Thursday, February 26, 2015

"I can devour Thee"

I hope I will not seem comically lofty and idiotically dull when I say, I have been reading Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution during my lunch hours at work, and have found, on every third page it seems, paragraphs and phrases exactly descriptive of America in the year 2015. Carlyle's writing is comically lofty in itself, but so far, his point seems to be that in history and in life, the truth will out, because truth is the same as freedom, which is normal for man; and lies, which enslave men, cry out to be refuted; "they wait and cry earnestly for extinction."

Great is Bankruptcy: the great bottomless gulf into which all Falsehoods, public and private, do sink, disappearing; whither, from the first origin of them, they were all doomed. For Nature is true and not a lie. No lie you can speak or act but it will come, after longer or shorter circulation, like a Bill drawn on Nature's Reality, and be presented there for payment, -- with the answer, No effects. Pity only that it often had so long a circulation; that the original forger were so seldom he who bore the final smart of it! Lies, and the burden of evil they bring, are passed on; shifted from back to back, and from rank to rank; and so land ultimately on the dumb lowest rank, who with spade and mattock, with sore heart and empty wallet, daily come in contact with reality, and can pass the cheat no further.

Meanwhile, lacking an opposition party, -- but having an opposition press! -- which cannot, yet, arrogate to itself kingmaker status -- this will be future historians' prime puzzle, and I think they will conclude it was just propinquity; the bloggers and the talk radio hosts blogged and talked truth alone, but the Luegenpresse, the liar press, stuck physically close to persons in power, asking soft questions and attending dinner parties later -- meanwhile, there is little to do but make a dish of noodles, cheese, and brocccoli, pour a glass of wine, and prepare to enjoy, thanks to the marvels of modern technology, one of the best of the great Joan Hickson's Miss Marple episodes, A Murder is Announced. This is the one that taught us to exclaim, in the accents of the equally great Paola Dionisotti playing 'Hinch,' "That's a non-starter, Murgatroyd!" I think you should shout this line anytime you like for any good reason. 

The wine is Vina Mayor, a verdejo (grape), from Rueda (the region, in Spain). Lovely floral aroma, with a chardonnay-like rich body but a refreshing crispness, too.

One more from Carlyle. And we're only on page 47.
For life is no cunningly devised deception or self-deception: it is a great truth that thou are alive, that thou hast desires, necessities, neither can these subsist and satisfy themselves on delusions, but on fact. To fact, depend on it, we shall come back: to such fact, blessed or cursed, as we have wisdom for. The lowest, least blessed fact one knows of, on which necessitous mortals have ever based themselves, seems to be the primitive one of Cannibalism: That I can devour thee. What if such Primitive Fact were precisely the one we had (with our improved methods) to revert to, and begin anew from? 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The customer is always right -- or, folks be lyin'

Or, folks be young and in love, therefore not listening, or folks have bad memories (which is very possible, mine falters too), or folks are being lied to. Although this last seems unlikely, when the lie we're annoyed about is so easy to check and to refute. We were annoyed enough, on coming home and settling in and fixing a little drinky, to fill the ice cube tray with fresh water and then proceed to open the basement door, rather than the freezer dooor, to put it away. Time to vent.

A young couple ask for help in the store. Fine. Happy to oblige. Convo turns to what they want, namely something from Stag('s) (s') Leap. This could be either the district -- they didn't absorb that information at all -- or either of two wineries, Stag's Leap [Wine Cellars], or Stags' Leap [Winery].

"Yes, we know," the pretty young woman breathed excitedly. (I'm turning fifty soon so I'm annoyed by pretty young women with long, effortlessly glossy brown hair.) "We just got back from a visit to Napa and Sonoma" -- "how nice!" I hiss -- "and we visited Stags' Leap, with the apostrophe outside the s. That's the original one."

"Oh, but I've not heard that," I answer carefully, the wine professional who nevertheless wants to keep the customer happy and spending money on the big 15-percent-off Saturday sale. "There are two Stag ('s)(s') Leaps, you know, plus there's the district -- "

"Yes, the one with the apostrophe inside the s and the one with the apostrophe outside the s. We visited that one."

I squint appraisingly. "Yes, now there is the Stag's Leap whose wines won the famous 'Judgement of Paris' wine tasting back in the '70s,"  I begin to explain. "That's the Stag's Leap with the apostrophe inside the s. Stag's Leap Wine Cellars."

"No, it's the other way around," the pretty young woman with the effortlessly glossy brown hair tells me. "They told us so. And there were all kinds of problems and lawsuits and everything, but now they're all friends again. The way to remember it is, Stags' Leap with the apostrophe outside the s, they're on 'the right side of the s.' That's what they told us. They're the ones who won that tasting."

My squint turns to pop-eyed pleasure, so glad to be taught something new. "Really. And all this time I thought it was the other way."

"No, we visited, and they told us so."

"My goodness."

Then after they pick a good red wine, we venture into the humidor and they choose a cigar, and I muse aloud over who it was who led me wrong about the whole Stag('s) (s') Leap thing. The young couple laugh kindly.

And of course I google the question as soon as I have a free moment, and of course I learn they're wrong. It was Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, apostrophe inside the s, whose wines were famously judged so marvelous at Stephen Spurrier's 'Judgement of Paris' wine tasting in 1976. After all these years, it is still not a minor point because the reputation sells a lot of wine and is obviously worth lawsuits. And lies? But it's a simple fact which can be checked in historical sources of the time; today, Stag's Leap calmly claims its history, while Stags' Leap does not. I consider that telling.

So, why are the young couple so wrong and so confident? Just misheard someone, but don't think they did? It happens. Honeymooners too busy thinking about dinner and sex to pay attention to a lecture in a Napa tasting room? Heard what they wanted to hear (but why would they want so carefully to hear incorrect information about one winery over another)? Or, are they being brazenly lied to by the staff at Stags' Leap-on-the-right-side-of-the-s? But why should it be that, when it can all be so easily checked and refuted?

Luckily, the customer is always right. Nothing to do but look pleased and surprised at this sudden access of good information, and thank them for their business. "Well, I'm glad, as you say, they're all friends again." They laugh, and move happily to the checkout lanes.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Forget the fruit basket metaphor -- it's time for "Video Game" tasting notes

2006 Tinto Pesquera; current vintage, retail, about $32.

My fatheads know that I carry on a sort of perpetual border war with the Fruit Basket Metaphor. I get tired of, and I question the efficacy of, the endless comparisons of wine to cherries or lychees or things (when was the last time you tasted a lychee?) -- but I also use the fruit basket m., as Wodehouse might call it, myself. Sometimes it's appropriate. One day recently I savored a Spanish garnacha which smelled, not like a fruit, but exactly like lilacs. It was remarkable.

The trouble with fruit and flower basket metaphors is twofold. First, often wine does not smell or taste like anything except itself. It can be a whole, intact product, "just wine." Second, even though detecting fruit scents is meant to help train the palate and encourage reflection and enjoyment, it has all become a sort of impenetrable snob code by now. (It should be a parlor game at most, with little prizes.) Even at professional tastings, a group of thirty people might all swirl and sniff their glasses of good wine, and then be asked by a moderator, "What are you smelling?" -- and greet him with an uneasy silence. No one wants to say the wrong fruit, and no one most especially wants to say, "You know what? Not much." Chances are you'll be joshed that you must have a sinus infection. I think somebody shouted out "roses and tar" to get it over with. In trade magazines, the same dozen words have exhausted their meanings. Now we're on to "red peach" or "white raspberry." And isn't it telling that, in the same decades that we notice the arrival of the global red, all tasting notes sound in an echo chamber? Meantime all this doesn't begin to express my annoyance with marketers who put fruit basket metaphors on wine labels, thus confusing consumers who think there is pear juice in the wine, and are disappointed not to taste it ....

By way of exploring new answers, I've tried my share of very short, grudging "tasting note haiku." I also agree with Hugh Johnson's idea that a story should accompany the wine. He means a story about the wine maker or the estate, but I don't know any winemakers, so my stories have been, oh, about a cabernet and a hardwood floor, for example. Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible recalls once challenging a wine shop staff member to help her pick "a wine like Robin Williams." I liked that thought, and found I was able to associate serene, pricey merlots with Hollywood movie queens. The defunct blog Chateau Petrogasm ran with the notion of "tasting note" images only. It was the dernier cri for a while. I contributed a few pictures.   

How might we talk about wine, then, if we're sick of overused cherries and lychees? Shall we turn to movies? Books, or characters in books? Prima donnas? Why not video game characters, or the games themselves? Pinot grigio as the calm and endless Journey; a gigantic shiraz as GTAV; a pioneering and classic California cabernet as Mario. A firmly constructed Bordeaux is Minecraft; a moscato is Sims. A big and haughty and silky Barolo is Assassin's Creed. A grand cru white Burgundy is Tomb Raider. In this metaphor world, what is Pong? Remember Pong? Sutter Home white zinfandel, perhaps. We could even end up with winemakers learning to roll their eyes about using old-fashioned GameCube technology in the chai, or about a vintage being disappointingly SkyRim

Now all that is needed is to get the young people driving the video game industry to start drinking more wine, and get the older people drinking wine to start understanding video games, so that we will all  speak a common language of connoisseurship. It is going to be so much more interesting than what we've put up with till now. 

Paul Dolan cabernet, 2010; retail, about $22 if still available.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Rediscovering Colette

As luck would have it, I spent part of the winter afternoon reading Colette's story "Bella Vista," in the collection The Tender Shoot (tr. Antonia White, 1958), on the same day that actor Louis Jourdan of Gigi movie fame (1958) died. That, the movie I mean, is fifty-seven years ago. Even twenty-five years ago, my local library still had all five of the Claudine novels on its fiction shelves, and I do believe I read at least three of them. I remember two things about them: one, that I was impressed with Colette's imaginative integrity: at the end of the saga, the stock, older, safe Prince Charming type whom you would think the teenaged Claudine has no hope of attracting, actually does marry her (do I remember aright?); and two, that I was confused by the image of the two lady schoolteachers espied in a second-story schoolroom window, "kissing like hotcakes." I thought there must have been some mistake. Like Queen Victoria, I shrugged that Women did not Do That.  

"Bella Vista" gives us another couple of lesbians, this time running a remote hotel in the Midi where Colette, as herself, comes to stay while her little house nearby is being renovated. Again the author builds a story, slow and sensuous bit by bit, and closes it with -- I won't spoil it for you -- a rational and proud and unexpected dose of imaginative integrity.   

I like reading Colette for lots of other reasons. I like the way she simply goes on about anything -- about the way characters physically sling suitcases into the back of a car, or about how a dog puts its paws on the table and reaches up to sniff the sleeve of a man who turns out to hate birds. She likes to write about the look of a place, about weather and old stones in the walls and the "powdery" feel of a light spring rain. Of course she likes to write about food, too, but food is always simply a part of the plot of the day, it comes at mealtimes, it is not (at least in "Bella Vista") something to gourmandize over. It occurred to me this afternoon that perhaps Colette is the food writer M.F. K. Fisher would have liked to be, if only M.F.K. wasn't so angry and so anxious to be great and honorary-French. Colette's prose is filled simply with life, including eating, about which she simply natters on. She wrote a book called Barks and Purrs which I once downloaded, in French, onto an old model Kindle that died an inexplicable electronic death. I never got to it, though I plan to, in translation. I'm guessing it's entirely about dogs and cats.

I'd like to be able to read her in French, but at this point I would rather enjoy her for her productivity than struggle through her with my high school French-English dictionary at my side, cramming vocab. Her biographer, Judith Thurman, whose Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (1999) I also own and which I opened up today too, records that "in half a century she produced eighty volumes of fiction, memoirs, journalism, and drama of the highest quality," plus another seven volumes of published correspondence. (Woe to us moderns who don't write letters! What a feast is lost, what a feast is not even cooked and served! If email takes up the slack, I'll be surprised and maybe pleased, but emails seem so tinny already, don't they? Cold and canned, suitable to be read by millions and by no one.) ... I can't help but think part of the reason Colette churned out so much was because she did natter on about anything. I'll bet when I come to it I'll find Barks and Purrs is not least about the actual physical-ness of animals' barking and purring. Did Colette ever cross anything out, start again, or put draft upon draft of something painful into box after box, afternoon upon afternoon wasted, finally to shrug and reason that it was no good, but that this project was at least a kind of practice and that it's much better for garbage to be in a box, or even actually thrown out, than anywhere else? 

And there is not only the aesthetic wisdom of life observed but flashes of more basic insight, too. In "Bella Vista" she writes of the state of mind we sloppily call vacation mode.
...a peculiar pleasure blunts the sharp edge of my longing for my friends, my home, and my real life. Yet is there anyone who is not deluded about the setting of their 'real' life? Was I not breathing here and now, among these three strangers, what I call the very oxygen of travel? My thoughts could wander as lazily as they pleased; I was free of any burden of love; I was immersed in that holiday emptiness in which morning brings a light hearted intoxication and evening a compulsion to waste one's time and to suffer. Everything you love strips you of a part of yourself; the Madame Suzannes [the landlady] strip you of nothing.

To judge by the first few pages of Secrets of the Flesh, it seems Colette got a leg up (as it were) on a prolific career as a writer by having been only one generation removed from an eerily gamy, primeval French past, in which country virgins are married off to the insane sot of a village lordling, quite in droit du seigneur style; so that when the sot dies, the young widow is left with the crumbling stone house and the overgrown gardens which the author-daughter will remember to such trained effect in eighty volumes of fiction, etc. At least, I think that is where we are going with this. In the Introduction, we are also being asked to believe that Colette had to face the question how to be a person and a woman, a problem unheard of in human history before 1900. This seems a bit overdone, but who knows? Perhaps as we pair Colette with her biographer and go on to the next story and chapter ("Gribiche," and Chapter One), we'll find they agree.


Friday, February 13, 2015

Okay, so I may have been wrong about Alice

Some years ago, back in the days when At First Glass was well known enough for nice people to send me free stuff, I got a copy of Alice Feiring's latest book. It was Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally. I thought the book was a pretentious mess -- who quotes French winemakers who quote Japanese biodynamic "farming masters," and why do New York editors lap this up? -- and I tiptoed around the effrontery of saying so. My little review was kind of a pretentious mess also.

However, I must say that lately I have been reconsidering Alice Feiring. Her whole professional life in wine writing can be summed up, I think, in the subtitle of her first book. This was The Battle for Wine and Love, -- or How I Saved the World from Parkerization. She may be on to something. In saving the world from "Parkerization," she is talking about standing athwart, so to speak, the railroad track of the business of wine reviews, facing the successive oncoming locomotives which are the 90-and-above point scoring system, and yelling to anyone who will listen stop!

Before standing and yelling alongside her, we must delve back into history a bit. Robert Parker launched the 90 point system, really it's a 100 point system but only ratings in the 90s matter much because they're (oddly) so common, and so of course it reflects his taste in wine, especially reds. He likes them New World style -- a cognomen that has had to be invented, precisely and circularly, because of what he likes -- a style reflective of the hot climate ripeness possible in California: dense, inky-black, loaded with blackberry/"cassis"/plum compote/fill in the blank pie-filling fruit flavors, and maybe topped off with a generous drizzle of caramel-butter-licorice-chocolate, which tends to come from wines' fermenting and/or aging in oak barrels. Yeast choices can also do it, along with permitted bacterial growths that change a wine's acids from harsh (malic) to soft (lactic, milky). All of this contributes to the unnatural manipulation that Alice objects to. Which is why she wants her wines "naked," in other words made from grapes crushed, allowed to ferment, and the juice bottled.

"If he pours it into his glass and then can't see through it, he gives it 100 points," groused a former colleague of mine. The main objection to Parker's influence can be summed up in the word, well, Parkerization. He is said to have changed the way all red wines are made, especially in cool-climate, difficult-to-ripen Europe. Winemakers want those 90 point scores, and the sales resulting, the way writers want a New York editor. The way to get them is to make wine Parker likes: Chiantis with no traditional sour horsiness; inky-black Bordeaux with tannins soft enough to make them "drinkable now;" newly thick and jam-red, as opposed to gleaming clear and tawny-delicate, Spanish Riojas. Yeast and bacterial tinkerings in the cellar, mentioned above, will help accomplish this, along with the planting of muscular, "international" grape varieties in unlikely places and the hauling in of ripe grapes from anywhere in a country, regardless of old traditions of terroir or place. Consult Alice, here. What's being objected to as a result is the erasing of memories, choices, variety, history. I suspect that legendary Michael Broadbent had these overmanipulated, over-"extracted" wines in mind when he wrote, in Vintage Wine, briefly about "the global red."  

We'll pause just for a minute to take a look at Robert Parker's biography, and to note that, after all, the bigger the target, the easier it is to take aim at. (This is a general statement, not meant to imply that our last-mentioned personality, Mr. Broadbent, would take aim at anybody.) If Parker did start out basically as a consumer advocate, and if his work tasting, writing, and scoring in Wine Advocate has caused winemakers all over the world to haul up their shorts and produce oceans of consistently high quality product that makes people feel they are getting their money's worth, then he is a giant in the wine world for a reason. Goodness knows how many jobs he has created, too, in his role as bellows to the furnace you might say.

Still, after forty years of his influence, we return to the problem of "one man's palate," as another former colleague of mine groused in a different lifetime. Yesterday I tasted half a dozen red wines. We started with a good, fresh, fruity but correctly-barnyard-y (in my opinion) pinot noir, followed by a reserve Oregon pinot noir, a Spanish garnacha, and an Australian shiraz. The first pinot noir was the best of the bunch, but the next three pours were all mortarlike and without flavor. All, more to the point, interchangeable. They all had 90 and better reviews, from Parker I recollect.

In sum, they were global reds. And they were fawned over by almost all the colleagues present. Nobody liked the first, inexpensive, light pinot noir. That's another problem with the Parkerization of the world. If you are in the industry you don't dare disagree with him, or else you're a rube, and so much of this business is about fragile egos. Everyone wants to be perceived as instinctively appreciating the best, but also as already knowing enough to agree with trained minds. And Parker trains all minds.

Which leads me back to Alice. May I call her Alice? Her books have a crazy-aunt-in-a-feather-boa feel, and of course she's a dutifully lefty global-warmer -- that's how you get a New York editor --  but at least she is out there searching for wines that are not red mortar in a glass, "92 in Spectator, Parker gave it a 93. Absolutely beautiful." And everyone nods. "Beeaauu-ti-ful."

Here is something that should be different. Item, 2003 Chateau Barde-Haut, Saint Emilion Grand Cru, i.e., a Bordeaux heavy on the merlot grape. Retail, on sale, about $22. Like Bordeaux in general, it seems to have an interior core that you almost eat, as opposed to the sprawling blackberry-and-caramel-fudge, Parkerized bonbons which coat the tongue and go away. I do think, though, that it is nearing the end of its active life. It was closing in on vinegar status even the very next day after opening.

But I could be wrong -- about the interior core, not-a-bonbon thing. We have already said Parkerization has made great inroads in forty years. Who is to know what, now, is or is not a global red? Parker gave this one an 88; Wine Spectator a 90.

What would Alice say? More importantly, what is Alice finding and drinking now? You may consult her Feiring Line, provided you come straight back home.   

Thursday, February 5, 2015


Every day brings us a new photo of a new atrocity. A man thrown from a roof; a man caged and burned.

What do we seek? We seek a way for human beings to pass over a terrible cusp in our history; a way to accept and testify that God is good, not merely "compassionate" or "merciful" but good. A good God who presides over a good and lawful world does not command atrocities.

Any human being can understand this. It doesn't require prophecy. Any prophet who did not understand it was wrong, or did not hear God, or both. The nice parts of a religion -- holidays, prayers, small, inculcated decencies -- no longer matter when its core shows itself to be nothing but hammer blows of violence and degradation. Forever. Unless the people trapped in it cross the cusp.  

And, one learns that they are doing so; by the thousands, even millions


And here.

Also here.

And even here.

(By the way, it's "The Seeker" riesling, Mosel, 2012. Retail, about $13.)

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...