Dishonest Non-Fiction is an Oxymoron

Gather ‘round, wiglets—let me tell you an honest story:

So sue me; I thought it said 'Want to get some head'.

So sue me; I thought it said ‘Want to get some head’.

Since accidentally checking ‘Wine Writer’ instead of ‘Unemployed Drunk’ on the back of the career-path matchbook, I have discovered that the two pastimes are interchangeable.

Well, that’s not completely honest.  Actually, I wanted to go into internal medicine and I meant to check ‘Diseases of the Rich’ on the matchbook.  At that point, not only was I already an unemployed drunk, I was offering extension classes in it at the local library.

The late Ruth Coughlin.  Sorry about that chief.

The late Ruth Coughlin. Sorry about that,  chief.

Okay, so here’s another honest story, and this one is true without the asterisk:  I used to write book reviews for the Detroit News, and one week I panned a book by an author that happened to be my editor’s best friend; she refused to print the piece, accusing me of being ‘too honest’.  I told her that I was the critic, she was the editor; as such, it was her job to edit out my honesty.

As a matter of fact, that’s precisely how I became an unemployed drunk in the first place.

I bring this up because last year about this time I wrote about running into a dude named Stuart Pigott, author of ‘The Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story’ at Horizon Books in Traverse City.  Although this is not necessarily an honest book—Riesling is not the best white wine on earth—it is still pretty good wine book even if you are not obsessive/compulsive about one grape to the exclusions of all others.

“I am a wild and crazy wine writer.”

In any case, at our Horizon Books encounter Stuart was hunched behind a card table, doing one of those dreadfully obligatory author appearances, hard-selling his hardcovers.

Having been there/done that, I can assure you that the loneliness of a long distance runner is nothing compared to the desolation of a writer at a book signing—it is even more demoralizing than ringing a bell in front of Walmart in December wearing a fake beard.  Because at least then, when people avoid making eye contact with you and act like they’re reading a text or try to find a different entrance, you can blame the Scrooge syndrome.  When you are in the bull’s eye at a book signing, it’s your hairy, homologous nards on public display, not Santa’s, so the total lack of interest can be laid at nobody’s doorstep but your own.

book coverWell, as it happened, I spent a week one recent afternoon inside the very same bookstore, sitting at the very same card table, doing the very same soft-soap on my own softcovers.  In this case it was that lie-free lexicon of local lore, ‘Heart and Soil—Northern Michigan Wine Country.’

I emphasize the book’s somewhat excruciating honesty only because it’s key to what happens later in the story.

But first, let’s say that unless you’re in a literary pay-grade considerably above my own, the foundational understanding of any book signing is that it will be a humbling experience.  The grail is to keep it from being a humiliating experience.  And that can be gauged solely by the number of books you sell, since if you really wanted to make new friends and socialize with Northern Michigan wine people you’d go to tasting room or bar where at least you could drink and get loud.

Card-table duty is to peddle paperbacks, nothing more, and twenty books or more over the course of a couple of hours is incredible (in the honest sense of the word— ‘not credible’);  fifteen is commendable, ten is average, eight is humbling, five is humiliating.

I sold four.

Poor, Poor Pitiful Me

pity violinsI know, I know; I can hear the violin concerto from here—your D is flat, by the way. But the sharpest craw-sticker, I suppose—the serpent’s tooth—was the conspicuous invisibility of the very people the book is about.  Every winery profiled in Heart and Soil is within ten miles of Horizon Books; every one of them knew about the signing, and not so much as one poked a head in or raised an upright fist of solidarność—either for me writing books about them or for Horizon featuring books written about them.

And I can say (in honesty) that I have heard ad nauseum Northern Michigan wine makers whine about the lack of Michigan support for Michigan wineries—not unlike the way I am whining like an entitled little bitch right now.

So, at what point does refusing to support the very support you feel is your birthright become somewhat self-defeating?

At some point, isn’t the circle of the circle jerk supposed to close, so that we can all wash our hands and go home?

Does Heart and Soil Suck? 

Well, for Christ’s sake—maybe.  I have to own that potentiality, although, even if that’s the case, I know plenty of people who have their social media pages plastered with pictures of themselves that were not exactly taken by Richard Avedon.  What they have in common, of course, is that the posters like these portraits—they believe they depict themselves in the light under which they think they deserve to be seen—generally blemish free and as pretty as DNA has sought fit to make them.

And I totally get that.  And respect it.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t Heart and Soil’s driving animus any more than it’s been the goal of anything I’ve ever published, and if the one of the incoming torpedoes winds up being a nepotistic editor, I have taken the career hits like a man—a whiney little bitch of man notwithstanding.

I don’t find puff-pieces intended to nothing but glorify the interviewee to be any more fun to write than I do to read.

Times-Picayune540I’m not an advertising insert in the Sunday Picayune: I try to write honest profiles of wine people at frozen moments in their personal history and let the chumps fall where they may.  If someone feels ill-used, perhaps they are (although inadvertently), but more than likely, that’s the Klieg light under which they performed, and right or wrong, my interpretation therein. If they subsequently don’t want to put the book on their tasting room bookshelves, I can utterly understand them and there’s no hard feelings.

Dan Matthies

Dan Matthies

Take Dan Matthies, one of the hallowed figures in the Northern Michigan Hall of Fame—a founding father in the region, proprietor at Chateau Fontaine and a successful entrepreneur across the region.  Yet after agreeing to be interviewed, he either dodged every one I tried to arrange or else we had twin, amazingly consistent bad luck never to find a time that worked; instead, he provided me with reams of feel-good, saccharine interviews already published about him and told me to pull my info from them.  Alas, that’s not my M.O. and I made that rather caustically clear in my Matthies profile.  His unwillingness to carry the book in his little gift shop is completely justified.  In fact, I’d be offended otherwise—it would mean that he didn’t read it.

John Crampton next to his stack of wine books.

John Crampton next to his stack of wine books.

John Crampton at Willow makes slightly less sense to me.  Here’s a guy who solicited me to write a chapter on him, promised to carry the book in his tasting room, allowed me the luxury of driving four hours north in a rented car specifically to interview him on site, then hemmed and hawed so much when it came time to actually pick up a handful of copies to sell—on consignment and at a profit to him, mind you—that I shrugged and moved on.  And trust me, his chapter is as glowing an overview of both him and his winemaker as I could write, because I actually thought both of them deserved it.

I conclude that the Leelanau Cosa Nostra and Old Mission’s one-for-all-and-all-for one Musketeers is so tight that any book that does not paint Rembrandts of them all, but tosses in a couple of Goyas and Boschs, is unfit for consumption.

Or maybe not.  I really don’t know.  What I do know is that out of twenty wineries covered, nearly all with favorable reviews, the total number (each of whom has a retail outlet on premise) that have carried through on offers to sell Heart and Soil is, to date,  four less than the number of books I sold at Horizon.

In other words, naught, zippo, nada, zilch.  Some support, huh?

One final honest story before I ride into the sunset:  In a life that even pre-existed critiquing books, I was an illustrator, and I was once commissioned to do a portrait of a dude for an album cover.  He was extremely handsome in a quirky kind of way, and I did my best to capture his remarkable physical reality.  I think I did, too, and he hated it.  So I re-did it so that he appeared extremely handsome in a non-quirky way and he loved it.

Suffice to say, that was the last time I compromised what my senses saw, heard, touched, smelled or tasted simply to turn a buck in the creative arts.  I could—and have—lived with myself easier as a panhandling alcoholic.

Onward and upward, then.

I’d say ‘live and learn’, but  I suppose I learned that lesson when I was twenty-one—and have soundly chosen to ignore it.

Posted in Michigan | Tagged | Leave a comment

Wine, Winchesters and the Same Old Song ‘n’ Dance

We all know the futility of arguing on the internet, but I believe I have elevated argumentum  inutilis to a fine art by getting into a debate with a pair of British wine experts about American gun laws.

winchesterThe kerfuffle was instigated by my network buddy Robert Joseph, who is a Master of Wine consultant, also an award-winning wine critic, also editor-at-large at Meinger’s Wine Business International, also a visiting professor at the Burgundy Business School, but who finds time in his busy, wine-soused schedule to scratch his salt ‘n’ pepper Caesar over American attitudes toward gun ownership.

Mid-discussion, his compatriot Nick Oakley chimed in with similar discombobulation; Nick is a Master of Wine candidate (as I am a prospective billionaire) who owns Oakley Wine Agencies in Colchester, England.

L.: Robert Joseph R. Nick Oakley

L.: Robert Joseph
R. Nick Oakley

Both of these gentlemen, ensconced within their distant shires, display a certain naïve sense of confusion as to why the United States doesn’t simply amend the 2nd Amendment.  As if that is such a logical, no-brainer solution to gun violence that they can’t understand why we don’t cream all over it.

In any case, as always, I am deeply touched when foreigners are so concerned about our cultural idiosyncrasies that they work themselves into a social media lather over them.  That goes double when they are from a country that is solely responsible for our gun laws.

How so?

See, we used to be proudly British.  Chuffed, as we would have said had we not bounced Robert and Nick’s forefathers back across the Atlantic because King George III insisted on paying off debts via a series of unreasonable taxes imposed on us without our consent.

bill-of-rightsSo we lobbed a little Lipton into the lagoon, and didn’t that piss off old Georgie Trey?  The whiny bitch sent over his goon squad and the rest is history.  American history.  And my favorite chapter in American history; the one in which we boot out the bad guys and become the Alpha Thugs in our vast and profitable playground, ready, willing and able to make up our own set of rules.

We call those ‘The Bill of Rights’.

At this point, Nick Oakley dropped in to remind me that Americans ‘really don’t consider the Bill of Rights amendments at all. Rather as refinements that defined the exact structure of the Constitution.’

Huh?  I wasn’t there at the signing, granted, but I can’t imagine that that the framers of the Constitution would have named them ‘Amendments’ and given them individual Amendment numbers if they didn’t consider them Amendments. But who knows?  They also claimed to believe that all men are created equal while maintaining an economy under which millions of men were not equal; as for women, based on plenty of criteria, equality doesn’t apply to them even today.

Jimmy 'Mad Dog' Madison

Jimmy ‘Mad Dog’ Madison

Of course, the Bill of Rights are attached as Articles and not part of the original document because that was initially deemed unnecessary—not because these rights didn’t exist earlier, but because the federal government was supposed to be imbued with such limited authority that a catalogue of specific rights was superfluous.  It was all good.

James Madison wrote the Bill in response to Anti-Federalist concerns that a select few liberties needed to safeguarded explicitly: The right to free speech, for example; the freedom to practice religion, the freedom to assemble peacefully, the freedom to own guns.

In any event, the 27 Amendments are meant to expand our freedom, not limit it.

And despite the name, they are not (as Nick and Robert seem to think) a  list of afterthoughts—in fact, as rights, they were and are inalienable.  Can neither be granted nor taken away so long as the rightee remains within the bounds of law.

The Amendments, therefore, do not exist to tabulate pre-existing rights; they exist specifically to prohibit the government from infringing upon them.

verbiage.Thus, the 2nd Amendment and its vague verbiage about securing states and training militias and bearing arms has no real relevancy in a discussion about my ‘right’ to own a Winchester XPR Bolt Action rifle, because the overall tenor of the entire Constitution is quite unambiguous:

It’s not so much that I have a ‘right’ to my own possessions so long as I use them safely and responsibly; that truth is held to be self-evident.  The Constitution and the attending Amendments merely exist to remind Uncle Sam, Uncle Obama, Aunt Hillary (and Cousins Nick and  Robert) to keep their hands off my stack.

That holds equally true for my X-Box Console, my refrigerator, my Winchester Bolt Action, my Ford 150 and my jeroboam of Beaucastel.

And you doubted that I would bring the chat back around to wine? (!)

Well, Now I Am Going to Make It Exclusively About Wine

To my friends across the pond, be advised that Americans are just as concerned about firearm deaths as you are.  Imagine that! And automobile accident deaths, too—keeping in mind that according to the state, nobody has a ‘right’ to drive—that is a state-controlled privilege.

crime-tape-police-line-Flickr-640x480There were about 33,000 deaths from firearms last year; homicides, suicides and accidental deaths combined.  That is a horrific number; no argument here.  But, if we are running with statistics, you’d also have to point out that there are over 300 million guns in this country, which means that of privately held weapons, only one in ten thousand caused the death of another human being.

Now, if (as is postulated by anti-gun folks) guns are ‘designed to kill’, that either makes them among the most poorly designed gadgets in the history of engineering, or it means that 99.99% of gun owners use them for something other than that for which they were designed.  Or it means that killing other people was not necessarily their purpose in the first place.

Take your pick; I’m easy.

But, as is also postulated, whatever their purpose through intent or execution, guns are unnecessary, and that I will concede.  Mankind made it a whole lot of years before the invention of gunpowder and in the meantime figured out all sorts of creative ways to hunt, murder, wage war, kill themselves and otherwise snuff out life.  And shoot at road signs too, more than likely.

Even So, Drinking Far Out-Paces Shooting as a Leading Preventable Cause of Death in the United States

Approximately 90,000 Americans every year die from alcohol abuse—according to the CDC, excessive drinking was responsible for 1 in 10 deaths among working-age adults.

That makes alcohol—the very substance upon which Robert Joseph and Nick Oakley have built their careers—three times as deadly to Americans as the firearms they so despise.

nhsAnd what’s more, within their own bailiwick, it’s even worse.  World Health Organization claims that 28% of Britons are binge drinkers, almost twice as many as the global average. Further, the NHS estimates that in the UK, 9% of men and 4% of women show signs of alcohol dependence, leading to about 33,000 deaths a year—a figure nearly identical to American firearm deaths per year in a country with less than a quarter of our population.

But, of course, like firearms, drinking is not necessary to anybody’s lifestyle, except those who profit from it.  Those who make it their vocation, their area of expertise, the focus of their studies, the raison d’être for their paychecks.

glass palaceThe Crystal Palace was a British plate-glass building originally erected in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851; the name was later used to denote an area of south London and the park that surrounds the site, home of the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre as well as Crystal Palace F.C.

What does that have to do with anything?

Nothing beyond a gentle reminder of an old saying:  What are people in glass houses not supposed to throw?

winchester cathedralHere’s another old saying, Robert, Nick and any other Brit that wants to chime in on our gun laws:  ‘Amendments are written by the victors’.

Or something like that.  Doesn’t matter; we won, boys.  We are the victors.  Just be glad we didn’t decide to rename it Winchester XPR Bolt Action Cathedral.

Posted in GENERAL | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Artuke Rioja: The Name in Spain Stays Mainly in the Brain

Clipboard r2‘Artuke’ rhymes with Y2K and is pronounced like R2D2’s  brother, both of which are better names than the one sported by the guy who owns Artuke Bodega (Kike Blanco), who is grateful for his own brother Arturo.  Because without the portmanteau of their two names, he’d be enologo at Kike Bodega, and this would be a whole different column.

As it is, it’s a tale of two Riojas, referred to by the brothers as ‘new’ Riojas, one of which wound up being an old Rioja style rediscovered.

But I’ll get to that.

Provmap-alava

Basque province of Álava

First, Artuke is located in the Basque province of Álava, and the de Miguel Blanco family has been cultivating wine grapes here for well over a century.  This territory is not a part of the Autonomous Community of La Rioja, but one of the two satellite provinces that encompass the growing region of Spain’s most famous AOC; the other is Navarre.  Primary grapes are Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), Graciano and Mazuelo (Carignan) for the stylish reds and Viura and Garnacha Blanca for the sharp, fruity whites.

Like most Old World wine regions, Rioja has been working overtime to maintain a predominant position the world’s wine stage, and part of the reinvention process has been a re-think of style, at least for the export market.  Traditionally, a red Rioja was something that looked, smelled, tasted—and as overall organoleptic ordeal—simply ‘felt’ old.  It was a leathery interplay of wood, grape and oxygen; the best were remarkably subtle, often elegant, but a working man’s Rioja could come across as thin and oxidized—like acidity interred within an oak sarcophagus.  They were, of course, intended to be food wines, made for a food culture, and even today, 70% of Rioja is consumed within Spain and three-quarters of that inside restaurants.

San Sebastián pintxos

San Sebastián pintxos

But as beloved as the old style was in the pintxos cafés of San Sebastián, the enotecas of Barcelona and the designer restaurants of Madrid, the world evolves as it revolves and in recent years, global tastes have moved to a somewhat opposite style of red wine—one that is fruit-sweet, dense and delovely, often high in alcohol and hugely extracted, wines with less barrel and more fun.

And a gradual change began to take hold in Rioja.  Step by step, mote by mote; nothing too noticeable, nothing to put the jende zahar off their Gran Riserva.  Old casks were replaced with new, and the time the wines hibernated within them lessened.  Bottles were held back for shorter periods.  At La Rioja Alta, the progression went from 20-year-old barrels to eight; from six years in barrel / six in bottle for 904 Gran Reserva to 5/5, then 4/4.

López de Heredia

López de Heredia

Even the most die-hard traditionalists have altered the company line a bit:  At the bullheaded bastion of beaten boulevards, López de Heredia bodega, the ‘Philosophy’ tab on their website has been revised to say, “Our daily tasks are rooted in tradition, yet at the same time based on our deep belief in the validity and modernity of our methods.  By ‘tradition’, we do not mean immobility and opposition to change; rather a dynamic and aesthetic concept in maintaining eternal principles and criteria.”

In other words, “If you want fruit bombs, we’ll give it a go.”

At Artuke, the Hermanos Blanco have tacked direction, focusing the winery on small vineyard plots near their village of Abalos in the high elevation foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains.  This is high Basque country, where the cuisine, the culture and even the language is distinctly un-Spanish.

The two Artuke wines I tried were twin interpretations of the ‘new’ Rioja, both different from each other and both different from the classically-styled Riojas that were status quo when their grandfather worked the land.

The de Miguel Blancos

The de Miguel Blancos

Earlier, I referred to the entry-level Artuke (around $12) as an ‘old Rioja style rediscovered’, and that’s because at first whiff, the fact that it is produced in using the Beaujolais-favored technique of whole-cluster carbonic maceration, is obvious:  The wine is bombastically fruity, with fresh, confected notes of ripe plum, concord grape and concentrated rose water—the result of being made in concrete tanks under the influence of carbon dioxide, which allows for the extraction of more fruit flavors and less tannin.  The wine is, as a result, refreshing and rather simple, finishing mid-palate as though it took a swing from Lizzie Borden’s axe.  All of which are (I imagined) anti-Rioja trademarks.  But as it happens, I imagined wrong: This is the original Rioja, before crianza and Gran Reserva came into vogue.  This is, I was told, the sort of wine that the Blanco’s grandfather Miguel would have made.

pies labelPies Negro 2011  leapfrogs the generations.  Produced from Tempranillo (90%) and Graciano from vines nearly a century old, the wine is aged for fourteen months in a combination of new and old oak tinas, bringing out some of Rioja’s prototypical earthiness and dried-herbal-ness, but under a blanket of black cherry and cassis.  I thought the wine showed a bit too much bitter tannin at the finish, enlivened by a bright acidity, but still appearing as a non-integrated crate.

Time—as it does in all things ‘Rioja’—will tell.

Meanwhile, ‘Pies Negro’ may translate to ‘Black Feet’—an homage to the método tradicional of crushing grapes by foot—but somebody should clue in the Brothers White to the American tradition of not advertising Negro wine made by a Kike.

 

Posted in Rioja, SPAIN | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Sultanas, White Chocolate, Eminem and Beaujolais Blanc

Q:  Why can’t pilots take Viagra?

A:  I know you thought that was a lead-in to a punch line, but the fact is, pilots are forbidden to fly within six hours of taking a boner bolus because it may affect their ability to recognize certain colors, important for seeing runway lights and instrument panel identifications.  Also, it may cause them to grab for the wrong joystick.  (There’s your punchline).

bottleSo the other day, when a wine compatriot poured a glass of white wine and said, “Try this Beaujolais,” I naturally assumed that at breakfast I had accidentally grabbed for the little blue pills instead of the Methaqualone.

But now he tells me that, like albino blues players, blonde gorillas and white guys named Jamal, Beaujolais Blanc is a real thing.  Whether or not it’s is a real good thing may be a matter of opinion, recalling that there are people who actually bought Pat Boone’s heavy metal album.

ClipboardI think we all know where we were and what we were doing the moment we learned that Alpha Negress Rachel Dolezal was actually a crackerhonky Swede from Montana; I think we also have WTF? scars on our brain stems from learning that Bruno Mars is not black, but Carol Channing is.

We’re weird people that way.

So, I will recall until the sound of my own eulogy echoes through the halls of the debtor prison that on Saturday, June 27, at 3:15 PM, at Elie Boudt’s wine store in Birmingham,  I learned not only that Beaujolais makes white wine, but that it is, in ways, even more stringently regulated than the famous reds.

First, Beaujolais is a French appellation just south of Burgundy which, in excellent vintages, may out produce neighboring Côte d’Or, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais combined.  That’s in part because Gamay—the grape that is both Beaujolais’ workhorse and her show pony—produces fruit in abundance while Pinot noir, the red wine grape that defines Burgundy, does not.

Phillipe the Bold, recent photo

Phillipe the Bold, recent photo

You can thank Duke Philippe the Bold for this state of affairs; in 1395, he outlawed the cultivation of Gamay in Burgundy, which he regarded as ‘disloyal’.

99% of the wine produced in Beaujolais is red, and there’s a lot of it: Last year, the AOC produced a bottle of wine for every man, woman and child on the East Coast of the United States.  But although it is predominately made from Gamay, the appellation law allows the blending in of several white grapes, including the forgettable Melon de Bourgogne (bland outside Muscadet) and Aligoté, which tends to improve when blended with crème de cassis, not Brouilly.

Yet Beaujolais Blanc—making up less than 1% of the appellation’s wine (there’s also a rosé) is legally mandated to be a product of Chardonnay alone.  It seems curious that an afterthought wine is offered no leeway in varietal choice, but since the limestone soils of Northern Beaujolais make it a continuation of the Mâconnais, if vignerons  are to achieve any notoriety with their whites, they understandably need to work with the best of what they’ve got.  And like the wines of Mâcon—Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint-Véran are among them—that’s Chardonnay.

Jean Paul Brun

Jean Paul Brun

The wine poured was Terres Doreés from Charnay, a village just north of Lyons known as ‘Land of the Golden Stones’. Owner/winemaker Jean Paul Brun farms 45 acres of vines on limestone, fifteen of which are in Southern Beaujolais surrounded by Côte de Brouilly, Morgon, Moulin a Vent and Fleurie, all of which sit on granitic soils.

Brun says, “I started Terres Dorées in 1979 with 4 hectares of vines; we’re currently at about 30 hectares. The first wine we ever made was our Beaujolais Blanc from Chardonnay and today, 8 hectares are dedicated to it.”

The 2013 Beaujolais Blanc opened with a whiff of pineapple and slight overtones sulphur; the nose expanded to encompass honeydew melon and peach.  Whereas the bouquet suggested nothing but unoaked chardonnay, the palate became a bit more exotic and layered, offering scents of creamy apple compote and a distinct grapefruit finish.

The wine was competent, refreshing, interesting, but by no means a Cru-level wine.

Hand gestures means,

Hand gesture that means, “I’m an ofay, beeotches.”

Still, the chance to try it was a chance to read up on Jean Paul Brun, an iconoclast in Beaujolais, who foregoes traditional whole cluster, semi-carbonic wines and opt for a more Burgundian style suitable for aging.  Unlike other winemakers of the area, who make wines to be released early and consumed young, Brun prefers to give his wines at least a year and half of cellar time to soften the tannins.

When asked if his unique approach posed any problems with the AOC, in particular because of his refusal to work with legally-mandated whole clusters, he replied, “Well, I’m not in jail yet.”

Good one, Jean Paul!  Last we checked, neither is Rachel Dolezal.

Posted in Beaujolais, FRANCE | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Rebel With a Clause

(On Sept. 15, 2015, at precisely 3:17:23 PM EST, this column will return to wine, but will only be visible in the Northern Hemisphere and parts of Kenya.)

rebel flagThe other night in a candid interview about gun violence and race, President Obama dropped the N-bomb, and it made everybody uncomfortable.  Not because the word ‘nigger’ is of itself uncomfortable (like a flag, a word is inanimate, incapable of human emotions) but because we have been programmed to find the sound it makes whilst slipping from a pair of human lips an abomination upon our senses.

For the most part.

In recent years, we have been re-programmed to find the word less offensive if a black man—especially a para-thug gangsta rapper—says it in a non-derogatory way while singing about killing cops and beating women, and more offensive if a white man—especially a knuckle-dragging cretin from a former slave state—says it in a derogatory way.

Obama2Thus, when the most powerful man in the world, who is both a white man and a black man and from a state that wasn’t even a state until a century after the Civil War, uses it in the context of a derogatory word, but not in a derogatory manner, we are all made so confused and uncomfortable that people with weak capillaries risk an aneurism.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Marc and Lenny

Marc and Lenny

However, that Obama used the word while being interviewed by a comedian instead of a reporter is being overlooked by nearly every confused, uncomfortable podcast listener, despite the fact that it’s the single most salient point surrounding his N-bomb droppery.

Why?   Because said comic is Marc Maron, and like every other edgy, snarky, neo-Borscht-belt comic, he owes his career to edgy, snarky, Borscht belt comic Lenny Bruce, who in 1961 uttered a summation of this potent word unrivaled by anybody ever, before or since, white or black:

“If President Kennedy would just go on television, and say, ‘I would like to introduce you to all the niggers in my cabinet,’  and if he’d just say ‘nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger’ to every nigger he saw, ‘boogie boogie boogie boogie boogie,’ ‘nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger,’ ’til nigger didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.”

Lenny Bruce was ahead of his time, evidenced both by this routine and by his death from a heroin overdose a half dozen years before it became fashionable to do so.

Three Jeers for the Red, White and Blue

No, silly—not that red, white and blue—that’s Old Glory, whose trifecta of polychromasia is inviolable.  The other red, white and blue.  No, not that one either, that one’s French.

Work with me here…

walN-Bomb-gate came during the same week that, in response to the murders of nine African Americans by a deranged white supremacist with a gun, upright folks demanded the removal of a Confederate flag from a war memorial in South Carolina.  In a cheap bid to be the first capitalist to overreact, Walmart—quickly followed by Amazon, eBay and Sears—announced bans on the sale of Confederate flag merchandise.

A collective victory cheer went up from the righteous, most of whom I suspect were white liberal Northerners, and their smug triumphery would have made perfect sense had Dylann Roof smothered his victims to death with a Confederate flag.  But he didn’t—and Walmart, Amazon, eBay and Sears still do a brisk business in the sale of firearms and firearm accessories.

See what they did to you, there?

flagNow, as a white liberal Northerner, I’m begging you in advance: Don’t start.  I get that the Confederate flag is viewed as a symbol of racism by many, even most, despite its having flown above a slave nation for a scant four years compared to ninety years for the Stars ‘n’ Stripes. Unless you count the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a vital chapter in the story of Black freedom in America, in which case, it’s more like 188 years.

Or, if you maintain that African Americans are not treated as equals by their white compatriots to this day, and point out the demographics of our prison population as an example, you may find as much entrenched racism represented in the flag that flies over the US Capitol Building as the one waving in front of the State House in Columbia, SC.

Symbolism, as far as I can tell, is what you choose to make of it.

Now, I am presuming that nobody with an IQ into three digits actually believes that government officials in the South are pining for the return of slavery.  What the flag in South Carolina actually symbolizes to them (I’m willing to bet) is the titanium testicles of their seceding forefathers who stood up for a cause and damn the torpedoes.

The fact that it was a losing cause, an immoral cause, an antediluvian cause, an abominable cause, doesn’t much concern them: It was the Rebel Cause, and it was their very own.  You get a bunch of good ol’ boys around a testosterone-stoked legislative table reminiscing about good ol’ days, and chances are it won’t be about the time they slunk into Appomattox Court House with their tail between their legs.

But—as they are wont to do—in the past week the political pressure-police have pushed their pusillanimous program pitilessly, and lo and behold, South Carolina Governor Nikki R. Haley has caved in to their compulsive finger-wagging.  She now claims to support the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House, although in the same breath, she passes the buck (not in the derogatory sense of a black male) to the state’s General Assembly to make the final decision.

Win/win for her, and titanium ladyparts need not apply.

Gov. Robert Bentley

Gov. Robert Bentley

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has already mothballed his Bars ‘n’ Stars, which, had it come before the public outcry, might have been seen as courageous and noble, but now appears nothing more than a kow-tow to the pow-wow, as if some PETA-approved veterinarian was brought in to remove his mothballs.

Coupled with the excruciatingly hypocritical decision by the Waltons of Arkansas, et. al, it appears that the Confederate flag has been bleached a whiter shade of pale and razed, not raised, from the yard arm.

Well, by God, if they don’t want that goddamn symbol any more, I do.

buddha

Mr. Lard-Ass: Tear down this Buddha

And I’m serious.  If the flag is burned, buried, shredded and otherwise exorcised from the American public’s outraged but virtuous conscience, doesn’t that mean that the South has surrendered once again?  Phhhhht.  And at some point, shouldn’t the flag become fair game for those of us who would exhume it as a symbol of our own rebellion, of our individual and hallowed right to be controversial, our sacred authority to hoist any flag we choose regardless of whether or not your offense-o-meter is on overdrive?  And have it mean… nothing more sinister than that?

And yeah, I’m Rebel with a Clause:

Racism, sexism, homophobia-ism and I-Hate-Southern-White-People-ism are all shitty human conceits from the outset, and anybody who looks at my new Rebel flag and suggests that I support any of them is a shitty human being.  In fact, you qualify the very smegmata that I rebel against.

It’s my flag now, and I decide what it symbolizes, not you.  I would have made a lousy slave-owner anyway—I can’t even tell my kids to clean their rooms without feeling guilty.

leicaFret not, those who disagree. Now that the Confederate flags are down in Dixie, here are some new causes for you to embrace and Tweet about: Lieca uses a Japanese Imperial flag as it’s logo, Buddha is plastered with swastikas, Macy’s usurped the red star of Commie Russia to sell Calvin Klein dress suits.

Meanwhile, Michelangelo’s David has his wee-wee waving in the wind and the word ‘nigger’ appears 219 times in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s anti-slavery masterpiece.

Clipboard starLenny Bruce did not get his wish; Kennedy never dropped the N-bomb, at least in public.  It would probably have seemed crude and un-Presidential to the man who campaigned as an anti-segregationist and made a famous 1960 phone call to Coretta Scott King in support of her husband, then forced Mimi Alford to perform oral sex on one of his aides as he watched.

But fifty years later, the great Barack Obama has finally obliged the great Mr. Bruce, mainstreaming at least the idea that a President can contextualize the word ‘nigger’ and speak it out loud without a bolt of PC lightning striking him in the forehead.

He encourages me.

toy car… And so, my fellow Americans, if every supporter of the First Amendment would just go on television and say, ‘I would like to introduce you to my new Rebel flag’, and then fly that flag from the Flagpole of Freedom, flag, flag, flag, flag, flagpole, flagpole, flagpole, flagpole, ’til the Rebel flag didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old kid cry because some anal-retentative Yank with an iPhone and a Twitter account took away his 1:18 scale Dukes of Hazzard General Lee toy car.

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Lyrical Lirac: Rhône’s Sleeping Beauty

What do Lirac and Châteauneuf-du-Pape have in common?  Other than grapes, climate, tradition and soil structure, not much.

And other than price, just about everything.

Rodolphe de Pins

Rodolphe de Pins

Rodolphe de Pins, winemaker at Château de Montfaucon, in town to accentuate the positive, made that abundantly clear last Friday when he poured a flight from his new released line-up of Lirac estate wines.

“Until the phylloxera epidemic, the wines of Lirac were on top,” he says with pride. “Pope Innocent IV loved them and Henry IV and Louis XIV served them as the Court’s exclusive Rhône.”

In 1863, thanks to the sap-sucking, fortune-decimating Black Plague of vineyards, the shine was off, and to make matters worse—if anything could—the blight appears to have originated in Lirac itself. Someone with more ambition than foresight at Château de Clary planted California vines which, though themselves phylloxera-resistent, still harbored the aphid-like pest.  It spread rapidly, and by the end of the century, most of the vineyards in Europe had been destroyed.

In the aftermath, de Pins says, “Lirac’s market dynamism was not in line with other crus in Rhône valley family—certainly, it was nowhere the level of focused energy that Châteauneuf-du-Pape put into it.”

Rudy, Rudy, Rudy…

sylester_stallone04CDP comes up frequently in conversations with Rodolphe de Pins; I’d assume Sylvester does too when you’re talking about acting careers with Frank Stallone.  I’m not sure that frustration is the correct word to use when summing up de Pins attitude toward his neighbor’s fame and fortune—he seems confident in his own product, his own direction, his own future.  But when he gazes from the 11th century battlements of his ancestral seat, Castle Montfaucon, it’s sort of hard to miss—the hills Châteauneuf-du-Pape are right there across the Rhône, far closer than Russia is to Sarah Palin.

So naturally, he thinks about it a lot.

palin-russiaUnlike Sarah Palin, Rodolphe—‘Rudy’ to his amis—actually has an opportunity to do something about his rival across the water.  And unlike Sarah, who will never be President, Rudy is president—of the ODG de l’appellation Lirac.  He was elected earlier this year and intends to make some noise over the next few years.  He describes what he intends to produce in his tenure as, “History and options.”

Like the tale of the AOC he presides over, de Pins’ story is one of hidden talents, untapped potential.  Although born to wine, his family had been in the viticulture end, growing grapes and selling them to a co-op.  Considering the magnificent estate at Montfaucon contains a spectacular 16th century vaulted cellar, which until 1936 was used in estate winemaking, it was a shame, but the family maintained control of their property, including 40 acres of vines up to 90 years old.   In 1995, Rodolphe took over the estate, and armed with a degree from UC Davis (unlike many French winemakers, he adores California wines) and tours of duty at Henschke in South Australia’s Eden Valley and Vieux Télégraphe in CDP, he set out to translate the various vinous passions he’d learned into a new generation of  Château de Montfaucon.

“I adore Burgundy,” he admits, “and I try to emulate a Burgundian approach to winemaking.”

Rudy de Pins, with Alaska way, way in the background.

Rudy de Pins, with Alaska way, way in the background.

That’s a remarkable statement for two reasons; first, the wines of Southern Rhône tend to be burly and potent, with with 14-15% ABV not uncommon.  Second, Burgundy is, virtually without exception, the expression of a single grape—Pinot noir for the reds, Chardonnay for the whites.  Lirac requires grape blends by law, and le Pins’ top wine, Vin de Mr. le Baron de Montfaucon, contains fifteen varieties (two more than are permitted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape), each bringing something unique to the amalgamation.

But where many wines from Southern Rhône come on like a ‘roided truncheon,  ready to go medieval on your mid-palate, the thing that strikes you immediately about le Pins’ Château de Montfaucon collection is that is instantly accessible, requiring neither a joint of beef nor an pre-existing appreciation of ‘a certain Mediterranean style’.  In fact, the wines are fruit-focused, crisp, fragrant and somewhat delicate, and all show the ill-defined but obvious characteristic of ‘minerality’.

In this, they are quite Burgundian.

Here’s a brief overview of what le Pins brings (literally) to the table:

comtesse bottleComtesse Madeleine, 2013:  Madeleine was Rudy de Pins ‘take no prisoners’ grandmother, a woman he admired to the rafters and insisted on commemorated with her own label.  “The wine is a lot like her,” he reminisces.  “Filled with both elegance and power.  It’s an iron hand in a velvet glove.”

The wine is a blend of Marsanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Picpoul and shows an upfront floral focus with roasted nuts in the undertow; there is a citrus tang elevated by ripe melon, pear and peaches—the acid is pronounced and pleasant and the finish is spicy and lingers.

Les Gardettes Rosé, 2013 ($12):  Despite being a fairly small estate—around 15,000 cases—Montfaucon hits high watermarks in all three colors associated with the region.  The pink, certainly reminiscent of those of nearby Tavel, which produces nothing else. Low-yielding vines grown in limestone soil make these wines deep and aromatic; Les Gardettes, named for the twin towers of castle entrance, is a vivid coral with fresh notes of wild strawberry, watermelon, cherry and pink grapefruit followed by a bracing acidity to offset the creamy mouthfeel.

Les Gardettes Red, 2013 ($12):  The estate’s entry-level red, a blend of half Syrah, the rest Carignan, Cinsault, Mourvèdre and Grenache.  It is fermented in concrete—le Pins dislikes stainless steel—and has no delusions of grandeur, but is a wonderfully fresh Vin de Pays that offers a layered expression of dark fruits; mulberry, black currant, dark cherry along with a little spice and chocolate.

Côtes du Rhône, 2013 ($17): Hand-harvested fruit drawn from the 111 acres now controlled by Montfaucon, the wine is powerful and incisive, displaying berry preserves, cassis, earthiness, lithe smoke and an overall impressive energy and balance.

baron labelVin de Monsieur le Baron, 2010 ($38):  In search for the perfect label to dress up his homage to his great great grandfather, le Baron le Baron de Montfaucon, Rudy stumbled across one designed for his aristocrat ancestor in 1829.  What could be more appropriate?  He calls the wine ‘the first modern day field blend’, wherein he co-ferments fifteen varietals, both red and white, to produce an explosively perfumed bouquet filled with smoky herbs, black berries, licorice and garrigue spice without an undue impression of weight.  It is sweet and savory; a concentrated wine that you don’t have to be a Pope to love.

Today, Lirac is one of 13 crus in the Rhône Valley;  spread over four small local authorities in the Gard, its official specifications are among the region’s most stringent.

It is the southernmost cru the valley, and perhaps the least known, even to fans of the region.  As President of the ODG, Rodolphe de Pins’ mission statement includes heightening Lirac’s reputation in the wine world, and therefore, increasing general awareness of these structured, lyrical wines.  His personal contribution is one both of heritage and modernity, brining techniques he learned in the New World to fruit grown in the old, making his wines stand out like a bright, sensuous flag on a Rhône-ish hilltop.

Of his fellow producers, still creating wine in the old style, he says with respect:

“We’re all on the same train, but we aren’t all getting off at the same station.”

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Hybrids on the Down Low

Tony Ciccone with Foch vines.

Tony Ciccone with Maréchal Foch vines.

The vines to Tony’s Ciccone’s left are producing some flop sweat, but not many grapes.  The rows are showing unmistakable signs of desperation.  The trellises are in DEFCON 3, as though the hassles, deadlines and frustrations of producing commercial quantities of vinifera in Leelanau Peninsula are finally getting to be too much.

A few canes show microscopic clusters; sad little pinhead bunches dangling between ravenous rose chafer beetles that are doing a number on the foliage.  And these are the healthy vines—the other ones have barely leafed out and it’s almost July.

This is an updated resume of Cabernet franc in Northern Michigan; these gnarled trunks are twenty years old but if you gauged by leaf growth alone, you’d swear they were planted last month.

To Tony’s right, it’s a different story.  It’s a better story; one written not by nature over Darwinian millenia, but by a hybridist in some laboratory in Alsace.  And as Frankensteinian as that may sound to ye lovers of all things non-bioengineered, unlike Mary Shelley’s opus, this is a story with a happy ending.

Especially in Northern Michigan, the hinterland of wine-grower sanity.

Maréchal Foch in full summer

Maréchal Foch in full summer

See, the second block of Tony Ciccone’s vines is vigorous and healthy—each row has a vibrant canopy bursting with vitality and a lust for life; dozens of happy little Bob Ross grape clusters are soaking up the sun like Cheryl Crow on a Malibu beach.  The past two winters saw temperatures dip to minus thirty and snowfall that was measured in yards, not inches, but to hybrid vines, the Polar Vortex proved to be little more than an inconvenient traffic light on the Autobahn of viticulture.

This block is planted to Maréchal Foch, a hybrid variety developed after World War I and introduced to Canada in 1946.  It was invented specifically for Great White Norths—it ripens early, chuckles in the face of fungi, and best of all, runs red lights on the Autobahn.

Ironically (or not, considering how weird Europeans are about wine), its use is severely restricted by the EU, and today, more commercial acres of Maréchal Foch exist in Leelanau Peninsula than in all of France, where it originated.

Cabernet franc vine, June 20, 2015

Cabernet franc vine, June 20, 2015

For the geek squad:  Although Foch is a teinturier (a red variety where both the skin and flesh is a deep red color) it’s a cross between Riesling, Courtiller Musqué (a Muscat variety) and Oberlin Noir, itself a Gamay hybrid.  Unless, of course, it isn’t; family trees can get complicated when tracing hybrid pedigrees.

What isn’t in question is that Maréchal Foch can produce unique red wines, rich and juicy with blackberry jam notes and a deep, smoky, almost Burgundian earthiness.

What’s even less in question is that nobody wants to buy it.

And there’s the rub:  For winemakers like Tony, who has seen twenty years of vintages at Ciccone Vineyards, the focus has always been on familiar, sellable vinifera vartietals—Pinot noir, Cab franc, Pinot grigio, Chardonnay.  You know; the ones that everyone said couldn’t grow in Northern Michigan until everybody realized they could grow in Northern Michigan and who are now discovering that they can’t grow in Northern Michigan?

Up until now, for Tony and many of his colleagues, hybrids have been an afterthought. But this year, he says, there’s a reinvisioning going on:

“After back-to-back disasters, a third poor harvest will be unsustainable at many local wineries.  A lot of growers who never considered planting hybrids in the past are reconsidering the option.  Obviously, to survive, a winery has to produce commercial quantities of wine, and our vinifera has struggled with that for the past two years.”

Ciccone Vineyards Tre Rossi

Ciccone Vineyards Tre Rossi

Estate wines, those where the grapes are grown, crushed and bottled at the winery, may become an ever-diminishing portion of the typical Northern Michigan portfolio.  For the other labels, the ones that may be considered cash cows, grapes may be grown elsewhere, made under the license and still legally bear the winery’s logo.  Frankly, these grapes don’t even have to come from the United States.  The only restriction is that you can only use your appellation name so long as 85% of the bottle’s content comes from that viticultural area. That leaves the origin of a whopping fifteen percent of the juice up to your ethical discretion.

So, for the most part, even marginal harvests have produced enough homegrown vinifera grapes to keep the Northern Michigan industry afloat.  But as Tony’s blighted Cab franc proves, when the vines are beaten down at ground level, recovery is, in some instances, impossible.

It may be a better business decision simply to tear out the frostbitten plants and start over.

The decision of what, exactly, to replant is a something that is weighing heavily on local wine growers.

In part, barring a sudden rise of hybrid-ophile cults, the solution may be in blends that don’t use an unfamilar hybrid name on the label.  Tony Ciccone’s ‘Tre Rossi’, for example, is a beautifully crafted mix of Foch and two other red hybrids, DeChaunac and Baco noir.  The wine is soft and slightly sweet on the front palate, with dark mulberry flavors from the Foch, velvety tannins from the Baco noir,  pie-cherry acidity from the DeChaunac.

It’s a balanced, strikingly lovely glass of wine that for layered depth and nuance rivals any tart vinifera red from the area you’d care to put it up against.

A Spoonful of Vinifera Helps the Hybrid Go Down

fathers day 001Bryan Ulbrich of Left Foot Charley has a different handle on hybrids.  He proved it in his newly-bottled blend of Vignoles and Pinot gris, and I will say this without fear of contradiction, even from greater mortals:

If you tell me that don’t like this wine, you’re either a liar, a poseur or somebody who has consumed so much vinifera-flavored Kool-Aid that you have blinders on your palate.

Vignoles was developed in the late 1930s and was originally claimed as a descendant of seed parent Subereux and some type of Pinot Noir clone, perhaps even Chardonnay—although I found references to indicate that this is by no means genetically confirmable.  Whoever be the baby momma and the deadbeat daddy, the variety is superbly suited for Northern climates: Its bud break is unusually late; thus, frosts that ravage other budding vines won’t touch Vignoles.  The grapes are small, and have an uncanny ability to retain acidity while packing on the sugar, so the wines produced tend to be fat, tart, and often present a profile of tropical fruit; pineapple and guava especially.

Bryan Ulbrich

Bryan Ulbrich

Not here, though.  Ulbrich’s blend is exceptionally steely and clean-tasting, beginning with a burst of ripe Bosc pear that may come from the Pinot gris—a Left Foot signature variety drawn primarily from Tale Feathers Vineyard in Old Mission Peninsula—and finishing with a juicy bite from a crisp green apple.  The interplay of these two flavors, packaged in a lightly spiced sheath of candied ginger and honey, showcases each as individuals and an amalgamated whole.  That, I find intriguing, unusual, and unstoppably delightful.

Ain’t No Vignoles Like the One I Rot

Another facet of Vignoles’ quirky personality—one that can be seen as a gift from heaven or a hopes-dashing end to the harvest, depending—is its susceptibility to Botrytis bunch rot.  This is the same fungus that turns your strawberries grey and mushy, but when grapes are infected under ideal climactic conditions, they turn brown and shrivel up and produce a concentrated, syrupy juice that can be fermented into a hedonistic, molar-crumbling sweet wine.

Vignoles rotting nobly

Vignoles rotting nobly

What’s required is a warm, damp early autumn followed by a spell of dry weather later in the season. Vignoles berries raisinate, and the fungus adds additional sugars, glycerin and acid, magnifying flavor and intensity.  Grapes so affected are often picked individually (a painstaking but necessary step to assure that no grapes infected with other, undesireable disease fungi make it into the batch) to produce a  honeyed ambrosia that ranks among the finest dessert wines in the world.

Thus, in terms of self-confidence, even in a room overloaded with blue-blood vinifera, you would think that there is no need for this hybrid to hide behind a lyrical nom du plume.

You’d think wrong.

Adam Satchwell

Adam Satchwell

At Shady Lane Cellars, Adam Satchwell’s 100%  Vignoles is a sappy, penetrating perfume of apricot, pineapple, vanilla and coconut and a succulent, mouth-filling sweetness braced by a high note of acidity.  Now that’s a wine whose grape  deserves to be in the spotlight, taking a center-stage bow at the banquet finale, but it isn’t.  Shady Lane’s 2012 award-winner performs under the stage name  ‘Coop de Blanc’; ‘Vignoles’ does not appear on the front of the label, and if it’s on the back, well—nobody reads the back of a wine label except reclusive people drinking alone at breakfast.

That’s the trial and tribulation of being a hybrid wine grape, the Dangerfield of drink, the Jeb! of juice, dropping the name in a grab for an electorate, sliding in the hybridery on the down low, like a unpopular rider attached to a Congressional bill.

The S.S. Hybridia

The S.S. Hybridia

In Michigan, wine folks often have conversations about our ‘signature’ grape, and although you’ve got Riesling camps and Pinot gris camps and Cabernet franc camps, there is no faction (except maybe me and Bernie Rink) that casts in our lot with the hybrids.

And how silly is that?  Do you know what vita naviculam means?  ‘Life boat’.  If nature sends you one, I don’t see how it pays to worry about the color, the pedigree, the origin or the Latin.

The only thing that makes sense to get on board.

Posted in Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments