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THE ACCIDENTAL CONNOISSEUR

Lawrence Osborne’s book jacket has a comment on the front, “an irreverent journey through the wine world”, which seems appropriate for the title.  While there may be some link between irreverence and accidental connoisseur, Osborne’s book is anything but irreverent (www.winostuff.com knows irreverence!).  Osborne’s status as a writer grants him access to some major authorities in the wine world.  He writes about his visits as if he believes himself not to be worthy, but the most significant irreverence is Osborne’s portrayal of wine critic and author, Robert Parker.  At one point, Osborne questions why Parker should believe that his tongue is more qualified to taste than any other mortal, say Joey Buttafuoco (ouch!).

 The introduction of this book reads like a Wino Bob diary.  Osborne trots out his Catholicism as the means by which he was introduced to wine as a representative of Christ’s hemoglobin (I guess you have to be Catholic to understand all of these references that WB and Osborne cloak the sacrament with).  He concludes by stating that the only way he figures to learn about taste is to go out and enjoy the hedonic pleasure of drinking wine for enjoyment.

 Starting out in Italy isn’t a bad way to go.  Osborne chooses to start in the town of Sassoferrato with a winemaker named Antonio Terni.  Le Terrazze is Terni’s family winery.  Sassi Neri is Terni’s flagship product while Visions of Johanna may be his best (300 cases were made in 1997 and never again).  Terni named that wine after a Bob Dylan song (we are going down a Wino Bob road again, aren’t we?).  Terni also informs Osborne that he makes a wine for the international wine critics called Chaos, but also makes a wine for the “terroir” afficianados which is Sassi Neri.  (“terroir” is defined by enologist Alain Carbonneau of Montpellier’s Institut Superieur de la Vigne et du Vin as “the interaction of climate, grape variety and the soil.”)  Terni defines the international style as something akin to airport architecture (WJ, you’re in a lot of airports; are they all alike architecturally?).  Incidentally, Sassoferrato happens to be the hometown of American Robert Mondavi and is a nice lead in to the next chapter which results from a lunch with Robert Mondavi.

 Mondavi europeanized California’s wine industry according to Osborne.  It was a statement that he took directly to the old gentleman during his luncheon and was one that Mondavi agreed with.  Mondavi’s father, Cesare, was sent to California during Prohibition to sample grapes grown there that the Italian club in Virginia, Minnesota could buy to make their allowed 200 gallon annual quota.  His father brokered wines initially, but in 1943 bought the Charles Krug winery.  By 1960, there were only 20 wineries in all of California.  Robert Mondavi argued that Charles Krug should go back to its historic roots and make a more classic wine.  Because his family disagreed with him, Mondavi left in 1965 and started the Robert Mondavi Winery a few miles away in Napa Valley.  Mondavi’s credited with beginning the California movement toward refined wine from table wine through experimentation in all manners of wine making.  His pioneering status led to Napa Cabernet’s status at the top of the world’s red wines.  During the course of the luncheon, Mondavi and Osborne discuss the Mondavi rift with, who else, Robert Parker.  As Mondavi continued to experiment, they backed off of the bold red taste into a more refined, shall we say, French?, taste.

 Osborne launches into an analysis of the situation governing America’s changing perception in the wine world.  In the 1930’s, the average annual per capital consumption of wine was one quart.  It peaked at two and a half gallons in 1986 (that’s annual, WB, we know that’s close to your weekly consumption).  France, Italy, and America are the three largest consuming wine countries.  Of the three, America is the only country that imports more wine than it produces.  The three largest importing countries are Germany, Great Britain, and the U.S.  Because of its large consumption as well as importation and production as well as exportation, the U.S. looms as the controlling figure influencing global wine trends and it all emanates from Napa Valley according to Osborne.

 In a chapter called the Vinelife, Osborne discusses the Mondavi influence from Chateau Petrus.  UC Davis influenced viniculture in American until the 1980’s.  According to their experts, the perfect spacing was 8 feet apart with rows 12 feet apart.  Mondavi visited Petrus and copied their technique of 1 meter by 1 meter.  The closer vines do not yield anywhere near the number of grapes in production, but the stress caused by closer production yields a more concentrated grape with the lesser production.  Osborne also relates an interesting conversation with the winemaker at Opus One, the joint venture between Mondavi and the Rothschilds.  In the most expensive winery in the world, with all the technology available, Osborne begins another “terroir” conversation.  When asked who drinks wine, Ralph Ewing, Opus’ guest relations man, relates his opinion:

“In the $100-plus category, Parker rules.  It’s your white middle-aged male Ritz-Carlton crowd.  Between $40 and $60, it’s the Wine Spectator.  But you see, women actually buy 65 percent of all wine, and women are much stingier about how much they’ll pay.  Women will pay between $15 and $20, rarely more.  Women don’t fetishize wine.  It’s true across the world.  Women motivate the consumption of wine-the romantic dinner-but not the collecting of it.”

When I read this paragraph, I realized that we’ve been covering the market here at Winostuff.com.  Wino Wally reads Parker, Wino John reads the Spec, and WB is cheaper than your average babe.  Therefore, if you believe Wino Bob, you’re going to impress the women with your ability to buy the good, cheap stuff.  (writer’s note:  why is it that my wife doesn’t seem to care how much we spend per bottle?).

 Osborne’s journey from Mondavi and Opus moves to a company called Enologix.  Enologix has created a digital database derived from the cellars of dozens of Napa and Sonoma wineries.  Cataloguing data such as barrel type and age, type of barrel wood, cellar conditions, grape varietals, climate and vintage analysis, chemical analyses of the elements of the wine (sugar, phenols, tannins, etc.), Enologix can run simulations to predict the best wine that the cellar can possibly make.  Literally, the software will take the existing situation (wine aging in vats for two months), makes a scoring prediction based on normal factors, and allows you to determine what it will take to move that score from an 86 to a 92.  Wineries pay $300-400 per month to use the database.  Enologix claims that their clients can get a 6 point increase in scoring within 18 months of using the system.  Osborne decides after going through this dog and pony show that he’s heading to the hotel for a drink and it won’t be a glass of wine.  Before he leaves this chapter, Osborne visits Sterling Vineyards, a place owned by the conglomerate Diageo, and a very popular wine to visitors of Disney, Marriott, TGI Friday, and Legal Seafoods.  Sterling’s winemaker takes Osborne through his experimentation with oaks (changes the “spice” tone to wine), grapes (acidity, fruitiness), and yeast (alcohol content).  Osborne somewhat glumly leaves the winery and wanders to the Californian cult “garagistes” (someone who makes wine in their garage), Bill Cadman.  Cadman operates a cult winery called Tulocay, on the outskirts of Napa.  Osborne starts drinking with Cadman and relishes reading Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route (kind of how I think about Jack Kerouac whenever Wino Bob launches into a diatribe).

 A quote from D.H. Lawrence defining “the spirit of place” coins the phrase for Osborne’s next chapter and next adventure.  According to Osborne, Gerald Asher, an early wine writer, suggests that “place” is terroir AND what is happening around you when you’re drinking (Holy crap, Bacchus must have a lot of terroir given what’s happened to WB there!).  Osborne decides he wants to find the geological spirit of place and travels to the Central Valley, California, estate of Chalone.  I won’t give you all of the details about Chalone, but suggest that it’s an interesting read.  It’s also where Osborne suggests that it’s the most “terroir”-oriented site in California due to the high minerality in the soil.  Later in the chapter, he travels to Mount Eden in Silicon Valley (the former Paul Masson winery, later operated by Martin Ray), to Ridge, the maker of America’s finest Zinfandels, and to Bonnie Doon, to visit the famous Randall Grahm

 After he explores America, Osborne journeys to Europe and never returns (in the book, not literally).  France and Italy are visited back and forth and Osborne reviews the traditional winemakers as well as the not so traditional.  He does nothing to resolve the debate between “terroir” and the bland American technically enhanced winemaking style.  Some of the French have emulated that style despite being drummed out of the appellation crowd for doing so.  The super Tuscans are crowned “world leaders” because of their refinement of technology in grape growing AND utilization of a unique terrain to create a better, “terroir” wine than previously achievable during the hundreds of years of area winemaking.

 In the end, I think Osborne summarizes his travels and his opinions by remarking on the second concept of place:  it’s who you’re surrounded by when you’re drinking.  Whether it’s a beautiful woman (or guy, if you’re a woman; or guy, if you’re Governor McGreevy), your best friends, your business partners celebrating a deal, or your golfing buddies celebrating a milestone birthday; there’s always something special about that bottle of wine you had when you can remember your surroundings as if it were yesterday.**

 I highly recommend The Accidental Connoisseur.  Not only is it an enjoyable read for someone interested in finding out more about the wine industry, but it’s a tome that you’ll find yourself rereading whenever you hear of a particular wine that you believe was critiqued in the book.

 Wino Wally
Baltimore, MD
August 30, 2004

 **There are about half a dozen memorable wine experiences that I associate with Osborne’s portrayal of “place”.  One of them was when my wife and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary after our girls were born (May 2001), and I was able to purchase a bottle of Chateau St. Jean’s highly rated 1996 Cinq Cepages at The Dining Room at Ford’s Colony in Williamsburg.  Another was after I toured the site of the World Trade Center when firemen were continuing to excavate the ruins despite their knowledge that no one could be alive.  Two friends of mine, Winos Bob and Warren, made the journey and decided that we needed a good bottle of wine.  We shared two bottles of Tignanello at a restaurant no more than two blocks from the cordoned off area in NYC. 

 


 

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