Nibbling at the Edge of Stale Ideas

“People have nothing to say, but they are afraid of saying nothing, so what they do say comes out flat and vapid and meaningless …”

― William S. Burroughs, The Western Lands

I was at Pebble Beach Food and Wine this past weekend. These big productions don’t really have much to do with food or wine. It’s more about seeing and being seen with all the B and C level celebrities that make up the food and wine world.

I was invited to attend the Roederer Estate L’Ermitage tasting at the Inn at Spanish Bay. Roederer Estate California sparkling wine is produced by Champagne Louis Roederer and builds on a 200-year tradition of fine winemaking from this family owned company. L’Ermitage is Roederer Estate’s special Tête de Cuvée, made only in exceptional years.

Roederer is the most “French-like” sparkling wine made in California. For me, it is the only New World sparkling wine that manages to press all my sparkling wine buttons. L’Ermitage is so good that it is often mistaken for Champagne and I find that I frequently enjoy it more than some well-known Champagnes.

So it was a real treat to taste L’Ermitage and L’Ermitage Rosé going back to 1989. The panel leading the tasting included Arnaud Weyrich, the winemaker for Roederer Estate, who was informative, witty, and articulate in his descriptions of his wines.

The rest of the panel was mind numbingly forgettable. This was supposed to be an all-star group. Unfortunately, their collective commentaries were a time wasting, indolent, dull, droning rehash of every single colorless, mindless food and wine cliché ever uttered over the last 30 years. Now this is very hard to do in the space of only an hour and fifteen minutes – but they were all professionals.

Things I learned from the panelists:

New Geography

In describing some characteristics of the 2003 L’Ermitage, the youngest member of the panel pointed out that it was an extremely hot year in France with “lots of old people dying”. This was valuable information indeed toward understanding the ’03 except for the fact that L’Ermitage is made in the Anderson Valley about 125 miles north of San Francisco which is about 5,600 miles from Reims, France.

 Attacking the Straw Man

The panel clearly assumed that the audience was operating under so many misconceptions regarding Champagne and sparkling wine that we barely knew which end of our glasses to drink from.

“All Champagne is sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is Champagne”; “All rosé is sweet”, “Champagne is just for celebrations”; “You can’t serve Champagne throughout an entire dinner”, “It doesn’t work with many foods”, “You should only serve sparkling wines in flutes”. One by one each panelist boldly took a turn at striking down misconceptions, which no one in the room was suffering under, spouting tired wine bromides that have been repeated ad nauseam over the last ten years. These insights elicited all the excitement of pledge week at your local Public Television station – without the complementary coffee cup.

Sparkling Wine Naturopathy

One panel member alluded to the healing properties of sparkling wine when he stated that although he was hung over, just a few sips of L’Ermitage had revived him. (Budding messiahs with wedding appearances on your schedule take note!) We in the audience admired his professionalism in showing up with a hangover to help lead this expensive seminar. He “winged it” just as well as the other less hung over panelists.

Knowing Your Audience

The panel leader asked if the ’89 L’Ermitage was the oldest wine audience members had ever tasted and only one person raised his hand. Regrettably, we were not as uninformed as the panel needed us to be.

The wines of Roederer were great and the winemaker was articulate. Arnaud and his wines spoke for themselves and shone brightly in spite of the claptrap spewed out by the other panel members. When I spoke with Arnaud at the Grand Tasting later that day he slyly stated “sometimes a short tasting is better than a long discussion.”

It is disheartening to watch the direction that this business has taken.  The wine industry and the media have created and perpetuated wine snobs. The truth is that sommeliers and wine writers are as blinkered, unaware, and burdened with preconceptions as they assume consumers to be. There is an absence of context, history and experience among too many sommeliers and wine writers.

I think the Hosemaster of Wine sums things up quite well in this quote from his blog:

“Lord, hear our pleas. Let us be read and admired, let us be monetized through self-published books and newsletters, let our words be heard, our opinions carry weight, our business cards open doors to the most exclusive tastings. Ask not of us originality of thought, insight or integrity, for we have not the tools. Suffer us fools gladly, Lord, for we are but your fools. We walk our path to discover wine and expect others to walk fearlessly with us through the valley of the shadow of ignorance. We use our gifts to bless others with our wine wisdom and faultless palates, and want only to be recognized as a force for sales, and be taken on junkets where we can get drunk and be unfaithful, like people at real jobs do. We ask this humbly, Lord, though it’s only what we deserve.”

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