Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Psychology -- a toast of water -- then again ...



Doesn't this say it all? I mean the silver sticker on a bottle of a little-known (surely) champagne, Forget-Brimont, boasting 91 points from Wine Spectator.

Of course I liked the wine. So biscuity, so almost almond-like, so light and bubbly and yet with a solid little buttery core of body or mouthfeel, too. Of course it was delicious. I should hope any normal person would like good champagne -- and be appalled, like me, at people who don't. I say this, remembering the poor soul who came to buy "champagne" over the holidays "just for a toast, because nobody drinks it." Many people do buy sparkling wine just for a toast but no one else has ever clarified the matter to me to that extent. Why not, then, sir, "toast" with water? Toast: "[n. from the use of toasted spiced bread to flavor the wine, and the notion that the person honored also added flavor] 1. a person, thing, idea, etc., in honor of which a person or persons raise their glasses and drink; toast from the Middle English tosten < Old French toster, < Vulgar Latin tostare, < Latin tostus, < torrere, to parch, roast, see THIRST."  

To be fair I'm no one to talk. I mean as far as blissful ignorance is concerned. I have been in the liquor industry for almost ten years, and yet up until two nights ago was not aware, off the top of my head, that the town of Calistoga is in Napa County. I may plead mea culpa, or I may riposte that here you see it is possible to be in the industry for ten years, and be competent, and yet not have any reason to know that the town of Calistoga is in Napa. What then must I know? "Where is the moscato? It's for my mom ... I don't know anything about wine."

Me neither, much. I had to fumfer around and act humble and charming (I hope), in my ignorance, for the young couple who didn't know Calistoga either, but who bought two thousand dollars' worth of fine wine in ten minutes anyway. They went for big points, big names, and big expense. Bless their hearts they ended up choosing the Napa Valley monster cabernets that tick all three of those big boxes. If only I had had my cheater eyeglasses with me, I could have spotted the name Napa clearly placed on a label of Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill Calistoga cabernet. The wine got 100 points from Robert Parker. Incidentally I still say that gentleman has thrown out perfect ratings abundantly and meaninglessly since he retired from tasting Bordeaux in 2015.

We all, the nice young couple and I, kept squinting at the fine print of his review, on a paper "shelf talker" clipped to the shelf, to confirm we saw the word Napa. But at his level Parker is far beyond signaling something so basic given a fifty-word space. It was all cassis and graphite and sexiness. I was almost sure this must be a Napa wine, how could it not be? Only the nice young man with a young man's eyesight said the label didn't say. I thought, well it is very likely I am wrong. Until I can retrieve my glasses, I must fumfer. It might be Sonoma, it might be Paso Robles, it might be Santa Clara, Santa Rita, Santa Lucia, it might be mountains or counties or highlands or benches, or who knows how many other nomenclatures or subregions extant within the large state of California. A day or two later I had occasion to tell another customer so simple a thing as that Paso Robles is south of San Francisco. This was a fact I absolutely knew. But then I looked at a map and double checked distance, since I had a funny feeling. It turns out that Paso Robles is south of San Francisco in the same way the Mississippi River is west of Chicago. Way west -- way south.

All in all it is peculiarly satisfying to have just finished reading Kermit Lynch's Adventures on the Wine Route (1988). Here, Kermit does France. And Kermit complains, thirty years ago already, of the big-point, big-expense uniformity, plus the legal tinkering with appellation boundaries, that makes knowing wine place-names -- even in France -- more and more an academic exercise. Cote Rotie (the northern Rhone) -- or Bordeaux or so by extension even Calistoga -- what matter? The consumer wants lush, fruit-pie wines, and if, say, wines called Beaujolais (a part of Burgundy) used to be light and fizzy enough to wash down Lyons' robust tripe-and-garlic cuisine and now no longer can, well then. It is done. Already thirty years ago Beaujolais had grown "fleshy," "supple," words Kermit considers profanities. He called what consumer taste and winemaker sellouts had done to this region, rather extravagantly, "genocide." "I cannot begin to communicate how profoundly the critics' embrace of such freak wines depresses me," because the critics' embrace persuades new wine drinkers that each new bosomy style is traditional. And so that's where they spend. Ah, the critics and the points, even then. We remember also Michael Broadbent's tired dismissal of the "global red" (Vintage Wine, 2003). And yet everyone is also trying to sniff out complexity, now! Like it's there.  


So that's half the theme of the Adventures: uniformity smothering terroir. The other half is that a handful of producers were or are still doing it right, and Kermit will find them. Full circle: Kermit Lynch's name on a back label now is an indication of a palate and a badge of this-isn't-"supple"-it's-what-it-used-to-be-warning:-probably-surprisingly-thin approval, just as much as are Robert Parker's breathless "100s" on reviews clipped to the shelf beside Calistoga monsters. Broadbent has his own selections, too. 

So back to the champagne at the top of the page. We could fumfer, and ask whether it's Ay or Epernay, and what was the precise dosage. But the silver sticker is the first thing we see. Do you think someday archaeologists will dig this bottle out of the ground and wonder what the sticker meant? We know the ancient Romans liked "Falernian" but we don't know what it was. We know the still more ancient Egyptians were serious connoisseurs, but can't imagine what swill must have come out of that desert furnace climate (see Hugh Johnson's Vintage). Would someone looking at this bottle understand, oh yes, they must have had a 100-point rating system for their wines, the points allotted by respected authorities in the trade who published their scores in famed magazines. Naturally a vintner whose product received such a "score" would want to boast about it, and so the business practice developed of affixing proof of the score to the actual bottle. It helped drive sales. Curious ... the archaeologist of A.D. 4017 will cock his head to one side, as he thinks alone in a windy field. The public themselves must have had little knowledge .... 

This is why I declare that the people and the psychologies in wine are far more interesting than wine itself. Though generally it tastes very good of course. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A grand day out

To begin your day with your nice tax lady, who in twenty minutes calculates that you owe the feds $36, and that the state of Illinois, I repeat actually the state of Illinois, owes you $84, is to begin a grand day out.

(Her office is a sight. It never changes from one year to the next. Carpet unspeakable -- not necessarily dirty, just unspeakable -- then see the ancient, leather, tufted, nail-studded couch in the "marsala" shade so popular a few years ago, the same shade I daresay we all once called maroon, when the couch was made. [Maroon: from the Fr. marron, chestnut; It. marrone, the same.] Two ancient wood-veneer bureaus stand directly beside each other to your right, of what use God knows. The lady's own desk is purely office-functional, carrying a huge flatscreen computer on top. Her chair is office-functional too, some kind of black mesh or black cushion or something; there is a fancier tufted sort of red leather nail-studded armchair for the client to sit in across from her, while he peers over at the computer screen at an awkward angle. Another bureau or two, or a filing cabinet, sit cramped to one's left on the other side of the tiny room. After that the eye is drawn to a waste of decorations. We see unused photo holders, their empty twirly prongs sticking up out of odd corners next to monkey sock puppets, children's artworks and children's portraits, and piles of envelopes and papers, and the crooked matched framed photos of nice nature scenes, the beach, the woods, a meadow, slung about on the wood paneled walls. Of course we are seated in a sort of inner sanctum, beyond the foyer, beyond the secretary's desk, carpet still unspeakable, past the ancient confusing double doors that seem not to open either out or in without a struggle, and the half-dead trailing pothos yearning at basement-style glass block windows. There are no windows at all here, in the lady's office. A diploma or certificate hangs on the wall. And lost in the mess is a photo of Mother (I have no doubt), smiling out from more dark paneling on some Occasion. Little do any of us realize what will be the picture of us that gets immortalized into a frame with a faux misty cloud accompanying, and a poem about our worth printed in some meditative font. I don't sneer, I simply take note. Meanwhile my tax lady herself is sharp as a tack, a pretty forty-five perhaps, with a complexion just going velvety with a bit of middle age, and bright brown eyes and bright brown hair a little differently styled each year. She has lovely small differently pointed teeth, which show when she smiles -- "wow, they've sold your mortgage already haven't they." I know, I answer, I thought that wasn't done anymore? -- wasn't that the big problem, in 2008? She shrugs, her pink lipstick softly gleaming. She wears soft purple or mint-green blouses, and this time a parure of greenish-moonstone earrings and necklace. Her right hand works the number keyboard at lightning speed.)    

Thirty-six dollars, plus eighty. I could have hugged her.

That done, let's go buy a Monstera deliciosa, a plant wrongly once called, it seems, a "split-leaf" philodendron. I have wanted one for a while, but never more so than since seeing, for the first time on the big screen at a real theater, All About Eve. Margo Channing has a huge Monstera in her home. I bought a tiny $5 specimen a week ago, labelled hopefully monstera but with its leaves uncut. Then today I turned a corner in my neighborhood big-box home improvement store and spotted three of the real thing. I picked the biggest. I now think of it as "Bette Davis plant."




Gardening books won't tell you why it is called deliciosa, except that it bears a fruit which is poisonous when young but sweet when mature. That takes a year. Perhaps the people who compile the books don't actually grow plants. I think the real reason it is M. deliciosa is because the roots, actually the roots, are sweetly fragrant. Fragrant enough, on the first day at least, to perfume a room.

Next, we'll go to the local woods carrying a friend's borrowed binoculars. I now live five minutes away from scenes that were a great treat to visit in childhood. When you look through binoculars, the grasses and water seem like a painting up close. I saw an American coot -- a duck, not a person -- and I may even have spotted a green-headed teal, another duck. The great heron, who quit flying when I arrived in my obvious white parka, stood still among the grasses, just a slim wash of blue-gray and a watching black eye in low beige thickets.





To return home is to see snowdrops -- surely? -- for the first time in a garden. This is the garden I was telling you about last summer, the one tended for twenty years by one woman who didn't ask permission of the condo association or the village or anybody, but simply started planting and kept on. Last fall I added tulip bulbs, which are sprouting also. If all goes well they should turn out orange. But these are snowdrops.



Last project of all was to carry on making my retro '50s art corner in my living room. At Allposters.com I found the art of Donna Mibus, who I assumed on account of her output must be some legend whom I, in my ignorance, was only just discovering. Not exactly, although to have one's art for sale at Allposters, and art.com, and Etsy, and featured in the magazine Atomic Ranch, is something of a feat. She explains at Etsy that she is a grandmother and only began painting when she turned fifty. I -- and many other people -- love her "MCM" (mid-century modern, i.e., retro '50s, and isn't it great that in Roman numerals MCM means 1900?) love Donna Mibus' retro '50s art. It's all full of flat bright pastel colors, egg-chairs, and elongated cats and dogs gazing at elongated '50s-worthy visiting aliens. Pairing it with a garish Debra Paget movie poster for Princess of the Nile, and a pastel cocktail-shaker-with-martini print, seemed just right. I must tell her.


   


Thursday, March 16, 2017

The moon, and the modern mind; and things

Really. One comes across the wildest things in Barbara Pym novels. Here is page 2 of No Fond Return of Love:

"But at least it would be interesting, she told herself bravely, to share a room with a stranger."

One imagines this sentiment rendered into a work of art to be found for sale in the Acorn or Bas Bleu catalogs. Distressed wood, I think, unframed, or a canvas painted over in pink maybe. The words to be spelled out in blue, black, and sea-green; some of them placed sideways and some very much larger than others. Certainly interesting, room, and stranger would be written large. She told herself bravely might go sideways.

And then there is this, from the same novel.

" 'What does one do and wear?'

" 'I suppose nobody really knows,' said Dulcie. 'It might be like the first night on board ship when nobody changes for dinner.' "

So that's it. I have always wondered what it meant in the superb, old (dear me it is old, 1985. When  P.G. Wodehouse wrote novels in the 1920s featuring elderly gentleman characters who had been roustabouts in "the 'Seventies," we understand the young Wodehouse is talking about antiquity), I say, I have always wondered what it meant in the old Mapp and Lucia TV series, when Georgie admires Lucia's costume for their first dinner intime in holiday Tilling. He exclaims, "Oh yes, very chic! And I'm glad to see we think alike. Not dressed like the first night out on board ship." Since in this scene they are both smartly, if unfussily, got up, he must mean that they have each made an effort to look good. To not dress like the first night out on board ship. In other words, yes they changed for dinner.

I love little bits of knowledge like that. They are the peaks, perhaps the froth, of a civilization, capping the bulk or ocean of magnificent, fathomless, living achievement below. When the peaks and the froth are forgotten, when they are not thrown up anymore by the living bulk below or are not recognized, well it's time to worry.  

The same thing with the moon. Though the moon is much more basic.

I work with a man who is of those who say "I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but." Why does not only British literature but British comic television seem to have an answer for everything? -- for one thinks now of comic John Cleese, interviewed around the time of some Fawlty Towers anniversary or compilation. He noted that the character Basil Fawlty was one of those prudes liking to protest "I'm not a prude, but." What Basil really means, Cleese laughed, was "I am a prude, and."

What my friend really means, I fear, is "I am a conspiracy theorist, and." He entertains quite a few, the most recent of which was something to do with a great light seen at "the Arctic -- the South Pole," [sic, of course], over the length of a whole night. It wasn't a helicopter, and it wasn't a passing comet. It lit up everything like it was day, for hours, and they're not saying what it was because they don't want you to know. It was like another sun.

A second man in the warehouse had marveled -- as my friend told the story -- "so you think there's another sun?" "No, I don't think that," my friend said, testy probably.

I marveled at him too, but noncommittally. This technique of manners helps greatly in society. "Wow, I hadn't heard that...."

Then I did some searching at home because the internet is out there for you to do research on, and anyway isn't Christian love (remember we've been blogging the Gospels occasionally) all about "willing the good of the other --- as other"?

It turns out that the great light at the pole, whichever pole, that shone all night and wasn't a comet or a helicopter, and lit up the landscape like it was day, might have been the full moon. The full moon will do that, at the poles' (whichever one's) winter, when night lasts for months anyway. This in turn would correspond to my friend's story of "what they don't want you to know" having happened recently. It's been winter in the Arctic. 

But isn't it idiotic that neither my friend nor I thought at once of the full moon? Isn't it idiotic that I had to look up "light mystery Arctic" and only then learn? I told him, by the way. He said, "Ah, there's an explanation for everything."

Far more than shipboard dress, I sometimes think the moon should represent that great bulk and froth of civilization, all that is lost among ordinary people's knowledge of the world. The moon is very basic. Knowing what it does and how it appears is like knowing enough to boil unsafe water, or to avoid a wild animal .... The earth only spins one way. A half-moon overhead, in an indigo-blue, late winter dusk, is heading toward the west, like the sun toward sunset. This is literally just a phase. All of the moon's phases are regular and eternal. It will grow to full, and then shrink to a crescent facing the other way, and while it is doing that you will see it, in a week or so, weirdly in the western sky at 9 or 10 in the morning. It's setting then. After that, it will be a crescent facing the other way once more, only it will set -- in the west of course, we only spin one way -- but at twilight. You might even see the outline of the whole moon then, faintly, as if drawn with faint moonshine chalk from the guiding tips of the crescent. I believe this is called "the old moon in the new moon's arms." Things like that.

As for other things. Here at Pluot we have read Rex Stout's Please Pass the Guilt (1973). Excellent as always, even though the mystery is never such as to make Nero Wolfe lean back in his chair, close his eyes, and move his pursed lips in and out, which is the sign of real intellectual struggle for him. Author Stout deftly threads the modern world into what he might have kept, always, the pristine, postwar, somewhat gritty but never degraded "private dick's" Manhattan of say, the month of Sometime, 1952. Here in the late 1960s, Nero Wolfe fears his cleaning lady may be a Black Panther; the method of murder is a bomb in a desk drawer; there is an Arab terrorist false clue; and a liberated young woman studying etymology speaks the words pecker and prick. (And why does modernity always seem to equate with 'more degraded, more vulgar'? The '50s were modern too.) Wolfe still says " 'Pfui' " when exasperated, and cookery and orchids still feature.




As for still other things, well. Marvelous biography of Alicia Markova by Tina Sutton (The Making of Markova, 2013). At first one thinks the author could have cut down the bulk a little -- 623 pages -- by not reprinting every press clipping about the prima ballerina there ever was. But then, it does help recreate some of the excitement about her at that time. In Kansas City and everywhere.

Lastly (one must stop somewhere), what about interior decoration? An English manor called Barsham is for sale for millions of dollars. Henry VIII used to visit on country jaunts. So one longs to bring Tudor effects into the apartment, like steeply pitched ceilings, stone fireplaces, and random heavy wood mouldings and doorjambs. I may have to settle for "heavy, rich draperies -- nothing filmy or lacy" as online interior decorating guides suggest. But "MCM," mid-20th century modern, is also very chic: streamlined looks, low-slung plain furniture, colors of pink and green, and what I think of as those '50s advertising sparkles everywhere. There's even a giant sculpted one in the lobby of the Inland Steel building in Chicago. 1957. You can just see Cary Grant in a suit and thin tie walking in, on some very suave business. I'm sure he knew what the moon is.

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