Hamming It Up With Tommy Darden

A chapter on Virginia ham from ‘Norton Wine: Walking Off To Look For America’, set for publication in June, 2016.

When in the advance planning-stages of this trip—which took about twenty minutes including bathroom breaks—I determined to write about some Virginia food traditions that grew up alongside Norton wine.

Even so, the only Virginny edible that came to mind was ham.

Tommy Darden

Tommy Darden

Not just any ham, of course.  Certainly not that canned, runny slab of grocery store ick the color of a Walking Dead extra and smelling like bleached blood—but a real, old-school, smoked, salted, cured, hung in the shed until it’s moldy and borderline funky Virginia ham, made the right way, like they used to do before the USDA invented food inspectors.

A ‘country ham’ is a hunk of hog hindquarter cured in salt for one to three months and aged while hanging up; smoking is optional.  But, as in wine appellation laws, the Department of Agriculture policy book calls out Virginia ham specifically (on page 63) stating, ‘Any label representation that expresses or implies a particular geographical origin of the product shall not be used except when such representation is: 1. A truthful representation of geographical origin, e.g., —Virginia Ham“ for a ham produced in the State of Virginia’.

But—again  like wine appellation laws—the legal ability to call your product ‘Burgundy’ is a far cry from being able to call your product Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and if you listen to their company line, the Romanée-Conti of Virginia ham is Smithfield.

And there was a time in which they were probably correct; so, whilst walking off to look for American ne plus ultras in Norton country, I figured the town of Smithfield, in the Hampton Roads region of southeast Virginia, was my ground-zero.

Mallory Todd House in Smithfield

Mallory Todd House in Smithfield

At one time, it might have been.  The first recorded instance of the export and sale of ‘Smithfield hams’ appears on a receipt from Bermuda-born Mallory Todd in 1779, and he is widely (as wide as these things get, anyway) considered to be the ‘Father of Smithfield Hams’.  It wasn’t for his ability to slaughter, salt, smoke and scrag, but for his marketing acumen.  He was a ship’s captain who exported hams from his hometown; The Mallory Todd House, built in 1753, still stands at 22 Main Street in downtown Smithfield.

The ham bar was raised in 1926 when the regulations meant to ensure a unique and exemplary product were first passed by the Virginia General Assembly.  The statute guaranteed that ‘Genuine Smithfield hams [are those] cut from the carcasses of peanut-fed hogs, raised in the peanut-belt of the Commonwealth of Virginia or the State of North Carolina, and which are cured, treated, smoked, and processed in the town of Smithfield, in the Commonwealth of Virginia.’

The diet of hogs is a critical factor in the flavor and the texture of their flesh; Jamón Ibérico de Bellota comes from pigs raised on acorns, while ham from Heather Ridge farm in the Hudson Valley boasts that their pigs enjoy a diet rich in fruit and nut trees.  There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a Virginia hog farmer who fed his stock entirely on baby formula he obtained from a nearby manufacturing plant and wound up with pork so tender that his meat packers began to reject it because it fell apart while raw.

Allen Harper

Allen Harper

Peanuts, like acorns and Similac, are high in polyunsaturated fat, and Allen Harper, who teaches the science of pig-raising at Virginia Tech, explains that pigs fed lot of polyunsaturated fats tend to produce more of the same. This forms double bonds whose structure is softer than single bonds, making for creamier fat.  So it would be reasonable to assume that the peanut diet required by the 1926 statute was instrumental in putting the ‘sooie’ the sui generis of Smithfield Hams, at least in the beginning.

But in 1966, quintessential Virginia cured ham suffered a relapse as the dietary requirement was dropped.  A few techniques were refined, such a six-month minimum salting time, but the ‘peanut belt’ stipulation was removed, meaning that the quality of the raw cuts (which go by the Seussian name ‘green pork’) could expand their point of origin.

Purists argue that if you tear out the foundation of an icon—the raw material, literally—the whole structure is compromised.  If the only thing ‘Smithfield’ about a Smithfield ham is the processing location, and the pork can come from anywhere and be raised under any conditions, the final ham will be a distinctly inferior product.

Although I will not argue that logic, the fact is that this particular area of  Virginia, right on the James River and less than ten miles from the Atlantic ocean, has a unique terroir—a terroir not of soil and climate, as wine people are used to discussing, but of atmosphere and climate.  As the briny sea breeze of Jerez allows for the development of the unique strain of yeast known as flor, so does the humid ocean air encourage varieties of mold spores whose enzymes are a byproduct of growth on the ham’s rind.

This equates to flavors that are not only unique, but systematically replicable.

 Dr. Edward Mills

Dr. Edward Mills

At least one swine scientist believes that the processing is far more fundamental than diet to the ultimate splendor of cured, aged ham. Edward Mills, associate professor of meat science at Penn State University, says, “Corn and soy are pretty bland. The pig that’s been eating corn and soybeans doesn’t have big flavors coming from its diet; the flavors you taste after processing are already inherent in the meat. A pig’s fundamental energy metabolism system has a number of compounds in it that are already very flavorful and that contribute to savory, ‘meaty’ flavors. Assuming that there is enough marbling to deliver a variety of flavors, I think you can make a great tasting product without doing anything special in terms of feeding.”

So, the problem I encountered in writing a story about Smithfield hams at the fountainhead was twofold: First, Smithfield Foods, the Fortune 500 Company that owns Smithfield Packing Company, does not offer tours or journalist interviews.

Arnold Ziffel

Arnold Ziffel

Second, when I tried to find somebody else to ham it up with about Smithfield hams, it turns out that Smithfield Packing Company is the only show in town. The world’s largest slaughterhouse, SPC processes more than 20 million hogs a year, all inside the small, rural city limits, and since 1936, they have systematically bought up every single mom ‘n’ pop pork preserver in the area.  Not only was my image of this hallowed Southern farmhouse tradition shattered into bone splinters, it turns out that Smithfield Packing is no longer even American: A Chinese firm bought the $15 billion behemoth in 2013.

Thus, I despaired of tracking down my quarry, a quaint slice of colonial culinary Americana, but when I stopped for directions back to wine country at a Smithfield gas station, I found a tattered flyer for ‘Darden’s Country Store and Salt-Cured Pork’.

And that’s how I met Tommy Darden, a throwback to pre-monopoly days when men were men and hams were hams and a little mold on the rind was all in a day’s work.

OUTSIDEIn order to find him, though, I had to spend an hour sloshing around the sodden bottomland of  Isle of Wight County, which has an average elevation of fifteen feet (compared to a national average of 1300 ft.); Tommy’s store is in the heart of what this city Yank would call backwoods, accessible only by a matrix of boondocksian roads that even locals struggled to remember.  The Darden website, likely designed by some citified iPhone-using college kid, offers the following coordinates: ‘We are conveniently located 375 miles South of New York City, 144 miles Northeast of Lizard Lick, N.C., 2003 miles East of Truth or Consequences, N.M., 1027 miles North of Key Largo.’

As a result, it was no surprise when Tommy Darden turned out to look like every city Yank’s preconception of every good ol’ boy—hefty, ruddy, dressed in overalls and prone to big grins through his broad drawl.  And that particular drawl is Tidewater, Virginia specific, where a car is a ‘cyar’ and Tommy’s  big dog winds up having four syllables, ‘Bi-yug daw-ug’.

'Shiver me timbers and bite me crank.'

‘Shiver me timbers and bite me crank.’

Strangest, perhaps, is his pronunciation of ‘about’, which takes on the Canadian raised-diphthong, coming out as ‘aboat’, only with a slight rhotic addition, so that it almost sounds like ‘abort’.  This accent  is so amped up in the small island of Tangier (about twenty miles offshore in the Chesapeake Bay) that you swear you are listening to Robert Newton playing Long John Silver in Treasure Island. Tangiers was settled by folks from England’s southwest coast, Cornwall in particular, where both Robert Newton and Edward Teach were born.  Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard, was Long John’s historical counterpart, and as in the clichéd ‘arrrrrgh’, the heavy Cornish emphasis on the letter ‘r’ in certain words is still heard in this wet corner of Virginia where, for reasons mostly involving cultural isolation, the roots of rhotic remain.

According to Tommy Darden, he is the last of the old-time salt-curers in the region, having survived the Smithfield Packing Company competition mop-up by the fickle finger of geographical fate: His smokehouse is in Isle of Wight, VA, just outside of the Smithfield Ham limits.  So, he doesn’t officially make Smithfield Ham, although his ham is far more classical Smithfield than Smithfield’s.

His family (“Mumma ‘n’ Daddy”) has been in the ham trade since the early 1950s, although the Dardens have been part of the local history since the beginning.  There have been local Dardens in government (gubmint), Dardens in business (bidniz) and Dardens practicing law in Norfork (Nawfuck), but the Ilse of Wight Dardens are peanut farmers and hog slaughters to the bone. His strange little crossroads general store contains, according to Tommy, “…all the basic necessities of life…”

Custom candy for a Confederate general store.

Custom candy for a Confederate general store.

That would include—beside ham sandwiches—ham hocks, ham ends, ham liquor (water from boiling hams), ham fat, home-roasted peanuts, candy bars, camouflage gear and three shelves of Budweiser.

The camo gear is not for the hogs, but for deer.  The wall of the tiny room is festooned with mounted trophy bucks, many of which were taken by Tommy, and the door is heavy with scotch-taped snapshots of people posing with dead deer.  There’s also a sign reading ‘Report Feral Swine’—a big problem in hog country.  Whether related to work or sport or in simply doing your civic duty, most of the pastimes in rural Isle of Wight seem to end up with mammal carcasses.

Once slaughtered, Tommy Darden’s hogs are cut into cuts—hams, shoulders, jowls—and processed according to anatomical precedence.  Each has its use, as in the old saying, here made manifest: ‘We use everything but the squeal’. There’s a New Year’s Day tradition of eating black-eyed peas and greens with either pork jowls or fatback to ensure prosperity; the ‘liquor’ made from boiling salted meats is a superb base for bean soup and the snouts are fried as sold as doggie treats.  Tommy was pleased to learn that gelatin made from the pig bones is used to clarify his second most popular staple, beer—completing the cycle.

Garland Whitney

Garland Whitney

In Darden’s, every nook has a cranny and every cranny a niche, but in one of them there’s an old pot-bellied stove, a ratty sofa, a couple of wobbly stools and an old man named Garland Whitney, who is—in some convoluted genealogical daisy-chain understood only by Southerners—Darden kinfolk.  If the store itself is a set-piece from Hooterville, Garland Whitney looks like every casting director’s image of a country cracker who doesn’t realize the Civil War—strike that, the War of Northern Aggression—is over.  Garland’s got a ZZ Top white beard, a gnarly nose and a surly constitution, and when I offered to buy him a beer in exchange for a photo, he became a little surlier and asked, “Why?”

But he took the beer and I took the photo.

Tommy Darden joined us, with his bi-yug daw-ug curled comfortably beside him.  He explained the process, which—like these comfortable conversations around a wood-stove in the general store in January—has remained essentially unchanged since Mallory Todd began shipping hams to 18th century Bermuda.

He generally begins with a long shank with a butt cut at the sacral joint; his hogs are quick-growing breeds, often peanut-fed, leading to hams of around 30 lbs each, maximum: Heavier cuts are more likely to spoil before the curing agents penetrate to prevent deterioration.

Raw ham

Raw ham

In Darden’s case, that agent is sea salt, among the most abundant compound on earth. He packs the leg quarters entirely in the stuff, flipping them as the meat starts doing dead meat stuff—oozing fluid and gas—and removing them after around 45 days depending on the temperature and the humidity.  Since no refrigeration is employed at any point during the curing process, warmer weather requires less salt time and colder weather, more salt time.  By the end of it, in any case, according to Tommy the ham has turned ‘Ambah culuh…’  Amber color.

According to Darden, there are ‘folks up in the hills’ who use sugar as a curing compound, and he spoke of them a touch disdainfully, since sugar does not actually cure the meat—it merely flavors it.  Flatlander superiority runs rampant in his VA veins.

Tommy Darden and his wife DeeDee cure about six hundred hams a year, but there’s both passion and excitement as he runs through the steps—steps he’s adhered to since an FFA project in ‘hah school’.  But none of it is rote.  Atmospheric conditions determine the ham’s development far more than intuition—weather dictates when remove the hams from the salt, how long to dry them and when (and if) to smoke.

hogAfter the curing, the hams are rinsed and hung in a shed to dry in a stage that Darden refers to as ‘coming up’.  Afterwards, he generally slow-smokes them over green hickory or green apple wood depending on what’s available.  Smoking, Darden points out, is optional and not part of the curing process;  some folks choose to avoid it.  Those folks will generally treat unsmoked ham with a rub made of saltpeter and black pepper, and occasionally with cayenne and molasses, to assist in the drying and punch up the flavor.

During the drying, smoking, and subsequent return to the hanging shed, 8 to 12 percent of the initial weight may be lost.  At this point, the rind forms and the signature mold develops.  ‘Signature’ because every ham house has its own mold, or combination of molds, and—grisly as it seems upon first reading about it—a certain amount of mold seeps into the hog tissue and gives each ham a unique savor.  Again, it’s a temperature-dependent phenomenon: The hotter the weather, the more the ham expands, and the more mold it absorbs.

After 45 to 180 days, depending on the style, the question then becomes a bit more delicate: To cook or not cook the finished product.  The The USDA allows ham to be labeled as fully cooked, uncooked, smoked, long cured, bone in, nitrites and/or nitrates, salt-cured, sugar-cured, Smithfield, center cut, etc., but is less straightforward on simply making a ruling requiring a label saying that country hams shouldn’t be eaten raw.

Lady Colonel Nancy Newsom Mahaffey

Lady Colonel Nancy Newsom Mahaffey

I think that it is a fair bet that Tommy Darden boils the hell out of the ham he serves, sliced to order, from behind the plastic counter in his country store, primarily because when I asked him if there were any other cottage industry ham-makers around, he said, “Heck, outside my kitchen, you can’t even find a pot big enough to cook a ham in.”

Also, in the fabulous confabulation of Lady Colonel Nancy Newsom Mahaffey of Princeton, Kentucky, whose family has been putting up Virginia-style hams for generations: “You have to understand something about Southern cooking: People will cook something and cook it again. There is no such thing as blanched green beans in the South. And most people will cook these hams to death. It’s true. I never ate a piece of toast that wasn’t burnt until I was an adult.”

“You may find it a bit salty,” Tommy Darden drawled as he passed me a reddish wedge of swine heinie and another to Garland Whitney, who tucked into it noisily and happily despite being a few molars short of a denture set.  In fact, it was like chewing on a deer’s salt lick, but I gamely pretended to enjoy it anyway.  Apparently, this is the nature of the beast, and the extreme sodium overload took some getting used to.  I will say that, in respect for the time he’d offered me, I bought a pound of Darden country ham, and took it home with me.  And promptly forgot about it.  Three weeks later, I found it in my backpack, where it had nestled unrefrigerated all that time, and by God, it smelled as edible the day he’d sliced it.

Although a pork product without an expiration date is not particularly high on my bucket list of consumables devoutly to be wished, I confess the hope that Darden’s Country Store itself is the sort of culinary, cultural gem that has an infinite shelf life.




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I Am a Master of Bordeaux, 2016

Clipboard pinsI may never be able to tack that coveted MW onto my name; I may never wear an MS badge in my lapel and I may never be a Certified Specialist of Wine (which I would have to spell out on my business card because even wine people don’t know what a CSW is), and I might consider myself fortunate if one of those hallowed souls condescended to spit a mouthful of  1985 Richebourg Grand Cru in my face at the Burgundy tasting.

But I am now an official Master of Bordeaux, because I passed my Bordeaux Master Class at the Birmingham Community House on January 26, 2016.

Now, when I say ‘passed’, I suppose what I mean is that I didn’t get thrown out.  There was really nothing to pass except napkins and little bread rolls and snark-remarks about the other people in attendance, which was made considerably easier by a chance meeting of an anchor of my youth—my childhood cut buddy, Johnny Evans—outside the event.  Johnny and I have been blood brothers since before we had pubic hair, and now we have gray, thinning hair but still manage to have a bang-up time slurping, scrunching toes in the sands of time and supposing how much better off we’d be financially had we figured how to buy the fields we were running through when we were ten instead of accidentally burning them down while playing with matches.  And yet, somehow we both managed to pursue our personal earthly significance in what we take to be the arts; I make up stories and Johnny is a beloved Detroit sax man who just returned from touring with Kid Rock.

My boy Johnny Evans

My boy Johnny Evans

We share memories, and also a love of wine and likewise a love for Elie Boudt, Detroit’s top purveyor of the stuff; his wine shop on 14 Mile Road is too new to be an icon, but, mark my words, we’ll make it one.  Elie’s shelves are stacked with Grand cru classé bottles of kill-for vintages, but I urge you to show up with a twenty dollar bill: You can watch Elie’s eyes gleam.  And you’ll discover where his true passion lies: In stocking affordable, spectacular gems from fascinating terroirs not classified as Grand cru, often from tiny appellations not widely known or understood by the average wine consumer.  That’s where Elie really outshines the rest—in his mission to introduce local drinkers to a world they otherwise wouldn’t even suspect exists.

Which is not to say that he can’t out-knowledge most of us in the Grand cru classés as well, and that’s why he was the ideal host at the Bordeaux Master Class on Tuesday evening.

My other boy Elie Boudt

My other boy Elie Boudt

The event was set up so that four estates, each representing a separate appellation in Bordeaux, could present a vertical tasting of their top wines.  They covered 2009 through the most recent releases of 2012 with the lone 2014 being a white wine by Château Carbonnieux and the lone 2010 being a red wine by the same estate. It was a killer lesson in the subtle changes that occur in well-made wines from the region—considered by many to be the hallmark of connoisseurship.  Hubert de Boüard of Château Angélus puts it this way: “A great wine is a film, not a snapshot.”

Without getting too deeply into the mechanics of wine aging (the better to leave room for the poetry), wine develops complexity and nuance based primarily on its interaction with air; extract, minerals and tannins all play their role.  Color changes, some forward notes are muted as background flavors emerge, and the mutation—if controlled by temperature and humidity—should appeal to the taster as a distinct positive—a consummation devoutly to be wished.

The progression of such changes was precisely what we’d all gathered in chandeliered banquet room on a snowy January evening to assess.  First, I’ll list the estates with a brief history of them, then break down the experience by vintage in the hope of describing each wine’s state-of-the-art as expressed in the glass.

Château Jean FaureChâteau Jean Faure, Saint-Émilion: This Right Bank (of the Gironde River) château had fallen into disrepair despite its proximity to the illustrious Cheval Blanc. In 1986, Jean Faure lost its Grand Cru Classé status, and it was not until the somewhat heroic figure of Olivier Decelle came along and did some serious spring cleaning.  The estate regained its designation in 2012.

Château La PointeChâteau La Pointe, Pomerol: Large by Pomerol standards, this estate has been pumping out the grape since 1845. Like most of the surrounding châteaux, the standard cépage is heavily weighted with Merlot.  La Pointe straddles the south-western part of the appellation near the city of Libourne

Château Marquis de TermeChâteau Marquis de Terme, Margaux:  The history of de Terme burrows deeply into the seventieth century; the first time it changed hands was 1661, when it was one of Bordeaux’s largest estates. One of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite wines, de Terme is predominately Cabernet Sauvignon with 35% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc, a fairly typical ‘Right Bank’ blend.

Château CarbonnieuxChâteau Carbonnieux, Pessac-Léognan (Graves):  Even older than de Terme, Carbonnieux has been making Bordeaux since the twelfth century.  It’s one of the few Bordeaux châteaux with plantings of all five red Bordeaux wine varietals along with their well-known white blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle.

The Vintages:

2012:  A challenging year for Cabernet Sauvignon, where the ripening was compromised even in a late harvest. Early-ripening Merlot fared considerably better, making 2012 a ‘Right Bank’ year. Cold and wet conditions delayed bud break, while uneven flowering pushed the whole season a month behind schedule; by July, sunshine and warmth returned, but some early autumn rains came after the Merlot was harvested, but prior to the Cabernet Sauvignon.

Château Jean Faure: Nice depth of aromatics, with some green pepper notes and a distinct dusty garrigue underneath it—the dried herbal scents often encountered in wines from the south of France.  A parching and simple wine on the palate with very basic red fruit flavors and a slightly vegetal quality, likely due to its Cab Franc core.

bottle la point 12Château La Pointe: This is a Merlot-based wine, and it shows:  Supple and charming, dripping with juicy plum and currant; sweet and somewhat creamy with a touch of menthol.  The tannins are still tight and hover in the aftertaste with a slightly bitter bite.

Château Marquis de Terme: Required twenty minutes to open up, then showed youthful bites of acidity and a broad range of black fruits and licorice with a bit of bittersweet chocolate on the finish.  Tannins completely settled in, making this a wine to drink today.

Château Carbonnieux: Sweet with a beautiful texture; the aromatics were replete with toasted coffee beans, warm pie spices and a nice layer of vanilla sitting on top.

AA0125712011:  2011 was one of the toughest vintages in recent history.  Bud break was early, and by April much of Bordeaux was experiencing mid-summer heat, causing early flowering, which might have been overcome but for the extended drought conditions that lasted through July, when a small amount of rain brought with it a drastic temperature drop. Cabernet Sauvignon in dry soil was hit the hardest, and 2011 became the earliest harvest since 1893 with low yields and some damaged fruit.

Château Jean Faure: Richer and softer on the tongue than the 2012; there were red currant and tart cherry notes in the nose along with some sour strawberry and cocoa.  A fairly long finish with the tannins relaxed and layered between the fruit.

Château La Pointe: Warm on the nose, but once the alcohol blew off, there was a bright core of blackberry jam and stewed plum beneath along with some dried apricot and a silky, appealing freshness. Many layers of texture ended with a mineral kick.

Château Marquis de Terme: Strong note of anise in the nose, and a flood of black fruits, black currant, blackberry, black cherry followed.  A big mouthful, tart and tannic.

Château Carbonnieux:  Velvety and smooth, filled with earth, cedar and menthol.  The fruit is restrained, but the palate length is remarkably long.

20122010: An overall tough vintage, with the driest season on record since 1949.  Intermittent damp spells and cool weather delayed bud break and saw the Merlot crop affected with millerandage and colure.  June, July and August were warm, and much of the harvest adjusted, so the vintage wound up being salvaged, depending on the location. The fine wines from this vintage have been called structured, firm and restrained.

Château Carbonnieux: Carbonnieux was the only estate to offer a 2010, and I’m not really sure why.  It offered a slight funk on the nose, and although I let it aerate for a while, the fruit fought to break free but never quite make it.  A leafy tobacco note finished it.  Sadly, they did not bring along a 2009, which might have exonerated them.

2009:  The vintage followed a cold and dry winter and considerable early spring rain. April was mild, but a hailstorm caused damage to parts of the Right Bank, including Pessac-Léognan. The rest of the season was dry and unseasonably warm, with a minor rainfall in early September, but from then on, conditions were ideal throughout the harvest. Likewise October, allowing growers to pick at optimal ripeness, making 2009 one of the most successful vintages of the decade.

aging wineChâteau Jean Faure: Delightful and explosive wine, lush with full fruit and a glorious floral wash; the tannins are full, but enveloping rather than angular, and the wine is ripe and concentrated and should continue to develop.

Château La Pointe: A blockbuster with multi-faceted flavors, from brambly wild berries to candied orange peel.  Mouth-coating extraction and a long, almost syrupy finish.

Château Marquis de Terme: Smoke leads the aromatics, followed by a full-bore dose of mixed berries, mostly red. The middle palate fills out with darker fruits, but the finish is somewhat astringent.

20142014: It’s too early for bottled red Bordeaux, with vintage reports coming in through en primeur tastings, but it is a pretty even-handed report.  Not a stellar vintage, but a late season deux ex machina apparently saved the day at the eleventh hour—a cool, damp summer led to a miraculously sunny September, allowing the grapes to ripen if not precisely to perfection, to functionality.

Château Carbonnieux:  This 2014 white is a truly stunning example of what Graves can do with Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon when so inclined.  Far from the steely, bracing, soul-stirring wines of Sancerre, this one trades the crispness for a lush cornucopia of fresh, juicy yellow fruits—grapefruit, gooseberry, lychee and mango, finishing with a beautiful spritz of Meyer lemon.  Viscous and creamy, this wine is a textural smorgasbord.

Good $tuff, If You’ve Got the Bordo-Re-Mi…

Prices of these wines range from the mid-twenties for the Carbonnieux white and about fifty to seventy-five for the others, pretty much irrespective of vintage.  That’s a problem, according to our favorite motormouth Robert Parker Jr. who is on record saying that Bordeaux has destroyed its futures market by overpricing poor vintages.

burning fieldsAnd with that, I proudly accept my hard-won ‘Master of Bordeaux’ lapel pin/baseball cap/license-to-spill, even though there is no such thing, and even if there was such thing, nobody awarded it to me.

But we know, don’t we?

“Look upon my MoB, ye Mighty, and despair.”  …and this time, me and Johnny Evans pinky promise not to burn your fields down.


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Monticello: Uncle Tom’s Mansion

When you do the math, slavery was legal in Virginia for longer than it has been illegal.  The ‘peculiar institution’ was such a defining force in the history of the state that even today, scar tissue is everywhere.

Thomas_Jefferson's_MonticelloThe exploitation began ludicrous early—the first record of Africans being sold to Virginia colonists is 1619, and Virginia was one of the first states to acknowledge slavery in its legal charter, enacting a code of slavery laws in 1661. By 1680, slavery was Virginia’s dominant labor system and by the mid-eighteenth century, slaves made up 40% of Virginia’s population.

Slave owners of this era typically described their human chattel as docile, content and loyal, but it’s fair to say that this was rhetoric: The fear of a slave rebellion could never have been far from their thoughts.  The first recorded slave uprising happened in Hispaniola in 1522, and throughout the subsequent centuries, a number of revolts took place, including a particularly bloodthirsty one in 1712 that began (of all places) on Broadway in Manhattan, in what today is the Financial District.

slave revolt hispaniolaPredictably, the colonists did not take kindly to this sort of back-talk, and in the wake of the 1712 New York rebellion, seventy African Americans were arrested, and the ensuing executions were as pathologically cruel as they come: Twenty convicted slaves were burned at the stake, a few were starved to death, and at least one was ‘broken on the wheel’—a particularly gruesome death wherein the victim is lashed to a large wheel and beaten with an iron cudgel; the gaps between the spokes allow the limbs to break more easily.

Swift retaliation and merciless punishment was not enough to dissuade Nat Turner from staging what was perhaps the most famous slave rebellion since Spartacus. Turner was born in Southampton County, Virginia in 1800, and was known to have been a remarkably intelligent man; he learned to read at an early age—rare for a slave—and displayed a profound and unshakable faith in Christianity. As a young adult, Turner believed that God spoke to him through visions that often appeared to him while he was fasting.  One such revelation instructed Turner to ‘slay enemies with their own weapons’, and a solar eclipse on February 11, 1831 convinced him that the time to act was nigh.

Nat Turner

Nat Turner

At that time, Southampton was predominantly black, and in the subsequent months, Turner began to purchase muskets and enlist a gang of disgruntled slaves and a handful of freed blacks, many of whom had been congregants at the Baptist church where he preached.  Locally, he was known as ‘The Prophet’.  A second solar phenomenon occurred on August 21, 1831—the sun turned green in what may have been an atmospheric condition linked to an eruption of Mount St. Helens.  In any case, Turner took it as a shot from some celestial starting pistol, and over the next few days, Turner and Co. did what every white slave owner throughout the South harbored as a primal fear: They murdered them in their beds.

Turner’s rebellion was the most savage slave revolt in American history; over the next two days, the gang slaughtered about sixty white slave-owning families, sparing only those local sharecroppers too poor to own slaves.

"The slaves are revolting!" "Of course they're revolting; they haven't bathed in weeks."

“The slaves are revolting!”
“Of course they’re revolting; they haven’t bathed in weeks.”

As might have been expected, once the revolt was quashed by hastily mustered militia, Turner and about seventy of his cohorts were summarily executed, and at least two hundred black men and women were slain over the next few weeks regardless of their involvement in the uprising.

This was the beginning of the end for slavery in America, though: The following year, the future of the institution was debated by the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond, and a number of delegates voted for emancipation.  Ultimately, the legislation failed to pass, and instead, new laws were enacted that made it a crime for slaves to assemble in a church without the presence of a licensed white minister.  The handwriting, written in blood, remained on the wall, and thirty-two years later, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Turner would have been 63 years old.

shockoe hill cemeteryAll that would seem to be slumbering in some distant haze of history, but evidently, the fear of pissed-off black people remains alive and well in white Richmond.  When I was arranging to meet my guide to Shockoe Hill Cemetery in downtown Richmond, the final resting place of Dr. Daniel Norton, I suggested  10 AM as a time to meet.

“We better make in noon,” he replied hastily.  “That’s a bad part of town.”

I interpreted that (correctly) as meaning ‘There are a lot of black people there’.

Why noon is a distinctly safer time to be around black people than 10 AM I do not know and didn’t ask, but I reminded my guide that I’m from Detroit.  There was a pause on the other end of the phone before he responded, oozing with sarcasm: “In that case, I’ll meet you there at midnight.”

Despite the neighborhood, I have little reason to assume that there are any black bodies interred at Shockoe. Until about 1970, private cemeteries like Woodland and Evergreen Cemeteries were the only cemeteries open to African Americans in the city of Richmond.  The last frontier of Jim Crow, we can assume that when George Wallace said in his 1963 inaugural address, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrah, and segregation fo’ evah,” he really did extend the concept into eternity.

Thomas_Jefferson's_Monticello‘White Only’ graveyards in the land of the free and the brave are one thing, but nowhere is the Great American Dichotomy seen more poignantly and tragically than at Thomas Jefferson’s quintessential mansion-on-the-hill, Monticello.  The man who penned the words, ‘All men are created equal’ as a self-evident truth and described ‘liberty’ as an unalienable right was (as we all know), a slave holder who—through inheritance, marriage, births and trade—owned more than six hundred slaves over the course of his life.

townshend-acts-hero-ABMany modern scholars refer to Jefferson’s relationship with slavery as ‘complex’—probably because ‘complex’ rolls off the tongue better than ‘hypocritical’. Apologists point out that, through Jefferson’s leadership, slave importation was banned in Virginia, making it one of the first jurisdictions in the world to ban the sale of human beings. But a closer look reveals that this was primarly an economic declaration, not a humanitarian one: It was a protest against the ‘taxation without representation’ Townshend Acts of 1767, meant to raise revenue for the bankrupt British Empire. One can argue that any decision that limited the importation and sale of African slaves was a positive, but the truth is, in the years following the Revolutionary War, slavery became more entrenched as an institution in Virginia, not less.

It’s also true that as President, Jefferson led the effort to ‘prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States from any foreign kingdom, place, or country’. He signed The Slave Trade Ban into law on March 2, 1807. In Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1785, he purported that that slavery corrupted ‘both masters and slaves alike’ and supported the returning and colonization of freed slaves in Africa.  Which, when you think about it, isn’t really emancipating a wrongly-enslaved American, it’s cranking the dial back to zero hour and pretending it never happened in the first place.

president jerffersonIn any case, the reasons Jefferson had for not freeing his slaves in his lifetime may have been complex (he referred to slavery as ‘an abomination’ and the trade as ‘piratical warfare’)  and they may been simple (notoriously inept in personal finance, his slaves were a vital asset he needed to list when he applied for a loan), but the fact is that he upon his death, he freed only five of his plantation load of slaves.  And, in fact, he died so deeply in debt—more than a million dollars worth  in today’s terms—that shortly afterwards his slaves and his beloved Monticello were sold off anyway.  Whereupon, Jefferson’s grandson Jeff Randolph was legally obligated to assume the rest of the debt.  In the end, the magnanimous and wholly progressive gesture of manumission—an archaic term for ‘freeing your slaves’—ultimately eluded the man who was willing to die for his own liberty and pursuit of his own happiness; a man who, if not the father of our country, is certainly our uncle.

Ben Lincoln

Ben Lincoln

In 1789, the first presidential election in the United States took place; the only election ever held in a year not a multiple of four.  George Washington soundly defeated six other candidates, one of whom, ironically, was named Lincoln: Throughout the South, dozens of counties and towns and streets named ‘Lincoln’ are in honor of this Lincoln, not the other one.  In Washington’s first cabinet, Thomas Jefferson accepted the post of Secretary of State and proceeded to quarrel incessantly with Alexander Hamilton over the establishment of a national bank.

uncle-toms-cabinThat same year, twenty miles south of Washington in Charles County, Maryland, Josiah Henson was born. In 1789 there were around a million slaves in the United States, and Josiah was, in the most clichéd sense of the phrase, one in a million.  His narrated memoirs were published in 1849, and although they initially received little public attention, ‘The Life of Josiah Henson’ was far more instrumental in bringing an end to slavery than Nat Turner’s ill-advised brouhaha. That’s because among Henson’s handful of groupies was Harriet Beecher Stowe, who turned his narrative into the anti-slavery blockbuster ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. The book went on to become second most popular book of the nineteenth century, surpassed only by the Bible. It sold over 300,000 copies in its first year, and—having been translated into all major languages—wound up swaying public opinion against slavery to such an extent that when Abraham Lincoln was introduced to Stowe in 1862, he is reported to have said, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”

Josiah Henson

Josiah Henson

The only known photograph of Josiah Henson depicts a noble-looking old gentleman with ebony skin and a ring of snow-white hair circling his head and chin. Yet he is an archetypal Uncle Tom in appearance only; far from being a shuffling lackey eager to do his master’s bidding, Stowe’s Tom stands up for his righteous anti-slavery cause and is admired even by his enemies. Josiah Henson escaped north, and aided by Native Americans, made it to Canada in 1830 where he lived the rest of his life as a free man.

By all accounts, Tom Jefferson’s Tom was named Bob.  Prior to Jefferson leaving for France in 1784, Bob Hemings was Jefferson’s ‘bodyservant’, meaning that he shaved and dressed his Monticello master, attended him on horseback, waited on his table and drove his phaeton when it needed driving. Bob was also the brother of the most renowned of Jefferson’s slaves, Sally Hemings, with whom the randy old red-head had six children.

Sally Hemings.  Coulda done worse, Tom

Sally Hemings. Coulda done worse, Tom

Thomas Jefferson may rightly be regarded as a literary whiz-bang—a polymath who wrote scholarly pieces about science, architecture, music, agriculture, law, education, geography, and music—but naming slaves does not appear to have been among his core competencies: A roster collected by Sylvest-Sarah Heritage Oak, dedicated to ‘promoting a better understanding of the African American experience’ shows that Jefferson owned ten slaves named Sarah, eleven named Suckey and twenty named Sally.

Tours of the Monticello estate, which sits in the center of Virginia wine country, are offered on the hour.  It is, to liberty lovers (especially of the brand that listen to Right Wing radio and preachers who are closet Republicans) what Graceland is to rock and rollers: Mecca.

I took the tour primarily because I was interested in seeing Jefferson’s lauded vineyards, but I was equally curious about how the National Historic Landmark would handle the inconvenient but unavoidable fact that the neoclassical hilltop villa, filled with both architectural antecedents and Jefferson’s own design solutions, meant to introduce a new style of architecture to a new style of nation, was built almost entirely by slaves.

Mulberry Row

Mulberry Row

To their credit, the estate’s current caretakers (the non-profit Thomas Jefferson Foundation) neither dodge the issue nor ballyhoo it.  A highlight of the tour is Mulberry Row, a thousand foot walkway lined with slave cabins (including Sally Heming’s) and a number of business enterprises that Jefferson launched in a never-ending attempt to make the plantation profitable.  Still standing is a nail-making hut adjacent to the smithery for which Jefferson held out high hopes: As many as fourteen young men, aged ten to 16, hammered out nails ranging in size from six-pennies to twenty-pennies or used the nail-cutting machine to make four-penny brads from hoop iron, and it did, apparently, generate sufficient income to make it a key industry for Monticello. The weaver’s cottage also  survives, as does the tall chimney of the joinery.  Everywhere, on the plaques in front of these landmarks, the folks who once labored here as referred to as ‘enslaved artisans’;  a touching conciliation both to their status and their skills.

Monticello vineyards

Monticello vineyards

Down the slope from the slave cabins, beneath the garden wall, are Jefferson’s grape vines—at least, the site where he originally planted them. The restored vineyard, replanted in 1983, is under the care of Gabriele Rausse, who also produces wine from grapes grown on the estate.  Rausse is considered one of the founding fathers of Virginia’s wine renaissance, and when asked if his Italian heritage had anything to do with his choice of grafts, including Mammolo Toscano, Trebbiano, Malvasia Bianca and Sangiovese, he replied, “Actually, these are among the 24 varieties that Jefferson planted here in 1807, which he obtained from the American consul in Livorno, Italy. The American consul went to the Botanical Garden in Florence, asked the director to get some vines for him. About half of them were of Italian origin.  When the consul asked the director of the Botanical Garden which cultivar would make the best wine, he was told, ‘Any of them, if you  have a good winemaker.’”

As it happened, you also need a good botanist on board the ship for the return voyage, because by the time the vines arrived at Monticello, most of them were already dead. At least, of the 287 vines and cuttings Jefferson planted, (the most ambitious of his seven major vineyard experiments with vinifera cultivars), few took root.

Jefferson's wine cellar

Jefferson’s wine cellar

Another irony within Jefferson’s life here stands out: Although he was an avid wine drinker—the closest America has ever had to a wino president, a man who spent 13% of his salary on wine every year he was in office—as well as a collector of Europe’s finest Bordeaux and Burgundies, and although he was also an avid gardener who spent decades trying to cultivate various vines for winemaking, he never made a single bottle of wine.

The reasons for Jefferson’s viticulture failures may be as complex as his attitude toward slavery: In the the early nineteenth century, there was no real fix for the insects that ravage vines in the humid Virginian climate, with berry moths and flea beetles above ground and aphid like phylloxera below.  Also, he may have underestimated the number of vines he’d have to grow to make any appreciable quantity of wine.  Thirdly, and perhaps most interesting, there have been several ‘Little Ice Ages’ in America’s recorded history, and the NASA Earth Observatory notes three particularly cold intervals: One began around 1650, another about 1770 and the last in 1850, each separated by intervals of slight warming.  In the winter of 1780, New York Harbor froze, allowing people to walk from Manhattan to Staten Island.  In London, the Thames River froze annually throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and never since.

Rivanna River

Rivanna River

Beneath Monticello, there is a 256 square foot ice house which Jefferson used to store ice cut from the Rivanna River.  Records indicate that the annual caravan carrying ice blocks to the cellar was often 60 wagons long, and yet, in the forty years that Gabriele Rausse has been hanging around the plantation, he claims he has never seen the river freeze—not even once.  Although a mini ice age may mean an overall drop in mean temperature of only a few degrees, in terms of agriculture, that’s significant, and could easily mean the difference between a vine surviving and not.

On the other hand, according to Frank Morgan, a Virginia-based wine writer who has read Jefferson’s extensive agriculture notes, the reason Jefferson never made wine may be, like his attitude toward slavery, rather simple:  It may not have been that important to him.

Frank Morgan

Frank Morgan

Said Frank, “We may have overstated Jefferson’s drive to make wine; his charts and tables are those of a plant collector, not a winemaker.  He was experimenter rather than a serious vintner. When the 1807 scheme failed, probably because the vines were dead or not planted properly, he became more committed to the possibilities of native American vines, always on the lookout for the ‘right’ grape for Virginia’s microclimate.”

Further irony: It may have been, quite literally, under his nose all along.  In the final years of Jefferson’s life, when he was deep in retirement and scrambling to cover debts, in nearby Richmond, Dr. Daniel Norton was experimenting with crossbreeding grapes with the selfsame mission statement as the Sage of Monticello.  In 1824, two years before Jefferson died, his Richmond agent Bernard Peyton sent him a box of cuttings from a remarkable hybridized cultivar then called ‘Virginia Seedling’, describing it as ‘perhaps the best stimulus to Virginia viticulture.’

Alas, although Dr. Norton had first developed the grape in 1815, it was a decade late in getting to Monticello and Jefferson died before he could prove it out.

In the end, a dying Jefferson held a personal clock-watch beginning around the first of July, 1826. He was under the supernatural impression that he was destined to die on Independence Day.  Throughout the course of his fascinating life, Thomas Jefferson had gotten many things right and many things wrong, but never so piteously and simultaneously as was revealed in his final words, “This is the fourth…?”

Memorial statue of a slave breaking his bonds.

Memorial statue of a slave breaking his bonds.

In fact, he’d woken up in the late evening of July 3 and believed that he’d slept into the morning of the following day.  Nicholas Trist, the husband of Jefferson’s granddaughter Virginia Randolph, claimed that he nodded in assent, even though he considered the gentle lie to be ‘repugnant’.

Satisfied, Jefferson slid into a coma, but manage to survive until 4 AM on the Fourth of July.

Slavery managed to survive for another forty years, but the death knell had begun to toll during Jefferson’s tenure on earth.  It remains spilled ink on our Declaration of Independence, and spilled blood on our national conscience, but the Thomas Jefferson Foundation handles the truth with grace and candor, giving credit where credit is due and placing blame where it belongs: On a man who wrote eloquent prose in opposition to the most peculiar of institutions, who could win converts by the poetry of his politics but couldn’t quite bring himself to practice what he preached.


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The Jinx Fragment, Chapter 3

An excerpt from Chapter 3 of ‘The Jinx Fragment’

Follow the link at the end if you want more…


Chapter 3:  The Jinx Fragment

Carmilla struggled past the screen door of the drafty old house on Auden, holding it open by wedging her foot against the weathered sweep and forcing the Costco-sized Bisquick box through it.  She had no one to help her—Bunică was the only other person in the house and sat by the window in the upstairs dormer, her ice-blue eyes focused on the dark and distant autumn tableau.

Outside, the gusts of diesel fume and the spank of the rickety door shutting behind Carmilla were deadly and mundane—but for the Bisquick box, it might prove to be a day like every other day; she’d go to school, sit quietly in school, come home from school and sing old Romanian poems to Bunică.  Life for them was prosaic and familiar.

But for the Bisquick box.

Not so familiar today was the sight of the boy across the street waiting grimly behind his chain link gate—that had not happened before. It was Bex, the leave-me-alone kid who lived with his dad and the Chinese hermit. He looked frail and small, but defiant, and he looked like he wanted to say something but he didn’t. Nor did he offer to help her navigate the beat-up porch steps with her Bisquick box.

So she hollered out to him instead: “You bringing anything for Show and Tell today?”

Now, granted, Show and Tell was a pretty lame concept for ninth graders, but you were dealing with teachers who had pretty much tossed in the motivation towel by the end of their first semester, and during one meaningless science class with kids fighting, dancing in the aisles, hustling, rolling on the floor and pretending it was group work, the teacher had revved up enough positive energy to ask them what they could do as a class that would be ‘fun’. Beyond the hoots and obscenities, some kid with a bright memory had said, ‘Show and Tell!’

So, the following week, Show and Tell it was. The problem was, most of the kids had forgotten about it and Bex was one of them. Now he found himself confronted with the awkward need to respond to a question he hadn’t expected without looking like a basic fool, so he glanced quickly around the yard, lit on the orange bucket by his father’s shopping cart, and said, ‘Sure’.

She scrunched up her face. “What’s that?” Her voice was rich and lilting and there was a slight accent.

He shrugged. “Mudpuppy from the river. Wha’s in the box?”

“Show you in class,” she answered with a toss of her head.

Her face was impasive but her eyes were lively. Or so Bex thought. He might have thought she was beautiful, and he thought that he might have thought so, but he didn’t quite know what the word was all about. There were too many versions of it and he was just starting to care. And that flustered him. So he came behind her, bucket water sloshing, kicks scuffing, watching her walk and wondering if it was a pretty walk.

Carmilla was even smaller for her age than he was, and she had no pretense about filling out her limp shoulder-to-thigh jumper. All the kids in the district wore uniforms—white shirts, blue pants and grey plaid skirts, navy sweaters—to discourage theft of designer clothes and gang-color flashing, but plenty of the students managed to find ways to flaunt what they had anyway—idiotically short skirts on girls, hooded sweaters on boys, and for the most part, nobody in charge was willing to push it beyond the basic uniform. Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries had paid for a lot of them, including Bex’s.

Normally, Bex left for school a bit later than Carmilla did, because for breakfast, Grasshopper would eat nothing but poha made with frozen peas and Serrano chilies and peanuts and that took some work.  So by the time that Bex had him fed and was out the door, Carmilla was already nearly to school, a bobbing speck beneath the streetlight, lost among cold and acrid fogs. Today, considering that he hadn’t slept anyway, he had made the poha early, and since then he’d been scouting outside for any sign of the wasted child he thought he’d seen lingering around in his yard. He’d wandered the vacant lots next door, nudged beneath the half-Chrysler where people sometimes crashed, tried to peer through the bars on the free-standing cinderblock structure up on Delacroix—an odd, out-of-place house with a modernist folded plate roof, haunches tagged with sumptuously ugly street art.

He’d found nothing in any of those places, but all the while he was finding nothing, he’d been aware of Carmilla’s house, the lights all blazing. It seemed to him a kind of beacon in the dark street and if he wanted something from it—which he thought he might—he did not have the slightest idea what it was.

And now, confronting the tiny girl and her flippant scowl, he was a castaway on the shores of teen confusion, so he fell in behind her and it took him nearly a block before he screwed up the stones to speak to her again…



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Chrysalis Vineyard: Hey, Hey, You, You—Lay Off of McCloud

Taking a brief sabbatical from my sabbatical, here’s a chapter from ‘Norton Wine: Walking Off To Look For America’…

Back stories are the lifeblood of any literary journey, and like Lewis and Clark—whose epic river trek in 1804 was commissioned by local boy Thomas Jefferson—sanguine rivers of curiosity are what I follow in a search America, 2016.

Lewis and Clark... I think.

Lewis and Clark… I think.

And in fact, two of the main arteries used by Lewis and Clark—the Ohio River and the Missouri River—play vivid roles in the Norton story.

In Virginia, I tracked down what I considered to be the most alluring and fascinating back story of them all, and it reminded me of something that happened in Northern Michigan with Ed O’Keefe, who spent a long and fascinating afternoon regaling me with his history as a NYC undercover narcotics agent. He shared stories of a near-miss Mafia contract on his life and an Oliver Stone-worthy trail of corruption at the highest levels of the U.S. Treasury Department—everything verifiable via documents that would be released publically in the upcoming months.

And then, after I’d been taking notes for two solid hours, O’Keefe dropped his bombshell: It had all been off the record, and I couldn’t print a word of it. The story, alas, would have to be about his winery.

Jenni McCloud

Jenni McCloud

Jennifer McCloud—henceforth referred to as ‘Jenni’—was never an undercover drug agent and as far as I have been able to determine, any death threats she may or may not have received during her lifetime were not from Sicilians, but from phobes of one stripe or another.  Her convoluted trail to winery ownership began with a high-tech dot com company, which rode the crest of an electronic-design automation wave and sold for millions.

She wound up investing a handful of those millions in one of the most visually commanding wineries in the state of Virginia.  Sprawled across two hundred acres of rural Loudon County, Chrysalis Vineyards encompasses the largest plot of Norton (64 acres)  in the contiguous universe.

Old Stonewall wishes  his nickname had been 'Bullet-Proof Jackson.'

Old Stonewall wishes his nickname had been ‘Bullet-Proof Jackson.’

If that’s not story enough to offer Jenni McCloud a forum chapter in this tome, in passing, Jenni also mentioned that the hillside beyond the vines, fading into Norton-colored shadows in the dusk on the evening of our interview, is Bull Run.  For those who know American history, Bull Run is the site of the first major battle of the Civil War, resulting in a Confederate victory and a hasty retreat of Union forces.  This was the July, 1861 skirmish during which Brigadier General Thomas Jackson received his famous nickname as the troops noticed his resolution and said, “Look, men, there is Jackson standing like a stone wall!”

The Feds gave it another go in 1862 at the Second Battle of Bull Run (also called ‘Second Manassas’—the Confederates named battles after towns, the Union named them after physical landmarks), which they won.  Both were pivotal points in the course of the conflict.

So, since I made a journalistic decision to respect Jenni’s privacy beyond a handful of double entendres I can’t bring myself to resist, a further word about history and Virginia:  Where I come from, you can find towns that have existed since the Civil War, but here, the towns are the Civil War.  If you have even rudimentary memories of tenth grade history you’re blown away by the neighborhood, where virtually every town—Leesburg, Fredericksburg, Appomattox—is crammed with connotation, saturated with significance.  Here, history buffs feel like children in a Chuckles shop; six legendary Civil War battlefields are within a few miles of Jenni’s farm.  The only other place I’ve been where so much violent history is coagulated into such a small plot of land is Normandy, France.  And like Normandy, make no mistake: The people of Virginia today seem to think that the War of Northern Aggression (which is what, with straight faces, Virginians call the Civil War) is a fairly recent event, and they continue to mourn their losses to the point where the graves of Confederate soldiers in cemeteries not only still have ‘Stars and Bars’ flags replaced once a year (or more), they have the flag appropriate to the time the fellow served—there were three official Confederate flags recognized through the war.

signIf Jenni McCloud lost any relatives the Civil War, chances are they fought for my side. Turns out she was born in Grosse Pointe, Michigan—a stonewall’s throw from Detroit where I was born. Her father was a factory manager, and she built upon his solid Midwestern work ethic and became a serial entrepreneur; Chrysalis Vineyards is her 14th business venture, and by the looks of the work-in-progress, it intends to be the jewel in her crown, combining her love of wine with her love of hi-tech gadgetry, and the inevitable result of her subsequent description of the tasting room she’s planning put the conversation a head or so above what I could grok.

Physically, she’s got a head up on me as well;  six inches in height, at least. Her handshake is full of bravado and confidence—this is not the sort of woman whose confidences you betray even if so inclined. We strolled around the evolving upstairs wine gallery, and her patter—rapid-fire geek speak—left me spinning.  That said, the concept she’s pushing will be a revolutionary way of serving up portions in a tasting room, at least on the East Coast.

Old school

Old school

“Enomatic?  Old school,” she scoffed, referring to the somewhat clumsy stainless-steel wine spitter that bills itself primarily as a ‘wine preservation system’.  It’s been particularly marketed for high-end by-the-glass programs in restaurants, but the costs may prove prohibitive in the long run; a informal survey taken by Eater Magazine in 2012 indicated that most Enomatic owners were less than eno-enthusiastic.

Part of the problem with these preservation systems is that whereas they promise to ‘prevent wine from being altered by oxygen and protects its organoleptic integrity (taste, aroma, body, and color) for 30 days or more,’ in fact, the pricey stainless curio takes considerable upkeep and maintenance, and even so, some oxygen leak behind the argon is inevitable.

Future home of the new school

Future home of the new school

With her background in software solutions, these were the exact sort of bugbears Jenni McCloud thought she could weed out, and she introduced me to a prototype version of of her Rube Golderbergian super-dispenser that will ultimately pepper the Chrysalis upstairs with islands and stations and RIFD cards and displays and nozzles run by solenoids powered by other solenoids and spouting forth delectable portion-controlled tastings, self-cleaning after every spritz and generally, dragging the whole proprietary, pre-programmed, plonk-preservation, portion-pumping industry into the 21st century kicking and screaming.

Admittedly, I don’t have the whiz-kid mentality to follow the schematics, which are still in the spoken phase and must be imagined, but I can say that they sound pretty awesome.

But, Jenni has a way of making things sound awesome, and when our nerd-words returned to wine, I found myself on a more level playing field.

Alan Kinne

Alan Kinne

Chrysalis opened in 1998 as the culmination of Jennifer McCloud’s dream of producing world-class wine in her adopted home of Virginia.  She did her research and began with the best raw native product she could find:  Alan Kinne.

Kinne had played a major role in the resurgence of interest in wine in the state in the final decades of the twentieth century, consulting for Oasis Vineyards, Ingleside Plantation Vineyards, Piedmont Vineyards, Lake Anna Winery, Valhalla Vineyards and vinifying the first of the new-era Nortons at Horton.  Jenni had met him at a wine convention in 1995, and when she produced her first vintage in 1997, a year before christening her winery ‘Chrysalis’, she gave the reins to Kinne, who made (by her estimation) a ‘mellow Chardonnay and a robust Viognier bursting with tropical fruit.’

Viognier, it should here be mentioned, is the sister to brother Norton in Jenni’s imagination, and, in fact, she puffs up with pride when she mentions that she was among an instrumental few to successfully petition the Virginia Wine Board to designate Viognier ‘the state’s signature grape’ in 2011.  And good for her: Like the Kinne paradigm, her Viognier today is luscious, lyrical and lovely.

As mentioned though, Jenni McCloud has staked a huge personal claim on Norton’s success, potentially outstripping Viognier on an international forum.  Besides having 40 acres currently committed to the varietal, she has registered the trademark ‘The Real American Grape!’ italics and all, much to the chagrin of ZAP—the California-based Zinfandel Advocates & Producers, who are thus reduced to referring to Zinfandel as ‘America’s Heritage Wine’.

NORTONBut, despite being a real American grape, by the time I stopped by Chrysalis Winery, I’d encountered a whole lot of real Americans who didn’t care for it, and at least one real South African (Stephen Barnard of Keswick Vineyards) who disliked Norton because it required too much pampering during primary fermentation to tame the bellicose malic acids.

“I prefer to minimize the manipulation in winemaking,” he told me when I tried his Norton Rosé .  “It’s a polarizer in our tasting room—people love it or hate it.  Personally, I’m in the latter camp.  I need to use specific yeasts to break down the inherent DNA in the grape, and since I prefer to use ambient yeasts, this causes me to make Norton into a wine that philosophically I don’t approve of.”

Although she respects Barnard’s cellar skills, Jenni pooh-poohs the idea that manipulating grapes to produce the best product is in any way ‘philosophically’ compromising.  In fact, she manipulates the hell of her Norton, and as I was soon to discover, to the extreme benefit of the variety.

MC in French...

MC in French…

This usually begins with a technique too often used as a synonym for ‘Beaujolais’, carbonic maceration—known as ‘CM’ in colloquial-ese.  Jenni swears by it when processing Norton.  At first, CM seems like a strange way to approach primary fermentation since it tends to result in a vibrantly fruity framework —something that winemakers in Beaujolais have spun into an identity.  But the wine CM leaves behind often comes across as simple and without great potential to age.  Since two of Norton’s  inherent pluses are a naturally fruit-forward cast that expands and deepens when allowed to age, it seems  that far from being an ideal candidate for carbonic maceration, the Great Polarizer would, if you will, be the polar opposite.

Malic acid, if you must know.

Malic acid, if you must know.

But it turns out that on a molecular level, carbonic maceration is far more complex than y our basic fluffy, docile, straightforward Beaujolais Nouveau would suggest. In brief, it is a winemaking practice in which whole, unbroken grape clusters (still attached to their stems) are placed in a sealed fermentation container which is then back-filled with carbon dioxide.  Yeast cells, whether added or naturally occurring in the winery’s atmosphere (so-called ‘ambient’ yeast), require oxygen to work their magic, and the anaerobic environment of a CO2 filled tank stays these micro-organisms in a swift completion of their appointed rounds. Instead, enzymes naturally present in the fruit are released, and these are the couriers that break down grape sugars into alcohol—at least, until the ABV reaches about 2%.  At that point, rising temperatures cause by the enzymatic metabolism begin to kill the berries themselves (after about eight days at 95°F; two weeks at 60°F), whereupon they split and leak juice, and in many cases, regular aerobic, yeast-driven fermentation is then allowed to progress as it normally would.

But some wonderful grape chemistry has transpired within that week. Of primary interest to Norton partisans is what happens to Norton’s pronounced malic acid during carbonic maceration:

bookThe Oxford Companion to Wine (2006) shows through controlled studies that intact grapes under carbon dioxide result in a loss of 20% of their sugar, a 2% gain in alcoholic strength, a gain of ten times the amount of glycerol and a staggering loss of 50% of malic acid.  This is an entirely different process from the malic acid conversion to lactic in the post-primary fermentation, highly-controlled secondary fermentation known as ‘malolactic’. Here, the malic acid is metabolized to oxaloacetic, pyruvic and succinic acids.  Meanwhile, as the carbonic maceration continues, phenolic compounds are extracted, with anthocyanins being more readily dissolved than tannins. Invite these gents to the party and you’ve got a whole lot unique attitude in a wine glass.

And lo and behold, among the stuff that CM produces are the elusive scents I had suckled in Dennis Horton’s fifteen-year-old Norton a few days earlier.  According to Ron Jackson’s Wine Science, Principles and Applications (1995), “A higher concentrations of ethyl decanoate [fruity], eugenol [clove], methyl and ethyl vanillates [vanilla], ethyl and vinyl guaiacols [smoke] and ethyl and vinyl phenols [spice] develop during carbonic maceration than in traditional vinification.”

“I doubt it’s the oak,” Jenni said when I noticed these savory aromas wafting from her Norton Barrel Select, 2013.  She was referencing my earlier statement about suspecting that the spice notes in the Horton Norton might have been added by the Virginia oak casks in which the wine had fermented.

“Virginia oak sometimes gives you an impression of coconut, though.  You’ll notice that.”

I did; this distinct toasted coconut note was in the third tier of the wine’s sensory impact; the second came from the spice scale—clove, cinnamon, allspice—but the first, in this young, spirited Norton was brambly wild berry flavors, somewhere between red raspberries and black currants.

Shaken Bottle Syndrome 

AERATING BOTTLEAnd yet, the 2014, recently bottled, did not offer a particularly favorable first impression; even Jenni admitted that.  It lacked depth and oomph, and Jenni suggested a peculiar phenomenon known as ‘bottle shock’.  Many wines—particularly full-bore, blockbuster reds—go through awkward stages (generally soon after bottling) when their organoleptics are muted and their rich flavors dulled.  Motion can upset them as well, which is why I was  surprised when Jenni’s initial reaction to the mediocre entry was to shake the remainder of the wine in the bottle vigorously, like one of those automated paint-mixing machines at Home Depot.  Following that, she dumped the wine—she didn’t pour it—into a Kool-Aid pitcher, where two inches of heliotrope-colored foam bubbled above even more motion-shocked Norton, saying, “If this doesn’t do it, it might never get done.”

Now, I’ve heard of a ludicrous process of aerating wine by running it through a blender, but take this to the bank:  If you’ve got Jenni’s biceps, you won’t need a Waring.

The funny thing is, it worked. The Norton suddenly expressed a whole host of roiling, fruity, spicy flavors—plum, raspberry, bittersweet chocolate, pumpkin pie spice, coffee.  Jenni’s parental hand may be been a little rough, sparing no rod, and in general, even with the manhandling, the wine screamed for another two years in the cellar.  Drinking it now, in Jenni’s approximation, is tantamount to infanticide.

So, my conclusion was that Norton, even carbonically macerated Norton, is not a Pretty Baby wine like Gamay.

locksley reserveThen came the Locksley Reserve, 2013. When Jesus turned water to wine at Cana, the host was chastised for saving the best wine (‘Simply divine’ ran the tasting notes) for last, but it’s a clever move, and it worked for Jenni McCloud almost as well as it did for the man from Galilee. In fact, so spectacular was Chrysalis  Vineyard’s 2013 Locksley Reserve Norton that it effectively raises the bar on the whole Norton community while underscoring the grape’s potential to win the same auric award in the twenty-first century that it did in 1873.  Locksley Reserve Norton was thus festooned with gold at the 2015 San Francisco International Wine Competition.

The striking Locksley Reserve profile led with a bright wash of cherry, and that’s not a flavor I’ve come to expect in Norton.  Jenni explained that the wine is 17% Nebbiolo, the grape responsible for Barolo and Barbaresco; even in this proportion, Nebbiolo reared up and made itself a welcome companion.  The reductive nature of carbonic maceration was also obvious here—the fresh, grapey, explosive fruit shored up by nicely integrated tannins and a finish that lasted a full two minutes on the palate.  If I had tried this wine initially, I suppose any doubts I might have had about staking a future on Norton would have been instantly allayed.  Jenni has proven beyond a doubt that the right combination of nurture and nature, TLC and CM, savvy and huevos, and sheer, unbridled passion for the product, puts Norton on the stage with Vitis vinifera.

8ballAs for the rest of Jenni McCloud’s story, my lips are sealed.  Ask me to my face, and I will be the perennial Magic 8-Ball, flashing, ‘Reply hazy.’

But I will share one of Norton’s most carefully guarded secrets:  It also goes by the varietal name ‘Cynthiana’.


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‘The Jinx Fragment’: Chapter 2

…I’m taking a brief sabbatical from Intoxicology Report to write a pair of wine books.  ‘Norton Wine: Walking Off To Look For America’, a book about a genuine native American varietal that can, in its best incarnation, rival vitis vinifera.  And ‘Starstruck In Lodi Again’, a book about that fascinating California appellation where some of the most intense and underappreciated wines are coming into their own.

In the meantime, I am releasing in serial form a supernatural novel set in the streets of Detroit,‘The Jinx Fragment’.

I will link the novel here with an excerpt from each chapter as it is released, and if you want more, you can follow the story through the ethers.  The novel is illustrated by my son Jesse, who has a supernatural gift of his own…



There was a long, deep stretch of the Little T River between Mason Bend and Old Tracy Road with a suspension bridge that straddled it. Here, if you knew where the plunge pools were and knew how smallies migrate—upriver in the springtime to spawn and back to Aceline Lake to winter—you could pull bass from the water until your arms gave out with exhaustion simply from setting the hook.

The Cherokee knew this—that’s why they put fish weirs here—and the black boys who picked berries and sold scrap iron in Knoxville knew it.  You could fine other fish in the heads and pushes of the Little T—redhorse sucker, bream, bluegill and catfish—but in Mason, Tennessee, smallies were king. And you knew a fat two-pound bass would make a wonderful supplement to the supper table of families living in persistent, generational poverty, growing gardens on old plantation lots, canning, making everything and buying almost nothing.

Dezmon Moore knew where the smallies were, although overall, he had it better than the other kids. His Daddy was Reverend Otis Turner Moore who served as conference evangelist at the Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the supper table was usually heavy with gifts from the congregation: Salt-cured ham, four-layer stack cake, wild turkey taken from the bordering miles of wooded hillside owned by Appalachian Iron & Coal, and Dezmon’s favorite, grits and red-eye gravy Gammy made from black coffee and bacon drippings.

A single family portrait remains from this time. It shows Otis in an immaculate pearl-colored suit and a white Borsalino hat, Bible-black and erect with religious rigidity.  Next to him, his wife and first cousin Devieta Moore holds the hand of ten-year-old Dezmon, also in a suit, with his right hand in his pocket. In Devieta’s arm is the baby Chevron; she’s clutching him as if with strange anguish. Behind them, the quaint, white-washed country church rises with its hipped-roof belfry.

The picture portrays the town face of the pastor’s dynasty; you’d have to peer closely into the pinched expressions to see the emotional dissonance, the dark negations, the nullifications and the tracks of violence.

Otis Moore was a secret fellow: He had the gift of gab, but he also had some acute pathologies and some were criminal. He was an alcoholic con man and a brutal autocrat and the church was his private playground. He filled the narrow, shotgun parsonage with terrifying stories of sin and retribution and was the sort of man who wouldn’t be told that he couldn’t do such a thing or have such a prize;  he reacted to the humiliation and degradation he’d suffered in savage America by brutalizing those around him.

His congregation was terrified of him, but they were simple folks who had grown with the discipline of Zion Methodism and they had historical faith in their leaders. Reverend Otis was salvation incarnate, and to them, that was as clear as the shine he kept in a quart jar beneath his pulpit.

So for Dezmon, the easy path was the one that led to the flaming tufts of wild azalea beneath the cottonwoods and down to the suspension bridge over the Little Tennessee River. There, he had a private pool by the shoal where people discarded Christmas trees, and this was a place where the panfish gathered; here was the spot that he spent time with his pole and the tarnished brass cornet that he’d been given by the church’s choir director. There, he learned to cast and angle and work out notes on the horn without disturbing his raging father. There he found solace with sunlight blazing, ravens cronking, breezes soughing and there, he was not swallowed by despair.

Otherwise, Dezmon wanted to die.

jinx_final_flatHis mother had it worse. She had the multitask of keeping the children safe, keeping the church body fooled, covering tracks and keeping her husband sober enough to minister without a major malfunction.

The year after the family portrait was taken, Reverend Otis tried to strangle his wife with an electrical cord but was too shit-faced to succeed.  Afterward, he disappeared for a week and Devieta had to make up some story about a Christian Education Conference in Dallas. But at the end of the week he was shoved half-naked from a Cadillac Fleetwood by a very young woman, and adding insult to the injury, the drop-off happened directly in front of the chapel during the Women’s Home & Overseas Missionary Society meeting.

The Bishop of the Piedmont District was summoned, but by the time he showed up, Devieta and her sons had flown the coop and moved north to stay with her sister Claretta and Claretta’s daughter Sparkle on Cavalry Street in southwest Detroit.

Otis came looking for her once, but only once since Claretta’s baby daddy was a big motherfucker and a police officer, and he thumped the Bible thumper and sent the fat fool into the next chapter of his life with a concussion.

For more:




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Unnatural Detroit, Naturally


…I’m taking a brief sabbatical from Intoxicology Report to write a pair of wine books.  ‘Norton Wine: Walking Off To Look For America’, a book about a genuine native American varietal that can, in its best incarnation, rival vitis vinifera.  And ‘Starstruck In Lodi Again’, a book about that fascinating California appellation where some of the most intense and underappreciated wines are coming into their own.

In the meantime, I am releasing in serial form a supernatural novel set in the streets of Detroit, ‘The Jinx Fragment’.

I will link the novel here with an excerpt from each chapter as it is released, and if you want more, you can follow the story through the ethers.  The novel is illustrated by my son Jesse, who has a supernatural gift of his own…


‘The Jinx Fragment’


Bex stood on the corner of Benodet and Havre and squinted at the Shell Mini Stop. The whole McDougall-Stout hood called it the Shell Mini Stop even though the shop hadn’t belonged to Shell or sold gas or even had a visible sign for longer than anyone knew or cared; it was a tagged, tired and tumble-down relic and inside you could buy dusty candy and Swisher Sweets and Scorpio and cigarettes and lotto tickets and blunt wraps.

You could also buy SpaghettiOs, and Bex needed to pick up two cans for Grasshopper’s dinner. SpaghettiOs was the only thing that Grasshopper would eat on Tuesdays and Thursdays and today was Thursday and Grasshopper was unable to fend for himself out here, even to walk a block to the Mini Stop. He was preoccupied and driven by strange ideas, strange visions and Bex took care of his dinners for him.

jinxch1Unfortunately, tonight, eight neighborhood Scril Boyz bangers had decided to play their janked-up game with the Mini Stop owner, a nervous, clay-colored Sikh named Singh. They wanted to remind him that this was a hood mart, their hood mart and they owned it, not him, so they piled into the cramped aisle, poured the pot of coffee on the floor, stole some Skittles and Nacho Cheese Doritos and sat on the counter in front of the ballistic curtain behind which Singh skulked, peering out as they chased away at least a couple of customers. One was a street dude with puffy thyroid eyes and a stringy beard trying to buy cheap wine and the other was an elegant fellow in a black and white dashiki pant set who looked almost Biblical.

Normally, this would not have been too much of a problem for Bex, because the Scril Boyz looked out for him and called him Li’l Brah, even understanding that dope slangin was not his deal. Bex was fourteen years old—an age by which most of them had been jumped-in with so-called acts of love that ended in broken ribs and concussions—but these were kids with minds to want this.

For whatever reason, Bex wasn’t.

But it was cool because his uncle Chebby had been high up on the Scril Boyz food chain—one of the blood-in/blood-out O.G.S—and the others, those who came later, had sworn to have his family’s back after Chebby was killed. On any other night, Bex could have just snaked between the Scril Boyz and taken Grasshopper’s two cans of SpaghettiOs and paid Singh for them later without the brothers knowing.

But tonight, there was a sudden writhing from the shadowy tunnel that was Eschambault street and Bex knew what it was and he knew that it wasn’t good.

Bex was small for his age, hollow-thin with high, cramped shoulders, lithe limbs and narrow eyes that did a lot of moving around. This was mostly the nervous tension that came with the hood, but when Bex’s gaze began to oscillate and shift, it often looked out of place.  He had streamlined features—a finely textured face, panther black, glittery black, glossy black—but it was generally frozen with a sort of protective inertia. When his eyes darted it was unsettling and looked like secret lights moving inside an onyx statue.

Now his ears perked up as well. From the gloom behind the red-brick corpse of Elkin Corporation—a long-gone maker of milling equipment—a storm of motorcycle engines came as a single quick peal. It was like all the Dynas and Softails and Street Bobs had been startled by something and were now awake and angry…

For the rest, and more:



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