Wednesday, June 25, 2014

2012 La Crema Sonoma Coast pinot noir, 2011 Hob Nob -- and other notes

This is many customers' go-to, special-occasion-but-still-below-$30 pinot noir. From the good people at Gallo. Retail, around $18 on sale.

It struck me recently how uniformly good pinot noirs are, at practically any price point, despite the gag in the movie Sideways about the grape's delicacy, finickiness, and difficulty of cultivation, and the implication that therefore good pinot noirs are so rare. Not at all. Perhaps things have improved in the vineyard since the novel was written and the movie made, or perhaps author and film overstated the case. Of course it is still up to you to decide whether you like your pinots done in a California style, all fruit and chummy red lusciousness, or whether you like a thin, horsey, barnyard funk running through them and right up your nose, à la New Zealand's Oyster Bay (for example). My customer base shies away from the "earthy" and interesting weirdness of Oyster Bay. And I mention Sideways because I recently had auricular proof that that movie did have real power in the industry: a fine winemaker attested to me, not two weeks ago, that his merlot business is only now beginning to recover from the character Miles' famed refusal to "drink any f ------  merlot!"

Now, for notes on other things. Below, these are pluots. 

And, below again, this is the spectacular sunset we saw the night we returned from the movies. We went to see Maleficent. Did you agree it was nihilist? I didn't. The moviemakers may have wanted us to believe that the "hero was also a villain" -- ergo, we mustn't judge anybody -- but the movie itself proves otherwise: Maleficent regretted her action, sought redemption, and ended fighting true, if pasteboard, evil. That makes her heroic. Open-minded, terribly daring Western artistes are still more steeped in their own civilization than they know. As for true love's kiss being metamorphosed, curdled, into mother's love's kiss, well yes. Growing up and going out into the world to seek union with the Other is a keystone of Western maturity. Perhaps Angelina Jolie shouldn't have made a film which shows her philosophical ignorance in thrusting that aside. Still, mother's love is a love. On the whole I found the thing harmless if a bit dull. Then again, full disclosure: I have always been quite slow to pick up on metaphors. I was the kid in sophomore year high school American Lit. who didn't find any meaning in the billboard of the giant eyes in The Great Gatsby. When I was told about it, I lost all interest in Gatsby and in most novels. Watching Maleficent, I was the middle-aged mom who didn't understand that Angelina Jolie had had her wings cut off. ("Why is she screaming?" Upon which query, young adult children do face palm and eye roll.) It certainly did not occur to me that this was a metaphor for girls in general "having their wings clipped." If spotting subverted metaphors is the key to seeing nihilsm in today's Disney oeuvres, I'm not your man.

 On that same night we saw a rainbow, unusually high in the eastern sky, after very little rain.

 It's June. Time not only for light, slightly barnyard-y pinot noirs, but for solstices, Asiatic lilies,

wallflowers (orange, scented), and candytuft (purple).

Humid days and cool nights have given us a run of extraordinary sunsets. They look like the paintings in books of fairy tales.

And, would you believe it, we have discovered something new, the linden tree. Walking to the grocery store the other day, along a route I used to traipse with three small children in tow, in a very quiet secluded neighborhood dark with cool shadow, I smelled the most delicious, soft orange-like scent. In a few steps I came under the shade of a huge, darkly foliaged tree, frothed all over with the spent remains of little tufted yellow blossoms. Leaves and branches were interspersed as well with neat pale green pairs of what looked like drooping insect wings, or a maple tree's "helicopters." I consulted the internet and then my tree book, and found what I had found and smelled. It was a linden tree, also called "lime" though having no relation to the citrus fruit and tree. (It seems that once upon a time the words lind, line, and lime all sounded alike in medieval languages.) Lind had to do with ideas of flexibility or litheness, descriptive of the tree's soft, easily worked wood. Wikipedia tells us linden wood has been used for all kinds of things, from Viking shields to medieval German altarpieces to marionettes to modern day bass guitars. The tree is also called basswood. The flowers make herbal teas in themselves, and help bees make a prized honey.

Near Midsummer Day it seems only appropriate to open A Midsummer Night's Dream, and look for apposite lines. "Flower of this purple dye," the fairy king Oberon begins the chant of a spell. June also is the season of cherries, as Shakespeare knew. Helena complains: 
We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key'
....                      So we grew together,
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
Buy yet an union in partition --
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem; 
People often throw cherry about as a descriptor when talking of pinot noirs, so now you may have another one. This is Hob Nob, so very good; full indeed of cherries and other California fruit, it also has the tiniest streak of horsiness -- sufficient at least to banish it to the closeout rack of a rival grocery store. Retail, therefore, $8.99. Worth more.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

2012 Jacob's Creek Reserve chardonnay

This, my fatheads, is a souvenir from the days when At First Glass was moderately well known, well enough known at least to earn sample offerings from wineries' public relations firms. The Jacob's Creek reserve was very good; my fatheads know that I rarely do tasting notes or winemaker biographies, since wine always shows notes of peach and lychee, and every maker has passion, integrity, and respect for the land. I do stories instead. Somewhere in one of his great books Hugh Johnson himself said that was a better approach anyway. 

Sometimes I prefer just the notes to stories. If I jot -- "glorious summer. Picnic; laughter. Deer -- herons -- tern -- gulls -- swallows -- ducks -- pipers. World chaos. Strange giant snapdragon in a ghetto backyard," would that be enough for you to form a story of your own? 

By the way, the strange giant snapdragon in the ghetto backyard was actually a young catalpa tree. My friend who fishes was much struck when I told him I had looked it up and learned that. He said he knew of these trees as a source for the "catalpa worm," excellent as bait. Wikipedia confirms him: "The tree is the sole source of food for the catalpa sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpae), the leaves being eaten by the caterpillars. When caterpillars are numerous, infested trees may be completely defoliated. Defoliated catalpas produce new leaves readily, but with multiple generations occurring, new foliage may be consumed by subsequent broods. Severe defoliation over several consecutive years can cause death of trees. Because the caterpillars are an excellent live bait for fishing, some dedicated anglers plant catalpa mini-orchards for their own private source of "catawba-worms", particularly in the Southern states."

My, my. It's a big world out there. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

2011 Maryhill Moscato di Canelli, and Elizabeth's German garden

 I want you to have a glass of this sweet and slightly tangy (that's "acidic" to professionals) moscato on a fine summer afternoon, perhaps this weekend, and then I want you to read a book on gardening.

The introduction to this book, Elizabeth and her German Garden (by Elizabeth von Arnim, or Marie Annette Beauchamp) is almost as interesting as the book itself, for it explains, briefly and lucidly, the life and works of our authoress, and why she happened to have two names. The lady was born in Australia Marie Annette Beauchamp, and was a cousin of the more famous, New Zealand born writer Katharine Mansfield (nee Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp). Reared in England, where she "was always called Elizabeth," she married, or "was persuaded to marry" a German count, and so became a rather young countess Elizabeth von Arnim. For the publication of her first book, Elizabeth and her German Garden, the former Miss Beauchamp acquired in 1898 a third name: for in the gentle but surely expiring tradition of lady writers even then, she was at first Anonymous.

The book was a huge success, so that for subsequent editions her name, or at any rate her German name, was permitted to grace the cover. The Garden was followed in later years by more books, a few of which we might know better. She wrote Mr. Skeffington, made into that great movie of the same name in the early 1940s with Bette Davis and Claude Rains; she wrote Enchanted April, made into a movie in the early 1990s starring actors not quite so well known.

All this we have from one R. McGowan, writing in San Jose on April 11, 1998. Apparently he or she is the one responsible for getting Elizabeth and her German Garden scanned into the files of Project Gutenberg as long ago as that. Indeed he closes with, "In the centennial year of this book's first publication, I hope that its availability through Project Gutenberg will stir some renewed interest in Elizabeth and her delightful work. She is, I would venture, my favorite author ...."

I don't think I'll count Elizabeth as my favorite author quite yet. Her rough diary of a year at her country estate is certainly a unique view into a strange and vanished world -- faint praise; any good book should be that -- but there is also something unpleasantly dreamlike in these cool, guarded, yet outlandish portrayals of family, guests, servants, routine, holidays, chores, and weird excursions. There is warmth in the garden, but only there. And even there, the reader who is also a gardener will not be able to follow her too far in her hobby, even in sympathy, unfortunately. Though she began as an absolute amateur, still she was the wife of a count, and had the means -- the pin money -- to order things like a hundred rose bushes at a time, and to speak of stream and woods. Like so many garden writers, where she says "garden," she means property, the estate. There is a big difference, even if one tries to rejoice for her.

The rough diary, set down from the beginning of May to the end of the next April, is one half given over to the garden, and one half to a chronicle of indoor domesticities, chief among them a long midwinter visit from Irais and Minora. These are two women whom Elizabeth would far rather not have left on her hands, especially Minora, who is merely a young relation of a friend, taken in as a favor because she is alone in Germany and requires chaperoning. The girl also has literary pretensions. She is gathering material for a book on Germany. Elizabeth and Irais find her ignorant, credulous, and yet absurdly timid when it comes to any chance for an authentic German adventure.

Such as, for instance, a sleigh ride to the Baltic coast in the depths of winter. Minora starts out happily enough with her two companions, but after six hours of the cold and a cold picnic and then the swiftly gathering darkness, and pop-eyed, faux innocent assurances from Elizabeth that the elderly coachman doesn't fall asleep and overturn the carriage too often, she turns desperate and drops broad hints that they ought to stop at a neighbor's house for the night and continue home in the morning. Upon that she is treated to a long, sumptuously composed speech from Irais about how vulgar and pushing such a visit would be, and how even if they all were such rubes as to dare it, she herself would promptly be seated in the most uncomfortable chair in the house, in the spot preordained for unexpected visitors who are also virgins of no rank. Granted Minora's idea was a little awkward, still the reader wonders if indeed German etiquette at this time was so atrocious, or if Irais was indulging in deviltry, or if Elizabeth was making the entire scene up for the sheer joy of invention.

Regardless, it makes one sympathize with Minora, even though perhaps she was sometimes an annoying chit. And, to be fair to Elizabeth, long country house visits must have worn on the hostess' nerves in any society or era where they were once commonly made. Elizabeth wanted to get back to her garden and her family privacy. Still, in setting the stage for this long and not very funny story, Elizabeth had told us that she also likes to take her truly wearisome summer guests to these same Baltic beaches. The great joke there is that the seacoast in summer swarms with mosquitoes, which spoil the expectations of visitors who had thrilled to the suggestion of refreshing ocean breezes. After that, they tend to pack their bags and go home. So, I think, would I. I think also I do not make Elizabeth one of my favorite writers, not just yet.

A couple of scenes, if they are not much warmer than any others, nevertheless ring with a likable and unmistakable truth. In one, the young wife, mother and gardener tells us what it was like, not only to have servants to do your work, but to be forbidden to do your own work -- even if it was work you loved:

I did one warm Sunday in last year's April during the servants' dinner hour, doubly secure from the gardener by the day and the dinner, slink out with a spade and a rake and feverishly dig a little piece of ground and break it up and sow surreptitious ipomaea [morning glory], and run back very hot and guilty into the house, and get into a chair and behind a book and look languid just in time to save my reputation.

This was the mistress of the estate, and she could not garden. In another scene, that same young mistress proves her mettle when it is time to sack one of those servants. One day a door to a parlor swings open and the governess, Miss Jones, is accidentally overheard criticizing her employers in a private talk with our Minora. She pronounces, in a general way, that most parents "are not wise," that most pious husbands including the present master were probably rakes as bachelors, and that it's a sore trial for the governess to have to be polite and "even humble" to such pompous fools. Elizabeth walks in to the parlor, icily invites Minora to tea, and tells the governess she "wants the children for a little while." The next day, Miss Jones is gone, flung out into the great world with no good references, we may be sure. No mention of consulting the husband, "the Man of Wrath," in all this. No need to, it seems.

R. McGowan's introduction tells us that in time, Elizabeth had to leave this idyllic home -- we never quite know where it is, except that it is fifteen miles from the Baltic -- and go on to a probably much more urban second half of life. (Back in England? We don't know.) After the Man of Wrath died, she circulated among people fine enough to introduce her to friends like H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell, whose brother she married. Somehow, one doesn't see men like that mucking about in the compost days from any town, and knowing the names of a hundred roses, too.

The second marriage ended in divorce. With the outbreak of World War II, she fled to America, where she died in 1941.

Now of course the Garden is not all unpleasantly dreamlike, and mosquitoes and sacked servants. There is humor in it, and it would be unfair to leave you with no idea of it.

"I really think, Elizabeth," said Irais to me later, when the click of Minora's typewriter was heard hesitating from the next room, "that you and I are writing her book for her. She takes down everything we say. Why does she copy all that about the baby? I wonder why mothers' knees are supposed to be touching? I never learned anything at them, did you? But then in my case they were only stepmother's, and nobody ever sings their praises."

"My mother was always at parties," I said; "and the nurse made me say my prayers in French."

And there is the garden and the flowers, "which I have loved so much." (Even on the last page we hear a hint of a goodbye.)

"I love tulips better than any other spring flower; they are the embodiment of alert cheerfulness and tidy grace, and next to a hyacinth look like a wholesome, freshly tubbed young girl beside a stout lady whose every movement weighs down the air with patchouli."

I'm curious to know what Elizabeth's last novel, Mr. Skeffington, is like. Of course I have seen the movie, but I'd like to know if Skeffington shows some kind of arcing journey of the woman and the writer. I think it must, unless Hollywood transformed it sight unseen. From idyllic and adored German garden, the titled young mother, thirty, becomes a seventy-year-old telling the tale of a Jewish banker who barely escapes with his life from a Germany that now occupies another universe.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

House proud?

I ask you. Is it possible to be "house proud" of a place you have merely rented for twenty-five years? I have investigated the process of home buying lately and it is daunting given my income.Perhaps I was not meant for that kind of burden anyway, -- all that talk about sump pumps and closing costs. Perhaps I take after my near-legendary great grandmother who was "too busy rolling bandages for the Red Cross" to bother about lesser projects. Besides, when I say house proud what I really mean is garden proud, and even my garden would likely make true aficionados wince. Close up photos of flowers are all very well, but they are a bit like close up photos, indoors, of apples or cats: one doesn't see the weeds in one, nor the dusty bookshelves or abandoned socks on the floor in the other. And one carries on, renting.

Below, a "Wasabi" coleus. New in the market, I take it. 

Luckily I rent a place where a garden is possible. This year, I wanted four things: foxglove and hollyhocks again, and for the first time, cleome and cosmos. Would you believe it, I found them all. And not in artsy, orchid-stuffed garden centers or huge home improvement warehouses, but in a small local fruit and vegetable stand, and in the poky back room of a neighborhood hardware store.

Below, foxglove, Digitalis. Now we can pretend we're in a Miss Marple novel, and that someone is going to "accidentally" toss foxglove leaves into the salad. (They resemble very large sage.) You mustn't, they're poisonous.

In spring it is enjoyable to garden in the blazing sun and heat, just one afternoon or two. The winter was so long. After that, one will take care to dig and weed at cooler times of the day. The thunderstorm, just after I planted my foxglove, hollyhocks, cleome, and cosmos, was impressive. 

Below, cosmos, Cosmos bipinnatus. Gardeners can make themselves sound good by carefully quoting the Latin names of their plants, but it doesn't take any brains at all to do so. Just look at the tags that come with your poky-hardware-store purchase, and copy what they say correctly. Trust that no one's switched tags. A little cross-referencing in books with pictures helps.

And yet there can be brains in garden writing. I'm not quite sure what defines them. To recite Latin names and describe what one has done in one's own bit of earth is not a formula for an interesting book. It's downright annoying in the case of people who casually allow that they bought a two-hundred-acre farm in upstate New York just before setting out for that two year assignment in Algeria, so they had plenty of time to consult Hortus Third about the best spots for Anemone lesseri, and so on. See Elisabeth Sheldon's A Proper Garden (1989), which, despite annoyances, is a good book -- brainy.

Below, some type of peony, Paeonia.  The utterly ethereal pink of its outer petals is something no photo can do justice to. 


What sets interesting garden writers apart from the simple here's-what-I-do variety seems to be an instinct for noticing and appreciating small things -- ordinary things -- or perhaps (the other side of the coin) large patterns. My favorite piece of garden writing is an anonymous essay on a very small thing, the geranium. It was originally published in Scribner's Magazine's "Point of View" column in July 1914, and was reproduced in the excellent anthology The Once and Future Gardener (ed. Virginia Tuttle Clayton, 2000). Here, the Anonymous lays out the case that the geranium, the potted one, Pelargonium, is exactly what the garden needs in midsummer when the glorious procession of spring-flowering bulbs (daffodils, tulips) and perennials (foxgloves, hollyhocks) is over. Pelargonium, the writer says,
is too wise to want to interfere with the repose which must follow a period of great activity. She would only fain prevent an entire collapse, and would gently keep the garden's head above water until such time as it feels like swimming again. She can do this as no one else can, blooming brightly and quietly here and there among the discouraged plants, keeping up general appearances .... The exhausted garden  ... needs to be laughed at a little; and this function the geranium can perform for it amiably, not hurting its feelings but rallying it: "Come now! You are tired, but that does not mean the rest of the universe is undone." 
And as for good garden writers noticing larger patterns, we consult again our Finger Lakes-by-way-of-Algeria transplant, E. Sheldon of A Proper Garden. In Chapter 4, "Who should design your garden?" she asserts first that everyone really should cultivate whatever greenery they enjoy. Then she describes the unpleasantness that tends to result. She is commendably honest.  
In plumping for homemade gardens I must admit my intolerance of other people's ideas on what constitutes a proper garden. That it's homemade doesn't cause me to temper my cries of pain at the sight of raised beds made of cement blocks, of planted tires, of top-heavy, overfed and overbred dahlias, lashed like felons to rows of stakes, of marigolds marching around a fake wishing well, of large circles of flaming cannas edged with mournful wax begonias in the middle of a pocket handkerchief lawn ....
I stand witness to just those gardens, only sometimes people replace planted tires with planted bed frames, or eschew pink flamingos in favor of plaster statues of kissing Dutch children, or matching wooden cutouts of farmer-clad Ma-and-Pa buttocks, bent over. As if gardening.

Garden however you will, the thing about renting forever is you really can't name your house, which is what everybody does in Miss Marple and other delightful English novels. And it's not just the rich who do it; Miss Marple is by no means well to do but lives in "Danemead" anyway, and of course we can easily recite the house names from Mapp and Lucia. There is Wasters and The Hurst and Taormina and Mallards. Plenty of these householders are of quite ordinary circumstances. Perhaps then all the names are meant to be a joke, one which we anxious Americans don't get, just as we stand perplexed over English gardening instructions only applicable to mild English weather. Elizabeth Sheldon notices this too and complains about it, but still her two hundred acre farm grates on me and I feel she hasn't got a leg to stand on.

Can I name a first floor apartment in a century-old farmhouse? Perhaps, "Tresco" after the famed gardens of Tresco Abbey on the Scilly Islands (off the coast of Cornwall)? Or shall I open Elizabeth Sheldon's A Proper Garden, and choose as a name the first word my finger points to?

It's "couldn't." 

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...