The Itsy Bitsy Snyder: Let’s Wash the Snyder Out

When it comes to wine, people from Michigan talk dry and drink sweet and when it comes to politics, we talk blue and vote red.

rick

Snyder, asked to rate his scruples between one and ten.

Recently, Michigan wine and politics entered the demolition derby again, this time to undermine Granholm v. Heald, a Supreme Court decision ruling that direct-to-consumer shipping that discriminated between in-state and out-of-state wineries was unconstitutional.

Bear with me here, and try to stay awake.  In writing that majority decision in 2005, Justice Anthony Kennedy said:

“This power [to regulate wine sales] does not allow states to ban, or severely limit, the direct shipping of wine while simultaneously authorizing direct shipment by in-state producers. If a state chooses to allow direct shipment of wine, it must do so on evenhanded terms. Without demonstrating the need for discrimination, New York and Michigan have enacted regulations that disadvantage out-of-state wine producers. Under our Commerce Clause jurisprudence, these regulations cannot stand.”

On Jan. 9, 2017, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R) signed a law that prohibits out-of-state retailers from shipping to Michigan consumers while making it easier for in-state retailers to ship to Michigan consumers.

White Boys Rick

White Boys Rick

Now, I’m no lawyer—and if I was, I’d like to think I’d be spending more time making psilocybin legal and getting White Boy Rick (the good, drug dealing one) out of jail and putting White Boy Rick (the bad, Lansing-living one) in jail—but I didn’t think state law could overrule federal law.  Isn’t there a Supremacy Clause in the Constitution, and didn’t Judge Kennedy call laws like Snyder signed ‘unconstitutional’?

L.: Rick Snyder R.: Consumers

L.: Rick Snyder
R.: Consumers

Or, does the argument go, the SCOTUS ruling covered only individual wineries, not retailers?

Problem with that interpretation would be that Siesta Village Market, LLC et al v. Granholm (2008) found that a retailer ban was also discriminatory and thus violated the Constitution’s dormant Commerce Clause.

In other words, Itsy Bitsy Snyder listened to a federal judge telling him that Senate Bill 1088 was unconstitutional and snickered ‘…and??’ as he signed it anyway.

clipboardBetter call Saul.

No, not Saul the Lawyer, Saul the King of Judah who decimated  the Moabites, Ammonites and Edomites:

Time to go Old Testament on the Snyderites.

Keep Your Lobbies Off of My Hobbies

One thing seems clear: The law benefits Michigan retailers, and to nobody’s great surprise, guess who helped put Snyder in office?  Why, the Michigan Wine and Beer Wholesalers Association.

Never Say Nevins

Never Say Nevins

And guess what the Michigan Wine and Beer Wholesalers Association’s response to the legislation was?

According to Association President Spencer Nevins (a name even more sniveling than Snyder’s):

“Michigan residents will have even more choices under this new law. Consumers can purchase wine from a Michigan retailer and have it shipped to their home, they can purchase wine through an app and have it delivered and they can have wine shipped direct from any winery in the country. It’s also worth noting that the vast majority of wine illegally shipped into Michigan by retailers is already available through an in-state retailer.”

I have no idea if all that is true or not—although they couldn’t print it in Wine Spectator if it wasn’t, right?—but I do have an idea how the Constitution works: When a ruling covers all retailer shipments (Nevins gratuitously tosses in ‘illegal’, as though that’s the point), phrases like ‘the vast majority’ don’t cut it.

Snyder's desk, and not in a good way

Snyder’s desk, and not in a good way

For example, suppose I tried to pass a law that says you can practice the vast majority of religions, but not Islam?

The quid pro quo of Snyder’s political supporters now being able to put more pro quids into their coffers based on this ruling stinks like a cheap bottle of Paw Paw plonk left open on Snyder’s desk.

Turning From Water to Wine and Screwing Up Both

To level set, this is the same Governor Snyder who recently told Detroit Free Press reporter Paul Egan that he has  ‘no reason to be concerned’ that Attorney General Bill Schuette will bring criminal charges against him in connection with the Flint drinking water crisis, and most of the $3.5 million he is spending on outside criminal legal defense fees is to pay for work on turning over documents to investigators.

Bill Boy Schuette

Bill Boy Schuette

To further level set, this is the same Attorney General Bill Schuette whose second biggest campaign contributor was… wait for it… The Michigan Wine and Beer Wholesalers Association.

So, if you need the cluster-coitus broken down into bite-sized acts of fiscal fuckery, Snyder, who sucks from the teat of Michigan’s booze PAC, is not worried about being indicted by his Attorney General, who is another Michigan booze PAC teat sucker, so that he can continue to live long and allow the Michigan booze PAC to prosper.

Star Wark

Tom Wark of Fermentation is equally incensed at the blind eye wineries and grape advocates have turned to such legislation, either ignoring it or outright supporting it.

Mike Beck

Mike Beck

He quotes Mike Beck, president of The Michigan Wine Producers Association, saying, ‘We support every legal aspect for people to have access to wine,” which is a far cry from saying, “We oppose legislation which will make certain currently legal avenues for wine sales illegal.”

In fact, it’s the opposite: It’s a cop-out of the mission statement, because Mike Beck knows as well as we do that Bill 1088 will benefit in-state shipping concerns, including his own, by eliminating competition. The Michigan Wine and Beer Wholesalers Association knows this, Attorney General Bill Schitty knows this, and the diminutive arachnid in Lansing’s capitol building knows it as well as he knew that Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality was not treating the Flint River water with an anti-corrosive agent in violation of federal law.

Maybe nobody gets poisoned under Bill 1088, but the Snyder administration has been toxic to Michigan consumers (both water and wine) from Day One.

It’s time to haul out the heavy artillery:

pace3-10034246enh-z8

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Window on ‘Indo’—And William Schwab’s Drink List

My first wine list, before I learned discretion.

My first wine list, before I learned discretion.

In my halcyon youth, I used to write extensive wine lists for expensive restaurants. If you’re a total novice to the game, such an endeavor may sound intimidating, but if you’ve advanced beyond Level Apothic and Kendall Jackson and surround yourself with competent distributors, it’s pretty elementary.

I mostly worked for joints with basic-flavor menus designed to accommodate the Gang of Four—Cabernet, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. If, as a sommelier, you could wedge in the odd multisyllabic Rheingau, unpronounceable Tuscan or (then) glamorous-sounding Central Otago between familiar First Growths and the Napa powerhouses, you could claim props for sophistication.

Those were the easy days:  There weren’t many sommeliers to second-guess you, and there was precedent.

(Another thing there didn’t used to be is wine lists in Keego Harbor—but I’ll get to that.)

dsc03717The recent explosion of Extreme Ethnic in fine dining may be something the industry owes to Millennials.  Traditionally, Gen Xers and Boomers were less willing to push their palates into kinky places, and forget about whatever we call the generation before that, ‘Greatest’ though they may have been.

When I was a kid—at least in my frosty, frumpy corner of the Midwest—ethnic dining meant chow mein at China King or antipasto salad at Mama Mia’s.

cyu99_xumaa8xksAnd then there was Keego Harbor, an Oakland County lake town where I went to school. In the Seventies, Keego was a clot of trailers and former vacation cottages poorly refitted to face Michigan winters and largely occupied by transplanted Southerners. Dining meant bar food, and when I was in high school, the Brewhaus on Orchard Lake Road used to serve me beer without blinking. Trust me here—when I was sixteen, I didn’t even look sixteen much less 21.

Keego Harbor was, in short, a punch line—if you wanted ethnic cuisine, you went to McDonald’s and called it Scottish.

William Schwab

William Schwab

Then, about twenty years ago, the kids of those transplanted Southerners discovered that some of these lakefront properties were worth millions so long as you tore down the shanties and built condos, and the gentrification of Keego Harbor has continued unabated ever since.  A number of cool restaurants have come and gone, but on Thursday last, at the urging of sommelier William Schwab—a man I’ve known for decades, through his dozen years at Papa Joe’s and his stint as a sweat equity partner with Wine Guy—I showed up at his latest venture, directing beverages and front-house management at an exclusive Keego restaurant called Indo.

How exclusive?  Turns out that Indo is the only Indonesian restaurant in Michigan; you don’t get much more exclusiver than that.

Java Jive

Malik and Nick

Malik and Nick

So, who puts an Indonesian restaurant on an obscure strip of Cass Lake Road, and not only that, but pulls it off flawlessly?  That would be Nick Alonso and his wife Malik, who met in Hong Kong, where Malik was the chef of a huge, popular restaurant and Nick was an IT guru in China on business.

Malik is originally from rural Java; she learned her craft from an aunt who cooked for the governor of her mountainous province and at the age of fifteen, she took her mad skills to the juggernaut environment of Hong Kong. Upon hooking up with Nick, she moved to New York, and from there, to Clawson’s remarkable Da Nang restaurant, where she prepared Vietnamese classics to critic’s kudos and magazine awards for five years.

She’s a wisp of a woman; I doubt she hits sixty inches on the height charts or three digits on the weight scale.  However, her smile is as big as her ambitions, and she explains the meticulous preparations she relies upon in her lilting, rolling Englonesian accent.  Satays and curries are cooked to order; papaya and mango is mandolined fresh for salads and she grinds her own short ribs to make meatballs for Basko—the Javanese soup that Obama raved about on a state trip to Jakarta.

260px-food_sundanese_restaurant_jakartaFor the most part, Indonesian cooking includes plenty of sweet/savory counterpoints and fruit/flesh juxtapositions, a lot of lemongrass and lime leaves, fresh turmeric and tropical things like candlenuts that you may have to Google, just like I did. Meats are skewered, stewed, and cooked over hot coals, often lathered in fiery sauces; vegetarian dishes, many built around tofu, are equally intense.

Midway through my impromptu course in Indo, Malik’s husband, Nick Alonzo showed up.  For an IT guy, he looks pretty gnarly, but in a good way.  Long hair, sort of tight-sinewed, Earth First intensity.  I could picture him blocking roads in Standing Rock.  He’s affable and sincere as hell, and he lays out the basics for a new business venture offering home-delivered, restaurant-prepared meals based on the somewhat radical, exceedingly healthy all-plant diet that derives flavors not from salt or sugar, but the array of exotic spices at Malik’s fingertips.

The website is given at the end.

Schwabbing the Decks

So, that circles us around to William Schwab in his neat tie and hearty, affable laugh that underscores his motto, ‘If I can get you in the door once, I can bring you back again and again.’

A really, really bad wine list...  NOT SCHWAB'S

A really, really bad wine list… NOT SCHWAB’S

He was a regular Indo customer before he ran their beverage program; if fact, it was him who suggested they pursue a liquor license with the promise that he’d help design a wine, beer and spirits list. Of itself, this is not an unusual offer for people in the beverage industry, and plenty of reps with fewer scruples than Schwab will offer to write, print and manage wine lists for restaurants from cultures without a huge wine tradition (like Indonesia), and what you end up with is a generic bunch of crap that neither suits nor complements the cuisine.

Believe me, brother, I can name names.

100215_jc_pb_marland_riesling_stBut Schwab’s approach runs in tandem with his expertise, and the wines he pairs with Malik’s strong, assertive, eccentric flavors are passengers in the same bullet train.  He describes Herman Story Grenache as ‘blueberry motor oil’ and his representative Burgundy is actually from Beaujolais—a big, bright, brambly Brouilly from Gry-Sablon.  Smoky notes, acidity and high-toned fruit is the common denominator in Schwab’s red wine picks.  White wine, especially slightly off-dry, is the course generally recommended for Asian cuisine because a little sugar offsets the spice and saltiness, and Marland Riesling 2014—from Michigan’s incomparable Jim Lester—keeps the palate clean.  Gewurztraminer is mentioned so often as the ‘ideal’ choice for this sort of menu that it’s essentially a prerequisite.  Banyan 2015, from Monterey County, floral and unctuous, fits Bill’s bill.

The list is currently brief, which is fine, and rounds itself out with a ’15 Picpoul de Pinet from Languedoc and Pomar Junction Viognier 2014.  Vintages are optimal and prices reasonable.

The beer is as bold and imaginative as the wine, but it is the cocktail selection that may be the most appropriate pas de deux of all.

Nuts about candlenuts

Nuts about candlenuts

I mentioned Malik Alonzo’s near compulsion run her kitchen from freshly-prepared, from-scratch fundamentals, so if I said that William Schwab not only makes his own bitters, but does it from ingredients particular to Indonesian cuisine, you might be inclined toward (and entitled to) a WTF?  But it’s true, and I get another quick lesson, this time in the genetics of bitters; they are a triumvirate  of aromatics, flavors and bittering, for which Schwab uses (in order) lemon grass/star anise/turmeric/ginger, candlenut and bitter melon.

He marinates his own bar cherries too.  That’s dedication—if you’ve never had your quality Maraschino cherry popped, Indo may be your Summer of ’42.

indo-indonesian-restaurantSchwab’s drinks are each unique and impeccably Indo-fusion, with most of them being takes on classic cocktails.  The Mule Martini replaces ginger beer with ginger mead from my favorite mead-maker Ken Schramm, and the Lychee Mojito is made with Leblon and lychee syrup.  All juices are freshly squeezed, and prices are about half what they’d be in an upscale bar in an urban setting.

Out here in rural-esque lake country, in a restaurant that is unassuming in appearance both inside and out, the fiscal approach is a little more lenient, even within this gentrified setting. Still, it’s fair to say that younger movers and shakers are more receptive to this sort of menu than the dreary denizens of the nearby Brewhaus Pub, which is still selling shots and beers and which finally carded me when I was around thirty years old.

In Keego, all’s well that ends well, especially when Indo’s well.

*
Indo

1535 Cass Lake, Keego Harbor

(248) 622-4408

www.indo.rest

www.PlantBasedChef.Co

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The World’s 10 Most Expensive Cocktails

mv5bmjqznzmyntq2nl5bml5banbnxkftztcwndm2nzy2mq-_v1_cr030250141_al_ux477_cr00477268_al_Jiminy Glick’s playful interview with Mel Brooks culminates in the zany lardbucket asking Brooks, ‘So, Mel—what’s your big beef with the Nazis anyway?”

Were Glick to interview yours truly, the loveable hog-beast might lead with a similarly wacky and irreverent question: “So, Chris—what’s your big beef with Drink Me magazine anyway?”

Like Brooks, I might pause for comic effect, chuckle to myself and shake my head at the sheer rhetorical absurdity of the query. If pressed, I might say, “Because like the Nazis, Drink Me represents the rise of institutionalized barbarity and the moral collapse of Western civilization,” and of course, if called out for hyperbole, I’d redden and add sheepishly, “Except for the part about the concentration camps.”

drinkme_365_2001Anyway, Drink Me is fathomless fodder for this column, because making jokes about it is easier than drinking and far easier than thinking.  Take the latest gem that showed up in my inbox, just in time for my annual New Year’s Eve gayla and yours, too: An invaluable*  feature called ‘Five of the Most Expensive Cocktails in the World’.

the-producers-broadway-movie-poster-9999-1020454090-247x300* We who lust after linguistics like to launch a liquid load over the idea that ‘inflammable’ and ‘flammable’ mean the same thing, but in this case, ‘invaluable’ really does mean the opposite of valuable.

So, seizing upon on the theme of ‘Dysfunctional Drink Dialogue’, I will offer first a Cliff’s Notes version of Drink Me’s pentad of purpose-free potables, and then I will tack on five more, making it an even decad—although naturally, my drinks are so far and away more fun than the original group that it’s like comparing ‘The Producers’ to  ‘Shoa’.

DRINK ME’S TOP FIVE:

The Kentucky Derby Mint Julep (Churchill Downs, KY)

mint-julepRecipe:  A standard Mint Julep.

Why It Costs $1000: The ice is carved from a ten thousand-year-old glacier. And you get to keep the cup.


The Original Mai Tai (Merchant Hotel, Belfast, Ireland)

mai-taiRecipe: A standard Mai Tai.

Why It costs $1270: The rum is really old.

The Ritz-Paris Sidecar (Bar Hemingway at the Hotel Ritz, Paris)

Recipe: A standard Sidecar

0Why It Costs $1670: It’s made with really old Cognac that the Nazis stole when they stole France.

Mel Brooks, do you copy; over?

Salvatore’s Legacy (Salvatore at Playboy, London)

Recipe: Cognac, Kümmel liqueur, Orange Curaçao and 2 dashes Angostura Bitters*

*Half-price version with one dash Angostura available on request.

Why It Costs $8316: It’s made with really old Cognac, really old Curaçao, and by a really old bartender.

The Ono Champagne Cocktail (Encore Wynn, Las Vegas)

onoRecipe: Cognac, Champagne, apricot purée, rose nectar, orange juice.

Why It Costs $10,000: The Cognac is $90 k per bottle and the rose nectar comes from Rose McGowan’s vagina.

INTOXICOLOGY REPORT’S NEXT FIVE:

The Scotch and Soda

scotch-sodaRecipe: 1 ½ oz. scotch, splash of soda.

Why It Costs $700,000: Instead of a standard swizzle stick, the drink is stirred with a finger bone from Charles Lindbergh’s murdered baby, exhumed by Intoxicology Report’s forensic experts. Certification of Authenticity included with every cocktail.

The Gin and Tonic

Recipe: 1 ½ oz. gin, 4 oz. Schweppes Malaria-B-Gon

Why It Costs $ 1.2 million:  Besides the standard lime wedge, the standard fruit fly floating in the drink is actually a deer tick infected with a new strain of Lyme’s Disease to which Intoxicology Report possesses the only known cure—included, of course, in the upscale price.

The Teeny Weeny Martini

foxRecipe: 2 oz. gin, ½ oz. Dry Vermouth.

Why It Costs $3 million: The drink is shaken by celebrity guest dwarf bartender, Michael J. Fox and all proceeds are donated to the National Parkinson Foundation, less shipping, handling, applicable taxes and obscene profits before interest, depreciation, amortization and embezzlement.

The Bourbon and Lourdes Water

our-lady-of-lourdes-05Recipe: 1 ½ oz. well Bourbon, 3 oz. water from the spring in the Grotto of Massabielle in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Why It Costs $65 million: Duh, it cures any disease you have other than Parkinson’s. All you have to do is believe in unmerited mercy from a sovereign God, because if you don’t, you will die and go to Hell.

But ante up anyway: As they say, you can’t take it with you.

hymenThe Bloody Mary

Recipe: Standard Bloody Mary

Why It Costs Fifty Thousand Plenary Indulgences Drawn from the Treasury of Merit and Allowing for the Temporal Remission of Severe Penance:  It’s not the price of the drink so much as the price of the garnish—the Virgin Mary’s Most Holy Hymen, unpopped for lo these twenty centuries.

 

 

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Botticelli’s Brunello

When it comes to ageless art, the Italians certainly understand sensuality. A catalog of the masters, from Anguissola to Zandomeneghi, is a showroom of sumptuousness; a busty, broiling fleshpot.

116-1613_imgThough radical for its time, Renaissance art wasn’t a discovery of physical voluptuous so much as a resurrection of it. The glory inherent in the naked form—its sheer vitality, passion, turgidity and especially, its sexuality—had been a defining theme of the Greeks and Romans for millennia. Greco-Roman figures, sculpted and painted during the centuries before and immediately after the birth of Christ, are vigorous and poised, athletic and graceful, both beautiful and threatening, and as beings, quintessentially virile.

Medieval figures

Medieval figures

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, this style was repressed for a thousand years, giving rise to the solemn, shadow-free art of the Middle Ages. The most striking feature of Byzantine art, for example, is its flatness. Depth is shunned; there are no three-dimensional people. Human beings are seen as saint-like and pious, not lusty creatures driven to fruitful multiplication by our time-honored tradition of hanky-panky. The subjects in medieval art are never nude—instead, they are clad resplendently in robes and often crowned with golden halos. As a representative whole they are serene, stylized and sexless people, which means, by biological standards, they are not people at all. Unlike the squirming figures depicted in Renaissance art, Medieval paintings contain no roiling, hyper-pumped physiques, no bounteous breasts, no impending physical energy from flexing muscles—and no penises.

penisThe celebration of human anatomy by Renaissance artists—especially (and specifically) Christ’s penis, was not an appeal to our baser instincts, but the opposite. Christ is portrayed as totemically human, a godhead on a brief earthly hiatus—and the most fundamental demonstration of his manhood is his manhood. His assumption of a mortal coil is not meant to be sexual except, perhaps, in the abstract; Christ is eternally chaste. But it is an embrace of our physiology and is meant to demonstrate his indelible link to humankind.

As such, the non-divine, non-chaste characters in Renaissance art, writhing and tactile, pressing flesh into flesh and churning with lust, demonstrate an indelible love for the experience of living and loving.

Renaissance ravers

Renaissance ravers

This aggressively naturalistic style of painting is often referred to as ‘Florentine’ because its seeds were sown in the 13th century by Florence-born artist Giotto di Bondone. Giotto’s figures were among the first to wear genuine human expressions rife with drama and emotion. Like most progress of the era, this interpretive style was derailed during the Black Death (1346-1353), but the Florentine School re-ignited in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries with the emergence of the movement’s most lauded geniuses, Michelangelo, Fra Angelico, Donatello, Lippi, Masaccio and Botticelli.

Brunello Brown-Nosing

Meanwhile, fifty miles south of Florence, the town of Montalcino enjoys one of the warmest and driest climates in Tuscany. The region’s heralded wine is produced from Sangiovese—the grape that is to Tuscan wine what fresco is to the Sistine Chapel: Raw material awaiting the master’s caress.

Montalcino

Montalcino

Brunello de Montalcino was the first Italian wine region to be awarded the designation of Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), and today, there are about two hundred producers who make it. The unscored history of wine in the region probably dates to the Etruscans, who domesticated these hills ten thousand years ago, but the first mention of the potent wines of Brunello occurred in the 14th century—the era of the Renaissance’s blast-off. That was the point when people were still calling the grape itself Brunello, which means ‘brown’, and it wasn’t until 1879 that the Province of Siena’s Amphelographic Commission realized the grape was actually Sangiovese.

Sienna, according to my Old Masters oil painting kit, also means ‘brown’, although what ‘Amphelographic’ means is anybody’s guess.

In a perfect incarnation, Brunello di Montalcino is big, fleshy and voluptuous, never angular, ever rotund and powerful—the Rubens of reds. And in Tuscany, as convincingly as in the Piedmont, nobody comes consistently closer to hedonistic perfection than Angelo Gaja.

Angelo Gaja

Angelo Gaja

At 76, Angelo Gaja still works his family’s eponymous estate as he has since 1961, the vintage that produced a Barbaresco hailed as ‘the most profound bottling of its designation ever produced.’ By that point, the Gajas had been making wine in the Piedmont since 1859, and enjoyed an unwavering reputation for their commitment to quality. Angelo inherited a legacy, and he might have gone the path of least resistance: That of the dutiful heir following protocol, heralding in another century of solid, reliable, traditional wine. In general, creative trailblazing has been frowned upon in Italy—as mentioned above, it took hidebound Italian artisans a millennium to rediscover the scrotum. When it comes to cutting edges, wine has been no exception.

But Angelo Gaja is an innovator—this is a man who in 1978 ripped out an established Nebbiolo vineyard in the middle of Barbaresco and planted Cabernet Sauvignon, then named the plot after his father’s horrified exclamation ‘Darmagi!’, Italian for ‘What a pity!’.

clipboardOf course, Angelo’s goal was never change for the sake of change—quality wine is the lifeblood of the Gaja name and the eternal objective of the estate. His boldest moves have been with an eye, nose and palate to upping the end game. Besides re-introducing Cabernet Sauvignon in Nebbiolo country, he pioneered the use of small barriques to soften the contours of rough, tannic Barbaresco, the better to extenuate the fruit-focused, titillating beauty he saw as intrinsic to the component grape. He idealized the rousing elegance and demure dignity of the region’s superstar and instilled a new interpretation within it, a new life—not dissimilar to the way Sandro Botticelli took the heavily robed female stick figures painted by his predecessors and gave them curves and personalities.

In Botticelli’s magnum opus, The Birth of Venus, the goddess stands in dynamic contrapposto, poised and relaxed, bold and modest simultaneously. Meanwhile, Wine Spectator proclaimed 1985 Gaja Barbaresco ‘the finest wine ever made in Italy’.

 Pieve Santa Restituta

Pieve Santa Restituta

And true to Italy Angelo Gaja remains. In 1989, approached by Robert Mondavi for a joint venture in California, Gaja concluded that it would be like ‘a mosquito having sex with an elephant: very dangerous and not much pleasure’. But Tuscany proved a different matter. In 1994, Angelo Gaja bought a controlling interest in Pieve Santa Restituta in the southwest subzone of Brunello di Montalcino. Named for the 4th Century parish church of Saint Restituta, the property consists of forty chalky acres of hillside a thousand feet above sea level. The considerable energy of the Piedmont-based Gaja clan has been funneled into Montalcino for this project, and the first release came in 2005 to the same plaudits they’ve received in the north. The wine is blended from the estate’s top sites in Sugarille, Santo Pietro, Castagno and Pian dei Cerri, and sees twelve months in barriques and another year in large, thirty-year-old casks.

Pieve Santa Restituta Brunello di Montalcino, 2011, about $75

2011 was an interesting growing season in Tuscany, with heat from Africa pushing temperatures so high through August that harvest happened three weeks early. This was to preserve freshness, as grape acids tend to fall off quickly during prolonged heat waves. Some drought conditions were observed in central Italy, but in the deep soils of Montalcino, Sangiovese remained crisp and crunchy and nicely resistant to fluctuations in the water table.

psr_brunello-nvlabel300dpiStructure and polish are table stakes for a Gaja Brunello, but the lusciousness here is astonishing: There is cold red brilliance in the nose, and I imagine that if the Sunrise Ruby cast a scent, this would be it. Luxe, concentrated fresh cherry notes are underscored by red currant and wood smoke; the mouth is whistle sharp and layered with fruit and tertiary notes of juniper, truffle, and cinnamon. The tannins are settled, but by no means restrained—this is wine to survive another decade in the cellar, but if you serve it tonight, go with a slab of red meat—the color of both the wine and the flowing locks of Botticelli’s Venus.

Is Angelo Gaja the Giotto of the Italian wine renaissance? In my mind, the question is rhetorical. Of course he is. In Tuscany, he is also the Botticelli, and perhaps he is also his namesake, Michelangelo, rolled into a single, vital, contemporary package.

His wines have the heft of the Deity’s finger extended to Adam, the carnal candor of naked David poised with his weapon and the svelte sensuality of Venus rising heavenward from her symbolic, scallop-shell vulva.

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Why My Books Now Cost Thirteen Billion Dollars Each

My youngest daughter is one of those kids who pops an anti-ADHD pill every morning to get through the school day and also, probably—being that it’s an amphetamine—to lose weight. For each pill she wolfs down with her Honey Bunches of Oats, I pay a dollar out of my own pocket, but I also pay thousands of dollars in health insurance premiums every year so that Blue Cross will condescend to pick up the rest.

My little junkie

My little junkie

The pills, with no insurance, are ten dollars each.

That’s a lot of money for something with 20 mg. of active ingredient. In fact, it’s fifty cents per milligram.

To level set, a milligram is what the brain of a honeybee weighs. The smallest snowflake you’ve ever seen in your life? That weighs a milligram. It takes a thousand milligrams to equal the weight of a paper clip.

The mondo milligram mega-moolah filters quickly into the pockets of Teva Pharmaceuticals, the drug’s current manufacturer. Considering they bought the rights to the medication in 2008 after a daisy chain of mergers and corporate purchases, how much ownership they may claim to the original overhead R&D costs is open to speculation.

My speculation is: Not much.

Dr. Spin

Dr. Spin

In any case, Big Pharma is always trying to explain why a glorified aspirin costs a year’s salary, and in order to explain it in such a way that normal people can’t see through the placebo pretext, they pay exorbitant year’s salaries to their public relation spin doctors: Doctors with M.D.s in Mucho Deflection.

It reminds me of the way Congressmen—most of whom are millionaires—try to explain why they deserve raises but the kid with pimples and a college loan doesn’t.

In Cliff’s Notes format, the plea that the world’s biggest narcotraficantes enter as mitigating circumstances for charging people so much money for drugs to save their lives that they wish they were dead boils down to three basic premises:

Funcle%2bsam%2bbig%2bpharmairst, the market for many drugs is very small; perhaps only a few thousand people on earth suffer from a given ailment, and if they want a cure, they have to bear the full brunt of hidden costs. Second, research is expensive, and the industry maintains that it takes a decade and well over $1 billion to get a new drug approved. Lastly, the primary competition for brand drugs is generics, and for a number of the reasons, far fewer drugs are coming off patent these days.

What the spin docs don’t tell you is that an equally valid reason for the price gouging is that the US government doesn’t regulate sticker shock; drug makers set prices based entirely on what the other guy is charging. And there’s the rub: For many drugs, there is no other guy, and the maker has a de facto monopoly. Not only that, but patents last longer in the United States than most other countries, giving the producer exclusivity designed specifically to prevent competition.

The result of all that is that I pay a dollar so that my insurance company can pay hundreds of dollars so that the Teva can make millions of dollars and the industry billions of dollars, all on the back of my sweet little snookey-kins and her focus-itis.

The Oldest Trick in My Book

Martin S. taking it seriously

Martin S. taking it seriously

Ever since that smarmy, ‘bro’-saying evil genius Martin Shkreli raised the price of Daraprim from thirteen bucks a pill to $750—thus becoming the poster child for everything we hate about big business and everything we love about the American dream—those of us not invited to the toxoplasmosis pity party saw opportunity where holier-than-thou Samaritans saw problems. Shkreli’s justification for the 5000% price hike was the usual cover story: R&D costs and no competition, even though there should have been competition since the Daraprim patent expired in 1953.

From a purist’s perspective of capitalism, it should come as no surprise that Shkreli’s primary motivation was profit, although you could easily argue that the ensuing publicity shitstorm outweighed the income.

How to Out-Shkreli Shkreli

514ixzharul-_sx331_bo1204203200_Nevertheless, by coincidence or by divine providence, it so happens that the last couple of books I foisted upon the public list at the magical, tragical price of $13—identical to the pre-Shkreli tariff for Daraprim. Now, my prose may not cure malaria, but it is a reasonable antidote for boredom, television, homework and lawn maintenance, and I think I can say without fear of argument that when it comes to raking leaves and putting up storm windows, most of us would rather have malaria.

At this stage in my career, with no Pulitzers or Nobel Prizes on my mantel, or even a mantel to put a Pulitzer on if I had one, I see no reason why I should continue to travel the high road when it comes to pricing.  Heads up, folks: If you have not yet purchased one of the laudable library of Kassel opuses at the low, everyday price of thirteen dollars per, then I must say, kind and gentle reader, that it sucks to be you.

51ra3zopvxl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Because, seizing upon the business model set by St. Shkreli, Patron Saint of Fuck You, Pay Me, I am henceforth raising my book prices. And not to Turing Pharmaceuticals’ outrageous highway robbery price of $750 each, but to the World Bank grand larceny price of $13 billion each.

Of course, lest you think my heart is no bigger than a honeybee’s brain, I am prepared to support this price hike using the Big Pharma matrix:

  1. No Price Controls

Unlike many countries where government agencies negotiate prices for every word published, the US government doesn’t regulate prices on literature. Here, we chapter-makers set our wholesale prices based on what competing authors charge and whether we think our book is better.

  1. Lengthy Patents

Copyright laws in the United States last the life of the author plus seventy years. Since I sold my soul to Satan (coincidentally) the day before those naked photos of Ashley Tisdale surfaced, I have already squandered my afterlife. Thus, I need my cash now.

  1. Limited Competition

8f825fe25cd53c041199c219e5a02ea5_largeGuys, I don’t want to put too fine a point on it and come across as egotistical, but let’s get real. Nobody writes better books than me. Not only that, but nobody ever has. And I should know, I’ve read them all, from coloring books produced by Miss Ryan’s second grade Special Ed class to Kalki Krishnamurthy’s million word, five volume Ponniyin Selvan which took me seven years to get through and required me to learn a new language. I’ve read every single volume in the Library of Congress twice and I was peering over the shoulder of Dr. Linzey as he re-translated the definitive King James Bible from the Masoretic text and the Textus Receptus.

The upshot? I’m better.

  1. Small Markets
Typical Kassel readers

Typical Kassel readers

That said, I do write for a somewhat exclusive market; my demographics are universally well-educated, extremely intelligent beefcake men with outsized genitalia and superhuman strength, while the women in my audience are, to an X chromosome, brilliant scholarly-types with advanced degrees from elite universities, humongous dinglebobbers, bodacious badonkadonks and a compulsive need to send me erotic texts. It is my business strategy that at least a few of you are also heirs to idiotically large fortunes.

  1. Development and Production Costs

Duh. To write wine books I have to drink a lot of wine, which is not exactly cheap, except for the stuff that winemakers and publicists send me for free, which is the only stuff I’m willing to review. And every day, I have to not go to law school and become a highly paid attorney because I can’t be two places at once and I have to be home writing books for you guys.

lake-michigan-sunset-with-dune-grass-mary-lee-dereskeResearch is another dimension to the costs I incur to create works of high art, especially fiction, which is drawn from my manifold experiences on this complex journey through life. You may not be able to assign a price tag to the perfume of your newborn’s breath, the joy of watching your son kiss his bride on the altar, the majestic marvel  you feel as a cold-fire sunset paints Lake Michigan gold beyond the Great Bear sand dunes, but I can:

Thirteen fucking billion dollars.

512ocnggrslThat’s it, kids. I acknowledge that raising my individual book prices to $13 billion will cut into my readership, although I am sufficiently business savvy to offer a one-time 5% discount if you pay cash and order before midnight tonight.

Otherwise, if you don’t think I’m worth it, boo-hoo. You’re not my type of customer anyway. Go read your Grishams and your Gabaldons, or if you are a person of faith, your Gods. Real readers accept the rising cost of genius. And the math is in my favor.

Currently I have seven titles on amazon, and unlike Shkreli, who relies on volume and dying-person desperation, all I need to sell is one lousy book.

https://www.amazon.com/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A283155%2Cp_27%3AChris%20Kassel

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Wine-Free Column: Hanoi Jane’s Children

imageA few years ago, I had the odd experience of visiting the original Hanoi Hilton, the prisoner-of-war camp where McCain, and hundreds of other American soldiers, were held during the Vietnam War.

It’s now a museum, and if ever there existed an example of ‘history is written by the victors’, it’s here.  Remember, North Vietnam was ready to surrender after the Tet Offensive, but so much American dissent for the war was broadcast internationally that they decided to hang on for five more years—and finally won.

Meanwhile, 20,000 more American soldiers died, many inside the Hanoi Hilton.

hanoi-hilton-hoa-lo-16x9-0411-2_13860642634The Hanoi Hilton is now a museum with an entire wing dedicated to the history of the American anti-war movement.  Jane Fonda’s role has a room of its own. Despite the essential righteousness of the anti-war protests, you cannot escape the statistics that emerged from a thus-empowered North Vietnam:

20,000 more American soldiers died.

So, go ahead and protest the results of a lawful, democratic election:  It’s your right.

Go ahead and post endless anti-Trump memes and cartoons and clever plays on words: It’s your right.

Go ahead and let the rest of the world know that you think your country is batshit insane: It’s your right.

Just don’t lose sight of the fact that those who despise the United States on principal are loving every minute of it.  They feed on American divisiveness and thrive on American self-loathing, especially over a circumstance that, quite frankly, we chose in the very sort of democracy which we wish to sprinkle over those less enlightened masses.

However, if you need reasons to think again about any of it, I think I just offered you 20,000 of them.

 

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A Must Muscadet

‘What can you say ‘bout Muscadet that’s not about lemons and briny spray?’

Like me, you probably have an image of Muscadet that begins on a scale of steely simplicity and works down to utter vinous neutrality. The region, on Loire’s far left, butting the Atlantic Ocean, relies on a grape so innately forgettable that most people forget about a second after they learn the name.

Melon de Bourgogne

Melon de Bourgogne

Want proof? Ask a roomful of people who dabble in wine knowledge what varietal goes into Muscadet and I’ll give you a dollar for every one that says Melon de Bourgogne if you’ll give me a dime for every one that doesn’t.

The wines from this strange little appellation were originally grown for distilleries, like the insipid sippers made from Cognac’s one-dimensional Ugni Blanc. At least Burgundy was planted by lusty Romans; Melon de Bourgogne found its way to Loire via the race least likely to know anything about viticulture other than the headhunters of Papua New Guinea: The Dutch.

The vines in Pays de la Loire used to be red, but after a frost in 1709 froze them all to the ground, the Wooden Shoe Brigade marched in and planted a cold-hardy white varietal then on the decline in Burgundy. The intention was to produce eaux de vie, but for myriad horticultural reasons, the grape did better in the Loire than it had in , and the iconic wine called Muscadet has been a mainstay of the region ever since—the wine that many Europeans consider to be the best shellfish match on the planet.

Dutch sandwich

Dutch sandwich

Why do we call it ‘Muscadet’? Whereas it’s obvious that telling people that your wine is made out of Melon leaves room for cantaloupe confusion, it seems strange to settle on a name destined to be confused with Muscat and/or Muscadine, two separate and unrelated species, or Muscatel—a fortified sugary wine for hobos. But again, we are dealing with the Dutch, a race that eats chocolate sandwiches, say ‘Hi!” when they’re leaving and respond to everything else with “Tsjonge, jonge, jonge, jonge, jonge.”

In any case, the Muscadet appellation was only made official in 1937 and includes three sub-regions: Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu and the miniscule Muscadet-Coteaux de la Loire, which is smaller than a square mile. At over 20,000 acres, Sèvre et Maine is the region’s powerhouse—something that proved a detriment during Muscadet’s first wave of trendy popularity in the 1980s, when high-volume négociants encouraged Melon overplanting, much of it on land that was better suited to growing actual melons.

Overplanted Melon

Overplanted Melon

As a result, there was a glut of cheap, watery Muscadet on the market for many years, doing indelible damage to the brand.

In its textbook, and perfectly lovely incarnation, a Muscadet is desert dry, bright with acidity, demonstrative of an elusive sense of minerality that may show up as a slight, pleasant saltiness and even a bit prickly from carbon dioxide dissolved during the bottling process. But above all, the paradigm version displays an underlying richness from a period the wine spends aging on the lees; the residual yeast particles formed during fermentation.

In balanced measures, these attributes equal a shivery, steely—although often relatively simple—sip.

Michel Brégeon Re-Invents The Steel

Michel Brégeon

Michel Brégeon

In 2011, a cru communaux system was developed in Muscadet, intended to designate superior growing regions within the appellation. The first three named were Clisson, Le Pallet and Gorges.

I assume that there are more of them available in France, but in my secluded corner of the wine world, it is rare to encounter a Muscadet with the creamy depth of these exclusive crus, where a slightly different soil structure and an extended growing season produces riper grapes; older vines produce fruit with more intensity, and thus, the Muscadets, though not quite on steroids, tend to be pumped versions of generic tasting Sèvre et Maines.

img_4537_largeDomaine Michel Brégeon has been a leading advocate of these small, intense, privileged plots. His Gorges vineyard, for example, is less than twenty acres. It is built on gabbro soils, locally called ‘green rock’—acidic, decomposed granite that helps the vines assimilate micronutrients. Combined with ripe harvests from vines that are, on average, 50 years old and prolonged aging on spent lees in underground, glass-lined vats until bottling (up to seven years at times), the wines develop a structural backbone that allows for that most rare of Muscadet phenomena: Traction—an innate ability to get better, not worse, with age.

The wine I sampled from Brégeon, ‘Gorges’ 2013, was still youthful and vibrant, and probably will not reach an optimal maturity for another five or six years. It opens with a yeasty, late-harvesty nose of honey and pineapple, leading into a crisp palate filled with green apple, mint and notably, smoke.

Yet, somehow, the lemon notes that so typify the region remain intact, as an undercurrent that buoys the complexity.

220px-tulipomaniaMaybe that’s the lesson learned from the Dutch, who, fifty years before they got into vineyard management, were in the midst of Tulpenmanie—Tulip Mania, considered the first recorded speculative bubble in economics, during which virtually every soggy bog of reclaimed land was planted to bulbous show flowers.

Rewritten for Muscadet, that old saying goes:

“If life hands you lemons, plant more Melon.”

 

 

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