‘Science takes a giant leap… backward.’
That was a line from some old television commercial that aired when I was a kid; I can’t remember the product, but I do remember the tag line, which probably doesn’t say much for the ad agency that came up with it since their only justification on earth is to make twits like me remember to buy anything that the jingle tells me to.
Anyway, it seems like every time I attend Detroit’s International Auto Show, which is every year they have one, which is every single year since I was watching black and white commercials on an RCA console, the crowd-pleasing concept cars just keep getting uglier and uglier—and I can’t figure out why.
I can figure out why, say, in 2012, every American small town is hideous to drive through, when—back in the Golden Age of concept cars; ‘40’s and ’50’s—they were quaint, lovely places where you wanted to move, marry a blonde calico-skirted virgin and raise kids named Buddy and Sis, but today, thanks to McDonalds, Taco Bell, Dollar General and Rite Aid, every small town in the United States looks like Dante’s Vestibule of Hell as you enter and a cross between Mordor and Malebolge as you exit, and worse, like they’re all made of ticky-tacky and were squeezed out of a giant municipal Play-Doh extrusion press. But that’s cash-flow, tax revenue and for-a-few-cents-cheaper-than-Mom-and-Pop-can-do-it—nothing more.
But automotive design? Why should it cost any more or less to design something sublime, cool, transcendent and beautiful than something atrocious, graceless, clumsy and crude?
That’s just it: It shouldn’t and it doesn’t.
So, even though this is a column about wine, the photos accompanying it will all be concept cars, some built, others not—the ones on the left from the previous century, the ones on the right from the 2000’s.
You tell me if I’m off base here or if our favorite car companies would be better served hiring designers that can exercise that side of their brains dedicated to poetry, style and macho posturing rather than that the side of the brain dedicated to conceptualizing clunky earth-first dorkmobiles aimed at tasteless vegans.
But anyway, about that wine:
Volk’s Wagonload of Concept: The fact that by his own admission the varietals he produces are ‘hand-sell marketing burdens in most channels’ doesn’t stop Kenneth Volk of Lodi’s Silvaspoons Vineyards (formerly of Wild Horse Winery) from barreling forward with such outré oeno offerings as torrontés, negrette and trousseau, which he further describes as ‘under-appreciated heirloom varietals’. He reminds us, however, that he may in fact be a vino visionary since wines like viognier and syrah did not take off for a long time, and now are some of the most sought after new-wave wines in California.
You Can’t Quite Get a Handle on Randall: Grahm’s cracker wines include the inimitable Le Cigare Volant and multi-grape Contra—which the Bonny Doon web site dutifully explains is pronounced ‘kon-truh’ for those of you who would otherwise pronounce it ‘schik-uhl-groo-buhr’—but none of his wines are so odd in concept as ‘DEWN’. Referred to as a ‘Viognier Port’—even though international convention discourages using the word ‘Port’ on a wine not from Douro, Portugal, the world’s oldest regulated and demarcated wine region—Grahm does it anyway. He pulls viognier from the Chequera Vineyard in Paso Robles, then halts fermentation with strawberry and peach eau-de-vie along with a little neutral brandy, and produces a toasty, nutty, hauntingly lovely cordial that weighs in at 8% residual sugar.
ASPCA—The American Society to Profit from Cruelty to Animals: You can sleep easily in the knowledge that $29 of every $30 you spend on Frenchie Napoleon wine will not be going to aid abused and unwanted pets, and that the buck that will go to the ASPCA is a highly promoted PR stunt. Named for the bulldog owned by Frenchie Winery proprietor Jean-Charles Boisset, the Frenchie Napoleon label depicts said mutt dressed not as Napoleon from Animal Farm (known for his demagogical cruelty toward livestock), but as Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who suffered famously from ailurophobia—an irrational fear of felines—and is reported to have stabbed a stray one to death in his tent following the Battle of Wagram.
‘Fess up Parker: What’s In There?: When the final sun sets upon the penultimate horizon—as it did for Daniel Boone in 1820, Davy Crockett in 1838 and Fess Parker in 2010—I think the wine gods will agree that a $14 blend of syrah, grenache, petite sirah, mourvedre, cinsault and carignane in which the winemaker Blair Fox refuses to divulge vintages is what we call, in technical jargon, ‘leftovers’. Crazy like a fox, that Fox.
Lose/Lose Wincarnis: This odd ‘tonic’ wine, first produced in 1887, blends wine and malt extract with therapeutic botanicals like gentian root, mugwort, angelica root, balm mint, fennel, coriander, peppermint leaves, cardamom seeds and cassia bark. It’s often mixed with gin to make a cocktail called a ‘Gin and Win’ and is hugely popular in Jamaica, home to another popular therapeutic botanical.
When is a Pinot Noir not a Pinot Noir? When it’s 24% mondeuse, apparently—just ask Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, who responded to the clarion call for an under $20 California pinot with his Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir. Now, I thought that for an appellation wine to carry a varietal name on the label, it had to be 85% that varietal, but evidentially Santa Barbara County—listed as an appellation in Appellations America—gets a pass. In any case, whereas he has indeed kept his pinot beneath the ceiling price, he may have missed our point: The wine is supposed to taste like a pinot noir, too. Mondeuse is an interesting enough grape, believed by some to be a genetic parent of syrah, but one thing is clear: There’s a sound viticultural principal behind its usual blending companions, shiraz and cabernet. That is, it tends to be big and brambly and can—and in this case does—overwhelm the subtle majesty that true pinot-philes crave.
Louisiana Wine: The quaint, oft-repeated fact that ‘wine is now produced in all fifty states’ fails to take heed of another important fact: Just because it can be produced everywhere doesn’t mean it should be. Take the Bayou State. Yeah, yeah, I know—Louisiana has historic cultural ties to France and Spain and is the gastronomic capital of the bloody galaxy, but dudes, Louisiana is a big humid swamp where even the heartiest hybrid and most long-suffering labrusca grape comes down with downy mildew and Pierce’s Disease quicker than a Lance Armstrong doping denial. Four commercial Louisiana wineries are now producing about 20,000 gallons of AVA wine per year, mostly from the unremarkable cynthiana, muscadine and blanc du bois varietals, but fortunately, that quantity barely satiates Mardi Gras reveler for twenty-four hours, so none is left to foist upon the rest of us.