beer_taps2Those that have been watching the growth of the craft beer/microbrewery movement this last decade with a diligent eye know that Big Brewing has done its best to steal back at least a portion of what it’s lost to the little guys—mostly by screwing with the less-than-diligent consumer. The A-B family of brands now includes lines like Green Valley Brewing Company (the name Anheuser-Bush makes no appearance on those bottle labels), Stella Artois and Kirin Ichiban (no, Kirin is not an import if you are American), as well as having their hands stuck in the cookie jars of Red Hook Brewing, Goose Island Brewery and Alexander Keith’s “Nova Scotia Style”. 

With about 3000 breweries in the US now producing tens of thousands of beers, fighting successfully for tap space in bars is about as easy as luring an order of nuns into a gang bang. Of course, there will always be bars that prefer stocking the piss-water that non-demanding customers can chug on the cheap. The places where Shock Top and Blue Moon are viewed as craft offerings. The places where the beer is served ice cold so you can’t tell how shitty it actually tastes. The places where, if forced to patronize, I order a bourbon. And while we’d like to believe that other, more discriminating “craft beer bars” opt for local, seasonal and small-scale brews whenever possible, the reality isn’t always as romantic as the fairytale. 

A couple of weeks ago Dann Paquette, co-founder and brewer for Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project in Massachusetts, became a Tweeting whistleblower. Under the brewery’s handle, Paquette pulled the wizard’s curtain back and told Twitterville that Boston is a “pay to play town and we’re often shut out for draft lines along with many beers you may love.” Much like the payola that ruled our radio airwaves in the 50s, Paquette called out the industry for some very illegal “pay to play” hustling—breweries and distributors bribing bars to stock their beers and squeeze out the competition. Paquette railed, “Since I’ve started as a brewer in 1992 it has been a given in Boston that beer lines were for sale.” It certainly isn’t new, and it certainly doesn’t end in Beantown. In 2010, a Crain’s investigation found that a trendy Chicago hotel bar had been taking payouts and other bribes from a powerful MillerCoors distributor. Deb Carey of New Glarus Brewing went so far as to call the city of Chicago “a whores’ market,” noting, “Everyone has a hand out and everyone wants some cash, (free) beer or a discount.”

And sometimes it isn’t cash, but merchandise, that entices a pub. Glassware, grills, coasters, signage, tickets to next week’s big game, etc. that boxes out the small brewery. The pathetic truth, however, is that what was regarded as illegal and reprehensible in the industry back in the 70s is now a fucking business model. The laws may remain in place to “protect free trade” but feds are busy fighting much larger crimes…like keeping absinthe out of US consumers’ hands for nearly a century. And lest you look at Paquette as a whiner who didn’t get his beer on someone’s tap and decided to point tantrum-aimed fingers at innocents that simply didn’t like his beer, others like Greg Koch of Stone Brewing Company have been fighting the same bullshit: “We were supposed to have our event there [undisclosed locale in Chicago] and at the last minute they said, here’s what you need to do. You need to give us X, Y and Z free and discounted in order to come here. Not only were we not able to comply because that’s against our standards (and against IL law, which we respect and follow), we were kicked out of their bar altogether, off all their taps.”

blackflag_640Put aside the fact that it’s illegal (particularly since I know that none of my readership is beyond fracturing a law or two). Even if microbreweries were willing to throw legality and morality aside to gain access to a handle, they simply can’t afford to out-spend Big Brewing, so they continue to be what punk and heavy metal have always been to mainstream music—a craft seldom appreciated by the lulled, complacent masses who just want some background noise, be it in their ears or on their palate. Do your beer-drinking soul a favor and simply stop giving your business to bars that serve swill. Buy a six pack or two of some local quality suds, take them home, crack one open, put on some Black Flag and raise a middle finger in the general direction of St. Louis, MO.

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628x471I’ve just had the pleasure of spending the last couple of weeks with Randall Grahm. Nobody knew. In fact, Randall didn’t even know. Hell, if I’m being honest, I didn’t know until I had drained the last bottle. Though this could quite possibly be the post that finally lands me a one-way cab ride to Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital1, the two weeks were spent not physically with him but mentally…or maybe spiritually. I haven’t got it all figured out yet, so humor me. I know this will go somewhere. It always does.

Because I often write about wine, I feel compelled to jot down tasting notes, but it is the single most disjointing thing you can do while tasting a wine. It’s no doubt the reason that my tasting notes are as brief as my discourses are long. How many times can I tell you about the aromas of pineapple or the lingering hints of wet stone? How many clever ways can I find to describe the body of a wine, and how many of them wind up sounding overtly sexual?2 It’s simply not intrinsic. I don’t want to think about wine, I want to experience it. Tasting notes fuck with my mojo. Interestingly enough, however, the opposite isn’t at all an issue—drinking wine while writing doesn’t hinder the experience at all. But how else am I to tell my readers what I thought of the wine? How do I get you to run out and buy it (without bothering to heed your local traffic laws) or to avoid it at all costs? And why the hell should you listen to me, anyway? It’s far easier for me to express how a wine tastes on Chateau Petrogasm than it is here.

So when I found myself with a case of Bonny Doon wines staring me down in my dimly lit kitchen, I kinda freaked out. On the one hand, I was thrilled…blessed that I had all this glorious wine to taste through. On the other hand, I was nervous. I didn’t want to do them a disservice by whittling their existence down to a bunch of irrelevant tasting notes. And on the other hand (I am an incarnation of Vishnu and have more than two hands3) I was confused because I was only expecting 6 bottles for review. But I’m not one to question such matters. They are better left in the realm of other unanswerable questions, like does anybody really know what time it is4? I took it as an invitation to spend time with Randall Grahm, and I RSVPed immediately with my waiter’s corkscrew. OK, OK, I lie. They were all screw-capped bottles, but Hunter Thompson taught me that I should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

I’ve written about Randall many times before. Reviewed his wines many times before. Lauded him many times before. So I didn’t wanna short change him. He’s a winemaker that cuts open a vein with each wine he bottles, saying, “Here, this is who I am. Love it or leave it. I don’t give a shit.” And in a saturated market, where eye-catching labels, point-bragging shelf talkers and critic-pleasing whores mud wrestle for consumer dollars, that’s a brave stance. Bravery isn’t always repaid with victory, mind you, but in Randall’s case I believe it is—because his wines are great. Wait. Rewind. They are honest and they are great. How do you take tasting notes about liquid in a bottle that is more or less the equivalent of a man willing to pose naked for a sketching class? I’ll tell you how. You don’t. You open each bottle, pour yourself a glass or two (or three), have something to eat, and talk to yourself like no one’s watching. You don’t write, you listen.

I managed, at some point during those 2 weeks, to type out a Facebook “review” of the 2013 Clos de Gilroy that ran about as long as a Twitter post: “Can’t find a single flaw with 2013 Gilroy. It is mother earth in a 750mL vessel.” At another point, I managed a second Facebook review of the 2012 Contra where I was temporarily blessed with a little more eloquence: “2012 Contra is everything it should be and nothing it shouldn’t be. It is the Pathos, not the Ethos. It is a middle finger waved flagrantly at enological conformity, and a peace sign held lovingly at gonzo gastronomy. It is a marriage of fruit and earth that lives as every other marriage does…in a perpetual state of contradiction.” And at yet another point, a friend wanting to thank me for a favor asked what wine they could buy me, and I responded with a link to that amazing 2012 Contra (I keep hoping one day it will be 100% carignan.5  We can all dream, after all).

And there were multiple moments when I tried to take tasting notes. I swear. I really did. But they were more like stammering. Cigare Blanc 2011 – peach/apricot nose. Lithe and chewy at same time. Lime on finish. Syrah6 – just sticking nose in glass was an experience. Like drinking a seared steak au poivre. 2013 Albariño – super citrus. With fish. Best not very cold. Cigare ‘10 – Needed no time to open up, but the 09 did. Many more berries. Yet nose defies the fruit-forward taste, with lots of earthy notes and licorice. See where I’m going here people? I’m going nowhere and I’m going everywhere, all at once. Enological ADD because at the end of the day I just wanted to let the wine speak to me and you can’t do that when you’re talking.7

Randall’s wines will vary from vintage to vintage. He makes no promises about consistency, though he will do his best to maintain some sort of contract with the consumer about the overall personality of the wine. These aren’t his words, they are mine, so I may be wrong. But I never am. Consistency is a magic trick when you deal with that which is organic—that which is nature. If a consumer wants and expects the same exact taste out of every bottle he/she opens, wizardry is required in order to meet that expectation because the world we live in is fickle and doesn’t give a crap about expectations. Those who live on the world rather than in it will never understand that, and those are the ones who demand that unrealistic consistency that winemakers often find themselves struggling to achieve in the name of the ailing dollar bill. We must be careful what curtains we pull back.8

Bonny Doon wines continue to speak to me because they have no curtain and they have no wizard. They only have a guy who decided to make wine on his terms instead of the market’s terms. They, like we, vary from year to year. And if what I was taught to believe is true, that no man ever steps in the same river twice9, then that should suffice for honest wine.

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1Originally opened on August 17, 1876, the hospital was known as the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum at Morristown.

2Exactly 100% of my tasting notes about a wine’s body sound overtly sexual.

3Vishnu (Viṣṇu) is the Supreme God of Vaishnavism, one of the three main sects of Hinduism. In Hindu sacred texts, Vishnu is usually described as having the divine pale blue color of water-filled clouds and as having four arms.

4Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is is a song recorded in 1969 by the band The Chicago Transit Authority (later shortened to “Chicago”) on their eponymous debut album The Chicago Transit Authority.

5Carignan grapes are most often used in blends rather than being made in a varietal form because of their inherent rusticity. They have a penchant for being high in acidity, tannins and astringency, making it difficult to produce an “elegant” wine solely with them. I personally adore the idea of a difficult grape and would love to see a winemaker tackle a wine that is 100% carignan, but as they say, hope in one hand and shit in the other and see which one fills up faster.

6More specifically, I was taking notes on the 2012 Syrah “Le Pousseur”.

7Technically, I mean writing. But writing is a silent form of talking.

8Reference: The Wizard of Oz, c. 1939, MGM, starring Judy Garland.

9Quote by Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “No man steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

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WORDLESS WEDNESDAY: “Every picture tells a story, don’t it…”

by Katie Pizzuto May 7, 2014
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“I don’t give a damn ’bout my reputation, I’ve never been afraid of any deviation…”

by Katie Pizzuto April 24, 2014
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Making a wine with native yeast (instead of commercial yeast) fermentation takes a brass set of balls. Well, either that or a little madness. But I’ve always felt that a little madness keeps the big madness away…and it also keeps you on your toes. It’s one part speculation, one part faith, and two parts beer […]

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“Owww we want the funk, give up the funk…”

by Katie Pizzuto February 27, 2014
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Brooklyn Brewery makes me wish I lived in Brooklyn, and other than my friend Joe Carroll’s trio of gastro-bliss joints (Spuyten Duyvil, Fette Sau and St. Anselm) I didn’t really think anything could make me want to live in Brooklyn—I heard a tree grows there, but it continues to elude me. Every beer they’ve ever […]

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“That lady’s stacked, and that’s a fact, ain’t holding nothing back…”

by Katie Pizzuto February 1, 2014
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You have to admire a man in his 30s who shows up to his winemaker’s dinner in suspenders and wool slacks. Don’t ask my why— I don’t make the rules—but it’s really damned cool. Add to that a mop of untamable wavy hair and an attitude towards the American cork-dork blogosphere that clearly has yet […]

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WORDLESS WEDNESDAY: “Cause I’m just a girl, little ol’ me, don’t let me out of your sight…”

by Katie Pizzuto January 22, 2014
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“Christmas Eve will find me where the lovelight gleams…”

by Katie Pizzuto December 25, 2013
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Roasting a pig, for many, is much more than cooking–it is ceremony as sacred as any religious rite divined by man. I mean, sure, I guess the overwhelming majority of religious rites don’t include copious amounts of rum, domino matches and tall tales of the old country, but you know what they say…one man’s swine […]

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“You didn’t have to love me like you did, but you did, but you did, and I thank you…”

by Katie Pizzuto December 1, 2013
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I’m not usually one to capitulate to the whole “better late than never” excuse, but I figure if I combine this belated “giving thanks” post with an early, end-of-the-year “top 3″ list post, it’ll be a wash—like 3 Hail Maries for stealing a candy bar. This year found me extraordinarily reflective, which is certainly nothing […]

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“There is trouble with the trees…”

by Katie Pizzuto October 27, 2013
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The Brothers Grimm were storytellers that rivaled my beloved Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft at times, despite the fact that their fables were often sanitized and diluted for the masses. Their disturbing scenes of violence served as warnings and moral lessons for children, but their public and literary reception wasn’t always a warm one. […]

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