My piece on the other side of Bordeaux in December Wines & Spirits.
I used to contribute to The Boss and My Job columns in the the New York Times and loved doing these little snapshots. Bascially, I wrote pieces in the subjects voice, hence the RMPjr, with Alice Feiring.
This one that I did on critic Robert M. Parker Jr, was one of my favorite, and I believe I broke the earth shattering news that watercress destroys his palate. (Cucumber does it to mine.)
MY JOB; Not Exactly for the Faint of Palate
Published: June 9, 2002
I'VE been sued for all sorts of crazy things. A Beaujolais producer I had never heard of took me to court for not reviewing his wine.
I'm not feigning modesty. I know I'm the most influential wine critic in the world, but to say I can make or break a wine is just not true. In fact, I can think of a number of wines that are very successful that I think are pathetic. There's nothing I can do to keep people from buying them.
I taste 120 wines a week, except when I'm on a tasting trip. Then I taste that much in a day. This might seem like a lot, but not nearly as much as I get credited for. The challenge is to keep all of them straight. I have to think about taste, smell and texture. I have to figure out where the wine is in its evolution and where it's going to go. Then I have to figure out a way that I can use real language, so it has some sort of meaning to readers.
When I taste quantities of high-acid wines, I can feel as if the roots of my teeth are rotting. Other hazards include black teeth stained from rich red wines. I joke that I can tell the quality of a great, concentrated ripe vintage by how stained my hands are. Sometimes even scrubbing won't clean them.
I don't get palate fatigue, which I attribute to drinking up to five liters of water a day. However, when I'm tasting wines high in alcohol and tannin, I can feel as if I've taken head shots from professional boxers.
The most punishing tasting was in Tokyo -- sake. I was confronted with about 200 samples. A third of the way through, sweat pouring off my brow, I'm like, ''What have I gotten myself into?'' I started to rely more on my olfactory sense. If it didn't smell charming, I passed.
Generally, when I'm tasting (and that means spitting), alcohol doesn't affect me. I'm a big guy, and this works in my favor. A while back, I was warned that some of my enemies might set me up and alert police to watch out for me after a tasting, which would be really embarrassing. So I bought one of those Sharper Image digital alcohol-monitoring devices. I check obsessively and have never been over France's 0.05 percent limit.
When on the road, I start at 8 a.m. and go for 12 hours. Lunch saps my energy, so I only grab a sandwich. Dinner is often in my room -- a salad and mineral water. When I was in my 30's, I would go out every night. But now? Look, I'm going to be in California for two weeks, and I'm going out for dinner once.
I love hot, spicy food, but it blows my palate, so I avoid it three or four days before I go on a trip. Garlic doesn't really affect me. I can drink a cappuccino in the morning, but not espresso -- and no coffee, chocolate or watercress during the day. Watercress is the worst.
ERobertParker.com just started up. It's great to have The Wine Advocate posted there, but I'm having fun on the site's food and wine chat rooms, too.
I don't want to be perceived as some freak in a lab coat tasting wines clinically. In a clinical situation, it's important to remember that wine is a beverage of pleasure.
(realizing that many articles have been lost when I switched to the new site, I am slowly reposting. This was an old one, but as I recently made the news about plumbing again--is this a theme?--I thought I'd repost this one that ran in May 2004)
NEW YORK OBSERVED; Kitchen Wisdom
By ALICE FEIRING
Published: May 30, 2004
I HAVE what may be one of the few remaining kitchen bathtubs in New York. While I think it's a blessing, my mother thinks otherwise. When she first visited me on Elizabeth Street, in its long-lost, pre-chic days, when the neighborhood was still known as Little Italy rather than NoLIta, she had little tolerance for my choice in real estate. Insult on injury, the first object she saw upon entering the apartment was my tub.''What did I do wrong?'' she demanded. Was I not raised to aspire not only to a doorman but private bathing facilities as well?
In my early days of living in the apartment, my bathtub was pathetic. A shower ring, like a tawdry halo, had been rigged around it, ruining the kitchen's classic vintage lines. The floorboards underneath it were so rotted, all sorts of odd creatures could crawl through. One of its early uses was as a party go-go cage. Later on, as I got a little less wild and my boyfriend and I braved my landlord's wrath in an effort to make the apartment habitable, we rebuilt the floor beneath it, patched the chipped enamel and presented the tub to the world unapologetically. While my tub is not the most beautiful of its kind -- more pig foot than claw foot -- it works.
But on holiday weekends like this one, my tub and I go into high gear. For wine tastings or dinner parties, it's indispensable. My dining table is an arm's reach away, and the tub provides ample space for overflow of dishes or for next course storage; no conventional breakfront could be as functional or multifunctional. At the risk of sounding clichéd, there's no better ice bucket for a methuselah of Champagne.Float tea candles and rose petals in the tub, and the look is very shelter magazine. Add fish and it's an aquarium.
For one party, my boyfriend surprised me by bringing home twin carp from Chinatown, which I promptly placed in the tub, although the poor things, probably terrified of ending up as gefilte fish, ended up dying before the party's end.
My landlord would love to rip the tub out and replace it with a shower stall, as he did for three-fourths of the apartments in our building. He'd move for a capital-improvement rent increase, which I'd contest, citing service reduction. In winter when he pulls back on the heat, a tub full of extra hot water radiates warmth and humidity. When the hot water goes off, I need walk only a few steps to fill the tub with stove-ready hot water. It's equally useful in steamy weather; a tub full of bracing cold water, especially when we bounce a fan's breeze off it, helps keep the room cool.
A kitchen tub is a perfect example of both form and function. During the blackout last August we turned the tub into a light source by filling it and sinking a couple of waterproof L.E.D. flashlights to the bottom. During the blistering next day, we kept refilling the tub with cold water, floating the perishables in it to keep them from spoiling. We dunked a watermelon, which chilled down refreshingly for our dinner guests; we also took the hot edge off a bottle of Beaujolais.
Oddly enough, not a lot of research exists about the history or culture of the kitchen tub. The tub at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side is made out of soapstone; not a bathtub per se, this early tub was designed for laundry and for anyone tiny enough to fit inside.As part of the Tenement House Act of 1901, running water (but not hot water) was required in all tenements. With running water on tap, even if only cold water, home bathing was on the way to becoming a modern city convenience.
The bathing revolution presuming a hot tub for everyone started 28 years later with the Multiple Dwelling Law of 1929, in which it was written, ''Every wash basin, bath, shower, sink and laundry tub shall be provided with an adequate supply of hot and cold water.'' But landlords with an eye on the bottom line were unlikely to go out of their way to install two sets of hot water pipes, so the pipes went to the kitchen and the tub stayed.
Despite the close quarters in which many early 20th-century New Yorkers lived, privacy must have been an issue from early on. The daughter of my late super said that her father didn't get an enamel-clad iron bathtub until around 1940, at which point, she said, ''he was old enough to hate bathing in front of the family while his mother was making dinner.''
Her father continued to go nightly to the Y.M.C.A. for his baths, as did most of his friends. Some apartments had privacy screens; other families just made do, but in both cases these tubs became a symbol of primitive early-century living.In 1969, under Mayor John V. Lindsay, legislation was passed to address the needs of landlords who wanted to renovate these old apartments. Local Law 77 allowed bathtubs to be enclosed as long as there was adequate ventilation. Many tubs were lost in this first rush of renovation.
In the late 70's, I had one of these remodeled apartments on East 87th Street. The tub had been removed, and a shower and a sink as small as a doll house's were squeezed next to the toilet.When my current landlord took his very first apartment off rent stabilization he was quick to yank out the tub and plunk a shower stall next to the kitchen sink. He was incredulous when he learned that as the new tenants moved in, they ripped out the stall and replaced it with a comfy claw-foot tub. As soon as those tenants moved out, the shower was reinstalled, where it remains.
Unlike my mother, most of my friends are charmed by my kitchen tub. Young children giggle; my 8-year-old niece from the Midwest said she had never seen anything so silly in her whole little life. But if I think back to my first experience with the tub, I realize that I wasn't so cavalier. It was 1982, and I was visiting the friend who later handed over to me the lease on his Elizabeth Street apartment. Submerged in the bubbles, I felt a confusing intimacy while my host made me breakfast.Today when an out-of-town sleep-over guest sees the bathing facilities, they first think they'll skip the bath, but then enjoy being handed a cup of tea or coffee while immersed. (Of course if they want privacy, I can offer that as well.) But conversation flows freely where water is involved.
After all, next to the bedroom, the kitchen is the most intimate room in the house. In 14 years in my tenement apartment, it never occurred to me that I was missing something.
Poor port wine. The fortified, sweet, strong stuff from the Douro region of Portugal has few champions left. While it remains a popular purchase—should your kid be born in one of the few years per decade when a vintage year is declared—the stuff is mostly relegated to postprandial pours between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Still, any serious wine collector is expected to have a small stash to show the completeness of his cellar—a case or two will suffice. This is exactly why the port accumulation of Bob Antia, 49, of Boston’s Arrowstreet Capital, LP, provokes double takes.
Scanning his inventory, Lisa Granik, a Master of Wine employed by Empire Merchants in New York, whistles. “That is one eccentric collection,” she says. Charles Curtis, head of North American wine sales for Christie’s, says, “This is a very diverse collection, with both the great years and producers as well as the less great. What sets it apart is that I’ve never seen a collection composed entirely of port.” And Robert Bohr, a globe-trotting wine consultant who presides over the wine list at New York City’s Cru restaurant, is likewise flummoxed by its single-mindedness. With an estimated worth of about $75,000, it’s not the value of the collection that staggers, but the evidence that Antia lives by port alone. He’ll drink Bordeaux and Burgundy if you off er them to him, but with Antia, it’s pretty much vintage port all the way, all the time.
No stranger to eccentricity, Antia is a nonsmoking morris dancer, a budding distiller and a vegetarian who raises steer for their meat, but can’t quite bring them to slaughter. A generously built man with a scraggly gray ponytail, the IT manager shatters the gold-buttoned, cigar-smoking, steak-eating stereotype of the port drinker. He and his wife, Sharon, have adopted four children from the inner city (all biological brothers) and, admittedly, the new family has put a crimp in his habit. Pre-sons, his inventory topped out at 2,000. At present, through trades and tastings, it has dwindled to 1,200. The oldest is 1933 (past its prime) with the bulk squarely in the important 1980s (gorgeous) and 1994 (said to be the best of the century but too young to drink). His preference is clearly for the grand houses of Dow’s or Taylor’s, but true to his adventurous spirit, he also likes to collect no-names, acquired on vacation in the Douro region.
Antia’s port palate kicked in when he worked lighting and sound for Broadway in the 1980s. After shows, he haunted a now-forgotten MacDougal Street Spanish restaurant, where he cherry-picked the port section because the price was right. “The 1963 Sandeman was the one that did me in,” he recalls. By 1990, he had a serious habit, and work took him to Boston, where he came upon the career change lucrative enough to bankroll his collection. “I had to teach myself TCP/IP for a project—it turned out that would become the Internet’s infrastructure,” he explains. Within a few months, he had more work than his new company, LeftBank Operation, could handle. Its motto was “We learn faster than you.”
“I was a single guy, living in a Cambridge rent-controlled apartment making a lot of money,” Antia says. His first serious investment was a 1967 Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas (bought for $20 and now worth $360) . “The one issue I had to solve was how to stock enough port so I’d not drink the storage. This only required cash.”
The sale of LeftBank accelerated his purchasing power and he bought a 22-acre property in the pastoral town of Lincoln, near Concord, Mass. One of the main attractions was a concrete bunker hidden in the landscape. The previous owner, the biologist Roger Payne, who discovered that whale noises were songs and recorded the hit 1970 LP “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” helped fuel the Save the Whales movement. Payne, believing the tapes were evidence of something greater than man’s own creations, built the bunker, ostensibly so his recordings could survive a nuclear Armageddon. Holding an ideal passive cellar temperature of 55 degrees, the concrete box is port-perfect as well.
Fumbling with a knot of keys, Antia opens up four sets of locks underneath the watch of a few security cameras. He creaks open the foot-thick door to reveal a tiny room crookedly crammed with crates of port. The mess is enough to give a proper Virgo agita, but, no, he says it’s one of his key collecting M.O.’s. He wants to forget what he has while the wine is aging. Sure, he might have to scrounge for his most obscure bottle—a 1963 Krohn’s, an oddball he picked up in Oporto—but he’d also like to completely forget all of the 2000 Graham’s, which he’ll start to consider opening in a decade.
Antia has other strategies: buy at auction to pick up bottles others are discarding as well as for instant oldies; buy from England as it is often cheaper and more esoteric; and, most important, share his vintages with friends in his monthly Port and Poker parties, “because it is impossible to taste a broad range of port with only a small group of people, and the older ports do not live long after uncorking.”
He also relies on strict limitations to keep his collecting urges in check—he keeps the individual bottle cost below $300. That amount is arbitrary. “I’ve never adjusted for inflation,” he says. Liquid assets can lead to sorrow, such as when the last bottle goes. This Christmas, the casualty was his last 1955 Taylor’s. He explains with palpable emotion, “The balance between fruit, tannin and the secondary aromas and nuttiness that comes from age was perfection.” While he could restock for the going rate of $750 a pop, he, a boundaried kind of man, has rules to abide by. However, he notes, “Let’s say I did some work for someone and the payment was a case of 1955—that kind of barter works for me.”
AMONG the sleek new group of domestic distillers, Cheryl Lins is an original. Wearing a baseball cap, flannel-lined jeans and wire spectacles, she flits from store to cocktail bar, towing her cardboard box of goods, selling to old customers and looking for new. When making her sales pitch, she sometimes forgets to say that she’s the one who distills it, designs the label, waxes the cork and brings the bottles to market. And by the way: her varieties of absinthe are local.
(click on the link to read more)
Fear of Frozen? Why is it that frozen salmon are two dirty words? That's when Bruce Gore Salmon and lliamna Fish Company changed everything.
The article in the Wall Street Journal Magazine
Photo by Jeff Minton A while back I did an Abe Series. If you're curious where the rest of that research went, read it here in my WALL STREET JOURNAL ARTICLE ON ABE SCHOENER'S WILD WINE VISION
Alice Feiring, Special to The Chronicle Friday, May 16, 2008
I've long-suffered from the inevitable Wonderland reference. However, when it comes to the critical acclaim for New World-style winemaking, I really do wonder if I've stepped through the looking glass. I shun popular fruit-driven wines just as I do cardboard tomatoes. Others rush to them the way mice rush to sugar. Are we really tasting the same wines? Is my palate so peculiar? Or have others had their taste buds brainwashed? It occurs to me that larger forces might be at play, pushing these bold flavors, especially when a respected winemaker gets publicly paddled for making wine in a restrained style. And especially when it's a vintner whose wines were previously lauded, like Steve Edmunds of Berkeley's Edmunds St. John winery.
I first experienced Edmunds' wine in the form of his Port O'Call New World Red. This was back at a 1989 wedding in the Berkeley hills, and it was everything I used to like about what California could produce. The grapes in the wine were identifiable as a Rhone-style blend with the taste of those lovely soft, barely cooked mi-cuit prunes from Provence, and didn't skimp on tannic structure, but it also had that California brightness. Uber critic Robert M. Parker Jr. liked it as well. In his early criticism, he heaped on praise, calling Edmunds St. John perhaps the "finest practitioner" of Californians working with Rhone grapes. He remained an Edmunds supporter for nearly two decades, even stating in a 1994 write-up, "I love this guy's wines." But something started to turn. Parker's current notes might say more about where the critic is now, than Edmunds.
A couple of years back I traveled from New York to Paso Robles, on assignment researching the region's wines and attending Hospice du Rhone, an annual celebration of Rhone grapes. I'm a redhead who melts in the heat, and the sauna-like conditions on the day of the gala tasting - reminiscent of the real Rhone Valley - made me weak. I gulped some ice water and revived the old curmudgeon within as I grumbled, "OK, there must be something I can tolerate in this room." A few wineries impressed me - Pipestone, Adelaida and Tablas Creek. But California generally is out of my usual taste preference. Still, I was there to experience the scenery, so I sidestepped the exhibiting French vignerons and made rounds of the locals. Right next to where the hefty wines of Turley Wine Cellars were being poured was their polar opposite: Edmunds St. John. With graying blond hair and vintage pre-'90s spectacles, Steve Edmunds, a boyish 58, had a get-me-out-of-here-and-put-a-guitar-in-my-hand kind of demeanor. I took a sip of his Los Robles Red Viejos Rozet Vineyards Paso Robles from the 2000 vintage. I liked it and was so relieved to find Edmunds' mark of restraint still stamped on the wine. The 2001 Basseti Vineyard Syrah was next, all sunny and tasting of olive, with well-knit tannin. Good and healthy tannin. "There's hope," I thought. But not everyone shares my love of tannin, like the guy tasting next to me. He asked Edmunds: "Is this ever going to open up?"
Like Edmunds' way of dressing, or his eyeglasses, little has changed in his winemaking. He still doesn't have his own winery. He buys his fruit from trusted sources. He approaches the wines as he has for more than 20 years. The dirt the grapes grew in did not change; neither did Edmunds' approach to the grapes. He still interprets the parcels he uses, with vintage and maturity being the only variables. He picks earlier than most and has never bowed to the gods of new oak. His aim is to work with the power of California fruit and not, as is popular today, augment it. The wine was plenty open for me. I directed Mr. Closed Wine to Turley.
Parker on the attack
Though Edmunds enjoyed Parker's praise, his scores never made it to the cult status of 95 points or higher. Since his first vintage in 1987, Edmunds' restrained style has made him an unsung hero for those who believe California should lower the sugar and lift the personality in its wines. But in Parker's eyes, Edmunds seemingly started to falter in 2004 and cracked in the 2005 vintage, when Parker slammed him with damning scores ranging from 84 to 87. Where in years past, even middling scores for Edmunds were accompanied by glowing prose, this time the words stung. In the August 2007 Wine Advocate Parker wrote, "What Steve is doing appears to be a deliberate attempt to make French-styled wines. Of course California is not France and therein may suggest the problem. If you want to make French wine, do it in France."
"Wow," I thought, "wine critic on the attack."
Criticizing a wine for trying to be French?
As Edmunds has said, he does not want to augment the power that is natural to California. Was he punished for elegance or has America and its most favored critic forgotten the beauty of restraint? The personal attack seemed out of line, more like a spurned lover. There were also some choice words that would quickly lay me flat on a shrink's couch if they were used about a piece of my writing: "innocuous effort," "one-dimensional," "superfluous." Was Parker was playing the Wonderland Duchess, screaming, "Off with his head"? Parker's style has been quick to laud and hesitant to criticize. This show of displeasure was highly out of character. The words indicated offense, but what could be offensive? Did Edmunds disappoint by not succumbing to a preference for jam and oak? Was this to be a cautionary tale to those who take a stand against non-Parkerized wines?
I wanted to inquire what Edmunds' thought of it all. Before we met up for dinner this March, I retasted some 2005s. I found the 2005 Parmelee Hills compelling, with touches of mint, the deep smoked blueberry of Syrah and a definite touch of granite in the rain. The wine had opened more than the last time I had it and was far from superfluous or innocuous. In fact, over the next few days it opened up and showed even more complexity. The Red Neck 101 Eaglepoint Ranch, which Parker said had a "superficial personality," sang with cocoa, forest and plum. Both of these wines were quite closed when I last tasted them five months previous. Edmunds' wines need some time. Sometimes a few months. Parker is an experienced taster, shouldn't he have known this? (I would have contacted Parker, but I suspected he wouldn't take the call.) I kicked off the Edmunds evening with a brilliant skid on the slick floor of New York's Gramercy Tavern restaurant that landed me right on my butt. As I nursed my wounds over a bottle of Beaujolais, Edmunds told me he, too, was mystified by the Parker debacle. It occurred to him that somehow he offended the critic.
Perhaps it was a discussion of Syrah on Parker's Web site.
"I said that I hoped that Syrah didn't get turned into an SUV, and Parker popped in on the thread and called me a wimp."
Vintner sticks to his guns
But there is evidence of discontent in the wings. Despite Edmunds' spanking, I'm hopeful that others might have the spunk to lower the dial on the fruit and expose the complexity California wine can have. "Plenty of people offered me encouragement," Edmunds said, "for being willing to take such a beating for not making the style of wine that Parker seems to demand." What helped ease the pain was that far from worrying about hurting his sales, Edmunds' East Coast sales rep sent out a mailing that said: "Edmunds St. John scores mediocre points in the Wine Advocate!" And the wine sold like hotcakes. Maybe I'm not in Wonderland after all.
Alice Feiring is a wine journalist, blogger and author of the newly released book "The Battle for Wine and Love - Or How I Saved the World from Parkerization." E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appeared on page F - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle