Notes from the Cellar blog
Sometimes, amidst the daily rolling-the-stone-up-a-hill, nuts, bolts and grinding of ergonomic gears, you get little gifts. It’s those delicious epiphanies that remind me why I love this gig — and stoke the fires to keep at the Quixotic business of evangelizing nuance, character and soul (when pre-digested “content” is the going concern). Harrumph. In any case, ‘tis the season, I guess and serendipity delivered, right on time, a couple aha! moments vis-à-vis bubbles and Beaujolais…
Illumination Numéro Un: Illumination indeed, (at least I feel pretty bright). Champagne was once upon a time referred to as a “rain of stars.” While that’s a pretty damned smart description, it doesn’t come close to seizing the astounding depth and elegance possible in truly great Champagne (note that “great” doesn’t necessarily have a financial correlation). Perhaps nowhere are the various misconceptions that surround wine, sparkling wine, French wine, and French sparkling wine more at work than in Champagne. For blue collar and blue blood alike, price and marque are overwhelmingly the undisputed benchmarks of quality. (Let’s not even get started on the tyranny of the masses, or questions of might making right).
Now, I’m not suggesting that the grands marques don’ make some mighty fine fizz, far from it. But I am saying that for the most part, they’re neither the most interesting, the most elegant, the best expressions of Champagne’s diverse terroirs, nor even close to being worth the money (price and value being relative).
It’s hard to express something about which you have no idea, in any genre. The big houses are run by people who are in the luxury goods business, people who have as much connection to vineyards as bankers have with farmers. Luxury is for those who prefer to be insulated from the reality of dirt and that’s what big-name Champagne is all about. With deep pockets and the entire array of winery technology and tools at their disposal, the big boys have the ability to manipulate, adjust, augment and otherwise process purchased wine into the buffed, fluffed and polished product that’s guaranteed to flatter the consumer with the means. We’re talking luxe — no questions posed, no ellipses, no statements even — just caresses and respectfully whispered assurances. Which is wonderful, if that’s what you’re after.
But enough of that already. If your musical tastes have been formed on a playlist of Muzak, Mozart is going to blow your mind. And the more you listen to Mozart, (or Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Ravel, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington … take your pick) the more amazed and entranced you’re likely to be.
Take away contrivance, preening, posing, crafting — the [biomatter] that goes hand-in-hand with trying to be everything to everyone… reduce a thing to its essence, factor in love and an almost primal urge to express and explore that essence, and you have character, in all its delicious integrity. In music, there’s the composition, an idea, a theme explored, an composer’s expression of the world — and there’s the interpreter, the conductor, the soloist, the bandleader who takes the composition and offers a new perspective on just what the composer was saying. In Champagne, there’s Champagne, that ever-so-special mosaic of terroirs, exposures and microclimates; there are grapes — pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot meunier (the band, as it were); and there is the arranger-composer who appreciates the genius of the idea and brings it to expression in the voices of vineyard and grape.
The point? I’ve had the great pleasure of tasting through Terry Theise’s incredible Champagne portfolio on several different occasions now, and find that each time serves not just to provide a greater understanding, but to deepen my appreciation and amazement for the incredible range of flavors, texture, tonal color and dynamic range that can spring from the incomparable dirt of the region.
I could of course, spill endless ink describing what I’ve tasted — all of which would amount to little more than a crude, second-hand accounting, much like trying to reproduce the Mona Lisa in house paint, with a broom. A far better course is to invite you to taste for yourself. The wines of Chartogne-Taillet, Gaston Chiquet and Pierre Peters are now available in all PCC stores. We feel that this selection offers a nice synopsis of different styles and terroirs from three superb growers. It’s also worth pointing out that these wines won’t set lighten your wallet any more than the stuff you see in the fancy-pants advertisements (in most cases, you’re going to spend less — and get way more) — as the prices are a reflection of just the costs of production and getting them here and don’t include huge marketing budgets and legions of spread-sheet readers.
Again, enough. I digress — and we haven’t even gotten to the part about Beaujolais. Guess that’ll have to wait for another day. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile — life is short, drink well.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the more you try to be all things to all people, the more you become nothing at all. There’s a word for this phenomenon: homogenization. Those of us old enough to remember what milk tastes like (the old-fangled kind, delivered to our door, complete with that deep, delicious cap of cream at the top) will attest that the homogenized product sold in the dairy case of groceries everywhere bears only the faintest of resemblances to real milk.
Speaking of milk and homogenization, it bears pointing out that Starbucks isn’t really about coffee so much as it’s about milk. Milk as delivery beverage for various flavorings – primarily coffee, true, but let’s not kid ourselves. Starbucks figured out right from the get-go that adults are really just big kids. Give ‘em a hot chocolate in the guise of a sophisticated quasi – Euro beverage, slap a cool logo on it, and well, you know the rest. Think about it, how often do you ever hear someone even bother to say “caffe” when they order their double-tall butterscotch extra-whip latte?
But I digress, sort of. As consumers are increasingly, incessantly bombarded with messaging and marketing , the lion’s share have become conditioned to be less concerned with the contents than the package – and most importantly, the brand that package wears. As the average American becomes more and more distracted by competing sound-bite calls for his or her attention the most effective means of attracting a consumer’s attention (read: dollars) is pretty much reduced to being the shiniest shiny thing or yelling the loudest (and I mean that both literally and metaphorically). Done effectively it’s not the sort of thing that invites contemplation or anything resembling reasoned consideration.
So…HEY! It’s all about the brand. Get the prospective buyer’s attention, give ‘em a package they‘ll feel good flaunting, one that flatters their self-image -- and all that remains is to make sure that they come back for more. No rocket science or hocus - pocus there, either. It’s not even a matter of putting anything particularly impressive behind the brand – in fact, if it’s mass market appeal you’re after, the less impressive, the better.
Back to the milk riff for another chorus… Real milk actually tastes like something, has character, a very particular flavor. When it’s at its best, it’s the sort of thing that you either like or you don’t. Like great wine, real milk can even take on the character of the place it’s from. High mountain meadows, sweet alpine grass, coastal pastures, maybe a kiss of salt breeze, folded into a marshier kind of grassiness. More defined, more particular – and appealing to an even more specific customer. When it’s the goods, everybody doesn’t necessarily love it. Great stuff for the discerning milk drinker, but not the sort of thing that builds market share.
Music? Play it again, same deal, Sam. For the dialed in urbanite, Jazz is a cool word to fling around and makes a nice bumper sticker for the public persona. But Miles, Coltrane, Blakey, Ellington, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, et al aren’t necessarily always pretty. It’s music that comes from real, living, breathing, feeling, suffering, joyous, sad, elated , longing, melancholy, happy, hurting, exuberant souls in all their messy rawness. Hard to ignore, hence not the best choice for background music. Not to mention that to really get what’s going on in music like that requires actual listening. And maybe even thinking. Not a recipe for big sales. Wanna sell records and make money? Think Kenny G. Nice, saccharine little melodies that require neither attention nor participation. Sonic wallpaper. You need not be present to win.
Wine? Same basic idea (with a few fun peculiarities that’ll be fabulous fodder for future forays --stay tuned!). Get the bottle on the table with nice graphics. Keep it there by making it a nice, friendly, lush, innocuous alcohol delivery beverage. Update the package from time to time to “keep it fresh” and viola! You’ve got yourself a brand. Thirst-quenching wallpaper, complete with a buzz.
Is that a bad thing? Nope, not really. We all like what we like – and sometimes, all we want is a little refreshment, a cocktail, as it were. But the world is your oyster -- or oysters, as it were. The array of flavors, shades of nuance and cast of characters out there is as astounding as it is endless. And it’s all just waiting to be discovered, tasted, savored and to broaden the lexicon that makes up your story of the world. Best of all, you get to choose. If you like the homogenized kind, well, that’s just fine. There’s plenty of it and plenty of folks who’ll be happy to sell you some. Nothing could be easier.
If, on the other hand, you want something that actually IS something, has a story to tell, real flavor, character … soul – well, all you have to do is open your eyes, ears, mouth and mind. Must be present to win.
A warm, late spring evening in Avignon. François Mitterand is President of France, while Robert Parker, Jr. and Microsoft have only just begun their campaigns to digitize wine and the whole damned world, respectively. Bathed in an indescribable, inimitable, rosy glow, light that could launch a crusade or inspire a man to cut off his ear, a group of scruffy, itinerant musicians are having an impromptu soirée atop the ancient walls that surround the city. The second or third of many bottles of modest Côtes du Rhône is circulating, passed from hand to hand among the motley but merry crew, fueling a crescendo of Bacchanalian abandon. A Babel of conversations rises into the dusk in four languages, ranging from the ether of high-minded, wine-inspired philosophy to the ribald argot of besotted, blue-collar baseness.
Among the revelers, a punk-ass but wide-eyed, twenty-something, French-hipster-intellectual-wannabe American piano player pauses between drags on an unfiltered Gauloise, takes the bottle from a copain, raises it to his mouth, drinks, thinks, drinks again…and after some thought, passes the bottle on, takes another drag on his cigarette, still tasting, savoring, searching the back closets of his brain for a means to explain just why the hell that sh** was so damned good...
It wasn’t exactly a Marcel Proust moment. No remembrance of things past, no resonant chord struck, no wellspring of distant memory tapped. Call it a whole new groove in the gray matter. And every bit the catalyst for sentences of epic complexity. The wine? Not extraordinary, not epic. Not self-conscious, either. Modest, in fact. Down to earth…
It was real. It tasted like nature – not in a Hallmark card sort of way, but like it was grown in dirt. Good, clean dirt. Dirt with a certain character, surrounded by various growing things of a certain type and nourished by sun, plenty of sun, sunshine you could literally taste. It wasn’t upwardly mobile, didn’t put on airs, try to be something it wasn’t nor everything to everyone. It wasn’t polished or buffed up, or made for any particular demographic. It was what it was. Just wine. Wine made by ordinary people, for ordinary people to drink, every day. And it was good, as Hemingway once said.
That was me, a long time ago. And it was no big deal, really. Just another bottle of wine on just another evening hangin’ with a bunch of fellow slackers. But that bottle (in whose mysterious deep…) sang a song that stuck in my head, an aria (no, take that back, it wasn’t an aria, it was just a freakin’ song) of dirt, fruit and sun, sung without accompaniment or artifice in the voice of ancient, head-pruned grenache. A little melody of flavor, a nudge of an nth of a degree that changed my course just enough to color the way I’ve tasted just about everything since—especially wine. My first job in the wine business was still a couple footloose years down the road, but once I got there, that aha! moment, that little gift, in all its directness and no-bullshit sincerity kept right on giving.
So here I am, and, with any luck, so are you. I could go on, of course. In fact, you can bet that I will. There’s more to the story, and plenty more stories to tell. But enough for Act I, Scene I.
Thanks for tuning in. À bientôt.