Thursday, January 30, 2014

I'm a firm believer in meaningful necklaces (and date bars)

Woo hoo! We have finished uploading everything that matters from At First Glass to Pluot; this is the most recent thing I was talking about there, in January 2014, before the bottom fell out and I lost my domain name. I think I've figured out what happened: in order to maintain my domain, I would have had to have an iPad, or something that downloads apps. Without an app, I couldn't authorize domain renewal. 

It may be this is the best thing that ever happened to At First Glass anyway. I've purged the dross and re-booted Pluot with an even 500 good posts, 494 published and 6 drafts. Welcome back, my fatheads.

... just like the simple little flat gold disk Tina Fey wears in 30 Rock. What does it mean? the viewer wants breathlessly to ask. She could probably afford diamonds and rubies. I have long wanted a meaningful necklace of my own; the trouble is that religious symbols are unsubtle and the usual gold heart for Mom is so, well, -- usual. So "Mother's Day."

By sheer luck amid all the holiday catalogs that came to the house this season, I found one called Femail Creations that sells this. I couldn't resist. It has to do with two of my favorite things, silver and robins.

Image from Femail Creations

And it's meaningful because it makes you think not only of robins but of course of spring, and new life, hope and safety and everything. And there are three blue eggs. Proudly handmade in the U.S. I'm all for that, too.

Now you may have a retro Date Cake Bar, circa 1963. This would have been just about the year that Sean Connery was making Dr. No. We enjoyed the movie on New Year's Eve, according to old family custom, and that in turn prompts us to venture to YouTube for a lark, to listen to old James Bond themes. Here we revisit Carly Simon's beautiful voice caressing "Nobody Does it Better," which -- which somehow makes us feel we could climb mountains. But first, the date bar.   


These rich little cakes are called "Date Bars I" in The Art of Making Good Cookies Plain and Fancy, written by Annette Laslett Ross and Jean Adams Disney in 1963. Full of cinnamon, they will likely remind you of snickerdoodles, enriched with dates and nuts, too. They aren't terribly sweet and so make a nice breakfast indulgence.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter a 9 inch square pan. Have ready:
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup dates, chopped and pressed down to measure
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped nuts
Beat the eggs with the sugar until smooth and thick. Stir in the melted butter. Sift together the dry ingredients, and then add them to the egg mix. Stir in the dates and nuts. Pour into the pan (the batter is thick and will need spreading). Bake about 30 minutes, cool slightly, cut into squares, and dust with powdered sugar.

Serve with a glass of champagne, because I refuse to believe we can't drink champagne with desserts. Wait for spring.

The noble grapes: riesling, part 2

The noble grapes: Riesling, part 1

The striving after ripeness explains German wine labels.

If a bottle of riesling is the product of that first harvest, it will carry the term Kabinett on its label. If it is a product of a second harvest, it will carry the term Spatlese (pronounced SHPAIT-lay-seh -- although people do struggle with this one, rendering it "Spall-teese" or "Spayte-lace," or, like me for a while, "Shpaht-lace"). If it comes from even a third harvest, it will be called Auslese, and will have been harvested in individual bunches. A fourth harvest gives us Beerenauslese (BA), meaning the gathering of individual grape berries left so long on the vine that they are not only very ripe but have been attacked by the beneficial mold botrytis, and so are even more shrunken and their sweet juices concentrated. Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) means the wine comes from the harvesting of individual grape berries fully dried (trocken) by the mold. Finally there is Eiswein, made from grapes harvested and crushed while frozen. The ice carries away the grapes' water content and the wine is therefore made from the sweetest, most acidic, most concentrated juices possible.

These six words therefore don't necessarily indicate the increasingly sweet taste of the wine; rather they annouce the level of ripeness of the grapes at harvest. Each higher level of ripeness will mean a richer-feeling wine, but only the three ripest styles -- Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, and Eiswein -- will invariably be sweet because the sugar levels in these grapes have been able to climb so high. The three lower levels of ripeness -- Kabinett, Spatlese, and Auslese -- can still be fermented completely dry.
And coping with these six words already means that we have in our hands a bottle of the highest quality of German wine, a Qualitatswein mit Pradikat or QmP, meaning quality wine with special characteristics. Having this also means that we hold in our hands the results of a sunny, warm year in the best German vineyards. If the year's weather was not so good, we might hold instead a Qualitatswein bestimmter Anbaugebiet or QbA, simply a quality wine from a specified region. German wine labeling laws lay all these standards down. A "QbA" is not allowed to announce the ripeness levels of its grapes, because they were not remarkable enough to brag about. It can only announce roughly where in Germany it is from.

All this still leaves a positive forest of German words on the labels of fine rieslings, on the labels of fine German wines in general. These comprise announcements not only about the region but about the district, collection of vineyards, and specific vineyard which made the wine. There are also announcements that the wine was bottled on the estate (address included), and proofs of its having passed inspection (the Amtiche Prufungsnummer, or A.P. testing number, the last two digits of which represent the year of testing).

Germany is anxious that you are shown exactly what you are getting in your riesling, because the very fact of growing grapes and making wine there is such a feat and a triumph. But where, for instance, in this QmP and QbA and A.P. and "spall-teese" complexity do we place our (probably) first experience of German wine -- the humble and inexpensive grocery-store Liebfraumilch?

Liebfraumilch, meaning "milk of Our Blessed Lady," is a QbA wine made of a blend of riesling plus other German grape varieties like Kerner, Muller-Thurgau, and Silvaner, the first two of which are crosses of the riesling grape themselves. Being of QbA designation means it is still a qualitatswein -- QbA wines sometimes specify only that on the label -- and therefore still above the category of Landwein or Tafelwein, what would be the everyday quaff of the German consumer except that it seems Germany doesn't produce much of anything ordinary to begin with. Most authorities agree that only about 5 or 10% of the country's wine production is not "qualitatswein," and almost none of the lower-tier stuff is exported.

So that means Liebfraumilch is high-quality product? I'll confess I have never actually tried it. Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible is polite: it's "pleasant, basic, and slightly sweetish," she says. The best-known example is Blue Nun, which most people seem to remember, with a laugh, as something belonging to the 1970s. As of The Wine Bible's publication date (2001), Blue Nun was still "the largest-selling German wine in the English-speaking world."

Is wine the oldest drink?

This, my fatheads, is where it all began, on New Year's Eve 2007. I had been working at a WineStyles franchise in Flossmoor, IL, for six whole months and so felt perfectly qualified to start writing a wine blog. I notice Molly of Orangette never lost her domain name, and had to re-upload everything into a new blog called, I don't know, Hair or something. 

We could think of it this way: the four basic flavor components in wine are sweet, acid, bitter, and tannin. We enjoy these flavors in drinks individually all the time. For sweet, think fruit juice; for acid, think lemonade; for bitter, think very dark cocoa or dark beer; and for tannin, remember your last cup of black tea. Add fizz and you have carbonated soda. Wine combines all these flavors, including fizz occasionally – sounds disgusting, but isn’t! – in subtle, balanced doses, and fills them out with wonderful tastes like apple or cherry or plum. Spices, nuts, butter, cake, and more can also come to mind when you taste wine. Drinking wine with a meal makes all these flavor experiences even more enjoyable and more complex.

How did it all start? Of course it begins with grapes. Yeasts occur naturally on grape skins. At some point in prehistory, someone learned that when grapes are crushed and left in a crock, the yeasts act on the sweet juices and ferment them into alcohol. All that was left to do was to store the new elixir and drink it, and people have been doing so ever since. According to author Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible, of all the thousands of grape varieties in the world, only about 150 make good wine consistently, wherever they are planted. Of these 150, only nine are the "noble grapes," that is, grapes which make excellent wines of distinct aromas and flavors, often able to improve with age.

The noble white varieties are sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, riesling, semillon, and chardonnay; the noble red grapes are cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, merlot, and syrah. All these are from the vitis vinifera species, and all seem to be native to Europe or Asia. Our own continent is the native home of another grape species, vitis labrusca, which includes varieties like the Concord jelly grape and the old-fashioned scuppernong. These make wines that are not valued much because they taste so cloyingly sweet and so Concord jelly-like, but the important vinifera types are now planted in the U.S. and elsewhere, and the wine industry from California to Argentina to Australia and back to Europe – and even to China – is booming.

Perhaps this is partly because more and more people realize that wine taken in moderation is a healthy drink, especially good, it seems, for the heart. It at least is made simply, from a healthful fruit, the grape. Contrast this with the carbonated pop we tend to down by the gallon, which always tastes exactly the same and floods the system with nothing but sugar water, color, and carbonation. If you are concerned with the effects of the alcohol, remember to serve water with your meal, too. Water for thirst, wine for pleasure, is a good rule of thumb. Some authorities suggest that people who get headaches upon wine drinking are actually not drinking enough water.

So where do you start, if you want to bring home a wine for dinner tonight? You can begin your adventure with an inexpensive bottle of Vouvray, which is a soft, pleasant, slightly sweet white wine from the Loire valley in France. Vouvrays are made from the chenin blanc grape (one of the noble varieties). It will probably cost from $12 and up, and it should go nicely with a dinner of chicken, fish, a pasta with a simple creamy sauce, or a pork  dish that is not too spicy with barbecue flavors. It would even be very good with turkey or chicken sandwiches. Whatever you have left in the bottle can be saved, refrigerated, for several days or up to a week. Just take it out of the fridge and let it warm up a half hour or so, so that the next time you drink it, it will not be ice cold.

And that is all there is to bringing the pleasure of wine into life. The writer Hugh Johnson, in Vintage: the Story of Wine, notes that wine is, along with pottery and bread and textiles, among mankind’s oldest possessions. When you start your adventure, you will be following in some very ancient footsteps indeed.

Can I grow grapes in my backyard?

Certainly. (As Mrs. Quantock says in Lucia in London, " 'I'm all for everybody doing exactly as they like. I just shrug my shoulders.' And she heaved up her round little shoulders with an effort.")

I know it is possible to grow grapes in this area -- south suburban Chicago -- because my neighbor three doors down grows a big grapevine on a trellis every summer. However, I doubt he is growing vitis vinifera, the wine grape.

For some reason, vinifera wants to grow in soil so unforgiving as to hardly count as soil. It also wants to grow on a hill. The good black farm dirt and flat, sun-washed, snow-smothered land of northern Illinois would not please it. In the ancient wine-making regions of Europe, in France and Germany especially, the vines grow on chalk cliffs, on slate, on the actual pebbles and stones of prehistoric river beds. Apparently, these conditions force the vines' roots to struggle deep into the ground in the search for nutrients, and this in turn makes for a strong plant and good grapes full of flavor. But just a few grapes, not many: apparently, also, these bad conditions force the vine to produce comparatively little fruit, and that too is a good thing. The less fruit, the more intense the flavor of what is there, and the better the eventual wine. Grapevines that bear too lavishly are pruned, hard, by the grower. Where the grower does not prune his vines, and where the summer's rainfall and sunshine were good, he will get acres and acres of grapes of no distinction, and therefore lots and lots of wine, also of no distinction.

Why vinifera prefers to grow on hillsides is a bit puzzling. It has to do with the danger of frost to the crop, and to the fact that cold air runs down hillsides and "pools" at the bottom. Since a really hot climate would make vinifera bear too abundantly -- the grape grows rougly at around 45 degrees north and/or south latitude -- winemakers have learned to cope with the good and bad points of the cooler regions that the vine does like. Hillsides answer the problem. By their angle, they catch all the rays of the summer sun possible; their slope drains off the frosty night air; and if the hillsides happen to be poised above a convenient river, then that, historically, was all the better for transporting the final product to market. When you see a French wine label with the word "cote" on it -- Cote d'Or, Cote de Beaune, Cotes du Rhone -- you are looking at the product of a slope (cote) near a river.

So can you grow grapes in your yard this summer? Certainly. They may be very tasty eating, and the neighborhood birds will thank you.

Defining a corked wine

Actually, it's not as serious as a full-throttle "Gaaaa!!" Once in a while, however, you will encounter a "corked" bottle of wine. (Remember the old Fawlty Towers episode in which a snooty customer informs John Cleese's Basil that the bottle he has just opened is corked, and Basil replies, "No it isn't, I just uncorked it, didn't you see?") This simply means that something was wrong with the cork from the time the wine was bottled -- it was moldy, or inadequately disinfected. It will spoil the taste of the bottle, so of course you should not be heroic and try to drink the stuff anyway.

How can you tell if your wine is corked -- what if you simply have a sound wine that you don't care for? Even for novices, the smell and taste of a bad cork is pretty unmistakable. If the cork is literally moldy, of course you will see it. But if a swirl and sniff, and taste, of the wine takes you right back to childhood memories of a flooded basement after a summer storm, then chances are you have a corked specimen on your hands. It's the fault of the winery, not the store where you bought the wine.

Most expert wine authors that I have read agree that about 5% of all wines are corked. In about six months of wine tasting through my work, I have probably tasted an average of five wines a week. That works out to about a hundred different wines, and in that time, I have encountered three corked bottles. Statistically, therefore, my experience seems to be almost exactly on target. The ever-present risk of spoliage through bad cork, incidentally, is one of the reasons so many wineries are turning to screw-cap closures for their wines. A screw cap is a perfectly good seal, and it cannot mildew.

And by the way, don't forget that, for the majority of wine bottles sealed with good sound corks, storage on their sides is necessary precisely to keep the wine in contact with the cork. A good cork that is not moistened with its own wine may dry up and shrink, and eventually leak and allow air into the bottle, which will also ruin the wine.

Blend vs. varietal

A good question: when I go out to eat at a restaurant, I know I want to order a blended red wine, because I prefer them to varietals. What do I ask for?

First of all, what on earth is a blend and what's a varietal?

A blend is a wine, red or white, made of several different grape types. A varietal is a wine made entirely or almost entirely of one single grape -- one variety, hence "varietal." As author Karen MacNeil points out in The Wine Bible, until the 1960s most people had never heard of the actual grape varieties, like chardonnay or cabernet sauvingnon. Wine making was a European tradition and European wines were very often blends of grapes, the wines themselves named after the places they were made. Champagne, Chianti, and Bordeaux are all places.

When California and other "New World" winemakers got started making serious amounts of serious wine, they made and labeled their product after the grape type, for two reasons. First, because they were working with the noble grapes that Europeans had always used, and they wanted people to know that. Second, because California, Australia, South Africa, and South America didn't and don't have the centuries of wine making traditions behind them which help buyers instantly anticipate what "a Napa" or "a Victoria" will taste like.

Now, European winemakers are beginning to put varietal names on their labels, too, as a kind of backup I.D., perhaps because they realize the American wine market has learned to buy and drink according to grape type, not necessarily place of origin. This backup labeling works especially for the European wines, and there are some, that have traditionally always been made from one varietal anyway. White wines from the French province of Burgundy, for example, have always been chardonnays. Red wines from Burgundy are pinot noirs. A Vouvray (it's a town) will be made from chenin blanc grapes.

If you want a blend, therefore, you might try one of the French, Italian, or Spanish wines that have typically been blends. Bordeaux, Chiantis, Rhone wines, and Spanish riojas fit the bill. Of course, American, Australian, and South African wines can also all be made as blends, too, not least because New World winemakers want to try their hand at blending the grapes that have made exquisite wines in Europe for centuries. If you buy a glass of, say, a cabernet-sauvignon/merlot blend from Chile, you'll know that the winemaker is recreating the blend that is Bordeaux. But a European -- or New World -- wine that carries a place name, not a varietal name, will likely be your blend.

What's the difference in taste? Blends, especially blended reds, can be a bit softer and smoother than the single-variety wines. Some pure cabernet sauvignons, especially, are what Hugh Johnson calls "turbo-powered" -- dark, astringent, high in alcohol, and not necessarily what we are looking for as we start our adventure.

A nice glass of Gallo

According to author Willie Gluckstern in The Wine Avenger -- a good book by the way, especially for the novice -- brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo really got underway in the wine business by making and marketing inexpensive, sweet, high-alcohol wine to lower-income urban neighborhoods. One of their most popular products was Thunderbird, a wine that sold via the commercial jingle, "What's the word? Thunderbird." Today Gallo still makes Boone's Farm and Carlo Rossi, the wines that teenagers are famed for starting out with. They also make Bartles and Jaymes' wine coolers, those wine "lites" which were all the rage some years ago.

However, the company has long since ventured beyond the bounds of the jug or the starter wine, which makes it all the more interesting to encounter not only Gallo wines in all their disguises, but also people who know enough about Gallo's rotgut traditions to insist that, whatever else they might try, they at least avoid Gallo -- all the while they are drinking Gallo.

The company now makes, markets, and distributes no fewer than fifty-three wines and brandies, among them quite a few familiar names and labels from our grocery store shelves. Barefoot Cellars, Bella Sera, Dancing Bull, Da Vinci, Ecco Domani, Livingston Cellars, MacMurray Ranch, Mirassou, Rancho Zabaco, Red Bicyclette, Sebeka, and Turning Leaf are all Gallo products. Some, like Barefoot, were once small independent California wineries which Gallo bought out, not an unusual thing these days when the second generation of a small vineyard does not want to go into the family business. Some, like Red Bicyclette, are European-made wines -- Red Bicyclette is from France -- which Gallo markets and distributes.

How do they taste? Are they any good, or all they all tainted somehow by their descent from Thunderbird? The answer, of course, lies in how they taste for you, the wine drinker. This may sound like a condescending way of disguising wine snobbery, as if I were saying "Well of course they're Gallo, but if you like them ...." Not at all. I enjoy Barefoot Cellars Zinfandel especially -- it's one of Martha's Vineyard picks, as you see! -- and logically there is no reason why a Gallo wine should not be good, unless the company subjects all its new holdings to the same treatment that produced Thunderbird: acres of vines, un-pruned, overproducing over-sweet grapes that make flaccid, high alcohol wines. Thunderbird had extra alcohol added, plus citrus flavors (see the book Blood and Wine by Ellen Hawkes). My guess is that a company with any smarts is not going to sabotage their product like that, because the wine market is big and growing and increasingly sophisticated, and has been for a long time. Not least of all, the people at Gallo must know the reputation they labor under (is that why they disguise their wines?) and they must know the way to quash it is to make and sell good wine.

So the next time you go shopping for wine, you might take a look at the fine print on the label. If somewhere you see "Modesto, CA," you very probably have a Gallo product. And that may not be a bad thing at all.

Wine with dinner, circa 1896

I have a facsimile edition, brought out by Weathervane Books in the 1990s, of the original Boston Cooking School Cookbook first published by Fannie Merritt Farmer in 1896. This is the cookbook that was updated by Marion Cunningham and published as The Fannie Farmer Cookbook in 1983 -- hence, no doubt, a market for the fascimile a few years later -- and Cunningham's edition, by the way, remains the most used cookbook on my shelf. I have had to "re-bind" it with brown paper once, and it needs a re-binding again (it's no use finding another copy on eBay, because this copy was a birthday present the year I got married, is so inscribed, and so has sentimental value).

The 1896 edition, while it hasn't proved as useful, is nevertheless fun to look at. Weathervane issued it exactly as it appeared, old-fashioned font, instructions for lighting a coal-burning iron stove, and advertisements for Imperial Granum ("food for dyspeptic delicate infirm and aged persons") intact. At the back of the book there are menu suggestions for breakfasts, luncheons, and dinners, all sounding wonderfully sumptuous and all obviously from the days when even middle-class people had at least one or two servants to help with the work. "Grapefruit -- Wheatlet with sugar and cream -- Beefsteak -- Lyonnaise potatoes -- Twin mountain muffins -- Coffee" ... for breakfast. These were probably also the days when middle-class people still worked hard enough, physically, to burn off all those calories. If you have ever read the Little House on the Prairie books, you know that farmers' meals were even more gargantuan. And Ma worked without servants.

The last five menus in this section are the best of all. One is for Thanksgiving dinner, one is for Christmas, and three are simply "Full Course Dinners." Here I imagine a nineteenth-century wedding, or a great feast in honor of Junior's graduating from Yale. All the uncles sit jovially in a cloud of cigar smoke, and Grandpa's watch chain stretches perilously across his great girth .... Just reading over these menus has become a little five-minute tradition of my own during the winter holidays.

They are similar. Each has its set of ten or twelve courses, each begins with something light and ends in black coffee. Here is Miss Farmer's idea of Thanksgiving:

Oyster soup -- Crisp crackers
Celery -- Salted almonds
Roast turkey -- Cranberry jelly
Mashed potatoes --- onions in cream --- Squash
Chicken pie
Fruit pudding --- sterling sauce
Mince, apple, and squash pie
Neapolitan Ice cream -- fancy cakes
Fruit -- nuts and raisins --- Bonbons
Crackers -- cheese -- cafe noir

Only ten courses. Actually, a lot of this meal is what we would consider appetizers and desserts; we simply would not stay sitting at the table as we ate it all. Perhaps families in 1896 did the same.

At any rate, Miss Farmer then moves on to the wine. She is surprisingly brief about it. "Where wines and liquors are served," she begins, but then she simply sketches in basic suggestions, and you have the impression that she is writing for people -- "where wines and liquors are served" -- who already know what goes with what. A Sauternes or other white wine with the first course, sherry with soup, more white wine with fish, claret with game, and champagne with roasts and "other courses." What is a Sauternes, what's a sherry, what is claret? She assumes her readers know.

There's more. "After serving cafe noir in the drawing room, pass pony of brandy for men, sweet liqueur (Chartreuse, Benedictine, or Parfait d'Amour) for women; then Creme de Menthe for all." If you are a time-traveler at this lovely party, you have already drunk four or five wines with dinner. In the drawing room, after a bracer of coffee, you will now have two liqueurs, and Miss Farmer has not mentioned the port that the gentlemen might have had privately after the ladies left the table, nor the aperitifs the whole company might have had even before the butler rang the gong for dinner. When it is all over, "Apollinaris should be passed." That's sparkling water. By this time it must have been quite enough.

And incidentally, a Sauternes is an expensive, luxurious and famed sweet white wine from Bordeaux; a sherry is a fortified wine, either sweet or dry, from the Jerez region of southwestern Spain, near Seville; and a claret is a red Bordeaux -- there are all kinds of possibilities here, and we can only surmise that Miss Farmer meant her readers to serve the best they could afford.

Wine with mulligatawny

Over 1,800 views! And I never made mulligatawny again.

I decided to make mulligatawny, because my sister in law recently made it, it sounded good, and my dinnertime repertoire needs expansion. Since the recipe calls for chicken, apple, green pepper, tomato, curry, nutmeg, and clove, among other things, and since I happened to have three open bottles of wine in the refridgerator, I thought here was the perfect chance to experiment with food and wine pairings. Willie Gluckstern in The Wine Avenger suggests investing in a Vacu-vin, a small pump which you can use to pump air out of your half-finished bottles before storing them, so that you may have several open bottles at the ready and all not going stale with oxygen exposure. This way, you have a number of wines to sample with any meal: and so you learn, fairly quickly, what is a nice match with what.

In my fridge I had a bottle of Woodridge Robert Mondavi Chardonnay (California 2006), one of Woodridge Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir (France 2005), and a Bella Sera Pinot Grigio rose (Italy 2006, by way of Gallo). Which of these would "stand up," as the wine writers say, to apple, curry, tomato, green pepper, and nutmeg?

None of them probably would have been an experienced wine drinker's first choice. And yet, none of them was a terrible match, perhaps because no one of the (at first glance, wildly incompatible) flavors of mulligatawny dominate the final dish. It's a simple saute of the vegetables, including the standard onion-carrot-celery medley, apple, and chicken cooked in butter. The spices, chicken broth, and tomato are added, it simmers for an hour, and you serve it with rice. Originally an East Indian dish, its Tamil name, milagutannir, means "pepper water." But the flavors simply blend into something rich, slightly sweet, slightly tangy, a little smoky, and very good.

I sat down to dinner with three wine glasses at my place, and my children gave me startled looks. I sampled all three wines as I ate. The pinot noir seemed to lose any grapey or fruity flavor it had, and to take on a pure butter taste that made it the worst choice of the three. The chardonnay at first had the right richness to match the soup, but it had an alcohol burn afterward that also wasn't a good fit (its alcohol level is 13.5%). The Bella Sera pinot grigio rose -- an unusual wine, a rose made from a white grape -- was pleasantly light, but finally too light and too citrusy.

What would have been the best choice? Perhaps a Riesling, the wine whose sweetness and acidity many food writers credit with making the best match to the most foods. Perhaps no wine at all would have been better, though a wine newbie hates to admit this. Mulligatawny comes from East India and East India is hot. Madeleine Kamman, in her huge book The New Making of a Cook, advises:
"If, for centuries, hot foods have been served in hot climates where no grapevines are grown and if, for centuries, people there have served beer or tea with their hot dishes, is their taste not to be trusted?"
Good point. A Darjeeling, then?
Here is the recipe for mulligatawny, from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook:
Mulligatawny Soup
This soup from India found its way into American cookery long before the Civil War. A recipe for it appeared in the original Fannie Farmer Cookbook of 1896.
4 tablespoons butter; 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 small onion, diced; 5 cups chicken stock or canned broth
1 carrot, diced; 2 cloves,crushed
1 stalk celery with leaves, diced; 2 sprigs parsley, chopped
1 green pepper, diced; 1 cup canned or chopped tomatoes
1 apple, peeled and diced; 2 cups hot cooked rice
1 cup diced raw chicken (about 1 pound); salt
1/3 cup flour; freshly ground pepper
1-2 teaspoons curry powder
Melt the butter in a large soup pot. Add the onion, carrot, celery, green pepper, apple, and chicken, and cook slowly, stirring frequently, for about 15 minutes. Mix the flour with 1 teaspoon curry powder and the nutmeg, add it to the pot, and cook over low heat for about 5 minutes, stirring from time to time. Stir in the stock, then add the cloves, parsley, and tomatoes. Partially cover and simmer for about 1 hour. Add salt and pepper to taste and more curry powder if you wish. Pass the rice separately or spoon some into each bowl as you serve the soup.

Adding it up: the cost of wine vs. pop

In the beginning, it seemed right to explore this. With numbers and everything. 

I must admit that when I go shopping for wine, one of the biggest considerations in my mind before I make my purchase is cost. Wine seems a luxury, almost a decadence; after all, I don't really need it, I'm spending my money on something that I'm not yet sure I'll like, and so a price tag above $8 or $9 still gives me a bit of sticker shock. That standard, 750-ml wine bottle holds about 25 ounces of wine, or about 4 six-ounce glasses. I could spend $8 on it, or $15 or of course far more if I wanted to. By comparison, an 8-pack of Coke (12 ounce bottles), on sale 3 packs for $10, works out to $3.33 for every 96 ounces. Day after day, meal after meal. You can count on uniform flavor and pretty uniform price. Soft drinks are far cheaper than wine.

If you like statistics, the numbers involved in various countries' wine consumption and soft drink consumption rates are revealing. Americans lead the world in downing pop, not surprising since we seem to have invented it. (This makes a very interesting story, by the way, in historian Paul Johnson's book A History of the American People. He says that, after the German invention of carbonated water in the 1780s -- Apollinaris was one -- Americans, especially in the "hot and humid South," recreated it and then added flavored syrups to it. When American druggists devised a way to dispense this flavored carbonated water from their shops' soda fountains, the soft drink industry was born. The new drinks were meant not only to taste good and to refresh in a hot climate, but to produce the beneficial health effects and emotional stimulation of alcohol, without the intoxication.)

Different sources peg Americans' soda pop habit at about 57 to 60 gallons per person per year. Sixty gallons is about 630 twelve-ounce cans a year, or almost 2 cans of pop a day. If we all think about our daily habits, this will probably make sense. By contrast, we're said to drink about 2 gallons of wine per person a year, when total consumption of wine is averaged out among the population, whereas a Frenchman or an Italian drinks around 13 or 15 gallons a year. (When you come across drinking statistics expressed in liters per person, just multiply each liter by 0.264 and you will have gallons.)

Since about 5 bottles of wine make a gallon, consuming 2 gallons a year should mean that last year we all bought about ten bottles of wine. Or more, since obviously all the children in America were not busy consuming their two gallons per capita. Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible has this explanation: only 11% of the American population, she says, are responsible for consuming 88% of all wine sold in the country. If you do the arithmetic of ounces and population figures, you'll find that this means America's small coterie of dedicated wine drinkers enjoys the beverage at a real French or Italian clip, about 15 gallons a year.

Which brings us back to the cost, and decadence and luxury and sticker shock. The devoted wine drinker's 15-gallon a year habit translates to about 75 bottles a year -- which is not even two a week, actually. He's not necessarily "dedicated" or a "connoisseur" in a way that you and I can never be. He is just having wine with his meals, which is what wine is for. If he is careful and absolutely only buys the least expensive product, say in the $5 range, he'll spend about $375 a year on wine. (Two cans of soda a day from a vending machine, at perhaps 60 cents each, amount to $378.) If he parcels out his purchases so that he can splurge on some pricier bottles occasionally, of course he'll spend more.

It all leaves us with a personal question and a personal decision. How much are we willing to budget each year on wine? Three or four hundred dollars? Six hundred? Or -- if we consume our statistical two gallons, and maybe spend five on each bottle -- fifty?

Buying wine means spending money on an often non-uniform experience, and like a lot of consumers I do balk at that. The nice thing about it, though, is that the experience usually turns out to be so interesting and so flavorful, and it leads to so many more because it helps you learn more. A cabernet sauvignon, that seemed a bit plain and sharp in my glass (for $17.99!), in ten minutes took on flavors of caramel and licorice that were so delicious I would not hesitate to buy it again as soon as I could. Price-wise, it's the equivalent of maybe a week's worth of my morning Starbucks. That's a trade-off I can live with.

Food and wine pairings

We go six years back into our Way Back machine. Again with the anxious notes on wine pairing.We hadn't yet come across the advice that "most wine goes with most food."

The meal: sweet Italian turkey sausage with peppers and garlic; rice; buttered peas.

Saute an onion, a red pepper, and a green pepper in a little olive oil and perhaps a little butter. When the vegetables are soft, remove them from the pan and add 9-10 links of sweet Italian turkey sausage. Begin to brown them a little. When they have taken on some color, pile the vegetables back into the pan, add a drizzle -- perhaps 1/4 cup -- of wine (any kind, really), and a chopped garlic clove. Then add 4 or 5 Roma tomatoes, halved. Throw in some snippets of fresh basil and some thyme and salt and pepper. Cover the pan, and let it all simmer for an hour while you cook up some rice and boiled peas.

The wines (there were four):

Gagliole Rosso 2002, an Italian red from the Chianti region of Italy;
Sandholdt Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, from Soledad, California
Marietta Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Alexander Valley, California
St. Gabriel Riesling 2006, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany

When it came time to sample the wines and decide which matched best, I was rooting for the St. Gabriel Riesling to "win." I like the low-alcohol sweetness of a Riesling, and I have read more than one authority say that Rieslings tend to be the most versatile of all wines with food. The sweetness in particular, they claim, is excellent for "cutting" spicy tastes. The Italian Gagliole Rosso, I expected, would come in "second," because Italian wines are reputed to be also ideal with food -- their dryness and acidity are meant to wash things down, not stand alone.

These two wines, the Riesling and the Gagliole, were pleasant enough and seemed to keep their character next to the meal -- they didn't take on different flavors as the two Cabernet Sauvignons seemed to do. But the Riesling was a little too fruity and syrupy, and the Rosso just light and tart. The Marietta Cabernet only grew hotter with each sip (its alcohol level is 14.9%, quite high).

To my surprise, the best match was the Sandholdt Cabernet Sauvignon. After five minutes in the glass, it took on flavors of licorice, taffy, and caramel that turned out to be delicious with spicy sausage, peppers, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. Its alcohol level is 13.5%, the same as the Italian red, and so it carried no afterburn.
(To which, my future self -- November, 2009 -- can't help replying, "Oh really?")


The noble grapes: chardonnay

It's fun to come across a wine book from thirty or forty years ago and find that it now contains just slightly outdated information. The grapes don't change -- much, although vitis vinifera in general is said to be quite prone to sudden sports and mutations (Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible) -- and winemaking is still a matter of sun and rain, ripening, fermentation, and waiting. What changes, I suppose, is fashion and business trends, in wine as in anything else. Here is Frank Schoonmaker on the chardonnay grape, in his Encyclopedia of Wine (1973):

"In California, due to its extremely small yield per acre, [chardonnay] has not been widely planted; its wine, almost always marketed as 'Pinot Chardonnay,' is perhaps the best white table wine made in the United States ...."

Flash forward a few decades to spend some time with one of my favorite wine writers, Willie Gluckstern, and you will find an entirely different opinion on chardonnay. (I like Gluckstern's The Wine Avenger precisely because he is so opinionated he makes things easy for a newcomer to understand. Later on, we can learn subtlety.) By the time he wrote, of course, chardonnay had become the grape that ate California. He considers chardonnay ridiculously overrated, lacking in aroma and flavor, but bland enough to take on a nice, consumer-friendly, and rather sweet uniformity through fermentation in oak barrels -- or simply through being aged in stainless steel fermenting tanks along with giant "teabags" of oak chips. Jancis Robinson, in How To Taste, agrees with him on chardonnay's intrinsic blandness ("perhaps that's why so many people like it," she hints) and also points out the grape's tendency to reach high alcohol levels, which among other effects can make the wine taste still sweeter. That easy-to-pronounce, easy-to-spell name is no drawback.

But dear me, what are we to think if we still like chardonnay? Are we bland? And wasn't the grape designated "noble" a long time ago?

It seems that chardonnay keeps pride of place in the wine books as well as in the vineyards because, no matter what fashion and business trends come and go, it retains the characteristics of "nobility": it is a grape that can produce consistently excellent wine, capable of aging well in the bottle. Excellent here seems to imply not just our reaction of gee-this-is-tasty, but to mean complex, different each time, changing, even mysterious. In other words, perhaps, it means responsive to the wine maker's art. After acknowledging the grape's basic blandness, Jancis Robinson nonetheless goes on to describe what a great chardonnay will taste like, and she uses words like broad, weight, meaty, fullness, intensity, serious, fascinating, and powerful. Some combination of physiological factors -- sugar levels, acid levels, skin thickness -- have to be present in the grape for this kind of mysterious excellence to emerge in the wine, and for noble to be applied to the variety. And even before the winemaker's expertise can be factored in, the grape has responded to the climate. And to the soil ...

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The chardonnay grape is native, as far as botanists have been able to uncover these things, to Burgundy in eastern France, and that is exactly where the greatest chardonnays -- "white Burgundies" -- are made. It was here also that wine makers learned to ferment chardonnay in small oak barrels, giving the wine new flavors, clarifying it, smoothing out some of its astringencies, and helping it age (from How to Taste). It is these wines -- a Meursault, a Montrachet, named European-style after the place, not the grape -- that will set you back $35 or $40 a bottle at least. Because white Burgundies have been so good for so long (nobility, again), Burgundian wine making techniques are followed anywhere chardonnay is grown. And that leads to, as Robinson puts it delicately, "a remarkable uniformity among BFC's (barrel fermented chardonnays) virtually everywhere."

So much so that there has been a reaction, and on some chardonnay labels now you will see the proud announcement that the wine is unoaked. Here, winemakers are not bucking but are still following French traditions. Some French chardonnays have almost always been unoaked, particularly in Chablis, the very northernmost region of Burgundy. (Which means, strangely enough, that a Chablis is a Burgundy.)

As it happens, thirty-five years ago Frank Schoonmaker's encyclopedia entry on Chablis was far longer than that on chardonnay. Even then, place names were better known than varietal names. He tried to dispel the confusion. "Those interested in finding a California counterpart [of chablis]" he said, "should look for bottles labeled 'Chardonnay' ...."

Red and green wineglasses, circa 1887

We drove to the antique mall in Crown Point, to look for a few new wine glasses (since we have found one or two pretty ones there before) and to look for old books about wine. I'd like to know what Americans thought and wrote about wine two or three generations ago, and I'd especially like to find wine books written before 1933, so that I may frankly cannibalize them for any possible art works or maps without fear of infringing copyright.

Crown Point's big red brick courthouse looms over the center of the town; I always think of my late aunt and uncle when I see it, for their elopement to Crown Point as teenagers, in 1937, was an ancient family scandal, and I suppose they must have formalized the deed inside that courthouse. (Apparently in 1937 a judge would marry two seventeen-year-olds from Chicago, because they wanted to.) As you drive south on Taft into town, you can see where the new strip malls and unnaturally wide streets are slowly encroaching on a slightly shabby core of tall Victorian homes set in small lawns, surrounding a main square of old, two-story crenelated brick office buildings. There is even a Carnegie library, now a cultural center, its cornerstone engraved -- if I remember correctly -- 1910.

The antique mall is a weird three-story monstrosity that has, over the years, been put to who knows how many uses. The entire second floor is the size of a basketball court, and was once used as such. The wooden floorboards of the third story still carry a coat of decorative paint for some reason -- flowers and curlicues making the pattern of a painted rug. Here and there in little nooks and crannies and under stairways are old kitchens, complete with sinks and cabinets, which must mean the place used to be an apartment building. There are air conditioning units shoved into odd windows, any gaps to the outside plugged by wads of newspapers of who knows what date.

And there are antique vendors, by the hundred in every nook and cranny, their wares for sale overflowing every old dry sink. We had no luck finding wine glasses -- could it be that the farmers of Indiana, who have become the unwitting source of all these dealers' livelihoods, had no wine glasses to bequeath? -- but I did find an old book.

It is called Social Customs, by Florence Howe Hall. The book was published in Boston in 1887, and someone must have received it for a present that very year, for it is inscribed in pencil on the flyleaf "Helen Louise Hutchins, Xmas 1887."

The book is charming, and entirely intelligent. It breathes of a day when leisured women sat down in their long skirts and wrote, with pen and inkwells and the vanished paper called foolscap, -- wrote, well, whatever they liked, and got it published. (Has the internet and its plethora of blogs partly recreated those conditions?) Our author gives us no less than thirty-three chapters running from "The early origins of manners, and their foundation on human reason" to "Etiquette of the ball-room" to "Gestures and carriage" to "Hints for young men -- Washington customs." Her education has been such that she can quote Shakespeare and Homer as needed, although she is modern enough to acknowledge Oscar Wilde, too. It takes intelligence to write:

... many persons think any dress is good enough to work in, no matter how old, shabby, and soiled it may be. This is a most unsound theory, and one which has more than a little to do with making people feel ashamed of work ... a person who thinks any clothes are good enough to work in does not appreciate the dignity of labor.

And it takes that touch of acidity, so delightful in an old-time author whose refined language makes her seem at first glance treacly-sweet, to notice:

Our political rulers are often men of no especial culture or early advantages. Even those who set themselves up as our social rulers are often utterly deficient in the important social prerequisite of grandparents ....

Mrs. Hall -- and I am sure that is what she would have liked to be called -- writes only briefly of wine. Like Fannie Farmer, she expects her readers not to need too much detail about the subject. She notes the new fashion for "broad, low, flaring" champagne glasses, but says she prefers the flute. For serving "hock" she recommends a green glass, and for claret or Burgundy, a red glass -- both suggestions which would be anathema now, when clear plain glass is insisted upon so that the wine drinker can appreciate his wine's color. As for what wine goes with what part of the meal, again like Miss Farmer, she repeats what must have been simple standard knowledge. Sherry with soup, then chablis, hock, or Sauternes with fish, then claret and champagne with roast, finally Madeira and port after the game; then more sherry, claret, or Burgundy with dessert, and then liqueurs or cordials after everything else.

No mention of varietals, no talk of merlots or chardonnays or what "jammy hints" will go with what. Hock, by the way, was the old British word for German white wines, as claret was the British term for red Bordeaux. So, roughly speaking, Mrs. Hall is recommending white wines with fish (though a Sauternes would be a very sweet choice), reds or champagne with a roast, and reds with dessert, with the fortified Madeiras and ports dropped in somewhere between courses, near the end. While red wine with dessert may sound odd, I must say I have had a pinot noir -- in other words, Burgundy -- with apple pie and have found the combination very nice.

Mrs. Hall also tells us that the vogue for setting the table with a tablecloth, plates and glasses, and decorative flower arrangements is all owing to the Russians. "These people," she writes in wonder,control in large measure the diplomacy of Europe, invent wonderful and dreadful forms of modern liberalism, write our best contemporary novels, and last but not least, lay down the law which regulates the tables of every civilized land.

She calls this vogue diner a la Russe, and it seems she's right about it. It includes not just the set table, but the bringing in of the different parts of the meal, as portions, to each diner individually. Mrs. Hall expected your servants to "attend" your guests in this way at your dinner party; today our waitress does it at the local restaurant when she brings appetizers first, then soup, entree, and so on. As the modern vernacular puts it, who knew?

Mrs. Hall also mentions dining with Emerson. This is startling. How did she attain the privilege of dining with Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the greatest literary lions of nineteenth century America? Her publishing house being in Boston provides one clue. A search of the internet -- little did she know she'd be googled someday -- adds another. Florence Howe Hall was prominent enough, and talented enough, to publish not one but several books, most of them on etiquette. But she also wrote The Story of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and there on its title page is her identity: daughter of Julia Ward Howe, poetess of the Hymn that Americans most recently pulled from storage for memorial services in the week after September 11.

History may not come full circle, but it does sometimes spiral around in striking ways. "If the reader finds as much pleasure," she says, "in reading these little details of ancient customs as the writer has enjoyed in collecting them, she will feel amply repaid for her labor."

How wine is made

No matter how many times I have read about the mechanics of making wine, and no matter how well professional wine writers simplify matters, I still have had a hard time understanding exactly what goes on. It is all fundamentally so ancient and easy, they agree: crushed grapes, natural yeasts on the skins, it sits it ferments voila you have wine. Of course if you do this at home, it won't be very good wine ... so then what else happens to it, at the wineries?

Months of reading and listening to people who know more than I do has helped clear things up somewhat. First, red wine is made by churning up the red grapes and letting the juice, pulp, and skins sit together for a while. All this goo is called the must. Churning red grapes gives red wine its dark color and its tannins (the compound that seems to make your mouth shrivel a little, the way strong black tea does). White wine is made by the juice being pressed out of the skins and allowed to run off and ferment separately, free of the skin color and tannins that would overwhelm a white wine's desired delicacy.

Grape juices, either red or white, can ferment and/or age in a stainless steel tank, in an oak barrel, or both in succession. Wine makers can rely on yeasts naturally present, or they can add more. When the juices have fermented and become wine, they are still going to be full of extraneous matter, even the white wines that were never churned up with their skins. If nothing else, they too carry the dead yeast cells -- the lees -- that have finished the work of fermenting and have sunk to the bottom of the tank or barrel. Wine drinkers don't necessarily want to see this, unless they have bought a great and expensive red, like a Bordeaux or a vintage port, which will go on aging and "throwing off" yeast-cell sediment even in the bottle.

So most wine is cleared before bottling either by being pumped gently out of its sediment-filled tank or barrel into a pristine one, or by having a special filtering agent laid on the surface of the liquid. (Or both.) This agent sinks slowly down to the bottom of the tank or barrel and carries all sorts of wine-gunk with it. The "agent" might be a particular form of clay, Bentonite, or it might be isinglass, taken from the swim bladders of a fish. When the wine is "fined" like this and is crystal-clear, it is ready for bottling.

Being about as germ-phobic as anybody else, I have wondered about what is done to wine to make it safe to drink. (By the way, Hugh Johnson in Vintage: The Story of Wine relates an old legend about wine being discovered in the royal court of ancient Persia, by a desperate harem maid who drank off some forgotten and weirdly bubbling grape juice, thinking it was poison and would end her troubles. When instead it cheered her and blessed her with "refreshing sleep," she told the king, Jamshid. The rest is oenophilia.)

Apparently, not a great deal is done to wine to make it "safe," because many of its properties -- alcohol, sugars, acids, tannins -- are themselves preservatives. If it should spoil it will simply become vinegar, which is itself another preservative (albeit an unpleasant drink). Wines aren't pasteurized, except for some kosher wines which are flash-pasteurized, because heat will cook the alcohol and ruin the taste. What the winemaker must do to ensure flavor is to ensure that his equipment is scrupulously clean. Cold tanks and cold cellars help, as refrigerators help us preserve our food. And what he can do is offer his land, vines, grapes, or wine, at a variety of points in the process, a little further help so that he ends up producing what he intended, and not something you would make pickles with.

One of these little helpers, to borrow a phrase, is sulfur. It is a normal part of fermentation anyway, and is present in many other foods, like bread and dried fruits. But it has also been used as a spray to prevent mildew on the vines, and to clean barrels of any surviving yeasts and bacteria that can live in wine, multiply, and make vinegar. Sulfur also protects wine from air itself, which in large doses is not wine's friend. (A cut apple or banana turns brown in air. Wine oxidizes in the same way. Johnson explains: "It has been said that before the advent of sulphuring, the grape variety scarcely mattered, since all wines rapidly oxidized and thereafter smelt and tasted similar.")

After the wine is bottled it is shipped to your local grocery store or wine shop, from whence you buy it and take it home. You can hope that the wine wasn't parked next to furnaces and boilers, or under hot lights, along the way, but at least once you bring it home the responsibility for it is yours. Some wine writers say that more wine, nowadays, is just plain good -- well made, well cared for, affordable, reliable -- than at any other time in the planet's wine-drinking history. At any rate we are more fortunate than our remoter ancestors, who used to keep the stuff in goatskins and dilute it with warm sea-water (from Johnson's Vintage, again).

And, for the germ-phobic among us, it is good to know that with wine we have a product that, as far as my limited knowledge goes, carrries no unsuspected problems in quite the way that ground beef, raw eggs, and unwashed lettuce can. It is meant to taste good and provide pleasure with meals; if it has "gone bad," the most it will do is fail to provide those pleasures, in which case of course you won't drink it. Voila.

"Sherman's Lagoon" by Jim Toomey. (c) 2008 Jim Toomey. Used by permission of the artist.

Hints of honeysuckle and olive paste, with aristocratic structure and a bony finish

I had been blogging for about six weeks when I realized that wine descriptors sound pretty goofy -- except when you kind of need to use them yourself.

I am beginning to be convinced that descriptions of the way a wine tastes -- "peach and mango notes, a hint of lychee, cream, and ginger" and so on -- are almost useless, and are one of the first things we should all throw out as we begin our adventures in enjoying wine. There is no way that another person's tasting notes are going to be of the slightest use to me, unless they encourage me to slow down and treat the wine as the sensuous, "foodie" experience it is. Wine does have lovely color and delicious smells; it is much more than fermented grape juice. When I take the time to smell, taste, and think for a moment or two about what a wine reminds me of, I find I do remember it, and I do take more pleasure in it than I might otherwise have done.

But no one can have someone else's tasting experiences, and so the trouble with all those little paragraphs in magazines, or even on the label of the wine bottle, describing wine in all that precisely flowery language, is that first of all they do sound ridiculous -- how can something taste like acacia (isn't that a tree)? -- and second, they discourage people from trying wine because they seem like tests that the newcomer has to pass before he can go on. If the back of even an inexpensive bottle of Gallo tells you that this wine has flavors of boysenberry, chocolate, and anise, and is "decadent" and "silky," what if you don't taste all that? Does that mean you don't understand wine, and should therefore stop trying it? Moving on to the really white-tie-and-tails professionals, here is a tasting note about a Vouvray, from the March 31, 2007 issue of Wine Spectator (p. 158):
"Taut and nervy, with a bony frame carrying fig, quince, and persimmon notes through the chiseled, minerally finish. Fine balance and length. Very precise. Best from 2008 through 2015. 2,295 cases made." (And by the way, wine professionals do chortle at examples like these themselves.)

The price of this Vouvray is $27, which isn't outrageous for a good French wine. (Note how many cases they've got to sell. Quite a few. It isn't as though they've only produced ten, and so have to sell each bottle for $500.) And Vouvrays are good. They are made from the chenin blanc grape, and are white wines of a very pleasant, part-sweet, part-acid flavor -- sweet and acid is the combination of soda pop, after all -- with a sort of lightly rich, nearly bubbly creaminess in the mouth. I wouldn't know what figs, quinces, or persimmons taste like, but the last part of the description, "best through 2015," tells us that this wine will still be good in eight more years. That's an important piece of information: a wine which can be aged that long is, you might say, the real deal, well made by experienced people who are looking ahead and planning to provide you with a nice return on your $27 investment in 2015. Or sooner, if you prefer.

This brings us to our third trouble with sensuous wine descriptions in magazines and on labels. They sound pretentious, they discourage newcomers, but they do represent somebody trying to convey information about quality in a beverage that is, to be fair, more complex and interesting than water, coffee, or diet Coke. Wines can be entrancing or disappointing or just plain weird for a reason, or for many reasons going back to the weather in the vineyard that year, or to the winemaker trying out a new grape clone whose characteristics turned out to be not what he expected. "Balance" and "taut" and "nervy" are all words that the wine writer is grabbing at, to try to express this. (Okay ... maybe he should have known he was going nowhere with "nervy.")

So wine descriptions are, for better or worse, probably going to be with us for a while. Someone, and I wish I could remember who it was and where I read it, pointed out that centuries ago wines were simply described as either "noble" or "well-bred" or not. By the mid-20th century, wines were described as either masculine or feminine. It has only been since the 1960s -- when the grape variety became the thing, and not the place of the wine's making -- that wines have been compared to fruit and flowers. And everything else. Wine Spectator boasts "More than 1,100 wines rated" in this issue alone.

We return to the problem that other people's descriptions of wine can never be yours. My suggestion would be not to try to make them yours. If nothing else (complaint number four, I think), the precision of all this wine-language makes wine seem as if it should be a cocktail, every one as recognizable and as different from the next as a Tom Collins is different from a Bloody Mary. Perhaps ( ...ssshh .....) that was never the case, and was understood not to be, back when our winebibbing ancestors merely classed wine as "noble" or "feminine." Perhaps it was all meant to be normal, good, and everyday, which is simplicity itself.

Wine-y recipes

"Grape Harvesters' Soup" comes from Richard Olney's Simple French Food, published in 1974 by Wiley Publishing. The presence of ripe tomatoes would indicate a recipe meant for August or September -- grape harvesting time (without that New World vegetable, it is simply a variation of the many variations of French onion soup). We ate it before a meal of leftovers, but being fresh-tasting, light, and a little tart, it would be a good first course before something really rich like duck or a pork tenderloin.

1 and 1/2 lbs. onions, thinly sliced (I used a leek as well);
1/4 cup olive oil;
4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped;
3 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped (I must admit I never peel or seed tomatoes. Once your fresh tomatoes are cooking, you can lift the peel from each one, especially if you only cut them in half to begin with and they have a big outer surface exposed to the heat. No need to chop coarsely -- they will fall apart. As for the seeds, my philosophy is deal with them.)
1/2 teaspoon sugar;
1/2 cup dry white wine;
6 cups water

Cook the onions gently in the olive oil in a large heavy pan, until they are light golden and uniformly soft. Add the salt, garlic, tomatoes, and sugar and continue to cook slowly, stirring occasionally, for another 10 minutes. Add the wine, increase the heat, and reduce by half, stirring, and then add the water. Bring to a boil, and continue simmering, covered, for 45 minutes to an hour. You can float a piece of garlic-rubbed toast in each soupbowl for serving.

These "Poached pears" come from La Bonne Soupe Cookbook by Jean-Paul Picot and Doris Tobias (Macmillan, 1997). The ingredients are simple: 4 or 5 pears, a lemon, sugar, and wine.

It will take about a week or so for your hard, grocery-store pears to ripen. Peel them (really), cut them in half, and cut away the stringy core. Immerse the halves in a small bowl with water and the juice of half a lemon. Bring 3 cups of wine -- red or white -- to a boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan along with 1 cup of sugar and a 2-inch slice of lemon peel. Once it boils, keep cooking it over high heat for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium, drain the pears from their lemon-water, and slip them into the hot wine syrup. Cook the pears until they are tender, about 10-12 minutes. Turn off the heat, and let the pears sit and cool in the syrup. They can be served at room temperature or kept in the fridge and served chilled. If you use red wine, after a few days in the fridge they will take on a deep red color. They are especially delicious at room temperature the first day, accompanied by a little scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Chardonnay, again

Learning about wine through tasting it is a little like learning a foreign language. After a while, the various experiences of flavors and smells begin to settle out, and -- just as in a foreign language you begin to understand when this tense is used or when that tense is used -- you begin to understand what you have read in books, or at least begin to understand what it is about wine X that you like, or about wine Y that generally you don't like.

Last night I tasted one of the "unoaked" chardonnays that are becoming fashionable among winemakers now, as they react to the overuse of oak barrels and oak chips to add depth to chardonnay. Strangely enough, this taste of a chardonnay "nu" (naked) helped me to understand why this grape might need a little time in an oak barrel to begin with.

The wine was Kunde Estate's Chardonnay Nu 2005, from Kenwood, California (Sonoma Valley). Wine writers say that you should consider three things when you try a wine, not so that you can be a Connoisseur but simply because these three things contribute to your pleasure and also tell you something about what you are drinking: they are color, aroma, and of course taste. This chardonnay had a lovely pale, clear yellow color, exactly like morning sunlight, as absurd as that sounds. (It doesn't take long before the novice wine drinker is compelled to use terms just as gooey as the professionals use. Other people's rhapsodizing might not be much use -- see a previous post -- but there is something about the product that just seems to require one's own groping after tangible, sensual word-painting.) It also smelled deliciously of pineapple and sweet lemon.

The taste -- well, I am not too sure about that, because as it went down almost all I tasted was "hot." That is alcohol. The Kunde's alcohol level was over 13%, to be expected since the chardonnay grape does tend to ferment to high levels. But for me, that spoiled the previous two pleasures of the wine. And I began to understand what wine writers mean when they describe, vaguely it seems, what oak does to wine. Makes it "gentler," they say, more sophisticated, complex, savory, smooth, soft, toasty, vanilla-y, and so on. I could well imagine a winemaker in Burgundy -- chardonnay's home -- centuries ago, tasting this and thinking "it needs something else."

But what? The Burgundian winemaker's answer, centuries ago, was "let's hold this in oak barrels." Most chardonnay growers and makers around the world ever since have agreed that was a good idea, except for those who are reacting to all that oaky uniformity and are fueling the nu backlash now.

And which is better, or at any rate more to your taste? It might depend on your meal or your mood or on lots of other things. That's the beauty of learning this particular foreign language. The more you understand, the more you get to decide the rules of usage yourself.

(Here: two typical and reasonably priced chardonnays: a Georges DuBoeuf from France, and Robert Mondavi's Woodbridge label. Jancis Robinson credits Mondavi with setting "the gold standard" for chardonnays in California.)

The difference between "sweet" and "dry" wines

It took a while for me to understand the difference in taste between "sweet" and "dry" wines. My first and I hope sensible question was, how can a liquid be dry? The distinction can still be hard to grasp, because some of the characteristics of some wines, like high alcohol levels or the presence of oak, can give a sensation of sweetness where in fact the wine's sugars have fermented away. The tannin in red wines can also leave your mouth with a dry, "chalky" feeling, even if the wine itself may have standard alcohol levels and therefore some residual sweetness in it. (No wonder the great aim of winemakers is "balance"!)

Sweetness, the wine books say, is a taste that you will recognize at the tip of your tongue, even if you hold your nose and thus don't smell a wine's fruitiness or other aromas. A dry wine will not show up, so to speak, at the tip of your tongue in that way. What made all this more clear to me was a taste of champagne.

At one of our Friday night tastings at the store we sampled four sparkling wines, just in time for New Year's Eve. One was a Moscato d'Asti, a sweet sparkling Italian white; one was a sweet French sparkler, Toad Hollow Risque, that was not champagne (no indeed -- Vin vivant, Blanquette Methode Ancestrale, the label carefully explained); one was a California champagne, Mad Annie from Woodbridge Cellars; and one was the real thing: Laurent-Perrier Brut, champagne from Champagne. (Venture to the cellar for a look at the labels.)

The Moscato d'Asti was very sweet, with an almost lemon-syrup flavor that would be great fun at a party or perhaps with a festive dessert. Toad Hollow Risque had a fresher, clearer flavor, and was a shade less syrupy. The Mad Annie California champagne smelled like tart apples, and had a plain hard feeling in the mouth that was very different from the first two wines. And then came the Laurent-Perrier. I sipped. I savored. I swallowed. And I thought: if you cooked stones in water, and then added bubbles, it would be this.

Now the French have not made Champagne the luxe gustatory goddess that it is by advertising it -- or by creating it -- as "bubbly stone-water." But that is exactly the flavor that it left in my mouth. I thought: all right, I understand. This is dry.

I didn't care for it, though it pains me to say so because champagne -- the real thing, the French thing -- seems so sophisticated that I feel I should like it. Every wine book rhapsodizes about it, and includes the delightful stories about goddess-figures like Marilyn Monroe drinking it at any hour of the day or night, or (intellectual) goddess-figures like Colette drinking it when tired, or excited, or sad or happy. It is supposed to be the perfect experience. The work that goes into making champagne is Herculean in itself. I have a new and slightly snobbish horror at what happens to whole cases of the stuff in Super Bowl locker rooms.

But I wouldn't come running for another glass of Laurent-Perrier Brut, at least, not yet. (The bubbles are a little seductive, I must say.) Experts affirm that with time and experience in wine drinking, your palate "dries out," and you develop a liking for less-sweet wines. Of course that implies that you are developing correctly in terms of personal sophistication. But, experts also say that there is definitely a modern-day stigma about sweet wines. Willie Gluckstern in The Wine Avenger, in his usual poke-the-reader-in-the-eye style, even claims that newbies always betray themselves by insisting, all the time and anywhere, that they want "a nice dry wine." Jancis Robinson notes more diplomatically (in How to Taste) that "in recent years the mass market has been schooled to feel proud of liking something dry," and Hugh Johnson says, "The world used to drink much more sweet wine than it does today -- though there are signs that sweet-lovers are at last giving themselves permission to indulge" (How to Enjoy Your Wine).

Johnson seems to be right about our ancestors' taste for sugar. Old menus from Fannie Farmer and Mrs. Beeton advise Sauternes, a lavishly sweet white Bordeaux, with the early courses of a meal, which traditionally would have been fish. Even champagne used to be very sweet. That famous and glorious Veuve Clicquot became the rage in the 19th century when its maker, Madame Clicquot, dosed it with plenty of sugar to appeal to the taste of the Russian troops who happened to be camped in their thousands all over the province of Champagne during the Napoleonic wars. It is less sweet now.

I would suggest that, as the modern day cliche has it, it's all good. Sweet or dry, white or red, all, or at any rate some one of them, have their place in your beverage repertoire depending on the meal in the offing, the guests, your mood, and so on. What does puzzle me is the mindset of people who will not drink or even try entire categories of wine, not for any health reasons that I know of, but simply by preference. I know people who are "reds only" or "whites only." Sometimes I'd like to be rude and quiz them. Of all the thousands of wines in the world, I'd like to ask, no red -- or no white -- can ever possibly please you? You're sure?

Well, perhaps they are sure. Madeleine Kamman writes very wisely, in her The New Making of a Cook, that over the years she has learned above all to respect people's innate tastes. And who am I to judge? ... I don't like champagne.

What would Mrs. Wilberforce drink?

A few days ago, some friends and I were discussing, among other things, gray hair. We are all at what I think the French politely call "un certain age." Nancy dyes, I don't, Melanie doesn't need to. Nancy mentioned a colleague who proudly does not dye, and who says, "I earned every one of these gray hairs."

" 'Nobody cares,' " Nancy said she riposted (I wonder). " 'I could be as gray as my mother, too, if I wanted. Dye your hair.' "

I wonder. Not long ago I watched the old Alec Guinness movie The Ladykillers, in which the otherwise practically unknown Katie Johnson plays Mrs. Wilberforce, the sweet or eccentric or dotty or formidable (insert better adjective here) Old English Lady. In this movie, set in the (contemporary) 1950s, she dresses in the fashions of the 1910s, speaks beautifully, recognizes Boccherini, defends abused animals, hosts crowded tea parties, cherishes the memory of the late Captain Wilberforce who drowned in a typhoon in the South China Sea while rescuing the parrot General Gordon, and otherwise drives Alec Guinness and his gang of bank robbers to distraction. When she relaxes with a book in her parlor, you just know she is reading Shakespeare or Alexander Pope, or a biography of Disraeli. She is the old lady I want to be.

Of course she's a fantasy -- people who know the movie notice that the screenwriter and director were both Americans -- but as philosophy teaches, to what can we aim, in any department of life, if not perfection? Mrs. Wilberforce does not dye her hair. In fact during the crowded tea party, she and her many friends all warble the old song, "Silver Threads among the Gold." There seems to be something about her, about that firm pink-cheeked face, nobly hooded eyes, and carefully set gray hair, which bespeaks a lack of anxiety about stopping things that can't be stopped. One gets the impression that this lack of worry leaves her time for Pope, tea parties, and Boccherini. That it makes her, perhaps -- ageless?

What would Mrs. Wilberforce drink? I suspect she would drink what the cookbook and manners writers of her youth would have suggested, the standard sherry with soup, Sauternes and whites with fish, claret with game and champagne with the roast. Cafe noir and bonbons in the drawing room, of course; one simply cannot imagine her guzzling diet Pepsi dressed in a fleece warmup suit after her workout. How nice it is to lament the lapses in tasteful, adult living that seem to have occurred before one was born, and that are therefore not one's responsibility. Certainly, then, one is excused from trying to ameliorate them -- one may simply complain. Always fun. Besides, isn't the world full of far more important problems? I wonder.

As a tiny little point of comparison, consider that when she made The Ladykillers, Katie Johnson was about 77. Not much older than Gloria Steinem is now. That icon of youth and freedom, of the appraising eye and the milky skin and the flowing hair, will be 74 a month from today.

Okay. I like champagne

I stand corrected, or perhaps I should say I kneel corrected. Je suis desolée. (I believe it was one of the Rombauer-Becker ladies, in The Joy of Cooking, who quoted Dumas fils as saying that certain champagnes should only be drunk kneeling with the head bared.)

I tasted a champagne last night, and it was not like bubbly stone-water. It was subtle, softly fizzing, light, slightly sweet, a little biscuit-y and buttery in its aromas, and golden, and marvelous. It was the kind of wine that mesmerizes and makes you want to take just one more sip, and another, and just one more after that. No wonder old-fashioned ladies from Fannie Farmer's time advised that it could accompany any part of any meal you liked, from aperitifs to the roast. No wonder the great Colette (I believe it was she) drank it in all moods. This one was (all in one breath) Besserat de Bellefon Brut, Cuvée des Moines, Blanc de Blancs, from Epernay, France. It costs $82 a bottle.

To decipher the label: "Besserat" and "Bellefon" are simply the surnames of the couple, M. Besserat and Mlle. Bellefon, who married and really got down to the business of establishing M. Besserat's family winery in the early 20th century. This French import may be called Champagne, of course, because it is from Champagne. Brut literally means crude or raw, and signifies the second-driest type of champagne made -- Extra Brut is the absolute driest. (The brut category of sweetness -- or lack thereof -- was created after "Extra dry" and "Sec," dry, had been around for a while.) Cuvée des Moines is a type of champagne-making perfected in the 1930s, involving a smaller dose of yeasts and sugars added to the base wines, so as to produce a little less fermentation and finer, more delicate bubbles. Cuvée means the mixture of still wines that go into the champagne, and moine means "monk," so literally Cuvée des Moines would mean "monks' mixture." I assume this reference pays tribute to the role of monks like Dom Perignon in creating champagne centuries ago. Finally, blanc des blancs -- white from white -- means that the champagne is made entirely from base wines of chardonnay only.

And really, there is nothing more to say. You merely drink it, and feel grateful that some kindly soul at the wine shop bought a bottle to open, and to share.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The annotated Sideways

Many people who liked Sideways remember it as the film where that guy hates that one wine. When I first saw it I was distracted by the frequent dropping of the F-bomb; recently I watched it again, and was pleasantly surprised at how funny it is. I also was pleasantly surprised to find that I could understand the wine references, which helped distract me from the F-bomb. Here are a few oenophilic notes:

When Miles (the wine geek) and Jack (essentially, the cave man) begin their road trip, they open a bottle of " '92 Byron" champagne. Wouldn't you know it, this very first reference is one I cannot seem to trace. Whatever a '92 Byron is, drinking it gives Miles a chance to explain to Jack that white wines are pale because the juices are not allowed contact with the grapeskins, and red wines are dark because that contact is allowed. Shortly after, Jack says he thought Miles hated chardonnay. "No," Miles explains, "I like all varietals. I just don't like the way California winemakers manipulate chardonnay with too much oak and too much secondary malolactic fermentation." Jack grunts, "Huh." (Jack grunts "Huh" a lot. His reaction to most of the wines they taste is also simple -- "It tastes pretty good to me." After a while you get the impression that Jack knows how to enjoy wine better than poor, anxious, knowledgeable Miles.)

What Miles is complaining about, the fermenting and/or aging of chardonnay wine in oak barrels, is a practice originating in chardonnay's home, Burgundy. Centuries ago, winemakers there realized that time in an oak barrel helped give the somewhat bland but high-alcohol grape a little sweetness and mellowness that it otherwise might have lacked. Malolactic fermentation did the same. Malolactic fermentation occurs naturally through the action of benign bacteria in the wine. If these bacteria are allowed to multiply, they transform the malic acid in wine -- the acids that, for instance, also make green apples taste tart -- into lactic acid, the same acids that make milk taste smooth. When hundreds of California winemakers do this, we end up with shelf after shelf of quite uniform tasting chardonnays year after year. Real-life wine professionals complain in similar terms, which is why reaction has begun and you can now find chardonnays proudly labeled "unoaked."

Then Miles explains, for the first time, something about the pinot noir grape, which he loves. It is delicate and sensitive to climate, he says, and does very well along California's coast, where the fogs wash in and cool "the berries" every night. Later on, he will expand upon his theme with a more sympathetic listener. Jack grunts "Huh."

At the first winery they visit, Miles gives Jack a whole lesson in tasting wine: hold it up to the light, look for color, judge age, swirl and sniff. Miles senses all sorts of things in his glass, like strawberries and passionfruit and a "soupcon of smoky Gouda." Can anybody really see or smell all those things in a wine, and does it matter? The point is that the pleasures of color, aroma and taste are all a part of the wine-drinking experience. If you try to put your sensations into words, you will remember the wine better and gradually develop an understanding of what you like and don't like. By the way, I have never seen anybody plug one ear while sniffing.

In time the guys meet Stephanie, running a tasting at a small, chic winery. She pours out a cabernet franc for them, and Miles tastes it and then dumps it instantly. "I've learned never to expect greatness from a cab franc, and this is no exception," he says, and Stephanie agrees with him. The cabernet franc grape is used as a blending grape in Bordeaux, along with the noble cabernet sauvignon. It also is used alone to make red wines in France's Loire valley. Miles' dislike of the cab franc is something it will be interesting to remember.

In the same scene, Stephanie pours each of them a generous glass while they stare at her, dumbstruck. "You are a bad, bad girl," Jack growls, and Stephanie smirks, "I know. I need to be spanked," as she flounces off. What happened? During a tasting, a one-ounce pour is the norm. The winery, or the wine shop for that matter, is after all giving away free wine unless they charge a cover fee, and not all do. Depending on how many bottles they are offering that day, it doesn't take long before an ounce of this and an ounce of that adds up to a full glass of wine for the patron anyway. The idea is, of course, that the patron will be impressed enough to buy a bottle or two.

Later, Jack and Miles stop off by the side of the road and Miles talks about a picnic he and his ex-wife had here, with "a bottle of '95 Opus One. We drank it with smoked salmon and artichokes, but we didn't care." Opus One is a cabernet sauvignon, as well as a winery making just that wine, produced as a joint venture first organized by Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild in 1979. The wine is and has always been very expensive -- the first case sold for $24,000 in 1981, and at the shop where I work we now sell the 2004 vintage for $180 a bottle. The reason Miles half-apologizes for having drunk it with smoked salmon and artichokes is because a smoked meaty fish would probably not be the best match for cabernet's dark heavy tannins, thick black fruit, and high alcohol content. Never having tasted it, I can't say for certain. I have encountered, though, a kind of reverse snobbery when it comes to Robert Mondavi and all his wines, from Opus One to the Woodbridge that you can find in a grocery store. "Overpriced for what it is," "all hat and no cattle," are two judgments I've heard delivered on Opus. As for Woodbridge, I've heard people sniff that they'll drink it as a last resort, perhaps if it's the best a restaurant can offer, provided they can dilute it with plenty of ice. For myself, I've drunk the Woodbridge pinot noir and found it very pleasant.

When Jack, Miles, and bad girl Stephanie meet Maya, all four -- well, all four except cave man Jack -- will exchange information about wine, about what they've tried, what they own, what they are saving for a special occasion. This is just about the point in the movie when Miles hollers at Jack that he's "not drinking any f---- merlot!" What's wrong with merlot? He never explains. (It happens that the most expensive wine in the world, Chateau Petrus, is a merlot, but the movie never tells us that.)

At their dinner together, the four friends start with Fiddlehead Sauvignon Blanc, "aged 12 months in French oak," Maya offers. The sauvignon blanc grape makes fresh, acidic, lime-and-grapefruit-smelling wines; it is also one of the noble grapes that goes into white Bordeaux. Aging in oak, therefore, is a treatment that our friend Willie Gluckstern in The Wine Avenger considers an abomination. Yes, the French do sometimes use a little oak in their sauvignon blancs, he admits, but in general oak barrel aging "would criminally mar the delicate purity of the fruit." So who knows more, Gluckstern or Maya (or rather, the scriptwriter) of Sideways? Maybe both know something. It is at this dinner, too, that Jack castigates Miles for having given them all "a ten minute lecture on Vouvrays." Vouvrays are one of my favorite wines, made from the chenin blanc grape, and named for the town of Vouvray in France's Loire valley. They are soft, rich, but not sickly-sweet, and unfortunately rather pricey ($25 and up). One of the wines prominently displayed toward the end of the dinner is a Pommard, another red Burgundy -- that is, a pinot noir for Miles.

When the four move on to Stephanie's place, we learn more about their tastes. Stephanie's prize bottle is a Richebourg, which her friends are not allowed to touch. Miles is impressed. This is a red Burgundy, once again therefore, a pinot noir. But it is more than just a bottle of pinot. Wine writer Oz Clarke (The New Encyclopedia of French Wines) says, "What a name! It has resonances of tremendous opulence, of sumptuous velvet and silk-smooth flesh, of scents dark and musky .... " Among the "best producers" of Richebourg is Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, which is nothing less than the most legendary, perfect, and adored vineyard in the world. Come to think of it, one wonders what freewheeling Stephanie is doing with this bottle. Perhaps it would have been a tad more realistic to equip her with something just a little less glorious.

Since they can't open the Richebourg, Miles and Maya settle for a bottle of Andrew Murray. "Well, okay," Miles says with quiet delight. Andrew Murray has specialized in making French Rhone-type wines, from the syrah grape, in Los Olivos, California, since the 1990s. As they talk about how they developed an interest in wine (while Jack and Stephanie are off being freewheeling somewhere else), Miles says that his prize bottle is a '61 Cheval Blanc. Maya is stunned at his possessing this treasure, and warns him he'd better drink it because the '61s are reaching their peak, aren't they? -- or even past it?

A Cheval Blanc is a French red Bordeaux, more precisely a cabernet franc/merlot blend made in the St. Emilion section of Bordeaux. Chateau Cheval Blanc is the specific producer. So, Miles' great bottle is a blend of the two grapes he can't stand. Towards the end of the movie when he sneaks wine into a diner and drinks it in a plastic cup along with his burger, this is the bottle he stashes beside him. If you hit the pause button you can read the label. Is this an in-joke? Or ignorance on the part of the screenwriter, or the novelist originally? Maybe we're to understand that great French wines -- for, like Stephanie's Richebourg, a St. Emilion is a very great wine, from a place that has been making these wines since the days of ancient Rome -- no matter their varietal makeup, are just different.

As for the wine that "did it" for Maya, that made her love wine, when she announces "Sassicaia" she is talking about another red Bordeaux-type wine, a blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. A Sassicaia, however, is Italian, made only since the 1960s by an Italian nobleman and now his descendants, who wanted to grow noble grapes on his land in Tuscany. This was a new idea in Italy then. Apparently it was a success, for the wine is covered with adoring adjectives by wine writers who have tasted it. In the huge book Vintage Hugh Johnson simply calls it "resplendent."

Alone together, Miles and Maya wax eloquent about the pinot noir grape and wine in general, and of course they are talking about life and being human, not just about a drink. They use words like need, survival, neglect, thrive, living, ancientness, and decline. More prosaically, though, they also talk about having a palate. "I discovered I had a really sharp palate," Maya says about the aftermath of the '88 Sassicaia. Earlier, Miles had reminisced about his ex-wife's great palate, and how she was able to differentiate even among all sorts of Italian wines.

What does it mean to have a good palate? I find it hard to believe that the palate, the sense of taste, is not pretty much the same among all human beings. We may have slight differences in the acuity of it as we do in the acuity of eyesight or hearing, but unless you have experienced some tragic physical loss, you can taste things. "Having a sharp palate," noticing things, is I think more a matter of paying attention and being willing to learn and remember, than a matter of a bizarre gift that some people have and some don't. Referring to the palate in such mysterious terms only serves, once again, to make inexperienced wine drinkers think the whole thing is just not for them.

The movie winds down with a couple of in jokes. Jack and an increasingly agitated Miles stop by to do some tasting at a huge winery that just screams "Gallo" -- or "Woodbridge" or whatever winery would best scream "tourist schlock heaven." There are huge crowds of people, there is a fountain burbling wine, there is a man playing trite Spanish music on a guitar, there are baseball caps and t-shirts for sale embroidered with the name of the winery. Miles is appalled at the wine offered, and calls it Raid. Interestingly, he offers reasons why: "Don't bother to de-stem the grapes," he recites bitterly, as if he is instructing the winemaker. "You're hoping for a semblance of structure. Grind it all up with mice and leaves ...." This makes you think -- after all, grapes are a farm product, and farms can't be kept pure of everything. This fictional winery is called "Frass Canyon." Frass is insect, and I think specifically gypsy moth, excrement.

And finally there's the name of Miles' would-be publisher, which eventually "passes" on his 759-page novel. It's Conundrum, which perhaps coincidentally is also the name of another higher-end California wine producer.

Liked the movie? Try the book, by Rex Pickett.

Their faces move

It pleases me to imagine that, in a very small way, I understand the experience of St. Paul in the agora -- that is, in the public square, b...