What Were They Thinking


Quercus petraea continues to be my bête noire. To wit:

As many loyal readers — bless your bones! — of BTYH know, Saturday marks Pizza & Movie Night in our household. The movie comes from Netflix, the pizza from my own hands. We decided that we wanted to watch the “Bourne” series again, so last night it was the first outing, The Bourne Identity, which did not seem quite as stylish as it did in 2002. (Clive Owen, btw, portrays an assassin without a three-day-growth of beard. He didn’t look like himself. I thought that three-day-growths of beard were written into his contracts. If he were playing Mr. Darcy, he’d do it with a three-day-growth of beard.)

Anyway. I needed to find an appropriate wine for the pizza, and what I really wanted was just a nice, simple uncomplicated pizza wine, you know, the kind of wine that I could write up as “a nice, simple, uncomplicated pizza wine” and recommend as Good Value. So I picked up a bottle of a well-known brand of inexpensive Tuscan blends, and there on the back label were the words, “aged six months in French barriques.” Gack! I thought, when did they start doing that? French oak is not what I had in mind.

So, I hefted a bottle of an inexpensive Spanish tempranillo-cabernet sauvignon blend, thinking that it would probably be fine, and there, on the back label, were the words, “Aged 12 months in new oak … for a touch of vanilla.” Criminy! I thought, I don’t want a “touch of vanilla” in any wine, much less a red wine to drink with pizza. “12 months in new oak,” fer cryin’ out loud! Again, that was not what I had in mind.

So, I thought, the hell with it, and I asked LL to get down a couple of the big Riedel cabernet glasses, and we would just go ahead and drink something smooth and sleek and minerally and elegant from California, making this supposition on the fact that we had drunk this particular wine’s more expensive cousin from the same estate last week and liked it a lot.

So we got all settled and the movie started and I opened the wine and poured it and — guess what? — toasty oak up and down, back and forth, in and out and all over the place. All I could smell was toasty oak; all I could taste was toasty oak; and if toasty oak possessed tactile ability, I would have felt toasty oak too.

So, friends, let’s sing the chorus of that classic soul hit along with Aretha:

L-E-S-S O-A-K
Can’t you make your wine that way?

Please, don’t sock it to me.

Oak tree image from oas.com.

Pim Techamuanvivit, producer and writer of the popular food blog Chez Pim, startled the blogging world last week by announcing that she was “partnering” with Rachel’s to promote or endorse a new line of cottage cheese and yogurt. Pim told Kim Severson (for whom she declined to name the amount of money involved), on The New York Times food blog: “It’s a great relationship between blogging and branding … This is a business now.”

Comments from Pim’s readers are overwhelmingly positive, of the “You go, girl!” and “Can’t wait to try the honey-plum-lavender!” type. Response on The New York Times blog is more measured, with some readers saying that Pim is (as she says herself) a brand so why shouldn’t she endorse a product “she believes in” the way athletes endorse shoes, to others who assert that she is a complete sell-out to capitalism and can never be trusted again.

If you read back through the archives of Chez Pim, you will realize that Pim’s appeal is to other foodies or wannabe foodies who are mainly (the responses seem to indicate) young and female. She is an entrepreneur whose product is herself, and her readers not only like her but are devoted to her.

One should not be alarmed that by endorsing Rachel’s yogurt and cottage cheese Pim is violating any code of journalist ethics because she isn’t a journalist; she’s a personality who writes about food and restaurants, that is to say, the food she eats and the restaurants to which she goes, from a stance that is completely uncritical and unskeptical. She does not review food products from a critical distance, and she does not review restaurants. As she notes, in a post on July 21, 2006, when she and her boyfriend trek to Etxebarri, a famous all-grill restaurant in the Basque village of Axpe, “As is our custom, instead of ordering from the menu, we asked the kitchen to do a tasting menu for us.” That may be their custom, but it is not the practice of a journalist or reviewer. (For objective reviews of the Rachel’s “Exotic” and “Essence” yogurts, see this page at nibble.com.)

Were it not for the fact that Pim is a roaring success — she has a book coming out too — she would be very difficult to take seriously. Pim writes in an annoyingly breathless and gaga style, including using words like “bestest,” and her posts are filled with misspellings and typographical slips. (Everybody needs an editor, Pim, even you and me.) She blithely skates across the surface of food and restaurant issues and concerns while providing her readers with recipes for chocolate chip cookies and dark chocolate hazelnut bites. On the other hand, as one comment on The New York Times blog points out, Pim never said that she was doing Consumer Reports.

Rachel’s, by the way, is a product line of White Wave Foods, a division of international diary megalith Dean Foods.

If Pim’s readers clearly don’t give a damn that she endorses a product, makes some moolah and increases her visibility, I don’t think that we shouldn’t either. As I said, she’s not a journalist or a critic; she’s a personality. Would we care if Perez Hilton endorsed Rachel’s cottage cheese or, say, a line of mascara? Of course not, but we wouldn’t want Matt Drudge doing it — well, maybe the mascara — because he is a journalist, or bears some resemblance to one. The Drudge Report does carry advertising, but that’s not the same thing as an endorsement. A Walmart banner ad at the top of TDR’s home page is a sign of an equation: “I give you money = You give me space.” It doesn’t mean that Matt Drudge is standing up and saying, “Personally I shop at Walmart because I love the prices and the pathetic old geezers who greet you at the door!”

The Chez Pim brouhaha in a demitasse serves a purpose, though, and that is bringing to the tea-table the issue that gives many involved in (to be specific) wine-blogging the heebie-jeebies, and that’s The Whole Ethics Thing. Indeed, the conjunction of those loaded “B” words — blogging, branding and business — tends to sow dragon’s teeth into a fertile field where the giants called Conflicts of Interest spring forth, or may be perceived to do so.

Obviously, wine-bloggers who engage in serious critical reviews of wine and commentary about the wine industry should never endorse a product. Giving a wine a good review, incidentally, is not the same as an endorsement of the wine, just as a rave review of a book is not an endorsement of the book. One may receive bottles of wine as samples but without the obligation to write about the wine and with no guarantee about the outcome if you do; those conditions need to be made clear to producers and importers who send wine to bloggers, either by practice or in a statement on the blog’s home page.

Recently, for example, a publicist sent me an email saying that he or she wanted to send me two limited edition wines on the condition that I would include, in whatever I wrote, the high score one of the wines had recently received in The Wine Enthusiast. I said that no, I would not accept wines that came with any conditions whatsoever, and that if I reviewed the wines it would only be on my terms. And of course they apologized and said that no, of course, they had not intended such a condition and so on. Bloggers, you must not allow your skepticism and objectivity to drop for one moment.

Even the notion of receiving samples of wine makes some bloggers nervous, but I think the uneasiness is misplaced. With the exceptions of The Wine Advocate, whose well-known publisher and chief writer Robert M. Parker Jr. has managed from the beginning to fund his wine-tasting, and Eric Asimov’s New York Times wine blog, The Pour, most publications, web-sites and blogs that review wine would not exist without samples, just as newspapers and other journals and blogs that review books (to extend the analogy) would not get the job done without the review copies that publishers sent out by the box-load. I promise that the book reviewers for the nation’s Sunday book sections spend not a single sleepless night worrying that the novel they reviewed that day came as a free copy from Doubleday. It’s part of the process, not a quid pro quo balancing act.

And bloggers, you’re not special, so don’t act so damned grateful, when you do get samples; the cost of sending wine to writers is written into the budget of every producer and importer. Acting as if you’ve had a gift bestowed upon you — yes, I’ve seen you do this — only contributes to the amateurism of the wine-blogging sphere.

Let’s face it, most blogs (of any kind) are neither businesses nor brands, the exceptions, in the wine area, possibly being the highly visible and always active Dr. Vino, Vinography, Good Wine Under $20 and The Pour. The rest of us labor on, sans real advertising or book deals, wishing we had the numbers and the clout to draw advertising inquiries. Of course lines have to be drawn here too. Wine blogs should not carry ads from wineries, producers, importers or distributors, that is, from entities that deal with specific wines. Alternatives would be advertising from retail stores, Internet wine sellers or wine events; restaurants, hotels and the hospitality business in general; or any enterprise that seems reasonable and would not present a conflict of interest, though the entire issue may be merely of academic interest until wine blogs find more of a national presence.

So, fellow wine-bloggers, don’t be jealous of Pim Techamuanvivit because her blog is immensely more popular than yours and she makes a hell of a lot more money by blogging than you do. You and she exist in parallel universes, and while she inhabits the glamorous food circles of New York and goes to parties all the time and hobnobs with celebrities and travels all over the place, thank your lucky stars that you don’t have to do that.

O.K., be a little jealous.

Top image from chezpim.com.
Second image from nibble.com.
My linkedin profile.

Yes, friends, it’s official. Yesterday, the morons, I mean the eminent statesmen, of the Tennessee Senate overrode the veto of Gov. Phil Bredesen and passed a bill that allows permit-holders to carry their concealed handguns into restaurants and bars where alcohol is served — if they don’t drink. Since the nature of a concealed weapon is that it’s, you know, concealed, a heavy burden is placed on waiters and bartenders.

Mild-mannered gentleman sidles up to the bar: “Hendricks martini, my good fellow, up with a twist.”

Bartender: “Yes sir, comin’ right up, but are you packing heat?”

MMG: “Excuse me?”

Bartender: “Are you carrying, sir, you know, a gat, a heater, a rod, are you hiding the ol’ Smith & Wesson under your arm?”

MMG: “Look, I just stopped in for a martini on the way home.”

Bartender: “I understand, sir, but now that it’s legal in Tennessee for permit-holders to carry concealed weapons into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, as long as they don’t drink, it’s my obligation to ascertain your ballistic preparedness before I serve you. Oh, and can I see some I.D.?”

MMG, drawing a .45 from the holster under his jacket: “You can see this, motherfucker, and you can make me a Shirley Temple, pronto!”

Bartender: “As you wish, sir. And don’t worry about the I.D.”

Actually, the bill, which was opposed by the state’s law enforcement agencies and restaurant associations — which apparently have no power against gun-owners and the NRA — does not become operative until July 14 (here’s a new way to celebrate Bastille Day!), so if you’re planning a trip to Tennessee, the state where Davy Crockett “killed himself a bar when he was only three” — “bar” being local dialect for “bear” — I would do it within the next few weeks.

The law does provide an out for restaurant and bar owners, in that they may post signs prohibiting guns in their establishments. Imagine this: You open the menu and at the bottom are the words “No smoking. No substitutions. No guns.”

In a move that didn’t receive as much publicity as the “Guns Mean Fun in Bars Bill,” the Tennessee legislature recently voted to ban a requirement that restaurants post nutritional information about the food they serve. So take your choice: Eat yourself to death on McFatso Burgers in blissful ignorance or be gunned down in a restaurant because you forgot to turn off your cell phone.

There was an interesting story in the New York Times this morning about Darienne M. Page, a young woman whose awesome title is “receptionist of the United States.” Page sits at the desk outside the West Wing of the White House, and, basically, to see the president, you have to pass through her scrutiny first, whether you’re Senator Harry Reid or actor Ben Stiller. As Times reporter Jeff Zeleny writes:

She is on hand to greet nearly every official visitor who has an appointment with the president or his top advisers. She oversees the front of the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, serving coffee to former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, making small talk with a delegation from Kazakstan and trying to chew a mouthful of almonds quickly before saying hello to Tiger Woods as he stands at her desk.

Page is also in charge of the presidential boxes at the Kennedy Center.

I found two aspects of this story shocking.

First, Page, who is 27, makes $36,000 a year, which she could probably do as a pizza delivery person. I mean, she must work long hours every day, she has immense responsibility and she has to chat with Republicans and be nice about it. She should be compensated accordingly.

Second — and this is the big one — the minibars in the presidential boxes at the Kennedy Center are stocked with “small bottles of Korbel champagne, white boxes of M&Ms with the presidential seal on them and a few cans of Bud Light.”

Please, Mr. President, we can do better than that! When you or Mrs. Obama send guests in your name to occupy your seats at a theatrical or musical performance, don’t you want to be represented by — and don’t you want this great country of ours to be represented by — the finest products that reflect the diversity and history of American know-how and achievement?

Take the nibbles. Nothing wrong with M&Ms; I love them myself. When drinking beer and sparkling wine, however, the sweetness of candy clashes with the acidity and the fruit of the wine and the bitterness of the beer. Something savory is called for, and I would recommend Vermont Common Crackers, the oldest continuously manufactured food product in the country. Vermont Common Crackers, two inches across, have been produced in the same place since 1828, so visitors to the Kennedy Center presidential boxes could sample not only a cracker that tastes good but get a taste of history with it. Available in regular and cheddar cheese versions.

And the beer?

Sorry, Mr. President, Bud Light may be fine for knocking back suds at a tailgate party — and I even question that — but will not do at all for the presidential boxes at the Kennedy Center. The remedy is serving a beer from one of the breweries that can be found within a short driving distance of Washington, like the Old Dominion Brewing Company in Loudoun County, Virginia. Or, striking closer to home, how about featuring the Foggy Bottom pale ale and lager, made right there in Washington by the historic Olde Heurich Brewing Company, founded in 1873 by German immigrant Christian Heurich. Now there’s a beer with a significant name!

The issue of a good sparkling wine from an American producer is a bit trickier, if we’re trying to be strictly patriotic, because many of the best of them are owned by foreign — not to say French — companies, but they have to pay taxes in this country and they employ thousands of American citizens. Now Korbel is a venerable company, founded by three Czech brothers in Sonoma County and first producing sparkling wine in 1896, but the quality simply is not there, certainly not to serve to the guests of the president of the United States.

The problem is that most producers of sparkling wine in American don’t offer their wares in small-format bottles; they don’t make enough product to make it worth the cost. You won’t find half-bottles from Schramsberg or Argyle. Indeed, Korbel was crafty in seeing the potential for the half-bottle (375 ml) and split (187 ml) markets. However, two producers of well-made (and better) sparkling wines do provide bottles in the necessary sizes — that is, to fit into a minibar — and those are Domaine Chandon and Mumm Napa. Mumm Napa offers its Brut Prestige in splits; Domaine Chandon produces its Chandon Brut Classic in splits and half-bottles and its Chandon Rosé in splits. I would recommend either the Chandon Rosé or the Mumm Napa Brut Prestige for the presidential boxes at the Kennedy center.

And this would be cool and in the interest of diversity! Gruet Winery in New Mexico, a fine producer of champagne method sparkling wines, offers its Brut and its Blanc de Noirs in the half-bottle format. I recommend both of those choices.

Crackers from Vermont, beer from D.C. and sparkling wine from New Mexico. That sounds really American.

And while I don’t mind performing my citizenly duty, as I have here, I have to ask: Do I have to tell you guys everything?

Photo credit: Doug Mills, The New York Times.

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I was having a little snack a couple of days ago, some bread and cheese — I made that bread, by the way — and a glass of Spanish red wine, taking a moment on the back porch to read a few pages of a book I plucked from the shelves in the sitting room. I decided, in another by-the-way moment here, to start reading books from our library instead of trying to keep up with contemporary literature the way I did for so many years, when I was a book page editor and book reviewer. So the current read is Thomas Mann’s Stories of Three Decades in the edition of 1936 published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Anyway, I couldn’t help being amused by the packaging of the wine. I mean, here is a pleasant, tasty grenache and tempranillo blend — 75/25 — from the Campo de Borja region, the impressively titled Don Ramon Vino Tinto Barrica 2006 that happens to have a suggested retail price of $9, and it displays, on the neck, a red ribbon held in place by the bold splash of a red wax seal. On a $9 wine! It made me happy just to think about a few guys back at the winery in Campo de Borja saying something like, “You know, it’s a nice presentation, but we need something to spice it up a little, give it a touch of glamor and nobility, maybe … a red ribbon and a red wax seal on the neck!” And everybody goes, “Yay! Bravo! Olé!”

Because eccentricity always must grow out of innocence. Eccentricity without innocence is affectation, and affectation leads to pretension. I found neither affectation nor pretension in Don Ramon’s red ribbon and red wax seal; rather, I thought they make a touching gesture of hopefulness and esteem. “See,” say the ribbon and the seal, “this bottle of wine may cost only $9, but it takes its place proudly in the world.”

Don Ramon Vino Tinto Barrica 2006 offers beguiling notes of raspberries and mulberries with touches of spicy wood. The wine is dry and vibrant with acid, well-balanced, gently shaped by oak. A few minutes bring up hints of rose petals and potpourri. A lovely little luncheon wine, or with bread and cheese. Very Good. About, as I said, $9.

All right, here’s another example of eccentricity, and this one is more extreme as you can see in the accompanying image. Yes, friends, the bottle of the Mosen Cleto Crianza 2005 is coated with sand, and if you are thinking, “What the hell?” you echo my thoughts completely. The wine is, like the Don Ramon Vino Barrica 2006, a 75/25 blend of grenache and tempranillo from Campo de Borja., though this model delivers more heft and personality, more of a macerated fruit and dusty, leathery, mineral character. All of this for about $10; I rate the wine Very Good+.

But sand! It boggles the mind. Is there a lot of sand in Campo de Borja? I mean, the region is way inland, just south of Rioja. Such a device, such a mode of packaging, was not, I promise, born in the fevered imagination of a hot young marketer or PR person. No, this oddity, both weird and strangely endearing, was fostered by the same sense of wonder and eccentricity that gave us Don Ramon’s red ribbon and wax seal.

Both of these wines are imported by Scoperta Importing Co., Cleveland Heights, Ohio. I wish that Scoperta’s wines were more widely available, but they are carried mainly in markets in the Upper Midwest and on the East and West Coasts.

My last example is a bottle of Armagnac that LL and I have had for 15 years or so, given to us by a dear friend not long before he died. Our friend brought the bottle back from France, where he had lived for many years, but long in the past. It could be 30 or 40 years old. What’s so eccentric is that the bottle is molded to look as if it’s drunk, obviously listing a bit to one side as if it had consumed too much of its own product. This Rabelaisian manner is reinforced by the great metal seal on the sloping front that depicts the profile of a slightly amused Musketeer. Could one find such a product, such a marvel of individuality today?

The bottle still holds an inch of Armagnac that LL and I keep saying we’ll finish some day but never get around to. Perhaps tonight would be the right moment.

My linkedin profile.

authenticity.jpg
On Tuesday, Tom Wark posted, on his blog Fermentation, a fascinating meditation about authenticity. In this provocative essay, Wark wrestles with the questions of how wine, wine brands, wine marketing and the concept of authenticity fit into the brave new world of online social networking.

A long-time marketing person with a rigorously experiential and pragmatic view, Wark makes this point:

“Authentic” and “Authenticity” refer to the ability to define and position one’s product or service in personal and individualistic forms that stress the seller’s feelings and perceptions in a way a single other person taking part in a dialogue will appreciate—rather than positioning one’s products and service in the form of a monologue where the products or services are defined by what they provide to a group.

This is a terrifying analysis. In short, Wark is saying, or implying, that “authenticity” exists not as a test of the genuineness of an article (the original definition of the word) but as the ability to artificially (or artfully) attach a desirable aura to an object, in this case wine, in order to make it marketable. This development should not be a surprise. As the fields of marketing, publicity and advertising have, particularly since the 1960s and the widespread proliferation of television, attained monolithic proportions and requisitioned vast regions of first American and then world culture, authenticity has increasingly become a commodity useful for appealing to certain segments of the consumer classes. In magazines and newspapers, on televisions, in movies and of course on the Internet, the once definitive line between advertising and reality has become so blurred that we may truly say that reality is a nice place to visit but we wouldn’t want to live there because advertising is so much better. Basically, authenticity no longer exists.

There was a time, not so long ago, when people did not concern themselves about authenticity. If you lived in Europe, you didn’t worry whether the wine you were drinking was authentic because it came from the guy down the road who had been making wine for 50 years the way his father and grandfather had made wine. You didn’t worry about whether the food you were eating was authentic — and this was true for most parts of the world — because the ingredients were grown within a day’s walk of your house or village, or you grew the vegetables or tended the chickens yourself. As the world expanded, of course, and became more urbanized, whole populations became separated from the sources of the food they ate, the wine they drank and the objects they purchased for their use and consumption. Large-scale manufacturing, assembly-line production and agribusiness provided millions of people with the necessities of life at the same time as they standardized their products and reduced expectations to a lowest-common-denominator level. Hence were born nostalgia and a political-correctness of taste and acquisition.

Now you can’t buy a chocolate bar — 76% cacao — that doesn’t scream the “authenticity” of its having been produced by a tribal-owned (and non-slave) cooperative in Ecuador that uses “green” growing and harvesting methods, that half the profits are donated to local schools, that the paper the chocolate bar is wrapped in is compostable and that the employees of the American importer all wear recycled clothing. And this will cost you $7 for 1.5 ounces of chocolate. And you will feel good about yourself.

In the world is wine, or California wine, authenticity translates, first, into farming vineyards along the principles of bio-dynamism or at least organic or sustainable methods. The bottle will be heavy and with a deep punt, in a nod to the traditions of France, the authentic motherland of wine. The label will be printed with soy ink on recycled paper. The narrative on the back label will mention the generations of the family that have devoted themselves to their land and their vineyards, their passion, their vision, their authentic dedication, how they keep thing small because small is more personal, more hands-on, more, you know, authentic. The winery and tasting room will be solar- or wind-powered. Thus a nice $20 cabernet, in a triumph of marketing, ends up costing $40.

Now, it’s not my intention to imply that eco-greenness is nothing but a target for satire nor do I mean to denigrate the efforts of the hundreds of excellent, small, family-owned vineyards and wineries found in California and Oregon and Washington and other states (and countries) where wine is made. What I’m saying is that it doesn’t matter how naturally and blithely authentic these concepts and entities may be; they don’t stand a chance against the Shiva-like powers of marketing and advertising, which create their own ideas and tendencies and trends for authenticity. “Real authenticity”? Forget it. “Media-authenticity” rules.

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pizza2.jpg
I made pizza Saturday for the first time in a month, and I don’t mind saying that I was a little anxious. Had I lost the touch? Had the instincts abandoned me? Had I forgotten the mystical recipe for liverwort tea to spread among the vines at dawn at full moon time? Oh, wait, no, whew, that’s biodynamism, not pizza-making!

Anyway, Saturday’s pizza, as you can see in the close-up image, was about tomatoes, mozzarella and apple-wood smoked bacon, with accents of red onion, oil-cured black olives and roasted garlic. Scattered about were dried basil and oregano and some Parmegiano-Reggiano. The result? Well, let the critic speak: “It’s a triumph!” And she’s a critic who has partaken of 600 or so of my pizzas.

Since this marked a special event, in a way, I decided to open something more distinguished than some pleasant, little $12 quaffer, so I scanned the old wine rack and pulled out a bottle of the Wilson Winery Ellie’s Vineyard Petite Sirah 2005, Dry Creek Valley, wilsonlogo.jpg Sonoma County. The result? Well, let the critic speak: I almost liked it. The wine began in auspicious fashion, with penetrating scents of earth and minerals and intense and concentrated black currants and plums highlighted by black pepper, leather and violets. I was impressed, and I continued to be impressed, for a few minutes at least, as flavors of ripe blackberries, black currents and plums etched with dried spices and minerals filled the mouth. Something else, however, also filled the mouth, and that was the unmistakable flavor of French oak, toasty and woody. The materials that accompanied the wine reveal that it ages in French oak “approximately 30 months,” which translates, for the diurnally-challenged, into two-and-a-half years. That’s a lot of time in oak, brother, I mean, even Brunello di Montalcino doesn’t have to be aged in wood that long anymore, and I have to say that in this case “approximately 30 months” in French oak robbed this potentially great wine of personality and pizazz. After a few minutes, all I could smell and all I could taste was oak. So here’s the question: Why pick grapes from a single vineyard and designate that vineyard on the label if in the winemaking process the individual characteristics of that vineyard and those grapes are eradicated? That notion seems pretty freakin’ counter-intuitive to me. 544 cases. Very Good (if you like wood). About $35.

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President Brack Obama acquitted himself well in London, performing for the first time in his presidency on the world stage, manifesting the dignity and good sense that befit a true leader and even personally smoothing over a tiff between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chinese Premier Hu Jintao.
Glass of Brandy
During a meeting with the international press, Obama said, “If there’s just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with brandy, that’s an easy negotiation. But that’s not the world we live in, and it shouldn’t be the world we live in.”

Obama is partially right here. The age is long past when larger-than-life statesmen could sit in wood-paneled rooms in the English countryside or at luxurious resorts on the Black Sea and make decisions that affected the economics, politics and geography of nations rich and poor for generations.

On the other hand, what the hell is wrong with a glass of brandy?

Look at the news photos of these world leaders. Lord have mercy, do they look up-tight and stressed out! Especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Of course the German fear of inflation runs so deep that it amounts to cultural paranoia — those memories of the late 1920s, when it took a wheelbarrow filled with marks to buy a loaf of bread don’t die easily — though as many economists point out, inflation isn’t exactly the problem that Europe faces now. Angela, have a glass of brandy! Loosen up, girl!
Barack Obama ansd British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2008: Where’s the Brandy?
Now, I’m not talking about world leaders getting knee-walkin’ drunk; that would be an unwholesome spectacle (especially with the teetotaler Sarkozy frowning in all his puritanical dudgeon). The warm, mellow lubricatory powers of an inch of brandy, however, might go a long way toward helping presidents and premiers negotiate in more amenable moods and circumstances. In vino veritas, and all that.

No, we don’t want to return to the days of Grand Old White Men privately parsing the fate of the world, but perhaps Roosevelt and Churchill had the right idea about the brandy.

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Image of brandy snifter (modified) from ecoupons.com.

Image of Barack Obama and Gordon Brown from bleedingheartshow.wordpress.com.

I know that I’ll feel safer dining out when the Tennessee state legislature passes a bill allowing gun-permit owners to carry their concealed weapons into restaurants that serve alcohol. The bill advanced yesterday, but “was deferred because an amendment prohibiting guns after 11 p.m. in restaurants serving alcohol was filed late,” according to The Commercial Appeal, the newspaper in Memphis. (The legislature did pass a bill allowing concealed weapons in state and local parks, so watch oout for those angry soccer dads.) Notice that the Bullets & Burgers restaurant bill has only been delayed; I guarantee, after having lived in Tennessee for most of my life, that sure as God made little green apples the legislature will approve this bill. Similar bills are working their way through the statehouses of Virginia and North Carolina.

Let’s see if we can follow the logic of this legislative process:

1. Alcohol is an intoxicating and sometimes impairing beverage, and people who drink too much often indulge in obnoxious and even threatening behavior.

2. Ergo: Let’s allow people to carry concealed weapons into restaurants that serve alcohol so when they get drunk and mean, they can shoot and maim and kill other patrons or restaurant staff with whom they clash!

This may not be how Aristotle would parse the proposition, but it describes the mental process of the typical denizen of Tennessee’s statehouse.

But wait! The thoughtful legislators of The Volunteer State included a caveat that should ensure the safety of diners innocently chowing down on their dinners or the waiters serving them. And that is: That people can carry concealed weapons into restaurants that serve alcohol — ready? — only if they don’t drink!

Now, the nature of a concealed weapon is that, you know, nobody knows it’s there except for the person carrying it. So will waiters and bartenders, along with asking for ID, have to ask if a patron is packing heat? Will there be signs in restaurant bars that say, “No Booze for Gun-Carriers”? Do you think that gun-toters will say to waiters, “No wine for me, thanks, I’m carrying”? No way. People with concealed weapons will be able to drink as freely as their potential victims.

We have had two incidents recently in Memphis in which people left restaurants, got their guns out of their cars, and shot someone; in one instance, a man shot and killed another man for parking too close to his car.

Turning restaurants into (concealed) armed camps on the specious argument that restaurants and bars are likely targets for robbery — so are banks and convenience stores! — is a terrible idea. The last thing I want to do is swing into a lamb shank and a glass of red wine at a local bistro knowing that the guy at the table next to me might have a .38 tucked into his waistband.

Restaurant do get robbed, of course, but they’re mainly fast-food places, and they get robbed before or after hours. The last thing robbers want is to go into some neighborhood establishment where a hundred people could be witnesses and identify them.

No, friends, the potential danger in dining out isn’t so much from robbers as from the pistol-packin’ guy who’s feeling pretty empowered by his iron. Say that robbers did barge into the place were you’re having dinner; do you want a hail of bullets ricocheting around from the guns of those concerned about their “safety”?

Image from atlanta.creativeloafing.com.

Can it be that hard to make great or even good pinot noir wines? Sure, it’s a delicate grape, a little high-strung, requiring careful nurture. Here, however, is my more than reasonable dicta to (mainly) producers in California, for whom pinot noir is a sort of Holy Grail: Lay off the oak! Avoid deep extraction! Keep the freakin’ alcohol at a sane level!

See how simple it is?

The errant pinot noirs that I’m going to mention today don’t necessarily taste bad; I don’t mean that you would spit them out in a gush of disgust. They just don’t taste (or look or smell) like pinot noir. These are the pinot noir wines that would sit before a Senate subcommittee and confess, “Yes, Your Excellency, in 2006 I did indulge in performance-enhancing substances, but my doctor made me do it.”

Now I understand that there’s no reason why pinot noir producers in California and Oregon should slavishly imitate the manner of pinot noir made in Burgundy, the grape’s natural homeland. Differences in geography, climate, soil and philosophy dictate varied approaches to farming and winemaking and of the impressionable grape itself to these conditions. I have found myself frequently defending a pinot from Russian River Valley or Santa Rita Hills from charges that it is “too Californian.” Yet the essence of the grape should and must remain intact; where a pinot noir wine is powerful, that power should be married to delicacy, and where it is dynamic, that dynamism should be allied with elegance. The world of wine has room for blockbusters; we call them syrah, petite sirah and zinfandel. Pinot noir requires finesse, a lighter touch.

Here, then, are five pinot noirs wines from four regions of California that displeased me to greater or lesser degrees, but mainly by taking on the pumped-up character of other grapes. I will, next week, post reviews of pinot noirs wines that I do, indeed, admire.

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I swear, sometimes I don’t know what to think of X Winery. In some ways, I’m a great admirer. Certainly the winery’s flagship xpinot.jpgproduct, Amicus, which debuted in the 2000 vintage, is a great Napa Valley cabernet-based wine that happens to sell for half or a third of what comparable wines sell for. (My reviews of the two Amicus wines from 2005 are here.) X’s merlot and regular cabernet sauvignon are always compellingly sleek and integrated; the petite sirah is appropriately rustic and bumptious; and the blended X Winery Red Wine and the “ES” Sauvignon Blanc are consistently attractive bargains.

But I blow hot and cold on X’s chardonnay. I thought that the X Winery Truchard Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Carneros, Napa Valley, was pretty much a travesty, made more so because the chardonnay that the Truchard winery itself makes from these vines is exquisite. On the other hand, the X Winery Chardonnay 2007, Los Carneros, from the Truchard Vineyard (54%) and the well-known Sangiacomo Vineyard (46%) is one of the best, most balanced and integrated, yet boldly flavorful chardonnays X Winery has made to date; I mean you just want to kiss the limestone. It rates Excellent, and at $19, it’s a steal. That’s nice and all that, but such inconsistency is disturbing.

The point here is that I feel the same way about the X Winery Truchard Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007 as I did about its chardonnay counterpart from 2006. The wine ages 12 months in 90 percent French oak, of which 30 percent of the barrels were new; that might not be too much oak for some wines, but it was too much for this one, which is dominated by a strident brown sugar element, aggressive spice and downright woodiness. I expect — no, hope for –more finesse from this producer. 784 cases. Good only. About $25.
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I’ll back-track for a second here and say that the Hahn Estates Pinot Noir 2006, Monterey County, did not displease me greatly, but it certainly didn’t please me a great deal either. This would be a nifty wine if it were a syrah, but it is, of course, not. Nothing wrong with the oak regimen here; 10 months in French oak, 65 percent new, seems right. The alcohol, however, is 14.5 percent, and the sweet heat and over-ripeness of alcohol really make themselves known. The wine is big and ripe, intense and concentrated, with macerated and roasted black currants and blackberries; did I mention syrah already? The texture is so super-satiny that it envelops your tongue; you feel almost as if you can’t get away from it. Not a bad wine if it were something else, but not a good pinot noir. Good+. About $20.
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Spice dominates the Ventana Vineyards Pinot Noir 2006, Arroyo Seco, Monterey, from start to finish, and by the time I got to that finish, I could have been convinced that what I was drinking was a very spicy, very ripe merlot or a slightly mild-mannered syrah. Sorry, there was nothing particularly pinot noirish about this wine. It aged 10 months in French oak — we are not informed about the percentage of new to old barrels — and the alcohol is a sane 13.5 percent; no red flags there. Still, I kept hoping for something more distinctively characteristic of the grape than spicy black cherry and plum flavors and a smooth texture. Not that it tasted bad or anything; the wine was actually attractive. It just didn’t smell or taste like pinot noir, and it is, I believe, the responsibility of a winemaker, whatever his or her vision of a wine, to give us a wine that’s varietally true. Good+. About $28.
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When the initial aromas of a pinot noir wine are smoke and charred beef, you know you’re in trouble. That was the case with the MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir 2006, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, a “pinot noir” so dark and spicy, so robust and hearty, so laced with qualities of leather and black pepper, that you would have sworn it was — need I say it? — a syrah. I’m a fan of MacMurray’s Pinot Gris, which is one of the best in California, and I have usually liked the winery’s Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. This Russian River Valley version, however, was beyond the pale. Good+. About $37.

This is the point in this post where some readers (and perhaps winemakers) are beginning to get restive and mutter, “Who the hell does this guy think he is, telling winemakers that the wines they have worked on and exercised their thoughts and talents on happen to be not varietally true? Sheesh!”

Listen: Grapes have character, and they have characteristics, and while it’s true that the character and characteristics of grapes must necessarily admit variations that derive from the soil where they are grown and the climate that influences them, they still must retain the core, the heart of their essence. Whatever its regional influences, a wine based on the cabernet sauvignon grape, for example, should be identifiable by its essence of black currant, slate, cedar and tobacco, whether made in Pauillac, the Napa Valley or the Hunter Valley. In fact, that sense of a grape’s essential nature bolstered by and integrated with regional qualities should provide one of wine-tasting and drinking’s most profound pleasures.

Some grapes are more malleable than others, as witness sauvignon blanc wines made, say, in Sancerre, Graves, Lake County and Marlborough. What a heady set of variations that geographical extent produces, yet the wines are still identifiable as sauvignon blanc. Less malleable is the pinot noir grape, whose essential (and potentially glorious) character allows only a narrow range of variations, lest it be turned into something perverse.

The word “malleable” is important, because it implies the influence of the human element, the laying on of hands in the process of turning grapes into wine. There is no such matter as a truly “hands-off” approach to winemaking, but those hands must be gentle, not manipulative, offering guidance and nurture, not forceful shaping or ego-driven intervention. The eloquence of a wine, its ability to express the natural character of its grapes, come not from the winemaker but from the grapes themselves. The winemaker’s job is to make certain that those grapes sing. When a merlot smells and tastes like zinfandel, when a pinot noir smells and tastes like syrah, when a gruner veltliner smells and tastes like chardonnay, a great and sad failure has occurred.
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I was speaking of character. The Wild Horse Cheval Sauvage Pinot Noir 2005, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County, on the other hand, is a caricature. Far from being “classically elegant,” as the material that came with the wine asserts, this is a big, beefy, body-builder of a pinot noir, packed with the off-putting brown sugar quality that distinguishes too many pinot noirs made in California, especially if, like this wine, they have gone through 15 months in oak. This wine is deeply extracted, dark, weighty, exaggerated and, as far as reflecting its origins goes, not a success. 720 cases. About $65.
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