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Forty years of Spree wine journalism
By Mark Criden

wine talk
Illustration by J.P. Thimot.
Many, many brain cells have been sacrificed since that hallowed day forty years ago when the periodical you’re now holding was founded as the Buffalo Spree Wine Journal. Designed to rekindle the spirit of the Pan-American Exposition—though with far fewer pistol-toting anarchists—Spree’s initial mission was nothing less than a celebration of fine wine in the Western New York community.

Buffalo was a different—some might say “more populous”—community forty years ago, and this anniversary provides us with an excellent opportunity to engage in that highest form of discourse: the art of “Remember When?”

Your humble correspondent started as a copy boy in 1967, and I’ll never forget how, in my first day on the job, Larry Levite roared into the newsroom on his new Harley, spiking a press release on junior intern Elizabeth Licata’s desk. Elizabeth was editing Bill Altreuter’s first Gadgets column—about the corkscrew, if memory serves—by candlelight, of course, since the invention of electricity was several years off. Elizabeth set down her quill, her eyes growing wide as she scanned the text. “Copy!” she yelled.

It was easy for me to beat Ron Ehmke to her desk, given that Ehmke was still in diapers. I grabbed the press release and grinned as I read it. Burt Notarius, whose family had operated the wine pushcart at War Memorial Auditorium and Offerman Field for years, selling jars of Lafite and Mouton to thirsty Bills and Bisons fans, was opening a fine wine store on Delaware Avenue. This was exciting news, though Notarius’s new venture still lacked a name. “This is going to be the Premier wine location in Erie County,” I mused. Levite nodded, slapped me on the back and roared off to pass the comment on to Burt. The rest, I understand, is history.

Most of the early wine copy was penned under various noms de plume, given that Elizabeth, I, and most of the rest of the staff were not yet of legal drinking age and therefore had relatively inexperienced palates. You can see this innocence in our earliest reviews:

“The 1964 Chateau Latour tastes like Grape Crush and smells like Grape Fizzies and looks like Grape Jello.” (Elizabeth David aka Elizabeth Licata, “The 1964s from Medoc: A Style in Search of A Substance,” Buffalo Spree Wine Journal, October 1967.)

“I want some more of this Montrachet wine; can I take it to camp with me?” (Michael Broadbent aka Mark Criden, “Great White Burgundies,” Buffalo Spree Wine Journal, August 1967).

“Waah. Waah.” (Andre Simon aka Ron Ehmke, “A Toddler’s Take on Tuscany,” Buffalo Spree Wine Journal, November 1967.)

Early on—it was the spring of 1968, if I recall—we received a résumé from a Maryland teenager who wanted to join our wine-writing staff. His sample review, though of the 1966 Haut Brion—“tastes like poop, glop, and boogers”—convinced us that young Robert Parker was never going anywhere in the world of wine writing. It was a rare blown call through forty years of hard-hitting wine journalism.

In the early seventies, Levite decided to expand the scope of the magazine. He called the entire staff into his office, explaining that in its current format, our beloved periodical only reached a circulation of two, one of whom got his issues free, and that this was raising some long-term viability issues. These being the Days of Rage, we offered to take to the streets to insure the single-mindedness of our beloved magazine, which by then had reached iconic status as the mouthpiece of both of Buffalo’s wine lovers. In an epic battle that served as the template for this year’s Rupert Murdoch/Wall Street Journal dust-up, the forces of purity were forced to concede that revenue was, perhaps, a necessary ingredient of long-term success. Ehmke, by now fully ambulatory and fluent in Latin, could only conclude “Pecunia non olet.”

“Wine Journal” was soon dropped from the masthead, and Spree’s fortunes soared as the topic of wine connoisseurship receded as its sole focus. “Post hoc ergo propter hoc,” Emke taunted me, but I wasn’t having any of it. Despite being relegated to the food court of the great Spree Galleria, our wine desk stands at the cutting edge of oeno-journalism. For proof, just look at last year’s “No Grapes of Mass Destruction Found in Saddam’s Cellar” (Buffalo Spree, July 2006) or next year’s “Bernice Golden Predicts the 2009 Vintage” (Buffalo Spree, September, 2008).

When Elizabeth Licata eventually became editor-in-chief, she assured her wine team that, despite the broadening of the magazine’s appeal, her editors would maintain Spree’s integrity by continuing to permit its wine staff to write about almost anything that pops into its head. Given the wine staff’s diminished brain cells, that’s no small accomplishment.

Mark Criden (mcriden@yahoo.com) is a non-profit executive and the former chair of the Buffalo Branch of the International Wine & Food Society.


wine talk
Bordelais Sauced

Now that fall is nearly here, let’s stop swooning over white wine and get down to the serious business of hating Bordeaux.

Bordeaux may be the world’s greatest wine area, but these days, I can seldom stomach the outlay. Almost every year, the producers proclaim another “Vintage of the Century” and jack up their wares accordingly. Last year, with the hallowed 2005s, pricing was finally unhitched from reality. And here come the 2006s.

Following an up and down growing season, 2006 produced many very good wines, but few will approach the greatness of 2005, a year when you had to be an idiot to make bad wine. Many 2006s are, in fact, downright ordinary. If this sounds like the prescription for significant price cuts—and several importers have called for reductions of up to seventy percent—well, rotsa ruck. If the French have drunk the kool-aid, then you must, too.Whatever discounts the French have offered haven’t ignited much enthusiasm for the 2006s, and our appallingly weak dollar has further slackened demand. Flush with profits from the 2005 campaign and with much hope pinned on “emerging markets” in China, Taiwan, Korea, India, Russia and Brazil, the producers can afford to sit on stocks of unsold wine. So forget the unaffordable 2005s and 2006s for the time being, and focus on 2004, the last year in which price will bear some relation to quality. The best 2004s are delicious, even if they lack the flash and intensity of the 2005s. Here are some sure bets, and all should be under $60 per bottle, a fraction of the tab for their younger siblings:

Pauillac: Pichon Baron, Pichon Lalande, Lynch Bages, Duhart Milon, Haut Bages Liberal, Clerc Milon, Grand Puy Lacoste, Pontet Canet

St-Julien: Léoville Poyferré, Léoville Barton, Branaire Ducru, Lagrange, Langoa Barton

Margaux: Lascombes, Malescot St. Exupery, Issan, La Lagune

St-Estèphe: Lafon Rochet, Calon Segur, Montrose

Pessac Léognan: Smith Haut Lafitte, Domaine de Chevalier, Haut-Bailly

Pomerol: Ch Blason de L’Evangile, Gazin

St-Emilion: Fonbel, Faugeres, Pipeau.

—M.C.


Niagara Cool

Yes, Virginia, there is a Western New York Wine Fete. And yes, Virginia did quite well.

A couple dozen intrepid wine lovers gathered near Tonawanda Creek this summer for the annual NiagaraCool Picnic and wine tasting. Organized by local grilleur and home winemaker extraordinaire Howie Hart, wine lovers from all over the Eastern U.S. and Canada sample Howe’s wonderful cuisine and compare bottles. This year’s tasting, organized by Ed Draves of Prestige Wine and Spirits, featured Cabernet Franc.

Normally accorded second billing to its more beautiful sister, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc can—in the right hands and the right place—produce wonderful bottles. Outside of Bordeaux, where it rarely has a featured role, Cab Franc flourishes in the Loire Valley communes of Bourgeuil and Chinon. Not surprisingly, the stars of NiagaraCool were the 1996 La Croix Boissée and the astonishingly youthful 1986 Joguet Clos de la Diotiere both from Chinon. Chinon also strutted its stuff with the 2005 Baudry “Les Granges,” and J. M. Raffault 2005 “Les Galuches,” and neighboring Bourgueil was happily represented by the 2002 Breton “Les Galichets.”

The surprise wine of the night, though, was the 2004 Barboursville Vineyards Cabernet Franc Reserve from Virginia, a lean, but dense, delicious wine for food. New York and Ontario’s entries were decidedly back in the pack, although organizer Howie Hart’s homemade 2005 Hart’s Wine Cellars Cabernet Franc was a fine entry, giving no ground to other, more famous commercial names from the Finger Lakes and southern Ontario. Get yourself on the mailing list for next year by contacting Howie by email at howiehart@juno.com.

—M.C.


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