Friday, December 28, 2012

There's No Such Thing as Hell, but You Can Make It If You Try: A Review of Rob Bell's Book "Love Wins"

“There’s no such thing as hell, but you can make it if you try.” So says Greg Graffin, singer-songwriter of the L.A. punk band Bad Religion. Those lyrics came to mind more than once as I was reading Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”

This Rob Bell guy is an interesting fellow. He’s definitely a Christian, and I’d call him an evangelical Christian, because he clearly wants to spread the message of Jesus. But Bell displays a sense of skepticism and a questioning mind that is incredibly rare among evangelical Christian writers.

Basically, Bell wants to let self-identified followers of Jesus to know that it’s OK to doubt or disbelieve the conventional Christian notions of the afterlife. He doesn’t reject heaven and hell outright, he just pokes holes in the mainstream conceptions of these two “places.” 

“Somewhere along the way [Christians] were taught that the only option when it comes to Christian faith is to clearly declare that a few, committed Christians will go to heaven when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death, and that’s it.” Bell continues: “Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian. The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast a range of perspectives.”

Wait… What?

But Bell is right. Heaven and hell are concepts that have evolved over long periods of time within various Christian communities. By quoting extensively from the Bible, Bell shows that the prophets, Jesus, the Apostle Paul and others have all sorts of different perspectives on heaven and hell, none of which are perfectly clear.

Bell’s questioning continues: “Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth?”  

See, I’ve never believed in hell, neither fire, nor brimstone. I grew up in the Episcopalian Church, and I honestly cannot remember ever sitting in the pew hearing Father Ken preach about damnation and torture. There was a lot about the Sermon on the Mount, and a lot about grace and forgiveness, but not eternal punishment. Later, when my parents moved into a Baptist church, and even later into non-denominational evangelical churches, I heard more and more about this notion that most people I knew would end up being tortured for eternity. Death, darkness, misery, fire, gnashing of teeth…  stuck forever in a world like the cover of a Cannibal Corpse album.

For a long time I’ve believed that if a specific faith cannot survive without the element of eternal punishment for nonbelievers, then that faith is misguided. I’ve got plenty of rational reasons not to believe what I was taught in Sunday school. But on an emotional — let’s even call it spiritual, level — I’m sickened by the idea of a god and his followers forever rejoicing while nonbelievers are damned to perpetual misery. If my only problem with Christianity was that it requires damnation for its opponents, that alone would be enough for me to reject the faith entirely. I don’t respond well to threats. (Of course, there’s no evidence of an afterlife, no evidence that consciousness extends past death and the deterioration of the brain, so my point isn’t much of a point.)

Bell also rejects the idea of hell as a place of eternal damnation: “Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story.” Preach it, brother! “Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people  because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a good story.” Bell, who is prone to repeating himself, tells readers many times to reject the image of god as vengeful arbiter of damnation. That god, if he existed, would not be deserving of praise or admiration, but scorn.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Blind Tasting Oregon and California Pinot Noirs

It’s a whole lot of fun to taste wines blind, especially when the wines run a range of prices. You don’t know who made the wine or what the wine costs, so your subconscious can’t factor those elements into the equation. Blind tasting is just you, your senses and the wine, and all you can do is focus on how those three things interact.

To help out my friends at, I tasted through a dozen or so pinot noirs from Oregon and California. All of the wines were newly-released trade samples, and they were all tasted blind, meaning I didn’t know anything except that they were American pinot noirs. After writing my full tasting note and scoring the wines, I unveiled them. Then I checked their prices on Wine-Searcher, a wine sales aggregator, and included the average price.

As all blind tastings are, this exercise was educational and enlightening, and these wines demonstrate the range of styles and flavors available from domestic pinot noir.

Here’s my report…

2010 Van Duzer Pinot Noir Estate Oregon, Willamette Valley ($30)
Pretty cherry color. Aromas of blackberries and cherries, along with rich loam and a distinct musk and herbal tinge. Dry tannins and lots of fresh acid provide a solid background for the ripe plum and strawberry flavors. Cedar and pepper linger onto the finish. I imagine this would be more expressive in a year or two, but it's still quite impressive. (88 points)

2010 Stepping Stone by Cornerstone Pinot Noir Oregon, Willamette Valley ($30)
Dark ruby color. Gushing cherries on the nose. Also very floral , like a potpourri of dried roses, and hints of earth. On the palate, cherry and red licorice lead the way to some rose petals, tobacco and beef flavors. The acid is really pretty and it keeps the wine balanced in the face of grainy tannins. It seems approachable now, but I'd like to see what five years would do for some of those savory-herbal elements. (89 points)

2010 Cornerstone Cellars Pinot Noir Oregon, Willamette Valley ($26)
Bright purple colored. Explosive aromas of cherry pie filling, brown sugar and black pepper. The palate shows bright acid, very rich cherry fruit, and a nice kick of pepper. The toasty oak adds a real richness to this wine, and it borders on the extreme end of the oak spectrum. That said, the fine tannins and solid fruit hold up well against the oak. (87 points)

2009 Stoller Pinot Noir JV Estate Oregon, Willamette Valley, Dundee Hills ($24)
Bright cherry colored with a tiny hint of spritz. More strawberry and cherry fruit on the nose than the other wines, with some vanilla coke as well. A nice kick of dill and sage linger on the nose. On the palate, this is fresh and light, with an approachable personality. Really pure flavors of cherry and raspberry, but there's some sage and pepper flavors that add complexity. An undeniably tasty pinot. (89 points)

2010 Robert Mondavi Winery Pinot Noir California, Napa, Carneros ($23)
Dark and deep on the nose, showing black cherries and plums along with a hint of anise. Fine tannins and medium-to-low acid on the palate. Flavors of sweet plum, cassis and red licorice, beefed up with toasted oak. Hints of chocolate linger on the finish. Big, hedonistic and very toasty. (85 points)

2009 Inman Family Pinot Noir Olivet Grange Vineyard California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley ($60)
Light ruby color. The burst of rhubarb and white pepper on the nose is really interesting. Underneath, aromas of raspberry jam, wild strawberry and rose petals. The acid on this wine is really superb, giving the wine incredible freshness for a New World pinot. Raspberry and wild strawberry fruit flavors blend nicely with white pepper and incense. Medium-to-fine grained tannins provide structure. Long, zesty finish. It would probably benefit from a few hours in the decanter or a few more years in the cellar, but this is a beautiful and elegant young pinot. (91 points)

2011 Hahn Estates Pinot Noir California ($13)
Pretty cherry color, very clear. Soft and inviting on the nose with cherry cola, rose petals and rich soil. Fine-grained tannins and just below medium acid. Juicy flavors of cherry preserves, red plums along with that same rich soil note that’s so nice on the nose. Sweet cherry, earth and mocha carry the finish. A big, fruity pinot with decent structure. (86 points)

2010 Gainey Pinot Noir California, Central Coast, Santa Rita Hills ($29)
Raspberry jam colored. Lots of cedar on the nose, along with raspberry and sour cherries. On the palate, a burst of sour cherry fruit and acid leads the way to a richer, blackberry flavor, along with some vanilla and toasted oak. Very pretty, with medium-grain tannins and a Thanksgiving dinner-like finish of cranberry sauce and pepper. It has a unique sense of purity and balance. (90 points)

2010 Hahn Estates Pinot Noir SLH California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands ($29)
Vibrant red plum color. Plum skins and cherry jam on the nose, mixed in with a sweet, almost molasses-like aroma. On the palate, the wine is surprisingly smooth, with tannins like satin and medium acid providing a soft background for the bright red and black fruit. Notes of baker’s chocolate, coffee and coconut-toasty oak round out the finish. Unashamedly delicious. Very silky, but the structure hints that it could last a few years. (88 points)

This single-vineyard pinot from Breggo was my favorite of the lot.
Even when blind tasted, Anderson Valley pinot noir comes out on top.
2010 Breggo Cellars Pinot Noir Savoy Vineyard California, North Coast, Anderson Valley ($60)
Medium ruby colored. Aromatically, this wine explodes with sweet berries, rose petals, vanilla bean and a hint of coconut. Firm tannins on the palate, medium acid, and gushing cherry and raspberry fruit combine in a full-bodied, but juicy style. This wine has a great herbal-savory kick that adds complexity. Tinges of sweet mocha and oak linger onto the finish, but not enough to overwhelm the wine’s other aspects. Despite its richness, the wine somehow maintains lightness and balance, which will probably only improve with time. (93 points)

2010 Robert Mondavi Winery Pinot Noir Reserve California, Napa, Carneros ($55)
Bright ruby colored. Very dense on the nose, a bit closed, but with swirling the aromas of cool plum and pomegranate came out, also some notes of pine needle and dried leaves. Very full on the palate, with medium acid and incredibly silky tannins. It’s got the big flavors of cherry pie, vanilla cola and milk chocolate, but it’s accented with notes of cinnamon stick and pine wood. Toasty oak lingers on a long, creamy finish. Seems like it has a long time ahead of it. Very impressive. (91 points)

Monday, December 17, 2012

My Worst Wines of 2012

I was lucky enough to try some absolutely stunning wines over the course of 2012, which I chronicled in this blog post. Writing about all the great Burgundies and New World syrahs I drank in 2012 got me thinking: What about the worst wines of 2012? I've had some really bad ones, so I went back into my tasting archive and pulled out the worst of the worst.

A lot of wines are terrible because of a specific "fault." The most well-known wine fault is cork taint (technically called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole or TCA), a compound that can seep into bottles through tainted cork or barrels, destroying all that is good in the wine and leaving behind aromas and flavors of moldy filth. Other faults, like volatile acidity and oxidization, are easy to identify if you know what to expect. I tasted my fair share of faulty wines this year, but I didn't score those wines, and they're not included in this report. As far as I can tell, these three wines didn't have a specific chemical or other flaw. They just plain sucked.

(A quick note on wine scores: It's generally accepted that a wine gets 50 points just for being fermented grape juice. When wines are as bad as the wines in this report, the point system, which is inherently flawed, becomes almost nonsensical. I use the 100-point scale because I guess I like throwing out terrible scores when a wine pisses me off.)

This sparkling Italian rose is a light salmon color. This wine smells like watermelon, stinky gym socks and rose water. The palate tastes bitter and offensive. Screw this wine. It tastes like crap, and the producer must be a loser. 60 points

2010 Tarara Winery Viognier Honah Lee (Virginia, Northern Region, Loudoun County)
Wow, I can't believe this wine got a "gold medal" in the Virginia Governor’s Cup. It's unbearable. Aromas of white grapes, oil and marmalade. The palate tastes bitter, like someone crushed grape seeds in with the fruit. However, the alcohol clocks in at 15.5%, making this taste like some bizarre cocktail gone wrong. Bitter fruit, overbearing alcohol, disgusting flavors. How someone could vote to give this wine a gold medal is beyond me. It's quite miraculous to taste a wine this bad that doesn't have a specific chemical flaw. It's like they set out to create the worst wine possible, and succeeded. 60 points

2010 Pago del Vicario Blanco de Tempranillo (Spain, Castilla-La Mancha, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla)
Straw, sauvignon blanc-like color. Crazy aromas of celery seed, green pepper, tobacco and cat vomit. Seriosly, as someone with two cats who puke on the floor regularly, I can tell you that this wine smells exactly like fresh cat barf. On the palate, this medium-bodied wine shows a bizarre combination of lemon zest, cucumber water and under-ripe cherries. It's all tainted by an overcooked broccoli flavor. The bitter finish reminds me of chewing on grape seeds. Very strange, and not likeable at all. This white wine is made from free-run tempranillo, a red grape, meaning the juice isn’t fermented on the skins. It’s a cool idea, and many winemakers pull it off, but not in this case. Friggin’ terrible. This is the worst non-"faulted" wine I've had all year. 51 points

So there you have it, my most hated wines of 2012. May the New Year bring no such wines to your palate.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Cults, Media and Death in Palahniuk's Novel "Survivor"

Tender Branson is about to die. The 35-year-old protagonist (with a name only a novelist could create) is narrating his story into the black box recorder on an airplane. There’s no one on the plane, just him and a rapidly decreasing fuel supply. He’s not a pilot (the pilot parachuted out before the narration starts) and it’s clear this plane has a single destination: oblivion.
Tender is the lone surviving member of a suicide cult known as the Creedish. The Creedish disdain secular society, sex, alcohol, pleasure… pretty much everything. What makes these folks different from Christian fundamentalists is this: most of the members kill themselves. The suicides began some ten years prior to the start of Tender’s narration. Since then, the few remaining survivors have offed themselves in waves until it seems Tender is the last one left.
When word gets out that he’s the cult’s last survivor, a New York consulting firm decides to market Tender, to recreate him as some sort of messianic product for mass consumption.  The admen give Tender shiny new clothes, designer drugs and all sorts of cosmetic injections to make him appeal to the American public. They (the American public) buys it hook, line and sinker, and Tender becomes a national sensation. Soon the Tender Branson brand expands to include books on tape, bobble-head dolls, even Tender’s own version of the Bible. Yet, after being remade into someone else, Tender ends up staring into the face of suicide just like the Creedish whackos who raised him. The novel “Survivor” is the schizophrenic and satirical story of how Tender ended up on that doomed airplane.
The book starts on page 238, with Chapter 47. The chapters and page numbers count down from there so that the story ends with page 1. This is a simple trick, but I’ve never seen it done before, and it adds a real sense of urgency to the narrative, like a bomb is ticking and there’s no way to shut it off.
100 pages or so in, Tender steps out of his life story and says, “Here in the cockpit of Flight 2039, the first of the four engines has just flamed out. Where we’re at right here is the beginning of the end.” If there’s a better example of a narrative device ratcheting up tension I can’t think of it at the moment. And there are four engines, so Palahniuk gets to use this trick three more times before the “beginning of the end” gives way to the “end” end.
My biggest problem with this book is the difficulty I have connecting with the narrator. He has no drive. He has no passion. He doesn’t give a shit about anything. This is, of course, because he’s telling the story from aboard a plane that is going to crash and destroy him. He’s a suicide case who’s been waiting for a long time to do himself in, so perhaps it’s too much to ask that I have some sort of intimate connection with this character.  
Also, Tender Branson is an extremely malleable person. He is formed and shaped according to the will of the cult church he grew up in. When he leaves and becomes the sole surviving member of that church, he is formed and shaped according to the will of the mass media. There are few (if any) desires inside Tender Branson that aren’t put there by someone else. Palahniuk uses Tender’s lack of self-consciousness as a way to show just how much people and institutions can assert control over the individual. Ultimately, however, Tender Branson chooses his own fate. He chooses to conform, makes a decision to reject the self and adopt the values and customs of those around him. It’s this habit of his that makes him somewhat boring as a narrator.
Luckily for the reader, Palahniuk’s style is so psychotic and hilarious that it overcomes the inherent faults of the narrator. I didn’t love this novel as much as “Fight Club,” but it’s still a great work of experimental fiction. Read it with Tender’s advice in mind: “Please fasten your seatbelts as we begin our terminal descent into oblivion.”

Friday, December 7, 2012

Ten Wines Under $20: My Picks for 20 Something Magazine

I've got a new post in 20 Something Magazine about drinking well and drinking cheap during the holidays.
This Holiday Season, Drink Well, Drink Cheap: 10 Great Wines for Well Under $20

Whatever holidays you celebrate — and however you celebrate them — holidays are always better with wine. (If you don’t drink, you can stop reading here because I have nothing for you.)

The holiday season means you’re probably already spending lots of money on presents for your siblings or significant others, plane tickets home to the ’rents, jumbo packs of Aleve. So you’re on a budget. Well, no worries, because you don’t have to spend a lot to drink well this year. The period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is the crunch time for wine retailers. Cases and cases of bubbles move in and out quickly, stuff that’s been sitting on the shelves gets marked down in preparation for the New Year’s releases. And that leaves you, the frugal 20-something wine consumer, with a lot of options.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Nicholson Baker Scraps All Sexual Taboos in "The Fermata"

A note for sensitive readers: This is a review of a Nicholson Baker novel, which, by definition, will be fucking explicit.

I read most of Nicholson Baker’s novel The Fermata while I was on a plane from Washington, DC, to Phoenix. A young, attractive woman sat next to me during the flight, reading a magazine and dozing off. I was glad to see she was tired because I was scared she’d talk to me. It’s not that I didn’t want to talk to her, rather I feared that any conversation between us would lead to her noticing my book and asking me, innocently enough: “What’s the book about?” I feared this question because it had a simple, crass answer: “It’s about a guy who stops time and goes around touching women’s boobs.”

Seriously, that’s the premise of the book. Baker takes this fantasy, near universal among grade school boys, and runs with it for 200-plus pages. (Do girls have similar fantasies? I’m not so sure.) Arnold Strine, protagonist and breast-lover extraordinaire, is 35 as he narrates his story but he’s got the nerve and curiosity of kid perpetually stuck at 13. He’s a “career temp”with crappy seduction skills and terrible luck talking to ladies. But what he lacks in charm and money he makes up for by entering “The Fold.” That’s what he calls the time-stopped world he operates in. See, Arnold can turn time on and off by clicking a pen, adjusting his glasses or a range of other small movements. Once he enters The Fold, everyone and everything else stops. Arold is in complete control of the world, and can move within The Fold as he sees fit. And he sees fit to touch a lot of tits.

A drop quote on the back cover of my paperback edition claims that this is the most sexually explicit novel ever to be published by a mainstream publisher. Well, that’s quite a claim. One worth investigating. After reading this book, I can say that it is difficult to come up with a more sexually explosive novel, unless you were delving into straight-up porn. Actually, even when compared to a lot of lit-erotica, The Fermata could be considered risqué. (The only comparably explicit novel I can think of is Henry Millers Under the Roofs of Paris.)

So, who would read this book? Only perverts, right? C’mon. This book is much more than imaginative smut (not that there’s anything wrong with imaginative smut). It’s about the limits of human consciousness, the subconscious male mind, the mystery of time, our doomed attempts to control the world around us. It’s not just big tits but big themes we’re dealing with here.

Also, Baker is simply an artist with the English language. His writing is frequently playful and always acerbic. (He refers to the vagina as the “vadge” the “juice box” and, my personal favorite, the “big fat Georgia O’Keefe.”) He constructs his scenes with surgical precision. Each word does exactly what Baker tells it to do. His language is pure of all clichés and gimmicks. The Fermata also throws out a lot of the traditional structural elements of the novel. There’s hardly any rising action, no real antagonist, and while there are many orgasms in this novel, there’s no real “climax,” at least in any traditional sense.

Baker took a ton of risks with this novel, that’s for sure. But with big risk comes the possibility of a big payoff. And The Fermata pays dividends.

If you’re open-minded about sex, and you don’t blush easily, you might get a kick out of this book. But if you’re on a plane, make sure no one’s reading over your shoulder.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My Favorite Wines of 2012

Another year is winding down. I don’t know about you, but I had one hell of a 2012. I caught some of the best waves in recent years out in Sonoma County, as well as all over the Jersey Shore during an excellent fall storm season. I spent a lot of quality time with friends and family, went to a lot of rocking concerts and, of course, drank some pretty fine vino. Since I take obsessive notes on the wines I taste, it’s easy for me to look back and find the wines that wowed me the most over the course of the year.

This year, my favorite wines fell into one of four categories: Burgundy, Chateaneuf-du-Pape, syrah and German riesling. These four categories of wine probably account for 75% of the wine I drink these days. After years and years of exploring every possibly grape variety and wine region in the world, I’ve fallen into something of a stride. I know what I love, and I drink what I love. So here are the wines I loved most in 2012.

It was CdP that gave me the wine bug in 2006, and six years later, this region still tugs at my heart. I’ve consumed a lot of different vintages of Chateaneuf this year (my CdP b-day party was something to be remembered), but my favorites almost exclusively came from the 2010 vintage. Heralded by pretty much everyone as the greatest CdP vintage in recent memory, the 2010s are beyond impressive. They’re so young and compact, with gritty tannins, fresh acid and pure fruit built for the long-haul. That said, it was a true honor to taste a lot of 2010s young, because they offer a wine-drinking experience unlike anything else.

2009 Chapelle St. Theodoric Châteauneuf-du-Pape le Grand Pin (France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape) This CdP is gorgeous dark purple color in the glass. Initially the aromas were tight, and I think this wine really needs a decant to show its full stuff. But with some swirling the complexities come out: raspberry, kirsch, also some lovely charred meat and beef broth aromas. The palate is dense and full, very compact. This wine needs a few years to open up, but it’s gorgeous. Lovely brightness of fruit, and it’s not heavy at all. I love the kirsch meets herbs and beef broth flavor that lingers on the finish. What a beauty! 95 points

2010 Chapelle St. Theodoric Châteauneuf-du-Pape le Grand Pin (France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape) I've tasted some great 2010 CdPs, but this is way up there. Co-owned by American importer Peter Weygandt and Domaine de Cristia owner Baptiste Grangeon, this is an elite-level wine made from grenache grown in the sandy soils near the heralded producer Rayas. Much more concentration than Rayas, but still retains this lovely mineral and freshness. Aromas of fig, cocoa dust, roasted chestnut, cigar shop and herb-tinged blackberries. Wow. The fruit is like nectar on the palate, but that 2010 acid shines through and keeps this bound together. Very deep and sexy flavors here, all sorts of black fruit, mixed with some red berries, and packed with earthy and mineral flavors. I loved the 2009, but this is even better, with more focus and aging potential. Amazing stuff, and it’s only going to improve. Bury this wine for a decade and see what happens. My Wine of the Year. 97 points

2010 Domaine de la Janasse Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Chaupin (France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape) A near-perfect 2010 Chateauneuf, made from 100% grenache. Wow, the structure and depth of this wine is astonishing. Aromas of cedar, tobacco, anise, black cherries, black pepper and hints of toast. The aromas combine to form a tight fist that will take years to unpack. Very young, with firm tannins and tightly-compacted fruit, but enough acid to make this pleasant to drink. I love the complex fig, tar, herb garden and earth flavors in this wine. An incredibly long finish. I would absolutely love to try this again in 15 years, it’s got at least that much time ahead of it. I know Robert Parker and Tanzer swooned over this, but they’re on to something here. Superb. 96 points

I can’t really afford it that often (and Grand Cru Burgundy even less so), but I’ve had the opportunity to taste some pristine Burgundies this year. I’ve enjoyed a lot of premier cru and village-level Burgs, which are far more reasonably priced, but Grand Cru Burgundy is expensive for a reason: it’s the best pinot noir in the world. These two examples are at the top of my 2012 list.

1995 Bernard Dugat-Py Mazis-Chambertin (France, Burgundy, Côte de Nuits, Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru) What a beautiful Burgundy. The nose is intoxicating and intense. One aroma blends into the next: savory meat and broth, leather, violets, pure cherry fruit, distinct earthiness. On the palate, everything is beautiful and in place, with the fine tannins, fresh acid and purity of flavors. The earthiness to this wine is amazing. Seems like it has a while ahead of it, but it tastes heavenly right now. 96 points

2001 Domaine Robert Groffier Bonnes Mares (France, Burgundy, Côte de Nuits, Bonnes Mares Grand Cru) When Robert Groffier is on, he is on. And what a gorgeous wine it is. Vibrant purple color with brick red rims. The aromas alone made this the wine of the night. Sexy, smooth, pure aromas of cranberry, white pepper and potpourri, a hint of Indian spices. The palate starts off brisk, almost tart, but then a wave of fine-grained tannins and lush fruit pour in. Roses, ripe cherries, dark soil flavors, but acid sails through the whole time. The purity of flavor on the finish... it’s just incredible. For my palate, this wine had that perfect balance of power and elegance. I would love to revisit this in another five years, as some of those mature flavors start to develop. 95 points

Syrah and pinot noir are locked in a constant battle for my favorite red wine grape. But after this year I just may have to officially call the fight a draw, because I drank some syrah that just blew me away.

2004 Cayuse Syrah En Cerise Vineyard (Washington, Walla Walla Valley) This wine was a perfect way to top off an evening of incredible wines from the Pacific Northwest. The aromas are simply divine: plum sauce, caramel, rose petals, olive brine and forest floor. Fruity and rich on the palate, to say the least. I like the red fruit profile of this wine, mostly cherries and raspberries. The fruit is backed up by savory spices, peppered steak, soy sauce and coffee grinds. It’s rare that I find a wine this ripe and hedonistic that still keeps its balance, not to mention all this non-fruit flavors that are kicking serious ass. Poetry in a bottle, my friends. Fucking poetry. This is my first time tasting this wine, but it appears to be in an ideal state right now. There’s a reason why Cayuse is such a cult phenomenon. 95 points

2006 Cayuse Syrah Cailloux Vineyard (Washington, Walla Walla Valley) Wow, what a tremendous syrah. Beautiful and vibrant purple color, clear and bright. I believe this had been opened for a while before the tasting, but it showed instant aromatic complexity: sweet violets, rose petals, blueberry. There’s a hint of green olive on the nose, and also some sweetness, like creme brulee. Simply captivating to sniff. On the palate, we’re talking tannins made of the finest silk. Pure flavors of blueberry and fig paste are backed up with charcoal, coffee and olive tapenade. The complexity is absurd! I took like half a page of notes on this wine, but I’ll stop now. It’s awesome. 95 points
2004 Copain Syrah James Berry Vineyard (California, Central Coast, Paso Robles) This is an incredibly dark and vibrant-looking syrah. It’s really compact right out of the bottle, and a few hours in the decanter helped coax out some more aromas. Plum cake, fig, tar and war paint aromas dominate. After three hours in the decanter it started to show a bit more olive and smoke aromas. On the palate, this wine is very extracted, with a mouthfeel like glycerin and paint mixed together. Flavors of plum pits, blueberry pie, fruit cake, dark chocolate and toast combine in a dense, tight package. The tannins are fine-grained and provide solid backbone. Just enough acid to keep it going, even though I normally prefer more acid in my syrah. It evolved with air and time in the decanter to show some loam and charcoal flavors, which add complexity. After three hours I started picking up some olive and brine flavors, and as a Northern Rhone lover, I was very pleased. This syrah deserves to be taken seriously by any wine lover, because even though it’s steeped in this bombastic Paso Robles style, it’s elegant in its own way. In my mind, this is a great example of Paso Robles’ syrah, much more my style than Saxum. What’s important to me in a Paso Robles wine is the purity of the flavors and at least some semblance of balance. Copain’s 2004 James Berry syrah has both. I can’t believe I don’t have another one of these to tuck away for five more years. This is up there with the best syrahs I’ve had all year. 95 points

2001 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage La Chapelle (France, Northern Rhône, Hermitage) I can’t deny my love for this wine. The aromas are seductive and complex, lots of fresh red cherry fruit, a mix of green and black olives, and spices like bay leaf, white pepper and potpourri. I poured myself a glass and smelled it over the course of the evening, and every ten minutes the aromas shifted and evolved in complexity. On the palate, this wine is pure silk. The wine coats the palate with fine tannins, but the acid is so fresh, keeping the wine elegant. Amazing complexity of flavors: crushed berries, grilled herbs, cured meat, olive tapenade and smoke. Long finish. Incredible stuff. I’d love to re-taste this in five more years. 95 points

I didn’t drink nearly as much riesling in 2012 as I did in 2011, but that’s mostly due to the fact that (unfortunately) I didn’t make a pilgrimage to Germany’s Mosel Valley this year. Still, year after year, bottle after bottle, Mosel riesling continues to be one of my favorite things in life. There’s no competition in my mind for the best white wines in the world. This year I only rated one German riesling 95 points or more, and here it is…

2010 Weingut Heymann-Löwenstein Riesling von blauem Schiefer Reserve (Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer) Golden yellow color in the glass. Exotic aromas abound: white peach, fresh wildflowers, orange zest and hints of clover honey. The acid hits the palate right away, and sticks around through the finish. The acid is lip-smackingly high, but I have to admit: I friggin’ love it. The flavors are crazy-good: rich white peach, Granny Smith apple, lime zest, margarita salt, tangerine rind... the flavors go on and on. The level of freshness is absurd. This riesling shows rich fruit but it's laced with tons of acid and minerals for balance. Hints of chestnut on the long finish. I’ve tasted a ton of 2010 Mosel rieslings, but this is one of my favorites for sure. Classic. I'm going to try and age several bottles of this wine because it will improve for 10, 20 maybe even 30 years. But it’s so delicious, I’m not sure if it stands a chance of being left undisturbed for long. 95 points

Honorable Mentions — A Few 94-pointers
2008 Cameron Pinot Noir Clos Electrique (Oregon, Willamette Valley)
2003 Clarendon Hills Syrah Brookman (South Australia, Clarendon)
2005 Château Rieussec (France, Bordeaux, Sauternes)

Friday, November 30, 2012

Things I See in DC - #3

I'm an observer. I watch people and things and try to make some sense of them. This world is a strange place, and writing down what I see makes me feel like less of an alien. I see a lot of interesting things in my adopted hometown of DC. Here are a few such things:

Things I See in DC - #3 (September-November, 2012)

It’s nine o’clock on a Monday night, and I’m reading a book on my porch and enjoying a glass of California pinot noir, like I do sometimes. I see two guys running up my hilly street. They’re thirty-somethings, dressed like tool-bags with all the pricey running garb and tassles, tufts of wet hair flopping over their ears. The one on the right checks his gadget-watch, huffs to the other: “Mile one: six minutes, two seconds.” The other one says back: “Nice! Let’s pick up the pace!” And they run off down the street, faster now. I take a sip of my wine and watch a mouse as it starts to dig a hole in my garden.

I grab a seat at the bar in Jack Rose. I look up at the library-style wall of Scotch, trying hard to make out the names in the hazy glow: Ardbeg, Auchentoshan, Bowmore, Bruichladdich. There must be hundreds of them, thousands perhaps, each bottle holding onto its own savory Scottish secret. A man plops down two barstools to my right. He’s my age, clean as clean-cut gets, his curly hair slicked back and gelled into a crisp helmet. He’s sporting slick shoes and a show-off suit that’s been far too carefully ironed. It isn’t long before a pretty blonde appears, stepping up to him with delicate feet. “Are you so-and-so?” she says. “Yes, and you must be so-and-so,” he replies. She takes a seat next to him. I sip my Highland Park and wonder what the hell this woman is doing with this guy. Mr. Clean grabs the bartender’s attention, and she walks over to take his order. Instead of asking his first date what she’d like, he looks up at the massive wall of whiskey and thinks of his own beverage. He scrunches up his brow and asks the bartender, simply: “Do you have any Scotch?”

In DC's Eastern Market neighborhood, mirrors of city life. ©Isaac James Baker

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Best Bottle of Bubbles for $20

See this bottle? Take note. It's the best sparkling wine available for $20. End of discussion.

Okay, let me dial it back a bit. With wine, there's never an end to the discussion. Of course, I'm always willing to try a new bubbly that could prove me wrong, but year after year Roederer Estate's non-vintage Brut offers bubbly bliss that far outperforms the meager $20 cover charge.

This should come as no big surprise to lovers of the bubbles. After all, Roederer is the brand behind the king of bling, Cristal Champagne. (The 2000 Cristal brut from Roederer remains the greatest wine I've ever tasted, period.) And since 1982, Roederer Estate has been cultivating its own vineyards in one of my favorite California wine regions, Mendocino County's Anderson Valley. Roederer Estate puts out a range of still and sparkling wines made from the classic Champagne grapes (pinot noir and chardonnay), most of which are quite moderately priced. While their higher-end bubbles are even better, nothing beats the value of the non-vintage brut. I first tasted this wine at the winery a few years ago and have been an avid fan ever since. Most recently, I popped a bottle on Thanksgiving, and it proved to be a serious crowd-pleaser. Here are my notes from that bottle...

Non-Vintage Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley
Pretty gold color. Clean aromas of melon, white flowers, orange peel and bread dough. Superb acid on the palate, balanced by crisp minerals. Nice biscuity flavors, along with apples, melon and lime. This is legit stuff for $20! A blend of 60% chardonnay and 40% pinot noir, this wine spends at least two years aging on the yeasts, which adds to that biscuity complexity. The finish is long and crisp. 90 points IJB

And I'm not the only fan of this stuff. One taster wrote: "This wine has yet to disappoint. 7 or 8 bottles in the last year that are all in the 90-91 point range. I love the style and the consistency." Another fan: "Best $20 sparkler out there. PERIOD." Yet another: "The epitome of consistency and under $20 over-achieving sparkling. You can always count on NV Roederer Brut. Solid 90, dog."

Yup, this stuff is awesome, dog. With the holidays already upon us, and 2013 scratching at the door, it's always good to have a few bottles of bubbly around. And, to date, I haven't found a better bargain.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Naked Mountain: Quality Virginia Chardonnay

Courtesy of Naked Mountain Vineyards & Winery.
Virginia wines get little love. They’re blasted for being overpriced, overoaked, too sweet, too watery, too stemmy or just plain gross. I’ve visited many Virginia wineries and tasted scores of wine from the Commonwealth over the years, and I’ll admit it: these descriptors are right on… for some Virginia wines. Every year, Virginia winemakers put out really good wine, but it seems sometimes that every solid bottle of Virginia wine is followed by three others that are mediocre to bad.

Like any wine from any region, the producer is key. Sure terroir matters, but good wine doesn’t make itself. This is why I go back again and again to quality Virginia winemakers like those at Linden, Barboursville, Glen Manor and Veritas, just to name a few. I’ve recently come across a new (to me) producer, Naked Mountain, located east of the Blue Ridge gateway town of Front Royal. Bob and Phoebe Harper planted the first vines here in 1976. Planting grew over the years, reaching annual production of 6,000 cases. A couple of young wine enthusiasts, Randy and Meagan Morgan, bought the winery in 2010. Naked Mountain boasts that its chardonnay has been served at the White House twice, once during a State Dinner hosted by Bush I and once at a Clinton meeting with state governors. Not a bad couple of notches to have on your wine’s resume.

I spent this Thanksgiving in the beautiful Blue Ridge foothills with family and friends. I popped a Naked Mountain chardonnay one night and poured it for five or six people, all of whom enjoyed it. Here are my notes…

Having never tried a wine from Naked Mountain before, I poured myself a glass with few expectations. That said: I was impressed with this wine. It showed generous aromas of baked pears and apples, some buttered popcorn and lemon cake. The palate is full of bruised apples, pear and guava fruit, along with buttered popcorn and cinnamon flavors frmo the oak fermentation. Medium acid saves this from being overwhelming or flabby. It’s not a stunning wine, but it outdoes a lot of California chardonnays at twice the price. I picked this up at a Virginia wine shop for $12, and I consider that quite a bargain. 86 points

I’ve never been to the winery, but it’s in a very scenic area that is really accessible to Washingtonians or Appalachian passers-by. I think I’ll make visiting Naked Mountain a priority in the coming year. And I think I’ll try the new release (2008) of this barrel-fermented chardonnay soon.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Basking in Lioco's Demuth Vineyard Chardonnay

Last year, while I was hanging around the San Francisco Bay Area, I drank a 2009 Demuth Vineyard chardonnay from Lioco. It was a new wine for me, and I was so floored by it that I became somewhat obsessed with the wine. I did some research and I wrote up this little ditty on the 2009 vintage. After that great experience I was able to find a 2008 vintage of the same wine. The day before Thanksgiving, I popped it, expecting great things. I was not disappointed.

2008 Lioco Chardonnay Demuth Vineyard (California, Mendocino County, Anderson Valley)
Lioco's 2008 Demuth Vineyard chard is simply stunning. Aromas of seashell, intensely-focused minerals, honeysuckle, slate, whipped honey and lime. Waves and waves of aromas. Fresh acid on the palate, with a beautiful mouthfeel, so silky. This wine combines the richness of apricot and honey with the freshness of a Granny Smith apple. The minerality in this wine is simply amazing. I remember the 2009 having that same mineral intensity, and I’m absolutely in love with it. Hints of quinine and rosemary add legit complexity. This is easily the best California chardonnay I’ve had in a very long time, and it cements my idea that Lioco’s Demuth Vineyard chardonnay is perhaps my favorite California chardonnay, period. It’s simply stunning, and I love it with the passion that I love many Grand Cru Chablis wines. It’s up there on that level of quality. No oak on this wine, and it doesn't need it.

94 points

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Arizona Winery Profile Featured on Terroirist Blog

You know you're in Arizona when a sign in a winery's tasting
room announces you can't pack a firearm while drinking.
On the list of things I love most in life, travel, writing and wine are close to the top. I took advantage of all three earlier this month when I took a trip to an Arizona winery and wrote up a little ditty about it. My piece on Page Springs Cellars, a trailblazing winery located in Arizona's Verde Valley, is being featured on the daily wine blog Terroirist. 

From the valley floor of Phoenix, the drive to Page Springs Cellars takes you on a gradual incline through desert and prairie grass toward the rugged red rock formations of Sedona. Off the highway, the windy road to the winery is hemmed in by cottonwood trees, sagebrush, and prickly pear cactuses. Above, ravens and vultures glide across the wide sky. Below, the occasional tumble weed rolls across the road just like a scene from a clichéd Western film.

Fiction with an All-Too-Real Environmental Disaster Scenario

I don’t want to denigrate this novel by calling it “genre,” like some literary snob. I guess it is technically a “thriller,” but a thriller in the best sense of the word. The issues and themes in this novel are dark, deep, complex and challenging. The characters aren’t mere cut-outs. Yes, the plot twists, lies unravel and people die, but it all happens in the context of a well-crafted fictional world that is not too far removed from our own.
“Flowertown” takes the country we know (the novel is set in the farmlands of Iowa) and shows what it could easily turn into. Seven years before the novel starts, Feno Chemical, a pesticide company, spills a harmful chemical into an Iowa town, contaminating the waterways and surrounding areas, killing almost everything in its path. The affected survivors are held under quarantine in a fenced-off village everyone calls Flowertown, named such because the chemical contaminant gives off a weird floral aroma. The government has ceded control and authority over the quarantine to the same company that created and spilled the contaminant. As demonstrated by countless chemical and oil spills in the real world, when profit-driven, unaccountable entities take charge of public safety, the public is anything but safe. The survivors are doped up with mysterious medication and controlled from dawn to dusk.  
Soon, a mysterious clique of resistance rises up from within the quarantine, passing out pamphlets, delivering coded messages to other prisoners, defacing walls and company vehicles. Who’s behind it? What’s brewing underneath the surface? It’s one hell of a fun time finding out.
This book is a real a page-turner, but S.G. Redling brings the reader through the story on her terms. She writes with the authority of a street-wise investigative reporter (she worked in radio for years), and I love her punchy, jumpy style. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Red Velvet Cupcakes — the Vinous Version

As a DC resident it’s hard to escape the allure of cupcakes. There are so many cupcakeries and cafes, even food trucks, that sell every variety of cupcake under the sun. Thing is: I’m not really a fan. My girlfriend makes some incredible peanut butter cupcakes, but they’re pretty much just peanut butter and chocolate, which means they, by definition, must be delicious. The fluffy cake insides and the ultra-sweet topping of a typical cupcake just don’t do it for me. So I was more than a bit skeptical when a friend brought over a bottle of Red Velvet Cupcake wine.

I drink a lot of good wine. I drink a lot of wine that I think is going to be good but turns out to be bad. And then there are the wines I drink that I know are going to be bad. This wine falls into the latter category.

The “fact sheet” on this wine provides strikingly few facts: “Red Velvet is a blend of classic red varietals with Zinfandel as a base. It has fantastic structure, aroma, depth of flavor and a long creamy finish.” I’ve read there are some merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah grapes in here as well, but it seems the producer, like some cult cupcakery, wants to keep the recipe secret. I can’t find any information on where in California the grapes came from, how the wine was made, what kind of oak treatment the juice received. I can only assume that the winemaking team used all the gimmicks in the technological toolbox. Maybe they soaked tea bags of oak chips in the wine, added acid, filtered the hell out of it… who knows? Asking how this wine is made is like asking where Jimmy Dean sausage comes from. Only a few people know, and those who do wish they didn’t.

When I was entering my tasting notes into CellarTracker, my favorite online tasting note database, I laughed out loud at several other tasting notes. “Frightfully sweet and sickly, and hard to believe it's actually wine,” writes one taster. “I love red velvet cupcakes, but I have no desire to drink them. Spurn it as you would spurn a rabid dog.” Ouch! Another taster writes: “if a case of this fell off a truck I wouldn't bend over to pick it up.”

However, not everyone detests this wine. One taster rated it 100 points, but didn’t provide any tasting notes. (I’m going to assume that individual was suffering through some sort of diabetic coma when they scored the wine.) When I was researching this wine I came across a blog post from someone who clearly liked it. She wrote: “It has been a perfect [sic] during the hotter months as a stand alone glass or for pairing with appetizers or lighter summer fair – grilled chicken, boiled shrimp or burgers.” Look, to each his/her own is my mantra. But if I were to drink this wine with appetizers or shrimp or any other “lighter summer fair” the combination would repulse me. The sweetness and oak in this wine would overpower almost any edible item. It would be like pairing toothpaste and orange juice. What could you pair with this wine? The only thing that comes to mind is the obvious: red velvet cupcakes. (Here’s a blog post from a couple of foodies who decided to do just that. They paired this wine with their own recipe for homemade red velvet wine cupcakes… Talk about diabetic comas!)

Here are my notes on this stuff…

2011 Cupcake Vineyards Red Velvet (California): Look, this is not a wine to be taken seriously, that’s obvious from the fact that the wine says Red Velvet Cupcake on the label. It’s the color of pie filling and it smells like someone smeared blueberry jam on burned toast. This wine is everything it claims to be: a sweet red wine with a dessert-like quality. It’s not fortified; I think it’s just a red blend with a crapload of residual sugar. It tastes like a late-harvest zinfandel or something. Anyway, it’s strange stuff, and it tastes like someone concocted it in a factory. But, all things considered, the wine isn’t repulsive. If you pick up the glass expecting a dessert cocktail, you won’t be as upset about the fact that — newsflash! — this isn’t a serious wine. That said, I drank this on Halloween, which makes an ironic kind of sense. On the 100-point scale, I score this wine a "No."

Again, when it comes to wine, to each his/her own. If you like this, more power to you. Some people are willing to wait an hour in line for Georgetown Cupcakes, some aren’t. Know what you like and drink it, that’s what I say. I also say: pour me a different zinfandel blend, please.

Monday, November 5, 2012

2004 Copain Syrah James Berry Vineyard - Wow!

Copain has long been one of my favorite producers in California. They craft regional blends and single vineyard bottlings of pinot noir and syrah from a wide variety of spots across the state. Most of my favorite Copain wines come from Mendocino County vineyards, like Hawke’s Butte, Eaglepoint Ranch and Wentzel, but I’ve been holding on to a single bottle of 2004 syrah from James Berry Vineyard for quite a while. Located in the Central Coast appellation of Paso Robles, James Berry Vineyard sits 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean at an average elevation of 1200 feet. The vineyard is known for producer big, bombastic bruiser red wines, made famous by producer Saxum, whose James Berry blends frequently receive gushing scores of 95-100 points.

I was a little wary of opening this bottle, even though it’s had eight years to rest, because Paso Robles wines tend to big a bit too extracted for my palate. Well, I should’ve known better than to doubt Copain, because the 2004 Copain Syrah James Berry Vineyard is an epic wine.

This is an incredibly dark syrah. It’s really compact right out of the bottle, and a few hours in the decanter helped coax out some more aromas. Plum cake, fig, tar and war paint aromas dominate. After three hours in the decanter it started to show a bit more olive and smoke aromas.

The James Berry Vineyard is home to some stellar syrah vines.
On the palate, this wine is definitely big, with a mouthfeel like glycerin and paint. Flavors of plum pits, blueberry pie, fruit cake, dark chocolate and toast combine in a dense, complex package. The tannins are fine-grained and provide significant backbone. Just enough acid to keep it going, but not nearly as much as I like. It evolved with air and time in the decanter to show some loam and charcoal flavors, which add complexity, and the mouthfeel smoothed out a bit. After three hours I started picking up some olive and brine flavors, and as a Northern Rhone syrah lover, I was very pleased. This syrah deserves to be taken seriously by any wine lover, because even though it’s steeped in this bombastic Paso Robles style, it’s elegant in its own way. What’s important to me in a Paso Robles wine is the purity of the flavors and at least some semblance of balance. Copain’s 2004 James Berry syrah has both. Overall, it’s absolutely delicious and complex as hell. I can’t believe I don’t have another bottle (or ten) to tuck away and drink over the next five or eight years because this wine will definitely last that long. It's up there with the best syrahs I’ve had all year.

95 points