Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"Not fizzy enough"

Late in the workday.

Customer return.

"Not fizzy enough."

What do you think of this? 

We pour a little into a plastic cup. I sniff.

Wow. Biscuits and almonds, and toast. Fizz up your nose.

I sip. Bubbly, satiny, golden. Fruit metaphors pale to uselessness. The fruit of the tree of the garden of Eden, perhaps.

My, that's good. What are people thinking?

They don't know what they're buying. We'll see if we can get this capped up and you can take it home. Try to get a replacement for it.

Okay then. And thank you.

When I get it home I peer into the dark bottle with the oddly thin neck and realize it's half full. So the complaining customer sampled quite a bit before deciding it wouldn't do.

I take out a champagne flute, peer at that to make sure it's clean, and pour in Gosset Brut Grande Reserve. Nose in the glass, sip-and-savor routine. Think. Assess. But it's so enjoyable it seems beyond mere description. You just have to close your eyes in bliss and laugh. Doesn't matter that no one's watching. Wouldn't matter if anyone was.

Research: Gosset. Oldest Champagne house of all, founded in Ay in 1584. (Now the French were not Tudors, but the Tudor history geek in all of us rises up with a yelp at that year. Wow! Four years before Armada. Queen Elizabeth was fifty-one. Shakespeare was twenty. And so on. The French Renaissance, same time, was an entirely different matter. There's a gaminess to it. Wine goblets carved with erotic scenes at the bottom, so that maids-of-honors' reactions could be judged as they drained the cup at banquets -- younger royal sons raised as girls so they wouldn't be a threat to the heir -- the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. And so on.) Chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier. No malolactic fermentation permitted, which means the tart malic (green apple-ish) acids in the grapes do not transmute into softer lactic (milk-like) acids. Which means, if you think you taste creaminess, you are likely mistaken, or need to work on your rhetoric, or both. I've seen "baroque" offered up for Gosset, but what does that mean? Solitary blissful laughter, and gold bubbles?

Retail, about $70. Maybe it means that.

Psst. One tiny, tiny thing. It did kind of go flat in the glass pretty quickly. Like, in ten minutes. Is that secretly a sign of legendary quality?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Wine as psychological fun

I had the pleasure of attending a professional wine tasting earlier this week, and again I remembered Esteemed Colleague's words at Ye Olde Wine Shoppe, ever so long ago. He's the one who had already logged thirty plus years in the industry, retail, wholesale, and crush level, -- the man who had tasted Chateau Petrus before only big-game-hunting orthodontists could afford it, the one who remembered a time before wine "certifications," almost before sommeliers even. He said:

"Folks. Please. It's just wine."

The world is awash in so much wine, it is so soundly made and it may be had so cheaply -- I say it may be had cheaply -- that, when we professionals sit down to "taste and see" as the hymn goes, I can't help noticing that the afternoon quickly becomes a fairly amusing psychological study. Even though we are happily tasting far more than good, sound-but-cheap bottles, there really is very little to be said about them once a half-dozen or so adjectives are used up. The wines will have tannin and acid, fruit and alcohol, and it is salutary to be able to recognize all these. It's nice also to be able to recognize that climate and soil both matter: cool growing areas generally make lighter wines and hot climates make plusher ones, and grape vines prosper in difficult, rocky soil. (Not forgetting something I only just learned from the interwebs: since ancient times, man has had to compel grapes to prosper in poor soil because he needed the good earth for food crops.) Beyond these earthy basics, one can only offer pleasure judgments or food experience references entirely one's own; speedily we use up words like grippy or apple-y or pretty or whatever. My new favorite snark is to say "there's nothing under the hood."

What's left is the psychological fun. There is only one's taste, mine or yours. I think that my perceptions of the wines on the list are exactly right, exactly reflecting what is chemically, physically in the bottle and what the winemaker would say he intended to put there if we had him by the short hairs. But, dear things, my [professional] fatheads -- are you as confident of your perceptions?

We tasted pairs of reds, from California and France.

Ca'Momi Napa cabernet 2012 and Fleur Haut Gaussens Bordeaux Superieur 2010

cedar box                                                                       soap/no scent
 acid!                                                                             much less sugary-spicy
currant jelly                                                                  much chalkier
 -- clove -- cake                                                             acidic 
purple                                            "Classic vintage: cool summer, less fruit, restrained" 
$18                                                                              $12
Frog's Leap Rutherford Merlot 2012 and Chateau Pavie Maquin St. Emilion Grand Cru Classe

slightly green                                                         wood
slightly vanilla perfume                                         wood (aroma)
very soft --                                                              light bodied
slightly prickly --                                                   silky
juicy, not sugary                                                     chewy -- slightly
 light bodied -- a bit plain                                     a bit plain
 $37                                                                          $60

Sterling Napa Diamond Mountain Cabernet 2013 and Chateau Larose Trintauden Medoc 2009

warm                                                                                       fuller
chocolate berries                                                                    juicier
velvety                                                                                    dry dark fruit 
soft tannin                                                                              chewy 
light acid                                                                                         
$20                                                                                                 $20

Mayacamas Mount Veeder 2009            and               Alter Ego de Palmer Margaux 2010

olives                                                                               inky black
barnyard                                                                         cola!
cherry candy                                                                 chewy tannins
acid-prickly                                                                   fruit 
licorice, light tannin                                  *at $90, this reaches Ca'Momi's level  ($18!)
$80                                                                                      $90

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23, 2012      and          Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou St. Julien 2011

burnt toast                                                                              gentle cola 
thick tannin                                                                            elegant 
deep deep baked fruit                                                            gentle tannin 
pie crust                                                                                gentle acid
$200                                                                                      $130                                                                                 

Note how the California column boasts more vivid descriptors, and more of them, than the French column. I'm sure I'm right about it all, but I suspect my [professional] fathead/colleagues lack confidence in their ideas, because the silence, the abashed looks, and the hurried yet limp agreement as soon as anyone says anything about the red liquid in the glass, is all so obvious. Everyone still, still -- and I noticed this even at Ye Olde Wine Shoppe, ever so long ago -- everyone wants to be perceived as having innate, classy, yet malleable and un-snobby taste. We can spot a stereotype, delightfully untrue to form; we can spot a stereotypical disappointment, this time delightfully good. We want to recognize the king instantly and yet be respectful of the peasant. But who knows whether one can?

I suppose all this explains why there are blind tastings. It's informative to eliminate at least one trigger of prejudice or anxiety -- namely, the identity of the wine -- from what should be a simple evaluative process. Better yet, a parlor game.

Of course when it comes to speaking up confidently, I'm as big a fathead as anyone. Scribble my notes and arrange them in columns as freely as I may, do you think I told a soul that "it took a $90 Bordeaux to reach the quality level of an $18 Napa cabernet?" Certainly not. What if I'm wrong? Do you think I told a soul that the two paired merlots, each first class and each bearing a hefty price tag, struck me as interchangeably dull? Certainly, no. Did I throw in a mention of Michael Broadbent and his "global red"? No. And as for the next-to-last sample of the day, the legendary Stag's Leap Cask 23, do you think I raised hell at the pronouncement that "this isn't at all the jammy California fruit bomb we'd expect, is it"? Of course it was, I wanted to raise hell. More than a fruit bomb, it was a Hostess frosted-fruit-pie bomb. I'll bet its residual sugars stand at Apothic Red levels, and I would pair it with no food at all. Too overwhelming. This is a cocktail, and a safe, legendary label to tuck beneath the Christmas tree for your orthodontist father-in-law who Knows a Lot About Wine.

There. "Folks. Please ...." I didn't say that either. But I'm sure I'm right.

Image from foros.vogue.es

Sunday, September 13, 2015


When fictional detective Nero Wolfe offers an opinion without research or consultation, he introduces it with "Pfui." 

It is remarkable how little commemoration September 11th gets. Ordinary people wear patriotic t- shirts or fly flags from their pick-up trucks. A local car dealership conversely put its flag at half mast. But true commemoration, communal and natural, can still only really come from united journalists. If nothing else, they would announce masses and rallies and they would report on them. If there were no masses and rallies and they wanted them, they would create them. And they won't do it, I think, because at some very deep level they cannot believe that they, too, were targeted when New York was targeted. For God's sake -- their heart of hearts protests -- they report on the rubes and hayseeds; they aren't them. I think this also explains why journalists offered up to the world as soon as they could, adored and unvetted and as an act of atonement, an essentially Muslim president. No! No! Not us. Look -- here! We'll make it happen. Look how beautiful he is! 

All this is not to deny our own responsibility for events and reactions and votes. But future historians will look back and see these two things standing out. That's all.  

Tuesday, September 8, 2015


2014 Bernard Fouquet Domaine des Aubuisières Vouvray, Les Girardières. A Vouvray is a delectable, somewhat odd little wine. If sweet, it is sweet and full-bodied without the juicy, fragrant fresh-grape "crunch" of a good moscato. If dry, like our recent Champalou, it will have the mouthfeel of fresh peaches but a peculiar funk that seems to bring us up short and make us look at the label and exclaim, Oh I see. A dry Vouvray ....

We're still pursuing our Shakespearean affectation.

Let the birds fly, and like the famous ape,
To try conclusions, in the basket creep ....  (Hamlet, III, iv)

I love when editors' notes on Shakespeare are no help at all. For these strange lines, we learn only that the "famous" ape-in-the-basket story is no longer known.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Very small matters, quickly

Very minor points, but they struck me:
  • a woman judge shows up in the courtroom scenes of an old episode of Perry Mason, which I watched late one night for the fabulous '50s clothes and makeup; who knew that such a thing could occur prior to our own enlightened era? 
  • consider new meaning in the phrase "to have a pair." Nowadays it refers to testicles and courage, and is only vulgar. In the Nero Wolfe mystery Too Many Clients, Rex Stout uses it in an entirely different context. Wolfe's factotum (I guess) Archie Goodwin says to a helpful acquaintance, " 'Come off it. You haven't even got a pair.' " Any young person reading this today would probably laugh happily at such a startling modernism, but also miss the point. In 1956 it was a poker reference, wasn't it? And it meant "you haven't even got [so lousy a hand as] a pair [of any two cards]." 
  • and, Archie's meals so far sound delightful, as cooked by Wolfe's chef, Fritz. Wolfe also employs an orchid valet, but more on that at another time. Chapter 3 opens with this:
"There was a bowl of chestnut soup, a cucumber-and-shrimp sandwich on toast, a roast-beef sandwich on a hard roll, home-baked, a pile of watercress, an apple baked in white wine, and a glass of milk."
I take it Archie's glass of milk is going to be a running gag throughout Rex Stout's series.

Finally, your Shakespeare quote for the day. We'll pick at random as usual. Perhaps it will, coincidentally, have to do with mystery or crime? People say everything is in Shakespeare.

Oddly, it might --

King Pandion, he is dead
All thy friends are lapped in lead

-- but it's from The Passionate Pilgrim, grouped in "Poems of Doubtful Authenticity."

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A line of Shakespeare a day (because affectation is fun)

Falseness cannot come from thee, for thou lookest 
Modest as Justice ....

Pericles, V, i.

I have a chalkboard/bulletin board/message center on my living room wall, and so I decided to use the chalkboard to write down a line of Shakespeare a day. I flip open my big 
Complete Works and take whatever my eye falls upon. No reason, except chalkboards are fun and I don't have anyone around to explain myself to. Although I must say, I erase it before company visits. No point in explaining myself.

Maybe it's not entirely affectation. I end up reading one more line of Shakespeare, per day, than I would do otherwise. 

The wine is 2014 Field Recordings Hinterland Vineyard cabernet franc. Very good -- juicy and bright, lush without being sugary. Retail, about $18.

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...