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Tag Archives: wine writing

A Halloween wine tale 2014

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alloween Frankenstein

“It’s alive….”

Lightning flamed across the night sky, and the Baron saw the dark clouds piling through his laboratory skylight. A storm was coming. The electricity cut out for a couple of seconds, came back. The Baron took a deep breath. “It’s now or never,” he said, and he laughed, loudly, fanatically, and was more sure than ever that what he was doing was right, doing the one thing that would make the world a better place for the wine he knew people should drink – darker, heavier, fruitier, more alcoholic.

“Igor, prepare the equipment. We are about to create the perfect wine writer.” And he laughed the laugh of the damned.

The Baron had not always cared about wine. He had always enjoyed it, of course, whether cult cabernets from Napa Valley, hard to find Super Tuscans from Italy, or inky, 99-point Australian shirazes. He was an important man, a researcher and a scientist, the son of the one of the most powerful families in the land. He bought wine worthy of his status, to remind people who he was and what he could afford. And he never, ever drank anything that scored less than 95 points.

But the world was changing. People were drinking wine he didn’t like, and he didn’t understand why. How could they enjoy unoaked chardonnays? Or light red blends? Or even, God forbid, rose? And the critics he loved, the men who had defended the 95-point bastion, were not what they once were. One had even retired, and the Baron was shocked at the news. How could his heroes be so frail? How could they be so human?

That’s when wine became something more for the Baron. It became his obsession; his colleagues, whispering behind his back, called it his curse. His fiancee, worried, came to visit the Baron at his ancestral home deep in the mountains, but he barely had time for her. All he did, she wrote her father in long, tear-stained letters, was cut out reviews from Wine Spectator buying guides and clip articles from back issues of the Wine Advocate. And when he wasn’t doing that, she wrote, he was locked in the laboratory with Igor, and she would hear hisses and hums throughout the night.

The night before she left at the end of October, and knowing the man she loved had crossed the line from sanity to somewhere unthinkable, she heard him tell Igor: “The brain is ready. We’ve loaded it with all the information, all the scores, all the descriptors. We are ready to create life!”

“Power on!”

Igor flicked a series of switches, and the laboratory came alive, rotors whirring and condensers humming.

“Now, Igor, now,” and his assistant turned two knobs in succession. The Baron, shaking, knew it was time, and he pushed the button. The machinery burst with light, and the Baron could almost see the power surge through the cluster of wires attached to what looked like a man lying on the table.

The body twitched once, twice. The head rose, fell back. One arm moved, and then the other. Next, the left leg, followed by the right. The Baron was laughing, crying, screaming, when he heard a voice from the body on the table — slowly and shakily at first, but soon steady enough: “The cedar, tar, and black currant are passionately entwined, and the wine is intense, with a smoky, exotic nose and sweet jammy fruit – 97 points.”

The Baron lifted his head to the heavens: “It’s alive! Oh, in the name of God, It’s alive. Now I know what it feels like to be the publisher of the Wine Spectator.”

The first report came from the village market, where a blocky, man-like creature had knocked over a display of sauvignon blanc: “This is not serious wine,” shouted the Monster. “Where is the oak?”

Then the owner of the local wine shop watched in horror as the Monster ripped a dozen books in two – the one with the brown hat and green bottle on the cover – and destroyed the section with the Oregon pinot noir. “Only 12 1/2 percent,” cried the Monster. “Where is the alcohol?”

The townspeople caught up with the Monster near the cliff outside the Baron’s castle; there had been broken bottles of $10 Sicilian whites scattered in his wake for blocks. “Stop him,” cried one, “block his path,” said another, and the crowed formed between the Monster and the castle, cutting off his escape.

The Baron had worked his way to the Monster’s side. “Stop it,” he said, and grabbed the Monster’s hands in his. “This is life. This is creation. This is the perfect wine writer. Never again will a cava get a 94.”

But the Monster wasn’t listening. “Do you want to advertise in our Wines of Bordeaux issue?” he asked the Baron. The Baron, confused, shook his head no, and the Monster picked up him like an empty wine box and tossed him over the side. “The best way to ensure a timely review is to advertise,” he told the crowd, but they would have none of it. First one rock came at his head, and then another, and then more and then bottles and branches, too, and the Monster lurched and sidestepped awkwardly until he was at the edge of the cliff and then he was over it, spiraling downward.

“It’s time to go home,” said the wine shop owner as the Monster fell out of sight. “There are no monsters now, only the wine we want to drink.”

A tip o’ the Curmudgeon’s fedora to Universal Studios and director James Whale for giving me something terrific to steal again this year after last year’s Hammer Film’s Dracula effort. The photos are courtesy of FrankensteinFilms.com, using a Creative Commons license.

Carmen Castorina: When a legend retires

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carmen castorinaThe first rule of sportswriting used to be “Don’t god up the ballplayers.” Which meant that athletes were not necessarily better or worse people because they were ballplayers; they were just different, and you needed to keep that in mind when you wrote about them.

That approach has served me well over the past three decades, because it made sense for everything I’ve written about: politics, business, film, music, food (especially food), and wine. Perspective is all, and just because someone is a fine winemaker doesn’t mean they’re a good parent or friend or colleague.

So how do I write a piece honoring perhaps the best wine PR person in history without godding him up? Carmen Castorina, who retired earlier this month after some three decades at E&J Gallo, was adored by his colleagues (three farewell lunches); admired by his competitors (“Whenever I see Carmen I smile and feel good”); and apparently returned every phone call he ever got. Would that some of the ballplayers I dealt with were half that talented.

Which is not to say that Carmen and I never had a disagreement. Writers and PR people are born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. But what made Carmen the best, and why he was so respected, was that he never let those disagreements get in the way of doing his job. No grudges or snide remarks, and certainly not any of the punishments so popular today — being excluded from events or not told about news because the writer wasn’t “part of the team.”

Carmen always had a story, whether it was the time we were having lunch in Troy Aikman’s booth at a Dallas restaurant and Aikman, the former Cowboys quarterback, showed up and had to sit elsewhere. Or working with Ernest Gallo — yes, that Ernest Gallo — to market the winery’s first varietal wins and to help to take the California wine business into the 20th century. Or, as Carmen told our mutual pal Alfonso Cevola, how he set up umbrellas on the Jersey Shore in summer when he was a kid and that “Al Martino [of "Godfather" fame] always gave me a 50-cent tip.”

I’ve dealt with PR people since the late 1970s, and almost no one did it better. So Carmen will be missed. I’ll even miss his little digs about my failure to include Gallo’s Barefoot in the $10 Hall of Fame and his insistence that Notre Dame was as good a school as my alma mater, Northwestern. And we’ll still have lunch now and again; I just hope Aikman doesn’t want his booth. Cause he ain’t getting it.

Slider image courtesy of Afonso Cevola and on The Wine Trail in Italy, using a Creative Commons license

How to manipulate on-line reviews with a clear conscience — get a federal court ruling

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manipulate on-line reviews yelpAlways wondered how legitimate the scores and reviews were on sites like Yelp, Angie’s List, and the Wine Spectator? Now, thanks to a federal appeals court ruling, you don’t have to wonder: Legitimacy may not matter. The sites may be able to manipulate the ratings, and they don’t necessarily have to tell you what they’ve done.

Or, as Lou Bright, the blog’s unofficial attorney, says: “This does have the ethical aroma of dead rat, doesn’t it? Yet neither Yelp nor the Wine Spectator are legally bound to be morally upright. The First Amendment allows for an awful lot of disreputable speech.”

The court decision, made earlier this month in San Francisco, didn’t break new legal ground when it found that the possible “engineering” of review postings on Yelp, based on whether businesses bought an ad on the site, were legal. The ruling came after several businesses sued Yelp, claiming the site moved unfavorable reviews higher and moved favorable reviews lower on the site – or removed favorable reviews altogether – if the businesses didn’t buy ads.

Said the ruling: “It is not unlawful for Yelp to post and sequence the reviews. As Yelp has the right to charge for legitimate advertising services, the threat of economic harm that Yelp leveraged is, at most, hard bargaining.”

A legal thing here, so I don’t get sued. Yelp’s senior director of litigation said the company didn’t make review decisions based on whether anyone bought ads, and there is a disclaimer on the Yelp site. And I’m not saying Yelp does that. Or that Angie’s List, the Spectator or anyone else does it. Or that it goes on at all anywhere.

Rather, as W. Blake Gray wrote when he broke the story last week, the ruling reaffirms that sites or magazines that do reviews can charge for upgraded placement, higher scores, or better reviews with a clear conscience. After all, it’s just hard bargaining.

I talked to three other attorneys for this post, and each said the same thing as Bright: It’s not a consumer-friendly practice,and there may be risk in the long run, but it’s not necessarily illegal. As long as the site or magazine doesn’t commit libel (which is often difficult to prove, says Dallas attorney Trey Crawford), and doesn’t run afoul of the Federal Trade Commission, it’s on safe legal ground. Some court decisions have even gone as far as to equate engineering with “editorial discretion.”

What can you do to make sure ratings and reviews aren’t engineered? Look for a disclaimer on the site, like the one I use, and will continue to use. No one pays me for favorable reviews or to review their product, and it will always be that way. Because, if there isn’t a disclaimer, anything is possible.

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