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: BOOKS

A Holiday Garland

To one and all although time be fleeting,
To you each bring I this Christmas greeting:
Of drinkers books I proffer a bevy,
Some light as air are, yet others heavy.
These holiday burdens that freight my shelves
Lie heaped by eager squads of vinous elves.
Come, ease you my bookcase’s weary groan
By transferring some of them to your own.

Ahoy, mateys! As you have guessed already I’m back with another pro-reading rant, but I promise this will be a bit different. I will toss in a couple of non-book gift ideas for lagniappe [including, mirabile dictu, Metrokane’s wine-imagechilling-carafe, at left, which actually works] and something to drink, too. And the rant will be brief. I want merely to recall the headline of an ad campaign about hiring that ran in the 1960s: Send Me a Man Who Reads. The idea was that people who read will make better employees. Smarter, more adaptable, more productive employees. No ‘studies’ were quoted to support the idea, it was simply set forth as common sense, and it’s valid now as then. If you’re dealing with the Department of Motor Vehicles, Thirsty Reader, or an 800-number help line, a store clerk or whatever, would you rather talk to with someone who reads or someone who’s the cat’s pajamas at playing Grand Theft Auto V on his Xbox 360 or spends weekends binge-watching Monster Truck Rally on a 70-inch flat-screen TV? And frankly I am doubtful that we’ll ever see ads headed Snd me a dude who txts. ¶ Two stocking-stuffer reprints appear in the form of The Hour, by Bernard DeVoto, and Shake Em Up!, by

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Virginia Elliott and Phil D. Stong. DeVoto was a writer, critic, historian and champion of civil liberties and conservationism. He was a drinking enthusiast withal, committed if a tad rigid: he admitted to the canon the slug of whiskey and the martini, and no more; he celebrated America’s achievements in advancing alcoholic civilization.  America’s Indians had the ingenuity to develop corn, he grumps, but regarded it as ‘a mere food. [This recalls the Swiss, whose principal achievement with malted barley was to turn it into Ovaltine.] He took a firm stand in support of good drink and was relentless foe of fads and frippery [he was perhaps fortunate to die before the age that produced Almond Moo-Moo]. In all his stiff-necked prickliness, he’s a grumpy pleasure to read. He chose his ground and he took his stand. That itself is a pleasure and perhaps a lesson to our wussy, wimpy age, in which
We needs must choices make not mere excuses,
Which open all to numberless abuses:
Suffer we then because we lack the guts
To take a stand: no ands, nor ifs nor buts.
–Fr. Gassalasca Jape, S.J.
Likewise but in a softer, lighter vein good Elliott and Stong, who ‘twixt them had the temerity to publish their ‘practical handbook of polite drinking’ in 1930, which was early in the Depression and late in Prohibition. Self-protectively referring to ‘non-alcoholic’ liquors, they offer sound and sly advice to People Who Fling Parties, People Who Go to Parties, People Who Just Have a Table of Bridge, People Who Don’t Really Drink But Feel That a Cocktail or Two Enlivens Conversation—in short, for the American People in the Twelfth Year of Volstead, 1930.’ The cocktail and snack recipes conjure up a simpler time but also a harder time, when it was a struggle to get any drink at all and parties featured nothing delivered by Fresh Direct. These books are small, so buy both. ¶ A Scent of Champagne: 8,000 Champagnes Tasted and Rated is by Richard Juhlin, who accounts himself the ‘world’s No. 1 Champagne expert.’ zzzchampagne

In this large-format coffee-table book or lap-top Juhlin ranges from vine to flute, and strict he is in his selections. Most books on bubbly cover at least a few sparkling wines from wherever and whomever; not Juhlin, who recognizes nothing, rien, grown outside the region’s 357 approved villages, and won’t unless the authorities add more villages. As they’ve been known to do. ¶ No exclusivists we: countering Juhlin, pause we here to drink. And we select little-known Crémant de Bourgogne Marie Ambal, a surprising ‘mere’ sparkler that recently finished first over four Champagnes blind-tasted by journalists, sommeliers and others in the trade. Not finishing first were, in order, Nicolas Feuillatte NV Brut, Perrier-Jouet Brut, Taittinger Brut La Francaise and Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut. The kicker: the non-winners cost about twice Marie Ambal’s $25 price. A good choice for festive
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drinking, proving that bubbles never fail but they needn’t cost the earth. If in a Buy American mood you won’t lose by choosing J Brut, Domaine Ste. Michelle, Gruet, Argyle, Schramsberg or Korbel, all having at least some bottles comfortingly priced. Nor can we neglect the French Foreign Legion: Mumm Napa, Roederer Estate, Domaine Chandon and Carneros Estate. Cheers! ¶ And now back to books. 21 Wines is a well illustrated personal tour of great Italian wines by Vic Rallo, a lawyer and cooking-show host whose flour-dusted youth was spent in his family’s restaurant kitchens, and Anthony Verdoni, his pal and consigliere del vino. If you’ve never heard of Cos Pithos Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG and the buried amphorae it’s aged in, see Vic and Tony. Tom Hyland’s Beyond Barolo and Brunello is a discovery tour of peninsular wines, always in search of the arcane, so if you’ve never heard of Cantine Federiciane Lettere, San Felice Pugnitello or La Viarte Tazzelenghe, see Tom. And now let the wild rumpus start with The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste, by Jon Bonné. An Easterner who took over the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine section a few years back, he put many a nose out of joint with his refusal to genuflect to the local wine gods. So here’s ‘the real skinny on cutting-edge California wine by someone who’s on the ground, knows his stuff and could[n’t] care Bonn_New CA Wineless about offending the establishment.’ Matt Kramer says that. I do not argue with Matt Kramer. Nor do I with Clive Coates; instead I settle for envying him his four decades in the earthly paradise, a.k.a. Burgundy. His My Favorite Burgundies profiles vineyards and domains, assesses vintages and includes his sage general observations, resulting in  a well-deep reference book. ¶ Labels and Bottles of the Craft Spirits Industry is by Bill Owens, father and godfather of that very industry. Here he has pulled together a fine collection of labels that address the need for distinct identity as new brands proliferate. The Patrón Way: The Untold Story of the World’ Most Successful Tequila, is a nicely dishy dish by Ilana Edelstein. The ‘life partner’ [up to a point, Lord Copper] of Martin Crowley, she tells how he built a billion-buck business on a tequila everyone else had missed, with her fair self supporting him all the way. And then they both lived happily every after? What do you think this is, a fairy tale? ¶ The blessed Veuve Clicquot and the other heroines of Champagne have the fame they deserve, and now Fred Minnick, ex-combat photographer champion elbow-bender, confers the halo on a bevy of whiskey women. They’d be lost to history without the chivalrous aid of Gentleman Fred inMinnick

Whiskey Women. After all, did you know that Bessie Williamson, who took over Laphroaig in 1938, had started there as a secretary in 1934—as a temp? Let’s all drink to those heroines, and Fred, too. ¶ A puzzlement is The Way We Ate: 100 Chefs Celebrate a Century at the American Table, by Noah Fecks and Paul Wagtouicz. It poses as a socio-culinary stew of recipes, chefs and history [the Titanic sank in 1912 and the TV dinner was invented in 1953, etc.], but do the recipes, one per chef, truly reflect the food of the time? OK, folks did eat mac and cheese in the 1970s, but so what? It was already a hit in the 1870s. Does Pad Thai really say 1939? Some pairings rely on that weakest of reeds, ‘inspired by.’ Like this: Batman originated in 1937, and he is from Gotham, which is really New York, which is the Big Apple, and so the 1937 recipe is Gotham Buckwheat Apple Tart. Of course. And isn’t Sweden-reared Marcus Samuelsson taking the easy way out with gravlax? Uff da! You can get salmon at Ikea. My neighbor Warren Buffet, the Midwestern salad-bar impresario, ‘this is not a book to buy online; better go to a bookstore [some still exist] to see whether you think the pretension outweighs the recipes and cocktails of Daniel Boulud, Gael Greene, Jacques Pepin, Michael Lomonaco and such.’ Not to forget Gerry and Joanne Dryansky’s Coquilles, Calva and Crème: Exploring France’s Culinary Heritage. If it’s cold where you are, their rich fund of fashion-world gossip, love of regional specialties and tart wit will warm your winter. Many of the current cohort of  bartenders say they’ll have no truck with vodka, which they skance as a tasteless industrial product. Now Tony Abou-Ganim and Mary Elizabeth Faulkner mount a muscular defense in Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails.  ¶ Now what are Twitter Queen Sarah-Jayne Gratton and her hyphen doing in here? Sounding a warning, essentially. S-JG’s book Follow Me! Creating a Personal Brand with Twitter is instructive and corrective at a time when social media seem to conquer all that lie before. Certainly many drinks producers rely on them to the extent of dumping their professional PR people, and bloggers find them useful too. S-JG is telling us it’s a DIY world. ¶ Natalie Berkowitz’s The Winemaker’s Hand ranges widely, with interviews of winemakers from the artisanal to the corporate in some half-dozen countries on [Alliteration Warning!] Talent, Technique, and Terroir. For lagniappe she throws in an aroma wheel and some recipes. ¶ Now for some non-print gifts. Metrokane’s wine-cooling carafe, the Houdini or Rabbit [both names are common], really does provide the Big Chill with its glass carafe, which holds one bottle of wine, and its large ice chamber. It beats competing products three ways: the chamber is of sturdy, quick-chilling stainless, not glass; it doesn’t have to be removed for pouring; and it can chill wine from room temp, not merely maintain an icebox chill. So deep-six your Corkcicles, if you haven’t already. For icebox chilling, Vacu Vin has the nifty Snap Wine Thermometer. It resembles a bracelet: let it embrace the bottle, put the bottle to chill, and check progress occasionally. ¶ Picnic time is coming, so be prepared. Magellan’s, the travelers’ catalogue, sells padded bottle armor but my neighbor Val De Rhee, the insufferable singing mountaineer, touts Magellan’s PlatyPreserve wine sack. It’s made by Platypus, a company that once focused exclusively on ‘portable hydration’ [water!] for hikers and such, until someone realized tyhat wine, too, is a liquid, and then the penny dropped. A leak-proof plastic sack, screw-capped, convenient and easy to pack, it lets you take your wine but ditch the bottle, so that’s about a pound and a half less to lug. PlatyPreserve was, as the illustration below left proves, a favorite of the 12th Century quatrain-scribbling Persian poet known as Omar Khayyám, of Rubáiyát fame.

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Any wine left over? Squeeze out the excess air to prevent oxidation. And what to drink from? I don’t risk my Riedels at picnics but rely instead on Joe Perrulli’s GoVino shatterproof polycarbonate wineglasses. They’re light, stemless, easily packed, reusable and they have thumb indentations to aid swirling enow. [Choose your own book of verse and your own Thou.] GoVino has stemless flutes, too, and a decanter that is suitable, mainly,  for half-bottles, also shatterproof.. And, not to lecture, be sure to choose your
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The annual round-up of horrible Christmas gifts for wine-lovers will be coming up in due course, and nominations are welcome. Send them to me: [email protected].
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retailer or etailer with due care if you want to get the best deal. For example, Vacu Vin’s Snap costs a mere $10, with free shipping, at lots of sites, but it also goes for $14 at deandeluca.com. Plus shipping. Which is not quite a steal at $12! ¶ Now then, Repeat the sounding joy, Thirsty Reader. Repeat the sounding joy! ¶ © Bill Marsano 2014. Montage courtesy of the peerless Darren Tuozzoli.

 

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?
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¶ 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

 

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

The Littlest Taster: A Sequoia Grove Dad’s Day Special

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Never mind him. The star’s the one on the right.

The last time I saw Mike Trujillo, top kick of Sequoia Grove, we were having a very splendid lunch [his card, naturally] at Gramercy Tavern. GT is among my favorite Your Card spots because of the Danny Meyer style. That means the food’s terrific, the tone’s peaceful, the service professional. Waiters take your order, bring your food, leave you alone. They don’t pester or comment. As, for example, at Allison, which recently opened just west of Fifth Ave. There the waiter greeted my wine order with ‘Nice juice!’ But I got off lightly compared to my former nextdoor neighbor Bernie Médoc, the crooked negociant and Club Fed jailbird, who once asked what the soupe du jour was and was told ‘It’s the soup of the day.’

Criminy! Does no one train waiters these days? Heavens to Betsy, Thirsty Reader, where is Craig Claiborne when we need him? Speaking of whom, Thomas McNamnee’s just-out bioThe Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance—is an acquired taste at best. And it isn’t a patch on G.Y. Dryansky’s Coquilles, Calva & Crème. But of this more anon; it’s time to get on with my Father’s Day Special.

So there we were at the GT, Mike talking and I [believe it] listening. Mike has that most admirable of virtues, quiet self-confidence, and so had no need to boast of his quite terrific Cabernets. Drinking them told that story. And so with all claptrap about degrees Brix, pH levels and oak regimes ruled out by common and tacit consent, Mike rhapsodized about his daughter, Sophia, who bids fair to be America’s youngest wine-taster. The story never hit print in Hemispheres because United Airlines’ stiffnecks got the blue creevies when they learnt that Sophia was four and a half years old.

Born in La Jara, Colorado, Mike was an engineering student who one spring break dropped in on Jim Allen, a family friend and owner of Sequoia Grove. Jim put him up for a few days; Mike helped around the winery; Allen offered a job. ‘I was 21’ Mike says ‘an age when you have no clue what you really want to do, but the money was good and the weather was great, so I said yes.’ He began with planting vineyards and soon was on his way to making Chardonnay, Syrah and his nifty Cabernet blends, which range from the $34 Rebellious Red to the new Cambium, which will cost you $140 when you can get it, which isn’t often. ‘Wine found me’, he says.

The peerless Sophia entered the picture as well as the winery a few years later. ‘My Uncle Joe always devoted some time to each of his three children individually, and I followed his lead. I began taking Sophia to the winery once a week when she was so young that her mother, Elizabeth, had to pack her into a bassinet along with her bottles and my lunch.’ Mike’s weekly Take Your Daughter to Work Day expanded as soon as Sophia zzzzzzzzzzzzzsophie3found her feet. To her, the winery was the best and biggest set of monkey bars a kid ever had. It wasn’t long before she got into the wine, Mike recalled. ‘I was barrel-tasting one day and of course she wanted to do everything Daddy did, so I gave her a sip. It went right down the hatch, and I thought that’s not going to work. So I spent some time standing over a drain with her, teaching her how to spit. Now she spits like a Frenchman. She spits better than I do!’

Sophia next began taking part in bank errands, vineyard tours and even lunches with growers. ‘She’s very well restaurant-trained,’ Mike said, although she will occasionally visit other tables to find out what people are drinking. Then she’ll say brightly, "My Daddy makes Cabernet!" She opens the tasting room door with a cheery ‘Welcome to Sequoia Grove’ [there actually is a Sequoia grove, and visitors seem to love it] and she’s a star of Mike’s cellar tours for the trade. ‘She’ll climb up on top of a barrel, pull the bung out and stick her fingers in for a taste’ Mike says. ‘Then she’ll sing out That’s good wine, Daddy! and when I ask her what it is, she comes right back with Cabernet, Daddy! Then Mike will send her off to the Merlot; Sophia will pull another bung; taste eagerly; proclaim it good. ‘When I ask again what wine it is, she’ll say Merlot, Daddy! At that point, as if on cue, almost all the guests ask the same thing:  She can tell the difference? And I’ll say Sure–can’t you?

That was back in ’09; now Sophia has begun learning about blending, as Mike told me last week. She’s become a dab hand with pipette and graduated cylinder, and she has Rutherford Dust on the soles of her shoes.

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Sophia today, with ‘a little age [3 years] on her’

Books for Father’s Day

Excuse please, while I indulge again in my quixotic attempt to keep reading alive and on life support. Books do furnish a room, as Anthony Powell said, and minds, too. So for Father’s Day consider these . . .

One way to go is the monster reference book. A Dad or anyone else can lose himself in it for hours at a time because reference books are not just for referring to. They’re for opening in your lap in an easy chair with a bottle of wine handy and all electronic devices turned off, off, off. Maybe even stepped on and ground into the carpet. So with that in mind, I’ll say that the leader of the pack just now is Opus Vino, edited by Jim Johnson. It’s a Dorling Kindersley production, which means

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzspread_3[1]
All graphics all the time: DK’s Opus Vino.

it’s well-organized [by country, by region, by winery] and heavy on the graphics: bottle shots, maps, mavens, labels and sprawling spreads of vineyards to lighten the many hectares of text. It’s also heavy, period; at just over seven pounds, it might require two laps. And there are contenders in the lightweight [under seven pounds] division. Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine, long-established and now in its third edition, has gravitas to outweigh its ho-hum graphics: like OV, it has an impressive list of contributors; unlike OV, its individual entries are signed. It’s organized as a dictionary, with far less attention paid to individual wineries. So you’d better buy both? Yes, and toss in a brace from John Wiley: Wine Appreciation, by the aptly named Richard P. Vine, and Exploring Wine: Completely Revised 3rd Edition, by the CIA troika of Steven Kolpan, Brian H. Smith and Michael A. Weiss. The former gets no cosmetics points for its plain-jane black-and-white approach but the latter is a handsome full-color production, nearly as heavy as OV.

Another route is the contemplative narrative. It’s especially attractive to those who’d like to give Dad the trip to France he deserves but who have been scared white by airfares of oh, $1500 per person. A feasible, feastly alternative is provided by the Dryanskys, G.Y. [Gerry] and Joanne. They’ve been in France longer than most Frenchmen have, just shy of half a zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzdryFC9781605983295 century, bien sûr, and their Coquilles, Calva, and Crème is a rewarding memoir in two parts. One covers Gerry’s career as a fashion correspondent and general reporter for some A-List U.S. publications; it’s full of good gossip, cool-eyed but never malicious. It’s a treat for example to know that Régine missed attending the party of the year [or decade or century] because her elephant got lost in the Bois de Boulonge; that the Duchess of Windsor wasn’t really out of line when she wet the floor of a restaurant bathroom; that Coco Chanel said of a critic she loathed ‘mouth like a sewer, talks like a sewing machine.’ The second part follows a series of locavore voyages into la france profonde, the deeply rural countryside that remains, to most Frenchmen, the heart and soul of their nation. The object? To seek out the products, places and producers of France’s traditional cuisine: lampreys and smoked eels; calva distilled the old-fashioned way [unfiltered]; some of the celebrated 246 kinds of cheese; the beouf gras of Bazas; and Billom garlic, cassoulet and Baeckeoffe. The places? Pays d’Auge, Alsace, Normandy, the Auverne and elsewhere. The people range from cheesemakers who persist despite the crushing zealotry of EU sanitation laws and cooks who’d rather work 16 hours a day almost alone than submit to the bullying big-time rat race with its ‘shrill refrain of new, new, new’. The result is a book that is truly vaut le voyage.

Now then: Having dismissed McNamee’s Claiborne book at the outset, I owe some explanation, and so: the writing is what I’d wincingly call workmanlike at best and it’s too often not best at all. It’s repetitious and hagiographic; it’s unfair to Mimi Sheraton, Clementine Paddleford, John Hess and the early Gourmet; and it makes way too large a claim. Changed the way WE eat? Who the hell’s we? A vexed question. Oh, we means that ridiculously small tribe of people called foodies. Never mind about the 300 million+ Americans who put agribusiness on its throne and fast food in their bellies; who make the author’s we about the smallest since Mark Twain’s  ‘kings, editors and people with tapeworms’. OK, Claiborne essentially invented restaurant criticism [in the U.S. anyway] and got food writing a much larger and more serious audience. And he was notably, even unusually generous in helping to launch the likes of Julia Child [whose influence was, I think, far greater], Marcella Hazan, Diana Kennedy and others. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz His personal life? It’s nightmarish for readers, so how must it have been for him? Born in the Deep South in a family for which the term shabby genteel could easily have been invented. Mom ran a boarding house but she never surrendered her airs and graces, even to her end as a Frat Row house mother. She rejected him and boys in general as filthy creatures but haunted Claiborne like a curse: he finally cut her out of his life, not even going to her funeral. Dad may/may not have molested him [Claiborne was coy here]. He was an uncloseted homosexual in an era when that took real guts, but all his affairs seem to have been uniformly doomed and unfulfilling. That he drank himself to death can be no surprise. That he managed to make of himself an important figure with a positive contribution; to drag at least some of New York’s restaurants out of the Canned String Bean Era; to explore foreign cuisines before anyone’d ever heard the word ethnic; and to compile best-selling cookbooks that are still popular today? If you took that script to MGM you’d be back on the street so fast you’d think the building collapsed.

By the bye, all the books can be ordered from Amazon or, of course, anywhere else. Amazon’s advantage is in used books, whose prices and availability are noted right alongside the new-book prices. Often the books are not used but overstocks or remainders, and the sellers are reliable.

© 2012 Bill Marsano

Barolo Bodies Forth

When I was one-and-twenty I heard a wise man say,
Barolo is the king of wines, & wine of kings: hooray.
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year,
And those that are must might’ly strive
To keep its memory bright and clear.
–Col. Pesto

In other words, Barolo has lost its gleam. Piemontesi resting on their truffles have been outpaced by the folks Curzio Malaparte called i maledetti toscani. While Piedmont was preoccupied with Fiat’s 500s, Olivetti’s Letteras, Pirelli’s tires  and Ferrero’s Nutella, The Cursèd Tuscans rebuilt Chianti Classico and Vino Nobile, invented SuperTuscans, revived Scansano and ignited Brunello di Montalcino to the point that the market’s thirst and pocketbook had to be appeased with Rosso di Montalcino, its fratellino or baby brother. Brunello even got its own scandalo—the mark, in Italy, of having truly arrived—in the inevitably named Brunellogate of fragrant memory. [Kerin O’Keefe is brisk and lucid on this in her excellent Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines, just out from University of California Press.]

‘But you digress!’ cries my nextdoor neighbor, the punctilious Fussy Galore.* ‘Get to the point!’ Fussy is right as usual, so revenons à nos moutons, as the French may still say: our subject is not While Piedmont Slept but Why.

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Cascina Adelaide, beneath Barolo’s castle.


Leonardo LoCascio, founder of Winebow, says one reason is cultural: ‘There are many small producers. They have a natural reserve and sometimes a bit of a Burgundian attitude: we make the wine, and if you want it you can come and get it.’ And small production, sometimes less than one bottle per vine, means high prices. ‘So Barolos,’ he adds, ‘can have the status of collector’s items. The producers have lost the battle for everyday consumption, but I’m not sure the situation is all bad, since the market has lately become truly international.’ The Chinese, for example, thirst immoderately for Barolo and, having more money than Warren Buffett put together, can afford to. LoCascio adds that ‘The Nebbiolo grape is high in tannin, and the wines are hard on release,’ so it’s hard to tub-thump for wines that won’t be opened for two decades. Unlike the competition: ‘Sangiovese wines are pretty much ready to drink—even Brunello.’

Barolo’s challenges are seen in the Roberto Voerzio quintet LoCascio imports. Voerzio makes fewer than 50,000 bottles a year. His Brunate, Cerequio and La Serra fetch more than $200 a bottle, and his Riserva Capalot and Sarmassa sell only in magnums at well over $400. OK, Voerzio has cult status. But still. Thus it was gratifying to see Barolo emerge recently from what Henry James called the edge of the glittering ring to resume what he also called dancing in the central glow. Suddenly, dal blu, several producers have bodied forth here in Manhattan, where burning Sappho loved and sung.

Marchesi di Barolo’s event at BLT Prime on E. 22nd St., featured the Abbona Quartet: owners Anna and Ernesto and their successors-elect, Valentina and Davide. All of them hard-working and handsome. Especially Davide, who hypnotizes enough bevies of fainting pre-teens to make Justin Bieber wail disconsolately, ‘What am I, chopped liver?’]

We opened with their Riservas of 2000, 2001, 2003, 1990, 1980 and 1970, then floated to lunch on the 2007 Sarmassa, Cannubi, Coste de Rose, and Barolo di Barolo. For lagniappe, a little Rosso Arneis, a touch of Gavi di Gavi, a whiff of Zagara Moscati d’Asti, and a few glicks of the digestivo Barolo Chinato [made with cinchona bark, hence its quinine sting]. A glick is what the bottle says when you tilt it—and the amount thus poured. Were they good? Is Justin Bieber chopped liver?

zzzzzzzzzdavidevert zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzbieber 
Davide                             Chopped Liver

The estate was the manger of the first Barolo Revolution, in the mid-1800s, when, Valentina said, ‘Barolo was a sweet wine.’ Of course: Piedmont is cold, high and alp-ridden, given to stopping fermentation early and leaving much residual sugar behind. Accounts vary, but it was either the Marchesa Giulietta Falletti or her neighbor, the Count of Cavour, or both who summoned from France one Louis Oudart. He was turned loose in the Marchesa’s cellars to good effect. His merthods soon spread, notably to the cellars of nearby Fontanafredda. As that was a property owned by King Vittorio Emanuele II, the ‘Wine of Kings’ tag stuck.

Something more than a century later came Renato Ratti’s revolution, which was more of an evolution, actually. Renato aimed at eliminating oxidation and other defects, and at softening Barolo’s billy-club tannins without resort to heroic aging. His innovations won some converts but not wholesale conversion, thus dividing the producers into two camps: the traditionalists/fossils and the modernists/renegades, who argue to this very day. His son Pietro’s credo for his Barolos—Marcenasco, Conca and the new entry, Rocche, which were poured and inhaled at a portfolio tasting—‘is the same as that passed to me by my father . . . lavish great care on the vines to obtain the best grapes possible, then respect the grapes in the cellar. Balance, elegance, refinement, complexity: these are the characteristics that I wish for my wines: every day, at every vineyard, in every wine.’

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzratti  Pietro Ratti and crew. Smiles and clean clothes suggest this photo was taken before work began.

Well, OK: everybody says that, but when does change go from improvement to loss of identity? ‘It’s wine all right, but is it still Barolo?’—that’s the Bone of Contention, the Apple of Discord, the Fruit of the Loom. Much like cosmetic surgery, come to think of it. And so traditionalists/fossils insist on protracted fermentations and aging in huge botti and bottle far beyond DOCG minimums. The hottest issue in the style wars is, as in Montalcino, the Mod/Ren idea adding other grapes to what has ever been a 100% varietal wine. Trad/Fos are outraged: Per la vergogna! This is as it should be. Wine, the ineffably twee Kay Carino reminds us, is a thing of nuances and distinctions in its very soul.

Like most of his fellow producers, Pietro goes beyond Barolo. His Barberas, d’Alba Torriglione and d’Asti, were on the table with his Dolcetto d’Alba Colombé and Nebbiolo d’Alba Ochetti. But no luck on his Villa Pattono SuperPiedmontese, a Barbera-heavy blend with Cabernet and Merlot.

Fiorenzo Dogliani threw a lunch in the wine cellar of Tony May’s SD26, which like Duffy’s Tavern is ‘where d’leet meet t’eet’, especially when Fiorenzo is pouring a passel of his Beni di Batasiolo wines. Food-friendliness is a hallmark of BdiB, and Fiorenzo and I happily agreed, despite having little common language, that the table is where wine truly belongs: it is its true terroir. BdiB’s line goes beyond normale, riserva, and five single-vineyard Barolos to whites, including Roero and Gavi di Gavi; sparkling wines; and other soldiers marching in the Piedmont Parade.

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzfamiglia Dogliani Dogliani family in the ‘70, when Beni di Batasiolo was founded. At center, Papà Antonio, inseparable from his hat, white shirt and tie, faithful dog, wife and eight children, in more or less that order.

I will say that we did all of them proud, but to me the most interesting was the new Moscato Spumante Rosé. Yes, amici, a rose-red Moscato, tinted with a red-cheeked Moscato clone grown in Trentino-Alto Adige. It’s the newest of Fiorenzo’s range of bubblies, which include Asti [as if by law], Moscato d’Asti Bosc dla Rei, Spumante Metodo Classico Dosage Zero, Pinot-Chardonnay Spumante Brut and Brachetto Spumante. And it comes just in time: Prosecco looks like conquering the casual bubbly category, and so I’m rooting for the success of Moscato Rosé. It’s fizzy and light and pretty as a smile. It’s sleekly sweet and summer-ready as a string bikini.

The biggest Barolo bash in Manhattan was the work of the newborn Accademia del Barolo, under whose gonfalon 14 producers have united [yes, united!] to promote their flagship wine. The event was held at Del Posto, which it is OK to go to now that management has ceased skimming tips and will fork over 5+ million in makeup bucks to the help.

Backstory: In the early ‘70s, Gianni Gagliardo, son of a near-teetotal family, married a wine grower’s daughter and then wine itself, becoming head of his own house** about a decade later. He instituted his annual Asta [auction] di Barolo in 1998 and his son Stefano, now in charge, fostered the Accademia. Not easy, Stefano says: ‘the Piemontesi are mountain people; they are tough and stubborn and extremely independent. No one tells them what to do. You can’t recruit these people.’ zzzzzzzzzmartinetti.bmp The Accademia came about organically; morphing itself into being ‘based on a virtual group already existing when the Barolo Auction was held last year.’ That independent streak is why Stefano [left] says that when it comes to the idea of adding other varieties to Barolo, ‘You know, in our area there at least 350 producers, and so you can listen to 350 points of view on any question. So I don’t believe that a proposal of that kind would have a chance to succeed’.

Ten of 14 Accademia soci or members presented their 2007s: Gianni Gagliardo, Azelia, Cordero Di Montezemolo, Damilano, Franco M. Martinetti, Michele Chiarlo, Paolo Scavino, Pio Cesare, Luigi Einaudi and Prunotto. [Not present: Monfalletto, Vietti, Voerzio and Conterno Fantino]. The witty Anthony Giglio lightly led the guided tasting, which was followed by an unguided buffet tasting of oldies dating to 1990—all of them crus, several in magnum, some riservas. Producers who were braced on the style wars were clearly pretty sick of it. Michele Martinetti said ‘Sometimes people like to wear our clothes for us. It’s not a question of modern or traditional. The question is Do you like it?’ Alberto Cordero added ‘Are you traditional? Are you modern? I hate that question. There is only Barolo.’ Stefano Gagliardo would not be drawn; instead he offered his favorite pairing: ‘Chocolate and old Barolo!’ ‘Nuff said.

Other Barolos showed and shone here and there about the same time: Sobrero, Aldo Conterno, Carretta, Cerretto, Elvio Cogno, Fratelli Revello, Palladino, Gaja, Giacomo Conterno, Giuseppe Mascarello, Castello di Verduno , Giuseppe Rinaldi, Guido Porro, Luciano Sandrone, Luigi Pira, Paolo Scavino and Vietti. All in all, a rewarding group. Such a mitzvah to have Barolo’s flag planted so firmly here again. Salute!

Travel Notes

Piedmont is a beautiful, region, easy of access from Milan and the Lakes, and if at first glance it suggests Tuscany with taller mountains, more Italians and fewer Germans, it’s also more workaday and less prettified. Unlike Tuscany, it hasn’t been groomed and manicured—Hoovered, as the Brits put it—into something that’s more diorama than domicile. Wedged between French and Swiss alps to the west and north, and the Ligurian Apennines to the south, the region is well named: Piemonte [Piedmont] means “foot of the mountains.” Turin is the Big Truffle, busy with business and industry, although not quite so much as formerly. The Le Meridien chain and the peerless Renzo Piano have turned Fiat’s Lingotto plant—an enormous avant-garde structure that opened in 1923 as the world’s largest and most advanced factory—into a stylish hotel with shopping, music, theater and convention facilities. It doesn’t make Fiats anymore, and its unique rooftop test track, where once Fiat Topolinos and other models puttered bravely round, is now off-limits to the internal-combustion engine. On the other hand, it’s wide open to joggers.

Then there’s the Piedmont of yesterday, which lives in the countryside and doesn’t run panting after the new and the novel but instead looks to its history and traditions. It is a landscape of mountain-backed broad valleys slashed by glinting Alpine streams, of spiky hilltowns that are never lovelier than when seen looming above pale carpets of gauzy harvest fog. This is nature’s Piedmont, rich in parks and nature preserves and home to an earthy gastronomy of clear, assertive flavors, undiluted and untampered-with. Matt
Kramer calls it “Italy’s most glorious regional table.” I have misty memories of the old woman who wouldn’t sell me a cheese until she’d picked out one that satisfied her and wrapped it in vine leaves before my eyes. And then there was a tiny restaurant called [and in] Madonna della Neve, where they served my tiny delicious ravioli del plin in semi-traditional  style. That is, not on a napkin on a plate, but just on a napkin on the table. [Real traditional style dispenses with the napkin.] 
     

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La Signora wasn’t willing to sell me a cheese unless she’d wrapped it herself.

Of course, there are the white truffles, hunted at night by cagey peasants called trifolai with their hounds. Imagine: Piemontesi were once ashamed to eat such stuff as  fungi grubbed from the dirt, even as New Englanders back in the day were disgraced by their lobster suppers. They were signs of backwardness and shameful poverty. Now that truffles are $100 an ounce and more, the stigma has rubbed off to such an extent that the Chinese are faking them as fast as they can. [One sure way to tell: the fakes have almost no smell; the real ones stink most heavenly.] In October and November the annual fair dominates Alba, the wine country’s metropolis and oomphalos of truffledom. During the fair I like to saunter the length of the Via Maestra, Alba’s main drag, greedily inhaling as shop doors open to expel rich, reeky gusts of truffles’ rank, decadent, intoxicating aroma.

Excellent and plentiful agriturismo lodgings range from modern and spa-like, such as Beni di Batasiolo’s Il Boscareto, to romantic, castle-like havens on the order of Renato Ratti’s Villa Pattono, which dates to the 1700s. Some are small as Fratelli Revello’s and Cordero Montezemolo’s while Castello di Verduno manages to be fairly large but still intimate. All have dining on-site, as do Marchesi di Barolo [Il Foresteria] and Gagliardo [La Vineria del Barolo]. The simplest thing to say about these places is that no one ever wants to leave. And so, here’s where to find the agriturismi: ilboscaretoresort.it, villa pattono.com, revellofratelli.com, castellodivedrduno.it, corderodimontezemolo.it.

I’ll offer just one alternative to agriturismo: the Castello di Novello, in the town of that name, just a few miles south of Barolo. Huge but with just 11 period rooms, it is a castle that is frankly beyond belief: a 19th Century Victorian neo-gothic extravaganza offering vast valley panoramas and gloriously decorated with towers, pointed-ogive windows, crenelations Juliet balconies, grand stairways and enough other bits of architectural foofaraw to suggest Lucille Ball in a fright wig and a touch of Charles Addams. It is, as the Italians say, suggestivo, by which they mean evocative, romantic and thrilling. And not to be missed. It even has reasonable rates. Find details at icastelli.net.

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzcdnovello2124  Castello di Novello: Extravagance meets confection.

Buon viaggio! 


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*Fussy is one of a sororal quintet that includes the cowardly Wussy, brassy Hussy, bed-haired Mussy and the off-rhymed Tushy, who describes herself as ‘statuesque and steatopygic.’

**No power on earth can make me say eponymous.

Booked for the New Year

Shakespeare is always an inspiration to me, and a passage from one of his history plays seems apropos just now:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;

How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d
–Richard II

To which I iambically add:

And ‘mongst those Princes number now by dint
Of sword-like pow’r and grandeur lordly Print!
Undone, laid low by electronic strife,
Like Python’s parrot, ‘tis bereft of life!
Look you! See in ev’ry Nook and Kindle
Fell triumph of ‘Please don’t fold or spindle.’
Punchcards were once meant for bills and wages,
Now they’re bytes that gobble up our pages!
I needs must warn sans buts or ands or ifs:
Beware thee alway of Geeks bearing gifts.
–found in Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore

So before going placidly amid the noise and haste to my New Year’s list of recent drinks books, I’ll add mine own lament for print. It’s a little sad, I know, so I’ll just sit here and rant for a bit and then shut up.

I grew up in print. I have set type by hand using only a California job case and a brass ‘stick,’ things that are now found mostly in flea markets. Each stick represented a paragraph or so*.It was then ‘proofed’ on ‘wheatstraw paper’. Letterpress printing, voila! I’d do it for hours at a time for the pure pleasure of it.

zbriarpressorgcase  The California Job Case, the most popular among many case designs. The term ‘lay of the case’ refers to the compartments for letters, punctuation marks and other bits of lead. Typesetters learnt the lay of the case as typists their keyboards. Image courtesy of briarpress.org.

My first job was proofreading for three cynical trade rags** whose office was in two parts. One, so dreary that cubicles would have been an upgrade, held me, four editors and a few war-surplus linoleum-topped desks for the seldom-seen ad staff. Beyond was the Dickensian composing room, into whose sweaty depths I delivered page-proofs for correction.

Hot, noisy and intermittently dangerous, this hell-hole enshrined four towering Linotype machines. Ugly, infernally complicated and about 8 feet tall, the Linotype was a high-speed electro-mechanical type-setter. It used the ETAOIN SHRDLU keyboard, which took full advantage of fast fingers. [The QWERTY keyboard dates to the 1870s, when typists had to be as slow as their typewriters.]

zwpglino
A Linotype in sales-catalogue dress. Multiply this too-clean image several times, add terrific heat, crowding, noise, dirt and the smell of hot lead and printer’s ink to get an idea of an over-worked, under-pressure composing room of 50 years ago.

Invented in the early 1880s by a German immigrant named Ottmar Mergenthaler, the Linotype soon conquered book and newspaper  publishing. Almost as fast as an operator could type it clamped brass letter-molds called matrices in a vise, filled them with molten lead and produced a one-piece ‘slug’—a line o’ type—then spit it out to be composed into paragraphs and pages for proofing. This paragraph, for example, would represent 10 slugs. [See Linotype machines in action in the upcoming film Linotype. There’s a link to the trailer at the bottom of this column.]

It was incredible then [who could imagine its 10,000 parts casting hot lead inches from its nonchalant operator?] and is more so now [who can believe the world’s press once depended entirely on this 19th Century contraption?].

For all its Goldbergian grandeur the Linotype was in the end no more than another T. Rex, an apotheosis, yes, but of a primitive and doomed technology. Like the Clipper ship, the piston-engine Lockheed Super Constellation and the Hudson 4-6-4 steam locomotive, it was the mighty apex of an ingenious age, born on the cusp of a Great Extinction.

Perhaps all is not lost, not yet. Publishers, who as a rule prefer to improve the shining hour by cheating authors with confiscatory contracts and opaque royalty statements, have lately tried making books more physically attractive—more pleasing to hold and behold—according to The New York Times. What a concept. Must have struck ‘em like a thunderbolt. Meanwhile, your conventional booksellers*** say printed books suddenly regained some of their lost ground over the Christmas holidays. Maybe it’s because there’s not much warmth in a gift card reading:

Print, my dear, is old hat, so outmoded!
Hence your Christmas book must be downloaded!

And so at long last to the list.

Mixology, bartendering, bar-cheffery—by any name, it’s pouring books as well as drinks. A.J. Rathbun has a quartet: Luscious Liqueurs, Wine Cocktails, then Champagne Cocktails and finally Ginger Bliss and the Violet Fizz: A Cocktail Lover’s Guide to Mixing Drinks Using New and Classic Liqueurs. All useful, but I fear A. J.’s prose style has declined since his splendid Good Spirits debut. Blind pigs have gone from illegal to, say publicists, exclusive, upscale, even celebrated. Hence Speakeasy: The Employees Only Guide to Classic Cocktails Reimagined, by Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric, and The PDT Cocktail Book, by Jim Meehan and Chris Call. Backward glances: Brian Van Flandern and Laziz Hamani’s Vintage Cocktails and a brace by the bracing Dave Wondrich, Imbibe! From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash and Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl. Not to forget, please, James Waller’s revised, updated and often witty Drinkology and, for those who plan ahead, Anthony Giglio and Jim Meehan’s Mr. Boston Summer Cocktails.

Long before wine writing descended into the murk of scores and tasting notes there was the pleasure of Gerald Asher’s monthly essays in Gourmet—until a new editor reduced him to recommending pairings. Was Gourmet otherwise dumbed-down, as in the issue devoted to recipes from TV sitcoms? The mag’s shut-down in 2009 was laid to cable-TV shows and other competition for ads, but maybe the editor was distracted by writing three books, editing two recipe collections, giving lectures and doing a TV series. Fortunately, the man Frank Prial once called a poet hasn’t disappeared for good, as evidenced by his latest book, A Vineyard in My Glass. Buy it.

Crime is the star of Max Watman’s nifty Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine and Daniel Okrent’s even niftier Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Watman blows the whistle on the romance of moonshining and pretty much blows up his kitchen, too. Both are well-written, especially Okrent’s: I think it’s the best book on temperance lunacy since The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum by J.C. Furnas. [Furnas’s other great accomplishment was to expose Lillian Hellman’s Julia fraud.]

The how-to and self-help stocking is well-stuffed as ever, what with Drink This: Wine Made Simple, by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl; The Everyday Guide to Wine [2 paperback books and a DVD], by MW Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan; the expansively titled  The Sommelier Prep Course: An Introduction to the Wines, Beers, and Spirits of the World, by Michael Gibson; 100 Perfect Pairings, by Jill Silverman Hough; The Food Lover’s Guide to Wine, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg;
zzzzjennifer zzzjuliapurple
Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, Julia della Croce

Making Sense of Wine Tasting: Your Essential Guide to Enjoying Wine [5th edition], by Alan Young; Secrets of the Sommeliers: How to Think and Drink Like the World’s Top Wine Professionals, by Rajat Parr, Jordan Mackay and Ed Anderson; Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking, by Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop MW; and for reinvention purposes, How to Import Wine, by Deborah M. Gray.

Liquid-specific entries include The Bartender’s GIN Compendium, by master cocktailian Gary Regan; Grandi Vini: An Opinionated Tour of Italy’s 89 Finest Wines, by Joe Bastianich; Real Men Drink Port—and Ladies Do Too!, by Ben Howkins; The Craft of Stone Brewing Co.: Liquid Lore, Epic Recipes, and Unabashed Arrogance, by Greg Koch, Steve Wagner and Randy Clemens; Madeira, the Island Vineyard [2nd edition], by Noel Cossart and Emanuel Berk; and The Finest Wines of California: A Regional Guide to the Best Producers and Their Wines. It’s part of a series that includes individual volumes on Chianti, the Côte d’Or, Tuscany, Champagne, Rioja and Bordeaux. And it pairs well, as they say, with Paul Strang’s South-West France. MW Benjamin Lewin, knight-challenger of wisdom received and conventional, does so twice, in In Search of Pinot Noir and in Wine Myths and Reality.

While impatiently awaiting the 4th edition of Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine you can profitably adopt the CIA’s 3rd of Exploring Wine, by Steven Kolpan, Brian H. Smith and Michael A. Weiss; and Opus Vino, by Jim Gordon.

And when you’re ready to dig in, try The Kentucky Bourbon Cookbook, by Albert W.A. Schmid and Dean Fearing, and Italian Home Cooking, by the award-winning Julia della Croce. In my kitchen Italian cooking is home cooking, but that never stopped me from adding more Italian cookbooks to my shelf before and it isn’t about to stop me now. And don’t forget The Winemaker Cooks, by Christine Hanna (see below) , cook, looker and president of Sonoma’s Hanna Winery & Vineyards.

zzzzzzzzChristine HannaAs soon as I can I’ll make something to go with the following recipe, kindly provided by Chef Schmid: It’s called The English Professor’s Kentucky Bourbon Marinade, and it goes like this: Mix equal parts of bourbon, soy sauce and pineapple juice. Add a few [or a few more] Szechuan peppers, if you like. In it marinate chicken [up to 1 hour], pork [2-3 hours] or beef [at least 4 hours]. Pan-fry or grill. You’ll still have 364 days to cook Italian.

Now then, lest I appear to have gone soft-centered on you, I will here cite the two worst books I’ve read in a coon’s age or donkey’s years, whichever is longer. They are, for your edification and dismay Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits, by Jason Wilson, and The Wild Vine, by Todd Kliman, You have been warned.

If you right-click on any of the above titles you’ll be able to ‘open’ Amazon and order directly.

For lagniappe here are a few of my own reviewer’s tips. For example, if the flap copy says anything like ‘ . . . teaches writing at . . . ‘ and/or mentions an author’s work with NPR, odds are it’s best to am-scray whilst still thou canst. In the Acknowledgments, danger signs include fulsome praise for the editor, who probably did nothing more than praise and grin [editors don’t have jobs—they have lunch] and the copy editor, who has likely missed author errors by the long ton while [if really on the ball]—adding factual errors of her own devising. Also, Amazon’s reader reviews have gained importance as professional reviewers, to quote the poet-pugilist Mike Tyson, ‘fade to Bolivian’. But be sceptical. Many of its 5-star reviews seem to be mere empty raves by enthusiasts and the ignoranti. The few-star reviews more often show knowledge and critical perspective.

And a Happy New Year to All!

©2012 Bill Marsano

Linotype the movie is expected to arrive in theaters some time next month. See the trailer below:

"Linotype: The Film" Official Trailer from Linotype: The Film on Vimeo

——————————————————————-

*Hence ‘two sticks on  page 12,’ journalese for a story that is insignificant or being downplayed.
**One of them, U.S. Tobacco Journal, supposedly founded by Oscar Hammerstein I.
***Societal outcasts; pariahs who own actual, you know, like stores, yo?

Christine Hanna photo: Sheri Giblin Photography, S.F.

Derby Day, Bourbon Barrels and Woodford Reserve

It’s Derby Day Saturday, Kentucky’s National Holiday, which involves many ponies and enough mint juleps to drive you to drink. Want a recipe? You could look it up, as Casey Stengel used to say. The April 2010 post Talk Derby to Me has recipes given to me by some distilling luminaries: Chris Morris of Woodford Reserve; Booker Noe, Jim Beam’s grandson; Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey; Kevin Smith of Maker’s Mark and their legendary like. [Fred Noe, Booker’s son, possibly aware of the huge brogans he must fill, provided two, one based on Beam and another on Knob Creek.] They’ll keep you adequately lubricated for the whole weekend.

DerbyStayThirsty

My personal Derby pick is Stay Thirsty [above, with Ramon Dominguez up], whose cheerful name recalls not only my devoted Thirsty Reader but Dos Equis beer’s Most Interesting Man in the World TV and radio commercials, memorably taglined ‘Stay thirsty, my friends.’ The MIMW’s sophistication, worldliness and craggy good looks blend Marlboro Man, Fidel Castro, Ernest Hemingway and Ricardo Montalban [in his Rich Corinthian Leather Period]; finding a face for that was a tall order*. That plus the patended deadpan narration of Will Lyman and good copywriting makes ads that are funny, witty and imaginative; unlike, for example, most wine commercials. So funny and witty they inspire the same from viewers: quite an accomplishment, considering that as a rule YouTubers’ comments are usually moronic when not worse.

Of the 15 spots in the series so far my favorite opens deceptively with an idyll in the Italian countryside but goes wild very quickly. Most can be seen online: start with Google and YouTube, then check out www.facebook.com/dosequis; it has more spots, plus details of the upcoming ‘League of the Most Interesting’ contest. Unfortunately, the contest doesn’t involve overhand bowling or being thrown out of an airplane in a kayak [perhaps due to some PR-side fretting over ‘liability’].

My backup is Pants On Fire [Rosie Napravnik in irons], again for the name. Both names, in fact. Just imagine the track announcer excitedly shouting ‘Napravnik’s taking Pants On Fire to the rail!’? Not quite the same if it’s Mucho Macho Man, say, or Archarcharch? To say nothing of Comma to the Top, a horse unreliably reported to be owned by a renegade international copy-editing cartel.

When last in Louisville [say Looville, never Loo-ey-ville] I was not on the rail or in the infield or at the clubhouse turn but was immersed in whiskey and baseball at two of the city’s finest wood-working institutions. One is the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, which got a magnificent makeover, renovation and general glorification in 2009. You know the drill: immerse thyself in the National Pastime; see trees become bats; soak up the wisdom of Ruth, Aaron, Williams and other great hitters; and learn about women and minorities in the game. Then play with the many interactive displays and achieve photo immortality while clutching an immortal’s bat. That’s me [below] with the Model B220 warclub of the great No. 7**]. It’s the real thing, hence the white cotton gloves.

Bill and Bat

Then came the Brown-Forman Cooperage [née Blue Grass] which makes 1500 barrels a day for Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, Jack Daniel’s, Early Times, Canadian Mist, El Jimador and Herradura. Among spirits companies only B-F has its own cooperage, and despite the addition of modern equipment and constant updating, the plant still has a 1940s look and feel—and smell: the air is rich with the aroma of furnace-charred American white oak.
 FIRE

Chris Morris, B-F’s master distiller, guided me safely through and warned me about the perils of the barrel railway, while saying the aromas are his favorite part. Mine was the hand-work. The hand tools of the cooper’s mystery—the sun plane and the croze, the long joiner [a plane about 6 feet long], the bung auger, the chince or chincing iron [‘used for driving the flag into the groove’] and such—were vanished even by the time the plant opened in 1945. Even so, barrels are still raised by hand [N.B.: not made, assembled, built, erected or slung together; the term of art is raised]. An expert can raise a couple of hundred per shift, and there are hushed whispers of veritable Stave Gods known to have raised 350 and even more. The cooperage has since opened to the public; it’s a treat for kids and factory-tour fans who delight in seeing raw material become parts become products, also for fossils like your correspondent, who is so old he can remember a time when American workers actually made things. See www.mintjuleptours.com or call 502 583-1433 and seek ye the peerless Joanie. And just watch your step anywhere near the barrel railway.

RAILIMG_0147                                      
This is no drill, as they said at Pearl Harbor. Barrels come down the rails without warning, swiftly and silently; they weigh more than 100 pounds apiece and will flatten anything and anyone that gets in their way.

It’s thirsty work watching so much barrel-raising, and it called for a drink or few, which Chris elected to lay on at the Woodford Reserve Distillery, down the road a piece near Versailles, which you’ll want to pronounce Ver-sales. You don’t want anyone thinking you’re French. The building, a handsome limestone structure dating to 1838 and added to on several occasions since, sits serenely in a bosky dell beside Glenn’s Creek.

Woodford

The setting inspires romantics to dream of colorful artisan moonshiners, but Chuck Cowdery, author of the superb Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey, has said that modern ‘shiners, who merely cook bulk sugar into crude booze, deserve not folkloric halos but sojourns in the Waddy-Petrona Correctional Facility and Dental School. Max Watman, whose delightful Chasing the White Dog : An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine, would no doubt agree.

Brown-Forman has restored the distillery to a thing of rural-industrial beauty, and visitors are welcome to stop in and see Woodford Reserve being made. It’s awful-looking, awful-smelling stuff you see pumped into the big wooden fermenters, but then chemistry takes over the ancient practices of pot distillation

Mud

and oak-aging work their miracles, first in the three big Scotch-built copper stills, then in the barrels stacked for six or seven years in the rickhouse.

Tours of varying length are but $5 and $10 [call 859 879 1812] and there are spaces available to rent for festive events, but weddings and wedding receptions are excluded, most likely for reasons of self-defense. Wedding-rehearsal dinners? They’re another story because they’re reliably less boisterous events [859 879 1934]. Whatever the reason for your visit it will be the part of wisdom to call the tour office first, for precise directions are required. The taped message warns that ‘due to our distinct location’ [i.e., the 19th Century], ‘using GPS is not advisable.’

The distillery is a landmark partly for its beauty [it’s considerable; this is Thoroughbred country, after all] but mainly for its importance in bourbon history. It was here under Oscar Pepper [son of the distillery’s founder, Elijah] that Edinburgh-born Dr. James C. Crow pretty much created modern bourbon by innovation and experiment. He created the sour-mash process and maintained rigorous cleanliness in thesearch for product consistency, and he was the first, so far as is known, to sell exclusively whiskey that had been aged in new charred oak barrels. Before the Good Doctor made bourbon, most of what Kentucky made was mere whiskey, and often very mere whiskey at that.

Our farewell drinks that afternoon came from a barrel in the rickhouse: Chris tapped it with an electric drill and I came thirstily to the rescue when the bit jammed in the dense wood. All those hours of This Old House turned out to be useful after all. Imagine that.

Stay thirsty, my friends.

RED

————————————————————————-

*well filled by the actor Jonathan Goldsmith. You were expecting maybe Ludwig Stössel?

**Mickey Mantle. You had to ask?

BAR-BET TRIVIA

The distillery became a National Historic Landmark in 2000. Dr. Crow did indeed practice medicine, and he gave his services, according to Chuck Cowdery, ‘mostly without charge.’ Cowdery adds that he ‘was fond of reciting the poems of Robert Burns’ and that after his death his name became part of one of America’s first brands, Old Crow. Once famous, it is now no more than a bottom-shelf ‘value brand.’

© Bill Marsano

Valentine Wines: When Beauty Whispers Low Thou Must the Youth Replies I Can

“In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love” may be Tennyson’s most famous line, but his timing is suspect. For one thing, the British poet laureate came late to pitching woo, be-ing a ripe 27 before making cow eyes at his beloved and 41(!) by the time he married her. And in picking spring he was late in the calendar, too. Proposals limp along at some 6,000 a day in the U.S., then jump to 200,000-plus on V-Day itself. Now it’s that time again, so let’s broach the bubbly in glad salute.

But there are problems to solve (modishly known as issues to address). What bubbly? What to do, and not, if proposing? What about Relationship Issues?

As for which bubbly, I say almost any except Cham-pagne. Most Americans have it too seldom—when celebrating New Year’s Eve, say, and christening ocean liners—to develop a taste for it; they recoil from aggressive acidity. Unaccustomed to the stuff, many men will knock theirs back with a grimace and many women will simply ‘wear’ it, like a prop or an accessory, then abandon their seldom-sipped flutes unobtrusively, even furtively after the toasts. For both sexes, then, Champagne is often more of a gesture than a pleasure.

The solution is Italy’s gentler, sweeter, low-alcohol sparkling wines, which also happen to be quite inexpensive most of the time (often enough they’re under $10, one of the last times romance will comeJEIOlabel cheap). Prosecco, which comes from the Veneto, has become an American favorite in recent years. Asti or Asti Spumante), the best-known of Italy’s sparkling wines, comes from Piedmont, which also gives us (in far smaller quantities) Moscato d’Asti and Brachetto d’Acqui (a.k.a. Acqui). Leading names in Prosecco include Bisol (left)  and Mionetto, and there are many others. Generally, the least-expensive bottling of any given brand will do splendidly. As for Asti, a.k.a. Asti Spumante it’s still sweet but no longer the gooey, cloy-ing stuff of yore. Martini & Rossi and Cinzano are every-where; other notables include the like of Ceretto, Nando, Bosca Ver-di, Nino Franco, Villa Rosa, Elmo Pio,  Zardetto and Borgo Reale.

Moscato d’Asti is half as sparkly but twice as good. Its Durante Nose offers one of the great moments in the history of human nostrils, so do not, not, not use a flute, lest you stifle the fragrance. Generous, big- bowled, goblet-style glasses like the Italian coppa are required. A list of notable producers would in-clude Contratto, La Serra, Cascinetetta, Michele Chiarlo, Bosio, La Corte, ceretto_26Saracco, Castello del Pog-gio and Ceretto (again). But note that total output is very small, so you’ll be wise to grab almost any bot- tle that you are lucky enough to lay hands on.

Brachetto d’Acqui, red and relatively rare, is full of straw- berry aromas and tastes, and
I could swear that it’s just made for love and choco-late—dark chocolate especially. 

It too is from Piedmont, and it comes from a vine that is  Rosa_Regale_Bottle HRcantankerous, ungenerous of yield and rather picky  about growing sites. Small wonder it was nearly extinct only a few decades ago; equally small wonder that it was saved: Italians have a soft spot for desperate causes. And grazie tante for that, because the wine is a delight even if the vine it-self is a pain, or what used to be called a pill. You’re most likely to find Banfi’s Rosa Regale in its  dis-tinctive trumpet bottle (left) at retail; others in the market include Coppo, Marenco, Sant’Evasio and Rinaldi. Here too, limited production means taking what you can get when you can get it.

So, as the British say, there you are: the Sweet Swain of Valentine’s Day, ready to see which of you will be first to go weak in the knees. And pay no mind, by the way, to all those who cock a snook at sweet wines and the Thirsty Readers who love them. Sweet, sort-of-sweet and extremely sweet wines are produced in all wine-making countries and have been since Moses was a pup. Those who sneer at the “American taste” or “Coca-Cola palate” are snobs, mere and mean. They should be hunted for sport.

If, on the other hand, you are a Champagne devotee, see whether you can pass the test:

The PWP Champagne Challenge

One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not the same . . . as they say and sing, all too often, on Sesame Street
 

josephperrierlprectperrier-jouet2oerrier waterimagesCA6OB0UM

OK, kids! The answer is Lower Right! That’s the label of Perrier water. Forget that. (The knockout red-head was supplied for sales appeal. Eventually it was realized that a better way to sell bottled water was with a combination of high prices and spurious health claims, especially if the product has to be shipped from somewhere obscure and ridiculously far away, like Fiji or New Zealand.)

And so, if you are what Jane Austen called with her radar-targeted perception, a single man in possession of a good fortune, knock yourself out. But if you flunked the test, then buy and bury yourself in a copy of Ed McCarthy’s Champagne for Dummies. And don’t kid yourself that you’ll be able to get up to speed by V-Day. It won’t happen, so you, like the Mets, must wait till next year.

So now that you’ve got the girl (you hope) and the ring (I hope), you must at last cause the twain to meet. Which is not so easy, the whole business being stressful. As a fretful colleague put it, “She could say no. Or she could say yes. Pretty scary either way.”

There’s a mania for proposals in extravaganza mode these days: swains sky-diving from airplanes, beaux proposing on the big screen in Times Square, dolts popping the question while driving the Zamboni machine out to center ice in a noisy arena filled with complete strangers. If that’s what you’re thinking of, I’m not talking to you. Ever.

No. You want a nice, pleasant and above all familiar place or ‘venue.’ Your usual restaurant should be fine—you’re regulars there and they know you; all will seem normal. There’s only one thing about this night that should be different from all other nights, so don’t tip your hand by booking some fancy new place. (Odds are she’ll know what’s coming anyway and has practiced for hours feigning surprise, shock and fly-me-to-the-moon, but she’ll play her role and you must play yours).

Order lightly—you may want to skip one course—but otherwise proceed as usual. You’ve ordered the wine ahead of time; have it brought with or in lieu of dessert, and make your move. Hands across the table is fine, but if you want to take a knee be sure you first scope the aisle for, say, incoming busboys. It’s pie-easy, and she’ll love you for it.

There’s just one really important DON’T here: Don’t slip the ring into her glass. At best she’ll have a wet, sticky ring that’ll have to be washed before wearing. At worst—well, there’s nothing remotely romantic about a bride-to-be being doubled over and Heimliched in a crowded restaurant.

And if you think you can save the situation with a lighthearted ’One day we’ll look back on this and laugh,’ think again.

© 2011 Bill Marsano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pored Over With Pleasure: Elliott Essman’s ‘Use Wine to Make Sense of the World’

By Bill Marsano. Elliot Essman and I are alike in that we both love wine and write about wine, have James Beard medals for distinguished service in the non-combat beverage zone, take wine seriously but never to the point of being wine bullies, wine snobs or wine bores. Equally we love and admire women and song, indulge in witty (we hope) wordplay. In general we advance the view that wine is the highest expression of the liquid state. But for all that, the idea of using wine to ‘make sense of the world’ seems a bit of a stretch, although wine moderately taken is certainly a morale-builder in most instances. Nevertheless, while entry-level wine-lovers will get a lot from this book, accomplished ones will too. Actually, Essman is using wine as a vehicle to explore his many wine-related interests: philosophy, the senses, desire and lust, the meaning of ‘terroir,’ Samuel Pepys, poetry, tasting notes and just about anything else that imageengages his inquiring and restless mind. We disagree on a thing or two such as wine poetry and tasting notes (which I generally have no truck with), but his analysis gives a good idea of what tasting notes should be. The highlight here is the several chapters tracing the course of his dating marathon in search of the special woman to go with his wine, the woman who would, so to speak, become the wine of his life and the song of his heart. It IS a marathon—there are 26 meetings—and each is deftly thumbnailed. No rants or bitterness or blame here–the globe is granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints, and Essman knows enough not to linger over losses, knows that each of us inevitably receives his portion of what Martin Amis calls “the shrapnel of life.” Hmmm—we disagree on other things too, come to think on’t: ‘terroir’ and long-aged wines: the former having an excess of dubious supporters and the latter suggesting a romantic fiction. No matter. What’s duller that two people endlessly agreeing? Essman is good company because strong as his opinions are he doesn’t bluster or bludgeon. He explores, discusses and (in both senses of the word) entertains. He is good company because, as he explains in his introduction, “My aim is to open up some thought patterns on how wine opens up thought patterns. My goal is to end this book with questions rather than statements.” It’s enough to make anyone feel welcome.

Heavens to Betsy

In an uncharacteristic move, the wine world unbuttoned itself a bit recently. Said world is normally populated by a surfeit of folk in $100 watered-silk Italian neckties who do not speak so much as intone celestial sentiments like ‘Great wine is made in theRandall_Grahm by_Alex_Krause2005 vineyard’ moments before treating their juice to industrial yeasts, multiple fermentations and 100% or even 200% new French oak. Nevertheless, the wine world relaxed long enough to induct Bonny Doon founder and President-for-Life Randall Grahm (that’s him at right, guffawing maniacally) into the Vintners Hall Of Fame.

The official excuse, per the Culinary Institute of America, was ‘significant contributions to the wine industry.’ Chiefest among them should be his relentless, highly literate wit and humor; his outrageous puns and eternal unstuffiness. Not one to settle for cheap wisecracks or desperate puns (e.g. Goats do Roam), Grahm in his nooseletter and elsewhere would produce chapter-length hilarities inspired by literature classic (e.g. The Vinferno) and contemporary (A Perfect Day for Barberafish).

Much of the nooseletter’s unruly genius is preserved in Grahm’s Been Doon So Long: A Randall Grahm Vinthology (University of California Press, $35). It’s full of wit and wickedness (“The Heartbreak of Wine Geekdom; Ten Ways to Know You’ve Met a Real Wine Geek”is one of my favorites); it also has subtle notes of tobacco and Gravenstein apples, and an abundance of long-chain tannins. It ‘pairs well’ (ick!) with Le Cigare Volant or any other of Grahm’s Rhone-variety wines. Or his Ca’ del Solo Sangiovese or Dolcetto or, come DoonCoverto think of it, anything else he makes. Grahm was shall we say somewhat sobered by the event, saying ‘I am of course tremendously proud and gratified by this honor.  But in candor, this really does mean that I have to at last buckle down and get to work.’ The mood passed, though, as he quickly added ‘Work?  Work!! (to paraphrase Maynard G. Krebs).’

Fellow inductees included Andy Beckstoffer, Zelma Long and (posthumously) Al Brounstein and Leon D. Adams, wine historian and author of The Wines of America. Not inducted: Barrique Obama, the failed herald of “change,” fell two votes shy because his Chardonnays are still so woody they could be used to kill vampires. Fellow hopeful Puncheon Judy fared worse. The producer of Motley Cru (‘made from any grapes from anywhere’) had offended the Academy before, as did the wine’s alias (One-Buck Chuck) and the exclusive marketing deal with Interstate rest stops. Insiders hint, however, that her late-night cable-TV ads, complete with an 800 number an ‘act now and we’ll double the offer’ come-on, were at last too much for the judges, who responded with a lifetime ban.

 Photo: Alex Krause