Back in early March of 2017, on a trip to Astoria, Oregon, for the Fort George Brewing Festival of Dark Arts, Edgar became ill; lethargic, clumsy, and very, very quiet. We found a local vet in Astoria and took him in. “Get him home tomorrow morning and then go straight to his vet,” the doctor there said, “And I mean straight to that vet. Don’t even stop for gas.”
We drove home that same night. We stopped at the house and I grabbed a jacket and drove to Summit Veterinarian Referrals. By that time, he couldn’t walk. I carried him in, cradled in my arms, tears streaming down my face, and handed him over to the staff. They were kind and patient and soon delivered the news I knew I would one day get but had fooled myself into believing was another year or two down the road: Edgar had a mass in his heart and wasn’t going to make it.
I’m going to spare you – and me, frankly, because it’s January and I can just now, barely, write about it – the details of the three and a half hours of sitting and remembering and sinking farther and farther into a misery I hadn’t known was even possible. But, sometime around 1:30 a.m., I leaned over and laid my chest and head on his side, kissed those big, floppy, incredibly soft ears, and nodded to the doctor, who administered a shot that stopped his poor, battered, huge, and incredibly sweet heart.
A small pine box, with Edgar’s ashes in it, sits here on my desk. I have to have it there because, for thirteen solid years, he was right beside me as I evaluated and recommended and ranted and raved in The Pour Fool and wrote about ten million other words for various customers and my own novels and poetry and four other blogs. I tried making a special spot in our home for that box but Edgar considered this space next to me to be his place of honor, so I honor that…that and my feckless, selfish desire to hang on…
I was crying so hard, writing that, that I had to stop for a while. The grief comes and goes.
Back in June, I ran into a dilemma: my own sense of right and wrong and my long-standing badgering people to stop buying dogs at pet shops and ADOPT one of the thousands of homeless pooches, sitting in cold wire cages, everywhere, collided headlong with my grief. After a long tussle, the adoption principle won out. In what can only be called an Act of God, I stumbled upon a photo of a tiny, brindle/black French Bulldog/Chihuahua mix called Blackjack. I wasn’t even looking at adoptable dogs when I found him. It was a sidebar on another website. But there was just something about his picture…I couldn’t put my finger on it but I contacted the adoption agency – he was right here, in Tacoma – and waited…
…and waited and waited. No response. I resolved to move on. But I followed up. “If you’re actually interested in placing this little guy, I’d appreciate at least the courtesy of a response,” I wrote, peeved, “I’m right here in town and would like to meet him.” And waited.
Two weeks later, a lady from the agency finally emailed me, “I don’t know what happened,” she wrote, “But I was replying to you. It was like some Twilight Zone thing. I’d reply and you’d email and say you’d appreciate a reply.”
Finally, on a cloudy, warm August day, the dog rescue lady pulled up in our driveway. We shook hands and made a minute or so of small talk and then she reached into the back seat of her van and picked up a tiny little wriggling black smudge – a puppy, really, just ten months old – and carried him over to me. There was no shyness, no preliminary sniffing. He just crawled into my arms and stayed there, through all the signing of papers and the sitting on our patio and, somewhere in all that, fell asleep in my arms. Jack – I dropped the “Black” part because that seemed self-explanatory – was Home, and whatever misgivings I may have been harboring about it being too soon after Edgar and didn’t I have enough room in my heart and blah-blah-blah were blown away like a fart in a tornado. Jack didn’t care. He knew he was in his rightful place and I knew it and Judye knew it and the rescue lady knew it. It was the first creeping incursion of the whole idea of “French” into my quotidian reality.
It would not be the last.
For about the past 22 years, now, I have been a loud, consistent, persistent, and direct detractor of French wines. Not all French wines. I adore Alsace and the whole Rhone Valley and am batshit crazy about Provence and Beaujolais and Champagne fills me with tiny, happy bubbles…but Bordeaux and Burgundy, honestly, could crack off and slide into the Atlantic and I wouldn’t turn a hair, as long as all the inhabitants made it out okay. The reason is simple: I hate Hype. I am the sworn enemy of assumed, unquestioning status. I am the vicious adversary of expense based solely on reputation. And Bordeaux and Burgundy are two of the worlds most expensive and slavishly worshiped wine regions, mostly because of past glories.
Case in Point: at a wine event, just last year, I was seated next to a guy who spent over an hour prefacing every conversational gambit with “Well, as a somm...”, which, for the uninitiated, is a wine certification you receive after some extensive study and a test. It says, basically, that you have whatever comes next on the scale of wine knowledge after “studies wine in-depth” and, in terms of actual impact, means about the same as getting your driver’s license. Less, actually, because your drivers’ at least entitles you to legally operate a vehicle. Your somm certificate just says you know wine. It is no guarantee of a job and no one can tell just by looking at you, so that creates the prostate-clenching embarrassment of roving wine geeks who say “Well, as a somm…” forty to sixty times an hour, presumably even when they’re in the bathtub or sleeping. What that certificate also does, apparently, is turn the recipient into another one of the brain-benumbed legions of American sycophants who genuflect whenever Bordeaux or Burgundy are mentioned. This is, of course, not universally true of all sommeliers but, in the past 27 years in the wine trade, I’ve met exactly two who did not, usually unprompted, spout the Gospel of French Superiority to anyone who might suggest, even obliquely, that the modern-day cradle of wine accomplishment might just be Elsewhere.
I have become known, in certain circles, as “that guy who hates Pinot and Bordeaux“. I think most people may insert another term for “guy” in there. “Asshole” is fairly common. “Idiot” comes up occasionally. “Snot rag” – my favorite – has happened maybe twice. I wear them all with pride. And, it should be said, none are exactly accurate. There have been the rare Bordeaux and Burgundy wines that I really like, if not all the way to love. Chateau Lynch-Bages – and their sister winery, Château Les Ormes de Pez – sits in my wine racks sometimes, as do Chateau Bellevue and Chateau Poujeaux. In Burgundy, I’ve paid for the rare bottle of Domaine Faiveley Clos Rochette and Domaine de Suremain “Les Cretes” and have always been a big fan of white Burgundy, despite the fact that I have been bored to tears with Chardonnay in general for over twenty years now. I’ve also adored hundreds of French wines from other appellations, some photos of which appear here. But I’ve disputed the supremacy of both those uber–worshiped regions for almost two decades because, in my view, MOST of both are bombastically priced, underwhelming mediocrity that floats atop a vast slick of assumption and unquestioning Francophilia.
So, when I submitted the little vial of spit that’s the basis of the Ancestry.com DNA test that my wife gave me for my birthday, what came back, while astounding, was not without a certain poetic irony. In addition to the 12% of me that is Scandinavian (which I had NO inkling of at all) and the 20% that I already knew was Irish – and the ZERO percent that’s Russian, which I had assumed for most of my 65 years was most of my heritage – I am predominantly, as in 61% of my DNA….French/Belgian.
I read that part of the DNA report in stunned incomprehension. SIXTY-ONE PER CENT French and Belgian? Maybe a hint of Dutch in that deoxyribonucleaic stew? I knew that I had a very distant Dutch ancestor, waaaay back there somewhere, but I had no idea at all of the French ancestry. The experience of taking this test, unless you’re just such a skeptic and science denier that you’re able to look at it and sneer at the whole idea, really does change your life. I had no idea of the Scandinavian genes, either. It completely reversed the way I’ve always seen Norwegians and Danish and Finns and Swedes. I will admit that, for the entire time I’ve lived among this vast Scandinavian community that is the Pacific Northwest, I used to find their culture banal and somewhat colorless. But recently, armed with the knowledge that I am one of those bland, colorless folks, at least in part, I went to a Norwegian Fest at a loccal church…and found myself fighting back tears from the sudden realization of the beauty and richness of those cultures when I finally, after 27 years among them, just…bothered to look at them. I feel an undeniable connection to those countries, now, just as I have to Ireland. My wife was so moved by my reaction that she insisted on buying a pair of socks and a knitted headband with the Norwegian flag on them. “But, I don’t even know if I’m Norwegian,” I said, reasonably. “I might be Finnish or Danish or from Ikea country.” She smiled at me as she does often, as though I’m a very slow toddler, and said, “Just go with it.” I wear the socks with pride and the headband is just awaiting the first really cold day.
But I’ve been struggling with the French Connection.
I think I’ve been seeing the French for so incredibly long only through the lens of wine that I have become numb to the many other aspects of French culture. Belgium? Easy. Slam dunk. My 40+ year romance with Belgian beer set me up nicely with a knowledge base and curiosity about Belgium and that magical area along the French border, Flanders, with all those stunning sour ales. But French culture, as rich and varied and impossibly deep as I know it to be, appears as if behind the hazy screen that is my profound contempt for the whole aura surrounding French wines; an ongoing assumption of superiority that sets my teeth on edge.
The bedrock upon which American wine weenies base their unshakable adoration of All Wines Gallic is a smallish set of profound wines that have formed an edifice of universal acclaim that is used constantly to rationalize the worship of a wine culture that is no deeper than those of Italy or Spain but which benefited from a closer proximity to that pre-industrial-age megaphone culture that was Great Britain. The UK tried – and almost succeeded – at conquering the world, back in pre-Colonial times, and they seeded much of the globe with their tastes and ideals and fashions and customs. Their massive influence broadcast their own wine Francophilia insistently to the New World and determined an American adoration and emulation of French winemaking and aesthetics that was, until just a couple of decades ago, unquestioned among US wine intelligentsia and which is still the dominant view today.
“Well,” my Francophile buddies used to tell me, the hallmark Franco-smug tone edging into their delivery, “If you ever tasted a 1947 Cheval Blanc ora ’61 Petrus or an ’82 Latour, you wouldn’t think that 1990 Amarone is such a big deal.”
In the beginning of my serious wine geekiness, I used to just listen to that and sigh and shrug. Finally, somewhere around year ten and the 75th iteration of it, I snapped.
“Have YOU ever tasted a ’47 Cheval Blanc? How ’bout that ’61 Petrus? ’82 Latour, maybe? Have you owned or even shared bottles of those and spent time appreciating that alleged greatness?” I asked.
“Uh…well, no…but everybody knows…”
“Then shut up, Jethro. I’ve at least tasted the Amarone. You’re operating 100% off received wisdom. And homie don’t play dat.”
There are genuinely GREAT, undeniable French wines being made every single year. Even in vintages that Parker or Spectator and Tanzer rate as below average, I’ve tasted wines that were inarguably excellent. But the exact same thing can be said for all the world’s wine-producing countries. Saying that everything French is presumptively superior to everything coming out of the US or Spain or Italy or Australia or Chile or South Africa or, especially, that most emergent region on the planet, Argentina, is childish and empty; the servicing of some wine-snot Agenda motivated by the desire for exclusivity or some uber-cool facade or immersion in a particularly virulent strain of trendiness that cycles at the same rate as your central air conditioning. Just about the only wine-related myth that’s as persistent and logic-resistant as French superiority is that White Zinfandel comes from a white grape, a phenomenon that is, in retrospect, our first inkling of the current right-wing insistence that facts are squishy and the simple act of refusing to believe them invalidates the fact.
The point of all this rumination is Assumption; the passing along of ideas received from others and never questioned, with the same lack of conscious effort or examination that’s involved in a goose eating corn and passing it, intact.
I assumed that Scandinavian culture was bland and ordinary and lacked the depth and color that I prefer. I assumed that I was Russian and Irish and a smattering of Dutch, without any real evidence, aside from the fact that my grandmother said so. I assumed that I could not love and care for a dog as much as I did Edgar. I assumed that I could safely take pot shots at the French wine culture as an uninvolved outsider. I assumed that I did not have a French gene in my genetic gumbo…just as so many people assume that French wine is the best in the world and suffer minor agonies of self-doubt when they actually start drinking Bordeaux or Burgundy and think. “Wow, that’s really kinda…wimpy, compared to my Walla Walla Cabernet.”
“When you assume, you make an ass outta you and me.”
Clichés become clichés mostly because they’re convenient ways to express simple truths.
FACT: IF you are really devoted to actually being – as opposed to pretending to be – a highly knowledgeable wine connoisseur, there is no such thing as a shortcut. It took me a solid 20 years to even get to the point at which I felt like I know enough about wine to do anything other than just review them and say what I taste. I read remarks from people nearly every day, which say that So & So Winery, that they visit every year and with which they have a wine club membership, is “the best winery in the world!”
NO, it is NOT. Unless you’ve tried every winery in the world, don’t even form your mouth to utter those words. Unless you have taken that wine fact that you were told by your wine-savvy buddy or some wine website for suburbanites or some wine writer like ME and subjected it to a google search and some other sort of verification, don’t assume it’s true. YES, I absolutely DID just tell you not to believe me. Do not take what I or anyone says without questions. I have posted two great, howling factual errors in the history of this blog and now website and I had to own them, so I can be wrong. And even if I’m right, that doesn’t mean that the beverages I review here will appeal to that ONLY thing that matters in your own experience of wine: what YOU like.
Don’t believe that a wine is great just because it got a big score or your pal says it is or because Steve Body gave it 95 points…andf, for the love of God(!), never decide you like a wine just because it’s celebrated, if you tasted it and thought, “Meh“. Taste. Think. Decide for yourself. You don’t have anyone else’s brain or taste buds and they don’t have yours. The reviews here are suggestions, not guarantees. Don’t believe that you know everything there is to know about anything, even about yourself. On August 17th of 2017, I was Russian and Irish. On August 18th, I was no longer Russian and suddenly was Scandinavian and…(wince)…French. And I thought I could never give another dog the love or affection that I gave Edgar. And then some little Frenchie bulldog bastard came bouncing into my arms and let me know just what a dumb-ass I really am.
Assumptions DO make an ass of you and me. It’s funny because it’s True.