Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A question of sight

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend another of the wine seminars which are, whether large and official or small and on the fly (because the sales rep dropped by with some new bottles), a permanent part of the job. As usual, they are as intriguing for the chance they provide to observe human nature as they are for the things one learns about wine.

A few points still stand out, seminar after seminar. About wines: they, especially reds, are getting more uniform in taste and weight, and dare I say, more scentlessly bland? even as Master Sommelier candidates are called upon to struggle fiercely with identifying their differences as a proof of  expertise. The official class yesterday treated of Oregon pinot noirs, and of the Court of Master Sommeliers' program. Delicious, and most interesting, as Miss Marple would say. Only, no longer will I breezily tell customers how different the Oregon "style" tends to be from the Californian .... 

Here are some more points. About people: people still want to be perceived as having innate grand taste, especially when they are sampling blind. Wow, my favorite was the Chateau Latour! But we also want to be perceived as non-snobs able to recognize a sleeper, $12 hit. So a group of fifteen or twenty souls tread very carefully when asked "what are we tasting in the glass? Any thoughts?" No one wants to say olive brine or tar when that might be wrong. But if you say olive brine, you won't be told you're wrong. "Good! What else? Anyone?" There is an almost audible sigh of relaxation as more guesses are proffered. This is the nub of it all, for it's not nonsense. There are specific things to be perceived and named in the glass, and they do have a chemical structure and an origin in the grape or the place. Most importantly they give pleasure. Someone chances to mention a scent you thought was crazy at first. Meat. "Yes! Savory!" Good! What else? 

The idea of tasting and talking in a group is to train your palate, which is perfectly legitimate, too. But you can only bring to each seminar the palate you've developed so far; so that when everyone excitedly asks the moderator to "taste the next one blind," and we do, and you think it might be a Chianti (Italian, sangiovese) and it turns out to be a northern Rhone (French, syrah), you do stop and marvel inwardly. Good grief, I have probably only tasted three or four expensive northern Rhones in my life. No wonder I couldn't tell. Or else my faculties aren't good. Or else red wines are all the same. Meanwhile the man next to you, who had believed it was a Cotes du Rhone (mostly southern French, grenache-based blend), now breezily forgets that, and exults how he knew all along. "That classic northern Rhone profile. Syrah all the way. Beautiful." As an aside, and most curiously, we hear confirmed that when the blind tastings for final exams at the Master Sommelier level are done, the wines the candidates struggle over are never identified, not ever. In the film Somm the exhausted aspirants discuss their wildly divergent opinions. "You called Vacqueyras?" "I called boutique Sonoma gamay." They will never know. It must be a precaution against anyone's really developing a palate memory, and returning confident next year. I can't think what else it might mean.

So I drive home, marveling. Note how the seminar turns out to be much more about people than wine. My old WineStyles colleague's words come back to me -- he of the thirty-five years in the business, retail, wholesale, and crushpad, he who started out selling Paul Masson Cracklin' Rose and also tasted Chateau Petrus when young liquor store clerks still could. "Folks. Please. It's just wine." And I think, what other product, what consumable, has this bright-eyed anxiety attached to it? It's a sort of unintentional humbug, if there can be such a thing. Customers look for guidance in spending their money to people in the trade. We can provide some, but you see what goes on when we're together. Yesterday we also heard confirmed that Oregon and California pinot noirs are not getting more lushly alike, the proof being that the nice man who reviews Oregon for Wine Advocate is an Englishman steeped in the spare Burgundian tradition. When he first arrived in Oregon he gave the wines low points, in the 80s, but now he has "gotten his head around the style" and he routinely rates them 92 and 95. That didn't really answer my question, but the moderator wanted to move on. It was on thinking of that, driving home, that the word humbug occurred to me. 

What other product has this anxiety attached? Very gourmet beef? Orchids? Perfume? Maybe perfume. Another mysterious bottled liquid, been around forever, expensive, hard to describe, marketing is everything, capable of being very good or very mediocre. You have your iconic examples, like Chanel No. 5, and your cognoscienti treats, like Chanel No. 19. Germany has been making 4711 for two hundred years, in Cologne. There is a whole background world of the stuff that only sommeliers as it were know. One can imagine, at the perfume counter, a customer's same anxiety not to instinctively like a "cheap scent," or the same ready dismissal of what grandmother wore or what one liked in college. And remember in old Hollywood movies when the perfume counter girl is understood to be no better than she should be?

On the other hand, everyone can see an orchid and decide about it. "You like what you like." It must be a question of sight.     

The Fableist pinot noir, 2014

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

He's playing you like a fiddle

After you go and see and reject the tiny yellow house with its charming old neighborhood, retro clotheslines, and immense yard and snowblower-unfriendly gravel driveway, then, because you are still insisting to your realtor that you "want to try for a house," well, then you open up your email the next day to see the subject line, from him. "K ------- has sent you 78 properties matching your requirements." That is, they are all in your budget and are "detached," all houses. (A condo or a town home is "attached.")

Seventy-eight! Wow, you feared there would be, like, three! Unhappily they prove, all of them, to be way the hell out in the boondocks and they all need major if not catastrophic-level "work." One or two have actually been condemned and must be torn down. So it's the land that is valuable; whether or not you have the means to build is your affair, not K-----'s.

Still you trawl through all of them, all the pictures and all the information on all the houses. Just for fun, as Nana used to say. It's very enjoyable to imagine oneself inside these walls or looking out these windows to that backyard, and thinking, now this is mine. The lawn could be turned to native grasses -- the upstairs ramshackle porch could be a fabulous sort of indoor office/greenhouse -- look at the overgrowth of lilies beside the stone steps, already such a Michigan-cottage feel. You recall delightful movies and magazine articles in which some intrepid woman gets off the tour bus to buy, on the spot, a ramshackle Tuscan farmhouse or a trulli in Apulia, complete with crabby old gardener who turns out to be heroic and has a handsome middle-aged professor son also.

But chances are she, the impulsive heroine of the tour bus, was a well-to-do real estate broker in San Francisco to begin with, with money to pay the masons to relay the medieval steps, and the gardener to tend the olive trees. Here you are going to be -- you are imagining yourself -- in a ramshackle and badly carpeted old house maybe fifty minutes' drive from your job. You know perfectly well you do not, after all, want to come home from work to mow the lawn, relay medieval stone steps, or more likely hang on the phone to contractors asking for price estimates on what it costs to repair their modern concrete equivalent. Don't forget the neighbors are watching, concerned about weeds and their own property values. This isn't relaxed, eccentric- and ruin-friendly Europe. (Then again, is Europe?) "I don't know, Nance," a co-worker I'll call David shakes his head. "When you're a single person, it's awfully nice to come home from work and be able to sit down in a condo and not worry about maintenance. Maybe take a dip in the pool if there is one."

Oh, don't be so discouraging. On the other hand, go ahead, be discouraging. Why else do we ask advice? Besides, for all that Colette enjoyed her many-roomed villa in Provence with her cook and gardener and handsome boy, truly what single woman wants a midwestern Cape Cod that clearly calls out for a young family with children and puppies? What single woman wants to spend her days off vacuuming the silent upstairs bedrooms?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The tiny yellow house

So you plan to go with the realtor to see the little yellow house. Before the appointment at 6:45 you have of course been tapping away at your phone to sisters and other support networks, and when one replies "I can come with if you want," you text back "Sure!" thankfully.

She arrives. You drive back (it's your second visit of the day, the first one exploratory, solo) to the yellow house. The realtor pulls up behind you in his big black SUV whose license plates read REALTR1. He gets out holding a binder. He's young, stocky, somewhat wary-eyed, he puts you in mind of a polite but intense high school wrestling coach. He has the combination to the lockbox hanging on the house's front door handle. The box drops open to reveal the key to the house. That's how realtors get in. You go in.

It's very, very small. Six hundred and fifty square feet. That includes two bedrooms which seem to give abruptly on to each other, and to the tiny bathroom, simply as you turn around to avoid backing into an oddly-placed wall. Tiny kitchen, turn about, tiny laundry room. Now how is it possible that you are back at the front door already?

You really do try to look at the place, but it's difficult to do when you have no experience house hunting. Because I -- I am "you," it's me again -- because I spent lots of time clicking through photos of houses on line at Zillow and Trulia, including many times this very house, I see in life little more than what I saw in pictures: the decor, the yard, the color schemes. The portrait of Buddha in sage green and gray over the couch. The cats, who distract me. The daylilies. It's my sister the lifelong homeowner who wants to know where the electrical panel is. She noticed the wooden peg on a bedroom ceiling, which locks a trap door that descends and unfolds a sturdy ladder, Little House on the Prairie style, going up into the attic. Quaint. ("You're wearing a dress," Coach says. "If you want to go up and look I'll leave the room." Given the news we hear of other cultures every day, what a blessing the Western gentleman is ....) It's my sister the homeowner who asks "is your furniture going to fit?"

Then I realize. No. Of course it isn't. "Unless you put your glass-topped kitchen table and the chairs in storage ...." Certainly not. Strike the tiny yellow house off my list.

"Well," I say to the realtor, as we walk out the long, long summer gravel driveway towards our cars. That's a lot to shovel in the winter. I'm not sure if you can use a snowblower on gravel. "I have no idea what happens next. Do we look at more houses?"

"We sure do," he answers. "Do you think you want a house or a condo?"

"I think I'd like to try for a house. I look at condos online and they're pristine and beautiful, but it seems kind of sad to just own two rooms. Up to now I've always rented a house. I'm a gardener. I think I'd like a yard."

"Okay," he nods. He hands me his business card and writes down my email. I tell him that a bank has pre-qualified me for a mortgage, and I tell him that the figure they have pre-qualifed me for is much too optimistic because they seem not to have factored in property taxes to what they think I can afford. All this is a tale he could have told me I am sure. I, too, work in sales (of wine) to newbies.

What will happen next, he says, is that he will send me email links to, and pictures of, properties that fall in my price range and meet my "requirements." Requirements! Good grief, who am I to have requirements, I who have rented for decades and most of that time in a beggars-can't-be-choosers emotional posture!

All right, so now this is me. I have requirements. The realtor/coach and I shake hands, and he and my sister shake hands, and then my sister and I get into our car and he gets into his. We drive away. The first comment out of our mouths, in private, is the question why did these people in this tiny house need three flat screen t.v.s?

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Step by step

So you are buying a house or a condo, after thirty years of renting through marriage and divorce? How interesting. Here is what happens.

Step one. Look at online real estate sites, endlessly. Zillow, Trulia, Realtor.com. Plug in location and maximum price tolerable. You've been doing that for a while anyway.

Step two. Notice a stroke of luck. The owners of that promising little yellow house very nearby are hosting an "open house" on your day off. Set yourself two tasks that day, one, go see it, and two, go to the office of the realtor whose business card you saved just for the heck of it, back when his mass-mailing envelope stuffed full of information -- and business cards -- ended up in the mailboxes of everyone at the apartment complex last February.

Step three. Day off. Go to the open house. Wear a dress to impress the potential neighbors. (You've been watching three-minute instructional videos from Realtor.com advising on all aspects of home-buying, including when to look professional.) Imagine yourself living there. And mowing that huge lawn -- oh dear.

Why does it all look so impossibly perfect? Professional landscaping, wonderful, but why the everlasting stella d'oro daylilies? They are a mess to clean up when their bloomtime is finished, as you learned from gardening around the old rental farmhouse belonging to your ex-brother-in-law. Of course there are more important things to think about, but still. The lilies will be there too.

You walk around to the yard. How quaint. Actual clotheslines, as of yesteryear. It's very quiet. The neighborhood is charmingly of yesteryear, too. Now where are the owners of this cute little yellow house? The sign on the door says "Please knock." You do. A cat appears in one small window, and then another in the other. No one else answers. You begin to wonder. What if it's some psycho in there, who has not the remotest intention of "showing" the house? Seriously. What if it's a man, alone. Do you follow him in? One thinks not, somehow.  

Step four. After five more minutes, give this adventure up. Drive to the realtor's office, he of the mass business card mailing last winter. Explain briefly to his secretaries that you know nothing. Take a brochure, and give them your name, plus the address of the little yellow house.

Step five, and so on. Pretty soon you're going to forget what counts as a new "step" and what is simply unfolding with tumbling, not-quite-kaleidoscopic-but-still events.

In less than an hour the realtor calls. "I can show you that house tonight."

My goodness. Okay. I'll meet you at 6:45. 

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...