Poured with Pleasure

Bill Marsano’s blog on wine and spirits and cocktails: "If it’s good in a glass, I’m pouring it."

Category: Uncategorized (page 1 of 3)

Books for Christmas, Thirsty Reader—and Xmas Too!

New this year, Thirsty Reader: no lectures! No rants about the decline of reading! Instead, just a short detour to the land of electronic readers—Nooks and Kindles.  I’m recommending them for their splendid convenience ¶ My first Kindle weighed just 8 ounces; my latest [with a lighted screen], 15 ounces: that makes them excellent travel companions. Consider:  my complete Jane Austen—six volumes of deckle-edged letterpress, NY, 1924—was and is a many-splendored thing,  but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, it weighs 8 lbs. My one-volume The Jewel in the Crown? Three lbs. plus. Meanwhile, e-books are weightless. Yes, I still love the physical presence of printed books, but progress has its place. ¶ And now we hit the books—most of them fresh from the press, some not-so. The default gift for beginners is that king of the Vast Overviews, Wine for Dummies 5th Edition, by the duo known to many as ’Ed and Mary’ for the same reasons foodies refer to Julia Child as Julia. Since 1995 it has sold more than a million copies because it is clearly and crisply written, comprehensive, unintimidating and snobbery-free .What other book launched so many newcomers on confident starts in the daunting world of wine? But not that Judy Beardsall’s Sniffing the Cork and Other Wines Myths Demystified is also instructive. ¶

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Chief among the many not-so-vast overviews is American Wine, by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy: the former needs no introduction and the latter not much more, as she created the wine section of the San Francisco Chronicle. They cover all 50 states: yes, Hawaii makes wine. So does Alaska [Mama Bear Red, I should think.] Also from University of California Press this year: Wine Atlas of Germany, and Wines of South America, with sommelier Evan Goldstein going beyond Chile and Argentina to cover the whole continent—almost: Guyana, French Guyana and Suriname have yet, apparently, to get with the program. Shrinking to the regional we come upon Charles L.Sullivan’s Sonoma Wine & the Story of Buena Vista, which deserves better than its drab dust jacket, and Tilar Mazzeo’s double-play, Back Lane Wineries of Napa and the same for Sonoma. Greens will go for the California Wine Institute’s Down to Earth: A Seasonal tour of Sustainable Winegrowing in California. ¶ Italy leads with its king and queen, Barolo and Barbaresco, by Kerin O’Keefe, who covers both staunch traditionalists and fractious innovators. Tom Hyland ranges Beyond Barolo and Brunello: Italy’s Most Distinctive Wines, exploring roads less traveled and wines less known. For decades now Gary Grunner and Bob Lipinski have been eating and drinking all over Italy, with Gary furiously scribbling into his battered, raggle-taggle notebook. At last they have core-dumped its into the 178 pages of Italian Wine Notes.

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Marchese & daughters

Rather less wieldy is Ian d’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy, whose phone-book heft results from Italy’s staggering abundance of grape varieties. The weight of detail here rather smothers the author’s personality, which to me is a blessing. Of similar heft is Bob and Kathie Lipinki’s International Beverage Dictionary, whose waters are deep enough to drown in, somewhere between A Boire and Zytnia. ¶ Too many years ago I was still a punk in wheelpants when I was bullied into interviewing Marchese Piero Antinori—and on his home turf, too. Too scared to decline and too dumb to lie, I sallied unqualifiedly forth: down to the Arno, across Ponte Santa Trinitá and into Piazza Antinori, where, opposite the Cappella Antinori I turned left and unconfidently entered Palazzo Antinori. Home turf indeed. But let it be said that the Marchese was kindness and courtesy itself, innately gracious [maybe he  heard my knees knocking]. He’s the same on the page as in person in The Hills of Chianti: The Story of a Tuscan Winemaking Family, in Seven Bottles, in which he writes of passing on his six-centuyry-old family business to his daughters Allegra, Alessia and Albiera.

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Gary Grunner’s book in three stages, from jury-rigged, hand-scribbled
editor’s nightmare to its ‘cleans up pretty nice’ published version

Rather less rarefied is A Toast to Bargain Wines, George Taber’s tour of  bargain country [which occasional splurges]. His chapter on [yellow tail] alone will set the snobs screaming. ¶ If you want just one drink, try Talia Baiocchi’s Sherry: A Modern Guide to the Wine World’s Best-Kept Secret; if more than one, the Mille Vini Italian Wine Guide. Eventually you’ll come round to pairing, and so to François Millo’s Provence Food and Wine as well as sommelier John Szabo’s Pairing Food and Wine for Dummies and Food & Booze: Essays and Recipes, a salmagundi from Tin House magazine. There’s not a drop to drink in Carol Hofberg’s Morocco on a Plate, but it’s here I’ve recently found some Moroccan wine, made from international varieties: Ouled Thaleb. You make wine in a Muslim country pretty much as porcupines make love. As John and Erica Platters’s Africa Uncorked explains,  Morocco and some other Muslim countries don’t officially permit wine production, but avert their gaze so long as sinners keep their heads down. ¶ For tech types there are Proof: the Science of Booze, by Adam Rogers, Amy Stewart’s The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks and Marni Wasserman and Amy Jeanroy’s Fermenting for Dummies.

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These go well with an anecdotal mixer like Fred Minnick’s Whiskey Women, which one reviewer hailed as ‘oodles more fun than a women’s’ studies class.’ ¶ The martini [the Fred Astaire of cocktails] and the Manhattan [the Cary Grant] have long been in the limelight; now it’s Clark Gable’s turn, in a double-header: The Old-Fashioned: The Story of The World’s First Classic Cocktail, by Robert Simonson, and Albert W. A. Schmid’s The Old Fashioned: An Essential Guide to the Original Whiskey Cocktail. Rather more down-home is Mark Spivak’s Moonshine Nation: The Art of Creating Cornbread in a Bottle.  Interested in advanced technique, local produce and relentless innovation? See Architecture of the Cocktail: Constructing the Perfect Cocktail from the Bottom Up, by Amy Zavatto; Artisanal Cocktails: Drinks Inspired by the Seasons from the Bar at Cyrus, by Scott Beattie; Craft Cocktails at Home: Offbeat Techniques, Contemporary Crowd-Pleasers, and Classics Hacked with Science, by Kevin K. Liu; and The Curious Bartender: The Artistry and Alchemy of Creating the Perfect Cocktail  by Tristan Stephenson. For a little  [much-needed] frivolity try Jeanne Benedict’s Cocktail Pops and Spiked Frozen Treats. For a shorter title, Modern Cocktails, by Swedish bar-owner Jimmy Dymott. ¶ The literary/celebrity angle brings us Philip Greene’s Hemingway compendium To Have and Have Another; Tim Federle’s pun-laden Hickory Daiquiri Dock and Tequila Mockingbird [e.g., the Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margarita]; and Tom Smith’s Sinatra salute, Drink Up and Be Somebody. ¶ If a freshly made Alamagoozlum haunts your dreams, grab Ted Haigh’s backward glance at the 100 recipes of Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. For the straight skinny try The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Cocktails to Keep You Level. Want to run your own bar?

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Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique, Jenn Fiedler’s [’bout time we got some women in here], The Essential Bar Book, and Ray Foley’s Bartending for Dummies make their bids to join the classics:  Dale DeGroff’s The Craft of the Cocktail and Gaz [ex-Gary] Regan’s The Joy of Mixology. ¶ Now is it just me or, looking back on the titles above, is cocktailery  getting a tad cultish and self-serious, what with its outlandish and extravagant concoctions [one cocktail I saw recently requires 16 ingredients; three of them made from separate recipes] and artisanal ice? Faddishness breeds familiarity, and you know what comes next. Therefore let’s relax—while relax we still can—with beer in all its amber, foam-topped glory, as in Beer for Dummies and by The Foodie’s Beer Book, a pairing guide by the pair of Brooke and Luter Fedora. ¶ And let us not forget that good drink can be read as well as sipped, which is why I recommend Natalie Berkowitz’s The Winemaker’s Hand and Terry Theise’s Reading Between the Wines.

A small sample from the latter: ‘I want to reassure you that none of what follows is a command. It is merely a proposal. It’s all right to think of wine like this, and it’s all right not to.  . . . Wine is a tactful invitation, not a summons. But let us be available, when it asks, to go quietly soaring, because the earthbound life is finally too small. Cheers! ©2014

Stalking the Talk: The Worst Wine Words

Desperation—of writers for stuff to write about and of editors for stuff to publish—is a leading cause of How to Talk About Wine articles. This, Thirsty Reader, is not that article. This is How Not to Talk About Wine. ¶ It derives from the annual-or-not Poured With Pleasure Shivaree, a wingding for inmates of Liberty Hall [southwest corner of Harm’s Way and Nathan Lane] to disport themselves freely, at least until the cops arrive. One fine August day, led by our Grand Marshal, Ben Trovato the Italian fabulist, we wended northward to Bogus Corners, a hamlet about midway between Fisherman’s Bend and the Gadroon border. ¶ Our hoo-hah ws sparked by Michelle Armour, noted West Coast PR babe and meat packer, who‘d been driven round the bend by a producer’s demand that she publicize his bottom-dollar Cabernet under the mantra It’s Great Wine at a Great Price!  ‘Horsefeathers,’ Michele said, or is said to have said. ‘No way you’re getting two greats in one bottle for six clams a pop.’ Besides, Michelle’s J.A.M. PR does not, as they say, do dollar-store wines; in fact, her clients include such notables as Duckhorn, J. Lohr, MacRostie, Patz & Hall, Sea Smoke, Spottswoode and Talbott. Resisting the urge to propose a more realistic slogan [The Cream of the Crap came to her mind but not her lips], she feigned an attack of the vapors and discreetly withdrew to her fainting couch. In her swoon she fell to glooming on the subject of language inflation among wine people, and it was but the work of a moment for her to compile a list of deceptions and what they too-often really mean. Herewith a sampling:

World-class:  Good
Excellent: Pretty good
Great: Lackluster
Good: Not very good at all
Instinctive winemaker: Repeatedly failed chemistry
Approachable: Uninspired
Sophisticated: Totally unapproachable
Lush: Cheap and over-manipulated
Accessible: Cheap
Prestigious: Expensive
Coveted:  Over-priced
Earthy: Tastes like dirt

This she idly sent in a cleft stick to Lindsay Woolsey, the ditsy fashionista and Liberty Hall denizen who is her BFF, WTF that may mean, and she in turn hauled it to our shindig for our edification and dismay. ¶ We had intended to roister on the shore of nearby Veronica Lake until we observed that that body is not, like the human body, 90 percent water. It is a foetid swamp that would have appealed to Poe and for which the term ‘superfund site’ is too good by a long chalk. Luckily an undiscriminating spa called the Bar None Ranch crouches nearby on the lower slopes of Widow’s Peak, and its management, if any, willingly received us ‘mongst its blooming groves of smilax, phlox and thorax. ¶ As the lobster salad and Sauvignon Blanc were passed around, so was La Armour’s list, to vocal support for both. ‘How about tradition,’ threw in Sutton Who, a British archeologist of no repute. ‘Like family owned, it’s something that’s for sale if the price is right. Traditional, on the other hand, often means antiquated winery. ‘You don’t want to leave out artisanal,’ said Cole Junger, the outlaw psychiatrist. ‘Too often it means rustic, rough-hewn or clumsy—but always steeply priced. I’ve even seen ‘artisanal marshmallows’ on offer, each one doubtless carved by hand using century-old chisels. Only $24 a pound, too.’ ‘There’s a lot of crafted and hand-crafted going around,’ said Homer Nods, the classical scholar and dolt. ‘You’d think the wine is made by hooded monks in caverns full of purple smoke instead of plants that look like oil refineries.’ For her part Lindsay would fain have talked about the new anthology she’s compiling for Fulcourt Press—her working title is Meh: Poems Jackie Kennedy Was Never Really All That Crazy About—but the spark had caught the tinder and the tinder the flame, as it were: there was no going back. ¶ ‘Let’s ditch iconic,’ said Harley Quinn, the gay Hell’s Angel. ‘Doesn’t it just mean clichéed? Or let’s restrict it to flat, two-dimensional wines, so we can get rid of balanced.’ Something of a free-for-all was developing, something that would cause thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine: Passion was skanced as mere livelihood and philosophy as rhetoric concocted by marketing. ‘Right! I’m so sick of people saying—intoning, actually—Great wine is made in the vineyard,’ added Jeane-Jacques Trousseau, the multiply married French philosophe. ‘Look behind the curtain and you’ll see their real Core Values are guys in white lab coats poring over gas chromatographs.’ Luxury was defined as priced for show-offs and curate roused the ire of Bartolo Colon, the flame-throwing right–handed copy editor: ‘Anyone using that word who isn’t a museum director or assistant vicar should be ill-behooved*. Same for anyone using eponymous, somethingcentric and channeling. Established was called code for heartless corporate leviathan and hidden gems drew the scorn of Lady SaGa, runic chanteuse and coach-class goddess of Icelandair: ‘After hidden they should add those three little words with good reason. Without these second-rate wines lots of self-important writers would have to shut up.’ Foodies took stick too. ‘Half of them would be struck dumb if only we could ban the word succulent’ said Basil Coulis, our French herbalist and pastry chef. That struck a chord with Sneaky Peat, the furtive Islay distiller: ‘Aye, laddie, and banning veggies and garlicky will silence the rest.’ And that, for the time being, silences me.

What we ate Cold Lobster Salad for four, adapted from Emeril Lagasse’s recipe. As follows: Emulsify 1 Cup Italian extra-virgin olive oil and the juice of two Florida oranges, then whisk in 2 Tbsp. of minced shallots and 1 Tsp. minced garlic. Drizzle with honey to taste, and salt and pepper. Toss 4 Cups fresh baby arugula with 1/3 of the oil mix and taste for seasoning; pile the arugula on plates. Toss stemmed and blanched green beans [Emeril uses haricots verts] and 1/2 Cup cured Greek olives, pitted and halved, with 1/3 of the dressing and add atop the arugula. Toss 1 pound of cooked lobster with the final 1/3 of the dressing; taste for seasoning. The lobster is Maine lobster, which Mainers pronounce LAHB-sta, not just because August is Maine Lobster Month but because it’s the best. [Hard to credit that in Colonial times lobster was fed to livestock.] Pile meat atop the beans, olives and arugula. Garnish with thin, salt-and-peppered slices of 2 hard boiled eggs and 1 Tbsp. of chopped parsley. Then, in the words of John Anderson’s A Fifteenth Century Cookery Boke. ‘Serve it forth.’

What we drank A splendid variety of Sauvignon Blanc in prices ranging from $9 Meridian to $22 Silverado and Miller Ranch. At $11-$12 we had Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve, Rodney Strong Charlotte’s Home, Dancing Bull,  2 from Dry Creek Vineyard [including the Fumé Blanc] and Matua. At $13-$16: Ch. St Jean Fumé Blanc, Kenwood, Simi, Murphy-Goode The Fumé, Cerruti Cellars’ Honker, De Martino, Souverain, Lake Sonoma, Buena Vista and Picket Fence. At $18-$20: Foppiano, Mt. Beautiful, Matanzas Creek, Hanna, St. Supéry and Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc.


* Ill-behooved: kicked by a mule [The Laconic Lexicon, 2014]



©2014 Bill Marsano


Sauvignon Blanc,Fumé Blanc,Meridian,Silverado,Miller Ranch,Kendall-Jackson,Rodney Strong,Charlotte’s Home,Dancing Bull,Dry Creek Vineyard,Matua,Ch. St Jean,Kenwood,Simi,Murphy-Goode,Cerruti Cellars,De Martino,Souverain,Lake Sonoma,Buena Vista,Picket Fence,Foppiano,Mt. Beautiful,Matanzas Creek,Hanna,St. Supéry,Robert Mondavi

What’s It All About, Vodka?

Vodka, the clear and present danger, lives in interesting times, as the ancient Chinese said.* Or are said to have said. Some tony modern barmen dismiss it as lowly industrial knockout juice, and thus beneath their notice. Mixmaster Tony Abou-Ganim isn’t buying it, and he combines facts, lore and recipes in Vodka Distilled to turn the tide.

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That’s a challenge of Canute-like difficulty, for in snooty joints—such as have printed cocktail menus, ‘bar chefs’ and unmarked entrances—vodka orders may be greeted with derision or insult. ‘Those guys are just a bunch of snots’ says my upstairs neighbor Brandi Alexander, ‘who think they’re too good for their customers.’ A sweet-tempered ex-cocktail waitress, Brandi remembers ‘back when I was hauling trayloads of libations at the old Café des Trois Outfieldres, we used to say the customer is always right, if not always bright, so we gave ‘em latitude, not attitude.’ ‘Vodka has earned its place in any bar,’ Tony says. ‘It’s one of the oldest spirits there is’—much older that scotch, bourbon or gin’—and, he adds, uniquely self-effacing. While some vodkas do have traces of taste and character,** most are simply neutral, the base of alcohol on which creative barmen can erect new cocktails. But never you mind: vodka isn’t going anywhere, despite the pomposity, despite the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Vodka is passé’ declaration: it’s what the public wants. Americans, voting by cash register, buy 65 million cases of it every year. ‘Nuff said. The big names and exotics include Absolut, Grey Goose, Tanqueray, Ultimat, Double Cross, Skyy, vintaged Kauffman, Effen, Mongolia’s new Soyombo, and more. The
imagerange runs from Tito’s Handmade, whose price-quality balance makes it a Texas David amongst Goliaths, and Sweden’s Purity, created by Thomas Kuuttanen, who claims a distinct character for it from his own 34-distillations process. [His own martini is three parts Purity to one of water, surely melted down from his own glacier.] Most top names are pricy and beyond, especially when labeled ‘luxury’ or ‘ultra-premium,’ so value brands eagerly elbow in, claiming, like Tito’s, to shrink the gap between top drawer and bottom dollar. Value titans Smirnoff and Seagram’s now rub along with Sobieski [a bargain in liters and 1.75-liter ‘handles’]; Stön and Reval, also in liters [increasingly popular for vodka], Rökk, Svedka, Denaka, Exclusiv, and jolly, irrepressible Wodka, which promises ‘Hamptons Quality, Newark imagePricing’ and is packaged accordingly. Wodka’s plain-jane jug can’t even touch Wyborowa’s bottle [designed by Frank Gehry], Absolut’s rich limited editions, Crystal Head’s skull, American Harvest’s frosty column, Finlandia’s and Iced’s faux glaciers, Stoli elit’s artillery round and the sculptures of Kauffman, U’Luvka, Purus, Mamont and Black Elk. Wodka’s paper labels, which might be run off by night on a wonky printer at a southern penal farm, pale before the etched and enameled flourishes of Van Gogh, Voda, Chopin, Belvedere, Frozen Ghost and Snow Queen, let alone Medea’s programmable LED display [mine says ‘Not tonight, dear. I have a headache’]. Of course, you pay for that—and what else? Lately, it’s filtration fetishism. Activated charcoal has been replaced or supplemented by diamond dust, diamond crystal, quartz sand, rare earths, silver, gold, platinum, lava or powdered marble, alone or in combinations. And imageso, naturally, you can now choose Belvedere UNfiltered vodka as well as Russian Standard regular and Russian Standard Platinum. You also pay for poetry, such as it is. Ketel One has claimed that its every drop came from an ancient pot still, distileerketel #1. Reverentially enshrined in KO’s promotional video, the thing seemed ridiculously small, so I asked how much it actually produced. The p.r. babe cocked a snook, as it were, and replied in wounded tones ‘Please! Ketel One is about quality, not numbers.’ Suitably ashamed, I asked U.S. Customs, which had logged 953,000 cases of KO the year before. That’s about 2.3 million gallons, so maybe KO is going Double Dutch with double shifts. Ya think? Or maybe Bob Emmons, author of The Book of Gins and Vodkas: A Complete Guide, was right: KO is bulk alcohol shipped from France and Germany. Are you paying more for kosher? Don’t. All Domestic non-flavored grain or potato vodkas are OK, ‘certified’ or not, say kashrut experts. Are you paying more for gluten-free? Don’t. Distillation, q violent process, destroys all but the verytiniest traces of gluten, so any distilled spirit is safe, per celiac.nih.gov/. Extremely sensitive folk play safe with gluten-proof vodka, i.e. not grain-based. No problem. There are potato vodkas by the long ton: Chopin Potato and Blue Ice; Boyd & Blair, Luksusowa, Monopolowa, Glacier and of course Idaho’s Grand Teton [but not, oddly, Ireland’s Boru]. Grapes make Cîroc and DiVine. Tito’s and Smirnoff are corn, and Cayman Blue [Vodcaña in Canada] is from sugar cane. Potato vodka is considered a Polish joke by Russian, who vaunt their wheat and rye, but Polish distillers are ecumenical. Belvedere bottles separate vodkas from each of the major bases, for example, and Ultimat, looming majestic in its elegant decanter bottle, is a blend of all three. Suntory makes Ao vodka from rice, and your thrifty Russian housewife may practice home economics by home-cooking table sugar into a simulacrum called samogon, which she sells out her kitchen window for about a buck a liter. Its popularity may suggest that a Russian woman’s place is in the kitchen. Corn works, as do sugar cane and soy beans [Inox and “3’’, respectively]. Ingenious Mongolians have used yak and camel milk. Tuthilltown makes a fine vodka from apples, which are superabnundant  [and cheap!] in T’town’s Hudson Valley homeland. Truly, were some hardy visionary so inclined, lawn clippings might well make a Long Island grass vodka called Subur. imageGreen Jacket [‘The Vodka of Champions—Now Bogey-Free!’] might be made artisanally from the mowings of Augusta National. Russia is joined inseparably to many many consumers, which is why Putin’s bullying anti-gay law sparked a U.S. boycott of Stoli, which is Latvian. Just as naturally, many brands pirate Russian names: Red Square and KGB are British; Military Special and MiG Pilot are American. Molotov, presumably just the thing for cocktails to be thrown at enemy tanks, is from Trinidad. Keglevich is Italian and Gorbatshow German. [Legitimately Russian in source and name are Red Army and Kalashnikov. [I imagine the latter’s ads use peppy slogans that run something like ‘Vodka Kalashnikov: It Will Blow You Away.’] There’s a lot of such foolery in origin of this species. Galileo is Polish, not Italian [why isn’t it called Copernicus?]Alaskan Rock is made in Australia and was inspired by Italian restaurateurs. Kosher vodka is made in Jamaica. And so it goes. As vodka wins consumers by its very simplicity, so is it beloved of distillers for low production costs. No deep limestone cellars or towering rick houses here; no long years of ‘aging gracefully’ in new-oak barrels that are used but once and then either sold cheap to Scotland or cut up and sold even cheaper as planters. Vodka’s tao of profit is a speedy one: out of the still, into the bottle, onto the shelves and down the hatch. Some craft distillers have adopted vodka because it’s relatively easy to make and sells like crazy, supporting their bottom line. [The only beverage with a higher return on investment is bottled water.] Not that it’s always easy. Chris Weld, founder of Berkshire Mountain Distillers, says ‘although vodka still dominates the spirit world, I struggle to sell my craft vodka beyond my local environs—most distributors actually don’t even want to bring it in. They have plenty of vodkas from the big guys.’ And they’re much cheaper [his Ice Glen is $30] and available at big discounts. The low prices are low indeed. Some of the 1.75-liter plastic jugs return change from a $10 bill. You may be wary of any brand in plastic bottles, especially in pints, half-pints and $1 shots designed à la Manet for le déjeuner sur l’curb. Devotees of such stuff
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warn against drinking it straight and suggest drowning the taste with juice [cranberry, orange and grapefruit preferred], running it through a Brita filter a few times, or steeping it with Gummy Bears. In the end, you may wish to take a tip from Kirstie Alley: she uses to clean toilets, at home and in flight. What the hell: it’s cheaper than Lysol. ¶ Cheers!


*Or are said to have said. Wikipedia says ‘no Chinese source has ever been found.’ Phrases.org.uk calls it ‘neither Chinese nor ancient, being recent and western,’ noting its faux-Oriental ‘Confucius say’ style. It is cited in the 1930s by
French-sounding Frederic René Coudert, Jr. [actually a native-born New Yorker] and a contemporary British Ambassador to China who bore the magnificent handle Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen. 

**Taste-test for such nuances with neat vodka in wee glasses and at room temperature.

©Bill Marsano 2014










Farewell, Summer!

The summer’s gone, and Heaven’s to Betsy, all the roses falling. That’s the way of it here in Gotham, where burning Sappho loved and sung. Oft before the gloaming comes on I’ll retreat to the Locanda del Pavimento, a.k.a. sidewalk, there to sit in the open air and sip thoughtfully at some life-sustaining beverage [just now it’s Kenwood’s Sonoma County Zin]. As I gaze toward the lordly Hudson and the

Evening at the Locanda, where
I am choosing my wine with aplomb as the venerable sommelier Garçon McCullers takes my  order with scruples

Snooki Monument beyond, far off toward where the River Phoenix flows gently through Rudy Vallee toward the limpid waters of Turhan Bay, I compose my mind in peace for a backward glance at recent news of note. ¶ For example, Tom Wark, indefatigable warrior for the consumer’s right to buy wine unhampered by politicos, has opened a new front in his long war: he’s now executive director of the American Wine Consumer Coalition [which I like to call the CAB, for Campaign Against Backwardness]. What gets Wark’s goat and mine too is that 11 states absolutely forbid out-of-state shipments to consumers;  36 ban shipments from out-of-state retailers; 17 nix wine sales in grocery stores; 4 forbid Sunday sales; and 15 don’t allow BYO in restaurants. And Pennsylvania and Utah still tyrannize consumers via their state monopolies. [See Wineconsumers.org for more on how and how often politicians abuse the public to protect their campaign contributions.] ¶ Speaking of backwardness, Doug and Linda Pendleton deal with it daily as owners of Indiana’s well-regarded Grapevine Cottage. They have two outlets in Zionsville, which holds the gorgeous east in fee, or would if it could, but it can’t. The Pendletons are forbidden to ship out of state–and even in state. Can’t ship, period. But that’s beside the point. Recently, Doug and Linda did

zzzzDoug & Linda The legal drinking age in Indiana is 21, but in a fine example of Hoosier Daddy backwardness, the Doug and Linda must card customers up to age 26! That’s what Indiana’s Excise Police say. I kid you, as Queeg said, not.

what a lot of people have thought of doing but never got round to: staging a wine-saving face-off between Vacu Vin and Private Preserve. They poured two glasses each out of two bottles and set them aside for re-tasting after 48 hours. They did the same with a third bottle, which they gave the traditional re-cork-and-refrigerate therapy. The wine was Columbia Crest’s Grand Estate Merlot, which Doug and Linda chose for its ‘remarkable consistency’. The results? The re-corked bottle had to be poured right down the drain. Private Preserve’s blanket of inert gas got a ‘preservation score’ of 65-70%: after a little swirling, the wine was ‘still very enjoyable.’ Vacu Vin’s wine won hands-down [75-80%]: the tannins were still firm, Doug reports, and the nose almost indistinguishable from that of the fresh bottle. ¶ My own experience validates the Vacu Vin, and I’ll say that claims of its ‘sucking the life out of wine’ aremere wine-snob voodoo. Just pump until you feel resistance and you and your wine will be fine. [Over-pumping will damage wine: if you see bubbles as you pump, the wine is actually boiling.]


Cheap, effective and durable: the Vacu Vin. Seldom is so much available for so little. Shown at left is the bottom-dollar basic model; slightly fancier models don’t cost much more. Shop around and you’re talking single-digit price tags.

I’ve never cared for Private Preserve. Irrationally because my first can was thrown out by the char lady, who thought it was empty. I could hardly blame her: full or empty, the can weighs the same to any scale short of a nanomechanical mass sensor. Rationally because, as my locapour neighbor Art Vindepays says, ‘It gives me no feedback, no way to be certain that I’ve used it properly. You get a hiss when you spray, but nothing you can see. And what if I move the bottle—will that disturb the gas?’ ¶  If, Thirsty Reader, you are inclined to experiment for yourself, you’ll find that scientific inquiry has never been cheaper. Online, the spray goes for a low of $8.42 and the basic Vacu Vin bottoms out at $5.94. Similar pumps by Jokari and Fox Run are even cheaper. ¶ Dr. Jekyll and Nauga Hyde, bipolar specialists in rec-room decor, dropped by to crow that New York judges had again told Nanny/Mayor Michael Bloomberg to piss off and take his soda ban with him. Hizzonor, you may recall, was upset by the king-size drinks sold in movie houses and restaurants. In March, judges shot his imperious ban down as unconstitutional, arbitrary and capricious, so he appealed. Now he’s lost again. He noted, a little huffily, that more than 2000 New Yorkers have died of diabetes in the interim but didn’t say how many of them had actually been to the movies. ¶ Stop press! The Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne mounted its high horse in response to rumors of new Champagne-colored iPhones. And hinted at legal action! Risible as it may seem, the CIVC has ‘protected’ Champagne in Europe, quashing an Yves St. Laurent perfume and a Swedish yogurt, but in the U.S. they’ll have to put a cork in their complaint: the name is not so rigorously restricted here, as witness among other things Korbel California Champagne and Lawrence Welk’s Champagne Music Makers, to say nothing of Alice Lon. ‘We can’t say that a Champagne color exists,’ the CIVC’s legal explained. The CIVC, I imagine,will be to start legal


Champagne Lady Alice Lon,  sole soupçon of sex appeal on Welk’s drearily wholesome TV songfest. Her prom-style getups left everything to the imagination: a hem a smidgen too high, got her sacked. “Cheesecake’s not for us,’ said Welk, adding explaining that ‘Alice liked to show a little too much knee.’ He was rich but stingy, paying union scale, and out of touch: He okayed ‘One Toke Over the Line,’ thinking it was a real gospel song.

action against Toyota for its Champagne-colored Camrys, Home Depot for its house paint and various makers of makeup and hair colorings. Not to mention Pantone, global color arbiter to artists, designers, manufacturers and retailers, which confidently lists Champagne Beige and Pink Champagne on its palette: Nos. 14-1012 and 12-1107. [You could look ‘em up.] And then, egg on face to the CIVC, the color turned out to be gold. ¶ Our Laconic Lexicon defines BOYCOTT as a ‘fashionable means of expressing moral indignation, appearing virtuous and accomplishing nothing, all at one go.’ It’s relevant here because of the simple-minded boycott of Stoli vodka to protest Russia’s anti-gay law, which Putin put in.  Save your dudgeon and stow your dander; you might as well boycott all Russian dressings, Russian River Pinot Noir and the Russian Tea Room, because they, too, like Stoli, are not Russian. Stoli is distilled in Latvia and the company has sponsored gay-themed events here. Moreover, even a boycott of all real Russian vodkas, such as Kauffman, Russian Standard and [cleverness alert!] Fukoff, would cost the Russian economy a paltry $59 million. So lose the halos, kids. ¶ OK, so it’s no ‘Inverted Jenny’ but it’s a bungle nonetheless: a flea-market sortie unearthed a not-rare example of  the ‘Prohibition Enforced’ commemorative stamp issued by the post office in 1998. The image shows three men dumping a barrel of wine into a sewer in aid of National Sobriety. Never mind that home-made wine was legal during Prohibition, as was the ‘altar wine’ made for Catholics and ‘sacramental wine’ for Jews. Georges de Latour and Louis Martini made such tsunamic quantities of the stuff a fellow might have thought image

the Noble Experiment signified America’s vast spiritual reawakening. But Eliot Ness and his boys ignored wine, as did Al Capone and his:  the big bucks were in beer and whiskey. Yet mayhap, Thirsty Reader, you are too young to know of all that, even as I, sad to say, am not. Cheers!
©2013 Bill Marsano

Summer Books: A Drink-and-Read Selection

Thirsty Reader responded to my Christmas book post with a line from Auntie Mame: ‘Books are awfully decorative, don’t you think? Mame’s blithe spirit conjured my favorite moment from another film, The Truth About Cats & Dogs, in which Mr. Right gives a book to Ms. Wrong, a gorgeous model he delusionally thinks has a mind. Uma Thurman, who plays the model, plays the moment perfectly, hefting the package, unwrapping it cautiously, eying it speculatively and then, as the light dawns, cooing with manufactured delight ‘Why it’s a . . . it’s a book!‘ ¶ You, 
 imageunlike Ms. Wrong, are a reader, and so, since it’s summer it is also summer-reading time. For the drinking class there are plenty of books for porch, beach and patio, for deck chair and easy chair, for bed and chaise longue. Spanking new or slightly seasoned, the following will pair well with pulled corks, twisted screwcaps and popped tops, so don’t lean in—lean back. ¶ One book that is truly seasonal is Kara Newman’s Cocktails for a Crowd, in which expert testimony  proves that ‘batching’ drinks requires more
than a times-table. Many modern bartenders skance vodka; they consider it mere booze for getting blotto pronto. Bar chef Tony Abou-Ganim is not among them, and he makes vodka’s case in Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails. He’s not quite alone, because Ray Foley’s Vodka 1000: the Ultimate Collection of Vodka Cocktails, Recipes, Facts, and Resources was ahead of him, and now both are joined by Tony Conigliaro’s The Cocktail Lab: Unraveling the Mysteries of Flavor and Aroma in Drink, with Recipes. ¶ East Coast locapours are served a new edition of Summer in a Glass, Evan Dawson’s handy guide to New York State wines, while anypours have Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy’s American Wine in view. The World of Sicilian Wine, by Bill Nesto and Frances Di Savino is, says Nesto, ‘just the start—there is much more of Sicily to explore.’ Drinking with Men is by Rosie Schaap, who grew up in bars and says that at 15 she was telling passengers’ fortunes
image for beer in the bar car of a Toonerville Trolley-style railroad. You may readily suspect her of having many another cheerful tale to tell. ¶ Francopours, always well-provided for, can entertain themselves with the likes of Ray Walker’s The Road to Burgundy: The Unlikely Story of an American Making Wine and a New Life in France, Remington Norman’s Grand Cru: The Great Wines of Burgundy Through the Perspective of Its Finest Vineyards, Benjamin Lewin’s Claret & Cabs, Oz Clarke’s Bordeaux: The Wines, The Vineyards, The Winemakers, Bill Nanson’s The Finest Wines of Burgundy: A Guide to the Best Producers of the Côte D’Or and Their Wines, and Jane Anson’s Bordeaux Legends: The 1855 First Growth Wines of Haut-Brion, Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Mouton Rothschild. ¶ For self-improvement look no further than  Bruce McGechan’s Wine Marketing Online, which is instructive to buyers and sellers alike, and Oz Clarke again with The Sommelier Prep Course: An Introduction to the Wines, Beers, and Spirits of the World. ¶ In The Vineyard at the End of the World: Maverick Winemakers and the Rebirth of Malbec, Ian Mount writes of the maverick Argentines who tamed Malbec, Tim James follows tradition and revolution in Wine of the New South Africa and Paul Lukacs goes back 8,000 years with Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures. The New York Times Book of Wine spans a mere 30 years, but who among us doesn’t zzzmiss Frank Prial and R.W. ‘Johnny’ Apple? Thomas McNamee treats of another Times writer in The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance, and doesn’t shrink from the details of Claiborne’s harsh, even cruel upbringing, as well as his self-destructive later years. ¶ If, like me, you believe in daily bread and daily red, Jim Gordon’s 1000 Great Everyday Wines is just the ticket for Thrifty Drinker and Thirsty Reader. Fans of Michael Jackson, the non-singing one, will be grateful that his decades of devotion to malt whiskey are carried forward in the sixth edition of his Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, now updated by Dominic Roskrow, Gavin D. Smith and William C. Meyers. ¶ Brewers seem unable to control themselves, at least so far as stopping at beer and ale. They plunge onward to every other kind of fermented drink, as in Emma Christensen’s

True Brews: How to Craft Fermented Cider, Beer, Wine, Sake, Soda, Mead, Kefir, and Kombucha at Home and Andy Hamilton’s Booze for Free: The Definitive Guide to Making Beer, Wines, Cocktail Bases, Ciders, and Other Drinks at Home, which will suffice until Dorling Kindersley releases World Beer in the fall. Equally frothy is James Conaway’s Nose, a sharp and sharp-elbowed satire of Napa pretensions. And this just handed me: Tim James’ Wines of the New South Africa. ¶ Cocktail-lovers’ summer lazes occasionally expose them to hosts or saloons whose idea of bar tools stops at bottle openers. Such dire straits are made for the Bar10der. Leatherman-like but much beefier [14 oz. and 9.5”], it holds and zzbar10HIunfolds a life-saving array: jiggers, muddler, reamer, knife blade, zester, channel knife, strainer, folding stirrer, corkscrew and bottle-opener. That said, it’s really for emergency use only, but if you’re off to the remote and arid wastes, don’t leave home without it. ¶ And if the urge to study or compete should strike like a bolt from the blue, you can just download Marques de Casa Concha’s new Wine Expert, which has been designed for the app-happy among us. The beauty part: it’s free if you visit www.MarquesdeCasaConcha.com. Naturally it includes a feature that tells you where you can buy MdCC wines, which are the spiffy, single-vineyard bottlings of Chile’s Concha y Toro. ¶ Now then: Read responsibly and don’t forget trowel on that sunblock!
©2013 Bill Marsano

image  zzSingleMalt

LoatherCon 2013 Scores Gift Bummers for Wine Lovers

It’s the most won-der-ful-l-l t-i-i-i-me of the year! Yes, Thirsty Reader: Your grumpy correspondent’s annual rant about the hideous gifts foisted on we who accept alcohol as our personal savior. There will even be a Year’s Worst selection. [Hint: it makes ice out of ice . . . .] I am rested and ready, too, having taken several months off, with much time spent expensively in a dentist’s chair. Also dealing with family feuds, a pregnant daughter-in-law’s fainting scare, the demands of grandson Henry, rotating flu-like illnesses and uxorial dentistry too, and finally the arrival of a second grandson, Charles Langley Day Marsano, to make the yuletide bright. He’s the first male of the family to be named for an aircraft carrier. ¶Now then: Gift giving is simple if you heed the sage: the perfect gift for the man who has books is more books. For drinkers, substitute drink and Bob’s your uncle. But beware the word –related. Wine-related, with its poisonous hyphen, crosses the Gadroon Border into wine accessories. That way madness lies! Riedel me this and I am yours

        Riedel                              Brand X

and yours alone, but Anchor Hocking me that and you risk a Miss-Otis-regrets-she‘s-unable-to-lunch-today moment. So: anything from a catalogue in the seat pocket of Hal-Al, the booze- and highjack-proof Islamo-Judaic airline, is just out of the question. OK? ¶ Finalmente a date was fixed and the word went forth announcing what is known in Gotham as LoatherCon. First to arrive was my downstairs diva Opera Winfrey, the Wagnerian soprano, towing her consort, Canon Mañana, sometime Heldentenor and lackadaisical evangelist [‘Save your own soul’ is his motto]. What they brought to the party, apart from a fine bottle of Wild Horse’s excellent 2009 Cheval Sauvage, made from the picked pickings of the Santa Maria Valley, and probably artisanally, too, was assorted icky jewelry and picnic junk.

zzzzcorkscrew-cufflinks ‘Just imagine’, saith Canon M., ‘wearing silver cufflinks inlaid with tiny oak chips, or modeled after wee corkscrews. Waving your wrists in the air, desperately hoping someone will notice.’ As for the picnic tools, they put me in mind of Christopher Hitchens’ line about picnics being among ‘the four most overrated things in life’. Right: Plates on laps, plastic forks, bad seating, poor climate control and bugs to boot. The current offense: neck harnesses for stemware and even holsters for those who prefer
zzzznecklace2 zzzzholster
shooters from the hip. These people should be fed alive to Joan Rivers. ¶ Cole Junger, noted outlaw psychiatrist and salad-bar entrepreneur, denounced his clumsy and largely useless Corkcicle. Yes, it’s still here, partly because of dubious raves by Oprah Winfrey, who deemed it a ‘favorite thing’, and on Amazon. Of which more anon. Reader Ted Hope disagreed: ‘The haughty and leaky Corkcicle has struck’, wrote he. ‘Fresh out of its box, into the freezer, into a warm, part-bottle of good Malbec for 15 minutes and into a glass. It was at this point discovered, upon tasting, that the Corkcicle had a leak’. ¶ Voici le problème: The -icle part is of thin plastic—two shells, glued together—with a 20-inch seam that’s destined for failure. We figured this out over Cole’s Château St. Jean Cinq Cépages, a nifty Bordeaux blend that was excellent company. FYI, clever Ted has now returned to chilling with two or three frozen grapes. ¶ Also back: electric corkscrews. I skanced them last year, but Chem & Chaw, the irresolute Catskill tummelers, got one this year, and they brought it along with Ravenswood’s Barricia Vineyard Zin, which is the reason they’ll be invited back for next year’s do. C&C found an Ozeri Nouveau II, in their stocking; see and hear it here: http://vimeo.com/47489581. Amazon’s average
customer rating is 4.5 stars out of 5. Honest? Chem explains that some Amazon raves are fakes, especially if they are brief and vague, like ‘Wow! Sensational idea. Great stocking-stuffer!’ ‘When you see 200 raves and hardly any pans,’ Chaw says, ‘read the pans.’ So I did. And most critics reported poor performance and even total motor failure; some noted flimsy construction. So why all the raves? A hint comes from reviewer captainramius: ‘ . . . I received a message from the manufacturer explaining that they’re a small business, U.S.-based [even though the product is made in China], blah-blah-blah, and encouraging me to write a review [a positive one, they clearly hoped] . . . my only advice is simply don’t buy this one.’ ¶ Moving on . . . Excessively and even sickeningly dainty, cute, sentimental or cornball: the Brits have a word for it: twee. Sad to say, but wine attracts twee as blue serge draws lint. This came up with the arrival of Agnes Day, a pious do-gooder, and Mae, her hapless and accident-prone sister*. They drink communion wine religiously, so they brought B.V. Georges de Latour Private Reserve and Louis M. Martini Cabernet, which qualify as spiritual experiences**. Their gifts were, on the other hand, were ungodly. A pretentious uncle who uses gift as a verb sent his ‘favorite acolytes of Bacchus’ some items of décor for their apartment’s ‘vinous nook’: a set of ‘bistro-style’ chalkboard bottle tags and an embarrassing plaque.
zzzzplaque zzzzCHALKBOARD-HANG-TAG
They’ll use them once, on his next visit, then send them to the admirable Housing Works thrift shop. Things were worse for Tragic Johnson, the failed NBA star. He brought some very welcome Mad Hatter Napa Red and a less-welcome 5-liter oak barrel, personalized in a mean attempt to prevent re-gifting. This low point in bar-top décor cost $120 at The New York Times Store, which was a shock because a] we remember a time when the Times was a newspaper and b] the thing is lots cheaper from Wine Enthusiast. You’re supposed to age wine in it, which I heartily disrecommend. You’ll commence to
bigbarrel gabbling about kiln-dried staves vs. air-seasoned, split vs. sawn, also the angels’ share—pretty much the whole geekish clamjamphry, in fact. Old friends will begin avoiding you. By the time you realize that the FedEx guy is just ringing your bell and bolting for his truck it’ll be too bloody late. ¶ Spirits- and cocktail-lovers were blighted as well. Housemaid Grenadine, our own all-star Caribbean mixologist and charlady, brought a bottle of George Dickel’s fine new rye whiskey, with which she made a clutch of Manhattans, and an electric mixer, with which she refused to mix them. ‘A drink is a social gesture, above all’, H.G. says, ‘and mixing it, especially at home, should be a warm and personal act of generosity, with batteries not included. Of course if shaking is just too burdensome for poor little you, then you might as well go whole hog: b
uy pre-mixed cocktails in cans. Just don’t invite me.’
Brandi Alexander, the tall and tan cocktail waitress, brought American Harvest, the new organic-wheat vodka from Idaho [which is apparently short of potatoes] and the Worst Gift of the Year: the Japanese Ice-Ball Maker. A little background: Tokyo consider itself a world c
zzzzmetrokaneocktail, and Dale DeGroff, whose Craft of the Cocktail is a barman’s bible, says ‘the Japanese invented the hard shake, the merits of which are limited to the theatricality of the technique’ [YouTube: ‘Japanese cocktail shake’]. They also invented their own big chill: ice balls
which melt a bitmore slowly
than cubes and fascinate folks who are given to staring into their drinks. The artisanal type, carved by hand with planes and scrapers, on the spot, by the bartender, is preferred by demented purists. For the rest of us, and for our Brandi, there’s the ice-ball maker, which turns ice into . . . ice. Slowly, too. And at enormous expense. ¶ Thus: Day before, make a batch of ice blocks in the special molds supplied with kits from Williams-Sonoma, japantrendshop.com and others. Day of, warm the device in tap water, then insert a fresh block of your specially molded ice and sit back while warmth and weight melt the block into a ball. Have a baby or take a college degree online while you’re at it, for the magic [endothermic reaction is the term of art], proceeds at a glacial pace. Then empty the drip pan, if supplied, or mop the counter, if not, and extract the ball. Repeat. Endlessly. ¶ There may be trouble ahead: Most most of the online videos are deceptive; you won’t make many balls before the zzzziceballmold
fiddlers have fled because you get only one ball of one size at one time. Many sizes are available, and the bigger balls are, by the way, real heavyweights. Brandi says she shattered two hand-blown glasses by casually dropping balls in. Williams-Sonoma’s $700 model makes a ball a bit smaller than a pool ball in about 40 seconds; its $1100 model makes baseball-size spheres and takes even longer. The thing gets slower with use and must be reheated periodically, thus the maker’s posted output of a mere 30-40 balls an hour. Simple arithmetic says that’s an average 90 seconds to 2 minutes each. And there are larger and slower models for up to $1435. All in all, a good argument for small, intimate gatherings. ¶ So that was LoatherCon ’13. We cried for madder music and stronger wine, were true to each other in our fashion, and broke up before the cops came. And at least no one amongst us had the ill-luck to find one of these beneath his tree:
zzzzrabbitrack zzzz2276 

I’m sure these got lots of raves on Amazon too.

 *No modernist she, Agnes remains devoted to the King James Bible because, she says, ‘it shows that Our Lord spoke such beautiful English.’ For her part, Mae is so humble she cannot bring herself to ‘call my Creator by his first name’ and so addresses her prayers to ‘Mr. Almighty’.

**George and Louis, bless them, sailed through the Prohibition years by making communion wine for Catholics and sacramental wine for Jews. Nationwide, congregations grew exponentially; locally, G. and L. grew rich.

©2013 Bill Marsano

Books Do Furnish a Room

. . . and minds, too—but in declining numbers these days. Anecdotal evidence comes from the housing market. Real-estate agents and ‘stagers’—the people who dress up empty houses so they look lived-in and buyable—think books are dowdy and old-fashioned. Bookshelves are always small; they display mostly arty knickknacks and tchotchkes, with maybe a few books on the side. ¶ Bookcases are not tolerated. clip_image002
Design layouts and home-décor shows are filled with of houses [always called ‘homes’] that are empty of books. ¶ Contrary as ever, I’m back again to argue for books as gifts this Christmas,* for La Dickinson was right; there is no frigate like a book, etc. . .  for vineyards near and far; for sweet private pleasures and armchair reveries of wine and spirits; for the people who make them and love them. There’s much to settle into in this year’s harvest, and I’m going to throw in some titles from past years as well. Why the oldies? Because writers can use a little support, you know. Anne Lamotte has written that she once thought being published would be ‘an affirming and romantic experience, a Hallmark commercial where one runs and leaps in slow motion across a meadow filled with wildflowers into the arms of acclaim and self-esteem. This did not happen for me.’ So drink deep, Thirsty Reader. ¶ This year’s magnum opus is Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, by Jancis  Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. Huge, heavy, scholarly but not at clip_image001
all turgid; it is filled with vintage prints. As a book per se it’s not so hot because its low-contrast type and text crammed into the gutter can be tough to read; likewise, to get the straight skinny on Malbec, say, you needs must see under Côt, a name that is known to few and used by fewer. You get all this for $175 or your first-born child, but despair not, amici mie. My new nextdoor neighbor is Bernie Médoc, a négociant who surfs the net from his cell at Club Fed; he’s seen it on Amazon for a piddling $110 plus shipping, and other retailers online and off will surely go along. ¶ Durable, useful and affordable, Wine for Dummies, by Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing Mulligan, is back with its fifth Edition. Their book has sold more a million+ copies in 37 languages since 1995, so if the your question is ‘Who has really been spreading the word on wine?’ the answer is EMc and MEM. 
clip_image004They have expanded their reporting on of Southern Italy; emerging Spanish regions; Argentina; the Sonoma Coast’s wineries; Schramsberg; and blogs; they’ve also updated their vintage chart. And more, but I’m out of semi-colons. Why a new edition now? Mary says that ‘Evolving online sales, blogs, cellar-management sites, online "communities” and apps mean the wine world is not the same place it was even just six years ago.’ You got a problem with that? ¶ A handy companion will be Alan Young’s Making Sense of Wine Tasting: Your Essential Guide to Enjoying Wine. ¶ Italy: it’s so small it could be the seventh-largest American state, and globally it’s not really very far ahead of Burkina Faso. Thus it has been thoroughly raked-over lo these many years, so can can conclude that Italy been done, right? OK, but then Tom clip_image006Hyland turns up to discover grapes and producers that most people have never even heard of. Tintore, say, or Bianchello and Torbato; and Didier Gerbelle, Emilio Bulfon, and I Cacciagalli. This lot and many more can be found in Hyland’s Beyond Barolo and Brunello. ¶ UCal Press’ Finest Wines series stakes out terroirs in Champagne, Rioja, Tuscany, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Germany,  and California. Then there are The Complete Bordeaux: The Wines The Châteaux The People and Saint-Émilion, a large-format text-and-photo love letter from the besotted Philippe Dufrenoy and Jean-Marie Laugery. For Malbec Nation, latch onto Sgra. Laura Catena’s Vino Argentino, which to wine by the long ton adds useful touring information and recipes, too. How’d she find the time? Gaucho Marx tells me she’s a wife, a mother, an M.D., a producer in her own right [Luca is her label] and strong right arm of her distinguished dad, Nicolás, of Catena
Zapata. Even father afield is The Top 100 South African Wines & Wine Lists, while closer to home are Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide, by Paul Gregutt and The New Connoisseurs’ Guidebook to California Wine and Wineries, by Charles E. Olken and Joseph Furstenthal. ¶ Daniel Okrent’s Last Call, a superb tale of Prohibition days, is often hilarious, and it’s also important: the prohibitionist urge yet lives amongst us; it’s a snake that won’t die. Okrent is excellent on the con jobs, lies, hypocrisy, political chicanery and relentless bullying that led to the Ignoble Experiment. Read clip_image008and learn, Thirsty Reader, read and learn. It will go down well with Andrew Barr’s Drink: A Social History of America and Richard Mendelson’s From Demon to Darling. Thomas Pinney covers The Makers of American Wine while Patrick E. McGovern’s Ancient Wine goes back, way back: to the Stone Age, actually, and so does Tom Standage’s History of the World in 6 Glasses. Charles L. Sullivan has a tighter focus in Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine. The lighter side, a.k.a. Bar Bet Trivia, is found in The Curious World of Wine: Facts, Legends, and Lore, by Richard Vine. Really. ¶ For more books that have actual writing in them see Coquilles, Calva, and Crème: Exploring France’s Culinary Heritage by G.Y. Dryansky and Joanne Dryansky, who took a slow boat to France in the ‘60s and stayed there. Gerry was once a bigshot fashion reporter, so he serves much delicious but not malicious gossip from that world-let [e.g., Régine misses a fancy party when her elephant gets lost in the Bois de Boulonge; the Duchess of Windsor takes the floor, so to speak, at a resto superbe where the facilities, well, ain’t] and there’s a leisurely voyage into la france profonde and the small restaurants, small fêtes and small villages that are struggling with changing times, spendthrift ego-feeders and the EU’s swollen tribe of power-crazed officials and
clip_image010 bureaucrats. Harriet Welty Rochefort later followed in the Dryanskys’ wake, marrying a Frenchman, his family and France, too. Now she spills les haricots in her Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French.¶ James Conaway’s earlier and excellent non-fiction books on Napa Valley’s heroes and villains [read those, too] inspired his fiction: Nose, a mystery that’s funny, witty and murder-free. The plot’s maguffin is a wine: a mysterious Cabernet that tantalizes Napa no end and provides targets for Conaway’s sharp elbows: cult wineries, ridiculous geekspeak, self-important bigshots, land abusers, chemical polluters, and the overall cheapening of Napa’s heritage [although I guess they call it a ‘brand’ these days]. Also lifestyle pomposity and hard-eyed lawyers, courtesy [da-dum!] of a blogger who knows too much. A blogger hero? Who knew? ¶ Gourmet magazine sank ingloriously under a misguided quest for hipness, but longtime columnist Gerald Asher didn’t go down with the ship. A Carafe of Red, his latest collection of essays, recalls how good it was and he still is, and so does his earlier A Vineyard in My Glass. ¶ The newest of American heroes is the Self-Reinventor, who, say in midlife, leaves a desk job in Chicago and hauls his family west to make wine, despite knowing nothing about it, and who yet manages to create what Mr. Parker called ‘one of the world’s greatest wineries’. Sounds like John Shafer of Shafer Vineyards, and it is: A Vineyard in Napa is written by John’s son Bill and 
Andy Demsky. ¶ Doers, dreamers
clip_image012and DIYers will enjoy Sheridan Warrick on The Way to Make Wine; Deborah M. Gray on How to Import Wine, and Christina Perozzi and Hallie Beaune’s The Naked Brewer. Tempted? Then turn to Bill Owens’ How to Build a Small Brewery. Darek Bell’s Alt Whiskeys aids and abets the would-be craft distiller, as do The Craft of Whiskey Distilling, Modern Moonshine Techniques, 99 Pot Stills and The Art of Distilling Whiskey and Other Spirits, all by the busy Bill Owens. Armchair  enthusiasts are more likely to sink into Whiskey and Philosophy, Fritz Allhoff and Marcus P. Adams’ fireside book, and two global tours, Whiskey Opus and World Whiskey, a pair of typical Dorling Kinderseley products: they are well-made books, profusely illustrated, highly legible and thorough—right down to the two single malts that are currently made in Pakistan. What?
¶ Perhaps that calls for a drink. A vintage cocktail, say. Richard Bennett is eager to guide your choice in The Book of Gin, which takes its place beside Gary ‘Gaz’ Regan’s The Bartenders Gin Compendium. Both books help to keep gin, a truly sophisticated spirit, from being drowned by tsunamis of vodka, a spirit that is, by contrast, merely refined. Chicago’s Hearty Boys, Steve McDonagh and Dan Smith, offer an array of ‘old standards’ cocktails imagein The New Old Bar: Classic Cocktails and Salty Snacks, and Philip Greene, who just happens to be one of the founders of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans, mines the literary past in To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion. ¶ Now what more can I say except . . . READ RESPONSIBLY!


*Also Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Festivus.

© 2012 Bill Marsano


A Non-Thanksgiving-Wine-Pairing Story

A tedious chore for the wine-scribbler is the Best-Wines-for-Thanksgiving-Dinner story. It’s a statutory requirement, probably because some jealous, sour, water-drinking prig attached a rider to the Repeal Bill back in ’32. And there’s no need or desire for it, because the old Norman Rockwell-stylezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzglutton2 Thanksgiving dinner is a banquet of excess, with too many dishes that don’t get along with each other. And it stirs the Pairing Urge in many writers.

Not all Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving dinners were sentimental scenes of big birds and bigger grins. This 1923 magazine cover from the Rockwell Museum shows a darker side [nrm.org].

Pairing always seems a rather dubious enterprise to me. For one thing, it generates too much talk. Or prattle.* So instead, I’ll just tell you what went down, Chez Bill on The Day: All-American wines made from America’s own wine grapes, Zinfandel and Norton, because Thanksgiving is an all-American holiday. That simple.

image Zinfandel, American? you ask. Of course. Ours is an immigrant nation, and Zin, an obscurity of low degree, of murky origin and uncertain name, ignored by most and respected by none, is that American favorite, the immigrant success story. Croatia’s Crljenak Kaštelanski, which went to Italy as Primitivo, came to the U.S. as Zinfandel. On our East Coast it was a mere table grape until it went west and Californians began to vinify it. Then it became a hit—but not for long. Planted to excess and in all the wrong places, it faded, reduced to the status of anonymous blender.

Although Ridge Vineyards bottled its first single-vineyard Zinfandel in 1964 [it has 10 singles today], a real revival began only in the 1970s. Kent ‘Dr. Zin’ Rosenblum of Rosenblum Cellars told me that late-comers to California’s wine boom, priced out of the French varieties, turned to Zin at $300 a ton. ‘Many of the old Italian immigrant vineyards’, Rosenblum said had ‘maybe 40 or 50 different clones, many with distinct identities, often about a hundred years old.’ And small. Rod Berglund, owner and winemaker of Joseph Swan Vineyards, has a plot from 1872. How small is it? ‘I really can’t say,’ Rod told me. ‘I’d have to count the vines.’ Joel Peterson, whose Ravenswood Zins have been single-vineyards from his first vintage [1976], says most Zin grapes were sold to Big Blender ‘until smaller producers began to recognized their quality and character.’ Growers who appreciated being appreciated, so to speak, who wanted the pride that came from having their names on the labels, ‘often sold to the little guys at the same price despite the risk of non-payment and the added trouble of working with small lots’. A list of those old vineyards—Teldeschi, Frediani, Varozza, Bacigalupi, Mencarini, Saitone, Bacchi, Piccheti, Ciapusci, Forchini, Pagani, Galleani, Ponzo, Baldinelli, Gamboggi, Belloni, Gamba, Nichelini—reads like a field blend from Ellis Island.

I’m partial to many Zins, both rationally and irrationally. To Ravenswood, from the entry-level Vintner’s Blend that opens the double figures to the vineyard designates that threaten the triples, because of Joel Peterson’s bold motto: ‘No Wimpy Wines!’ [Also one of his cronies is thisclose to zzzzzzzzzzzzzzrattler Jessica Lange, and if you ask nice he might throw in a free rattlesnake with your multi-case order.] Amapola Creek, too. Richard Arrowood’s wit is as good as his wine: He once told me how he arranged the financing for his first winery on a napkin at Windows on the World, adding ‘Today it would be all lawyers. Talking to a lawyer is like talking to a fencepost with glass eyeballs.’ Also, he and his wife, Alis,

Ravenswood: no wimpy
visitors, either.  

have my favorite pairing on their website. Bonny Doon? Randall Grahm didn’t just break wine’s Mr. Stuffy mold; he shattered it with his flagrant puns and his Cardinal Zin. And Don Wallace of Dry Creek Vineyard is a sailor; he puts some of his favorite classic sailboats on his labels: I’m something of a salt myself, so I can’t resist.zzzzzzzzzzzzzzarrow

Isn’t it romantic? Richard and Alis Arrowood, a pair for the ages.

The price range for Zins is equatorial; i.e., wide. For about $10: Smoking Loon, Cellar No. 8, C.K. Mondavi, Concannon, Bogle, Dancing Bull, Barefoot and Marietta; $15-$25 fetches Robert Mondavi, Buena Vista, Frei Brothers,  Kenwood and Renwood, Liar’s Dice,Rodney Strong,  Trentadue, Valley of the Moon, Ancient Peaks, Boeger, Rosenblum, Château Souverain,  DeLoach, Cardinal Zin, Gnarly Head, Green & Red, Sausal, 7 Deadly Zins, Sledgehammer, Sebastiani, Rancho Zabaco, Edmeades, Mariah, St. Francis, and The Federalist. For a little more, Ridge and Franus; then come your pricier Sbragia, Seghesio, Rafanelli, tuxedo-styled Tyler Florence [demurely labeled ‘TF’], Louis M. Martini, Wild Horse Unbridled, Don Coppola’s Edizione Pennino [in honor of his maternal grandfather], Rochioli, and Williams-Selyem. So drink up!

The Norton grape is native but obscure. When and where Thomas Jefferson expensively failed with Vitis vinifera, the recently widowed Dr. Daniel N. Norton of Richmond, Va. successfully dealt with his grief by retreating to his farm and immersing himself in viticulture. There he’s credited with having created Norton [or Norton’s Virginia Seedling, Norton’s Virginia, or Norton’s Seedling,] from the native Vitis aestivalis and an unknown vinifera, now extinct. First ‘published’ in 1830, in the noted New York nurseryman William Prince’s ‘A Treatise on the Vine’, Norton went west to Missouri, then a center of American wine. It was adopted by the German immigrants who in 1837 founded the town of Hermann and, at essentially the same time, the Missouri wine industry. But not by intent: they’d planned to farm, which requires fields, not the steep hills they found. No crybabies, they! Instead of mounting violent protests and demanding a government bailout [this wasn’t France, after all] they took note of the thriving wild vines all around and concluded ‘God gave us a vineyard, so let us make wine’. If not in so many words. Their Norton was much admired in time, and was called ‘the Cabernet of the Ozarks’.

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzstonehill Then came decline. One reason was the rise of California and the heady success of its Zinfandel; another was a change in tastes that favored hard liquor. Many wineries converted to distilleries to stay alive. There was a wave of anti-German hostility during World War I: especially after the Mauretania was torpedoed, there was more to it than merely re-naming sauerkraut, which was called Liberty Cabbage. Finally, Prohibition, the Depression and World War II put paid to the state’s vinous prominence.

Unlike Zin, Norton hasn’t really recovered. Few have even heard of it. Confusion doesn’t help: Argentina’s fine Bodega Norton has a large online presence, and some Norton is called Cynthiana. Under either name, it’s found these days in Arkansas and Texas, but the Show Me State is its real stronghold. It is Missouri’s State Grape, grown by six dozen or so wineries. Stone Hill, Augusta, Montelle, and Adam Puchta are some of the leading producers, and some others that are well regarded include Cave, St James, Westphalia, Chaumette, Native Stone and Mount Pleasant. ‘We hand-sell it’, says Tony Kooyumjian, Augusta’s owner-winemaker. ‘It can be too tart by itself but is excellent with food. With a well-marbled steak, with sausages and with rich cheeses, it’s a very satisfying wine.’  Still, the grape remains an obscure one. After all, who these days associates Missouri with wine? Stone Hill’s winemaker, Dave Johnson, says Norton wine is unknown ‘even to some people who live across the street from the winery.’

In Virginia, its manger, it’s largely ignored, despite the fact that a Virginia Norton won a gold medal at the Vienna World Exposition in 1873. In fact, it took a Hermann boy, Dennis Horton, to re-introduce Norton to Virginia, when he founded Horton Vineyards in 1988. Most of the state’s other zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzznorton  Dennis Horton not only restored Norton to Virginia, he restored and updated this handsome old label.

wineries played it safe, planting the French varieties that did so well for California. They were, after all, established as public favorites. But Horton wasn’t alone. Jenni McCloud, owner, founder and head evangelist of Chrysalis Vineyards, put in 69 acres of Norton; other producers include Cooper, Keswick and Abingdon, although there are not so many as what McCloud calls ‘this gem’ deserves. In Virginia as in Missouri, the internet is the best friend of wine-lovers whose states are sufficiently advanced to allow direct shipment from beyond their borders. Those who don’t might well look into www.freethegrapes.org and wine hero Tom Wark’s winefermentationblog.com. Both of them tirelessly attack the Three-Tier System, the oligarchy that makes sure consumers pay more for less choice.

So—Norton and Zin for next Thanksgiving. Why not? On the other hand, why wait?

*When Doug Pendleton, owner of the famous Grapevine Cottage in Zionsville, Indiana asked a clerk for his favorite pairing The fellow rubbed his nose, pulled his beard and stroked his chin [this is made up] and said ‘I’m torn between cedar-roasted salmon with a corn-and-scallion soufflé and a Russian River Pinot Noir ‘or a grilled ahi-tuna sandwich with havarti and Conundrum.’ [not made up]. Torn, is he? Well he’s not invited to my house. I’m fresh out of ciabatta rolls and wouldn’t give havarti house-room.

©2012 Bill Marsano

Banners Yet Rave

What’s the intersection at which wine and spirits meet cupcakes and Kinder Eggs, Buckyball magnets and Mayor Bloomberg’s Tit Squad? Read on.

If You Know What’s Good for You! is a favorite maternal warning, and it just won’t go away. ‘I’m all grown up now,’ says Thirsty Reader, ‘as are you—able to drink, smoke, vote and die for our country—but it’s the ruling dogma of the Busybody Brigade.’

Of which Michael Bloomberg is chief. The imperial and imperious mayor-proconsul is busy making New York the City of Big Brotherly Love. He dotes on telling citizens what to eat and what to drink, what to do and what to think; does so every chance he gets; never lets the law stand in his way*. Food too salty? Behold Hizzoner’s war on salt. Trans-fats bad? Banned, just like that.

New Yorkers for Beverage Choices seeks to rally those who ingest mass quantities with a website opposing Mayor Mike’s latest bid to control the consumption habits of Gotham’s citizens: nycbeveragechoices.com is the place to go. And 24 oz. is, for some, the way to go.


Now? Supersized sodas. Really. Bake sales have managed thus far to escape the mayor’s regulatory gaze, but the Urge to Control is a strong one. Banners have come down hard on cupcake-hustling mothers in such places as New Mexico, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada and Texas. Reigning Food-and-Nutrition VoPo Marla Caplon, who is gauleiter of the S’mores Police in Maryland’s Montgomery County, replies on zealous spies and snitches to stop the snack-pushers: ‘If a bake sale is going on,’ quoth she, ‘it’s reported to Administration and it’s taken care of.’ I love that taken care of, don’t you? Will Caplon call Major Toht [below] out of retirement to round up the nation’s 7.5 million cookie-flogging Girl Scouts? 






It’s easy to make mock here, even an obligation, for bans and banners are part of the Higher Nonsense. [The New Yorker quickly took the mickey out of Mike with a witty cover recalling the lurid 1950s teen movies of the ‘Out for Kicks, In for Trouble’ genre.] But in fact these zealots are dangerous folk, zzzzznycoverrcondenaststore.com
threats to freedom, even or especially when it’s none of their damned business. They thrive in some surprising places. Supposedly liberal New York is actually a Nanny State bastion, so Mayor Mike gets much doltish support. ‘It can’t hurt and it might help’ was a popular, well—it’s hardly an argument, merely a Wistful Sentiment, like Bono’s suggestion that we continue sending aid money to Africa despite most of its’ being stolen by dictators [‘We’ve got to do something, even if it doesn’t work’]. Others say the ban ‘sends a powerful message’. Really? Thirsty says it simply proves the law is a ass. He agrees with Sam Goldwyn: ‘If you want to send a message, call Western Union’. Then there’s ‘If it saves even ONE child . . . .’. Sorry, folks, but your brat is not worth my civil rights.

image  A banner’s wet-dream: Überünterführer Fritz Scheisskopf impounds a contraband-laden Girl Scout van or ‘mule’. Note the large quantity of Double Dutch, the infamous ‘gateway snack’ that can lead to addiction to Thin Mints, Ice Berry Piñatas and Caramel deLites.

Americans’ obsession with bodily health borders on mental illness. Banners know what’s good for you and for your children too, and they will compel obedience by force of law when and if they can and by public shaming and/or abusive taxation when they can’t. Mayor Mike’s naive belief that he can end child obesity is his excuse for treating adults like kids. Bake-sale banners are just as zealous, and now new mothers are being shamed in print for  mammary incorrectness by the self-righteous likes of, for example, Time Magazine scribbler Bonnie Rochman. A breast-feeding zealot, she wrote
‘[my sister-in-law]. . . Rachel knows firsthand how bleep! pushing bleep! can impact an inexperienced mother . . . bleep! offered to give her bleep! a bottle “to make it easier on you.” Exhausted and uncertain, she agreed . . . . “I was a new mom,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was doing”.’

Rachel, Rachel! How could you? Yes, it looks bad—until you change the bleeps: nurses, formula, a nurse and newborn. So Rachel accepted a bottle of formula. She should throw herself off a bridge?

Rochman says Rachel had always intended to breast-feed, implying that the nurse/pusher has made that impossible. For additional humiliation Rochman spills that Rachel even underwent a C-section, thus inviting the scorn of crackpot Mommy Fanatics who say a C-section and/or a hospital birth means ‘you’re not a REAL mother’. Thanks, Sis! [Aside to young marrieds out there: If you’re getting your parenting advice from Time the Weekly News Pamphlet, consider looking elsewhere.]

Exposed by her sister-in-law for accepting infant formula; shamed for giving birth in a hospital and even having a C-section; dreading mention of the word ‘epidural’; Rachel takes the only way out before a crazed mob of howling Mommy Fanatics and the fortuitous documentary gaze of Camille Pissarro.

Now Mayor Mike wants hospitals to be lactically correct: to deny formula unless there’s medical need or specific requests [even then mothers are subjected to mandatory anti-formula lectures]. Formula must be locked up, like medicines and drugs. Staff will have to sign it out, track its distribution and report to the Health Department. Have I got this right? Woman wants an abortion, she gets it any time for any reason or none at all, but she can’t get formula without a browbeating by Mayor Mike’s Tit Squad? ‘Splain me’, as Ricky Ricardo used to say, how this makes any sense. ‘Splain me how it’s fair, or reasonable, or any of the Dear Leader’s bloody business.

High motives do not justify stupidity. Obesity will not be conquered by banning sodas d’une certaine taille. As for formula: yes, Big Baby—the mighty marketer of kiddy products ranging from ‘smart water’ for toddlers to $700 PAVs**—offers the stuff free in hospitals as a greedy industrial marketing ploy. But are mothers stupid? Unable to decide for themselves? Isn’t it possible that formula could ‘empower’ Dads, as in getting them to take the 2 A.M. feeding? Worked for me.

The lunacy escalates, as you knew it would: Another new mother named Rachel—Weisz—dared to say an occasional glass of was wine OK after the first three months. Know-betters immediately denounced the actress as ill-informed and dangerous, despite significant disagreement [in England and Europe, for example]—and no proof at all that ‘any alcohol is dangerous’. Let me spell out the fall-out: Pregnant women are now being refused wine in American restaurants. Waiters, whose job is, I believe, to carry plates, now offer medical advice. And in one case, compulsion: Chicagoan Michelle Lee was ordered to leave a restaurant when all she’d ordered was pizza and water. But she was pregnant, and that, as people have finally stopped saying, tore it, so out she went. As NOW president Terry O’Neill observed ‘[non-pregnant]people feel increasingly empowered to make decisions for pregnant women’. Ya think? Thus we await the publication of a New Age Dr. Spock written by a soon-to-be-nationally-known cocktail waiter. Baba Wawa and Katie Couric will be all over the guy in six minutes flat, and People magazine will then name him the Most Sensitive Man Alive. Now comes word of a breakthrough: actual pregnancy is no longer necessary. In Canada, a land famous for excess caution, the ink-seeking strivers of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists are now proposing abstention for women who might become pregnant.

The urge to ban has naught to do with fetal health or childhood obesity. It is showing off; it is boasting about one’s sensitivity; it seeks control. It is the fastest way of becoming a Recognized Authority and Public Expert who can attract grants, get jobs and appear on talk-shows run by jackasses. It leads to speaking engagements and book contracts, and in general coins money at the expense of science, common sense and personal freedom.

Beware, Thirsty Reader. Urged on by their limitless array of targets—raw-milk cheese, party balloons [Yeah, right, says Ruth Suehle of geekmom.com, they’re ‘doom on a string!’] as well as whistles, foie gras, bake sales, Harry Potter, energy drinks, wee magnets, Kinder Eggs [60,000 seized last year by U.S. Customs], fireworks and more—banners will get around soon enough to what the WCTU called King Alcohol. They may not be so foolish as to try to bring back Prohibition, but with the glad help of the Studies Industry—that unregulated confederacy of ‘experts’ who can be paid to prove anything—they’ll seek more age restrictions, limits on individual consumption and purchase, abusive, even crippling taxation, and, prominent on every bottle, a grisly graphic warning label. After all, they know what’s good for you, and you don’t.

And if it saves even one life . . . .


*Mayor Mike supported New York’s term-limits law, which helped eliminate at least a few of Gotham’s elected crooks, the idea being that two terms of thievery and incompetence should be enough to satisfy anybody. But then he thought again and, deciding that the city needed him more than it did the law, got his house pet, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, to have the law changed.

**PAVs: Pediatric Assault Vehicles, oversized and overpriced transports that have, because of their enhanced Preening Index, replaced ordinary strollers for Yuppies wishing to impress onlookers with how devoted they are to the kids they routinely leave to the care of underpaid immigrant nannies.

Photo montages courtesy of the peerless Darren Tuozzoli

FDR: Cocktail Hero

Could November put a teetotaler in the White House? Mitt Romney is forbidden drink as a Mormon, so let’s hope that, if elected, he will serve.

image USS Augusta was FDR’s longest yacht [600’] for the shortest time: Just enough time for he and Winston Churchill to thrash out, over drinks, no doubt, the Atlantic Charter in 1941.

That is, let him separate the personal from the presidential. Abstinence is tyranny when forced on guests. ’ I don’t claim, Thirsty Reader, that drink makes a president good or bad; I ask only that hospitality and sophistication rule; that the nation’s greeting be something more warmer than Come on in, the water’s fine. Bush II was teetotal for cause, but he poured Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay, Peter Michael ‘Les Pavots’ and the lovely Schramsberg Brut Rosé for the Queen of England. Other of our presidents have offered only cold comfort. Take Rutherford B. Hayes. At his White House, said Secretary of State William Evarts, ‘water flowed like wine’. The Carters were rigid that way too, and made no bones about it. Ted Kennedy recalled their at-homes: ‘You’d arrive at 6 or 6:30 P.M., and the first thing you would be reminded of, in case you needed reminding, was that he and Rosalynn had removed all the liquor from the White House.

Thus the inebriati turn admiring glances toward Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He it was lifted the curse of Prohibition from our parched nation. The Noble Experiment, which promised an epidemic of morality, led instead to a tsunami of crime, corruption, hypocrisy, lost tax revenues and lost jobs. And organized crime made a killing. Literally.

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzFDR5  The President in a stress-reducing moment.

No man of the people—him with his WASPy pedigree and his cigarette holder—FDR nonetheless had the common touch. He campaigned to end Prohibition and did so first chance he got. In March 1933, scarcely three weeks in office, he legalized beer and light wines, and the horses were out of the barn. Clydesdales toured the suds-loving cities of the East and Midwest even as brew was shipped to the White House by air. With a Repeal amendment already rolling, the jig was up in jig time. When Utah ratified Repeal that very December, Prohibition was, at last, dead as a smelt.

In the White HouseFDR instituted for his staff and pals what he lightly called the children’s hour, at which they relaxed at day’s end, draining stress not over the traditional cookies and milk but over cards, tobacco and martinis, with the two-pack-a-day President as Mixologist-in-Chief.

Now the classic martini—dry gin, vermouth, olives or lemon twist—is the Fred Astaire of cocktails [the Manhattan is the Cary Grant]. Proportions are a matter of to taste but should always maintain the drink’s Fredly style: lean and elegant. Likewise the question of shaking or stirring is a personal matter: the former gives more texture through its raft of ice shards [created by vigorous muscle-work if you don’t have something like the Post-Imperial shaker shown below]; the latter gives silky smoothness. Shoot anyone who brings up that wheeze about stirring clockwise vs. counterclockwise.

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzPostImperialShaker.Full1.web  The Post-Imperial Cocktail Shaker, freely adapted from a 19th Century device. The artist Benjamin Cowden created it earlier this year. See a video, and other of Cowden’s unique scultpures, here: http://www.twentysevengears.com/Portfolio.html.

Here’s the shopping list for the basic or classic martini: two ounces of gin and ¼ to 1/3 of an ounce dry vermouth plus olive garnish. Eric Felten, whose recipe that is, also offers a version of ‘classic 1930s proportions’—adding just a wee bit more vermouth plus two dashes of orange bitters. FDR went perhaps a little beyond the pale. His specialty was the dirty martini, a variation that requires a potent dosage of olive brine. To make matters worse he mixed his dirty martinis personally, relentlessly and, if the we read the fossil record aright, very, very badly. Indeed he bids fair to go down as the most enthusiastic and least competent of presidential martiniphiles. Some guests are said to have dreaded the soirées for the sheer awfulness of his martinis which, dirty or not, have been described as ‘soggy with vermouth’ and/or mutilated, according to staffers cited by Nannette Stone, with orange juice, grapefruit juice, absinthe and even anisette. Whether from design or exuberance is unclear.zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzv3

FDR & Co. aboard Vireo, which is now displayed, handsomely restored, at Mystic Seaport. For more: www.mysticseaport.org. FDR’s ice yacht is in the National Parks Service’s ‘custodial storage facility,’ a name that suggests the cavernous warehouse seen at the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. Odds of its ever being seen again don’t seem very good.

The olive brine may have represented the tang of the sea for FDR, who was a sailorman to the bone. He’d always liked messing about in boats: a bark canoe at Campobello, an iceboat on the Hudson, a 21-foot knockabout called the New Moon, the 25-foot sloop Vireo, the houseboat Larooco and his personal Presidential yacht, the ex-Coast Guard cutter Electra, renamed Potomac. He borrowed the heavy cruiser USS Augusta for his first meeting with Winston Churchill [as a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he apparently had connections]. Another presidential yacht, the Sequoia, was inherited from Herbert Hoover, and the two together

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz1Potomacfast  Now a favorite with San Francisco party planners, the ex-Coast Guard cutter Electra had a subsequent  career as FDR’s presidential yacht. The smoking lamp was always ‘lit throughout the ship’, as Navy lingo has it; the drinking lamp was too. FDR’s other presidential yacht was the Sequoia. Charter one or both at usspotomac.org/ or sequoiayacht.com/.

floated in seas of irony. The former, built for government work, became a rich man’s toy; the latter,  built as a rich man’s toy, joined the government. Both were used against rum-runners. Of all people. Retired, the Potomac was briefly owned by Elvis Presley; the Sequoia was dumped, like the White House liquor and the Panama Canal, by Jimmy Carter.  Quite the little housekeeper, our Jimmy.

In an era before sound bites, the term Martini Diplomacy never surfaced, but FDR certainly practiced it. Certainly it sealed his friendship with Winston Churchill, who would say that meeting FDR ‘was like opening your first bottle of champagne; knowing him was like drinking it.’ As to just how much FDR drank, that is a vexed question, and you wouldn’t like to rely on the testimony. His friends, and there were many, swore to two small drinks and in bed at 10, but his crew of flame-keepers have been counterbalanced by his detractors, equally numerous, who’ve gone so far as to claim that he was regularly carted off to his room by his Secret Service agents, singing college fight songs as he went. We must settle for the fact that he did as much for the martini as to it, and that he set a high standard for presidential hospitality. Long may it wave.

Which gin for the martini? Good question; one that invites exploration. Cocktail King Dale DeGroff [very cold, straight up, olive and twist] favors Beefeater but nods he favorably image toward several others: Tanqueray and Tanqueray 10, Old Raj, Bombay White Label, Gordon’s, Plymouth [left, in its new and much-improved bottle] and Sipsmith. Explorers are in fact spoiled for choice, as there’s also vociferous support for Boodles, Bombay Sapphire, Junipero, France’s Citadelle, Tanqueray Malacca, the rare and insanely priced [$700!] Nolet Reserve, and even one of the bargain-priced oldies, Gilbey’s. Among others, such as Broker’s, which has been getting attention and awards recently. But in vermouth you have essentially two choices: Martini & Rossi and Noilly Prat. M&R is DeGroff’s favorite; he says NP is ‘very in-your-face and can overpower the more delicate gins’. Maybe that’s because NP has, sadly, ceased to bottle the martini-oriented vermouth it had long provided to the American market; instead it’s concentrating on its Euro-style aperitif version. Here and there you’ll hear a voice cry out for the less-known likes of Boissiere [sounds French but is Italian] and California’s small-batch Vya. But vermouth there must be, in detectable quantity. Ignore, please, the 15:1 bravado of the Mad Men era, likewise the foolishness of ‘showing the vermouth to the gin’. That top-hatted, walking-stick-wielding bon vivant of old Lucius Beebe wrote prose so florid, Brendan Gill said, ‘that one could have built grottoes out of it,’ but when it came to such nonsense as naked martinis he wasted no furbelows on the show-offs: ‘Anything drier than 5:1’, he said, ‘is just iced gin’. Anonymous, most prolific of experts, goes further: ‘Ordering a dry martini means you are a sophisticate. Ordering a large glass of cold gin means you are a drunk.’ ‘Nuff said.

As for glassware, by all means prefer the conical stem, the glass that means martini around the world. But one of a ordinary size, please. The fad for glasses the size of hubcabs has not quite abated, but they’re clumsy to handle and cause what begins as a briskly cold drink to turn warm and soupy right before your eyes. Also shun anything imagefragile, ill-balanced and spill-prone, such as Benjamin Hubert’s unique but risky design at left, a dry cleaner’s dream. A martini on the rocks reposes in an Old Fashioned glass. Martinis, finally, are made with gin: that’s their default spirit. Substitution requires a modifier, as in the vodka martini. Anything else? No, nothing else. Any old booze can be flung into a stemmed glass and often is, but that does not a martini make.

Come we now to the what scholars and academics call ‘the literature’, which exists in plenty. Any respectable personal library might well include Eric Felten’s suave How’s Your Drink?: Cocktails, Culture, and the Art of Drinking Well, Dale DeGroff’s The Essential Cocktail: The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks, Gary Regan’s The Bartender’s GIN Compendium, Nannette Stone’s The Little Black Book of Martinis: The Essential Guide to the King of Cocktails, A. J. Rathbun’s Good Spirits, Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to "Professor" Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar, by David Wondrich and Dale DeGroff, and William L. Hamilton‘s Shaken and Stirred: Through the Martini Glass and Other Drinking Adventures.

Nothing quite like curling up with a good book and a good drink, eh? Cheers!

©2012 Bill Marsano

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