Brown Bag Wine Tasting

As some of you know, I’m a fan of William Shatner‘s OraTV show Brown Bag Wine Tasting. It’s a perfect way to make wine accessible, fun, and bite sized – by channeling it through shorter segments that are a lot about personality.

Last season, Shatner interviewed all sorts of quirky folks from juggling clowns, to a sober marijuana dealer that had never tasted wine, to famous Hollywood actors.

This season, he’s brought the wine world into the heart of his wine show. He’s interviewed Ray Isle, Executive Wine Editor of Food & Wine.

Ray Isle and William Shatner are both a ton of fun on camera so this is sure to be a good pairing.

Check it out!

For the complete episode:

Excited to see the new episodes!



The Essence of Wine: A Book by Alder Yarrow

The Essence of Wine

image courtesy of Alder Yarrow

Alder Yarrow’s book, The Essence of Wine, brings together striking photographs of 46 iconic wine notes — cherry, lime, honey, paraffin, among others — with alluring prose of the same element — photographs of strawberry coupled with writing on the same, for example.

While the series at the core of the book appeared originally on Alder’s highly regarded wine blog,, holding the coffee table book in hand changes the experience for the reader.

Side-by-side the photographic representation of the note with Alder’s writing offer the reader an opportunity to feel the visceral impact of the writing and imagery more directly. That visceral experience is at the heart of the book’s strength. Together, the thought of tasting notes becomes a sensual experience unexpected from mere print.

The Essence of Wine offers the reader a unique opportunity to enliven their experience with wine. Ultimately, it’s a chance to become a better taster. For the connoisseur, reflecting so singularly on one wine element at a time brings greater clarity. For the newer wine lover, understanding.

To read more on, or purchase The Essence of Wine here is the link on Alder’s site:

I asked Alder if he’d be willing to meet to discuss ideas implicit in the book more throughly. The transcript from our conversation is below.

Together, we discuss how the book took shape, the role that visual representations — photographs and illustrations — of wine notes have in understanding wine, and the experience at the core of wine appreciation.

Imagery and text blocks from The Essence of Wine appearing below are all courtesy of Alder Yarrow.

Tasting the Visual: A Conversation with Alder Yarrow

Alder Yarrow at Mt Etna Alder Yarrow at Mt Etna, April 2013, image courtesy of Alder Yarrow

Elaine: Can you tell me about how the three of you – the photographer, Leigh Beisch, the food stylist, Sara Slavin, and yourself – worked together for your book, The Essence of Wine?

Alder: I approached Leigh with the idea. I would run across people, as I am sure you do too, that say, I read these tasting notes, and I have never tasted something like, you know, lychee. Is that some kind of metaphor, or do they really mean that they taste lychee in the glass? And I’m like, no, really! there are wines that taste like that! So, that is something that I wanted to help people with.

Early in my wine tasting and appreciation that was something I wanted and needed. I’d see these tasting notes that talked about wines that taste like chocolate but I’d never had a wine that tastes like chocolate, and I wouldn’t have known where to start if I wanted to. So that was the idea. And Leigh was great. She said, I have an art director that I think would be perfect for this. She works with Sara on her more commercial shoots.

Elaine: Yeah, I was looking through her site, and it looked like they work together a bunch.

Alder: Yeah, and Sara was on board with it. So, she said, give us a list. What should we shoot? So I made a list. I wasn’t sure how many of these they were going to be willing to do, so, I started with some core flavors and aromas, and I squished some together. So, rather than do raspberries and pomegranates and strawberries separately, I decided, okay, well, we’ll just do red berries.

E: Right. Or, like, tropical fruits I saw you put together.

A: Yeah. Exactly. And so they would just come up with a vision and one of two things would happen. At first I was in the studio frequently with them just sort of watching them do their thing, and, when they wanted an opinion, offering it. Occasionally, they would ask for clarification. They would say, okay, Alder, you gave us raspberry, pomegranate, cranberries, red currants… is one more important than the other? And I’d say, oh yeah, raspberry is the more important here, focus on that. Then they would shoot, and I would get 3 or 4 candidates from Leigh’s shoot, and I would select the one I wanted. Often there would be only minor variations. With the lemon shot, the variations I got were, like, one drop of lemon juice, or, two drops of lemon juice on the mirror. I can remember the green bell pepper I was like, these all look like the same images? And Sara’s all, oh no! One of them definitely has more water drops than the other!

Green Bell Pepper without water dropletsGreen Bell Pepper with water droplets

two examples of Green Bell Pepper images chosen between for use in The Essence of Wine
(Alder selected the image with water drops)
courtesy of Alder Yarrow and Leigh Beisch

E: That’s so funny. Really specific and subtle.

A: Yeah!

So, most of the time they needed very little direction from me. And I was content, as a beggar that can’t be a chooser, to let them express themselves. And they understood from the beginning that the idea was to create an archetypal image of this fruit, or foodstuff, or flavor that was not clichéd.

E: The thing that struck me about the book is how well the two work together – the language and the imagery.

A: The imagery always came first. They would create the image. They had a long list of flavors and aromas, and I never knew what they would be shooting on a weekly or biweekly basis. It was just a matter of what Sara found at the market or whatever.

E: Right. They did it seasonally, and the writing was inspired by the image?

A: Yeah. Basically, that week the image would be strawberry, and I would ask myself, well, what have I got to say about strawberries? Sometimes I would take cues off the image. A lot of times it was just trying to get myself into a particular mindset. When we say something tastes like strawberry, what does it really taste like without using the word strawberry? Or, what are the associations or connotation that these fruits, and flavors, or foodstuffs have for us? And then, where did they come from? How do we have limes, and where do they come from, and how long have they been around, and do they have meaning beyond their flavors? Then other things were just research. Like, is there cultural significance to mint? and where did that come from? and that sort of thing.

E: I really like that in both the photography and the writing there are a lot of textural elements. The one that comes to mind is blueberry, and cherry too. In both you talk about the feeling of the skin, but then as you pop through that, that creates this flavor. Then, immediately, there is the flavor of the meat, the fruit inside, and that’s a different flavor. There is this real visceral feeling to the writing rather than just flavor notes.

A: That was me really trying to think about actually experiencing one of these fruits. But there is also an analog to that experience in the world of wine. For me, plum is a great one. There is such a distinct difference between the flavor of the skin, and of the fruit for me, and wine somehow manages to capture both. There is that really distinct sour flavor of the skin, and that sort of snap to it as your teeth go through, and, then, the rushes of sugar and sweetness, but also acidity as you get the flesh and the juice in your mouth. That experience, I think that is why fruit appears so many times in tasting notes. The experience of eating fruit like that and the texture, and flavoral journey that you go through just in taking that first bite, wine does the same thing on our palate. You get astringency at a certain point, and you get sweetness at another point, and you get that kick of acidity inside your mouth at another point.

E: Yes, that makes sense. I feel like the more you read the book the better taster you can become. Elin McCoy’s review said it was the perfect gift for a connoisseur or a newbie. I really agree with that. There is such a crisp clarity to each note that I found myself better understanding what it means for me to claim I taste or smell that in a wine. It was this really nice opportunity to really take in the imagery and the writing, but also to more deeply understand what it means to talk about wine in this kind of way.

A: That’s great. I take that as a huge compliment. I think the book for me was a little bit of a journey in trying to tease apart, to puzzle out my own sensory appreciation for wine. Why it’s so magical to me.

It’s not just that this wine tastes like these individual flavors. It is that this wine also evokes cherry. I mean, there is a difference between perception and evocation, and there is a difference between pure sensation and the meaning that that sensation has for us. As you saw, I had a great deal of fun with some of the nostalgic aspects of some of these flavors, like, watermelon. For anyone growing up in the United States watermelon is summer, and the freedom of childhood. It is just unabashed pleasure. For many of us, that is as much what watermelon tastes like as the greenness of the rind that moves to the bright berry sweetness of the flesh, and all that stuff.

Graphite for The Essence of Wine

Perhaps if you were well-behaved or maybe just lucky, your teacher sent you to the edge of the classroom with a tightly clasped fist of yellow, where you had the pleasure of producing those wavy ribbon-like curls of beige and gray that litter many a school day memory. There may come a time when, like the clack of a typewriter or the stutter of a rotary phone, children do not recognize the smell of a freshly sharpened #2 Ticonderoga or FaberCastell. But for now, the scent of shaved or pulverized graphite brings instant recognition.

from The Essence of Wine, courtesy of Alder Yarrow and Leigh Beisch

E: Your book helped me think more too on something that I do – the difference between writing about versus drawing about wine, because it parallels in some ways the presentation of your book with photographing a flavor note and writing about that same note. For wine lovers reading about wine can be so alienating. There is an immediacy to tasting wine that reading about the same wine just doesn’t have.

A: Right. Writing about wine is never better than the real thing. You can never write anything about wine that surpasses the experience of the wine itself.

E: Yes, I so agree. I would love to hear your thoughts on the challenge of writing about wine. My thought is that wine lives in the senses, so to speak. The experience of drinking a glass of wine is visceral, and immediate, all about flavors, aromas, texture, and even the color of the wine. But when you are just focusing on the writing side of it, you take wine out of the senses, so to speak. Philosopher Merleau-Ponty talked about how analyzing something alienates you from it. Writing about wine alienates it from the senses. I think that is part of the challenge of writing about wine. That you have this visceral, lived, sensory thing, and now we are pulling it into the abstract to write about it, trying to make it live there in abstraction, but it doesn’t.

Something people tell me about my illustrated tasting notes …I bring them up just to reflect on the experience of your book’s photographs… I have had people say, when I see one of your drawings I know if I’ll like the wine or not. When I read a tasting note I can’t tell. I think that because drawings are visual, or, our reception of drawings is visual, there is an immediacy to them that parallels the immediacy of the nose and mouth when we taste wine. So there is a way in which a visual representation of the notes of wine keeps wine in the place wine belongs – immediate sensory tactile experience. Does that make sense?

A: That makes a lot of sense to me. I think that operates probably in a number of levels. I am just speculating here. I think as organisms we are still triggered by things in our external environment that are matters of survival for us, or used to be. Like, when you are learning to appreciate wine, figuring out what you taste is very difficult, and there is a physiological reason for that. When we smell, that sensory stimulus bypasses the language centers of your brain. So when you smell something, it goes right to your amygdala. When we were apes roaming the savannah we needed to be able to smell something and know instantly if we were going to die because we ate that meat, or be fine because we ate that meat. There are lots of other environmental cues for that too, and those sorts of cues are encoded in the physical structures of our brain and our physiology.

I think we have archetypal information in the structures of our brain about food. Like, a ripe piece of fruit triggers us in a way that is non-verbal, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if representations – photographs or drawings or otherwise – did the same thing for us. If being able to see in one of your visual tasting notes thyme, and tobacco, and graphite, and cherry, and licorice root didn’t conveniently, and helpfully bypass conscious narrative thought, and reinforce whatever else we may be doing in the process of appreciating those aromas and flavors in wine in ways that are very helpful to us as organisms. That’s my way of agreeing with you. That I think there is probably real power there that is very different than the spoken and written word.

E: Your book helped me think through that, but it also made me realize that by putting your writing and the photographs side-by-side it changes the power of the writing, and the imagery too. In your book, there is such a marked relationship between the imagery and the writing that together they become something more than they are on their own. The writing is lovely on its own, and the photographs are beautiful on their own, but there is a way in which something else happens when you put them side-by-side. You have the book open and there is this full page, full-blown image, and, like I said, the imagery is very textural because of how they’ve treated the materials that they’re photographing. Then, on the other side there is your writing, talking about the visceral feeling of breaking through the skin, and the bitter taste that comes to the mouth, and then a wash of flavor and juice. There is an immediacy in the imagery that then somehow, makes the writing feel not so abstract. It kind of allows the two to live together in a relationship that enriches both. The photographs, that already have a life of their own, take on more life, and the writing pulls you in even more. It feels more visceral too. The combination, it’s a way of bringing life back to wine.

Cherry from The Essence of Wine
Biting into a perfectly ripe cherry represents one of life’s perfections of flavor and sensation. The firm skin parts under a modicum of pressure, and a gorgeous melody unfolds on the tongue — high notes of juicy acidity, rich baritones of velvety sweet red fruit, an earthy alto bitterness of skin, and a tangy tenor quality burst in the mouth in a way that makes it all too easy to overindulge.

from The Essence of Wine, courtesy of Alder Yarrow & Leigh Beisch

A: For 20 years I have had this quote on my personal website by one of my favorite photographers named Frederick Sommer. The quote is, “Life itself is not the reality. We are the ones that put life into the stones and pebbles.” I guess I thought of that because what I hear you saying is that the image on its own… I mean, it’s over simplifying to say the text tells us what to look for in the image. I know that’s not what you’re saying, and I wouldn’t say that either. There is something more dynamic going on there, but I guess maybe one way of thinking about what you’re describing is that what the text does is force you to look not just at the image, but to look at the image in your mind’s eye of that thing. It makes a connection between those very real visual stimuli, which is like, look there are some cherries there, but then it also asks you to use that image as a jumping off point for your own memories, sensations, and appreciation for that thing. For me, the question would be, how does that work when there is a fruit or flavor you have never experienced? Like if you’d never had a lychee before would that additive quality still be there or does that only happen when you are accessing your own sense memories of the thing?

E: There is such a richness to the images in your book, and I think that is why the number of water drops, or the number of lemon drops are so important. It is aesthetic, but it is also about, how ripe do you want this to seem? Like, you can feel that even if you don’t exactly know the flavors.

Have you gotten comments or feedback from newer wine lovers, from people that are taking the book up as a first foray to learning about wine?

A: Yeah. I know people in the wine industry that have given it to their spouses, and I have subsequently run into their spouse and had their spouse say, thank you! I finally fucking understand what he or she is talking about! I get it now. That’s been really gratifying. And I have people I know from my day job that have said, I am really enjoying this. I am understanding better where these flavors come from.

E: That’s great. It’s an interesting way to approach it too. Focusing in on just a specific taste, and expanding how we think about each individual one, it’s a flip from how we normally think about this sort of thing. In the wine industry, we tend to start from the wine, and then come up with a list of notes about that, but your book reverses that, and says, no, let’s start with this single note, just cherry, just chocolate.

A: Honestly, isn’t that how we all start wine appreciation? If somebody hands you a glass of pink wine for the first time you’re like, uh, okay, and you taste it and you’re like, this is really good, it kind of tastes like strawberries. That’s always first I think. But we don’t often do enough to honor that aspect of wine appreciation. I mean, it’s funny how in the world of wine we very, very quickly leave that very sensorial world of flavor and aroma, and move into the idea that now you have to know something about who made it, and where does it come from, and what grape is it, all that stuff, when really most people are just like, oh! It’s dark and rich. I like that.



Alder Yarrow’s The Essence of Wine

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to

I Rosati di deGusto Salento a Lazise per l’anteprima Chiaretto Bardolino

Earlier this month I traveled to Garda Lake in Italy’s Veneto to attend the Bardolino Anteprima. My main focus for the event, however, was in tasting the current releases of Rosati.

This year’s Anteprima brought a celebration of rosé made from Indigenous Italian varietals. With this in mind Chiaretto, from the Bardolino region’s grape Corvina, was poured. The Bardolino Consortium also invited the winemakers of Salento Rosato, rosé from Puglia’s Negroamaro. We were lucky enough to taste all of the current releases of both Salento Rosato and Chiaretto.

Italian media, I Move Puglia.TV, attended the Bardolino Anteprima and interviewed journalists on their impression of the wines. After finishing the comprehensive rosati tastings, they asked me to describe both wines — first the Salento, and then Chiaretto.

Here’s the interview.

Thank you to Francesca Angelozzi and Gianluca Lubelli for including me.

For more from I Move Puglia.TV check out their over view video here, with links to the other interviews:

Writing as Writers

selfishly stolen from Michael Alberty who no doubt selfishly thieved it from someone elseLast week wine writers and editors from around the world flew to Napa Valley for the Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium to learn together how to better our work as writers.

We were urged by Dave McIntrye, wine writer of the The Washington Post, to remember that wine is the adjective that modifies the noun writer. Our job first is to write well.

Will Lyons of the Wall Street Journal urged, “If you want to keep your writing fresh, you need to read widely.” Then, continuing, he chided lightly, “keep your writing fresh, enthusiastic, and bright, but that will only get you so far. You also have to research.”

Writing About Wine

Turning specifically to our work as writers of wine, S. Irene Virbila, food critic and wine reviewer of The Los Angeles Times, pushed into the personal, advising us, “find a way to go back to that emotional core when you first discovered wine. Give people that experience somehow.”

For Virbila, one way to accomplish that is to consider that we “have a relationship with wine. It is not the same with every sip.” (Cathy Huyghe explores this idea in her review of a fictitious good wine below.)

As lovers of wine, that relationship is no small piece. Our love of wine pulls us back again and again, elongating those moments of our nose in the glass. We can deliver that intimacy to our readers but go too far and our work becomes too precious.

Considering her work writing for a general audience in a daily newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, Virbila reminded us to “never forget how many people never think about wine.” In a position like that of a newspaper wine writer, she explained that we are asked to “convince a wider audience why they should even be interested in wine.”

Remembering Relevance

Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, reminded us at the end of his keynote speech that for writing about wine to be accessible to that broader audience we must remove it from its privileged lifestyle.

Wine becomes relevant when we take it out of the wealth and comfort of the finest wine country, and return it to the tables of any home.

To explicate, Collins (half joking) pointed to the most relevant of writing, the obituary. “I know obituaries very well,” he said, “better than wine.” His point, ultimately, “break that circle. Reach a non specialist audience.”

The Billy Collins Writing Challenge

Finally, Collins presented the Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium with a writing challenge. The point was to generate quality writing while also making fun of our own conventions.

The assignment? He invited every attendee (there were 50 of us, along with 20 or so speakers and coaches) to write an over-the-top wine review for an imaginary wine in one or both of two categories.

(1) A good review for a wine that gives “spiritual transcendence,” is “orgasmic,” and “life transforming.”

(2) A bad review for “an absolutely damning” wine “demeaning to your spirit”

At the end of the week he selected both a 1st and 2nd place winner for each category. Here they are.

Over the Top Wine Reviews

Billy Collins Writing Challenge Bad Asseswinners of the Billy Collins Writing Challenge
from left: me, Fred Swan, Billy Collins, Kort van Bronkhorst, Cathy Huyghe

Second Place: the Good Wine, Cathy Huyghe

In the glass, there is a nuance of color. On the nose, it evolves as time passes. It’s meant to. It’s meant to breathe, and expand and contract, and stretch its legs. There is something on the nose that rings a bell in my memory. In the mouth, it has something to say. It takes a stand. It has an opinion, and it is not afraid to say it. Sometimes it wants the spotlight — it earns it, and deserves it. But, over time, it takes a step back too, to self-deprecate, to tease, to hide, to beguile, to make me want to come back for more. And every time I do come back, every sip, is different. That too is how it’s meant to be. It leaves me with a taste in my mouth of, “Oh.” And “Oh. Yes, I get it.”

Second Place: the Bad Wine, Elaine Chukan Brown

Reeper Vineyards 2013 “Chariot” Sauvignon Blanc – pungent presentation of sea cucumber, grandma’s feet, and the dust from Shakespeare’s first edition. 14.5% $120

First Place: the Bad Wine, Fred Swan

It starts with a cringe-inducing, sphincter-puckering screech of rusty iron on rusty iron. Then comes impact: a sudden, heavy blow to the mouth. There’s the taste of blood and gravel, the feel of shattered glass on the tongue. Burning diesel, overturned soil and the pungent earthiness of one hundred pairs of pants filled by panic assault the nose. One’s throat burns and, eye’s watering, victims drag themselves along the floor looking for safety and water. The 2009 Chateau de Plonk is a a Bordelaise train wreck. 65 points.

First Place: the Good Wine, Kort van Bronkhorst

Toasted Head Cannabis Sauvignon

Oh Em Gee. This is a mind-blowing wine! Wooooooo! In the glass, it’s like a magenta kaleidoscope of shimmering, uh, wineness. On the nose, it reeks (and I mean that in a good way) of stoned fruits and wet earth. And if ever a wine was herbaceous, it’s this one. In the mouth, it turned my tongue into Playland at the Beach. Especially the Fun House. Yeah. Wow. Look at my head in that mirror! And Dudes, you really must pair this wine with food. Lots and lots of food. Like especially Taquitos, and Cheese Puffs, and that Munchie Pack that Jack in the Box serves after 11pm. Awright awright awright! Best of all, it’s only $4.20 a bottle, but I highly recommend getting a magnum so you can pass it around at your next party.


Thank you to Cathy, Fred, and Kort for letting me share their pieces here.

Funny thing. It occurs to me only now that Kort and I both wrote about Sauvignon though with entirely opposite reactions. Cheers!

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to

Considering Robert Parker Jr

One of the most controversial figures today in wine proves to be writer-reviewer Robert M. Parker, Jr. After his appearance at this year’s Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium criticisms of his speech raced around the internet. Even Parker’s positive statements there were often framed by others as problematic. He seems in many ways a man others love to hate.

Parker’s own occasional rants have contributed to the phenomenon. Two months prior to his appearance at the Symposium, an online missive hosted at his pay-to-read site,, criticized what he sees as movements currently occurring in wine. The movements referenced included what he described as low-alcohol wines that prove under-ripe, and pursuit of uncommon grapes to the detriment of quality in well-known ones. Though the piece opens as thoughtful, and carries too his vast knowledge of wine, many of his comments there do also deserve blunt critique. It is writing that falls into rant.

Criticism of Parker, however, often seems to outpace its subject, verging into such harsh territory as to not only remove humanity from its account of Parker, but also unwittingly from the author of the critique itself. Denial of the historical importance of Parker’s work also proves common, as if simple erasure of his work would be better.

But context must be kept. Parker has contributed immeasurably to the world of wine. His voice brought consumer interest to wine in a way that had not existed at such a level before. The accessibility of his rating system translated wine to consumers otherwise unfamiliar with wine’s language. Parker’s ability to enlarge consumer interest in wine previously has benefited all of us in wine today. Such benefit is true even as many of us now wish to dismantle such rating systems, and seek wines outside those most closely associated with Parker’s palate.

In public criticism, Parker’s palate is often reduced to a thirst for brute ripeness, or hugeness in wine. Talking about the man with winemakers, however, it becomes clear far more subtlety follows his tasting abilities. His love for wine too from houses like Rayas, most famously, would seem to illustrate an obvious appreciation for delicacy. Reading through tasting notes from Parker, especially earlier ones, his passion for wine is infectious. It becomes clear how he brought so many consumers to wine rests not just in his rating system, but also his enthusiasm.

One of the downsides of influence is its incredible power to act as mirror to all those looking towards it. Projection on leaders, or those with fame proves rampant as people end up speaking less about the actual person within the fame, than about the ideas they’ve cast upon him or her. More frustrating, finding people invested in listening beyond such preconceived ideas proves rare. More profiles written on such figures, then, don’t necessarily offer more insight into who they actually are.

With all of this in mind, in the last year I became interested in learning more about the man behind the Robert Parker phenomenon, that is, Robert Parker himself. In seeking the possibility of sharing an interview with him, I was lucky enough to discover my colleague and friend, R.H. Drexel, of the celebrated wine journal Loam Baby has known Parker for years. Conversation ensued.

Drexel’s slogan for Loam Baby proves apt here, “No haters.” The idea, no haters, doesn’t mean no critique. It means something closer to a notion at the core of Spinoza’s Ethics, “hate is never good” (E4P45). Because it blinds us. Because it keeps us from seeing how to escape the problems within what we’re hating. Because it keeps us from loving how much there is to love, and according to Spinoza, hate reduces our health, and our strength. Only love increases it. To put that another way, the clearest critique, or brightest insights can only ever come from a love for the truth.

After conversation back and forth with RH Drexel, and with Parker on his willingness or not to be interviewed, the following conversation was finally conceived. My interest has been in hearing from Parker himself, to see what it’s like to meet the man inside the mirrors. The idea finally came, then, to get to know Robert Parker through his conversation with a friend, here R.H. Drexel. The advantage of this approach is in removing the filter of my own interpretation, to let the man speak for himself. The opportunity means witnessing more of Drexel as well.

In keeping with the idea of gaining a less filtered perspective, what follows is an unedited transcript of the conversation between Parker and Drexel. The transcript offers a candid view of Parker, as well as a revealing sense of Drexel. The photos throughout were requested specifically for this interview, and have been provided courtesy of Robert Parker.

RH Drexel talks with Robert M. Parker, Jr.

Age 4 or 5Robert M Parker, Jr, age 4 or 5

RH Drexel: I have known you for years, Robert, but I can’t seem to bring myself to call you Bob. I guess I’m old-timey that way. It bugs me when I hear young celebrities on talk shows say they’ve been working with “Bobby” or “Bob” DeNiro. DeNiro probably doesn’t even care! I realize that this is my hang up. Anyway, you actually have 3 names: Bob, Robert and your nickname, Dowell. Which one do you prefer?

Robert M. Parker, Jr: I actually prefer Dowell, because my middle is McDowell, and Dowell was the name everyone called me from birth (although my father called me “Butch”) until I was in law school, and the professors started calling me “Robert” or “Bob.” I should have put a stop to it then, but for sure, Dowell has always sounded better to me than some common-ass name like “Bob” or “Robert.”

RHD: Okay, before we get to the fun stuff like discussing Breaking Bad, music, movies, Rayas and other stuff, I just want to get an important question out of the way.

So, as you and your wife, Pat know, on December 14th, 2012, I had a severe mental breakdown. I had not been sleeping at all well for the five days leading up to that day, and working too hard, so when the story broke of the tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, I didn’t have the emotional resources to know how to process that tragedy. I guess the simplest way to put is this: I just broke…I was heartbroken, exhausted and mentally incapable of understanding what had happened. I was placed in a psychiatric ward in Southern California where I remained through the Christmas holidays and into the New Year.

Since then, I’ve had great therapy and am now back to my old self. But, I often think, if I, a 49-year old with a really great family, a wonderful circle of friends and a good job, fell apart in the face of that tragedy, how must young people have felt when that happened?

I mean, I was a quirky, sensitive kid. If something like this had happened when I was a kid, I don’t think I’d ever want to leave the family house again.

Which brings me to these talks that you and I have about children and technology. I think parents pick on their kids way too much about how they’re always looking at their phones. If I was growing up in this crazy, messed up world, I’d want a tiny, magic little screen that I could stare into, too, where I’d share smiley faces and silly stuff with my friends. I think that might very well be where I’d feel safest…there and the family home.

As a society, we seem to have made it safely through the Era of the Atari Console, so we should be able to guide our children sensibly through the Era of the Smart Phone.

I mean, in a parallel universe, if the Atari Console and the smart phone became animated and stepped into a boxing ring together, the Atari Console might very well kick the smart phone’s ass, if you’re the kind of person that measures the threat posed by your enemy in terms of size and foreign-ness. So, I think all the adults out there need to CHILL OUT about their kids and their phones. I mean, they’re just tiny little boxes they hold in their hands.

You’ve always given me good advice. What advice do you have for young people who are confused when their parents are always saying, “Put that thing down! I’m trying to talk to you!!!!!” but they think it’s the “coolest thing in the whole wide world.”

Age 6Robert, Age 6

RMP: I think conscientious parents are always trying to do what they think is the right thing, but they have to remember that they are usually at least 30 or more years senior to the kids they’re trying to keep on the straight and narrow path. I have a 27-year-old who’s moved back into the house. She was adopted when she was three months old from Korea, and while I’ve tried to be a loving father, building her confidence and, at the same time, a degree of independence, I’ve been somewhat laissez-faire in terms of some of the behaviors I would consider excessive, self-indulgent, or just not all that responsible. On the other hand, if I’m the good cop, my wife tends to be the bad cop. She leans toward being a strict disciplinarian trying to mold our daughter in her image – which, of course, I think is a great one, since I married her – but one size doesn’t fit all, and I think parents need to let kids find their own way. Try to give them guidance and hope that through a process of osmosis they absorb the very basic fundamentals of life – knowing the difference between real right and real wrong, and learning that life is nothing more than a one-way ticket, a journey where there’ll be ups and downs, you’ll get knocked down and kicked in the face, but if you’ve got some degree of confidence and a fighting spirit, you will bounce back. Just take the bad times with the good times, but cherish those good times, because that’s what it’s all about in the end. Whatever turns you on, turns you on, and most parents don’t really have a fucking clue about a kid’s private life or their inner likes or dislikes.

I went to a high school where only about ten percent of the students were considered “college material.” (These were the old, politically incorrect days, where the classes were arranged A, B, C, D and F, and you can imagine that the students in D and F were basically those with extra Y chromosomes and several years older, since they had repeated a few grades.) Moreover, I lived in a farming area, where the population was high-density redneck. I live in the same area today, but the demographics have changed 180 degrees, the rednecks just can’t afford to live here anymore, and the farmers have largely been pushed out of business by giant industrial conglomerates, so now the demographics of the high school I went to are basically all college-bound and impressive. The rednecks used to hang together and try to intimidate any of us who were considered college material, but as an only child, my father taught me to fight back, and fight I did. I got my ass kicked several times, but I always made sure that they didn’t get away with any bullshit, and after a while they stopped bugging me, largely because I was physically bigger than them, and even though they outnumbered me, they were essentially cowards. I have no idea why bullying would have increased in our society except that I think it reflects a certain insecurity among kids, and to try to pick on others is a sign of cowardice, weakness, and really is intolerable. No kid should have to experience that while they’re growing up with so many other pressures and demands, just trying to get through junior or senior high school and prepare themselves, if they intend to go further, for college.

Why do you think bullying is on the rise?

RHD: You know, when I was a little kid, my family and I watched the evening news with Walter Cronkite. He always seemed so calm and like the kind of grandfather you’d like to have. We were going through some scary times then, too, but after watching the news, I could tell that my mom and dad were pretty calm. That made me think everything was going to be okay. I remember praying every night for Walter Cronkite and Mr. President. At that naïve age, I thought they ran the whole country.

Now, I’ll visit with friends and they’ll have one of these 24 hour news channels on. And, adults will just be yelling at each other in the most uncivilized of ways. If I were a kid, I’d just surmise that our country is in deep shit if our adults don’t even know how to talk to one another with decency. And, if I were a kid with parents that maybe weren’t that tender-hearted with me, and if I felt neglected, I’d probably react to the world the way the adults act on television. I’d probably think, “if they can talk to each other that way, why can’t I? Seems like that’s how you get attention!”

University of Maryland, 1968Robert (on right) while attending University of Maryland

RMP: The 24-hour news cycle is something that drives me nuts as well. I love it when I’m traveling abroad, where the news consists of five minutes of headlines, thirty seconds of weather, and that’s it for the day, so why not go out to dinner or listen to some music and chill out. I’ve pretty much tuned out all of the talking heads from the major media to the cable channels, because it seems all scripted, all screaming, yelling, and shouting, just appalling incivility. All of it is unnerving, it promotes social disharmony, and it creates an impression that the whole world is completely fucked up – which it probably is. I’m answering this just as Iraq is collapsing, after the United States spent billions of dollars there and had nearly 5,000 young soldiers killed. Moreover, only God knows how many more were maimed and physically destroyed for the balance of their lives. I think it’s part of this new culture of anger, showoff-ism, and just rude-ass behavior that I don’t need to support and I have the option of refusing to observe it.

Okay, let’s lighten up and talk about some of our favorite things.

University of Maryland, 1968at University of Maryland

RHD: So, both of us are THE BIGGEST “BREAKING BAD” FANS EVER! I think what makes us giggle about this is that the show itself contains some pretty dark subject matter and characters, but whenever you and I talk about it, those discussions end up bringing out the best in us. We get animated. We laugh. We philosophize. Why do you think “Breaking Bad” became such an iconic show?

RMP: “Breaking Bad” is an iconic show and was great because it reminds us that, no matter how good our intentions may be, we’re never that far from the abyss. Here we have a teacher who’s totally dedicated to providing for his family, who learns he has terminal cancer and wants to take care of them. He’s smart enough and has enough connections in the neighborhood to begin producing state-of-the-art crystal meth. The show reinforces that essentially this guy is a good guy, but becomes evil through the noble intention of wanting to take care of his family. In the process, his power, his corruption, his moral fiber deteriorate to the point where he is as sinister as the assassins sent over to New Mexico from Mexican cartels to try to take over the meth market. It’s the classic good vs. evil sitcom fairytale, but it’s so well done, because you have a very likeable guy, a wonderful family, and in the process of wanting to provide for them, he becomes evil personified. I suspect it fascinates us all because none of us are really that far from “breaking bad” either.

RHD: Have you found anything to replace it? I mean, not replace it; it’s irreplaceable! But, have you found any other series to abate the Breaking Bad jonesing? And if so, why do you like it?

I myself have discovered “High Maintenance” on Vimeo. It’s a free little series that I love, but I’m already through the whole thing because each episode is pretty short.

RMP: There really is no other series even remotely similar to “Breaking Bad.” There have certainly been other cable shows that I’ve enjoyed immensely, “The Sopranos” and, more recently, Timothy Olyphant in “Justified,” set in Harlan County, Kentucky. In its own way, “Downton Abbey” is a masterpiece of classic British television and a look at a long-gone era. And who the hell doesn’t love an actress like Maggie Smith? By the way, a series I’m just beginning to get into, which is pretty kinky but I like it so far, is “Banshee,” but since I’ve seen less than one full season, I’m not sure where it’s going to go and whether it can hold and build interest, as “Breaking Bad” did.

RHD: I’ve watched two awesome movies lately. The first is called, “Mile…Mile and a Half.” It’s a documentary about a group of artists that hike the John Muir Trail. I simultaneously smiled and got choked up through the whole thing. And, I also liked “Frequencies,” though some of it went over my head so I need to watch it again. How about you. Any good film recommendations?

RMP: I haven’t really seen any good movies that have excited me recently, but I can share with you some of my favorite movies of all time. They would include, in no particular order, “Lawrence of Arabia,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Simon Birch,” “Alien,” “L.A. Confidential,” “True Romance,” and “Schindler’s List.”

With Pat, age 19Robert and Pat, both age 19

RHD: So, the first real spiritual experience I had with a wine was with Rayas, a 1998 bottle that you recommended to me. While drinking it, over the course of several hours, I remembered the smells of a church I used to love to visit in college: cold marble floors, frankincense, candles burning, the wet wool coats of old ladies who’d spend hours there on rainy days. Anyway, that wine transported me. What’s the first time a wine really took you some place different and can you describe that sensation?

RMP: It’s funny that you mention the 1998 Rayas. That entire estate has always produced a sort of “heart and soul” wine under medieval conditions, from old vines, microscopic yields, and it walks the tightrope without a safety net between something quite vulgar and weird to something incredibly sublime, magical and complex. It’s always been one of my favorite wines in the world. The 1990, 1989, 1985, and the first two that really blew my mind, the 1978 and 1979, will always be among those cherished liquid memories that just take you to another world. Of course, the now-deceased Jacques Reynaud, who managed Rayas during the time I was visiting there (1978-2006) was a single man who had to endure an incredible number of the wackiest rumors and stories about him, but I found him compassionate and well-read. Once you gained his trust, he was a fascinating guy to taste with, and to talk with about wines or any other subject you chose. I had actually convinced him to leave his little, bucolic area of Châteauneuf du Pape and come to New York, and I promised I would come up and be his guide, but just several months later he dropped dead of, I believe, a massive heart attack while shoe shopping – a fetish of his – in Avignon.

RHD: You’re an avid reader, as am I. A few years ago, you recommended that I try buying an e-reader, which might be easier for me to travel with, rather than a heavy bag of books. Ultimately, do you have a preference between your e-reader and a real book?

RMP: I’ve been using a Kindle ever since they came out.

Gatwick Airport, 1971Robert and Pat, Gatwick Airport, 1971

RHD: Read any good books lately?

RMP: I read voraciously and always have. I tend to read two or three books at the same time, usually one work of non-fiction and at least one fiction, and I tend to jump between them trying to fall asleep at night, which is never that easy. I was a history major in college, and my interest in history has never really left me. Certainly, a lot of history is being created today and so much of it is basically history repeating itself, which in it itself is fascinating as well as depressing.

As to recently read books, the non-fiction includes “The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966,” “Khartoum: The Ultimate Imperial Adventure,” “A Bright Shining Line: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” (second time I’ve read this), “The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945,” and a book I’ve read for the third time because I think the lessons it teaches are timeless, William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich.”

As for fiction, some of my favorite authors, I read just about everything they produce, include Daniel Silva’s “The English Girl,” Brad Thor’s “Hidden Order,” Lee Child’s “Never Go Back,” Harlan Coben’s “Six Years,” Stephen Hunter’s “The Third Bullet” (a Bob Lee Swagger novel), Don Winslow’s “The Kings of Cool: A Prequel to Savages,” and “Mission to Paris” by Alan Furst.

A couple more non-fiction would be “Zulu: The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879,” “Not Taco Bell Material” by Adam Carolla, Charles Krauthammer’s “Things That Matter,” and Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” And lastly, a sort of quasi-fictional book based on non-fictional events, and in real time, “In the Garden of Beasts,” by Eric Larson.

RHD: The best book I’ve read in a long time is called “Tibetan Peach Pie”, the Tom Robbins memoir. Personally, I think it should be in every nightstand in every hotel and motel across the nation, but that’s another conversation for another time.

Now, you and I (and countless people) live with the unfortunate reality of chronic pain. In a way, I think our mutual chronic pain has brought us even closer. I feel like I’ve tried everything under the sun. Lately, what seems to work for me is just watching television on my days offs, with the doors and windows in the house open, so that I’m getting plenty of fresh air and the sounds of nature, which I find comforting. You’ve been trying Hydrotherapy. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it’s working for you?

1971Robert, 1971

RMP: I’ve been plagued by chronic spinal pain that became debilitating and thus I chose to have a massive rebuild of my lumbar spine, with new discs on all five levels and then titanium rods and screws, so I’m somewhat pain-free now but still fighting the re-education in terms of walking unassisted. It hasn’t stopped me from doing everything I need to do since this eight and a half hour operation in late May of 2013, including four trips to California, three-plus weeks in Asia and several weeks in Bordeaux. I’m adapting, but there’s no question that the pain and disability can be incredibly depressing and you have to fight through it. For me, my dogs and music are relaxing. My wife also gave me the gift of an endless pool water well with a submerged treadmill, and while I’ve only gotten about 15 uses in on it between trips, I can walk 50 minutes on the treadmill at nearly two miles an hour without ever having to hold on to anything. I don’t have any pain when I use it, and that’s uplifting, but I will cherish the day when I can transfer walking unassisted on the treadmill thanks to the buoyancy of the water in this water well to walking on land unassisted. That day may never come, but I’m holding out hope that it will. But to answer your question, I think hydrotherapy or aquatherapy is really the future, especially as we age, arthritis sets in and we have joint pain. I’ve had one knee replacement and need another one, and I don’t have a trace of knee pain when I’m in water, which is a revelation for me.

RHD: I guess another thing I really enjoy on a rough day is just one really, really good glass of cold beer. Funny side story…I was hanging out with one of my young craft beer maker friends, and I told him, ‘You know, the best thing that came out of being in that scary psychiatric ward is that now, ever since I’ve been healthy again, every single beer I’ve had tastes about 100 times better than it did before I broke down.’

And, I swear, I saw this crazy glimmer in this kid’s eye, like he was thinking ‘maybe I should get institutionalized! 100 times better??!!!!!’ So I casually said, ‘You know, I think I exaggerated, it’s probably only 10% better now, maybe even 5%,’ and that seemed to talk him down from that tree. Those craft beer guys are a fun, crazy bunch. Though, I do maintain that every beer is 100% better than it was before the break down. What beers have you been enjoying lately? And, have you tried pairing them with food? I know you’re big into wine and food pairing.

RMP: As a product of the hippie movement of the late ‘60s, I think it’s probably natural to have an interest in all things alcoholic, and even beyond that, but the name of my wine journal, The Wine Advocate, sort of says that I’m hardly an advocate for other beverages. But I do think the boutique craft movement in the beer industry has been fabulous. You don’t need a whole lot of money to start one up, and tiny cult/craft breweries can become national success stories. Locally we have Dogfish Head in Delaware making an assortment of beers, all of them highly regarded, and many of them I find fascinating. I don’t really advertise a lot about beer, but I have tweeted about a number of unique beers. Now you’re seeing beers being fermented in old bourbon barrels, and I think sometimes they’re too heavy and too rich, but it’s funny that in the beer world, it seems like bigger and richer is what everyone wants, whereas in the wine world you have a group of hipster sommeliers who are basically advocating weird, undrinkable and deeply flawed wines. That sort of movement has not been accepted at all in the beer world, although one could certainly argue that some of the Belgian beers, with their high levels of brettanomyces and volatile acidity are indeed flawed, and that’s part of the appeal of them.

Travel with Pat, mid-1970sTravel with Pat (on right), 1970s

RHD: Okay, so let’s talk bucket list items, because one of mine involves you. I have this dream that I’d like to go to Burning Man. I want to go with wine-loving folks and set up some kind of camp in honor of Bacchus; of course, it will be weird, homey, delicious, dark, light and welcoming to all. Any way that you and Pat would consider coming out to Burning Man for a wine celebration like no other? And, do you have a bucket list item you can share here?

RMP: In response to your invitation to Burning Man, while in agreement with many of their principles (above all, gifting and self-reliance), I am also a lone wolf, and avoid any groups (lawyer and wine junkets are viewed with horror). I can’t change that.

I used to do what many people do when a new year starts – I’d make a few plans and try to improve myself as a person. But about three or four years ago, I decided I would just adopt something I call “Random Acts of Kindness,” and I’ve actually been quite good at it and consistent as well. The first episode was at a gas station where some beggar wanted to borrow money, and when I asked him what for, he said he needed cigarettes. I’m not an advocate of smoking tobacco, but I said, “I’ll buy you a pack. What do you want?” and the guy almost fainted. But of course, no good deed goes unpunished. He followed me to my car and wanted me to buy him a second pack, and I told him basically to fuck off. Apparently, even among the very poor, American greed is alive and well. But as far as bucket lists go, I’ve been one of those fortunate people who have done so many things that I dreamed of doing but never thought were possible – doing a wine tasting on the Great Wall of China in 2008 was certainly a bucket list item. Traveling the world many, many times and seeing so many extraordinary places would certainly have been on any of my earlier bucket lists, but I’ve done it. There are a few places I still haven’t gotten to that I would love to visit, such as parts of India, Cambodia, and a handful of other places, but my bucket list is pretty small. I think with the mobility issues that I’ve faced since this massive back surgery, the biggest thing would be to walk independently again. It’s amazing how we take for granted some of the most fundamental tasks in life, and then when they’re lost, you realize just how goddamned essential and important they are to you.

RHD: Okay, so we both love, love, love music. Basically, you and I will listen to anything once. Our tastes are very varied; classic rock, jazz, folk music, early hip hop, early country and everything in between. Now, most of my friends would be surprised to learn that I am a Justin Bieber fan. I really enjoyed that documentary about him, Believe. He makes his fans so happy. And, it appears that the young Mr. Bieber, at the unripe age of 20 years old, has a bigger sack than the entire staff of TMZ combined (go Justin!). What musical group or artist do you think it would surprise people to know that you really like?

RMP: Like you, I have very divergent tastes in music, from obviously the classical to rock ‘n’ roll and of course, the music that formed my early college years, the folk movement pioneered by Bob Dylan and, to a certain extent, Neil Young, Peter, Paul and Mary, etc. We do differ on Justin Bieber, as I would just like to kick his ass back to Canada. I’m sorry to say that, but I’m no fan of his. But normally, I don’t really care how nuts, weird or wacky a musician is, it’s really the music that counts in the end, just like the wine in the glass. You can be the biggest jerk-off or asshole in the world, and if you make a really good wine, that’s all that matters to me. I’m a big Austin, Texas country music guy, I have been for a long time, I think it’s the epicenter for some incredible artists who write their own music, play their own instruments, yet have never really gotten a huge following, and I really don’t understand why. Maybe there needs to be a “Music Advocate.” I’m talking about guys like Gurf Morlix, Danny Schmidt, and beyond Austin, singers and groups like James McMurtry, the Heartless Bastards (man – their lead singer, Erika Wennerstromon, has a great voice!), Todd Snider, Jackie Greene are all fabulous, still relatively young songwriters who may be writing the best lyrics since Bob Dylan’s classic years in the early and mid-1960s. Others that have their origins in Austin are the late Blaze Foley, Erika Gilkyson, Butthole Surfers, Robert Earl Keen, Slaid Cleeves, and Gary Clark, Jr. Anyhow, a lot these people just don’t seem to get much commercial attention, and I’m at a loss to understand why, but hey, that’s the way it is. I’ll buy ‘em and support’ em and tell as many people as possible about them and that’s all I can do.

Travel with Pat, 1970sTravel with Pat, 1971

RHD: You’ve been married to your lovely wife Pat for a long time and I really admire the relationship you both have. Any advice for couples who want to have a lasting marriage but find it tough sometimes?

RMP: Obviously, the best decision and the most fortuitous event of my life was meeting Patricia Etzel, who I first met when we were both twelve years old. We didn’t really go on a date until we were 15, and dating through high school and the early years of college was, at the very minimum, quite turbulent, largely because of me and my rather irresponsible attitude toward things. But when push came to shove, so to speak, I was relentless and got the girl and love of my life. We’ll be celebrating 45 years of marriage soon, probably by the time this interview is published. She’s my best friend, my lover, my confidante, and yes, no marriage can endure that long without a lot of compromise and back-and-forth, but at the end of the day, she makes me laugh, has a great sense of humor, loves good food and wine as well as music, and it’s always shocking how our interests are so similar. That’s not to say we haven’t had some pretty loud shouting matches over 45 years, but I don’t think we’ve ever gone to bed without kissing each other, no matter how pissed off I was at her for something. An interesting thing I can tell young couples is that most of the biggest fights you will ever have are over the most fucking ridiculously trivial things. Now, of course, you could always betray a partner, but I haven’t done that, and neither has she (to my knowledge), but I’m talking about stupid things. It’s amazing how something totally irrelevant and unimportant can cause fireworks. I think the key is, don’t stay mad and make sure you kiss each other before you go to bed no matter how mad you are at each other.

Enjoying a meal Summer 2014Enjoying a meal, Summer 2014

RHD: I really enjoy that television show, The Actor’s Studio, with James Lipton. I like when he asks his guests something like, “If there is a God, what do you hope to hear Him say when you get to heaven”, or something like that. What do you hope to hear?

RMP: Just getting to heaven would be a worthwhile accomplishment, and if God were there, I would probably try to get through the so-called pearly gates as quickly as possible in case he decided to change his mind. But if he was going to ask me a question, I suspect it would probably be one he asks many, and that’s “Were you good to people? Did you treat them as you would have wanted them to treat you?” And he might also ask if I thought I left earth a better place than when I entered. I think I could say yes to all that, and even pass a lie detector test on those questions.

But if God said anything to me, I would prefer the following: “Are you ready to see your parents and all those who you loved who predeceased you? And, by the way, all the dogs you’ve loved and lost since age four are here as well.”

What would you like to hear God say?

RHD: Well, I think everyone I know hopes they’ll have a little more money when they grow old and die than they do now. And, I don’t think it’s so that they can buy a fancy sports car or something like that. I think they’d just like to have some money to give to their kids and their grandkids, to make their lives a little easier. So, hoping that is the case for me, I’d like to hear God say, “Hey kid! You have some mad, moral ninja skills!…I mean, once folks with money transform themselves into the camel to undergo the great test, most of them can’t even find the needle. And, if they do, they kick it aside because they think it’s of no use to them. But, you walked right up to it and managed to fit your big nose and ears right through the eye of the needle. And, then the way you navigated both humps through the needle, without it ever breaking, and then flicked it off your tail with a little flourish and a not-too-bad pirouette….well that was just good old fashioned entertainment! Come on in, kick your shoes off, let me pour you a glass of wine!”

RMP: Well, Elaine, thank you and thanks to R. H. Drexel. In 35 years in the wine business, I have rarely had the chance to express myself candidly and be asked a series of questions that didn’t include anything about power – it’s so refreshing.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to “RH Drexel talks with Robert M. Parker, Jr.,”


Skype Drinking with Jameson Fink

In the midst of the Wine Bloggers’ Conference 2012 Jameson Fink and I became friends. In October 2013, we were able to do a joint wine trip through Dry Creek Valley. We have other joint trips planned for this upcoming year. It’s one of the gifts of wine blogging — you can develop genuine friendships with people you might not have met otherwise.

In the midst of our tour of Dry Creek in 2013, Jameson suggested we find a way to collaborate. Ultimately, we decided to begin by sharing quick visions of our respective states. He’d select two wines from Washington. I’d choose two from California. We’d send them to each other, then via Skype taste, drink, and talk through the four wines.

Following is Jameson’s write-up from the experience. Over on his site, Wine Without Worry, you’ll find mine later today. Here’s my write-up over on Jameson’s site:


Jameson Fink

Jameson Fink, Dry Creek Valley, October 2013

Hi there! I can’t believe I’m talking over/invading Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews for the day. You might remember me from such adventures with Elaine as “Touring Dry Creek Valley with Jameson Fink”.

The Washington Wines

So what wines from Washington State would I send Elaine’s way? Well, I knew I wanted to send her a couple weird bottles. And by weird I mean distinct and unusual in the most satisfying of ways. So I contacted the folks at Whidbey Island Winery and they were nice enough to send each of us a couple bottles for consideration.

Ferry to Whidbey Island Winery

ferry ride to Whidbey Island Winery, photo by Jameson Fink

I definitely wanted Elaine to try something from the Puget Sound AVA. While the vast majority of grapes for vino in Washington come from east of the Cascade Mountains (think Walla Walla, Yakima, the Tri-Cities, etc), there’s some cool stuff happening much closer to Seattle. Therefore, a bottle of 2012 Siegerrebe was dispatched to California.

This Puget Sound white wine is intensely aromatic. Elaine commented, “I’m drinking it through my nose.” (Not literally. I was watching her via Skype so I can confirm this was just a figure of speech.) It’s light and refreshing, clocking in at a summertime porch-pounding compatible 11% alcohol. If you like the intense aromatics of Gewurztraminer and Moscato but without the oiliness and/or sweetness, get a bottle in your fridge, posthaste! And when you’re hungry, pair that Siegerrebe with anything full of veggies and herbs. Like fresh rolls. (But skip the peanut sauce.)

Whidbey Island Vineyards

Whidbey Island Vineyards

The accompanying red wine from Whidbey Island Winery was their 2011 Lemberger. This bottle, unlike the Siegerrebe, is filled with grapes brought in from Eastern Washington’s Yakima Valley. Lemberger is a grape that, because of its unfortunate name, doesn’t get the love it deserves. WHERE IS THE LEMBERGER LOVE?!?

This wine reminds me of what would happen if a Pinot Noir and a Zinfandel swiped right on each other’s Tinder profiles. It’s fairly light on the palate but finishes with some brawny spiciness. This bottle would be really intriguing with less new oak as the Lemberger has enough going on to not need that flavor boost. I’d be curious to try it with neutral oak or perhaps nothing but steel. But if you find Zinfandel too monolithic, Lemberger awaits with a more gentle approach followed by an emptying out of the spice cabinet. Outstanding BBQ/outdoor grilling red.

The California Wines

So, what of the California wines sent my way? I was really excited to see (though not to type, jeez, what a long name, here goes) a bottle of 2011 Varner Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains Spring Ridge Vineyard Amphitheater Block. Phew! So thirsty. I’m a huge fan of the Santa Cruz Mountains, like Ridge Monte Bello (DUH!) and the wines of Mount Eden Vineyards, who make killer Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and one of my all-time favorite Cabernet Sauvignons from anywhere IN THE ENTIRE WORLD.

Anyway, back to the Varner. I love California Chardonnay and I ain’t afraid of oak on it, either. What makes the Varner notable is its exquisite balance between fruit, oak, and acid. How balanced is it? It’s more balanced than a seal with a beach ball on the tip of its nose being cheered by Rajat Parr and Jasmine Hirsch snacking on popcorn with a judicious amount of organic butter and native yeast.

Or, as Elaine more elegantly put it, this Chardonnay has “rich flavor with so much graceful movement.” Can I get avian on you? Let me paraphrase what Elaine went on to say. The Varner, which develops in a most intriguing manner in the glass, is like a great blue heron with a weirdly elongated form that moves in ways you don’t expect it to. You can’t compare it to other birds because they are the only ones who move like that.

This wine gets a Clive Coats-ian “very fine indeed”.

Next up? The 2012 Wind Gap Syrah Sonoma Coast Majik Vineyard, which also, like the Varner, proved to be magical in the glass. Like a conjurer. It has a very minty, menthol-y, eucalyptus-y, pine needle-y nose and was very earthy yet extremely light on first sip(s). Its a wine that really needs significant time to open up. I gave it a double-decant about a ½ hour before we began but give it hours to properly plump up or stash it in your cellar for a few years. It certainly gained steam throughout the course of the evening.

What makes this Syrah distinct among all of the offerings from Wind Gap? Elaine deems this bottling from the Majik Vineyard to be “the most aromatic and a little strange.” And strange in the way I described weird earlier. As in intriguing! And not intriguing in a way where you are choking down tiny eye-dropper sips while looking for the exit door. More of a “yum I want more” or “I’m sticking around for this rollercoaster…OF FLAVOR” kind of intrigue. Elaine channeled Alaska when describing this wine, likening it to “tundra berries grown in peat”. (Note: Whole Foods does not carry these. I asked.)

Thanks to Elaine for the fascinating and fantastic wines and letting me blather on all over her blog which, like the Varner, is very fine indeed!!! I look forward to our next adventure via Skype. It won’t be a California/Washington exchange, but rather a theme based on a style of wine we both hold near and dear. Elaine, would you care to make the announcement? Drumroll, please….

OH HOW WE LOVE ROSÉ! That’s what we’ll exchange next time — we’ll each select a favorite still rosé, and a favorite sparkling to send to the other, then Skype.



Thank you to Pax Mahle for providing the Wind Gap sample.
Thank you to Jameson Fink for being awesome.