Critic's Context

Have you ever been to a museum and looked at a "masterpiece" of painting, only to think to yourself: I don't see what the fuss is all about.

Sometimes we need context to understand greatness, so if you don't spend all of your free time studying art history then you might not get exactly why a certain painting is considered "great." There are those who find Jackson Pollock's drippings ridiculous and others who are baffled by Kandinsky's abstract genius. However, if you don't understand composition theory and the symmetry of beauty, it might be difficult to weigh in on these debates. Any masterpiece must be defined by context, but if you don't understand the origins of a genre, it's difficult to appreciate the impact of innovation.

When you see a film labeled as a "critic's choice" you might think to yourself: this is what the experts like, so I should like it, too. However, what you have to remember is that people who work in the field get bored when subjected to the same thing over and over again. Therefore, critics tend to appreciate individuality and diversity over implicit quality, simply because they're begging for something new. The same phenomena happens in the wine and spirits world. When you see "staff picks" at K&L they're generally the result of my co-workers getting excited about geeky, out-of-the-ordinary products that represent something fresh and exciting. Therefore, those looking simply for delicious California cabernet might be let down if they follow us down this path (of course, the cynic's response to this would be: you just like it because it's different, not because it's good!)

Context is definitely required if you're going to understand why we're all very excited about two $70 half-bottles of grappa that we recently secured from Sicily. Even though they're of stunning quality, I don't think the pureness of these spirits alone is going to help you understand why we love them. Frank Cornelissen is like the Jackson Pollock of the wine world. He's a guy making crazy, intense, all-natural wines on the slopes of Mount Etna that challenge the idea of what we think wine should be. Some people think his wines are incredible, while others find them undrinkable. I could explain more about who Frank is and what he does, but the Wine Spectator's Matt Kramer did it five years ago when he visited the winery and he's done a far better job than what I would be capable of.

The short version is this: Frank Cornelissen makes the type of wine that people who drink wine for a living get excited about because it's so different than what we usually get to try. However, if someone looking for a nice, drinkable bottle of Italian red came in and asked me for a recommendation, I would never in a million years give them a bottle of Cornelissen wine because I know they would hate it. That's a strong endorsement, eh? It's not always easy to explain this concept, but that's the best way I can put it. I like it, but I can understand why most people wouldn't. 

So when I found out that Frank was making grappa and that my buddy Nic Palazzi managed to bring two of those selections into the U.S., I was all over them. We could only get twelve bottles of each expression, but a case of each should be more than enough.

Frank Cornelissen Munjebel Rosso Grappa 375ml $69.99 - All of the classic grappa flavors are here in this esoteric expression from Frank Cornelissen: the petrol kick of the distilled pomace and the fiery goodness that the spirit is known for. However, there's a lovely hint of fruit and violets on the palate that goes far beyond what most grappas offer. The finish is mineral and clean with an earthy overtone that one finds threading through Cornelissen's wines as well. It's not for everyone, and not everyone will understand what makes it special, but those who do will revel in it. The Munjebel Rosso grappa is distilled from 100% nerello mascalese.

Frank Cornelissen Rosso Del Contadino Grappa 375ml $69.99 - Distilled from 80% nerello mascalese with the remaining 20% a blend of allicante bouschet, nerello capuccio, uva francese, minella nera, minella bianco, and inzolia. That extra 20% gives the grappa a more floral, perfumy, and spice-driven character than the other Cornelissen grappa: the Munjebel. It's more delicate, feminine in style, and easy to like. Truly appreciating the grappa requires an understanding of what Frank Cornelissen is about, his committment to natural winemaking and his disavowal of anything chemical. That pureness defines his philosophy and his spirits.

-David Driscoll



Sometimes it's better to let generalizations about life slide than to challenge them and argue their validity. How many times have you heard someone say, "She's so smart; she went to Stanford" or something like, "I love drinking Dom Perignon because I enjoy drinking the best." When people draw questionable conclusions like that they're usually reassuring themselves, rather than trying to convince you of anything.

It's comfortable living in a world built on logicism. Life seems more manageable when you know for certain that:

90 points = good wine. 95 points = better wine.

$75,000 a year salary = successful. $200,000 a year = really successful.

UC Davis degree = smart. Harvard degree = really smart.

You get the picture.

But most of us understand that these generalizations aren't so much based on general truths as they are on our ideas of what we wish were true. We want to believe in them because, if or when we achieve them, we can feel good about ourselves -- and about the quality of our lives. If you take that security blanket away from someone it can be quite a messy experience.

I've noticed lately that explaining to whisky newcomers the vast scope of what's possible in the industry can result in one of two reactions: utter awe and excitement for what's possible, or fear, anxiety, and dread for the uncertain. It's a lot like life itself. A large number of people looking for help with wine or spirits do not want to move outside of these generalizations because it's too much to think about. Drinking shouldn't be that complicated, in their minds (and it shouldn't!), but that doesn't mean they don't want to drink good stuff, either. That's where big brands can offer their bit of comfort. Drinking good whisky is easier when Macallan 18 and Johnnie Walker Blue are the best, just like it's easier to feel secure about your experience when you subscribe to a similar set of mathematical logicisms:

$40 = good whisky. $200 = really good whisky.

12 years old = good whisky. 18 years old = really good whisky.

And so on.

But I'll be damned if I'm going to take that security away from anyone. The philosophical opposite of logicism is intuitionism: a school of thought that believes all these mathematic conclusions are just creations of the human mind, rather than founded on reality. I'm not sure I'd go that route either. When it comes to whisky, and even life in general, I listen to Ferris Bueller, who once said:

I don't condone fascism, or any -ism for that matter. -Isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.

If you're looking for comfort, validity, and authenticity with your drinking experience, it begins with you.

-David Driscoll


A Few Reads

Spring weather is gracing us with its presence here in Northern California. The temperatures are up, the night air is electric, and people are beginning to ask for refreshing cocktails like a Daiquiri or Margarita. There's just one problem: we can't get any limes. Scratch that. I mean we can't get any limes that don't require one to squeeze profusely just to secure a few precious drops of bitter, tart, and overly-acidic liquid.

What's going on? Read this here. It's going to be a long summer if I have to use lemons for lime-based drinks. I had dinner tonight at my local Mexican hangout -- El Sinaloense -- and they were definitely feeling the pinch. What a bummer.

For those of you lamenting the decline of some of your favorite whisk(e)y brands, I suggest you read Steve Hyden's piece about the Pixies -- one of best rock bands of all time that just put out their first album since 1991. Steve is one of many people (myself included) who is scratching his head about the quality of the music. However, he correctly points out that our expectations are to blame, not the Pixies themselves. There are a lot of whisk(e)y similarities.

-David Driscoll


Leviathan III Arrives

While Bryan Davis's famous wooden pot still is a thing of the past (he had to destroy it after a chlorine leak infected the entire thing with TCA -- the same thing that taints the cork in a bottle of wine), some of the whiskey still lives on in the cask. Bryan just dropped off the third batch of his wonderful Leviathan. Grab it while it's hot!

Lost Spirits Distillery Leviathan III Single Malt Whiskey $54.99 - Can you believe we're already on batch three of the Leviathan series? Made from 100% California barley and peated with 100% Canadian peat, the Leviathan whiskies from Bryan Davis represent his most mainstream work to date. Heaps of smoke and vegetal earth power this bold and brash Pacific Coast single malt. The peat dominates the nose, but the green-planted goodness overwhelms the finish with hints of salt and phenolic action. I think I taste fresh-picked carrots after a few minutes of letting the flavors develop. WARNING: the Lost Spirits whiskies are not for the unadventurous. These are wildly savage single malts with assertive and challenging profiles!

-David Driscoll


It's All About ME!

A few days ago my pal SKU, knowing my penchant for hating on internet comment boards, sent me the funniest link I've seen in ages. NPR, a wonderful news outlet that attracts some of the most pedantic people, pulled a fast one on its "readers" -- check that out here before reading further.

I understand that not everyone who comments on the internet is a self-righteous, sanctimonious, attention-needing know-it-all. However, this little joke really shows you quite clearly where some of National Public Radio's "readers" are focused: INWARD. It takes a certain type of solipsism to read a headline, completely ignore the article and the perspective of the person writing it, and get right to typing about one's own opinion. But that's exactly what hundreds of "readers" did on NPR last week. And, man, it took some serious guts on NPR's part to punk their own audience in such an embarrassing and revealing way.

And it's probably a bad idea that SKU sent me this link because it only reinforces what I already thought was the case: a large percentage of internet users see comment fields not as a tool to discuss the topic at hand, but rather as a way to talk about themselves; the comment field is simply the vehicle for the id. But SKU also wrote something very funny himself the other day, when he posted:

If you post something with a technical error on a whiskey forum, it takes an average of .48 seconds for someone to post a correction, and the average number of posts that will then repeat that same correction is 37.

Much like comments have little to do with discussion, people who correct the mistakes of others online usually have little interest in correctness; the correction is simply the vehicle for showing you what they know. They can't just go around talking about how smart they are (because that would be anti-social behavior), but spotting a mistake gives them the justification to do so. Of course, there's no difference in the way those corrections are received (we all still find it annoying), but it allows the corrector to claim he's doing it for the public good, rather than his own sense of self-aggrandisement.

As I watched Wrestlemania last night, I had to take a deep-breath and not let some of this behavior get to me. There are more people holding signs than ever at WWE events and those signs have nothing to do with wrestling. They promote the people in the audience or their websites (and they block the views of the fans behind them who actually came to watch the show). It's no different than hijacking a comment field to direct readers to your own domain, except that in this case it's ruining the experience of everyone forced to sit near these people. But, who cares if you can't see? Who cares what you think? This is about ME!

If there's a way to interject yourself into something, you can bet that someone out there is going to figure out how to do it. There will always be people who wait to talk, rather than listen. There will always be people who skip to the bottom, rather than read the details. There will always be people who need approval, recognition, and acknowledgement, yet do not understand the proper way of going about getting it (FYI, there is no proper way of getting approval, recognition, or acknowledgement -- if you have to tell someone you're funny, or smart, or good at something, well....).

I just wonder if these people know what we're really thinking. Of course, that would require them to think about something besides themselves.

-David Driscoll