Sips & Snipes

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The New York Sun

The British wine writer Hugh Johnson, in town to promote his recently published memoir, “A Life Uncorked” (California, 384 pages, $34.95), took a cell phone call as we sat in an Upper East Side coffee shop. “Why, that’s wonderful,” he said, beaming. “Yes, the whole family will come.”

The call concluded, Mr. Johnson explained that he’d just learned that a statue of none other than himself would be dedicated in early June in the remote Hungarian village of Mad. That was where, in 1989, he had co-founded the Royal Hungarian Tokaji Company, which has helped to revive the fortunes of the long revered sweet wine Tokay, whose quality had slipped under the long reign of communism.

“A statue,” mused Mr. Johnson. “It’s a pretty astonishing thing to happen to a hack.”


Well, not quite a hack. Mr. Johnson, now 66, is a shoo-in as our finest all-around wine writer, connecting life to what’s in the glass with erudition and a light touch. You needn’t care a fig about wine to get pleasure from reading Mr. Johnson. And, in my opinion, never more so than in this easy stride of a memoir.

Unlike the previous generation of gentlemanly British wine scribes like Harry Waugh, who nattered on harmlessly, Mr. Johnson occasionally comes out punching. In “A Life Uncorked,” his particular target is Robert Parker, whose wine ratings, in his “The Wine Advocate” can raise up a wine – and its maker’s income – or cast it down. “Imperial hegemony lives in Washington and the dictator of taste lives in Baltimore,” is how Mr. Johnson sums it up, taking swipes at both president and wine critic. He has special scorn for Mr. Parker’s 100-point rating system, writing, “It didn’t dawn on me that so many people would want to buy their critical opinions ready-to-wear.”

When I suggested Mr. Johnson had “sniped” at Mr. Parker, the author, in a tweedy sports jacket, blue jeans, and desert boots, looked surprised. “I didn’t snipe at him,” he said.


Yet, between bites of fruit salad, he was soon jabbing at “the dictator’s” method of rapid-fire tasting and score-assigning. “He’s tasting in a hell of a hurry,” Mr. Johnson said. “I could never rate wines that way. I need to drink a wine through a meal, not just taste it and spit.”

And he gleefully revisited a spat between Mr. Parker and British critic Jancis Robinson over Chateau Pavie 2003, an ultra-pricy St. Emilion. The wine sweeps aside classic Bordeaux reticence with oodles of ripe, ultra-oaked, New World flavor. Mr. Parker adored the wine, having given it 96-100 points. Ms. Robinson called it “a ridiculous wine.”

“Jancis said of that Pavie, ‘Really!'” Mr. Johnson said, uncurling the word with full British disdain.


In his book, Mr. Johnson takes a withering view of the “blockbuster” wines that “Robert Parker seems to look for.” They are “rich, sweet, jammy, and thick. … The alchemy of oak seems to clog the wine’s pores, glaze it like gesso on a picture frame. It has the same effect on my palate; the electrical impulses can reach the soft flesh at the back of the mouth but not penetrate the soft coating that seems to flow in with the wine and cling like petals to a pavement – or Teflon to a pan.”

Chances are, when Mr. Johnson’s statue is unveiled next month in Hungary, the guest list will not include Mr. Parker – not that he’d want to come.

KIWI STANDOUTS The New Zealand Wine Fair came to the Puck Building earlier this month, demonstrating once again that for vivid fruit flavors and ease of quaffing, Kiwi wines are in a category of their own.

Well, they didn’t all come to town. An elite group of New Zealand wineries, calling itself the Twelve, has separated itself from the main body of Kiwi winemakers. Perhaps they will show their wares later in the year. In the meantime, there was no lack of quality wine being poured by the Kiwi wine brigade, but not many could be called distinctive. The pair of Pinot Noirs below, one with deep roots on the North Island, the other a newcomer on the South Island but with a long history in faraway Sancerre, stood out:

Te Kairanga “Runholder” Pinot Noir 2004, Martinborough This winery’s Maori name means “where the land is rich and the food plentiful.” The wine matches the name. Unusally dark in color for pinot noir, it has plummy aromas complicated by a leathery note. Deep, dark, and chewy in the mouth, it is exceptionally concentrated and echoes long after it’s gone. It should be available soon from at about $40.

Close Henri Pinot Noir 2005, Marlborough Unlike the Runholder, this wine is on the light and soft side. But a couple of seconds after it was in my mouth, it surprised me with a kick of black cherry intensity. It did it again upon a second taste, reminding me that a wine that finishes with a flourish is preferable to one that starts with a flourish but doesn’t follow through. This is the third vintage at Clos Henri, the New Zealand outpost of Domaine Henri Bourgeois in Sancerre. Arnaud Bourgeois, 10th generation of the family, told me that the firm went to New Zealand “to renew our creative energies.” And the wine seems to show it. Soon to be available at Morrell at about $28.

BRUNELLO BRIEFING Vintage 2001 Brunello di Montalcino is reputed to be splendid almost across the board. Find out for yourself at Zachys in Scarsdale next Saturday from noon to 4 p.m., when a range of top Brunellos will be poured at a free tasting, including examples from La Poderina, Argiano, Tenuta Oliveto, and Il Palazzone.

The New York Sun

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