Monday, November 15, 2010

What bothers you about wine? Hard-hitting question from an NFL veteran

One of Buddy Ryan's hitmen tackled me with the toughest question I've faced in wine this year.

Terry Hoage played defensive back in the NFL for 13 seasons; now he's a farmer and winemaker in Paso Robles. He played for Ryan, known for his ultra-aggressive defenses, on three different teams: the Philadelphia Eagles (1986-90), Houston Oilers (1993) and Arizona Cardinals (1994-95).

Hoage played for other coaches too, but he never stops talking about Ryan, whose goal was to hurt and terrify the opposition. He even named his top-end $50 Rhone blend wine, "The 46," after Ryan's defensive scheme.

"It was fun to see the fear in the quarterback's face," said Hoage, who recalled that for one particular game, his orders were on the first five plays, no matter where the ball went, to hit wide receiver Michael Irvin as hard as he possibly could. "He didn't show up the rest of the game," Hoage said.

Sitting next to Hoage, even in a nice restaurant, is also facing a blitz. He wears grubby clothes from harvest and won't take polite demurrals for an answer (you may not believe this from reading my blog, but I'm usually reasonably good at politely dodging direct questions.)

I was yakking about the natural wine movement, which hasn't made a lot of headway in Paso Robles. I don't remember what I was saying people should try -- biodynamic farming, dry farming, wild yeast; it doesn't really matter.

Hoage's question was this:

"If you like a wine, is there anything you could learn about it that would make you not like it anymore?"

Hoage asked me this question more than a month ago, and I still don't have a great answer. But it's a fantastic question.

There are heavy implications for what I've come to call "alternative wine writers" -- my vine-hugging colleagues at Palate Press, passionate wine bloggers like Dr. Vino and the guys at New York Cork Report, et al. I'll get to those in a moment.

First, I owe Terry an answer; I don't want him to show up in San Francisco and body slam me. So here goes:

If I like a wine already, I guess I don't care what was done to it in the winery. Gulp.

That means that if the wine tastes good -- keeping in mind that my "tastes good" isn't the same as Jay Miller's -- and I later find out it was treated with oak chips, reverse osmosis, fining with fish bladders, or even (sigh) blending with unlisted varietals (hello, Pinot/Syrah), I forfeit my right to complain once I give it the thumbs-up.

I might not buy such a wine, if I know that stuff beforehand. But once it's in my glass, and I like it, I'm not going to unlike it. That would be hypocritical.

Partly this comes from spending nearly 10 years of my life in Asia, where you come to expect the question, "Do you know what it is that you're eating?" This is how I discovered, for example, that dog tastes better than cat. I'm sorry for the doggy I had in stew, and I won't knowingly order it, but I'm not going to disgrace its memory by retracting my initial verdict that it was tasty.

However, there is a whole category of stuff I could learn about a wine that would make me unlike it, and all of it has to do not with winemaking, but with farming.

If I learned a wine was made from vineyards heavily sprayed with herbicides and/or pesticides, I would unlike it. That's the biggest one. There are a few others.

If I learned the winery washed its chemical waste into a river, I would unlike it. If the winery abused its grape pickers, I would unlike it. (This could also apply in a winery but cases are rare.)

If a proprietor bulldozed pristine forest land to plant the vineyard, I might unlike it, depending on the story. And I confess, I'm enough of a wine geek that if I learned the winery grafted over 100-year-old vines of some native variety to, say, Chardonnay, I might just unlike it.

Now here's the heavy implication. Writing about wine, I want as much accurate information as possible. But what if there's a story like this? The winery would be better off not telling me.

Now about my fellow alternative wine writers: I'm now on the record that if I like a wine, I'm not going to go negative because I learn it was made with oak chips. But I know several wine writers who decry technical shortcuts like this. So what would you do if you first liked the wine, then found out that's how it was made? You're a hypocrite one way or the other: either you forswear your palate, or your beliefs.

I told you it was a tough question. Terry Hoage still hits hard.

Which reminds me: How was his wine?

Terry Hoage Vineyards "The 46" Paso Robles 2007 ($50) is a 50-50 blend of Grenache and Syrah that's so ripe that it smells sweet, although it doesn't taste it. It's a straightforward palate blitz of ripe black plum very much in the New World style, but it's also eminently drinkable.

"We want our wines to be fruit-forward," Hoage said. "I don't see the point of making a wine that doesn't taste like it was made from grapes."

So how did a defensive back become a winemaker? Hoage has a degree in genetics from University of Georgia, so he's no tackling dummy. He and his wife Jennifer, a New Orleans native, weren't looking to get into the wine industry at all; they just wanted a farm community where they could raise their kids, but both had spent enough time in cities that they wanted nearby urban pleasures like good restaurants.

Hoage played for the 49ers in 1993 and liked California, but didn't see himself in Napa or Sonoma. One day he was driving through Paso on his way someplace else; he stopped for lunch, and liked the feel. Soon he was asking around about property, and found a spread that included 5 acres of Syrah that had been planted for John Alban.

Paso is still a small enough community that Hoage already had friends; one was Saxum's Justin Smith, who promised to mentor Hoage in winemaking if he bought the property.

Shortly after buying it, Hoage was offered a coaching job in Tennessee by Jeff Fisher, who had recently become head coach of the Tennessee Titans. "Football is transient," Hoage said, not wanting to follow Fisher around the country from job to job as he had Ryan when he was playing.

Ironically, Fisher is now in his 16th season in Tennessee, and the coach who accepted the position Hoage turned down is now defensive coordinator. And Hoage is out working in the fields, stopping occasionally to pose tough questions for wine writers. I hope he's loving it; he seems like he is.

I also hope I answered him sufficiently, because if not, I guess I better start running now.


  1. Regarding liking / unliking: This is a very fair question. I'm not sure I can give a better answer than the one you gave, Blake. When we're talking about something visceral like whether we enjoy the drink itself, I agree that it's rather simple. The question becomes more complicated when the intellectual part of wine comes into view.

    You write about changing your mind after hearing about bad practices. I agree with your take, but I think we can carefully tread beyond those scenarios when it comes to "unliking" a wine. There are myriad details making up the story of a wine - who makes it, why they do what they do, etc. Each individual story will move me in a different way. Additionally, I might hedonistically like a wine, but if I find out that big juicy Cab is actually a super-extracted Pinot - I know, it's a stretch! - I'll almost certainly be disappointed.

    But that doesn't mean I won't like its taste or find it pleasurable. It just means that wine is more than a hedonistic drink; it can occasionally challenge us to think and to recall past experience, and I'm comfortable with those factors influencing my feelings about it.

  2. You know something, Evan? Reading this post again, after your comment, raised a question for me that you also might have faced:

    What do you do when you realize your blog post has great information but is badly written?

    Problem is, I have two good posts here that go together like chocolate and broccoli. Hoage's question is great; the info about him is interesting. As a writer, I mucked this one up by not choosing and throwing it all out there in a meandering brain dump.

    So what to do? Take it down? Repost? Move on? I'm thinking the last one.

  3. Blake,

    I'm really more fearful of what is done in the winery than I am in what is done in the vineyard. I'm a recent convert in this area, btw. This is something most wineries would rather not have to answer. Better to pin things on the farmer, right?

    Certainly, I am not implying that we should spray the hell out of our vineyards, but the residual impact of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, in wine is far less than the enzymes, commercial yeasts, coloring agents, use of Velcorin (look into that one), etc, etc, etc, that are added in the winery. Not to mention the misuse of sulfer on the crush pad, during fermentation, and before bottling. What affect do these things have on our health? We simply do not know. I know how my palate feels about these wines and as you drink more and more it becomes very easy to taste the difference.

    We should be asking the tough questions during the whole process of grape to glass.

    What is the point (as far as wine quality goes) to growing organic/biodynamic fruit, if you are going to ruin it by using additives?

    I will happily answer Mr. Hoage's question:

    Yes, I would make better purchasing decisions next time I'm confronted with the same wine. There are thousands of wines out there, I'm sure I'll like something that isn't wood chipped, RO'd, or MegaPurpled.

  4. First off, I remember that guy on the Birds!!! You can tell him congrats on last night's epic thrashing of the Redskins!

    As far as his awesome wine question, it reminds me of what I tell my friends who smoke pot that they buy, rather than grow themselves:

    "Would it make you feel better or worse knowing how that stuff got to you?"

    Because almost certainly, someone was murdered in connection to the growing, cultivating, processing and trafficking of that pot to their "doorstep."

    This is the "blood diamond argument" and that kind of thing would make me enjoy any wine a hell of a lot less (as in, never again)!

  5. Leave this one up and rewrite it, sounds fun to me.

  6. All right, Jo, I'm doing it. Hopefully others can learn from my mistake.

  7. I love and agree with this comment by Terry Hoage: "I don't see the point of making a wine that doesn't taste like it was made from grapes."
    (Not dirt, mushrooms or forest floor!)