Thursday, January 29, 2015

Oatmeal cookies! Opera! Margaret Thatcher!

Dear things, my fatheads, we have discussed rather serious topics lately and it has been ages since we simply baked some cookies. Let's do that. If you combine two recipes from Betty Crocker's Ultimate Cookie Book  (1992), namely "Ultimate Oatmeal Cookies" and "Old-fashioned Rum Raisin Cookies," you very cleverly get Oatmeal Cookies with Rum-Soaked Raisins. Start by simmering 1 cup raisins in a combination of 1/4 cup rum and 1/2 cup water for 20 minutes, until they absorb all liquid. As they simmer, you may prepare everything else.

And by the way, just one thing. You know how I have the greatest fascination with, and respect for, sopranos. A few nights ago I discovered another, Edita Gruberova, whom you may see in the documentary The Art of Belcanto. (This is not the same documentary from the mid '80s about June Anderson, called The Passion of BelCanto.) Watch the sixty-two-year-old, swathed in blue veils and crowned with a blue crown, climb the steps up to the stage to deliver herself of "Casta diva" from Norma. Then, toward the end of the program, watch her in a business suit and pearls sing some role -- the subtitles did not make this clear, though a bit of research turns up Donizetti's Roberto Devereux  -- which the director says he wanted her to interpret as though "she were a sort of Margaret Thatcher character." I understood the words "Margaret Thatcher" even without subtitles. The suit, pearls, and titian-blonde wig did the rest.

In one scene, probably at the opera's climax, the diva in mid-aria reaches up and peels off her wig while keeping a ghastly expression on her face. Another maestro, in his interview, exults on how masterful and shocking the scene is. I don't doubt it, and I salute the diva. My question is this: "a Margaret Thatcher-like" character? No, I should say the character is Margaret Thatcher: if this is just one scene, then I think we can be sure that for the rest of the opera also, by gesture and word and deed, this character is understood to be all evil, corruption, danger, and viciousness, and yet all inner sickness, terror, and failure too. Why Thatcher? Assuming for the Donizetti we must keep to an "English court" setting, why not, oh -- the Vogue offices of Anna Wintour?  Imaginative opera directors could do something sacredly provocative with that, don't you think?

But no. Margaret Thatcher is a much plumper target. Even though she died at the age of 87 in 2013 and had been out of office for almost a quarter-century by then. All right, be fair. When this opera was staged in 2005, she was only 79 and had only been out of office for fifteen years. Why does it so deeply satisfy artistic orthodoxy to portray her, still, as something the knowing can shudder at, and yet happily pity? For how many more European generations will the costume of business suit, pearls, and backswept titian wig signify moral nightmare?

"The left hates her -- because she thrashed them," one of our sources says.

Continue with recipe.

Betty Crocker's Ultimate Oatmeal Cookie with Rum-Soaked Raisins

Have your rum-soaked raisins ready.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. In a large bowl, mix:
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
Stir in
3 cups quick-cooking or old fashioned oats
1 cup flour
the rum-soaked raisins
Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls about 2 inches apart onto an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 9 to 11 minutes. Remove immediately from sheet and cool on racks.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Yard sign riposte, and Antica cabernet

I was wondering when some bright soul would think up a riposte to the yard signs you see around the neighborhood, announcing in red and blue, "Proud Union Home." These cropped up, it seems to me, around the time of the 2012 presidential election, and they seemed to be a way of saying "I vote Democrat" or "Yay Obama" without actually saying so. (Perfectly fine attitudes, why not say so?)

As I drove past I used to idly think what a good riposte would be. "Proud Free Home" perhaps? But that would not be fair, since our neighbors with their union signs are also fellow citizens who are free -- well, as free as any of us. "Proud Right-to-Work Home"? Too much text for a two-foot-by-two-foot placard, and anyway "right to work" has a political definition, a backstory as it's called, that also won't fit. What was needed was some sort of three-word slogan to convey the idea, "We respect your right to put up a union-friendly yard sign, and we are glad that years ago labor unions agitated for things like the 40 hour week and paid sick days, but experience is teaching us that in the long run, unions sink the ship. They demand that businesses try to stay in business while paying money to men who no longer work and to their survivors as well, sometimes for decades. It can't be done. Public sector, government-job unions are even worse. Survivors' paychecks must come from the tax payers, which means that if you in that Proud Union Home are a former schoolteacher perhaps, then I in the home without a yard sign am supporting you. You're welcome."

It did occur to me that a yard sign simply saying "You're Welcome" in red and blue might be pithy enough, but it would also be too cryptic, even if it was placed directly next door to the proud signs in question. And we can't have a square of cardstock big enough to go on musing, "You know, half the reason unions even got their start was through government largesse. The good old Sherman Anti-Trust Act should have included labor unions as 'criminal conspiracies in restraint of trade,' exactly as the evil robber barons' businesses were, but organized labor was specifically exempt from that. And then the Wagner Act imposed federally established labor unions on business, did you know that? (See Hughes and Cain, American Economic History, sixth edition, Chapter 18, 'Big Business and Government Intervention'). It's not all about how solitary and martyred you are." No, TLDNR -- too long, did not read, as the young people text nowadays.

But somebody has thought of something. A yard-sign riposte. Driving around doing errands yesterday, I saw more than one large white square, planted in a bare, wintry garden bed or in front of a picture window, proclaiming: "Blessed Christian Home."

There you go. It does everything the Proud Union Home sign does. It states a fact about a private family, but also in three simple words it arrogates to itself a hundred virtues and an entire heroic past, a backstory, which it seems to deny to all neighbors who haven't got the sign. I would think that many PUH families looking at the BCH signs would pause as they fetched their mail or carried their groceries from the car and say, "But wait a minute. We're blessed, too. And besides ...."

Now there is no reason after all this why you may not have some wine. This time, it's from California. 2009 Antinori Family Estate Antica cabernet sauvignon. Retail, about $35.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

WXRT's cowbell "dog whistle," plus more French wine

Slice of life: I am at work, and the radio station playing all over the store is Chicago's own hoary, too cool for words "classic rock" WXRT. I distinctly remember being confused, as a child of seven, about what "classic rock" meant. (The station went live in 1972.) I thought that " 'XRT" was going to play both classical music and rock, which struck me as a strange but good idea: imagine hearing something of Mozart or Beethoven, followed by the Rolling Stones or Iggy Pop's "Real Wild Child" from the same station. Nobody seemed able to elucidate matters for me, back in the Nixon era. And 'XRT never played any Mozart.

Fast forward to 2015. The same staff are on the payroll. The pushing-seventy-year-old Terri Hemmert was in her glory, two days ago, remembering Doctor Martin Luther King Junior, and how she was in college at the time, and those were dark days, my friends. Then she played John Lennon's "Imagine."

Yesterday, a different host played a brief sound bite of Senator Ted Cruz reacting to the previous night's State of the Union speech. The senator from Texas said that the President's tax-and-spend proposals reminded him of an old skit from Saturday Night Live starring Christopher Walken, "where, if you remember, there is a band playing and his solution to every problem is ‘more cowbell,’ ‘more cowbell.’ Well, for President Obama, ‘more cowbell,’ is ‘more taxes, more government,’ ‘more taxes, more government.'”

After playing this bit, 'XRT seguéd immediately into the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" (1969), a song which begins with a cowbell. And that, my fatheads, was all the comment our own hoary, too cool for words classic rock station needed to make, to reassure its listeners that Ted Cruz, conservative, is an uncool moron trying to prove his chops by quoting the always-cool Saturday Night Live -- with Christopher Walken, icon of The Deer Hunter Russian roulette scene, thrown in! -- and therefore failing miserably. That Cruz looks like a young Bill Murray playing a dopey senator from Texas only hilariously closes the circle of uncoolness.

Anyone who has pointed out in the last few years that Republicans have a branding problem, at least with the cool people if not with voters, hasn't gone far enough. Republicans and conservatives together have a "branding problem" with the cool people in the way the Jews of 1930s Germany had a branding problem with Nazis. Another political minority, as it happened. At the heart of it, know this. Dear Senator: and others: you are never going to be allowed to define yourself with this aggressive and beatifically smug minority; they will define you. That's brand failure, surely. You'll recall that the brand of the European Jew only recovered, a little, after considerable violence.

Anyway all this is no reason we can't have a glass of wine. You'll recall also that we have decided to drink more French wines in the new year. Such as 2010 Château des Arnauds (the producer), Cuvée des Capucins (the blend in this bottle); from Lalande de Pomerol, the A.O.C. or, is it now the A.O.P. (the region of Bordeaux the wine comes from)? In sum, a four-year-old merlot blend, inexpensive, good. Retail, about $13, possibly half that on sale.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

(Pictures of) things forbidden by Islam

Pluot likes to think it has a reason to pay attention to the serious things of this world, even though a wine, food, and cocktail blog maybe shouldn't. It seems frivolous and disrespectful to the dead to do so; but it seems ignorant and disrespectful to the dead not to do so.

The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were murdered because they drew unflattering pictures of Mohammed. (Although to say even that is to degrade their memory. They were murdered because their murderers were evil men who "made the personal decision to end their lives." Years ago when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, I remember a rabbi at a memorial service used exactly those words to describe the crime -- the Prime Minister was killed not "because of" his political acts but because one man made the personal decision that Yitzhak Rabin should not go on living. The responsibility is the killers', no one else's.) Molly Norris is still in hiding -- incredibly -- because she drew lots of little pictures of ordinary things , each one cartoonishly announcing "I'm the real Mohammed!" -- a cup and saucer, a spool of thread. No kidding.

Only there are so many things forbidden in Islam. To draw or post pictures of any or all of them is barely to begin to inventory Western civilization. Andrew McCarthy offers a partial list: Islam forbids:
  • musical instruments
  • "pictures of animate life" -- people, animals, plants; so, oddly enough I suppose you could draw a picture of a harp or a violin, but not have one or play one
  • singing, unless unaccompanied by instruments and based on Muslim texts encouraging obedience to Allah. Go here for a taste of the former Cat Stevens expressing his longing for "victory over the kuffar" in one of these "nasheeds."
  • drinking alcohol   
  • women leaving their homes without male permission and/or uncovered
And so on. Therefore the wine bottle label shown above, Orin Swift's Abstract (retail, about $30), is offensive to Islam on several points. We are looking at pictures of animate life, pictures of uncovered women, we are looking at alcohol. Just think what else, not on this label but in general, is not merely "offensive" to display, but not permitted in life.

A harpsichord, decorated with pictures of animate life.

A harp. Pink! And ...

...if musical instruments are forbidden, then so is Mozart. 

And so is she. Maria Callas. Woman, uncovered, outside the home without male permission. Singer. Triple, or is it quadruple? whammy.

Animate life, woman, uncovered, etc. 

You get the idea, above, as Bacchus offers you a glass of wine, and below, as you admire animate life. And there is a woman in the sun, rather well-covered actually.  But still.

Let's have more wine. Appropriately, almost all those pictured here today are rich, opulent, port-like reds. Good for winter sipping and winter meals, good for symbolizing our rich, opulent civilization. Don't take it for granted.

The Cuttings, from The Prisoner wine company. Retail, about $50.

Fog Head pinot noir. Not as port-like as the previous two wines, but a pinot noir also not, I daresay, made in the spare or earthy Burgundian style. And delicious, too. Retail, about $20.

Quinta do Noval Late Bottled Vintage port, 2005. Retail (if available) about $30. Port-like, because it's, well -- port. Note the tart, clean juiciness that sprawling, lush California jam-bombs tend not to have.

Now I have uploaded quite a few images that are not mine, so it is possible that in a few weeks or months, the interwebs' copyright patrol might find them and take them down, even though I have been careful to link to all their sources. So here are a few others, all my own. I call them Animate Life.

(You can barely tell, but a heron keeps pace with a speedboat here. Or, as Ayatollah Khomeini once said, "there is no fun in Islam.")

Sunday, January 4, 2015

2013 Domaine Laroque, from the land of the Cathars

Enclosed please find a tasty French bargain, a southern Rhône-type blend. Looks more daunting than it is. We love the romantic sounding appellation, Cité de Carcassonne. Although, really, Cité de Carcassonne is not an appellation, it is legally a lower-tier Indication Géographique Protégée. This means the wine's sourcing and making has proceeded under less stringent controls than an AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protégée) wine. You may remember that today's AOP wines are the AOCs (Appellation d'Origine Controlée) of yesteryear. Go here for a neat summary of "recent changes to French wine law," and for a sensible assessment of Why They Did It. Declining sales seems to sum it up. We know a little about that

We say the IGP of Cité de Carcassonne sounds romantic, but we don't know the half of it. Carcassonne is a medieval walled city in the south of France, "painstakingly restored" as TripAdvisor tells us, not too far from the Mediterranean to the east and the Spanish border to the south. To look at tourist photos of the site, to look at course upon course of jagged gray stone battlements capped by small conical towers (that's the painstakingly restored part, apparently none too authentic), all surrounded by greenery and all gleaming in the summer sun, is to transport oneself back eight hundred years or more. We are peasants tramping this road by the apple trees below the walls. We are tending the grapevines in a July or August heat. We are standing on the narrow high ramparts -- or we are worried about our sons manning those ramparts -- gazing anxiously across the tumbled green rocky landscape towards some fresh army, commanded by some besieging Raymond VI or Roger IV. Romantic, yes maybe, but a ghost from that time might like to come forward and smack us full in the face for saying so, because it is also romantic in the way Iraq ruled by the Islamic State today is romantic. In other words, not at all. 

Eight hundred years ago, it seems Carcassonne and its neighbor towns, Toulouse, Béziers, Albi, were the centers not only of the part of modern France called variously the Midi, Occitania, Aquitaine, or the Languedoc, but of a strange, thriving half-Christian religion, Catharism, which the French monarchy and the Catholic church required almost the whole of the 13th century to put down. This war, done in two phases lasting nine years (1209-1218) and then forty-six years (1225-1271), is called the Albigensian Crusade. Its pretext had been the assassination of a papal legate in the south; for a generation before that, worried church General Councils had failed to cope with the heresy, the Cathars ignoring even the powerhouse preaching of Dominic Guzman, St. Dominic himself. The wars' worst moment came in the year 1244, when the Cathar stronghold of Montségur fell to thousands-strong royal and papal armies, and several hundred defeated men, women, and children were dragged down the mountain and thrown alive into one pyre. Think ISIS.

I am not the one to tease out all the right details of a terrible story. What interests me more, since the poor souls in question have been at rest for eight centuries, is the way modern people tell and re-tell it, even inhabit it, now. Today's Catholic Encyclopedia online shows us a scholarly article from 1907 going into calm detail about the Cathars' doctrinal links to other neo-Manichean sects, but saying little about any violence except to acknowledge that the death penalty was "inflicted on them too readily." In his survey The Divine Order, Henry Bamford Parkes (1969) chronicles ghastly European centuries in which European feudalism itself takes the blame: even though the arrangement of society into small fiefs worked by peasants and ruled by armed men made sense when that was the only answer to the Mad Max-ian chaos of barbarian invasion, that same arrangement fed upon itself when Goths and Vikings were gone. Bad enough that younger sons had no way to get land but to conquer it from their fathers' neighbor over the hill or beyond. Add the Church's assurance that looters could also earn forgiveness of sin and centuries exempt from Purgatory by killing heretics (Parkes claims), and you have a workable recipe for another army at the gates of Carcassonne -- or Béziers or Albi -- decade after decade after decade. "The sacking of a city," he says, "was an orgiastic performance, the most pleasurable available to medieval man, offering a release from all moral inhibitions that was quite as complete as the most savage of primitive fertility rituals and much more bloody and destructive." Think ISIS.

This is where other voices re-telling the story, even inhabiting it, come in. The Cathars had a bizarre and grim faith, but in some ways it was very much after our soft modern hearts. They believed that the universe was subject to two divinities, one good and one evil, and that everything in the visible world had been created by the evil one. Therefore the body, food, animals, sex, procreation -- essentially all life was bad. The soul, created by the good principle, longed only for escape and reunion with heavenly good. Suicide was thus commendable, preferably by starvation (endura), and concubinage outranked marriage because it was less permanent. Homosexuality was better than sex between man and wife, precisely because it did not lead to the evil of more children. They also believed that Jesus, "very perfect" but a mere creature, had not lived on earth as a man -- since as the Redeemer and the epitome of good he could not take on flesh -- but had only appeared to do so. We begin to see why the Cathars caught the attention of the still struggling-to-grow Church.

Where their beliefs most please our soft modern hearts is in their pacifism, egalitarianism, vegetarianism, and their rejection (poignantly enough) of capital punishment. We hear also that they were tolerant, wealthy, cultured -- the troubadour songs, the medical school in Toulouse -- leisured, democratic, but nobly defiant of the medieval Church's blowhard corruption, and so on. Although they had rules of their own, too. "The necessity of absolute fidelity to the sect was strongly inculcated."

We love this. It's easy to get romantic about a sunny land that seems to have been populated with sunny people, especially if we moderns in our reading and research strike gold in that sunny word, tolerance. Surf the net and you will find modern people who want to inhabit this story. They fancy themselves Cathars, guided by spirits from the thirteenth century and signing their PDF reports, deliciously, by the title Parfaite. The Cathars' egalitarian priestly hierarchy -- celibate, mind you -- were called this, men being parfaits and women parfaites. Modern people also can be bewitched, it seems to me, simply by the musical names of the old Occitan language: there are martyred heroes called Belisenne and Caraman, heroines called Esclaramonde and Aude, there are beautiful place names like Pamiers, Fanjeaux, Foix and Pereilha. Go here for a long and impossibly tender tale of the orphaned young female knight/sorceress/animal whisperer, another Esclaramonde, illegitimate daughter of the ravishing and tender fallen abbess Na Ermengarda, who had returned to her lands in Telho to give birth when her position in the convent became impossible. I should say so. We don't hear what sort of convent it was, Catholic or Cathar. 

I love this. I am always interested in modern people who try to bring, not just the spiritual but the supernatural into their lives in at least a somewhat serious way, and I am interested in the effort of imagination it takes to believe you are a part of a past group. I was a convert myself but at least I joined a present group. If you wish to inhabit this particular, dreamy story, there's no risk in being "a Cathar," but also no real comfort. No northern baron, no Sir Boeuf will drag you down from Montségur and throw you into a fire -- although if you are a Christian in Iraq, ISIS will -- nor can any fellow worshiper give you the Consolamentum, or stand tenderly impressed if you choose to die by the endura. Owing to both these facts, the stresses on one's true, religious enthusiasm must be immense and also ridiculous. What then is the appeal? I can only think it's really the enjoyment of a rich fantasy life, combined with a feeling of safe, retroactive superiority to Christianity and maybe the West in general, as deservedly defanged institutions. This is why I take the glowing information about the Cathars with a large grain of salt. It's not that the Catholic church's and the French state's violence against them was not horrific; it's just that when a group of people are so very congenial to the most fashionable modern attitudes that we begin to see them as tender knight/sorceress/animal whisperers, as people possessed of a perfect worldview ("paratge,") lost to human understanding forever, I begin to wonder. Were they not also human beings? With flaws and pettinesses? What did they do to you if you questioned them? "Fidelity to the sect strictly inculcated." Again, we consult the Catholic Encyclopedia. 
Moreover these sects were in the highest degree aggressive, hostile to Christianity itself, to the Mass, the sacraments, the ecclesiastical hierarchy and organization; hostile also to feudal government by their attitude towards oaths, which they declared under no circumstances allowable. Nor were their views less fatal to the continuance of human society, for on the one hand they forbade marriage and the propagation of the human race, and on the other hand they made a duty of suicide through the institution of the Endura (see CATHARI). It has been said that more perished through the Endura (the Catharist suicide code) than through the Inquisition.
Admittedly this is a "hostile" source, but as far as I can see the hostile sources also tell us of the Cathars' sophistication, leisure, vegetarianism, and tolerance. In the middle ages they "poured all over Western Europe," the Encyclopedia says. This is startling. Invaders pour. We have visions not of Joan Sutherland as Esclaramonde in white veils, but of the garbage-strewn rape camps and the well-to-do, chanting, young, malicious ignoramus-protesters of Occupy Wall Street. We forget how much of Europe then was young, young, painfully and stupidly and ferociously young. Thirty Cathars had already reached England in the 1160s. Henry II had them branded on their foreheads with hot irons, whipped, and then turned out ... to starve. (It was forbidden to aid them.) Why? Again it's not that we are looking for ways to "blame the victim," or that we don't acknowledge completely innocent suffering. Have you ever known people who kept a copy of Mein Kampf in their homes, because "they wanted to find out Hitler's side of the story"? Sometimes when it comes to innocent suffering there isn't another side to the story. There is only suffering. The troubadours fleeing Montségur wrote bitter songs on the triumph of evil.

No, anyway it's just to look for the truth about an old, unhappy, far off thing. And to note that today's morning-dew "Cathars" or even their sympathizers would fit perfectly into Mapp and Lucia, or some other mid-1920s English social-comedy novel stuffed with harmless lorgnette-carrying London eccentrics. Perhaps that's very lucky for us, I mean the harmless part. As to the wine, the Cité de Carcassonne IGP which we opened ages ago -- remember? -- the wine which the parfaits would have considered just a part of this evil world; it retails for about $10. Enjoy it.      

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Pluot turns seven! (in a way) and --

 -- I was going to say, " -- and fights climate change," sarcastically, because I just had a (let us say) communication from a (let us say, extremely distant) colleague to warn that the taste of wine as we know it may soon vanish as our planet warms, and vineyards of olden time are ruined from the heat.

It's absurd, of course, but polite people are trained not to question another's religion, and this is what this is. (Then again, why are the left-wing religious allowed to trumpet their beliefs at all times and places?) Merely to start with, my colleague either has never heard of, or doesn't care about, the East Anglia emails, about the fraud of the Hockey-Stick graph, about no warming having taken place for going on twenty years, about robustly expanding Arctic ice caps and thriving polar bears. Nor can he or his fellows I think ever have questioned how the Earth could have been a hothouse jungle in the age of the dinosaurs, when there were no evil humans to drive cars or pollute the atmosphere, nor again how it could have endured Ice Age upon Ice Age geologically very recently, recovering in between -- passim climate change, no? -- again without evil humans doing much about it. 

For no, that is not what global warming climate change is about. For all the believers it is about man's depravity, and about the need of a faithful elite to absolve him of his sin and guide him to a clean utopia, sometime in the future. Never mind those clanking chains you hear, and the doors being shut and bolted all around. It is all for everyone's good, and we shall all be happy soon. Meanwhile the struggle gives life-purpose to all kinds of people, especially those who were born to be high priests, or inquisitors or maybe just village bullies.

I am convinced "within myself," as characters in Jane Austen novels used elegantly to put it, of three things: one, that our descendants will one day laugh delightedly at the image of us, worrying about climate change ruining all our wines (incidentally, don't utopian left-wingers scoff wisely at "First World problems"?); two, that some portion of Western humanity still has not come to grips with the Industrial Revolution, and yearns wild-eyed to go back to the days of rural quiet and Jane Austen novels -- before "the fatal knowledge of machinery," as a character mourns in a far different novel, the once-blockbuster Lost Horizon; and three, that we should all thank God Western man has at least made moral progress enough to spare us our frustrated utopians' coming after us with fire and the stake, as their spiritual precursors once did. When a high priest or a simple bully has no argument for his plans except "shut up," violence must be horribly tempting.

So here at Pluot we fight climate change by laughing at it, remembering the proverb [the devil hates to be laughed at]. We believe that no man has the right to make another human being say that what is false is true, and vice versa; no one has the right to insist a whole society agree dementia is sanity, and vice versa. And we raise a nice glass of Champagne to Pluot's seventh anniversary -- well, in a way. My dear fatheads know the tale of the blog At First Glass going along swimmingly for six whole years, from one New Year's Eve to the next, at its own address, Then despite best efforts to renew it, I lost access to the domain name, and in a slight panic rebooted here. Six years of At First Glass and one of Pluot equals seven for Pluot, right? The Champagne is Laurent Perrier's Cuvée Rosé brut. 

I've decided I can't really explain the goodness of champagne or fine sparkling wines adequately. Really knowledgeable people talk about feminine and masculine styles; I was told years ago that the classic signs of great champagne are the aroma of biscuit or toast, plus the smallest and longest-lasting bubbles -- and you start your champagne knowledge from there. In time you may notice cheaply made sparkling wines have a strange taste and mouthfeel in comparison, not at all like biscuit and bubbles, but somehow like sour pickle juice and syrupiness. What good champagnes are, I thought as I sipped last night and tried to analyze delicacy and fruit and so on, are addictive in the way chocolate chip cookie dough is addictive. Chocolate chip cookie dough is marvelously unlike real cookies, as sparkling wine is unlike other wine. Yet you just keep fingering it up from the bowl in fascination.   

 Retail, about $60.

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...