Notes from the Cellar blog
Words fail me. No, wait, scratch that. Let's try again. It’s not that I lack the words or any number of topics at which to employ them. Unh – uh. Got those aplenty. Today, it’s a lack of good old gumption that’s got this cat’s figurative tongue. I’ve been sitting here for the last little bit, staring at a list of things about which I’ve been itching to spill some ink, but just can’t seem to muster the volition to tease the words into anything resembling a coherent sentence—to say nothing of a paragraph.
That doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate (and share) other’s words. Yesterday evening, I was thumbing through the “Food” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly (imho one of the most splendidly intelligent periodicals in current circulation) and found the following gem, from Anthelme Brillat – Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste. With the exception of couple gender-based role assignments typical of its era (1825), it’s a timely and timeless set of observations on the civilized satisfaction of one of humankind’s essential needs. Problem solved. I’m going to have a beer (Bayern Pilsner, damned fine stuff) and make like Bartleby. Enjoy.
I: The universe is nothing without the things that live in it, and everything that lives, eats.
II: Animals feed themselves, men eat—but only wise men know the art of eating.
III. The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves.
IV: Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.
V: The Creator, while forcing men to eat in order to live, tempts him to do so with appetite and then rewards him with pleasure.
VI: Good living is an act of intelligence, by which we choose things which have an agreeable taste rather than those which do not.
VII: The pleasures of the table are for every man of every land, and no matter of what place in history or society; they can be a part of all his other pleasures, and they last the longest to console him when he has outlived the rest.
VIII: The table is the only place where a man is never bored for the first hour.
IX: The discovery of a new dish does more for the human happiness than the discovery of a star.
X: Men who stuff themselves and grow tipsy know neither how to eat nor how to drink.
XI: The proper progression of courses in a dinner is from the most substantial to the lightest.
XII: The proper progression of wines or spirits is from the mildest to the headiest and most aromatic.
XIII: It is heresy to insist that we must not mix wines: a man’s palate can grow numb and react dully to even the best bottle after the third glass from it.
XIV: A dinner which ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.
XV: We can learn to be cooks, but we must be born knowing how to roast.
XVI: The most indispensable quality of a cook is promptness, nad it should be that of the diner as well.
XVII: A host who makes all his guests wait for one latecomer is careless of their well-being.
XVIII: He who plays host without giving his personal care to the repast is unworthy of having friends to invite to it.
XIX The mistress of the house should always makes sure that the coffee is good, nad the master that the wines are of the best.
XX: To invite people to dine with us is to make ourselves responsible for their well-being for as long as they are under our roofs.
New releases! Big scores!
Rant of the week...
New releases! Big scores!
No need to read any further; the subject line says it all. It could be any of dozens of press releases, newsletters and other assorted promo “stuff” that daily pack my inbox. The drill is familiar: read the subject line, delete, done. If I haven’t glazed over at the first exclamation point, the word “score” or “rating” will do the job, every time.
But today, maybe it’s my wine curmudgeonly crankiness baring its gleaming canines, maybe I should’ve had that one more cup, who knows, but I just tasted through the lineup being touted with the owner-winemaker a few weeks ago — and well, here’s my snort of derision, in a few hundred words, give or take.
They were all winemaker’s wines. As in made. Manipulated. Over-extracted. Over-oaked. Over-hyped. Overpriced. A nursery rhyme played through a phase-shifter, a digital delay and a stack of Marshalls. Loud, with a cool light show. There really isn’t much else to say. Now, I like the guy, don’t have an axe to grind. But bs is bs, no matter how many cases you sell out of, no matter how you pander to the paparazzi, no matter that you’re one of the hipster darlings of the Washington wine biz. The emperor gots no clothes, baby. That dude is nekkid.
Funny, as we were tasting the wines, the WineMaker really didn’t have much to utter, either. Just some tech stuff, brix levels at harvest (huge), cases produced (not many, “get you a small allocation, but don’t wait, these are hot, hot, hot…”), pH, alcohol (plenty o’), et cetera, etc., &c. And don’t forget last year’s scores! (This year Parker’s sure to rate ‘em even higher. )93 points WA, 95 points WS, 91 points Enthusiast, blah, blah blah…
So, tell me then, what’s 95 taste like? Huh? "In your own words, please describe…" Other than that it’s a bigger number than, say, 89, what do the digits say, daddio? Here’s a hint: It says that some guy who can’t be troubled to articulate what he tastes likes it a lot, gives it an “A,” that he was in a good mood, the producer schmoozed him, bought an ad in his magazine. Take your pick, but at the end of the day, it just says that Joe Blow likes it x much, it appeals to his very human, very fallible palate, for any of a bazillion, often quite subjective reasons. Does the fact that Joe Blow says it’s a 95 mean that you should like it? The difference between you and Jo Blow is that Joe knows that people are often supremely underconfident when it comes to wine, and they’re happy to pay for someone to show them the way, to tell them what they ought to taste, as it were. If Joe Blow were a book reviewer, or a music critic, how far would the numbers fly?
(Let me add that in my unapologetic, purely subjective assessment, 94 often has just about as much character as a number.)
The English language is going to hell in an on-line hand-basket, and right along with it people’s ability to think in anything deeper than marketing content or a sound byte. Our conversations already pack all the depth we can pack into a text message, while we construct our “lifestyles” with “products” purchased on the advice of a few lines of “content.”
So, why even bother with the fuzzy white bunny puff piece when a simple number will do? No need to waste actual words on what the over-priced glug in question actually tastes like. Just say that King Bob or Shankin’ Marvin said “93” and that’s good enough for the demographic who prefer chest-beating one-upmanship to character and conviviality. Prose is for bleeding hearts and novel-reading liberal arts types. Cut to the chase, damn the guesswork and the nuanced nonsense. Full speed ahead. Read the numbers, hire a consultant — let the data do the talking.
The data, man. No matter how objective the numbers are purported to be, scores are the product of fallible, self-interested humans, making a living telling us that they’ve managed to turn a subjective pleasure into an objective quantification — and that their subjective experience packs more value than yours. Uh-huh.You bet.
Fine, if that’s what you like. If you don’t’ have the time or the attention span to actually think, taste, savor — to take pleasure, well… I’m sure that this little screed will generate more than a little ire — and a few howls of righteous indignation. Whatever. Bring it on. But let me add (once again in my very subjective, humble estimation), that when it comes to wine, numbers generally aren’t for people who trust their own palates, their own judgement and who are happy to form their own opinions. Numbers don’t just let you keep up with the Joneses, they tell you what to think so you can be the Joneses.
Remember PT Barnum?
Drink well, enjoy, Life is short.
Beaujolais. Nouveau. Let us fill our glasses and sing its praises. Really. No, not the Beaujolais - like product that the corporate wine factories foist on the world. Unh-uh, not that.
Think instead in terms of the sheer loveliness of real, honest Beaujolais, married with the heady, virtually carnal energy of harvest. Pour that in your glass. You’ll see. Yep, voilà.
Beaujolais. “… bright, perfectly ripe red fruit, walking a taut tightrope of exuberant freshness. Lush, generous, muscular berry flavors with a lazer, razor edge of tartness. Not voluptuous in its richness, not “big.” Supple, lean, muscular, flexible. A ballet dancer of a wine… Think of the joyful, bursting-with-sunshine, meaty, satisfying sweetness and texture of perfectly ripe cherries and raspberries, with a crystalline edge of tanginess and the firmness of cool granite.”
Harvest. How do you even come close to adequately describing the pure, heady, racy excitement of harvest? Take a year’s worth of energy, the alliance of earth and sun stored in juicy ripe berries, add the sweat of human brows, hope and desire – unleash it all in the intoxicating alchemy of fermentation, and well…yeah, carnal kind of sums it up.
If real Beaujolais is essentially exuberant beauty without pretention or veneer of sophistication, then real Beaujolais Nouveau is naked beauty, pure, unadorned loveliness with the racy energy of unbridled passion and the reckless abandon of the harvest.
(Surfing that riff all the way to the beach--if honest Beaujolais is the vinous equivalent of impassioned lovemaking, then the industrial-grade sham perpetrated by certain corporate types is essentially little more than wine pornography.)
Alors, I can’t describe it any better than that, there just aren’t adjectives enough. But you can pick up a bottle of Pierre Chermette “Primeur” or Domaine Dupeuble Nouveau at your friendly neighborhood PCC wine department. Then you’ll see.
Fill your glass. Give thanks.
Any reasonably sophisticated, discerning consumer knows that Rome is Italy and Paris is France. Italians eat lots of garlicky spaghetti (occasionally clam linguini) washed down with Chianti in those cute straw-covered bottles. Arrivederci, baby. The French, on the other hand, are little more of a riddle. Beneath those charming berets, they’re pretty grouchy, perhaps from all those rich cream sauces and snails they eat. They’re serious about their wine, too. Way expensive, hoity-toity Bordeaux and Champagne are pretty much the sine qua non for all wine, everywhere. But those are for the upwardly mobile (the Chinese, some corporate executive types , etc.) Those without the means for the real stuff (the ones that are on strike all the time) spend their leisure time in cafés, listening to accordion music, smoking a lot and drinking Beaujolais, that charming but déclassé little red that Georges DuBoeuf made famous. It’s fun stuff, and good for a frivolous buzz (especially that kool-aid like Nouveaux version that comes out around Thanksgiving every year), but not for people who like real wine.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. You can put the conventional wisdom about Beaujolais right there on the shelf with sweet rosé and riesling, soda pop Lambrusco, California “Chablis” and the Gallo Hardly Burgundy. If think you’re too “sophisticated” for Beaujolais, well… enjoy, I guess.
Of course, like anything else, there’s plenty of less-than-stellar Beaujolais to be had. There’s even a good amount of absolute crap. Funny thing is, much of the dreck on the market, as well as Beaujolais’ tarnished image can be attributed to the aforementioned Monsieur DuBoeuf. But that’s another story and we’re here to sing the praises of real, honest Beaujolais.
So, how does one describe Beaujolais, in its essence? While it approaches pinot noir (especially Burgundy) in its precocity, that indescribable, agile lightness that even the most powerful Burgundies can possess, it really can’t be described in terms of anything else, can’t be approximated or imitated. Beaujolais is Beaujolais.
Think of bright, perfectly ripe red fruit, walking a taut tightrope of exuberant freshness. Lush, generous, muscular berry flavors with a lazer, razor edge of tartness. Not voluptuous in its richness, not “big.” Supple, lean, muscular, flexible. A ballet dancer of a wine.
Think of the joyful, bursting-with-sunshine, meaty, satisfying sweetness and texture of perfectly ripe cherries and raspberries, with a crystalline edge of tanginess and the firmness of cool granite. Our friend Oliver Beck nailed it when he called Beaujolais “granite candy.”
Granite candy. Hold that thought – there’s more to follow. In the meantime, pick up a bottle of Domaine Dupeuble Beaujolais at your friendly neighborhood PCC – a glass is worth a bazillion words.
Finally, the “Primeur” (nouveau) wines of both Dupeuble and Pierre Chermette arrive on Thursday, the 17th. These wines deliciously shatter any myths about both Beaujolais and Nouveau. Fill your glass with the lovely truth. Enjoy.
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.