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Monday, 15 July 2013

Don Merlot's 'Fly on the Wall'


Is This Bottle Corked? The Secret Life of WineKathleen Burk, Michael Bywater
Harmony Books, New York 2008
196pp / $19.99

It took me ions to get through this book, not because the book is a difficult read, but because I have jammed myself with all kinds of projects. I was very surprised: I spent mostly weekends and drips and drabs perusing it. In retrospect it was a very informative read and I read every letter sentence, paragraph, and page to keep the nuance clean for me because many of the items were somewhat new to me.

If I thought I knew a lot of about the global situation about wine, I realized I did not know as much as I thought I did.  I read the book and found some holes in my education. My raison d’être was bit part of the current mainstream; it was an enjoyable book because I learned new useless information to bore my friends because the authors tell a compelling story and reach their conclusion in much the same way I look at things.
One of my first reactions was why did it take me forty-five years to get it? I thought I had read the right books and met with the right friends to know eight percent of the right wine information.

I went back to the beginning of my wine quest and knew that my journey was unchartered. I remembered that my first mentor told me the story of how to prepare for a business trip and visiting a country for the first time.  “Go to the library and read as much as you can about the country that you are going to visit.” And from that originated my rule book lesson No. 1. In the book I will write, my No. 1 rule will be learning the new experience.

He'd  say, “Aloncito, if I send you to Paris for two weeks you will come back and write a book; if I send you to Paris for two months, you will come back and maybe write ten pages. And, if I send you to Paris for two years, you will come back and be confused and not be able to write anything at all.”

Lesson No 2 is “always look for the differences and do not rest on the similarities.” Is conscience in all conversations that you have that there will be differences in definitions or the words you use or your dialog messages? In English there well be the British way and if you are educated in the USA there will be the American way. Even then make sure that the ideas are defined and that your expectation of the next step is clear to you and to the person you have chatted with. Do not jump to conclusions on similarities. If the someone says to you "I like red wine," do not say “I like red wine also" and conclude you both like the same red wine.

So as I read through Is This Bottle Corked?, I realized I was on the third part of lesson No. 1. I was confused. I have reached the stage in writing this blog post that I found that I could not write anything.  After forty years of travel and savoring food and wine -- until last year. I could not focus on the current culture of wine, and I was falling out of step
On a personal note, last year my doctor told me I was getting a “fatty liver” and that I should lay off wine, which I did. It took discipline, but I did it. At the same time I found out that certain friends had given up wine all together and for me they had been my sounding board for a perfectly sane Socratic conversation. So in my new and life I was becoming surrounded by the Temperance Society. But after two new blood tests, the doc said the said the liver was fine there was no damage. Santé & cin cin.

Today I consume two 4-ounce glasses in one day and drink only on the weekends or special occasions.  So I experiment here and there in lesser quantities, but I hate to drink alone or talk to myself. By the time I came to the end of the book the other day, I had a conversation with my son, and he gave me an insight on what my next step of writing should be. The next step should be stage two of lesson No. 1. Write ten pages of a favorite wine subject and get comfortable with it and expand that into my desire to write a book -– what I did not learn at Thunderbird but picked up. (The road, career).
As I started reading …Corked?, I started feeling quite ignorant about wine. I wanted to shout, where did you find that bit of information? I spent decades chasing wine around the world, and I have not heard that story. Just reading the bios of Burk and Bywater told me, Hey, I could have done that, but the door never opened up for me. I did not take the other less traveled road.
My quest has been to help a my friends and customers find out what wine satisfies their palate. What wine pleases him or her most? With beginners the basic test this is good, I like it and will try again. So my impression in reading this book is that one should already know what one likes. Next when is something you do not like or is it just not your wine, and we will call cork so we can try another one.
Over the last forty-five years, I have run wine beginner’s seminars and usually the most delicate part is getting past the grapes, the types and the matching to the meal. In the ... Corked? approach, The Knowledge applied is like riding a bicycle. It is like the fear of moving and keeping balanced and not falling over and scuffing your knees or head or both. Once you get it, it feels like you will never lose it. But a struggle it can be to get it.

For sure all the senses have to be working correctly: Sight, smell, taste, environment, and gratification. The history and story of wine is explained well. Wine as we know it in the West today is the labor of love since the early settlers in Georgia (today South Russia) as man preserved fresh food to eat a second and third day for healthy consumption. The Middle East civilizations had gods to protect wine and some of mankind’s religious protocols forbade the consumption of wine as evil provocateur of the soul. The history of wine takes us to the social fabric of the western civilizations to the consumption of rituals in the West’s own Monotheism. Poets, clergy, musicians, politicians, generals and the wealthy have enjoyed wine. There is that French saying that placates us, “a day without sunshine is a day without wine.”
Wine is a self regulator in that a bottle per person creates an elaborate wonderful feeling. But discipline is the watch word. In Japan there is a saying, “Man takes the bottle, and second bottle takes the man.”

Here is why I enjoyed the book and this is what I found out about myself. If you have an inkling of wine knowledge, you are a wine snob. And most wine people dislike wine snobs. That for me is rule No. 3 that I incorporated into my rules from reading Aesop’s Fables. The lesson I remember is “during times of crisis, give assistance and not advice.” I noticed that I am one those teachers when asked, what time is it? My answer is building a clock. I have learned that I should never suggest a wine unless I know the person well. At dinner if the wine is on the table I will.

Wine Merchants and sommeliers to me are pushing wines the house needs to sell. Unfair? That is our system. I feel the same way about icons Robert Parker and Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. All came into my life halfway through my wine journey. Of course they like the wine. Their trip is paid, their tasting is free and their PR department is keyed in to world top one percent. I also read Food and Wine, a publication owned by American Express. I am sure they use their vast knowledge of the business they conduct to know everything about their customers -– the suppliers and the readers and consumers.
So where do you go? Book stores, libraries, TV documentaries. Trial and error.

My thinking felt vindicated when …Corked? talked about the spiritual world after the Romans and the market demand of the British consumers of Bordeaux –- The English. I truly feel that any country that has good vineyards will eventually say that the best wines come from their vineyards. As I matured in wine, I saw that France was the wine super power until World War II, but returning veterans and the rise of Pax Americana allowed the USS Ship of state to really develop fine wines. How can you improve daily life, is make everything portable? California had the potential and then capitalized on it and by 1975 California growers could match quality and taste with the French wines. In the following tewenty years, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina have followed. The Europeans took old wine systems and revitalized them. There are some wine people who do not believe that yet, but wine in the Western World has affected the top twen percent of advanced world economies.

I remember back in the 1970s I could have bought a bottle of 1970 vintage Ch. PETRUS future for $15 a bottle. …Corked? says that today the financial barons in New York or billionaires in China pay $10,000 per bottle.

It all goes back to what is a good bottle of wine and when is it corked? Can corked happen, sure it can happen, but some people sometimes have high expectations. The sommelier is very protective of his wine cellar especially of the fine vintages so when should the customer pull the trigger on a corked wine?  This all comes back to smell. There is an aroma associated with it. It can happen to any wine so there is no fool proof quality control technique. It has happened to me twice and with a group of people. On both occasions, there was a senior person to me who captured the smell at presentation and, in both cases, they were “alpha dog” enough to pull it off. There is a big pregnant pause and the sommelier has to make the decision to accept it or not. In both my cases the replacement was the same vintage or similar equal vintage. The bottles were over $200 each. Again offering assistance instead of direction, when ordering and expensive wine in a restaurant find out what the restaurant’s protocols are.

Recalling my trips to France and England, the ownership of the best wine and the thoughts of …Corked? I tried to synthesize today’s culture to history. Early history of wine is where the west starts and the East ends as we know it today and it goes back more than 5,000 years. To study pre-history (before written history), we read that civilizations took time to develop from the farm fields to develop agriculture. Wine and beer were created more or less around the same period and geographically the wine is driven by culture of the “haves” and beer by the “have nots.” the common folk. Water unless purified could easily carry diseases they would affect the societies  Greek, Roman, the Western Church, and Exploration of New World; after World War II, wine today is owned by Generation X. If it “ain’t broke, break it and start it over again.”

The rise of China in the last decade and it forecast of being the number one income within the next ten years is going to affect viniculture tremendously. Several years ago Chinese millionaires started buying wine and were interested in wine futures, and at the French vineyards the vintners helped earmark their prized wines by adding a Chinese symbol on the label and sold vintage only to Chinese customers. Those wines sold to China as a future at double the prices that the West would have paid on the open market. Supply and demand will dictate to wine exporters where to sell and warehouse their vintages.

For young people maturing and interested in oenology and have a 1000-bottle cellar of traditional fine wines will be out of reach. The idea of having a half a case of your favorite Bordeauxs for special occasions will be be for well-off Chinese billionaires. So the lesson from ...Corked? for me is opportunity: to learn, to understand, and where wine will be available to buy or drink.

To the future student that is motivated to learn on his own or through a local school the chances of every tasting the greats is now slim to impossible. I still can look back at my wine label books that recorded my impression of the wine, the day I drank it and friends and family that shared that wine with me. I can see my labels of Petrus, La Tache, and Lafite Rothschild and I have that memory in my mind and recorded. It reminds me of the old Victorian poem, “It is better to have loved and lost, than never loved at all.”
(A picture of El Don is in the staff box in the right gutter).