre, Caleb and toasting to the new life of Vermont wines.
Somewhere along the way I saw a shooting star of my dreams and a furry bear scampering off in the woods. I felt like a Fresh Air Fund kid.
The morning of my departure, I started out south in the still cool.
The drive down the small winding roads, was so heart- bleedingly beautiful, I couldn't be sorry to leave the hills where the vines started to thrive. I was returning to reinvent freedom and embrace it with new energy.
This Saturday on July 30th.
Fabulous tasting, book selling and signing and yes, reading from For the Love of Wine.
89A Division Street
Sag Harbor, NY 11963
Why: To give Georgian wines a little love and discover a savior wine shop for the East End
What: Wine, talk, literature. What could be better?
See you there!
And if you want to know what it means, which of course you do, I would expect you'll be seeing it a lot more. Here's what I wrote about it in The Feiring Line.
For the only independent newsletter on natural wines, the issues, the people, the techniques and what to drink, you'll want to subscribe to The Feiring Line or at least give it as a gift to your favorite wine geek.
Last week there was a weed conference in New York City. I put a request into my publicist friend attending, "Edibles!"
Instead she invited me to an after-party, complete with secret password, in a not-so-secret place in Tribeca. There would be infused cocktails. I surveyed the options, even though it was vividly chick-red, I went with the Strawberry Fields Forever, seduced by the promise of rhubarb.
No surprise to anyone, everyone wants a piece of the upcoming new business that has saved Colorado's financial ass. The pot industry. This past January, I participated in a Market Disruption panel lead by the industry firecracker, Gilian Handelman where she predicted that pot and not climate change nor natural wine would be the next biggest disruption to wine future.
"The top pot geneticists of the world are here," I was told, several times as I tried to engage people in the darkened room. It was surprisingly easy for this shy person, especially with my engaging, brilliant friend leading the way. Always on the lookout for what's new and spot-on in health and wellness, pot is right up there at the top of her chart. Meanwhile, for me, totally different than my usual wine events, I relished in ways to streamline the potency to cure a spectrum of ills.
I had to put my drink down. Far too sweet. I tried the kale oriented Go Green next.
I could have been in a room of investment bankers, most were not scruffy young, but clean cut professionals with a certain Portland sheen. Very nice, polite, looking to make deals and business. I was the odd-woman out. About three people made the point to me that just because geneticists are big in the pot world, it's not GM. Yes, I know. I know. But still, let's talk.
I shared my story about a London-based friend. A few years back, driven by desperation she started to grow pot in her flat's attic. She was determined to work in biodynamics. Along the way were perils; mites and scale and all sorts of maladies. Biodynamics in an unnatural roof was challenging.
I have also successfully solved my thripp issue with Neem oil and although the Camomile has started to look a bit limp and unhappy, everything else in the main tent and the mother tent is looking pretty damn good. My wormery has also finally started working as I think it should so I am hoping that by the next crop, I will be able to feed them on a diet of pure worm food which is pretty premium stuff and which they will be getting fresh.
They seemed to have found the story as charming, if a bit simple. Maybe they were being polite. Meanwhile I cherish her emails to me about her journey. A fight for terroir where terroir did not exist.
I put down the kale as well. If I'm drinking hooch, I want to taste the hooch, not simple syrup. Like the first time someone gave me pot wine, tasted blind. I took a whiff and exclaimed, "Stems!" Took a sip, went a little cock-eyed and asked," Pot wine?"
Much of the talk that night was about the search for complexity and tasting notes. I thought, now there's a way I could get out of the wine biz, go to pot. Smell, give descriptors, the kind I resist doing with wine. I could describe the fruit the savory the nuance. Give my nose a good working out and stretch my poesy. I started to get excited, until I met a true pro and realized I couldn't measure up.
I talked about blind tasting with one gentlemen, the head of a pot company that remained to me nameless, as he did. No card was given when I requested one, which is too bad as I enjoyed the conversation and would love to do a story on him.
He was second generation pot pro. His dad had been a surfer to landed in the 'job' in Anderson Valley about 30 years ago. "The biggest problem in our field is that there are no regulations. You can make any claim on where the pot comes from or which strain, but how can you authenticate? However, much like Garrett Oliver can identify yeast strains in beer, he boasted that he could walk into a room, take a sniff and blind identify any weed burning.
"Our industry is going into terroir, just like yours," he added.
This was going to be an industry talking point, but I wasn't so sure of its validity. I pushed back a little. How can you talk of terroir if you irrigate? How can you talk of terroir if you're developing clones and plant entire fields to that clone? Not to say anything about chemical pesticides. If you're a true environmentalist, aren't you worried about losing the biodiversity?"
"Of course," he said. Then he indicated he had that covered.
In the not so old days when his dad was growin,g perhaps terroir did have something to do with it. That was when Panama Red meant something. But these days?
I'm not so sure.
We changed partners.
Going down the line there will be the pot purist/naturalist just as in the wine world. Being organic won't be enough. I can see the terroir argument, surely, but that means the public should be willing to accept vintage variations and celebrate them, just as in wine. Until we go there, we can't talk of terroir, we can only talk of clones. And clones did quite a bit of damage to the vine.
But I'd love to help develop infusions, one where the stems are a part of the recipe, but that's because I have an incurably savory palate. Let's keep it identifiable and authentic. I'm up to the job.
In this month's The Feiring Line I took a swan dive into the hype aroundMount Etna. Do they really have it all together or is it a work in progress. Want to take a peek?
And.....for the rest of the copy...
And for a little visual Etna Gallery
That's right, Frank Cornelissen.
The rocks between the vines and Etna? The lave flow from 1981. Impenetrable. In about 200 years it will only begin to start to break down.
Below? Inside the old school of Calabretta
Vines come to life in Salvo's vineyard.
I came across a video with "the kvevri" Giorgi Barisashvili. He's a wonderful man, historian and keeper of the faith, featured in For the Love of Wine, which by the way was featured as a Summer Read in the New York Times.
The video takes you on the history, practice and lost grapes in modern Georgian winemaking. It's a wonderful 20-minute tutorial.
I came to caring about Jews and wine early in life but I came to Aszu, the great botrytized wine of Hungary late. I was working for VOS, trying to be a salesperson. I flunked. But I did get to know another aspect of wine, develop more knowledge that served me later, and learned to sneak into the fridge for a little afternoon delight. That would have been a hit of the Tokaji Victor imported. Acidity through the roof made this elixir palatable to me who prefer bitter to sweet.
But while I've never written about it--or visited Hungary, I’ve searched for a story about Jewish winemaking heritage. I sensed that there was one far more noble than the Manischewitz stereotype. I wanted to know about the Jewish vignerons who perished with World War 11. I could find few leads. Last year a gentleman named Gerry Oster, called me with the one.
This was shortly after his Washington, DC-based sister was planning a back-to-her-roots tour to Hungary with her husband. While looking over a website of places a tour guide would arrange for them to visit, her husband called out and said, “Honey, come here. Isn’t this your mother’s house in Mád?”
The house, now part of the current headquarters of Royal Tokaji winery, was the very same one that Susy Oster, née Zsuzsanna Zimmermann was wrenched from as a young girl in 1944. The Forward ran a story. I yearned to go deeper into it, head to Hungary, find other leads, but with book pressures I just couldn't manage. So, I waded into it from afar.
At one time 10 Jewish families owned 80 percent of Mad's Tokaji industry. The Zimmermanns had been one of them and they were wealthy farmers in the vine-rich town of Mád. For at least three generations, their family had lived there and worked the land. They worked the land. They made wine. Some kosher. Some not. They also owned some of the best vineyards—termed “first growth,” and covetable cellars, nearly a mile long. Those were perfect--and rare--for aging the sweet wine for which the area was so famous. Mrs. Oster’s idyllic youth was full of memories of harvest and fermentation.
All ended with occupation. From there, her family was sent to the ghetto, then later to Auschwitz and a work camp for Siemans. She survived, liberated in 1945. Her mother did not.
After liberation she was taken in by a San Diego family as a war orphan. She learned to speak English with little accent. With communism in place, she lost all hope of reclaiming her family’s property. She had repudiated what she felt to be an insulting reparation offer from the government. Now a healthy woman a year or two away from 90, living near Los Angeles. She left that part of her life behind---until, that is, her children told her what her past home and land had become.
Partners Lord Jacob Rothschild and wine and garden writer (and hero) Hugh Johnson acquired Royal Tokaji. Damon de László came later. It debuted with the 1994 vintage and much fanfare. It was astonishing wine news. Tokaji! Back from behind the Iron Curtain to the drinking world! Johnson said in a 2015 interview to Somm Journal, “As a wine writer and lover, I would have gone to any lengths to taste wine that inspired Homer or Virgil. Why would I pine any less for the wine that Pushkin and Tolstoy drank, and that Peter and Catherine (both Great) considered one of the privileges of the tsars?”
But there was no mention of any connection to the Jews. Even as the company asserts history is a mainstay of their product, the Jewish piece vanished.
This was odd. It wasn't as if it was a secret. Marguerite Thomas wrote about them in a piece she wrote in 2000. But in that article she wrote something that was not true. It remains a mystery how she came to understand that Hugh Johnson & Co. bought the estate from the Zimmerman's themselves. Consequently that changed to the local church, but as the surviving Zimmerman's never reclaimed their property the actual truth of how they came to own the property was never fully clear to the family. When Gerry’s sister and husband, traveled to Royal Tokaji they were treated graciously. Everyone there knew who they were.
Having been privy to the email exchange between Oster and the partners, and one personal email where the Mr. Johnson expressed surprise about what took the family so long to come forward--I must admit something I was shocked at though chalked up to ignorance--they came forward as soon as they understood that what they had built survived--I came away perplexed at what could have been seen as willful denial. Or perhaps it was fear of losing the business they had worked so hard to make a success.
However, the Oster/Zimmermann family made it clear that they were not after reclamation. They wanted recognition. Not only for themselves but for the Jews of the region who built the industry in the 19th century that others now are benefitting from. They did not want their history to be erased. It was that simple. And that profound.
After a year of deliberation this story has a very happy ending. So does history. There is now a Jewish presence on the Royal Tokaji website, though only in English not in Hungarian.
June 24th at 11am there will be a ceremony in Mád. Several family members will travel to Hungary for it. These two plaques--in both languages --will be hung in full view. L'chaim.