Sunday, December 14, 2014

From the slopes of an American Olympus...

an ideal label - simple, elegant, evocative.                                                                            
        Last week I tasted a sangiovese that was vinified from grapes grown adjacent to Thomas Jefferson's original plot at Monticello. The vintner, Gabriele Rausse, has for decades made the wine behind various Virginia labels, including his own, and is the closest thing the state has to a living viticultural father. Assistant director of gardens and grounds at Monticello, Rausse works in the literal shadow of Jefferson's dream and in some instances contributes to it. In levis and sweater, bareheaded except in the worst weather, he holds in rough hands the botanical progeny of Jefferson's early efforts.
   Rausse's Monticello sangiovese is imminently drinkable, with a lively nose and good body and balance. I approached this example of Jeffersonian terroir nervously, tasting what I imagined to be an earthy moral component for which there will thankfully never be an adequate wine-writerly descriptor.                      

Friday, December 5, 2014

I spent it all in Memphis

“Look”-ing

James Conaway takes readers on a photographic tour of the “forgotten” Fifties.

The colorful, poolside image by photographer Frank Bauman seems harmless enough.
Bauman was on assignment for Look, and in April 1959, he’d been sent by the magazine to illustrate the Sunshine State for a story that examined “expanding” Florida. The state was rapidly becoming a “new frontier” for retirees, job seekers, and college kids on spring break, which is what we have in that poolside image: two young, white couples engaging in some diving-board horseplay; in the foreground, white vacationers taking in the sun; in the middle ground, a line of cars blocking the beach view; and, on the horizon, the blue sea and big sky.
The image is reproduced on the cover of The Forgotten Fifties: America’s Decade from the Archives of Look Magazine (Skira Rizzoli) by James Conaway (assisted by photo editor Amy Pastan; introduction by historian Alan Brinkley). But inside the pages of Conaway’s book, Bauman’s photograph faces another one that Bauman took: a black-and-white image that says a lot about Florida’s supposed frontier status. That photograph shows the entrance to a palm-reading shop in Miami — the door to the right labeled “White”; the door to the left labeled “Colored”; and slightly out of focus a pair of black men walking by, the entire image encircled by shadow to suggest that Bauman took the photo on the sly.
So, no. Maybe Florida wasn’t quite as “expanding” as the state would have readers of Look think. That picture of the pool isn’t quite what you think, either. Ask James Conaway.
“I was really struck by the image,” Conaway says in a phone interview. “It’s slightly sadistic. The guy on the high dive has clearly just frightened the girl off the board. The guy below is a frat boy. You can tell. He’s pushing a girl off the low board. Then there are the passive heads beside the pool, doing nothing. That, right there, says a lot about the 1950s.”
Indeed, it does, and so do the additional 200 photographs (many of them never published in the magazine) that Conaway culled from the Look archives in the Library of Congress — all of those photos from the 1950s and all of them with something to say about that difficult decade. Just how difficult for many Americans you may in fact have forgotten or never knew.
Conaway knows. He lives today in Washington, D.C., but he grew up in Memphis. And in addition to magazine articles too numerous to count, three novels (The Big EasyWorld’s End, and Nose), and several works of nonfiction (including a best-selling study of the California wine industry, Napa: The Story of an American Eden, and a collection of travel essays, Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes), in 1993 Conaway penned the best memoir of Memphis in the ’50s: Memphis Afternoons.
For The Forgotten Fifties, Conaway returns, year by year, to that decade, starting with a 1950 shot of American soldiers and Korean civilians walking in separate files on a single road (each file heading in opposite directions) and ending on a double-page spread of Jacqueline Kennedy in 1959, pictured at ease and in style but with a faraway look suggesting the dawn of a new era.
“She doesn’t know what’s on the way,” Conaway says of that look in her eyes. “And neither did Americans, who didn’t have a glimmer of what was coming.”
But Americans who flipped through the pages of Look in the 1950s saw a weekly report on who we’d become: commuting businessmen in gray flannel suits and a suburban housewife relaxing in a kiddie pool; Joseph McCarthy in black and white (hard to imagine him in color even in real life); Eisenhower in a motorcade at re-election time and Nixon in the kitchen with Khrushchev; Captain Kangaroo on the small screen and Montgomery Clift off the big screen (in a photo by a young Stanley Kubrick); Rocky Marciano in the ring and “Whitey” Ford on the field; “frosted food” in the grocery store cooler and the bunny hop in the basement rec room; grade school kids and their well-dressed moms in line for the polio vaccine; the American dream couple at Christmastime (in a photo featuring a collection of ideal gifts, among them: a vacuum cleaner and washing machine).
Signs of racial segregation depended on where you looked: a sports stadium; a dry cleaner. Cars were everywhere:  a drive-in restaurant and a drive-in laundry. To keep everybody on their toes, there was Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. And to keep everybody wondering, there was the laughing Kennedy clan on JFK’s wedding day in a photo from 1953, which inspires Conaway to comment:
“Whatever the joke is, it must be really funny. We’re happy to laugh along, but why do we have this sneaky feeling we’re never going to get it?”
That “we” Conaway uses here he also uses throughout The Forgotten Fifties. It’s an inviting, first-person plural approach to suggest that if Americans in the ’50s weren’t always in on the joke, in a national sense we were at least all in this together — “this” being a good question. To quote the double-edged title of Conaway’s opening chapter set in 1950: “What Were We Thinking?”
According to Conaway, “I didn’t want to do just another book about the ’50s. A lot of those books are cliched. Plus, it wasn’t such a great decade for a lot of Americans. But I wanted a special voice that fit the decade, and I didn’t want the writing to be from my own point of view. I wanted the book to read as if we were inside the head of a kind of collective American consciousness — to emulate, if possible, a reasonably well-educated American of the ’50s. I imagined how my father, my older brother, and older friends of the family would react to thumbing through copies of Look. Once that voice started to roll, I felt at ease. This voice from the past came back.”
Conaway himself recalls flipping through the pages of Look at Fletcher’s, his neighborhood drugstore, when he was a boy. But The Forgotten Fifties is more than an entertaining, thought-provoking extended essay. It’s the product of a journalist’s eye on the watch for arresting images, telling images. It’s an artistic eye too.
Conaway, the grandson of Commercial Appeal editorial cartoonist J.P. Alley and a son who grew up smelling the linseed oil in his artist mother’s work space, has, in addition to his writing, taken up painting as well. It’s trained him to look closely at the components of an image, and it helped him edit through the Look archives. That critical eye serves him well when summing up not only the ’50s but the change in imagery at the close of the book.
“By the end of the decade, people were beginning to see the promise of the early ’50s as not necessarily fulfilled,” Conaway says. “The Korean War had not reached a satisfying conclusion. Joseph McCarthy’s effect on the country — a fear of government — was being felt. The expectations of the civil rights movement — not a lot had happened by the end of the decade. Eisenhower was finished. And people were looking with some misgivings at Nixon.”
No mistaking the project James Conaway says he’s been working on for some time now. It’s a novel. The period is the 1950s. The story is only indirectly autobiographical. But the setting, again, is Memphis, Tennessee.

James Conaway wants readers of Memphis magazine to know that Memphis Afternoons, his first two novels (which includes a rewritten version of World’s End), and his journey through the American West, Kingdom in the Country, have all been reissued in paperback, and they’re available on Kindle.
This article appears in the  November 2014 issue of Memphis Magazine

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Men needed something between them and the sky

                                                                         1954
              Those hats. Not the fact that so many men wear them, but their uniformity – squarely positioned, broad-brimmed but not too broad. Looking good matters, although none of the men on the train platform seems aware of mirrors or anything else that might interfere with their orderly procession into Park Forest, Illinois, one of Look’s All American Cities. The hats vary slightly – different dents, crowns, colored bands – but collectively comprise a vast, ambulatory canopy above the city’s – and nation’s - male-hood, protecting it as much from powerful forces difficult to comprehend as from rain and sun.
“Let the face determine brim width,” Look advises men looking for a hat. “Correct business attire demands a hat,” and buying and wearing one meet the two clear, over-riding social concerns in the dead center of the American century: conformity, and consumption.
                  
                         (From The Forgotten Fifties)
To see my bio, click on: http://cjonwine.blogspot.com/2014/09/heres-my-new-bio.html
For other, newly-released titles, go to:
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Friday, November 28, 2014

A plastic pool of one's own

                                                                                  
The kids in the portable pool on the lawn are rambunctious, but not too, their bodies bright in the sun, the shadows starkly defined. There’s something touching about the little boy’s eyeglasses, like his seriousness: He’s going to enjoy himself, period.
Mom has her own pool and is reading a magazine, either enjoying or improving herself, maybe both. Her arms are propped on the blow-up pool sides, and the bright plaid one-piece bathing suit and sunglasses become her. So do the raised knee and polished toenails. There’s another, empty blow-up pool on a neighbor’s porch, leaning against the wall; it’s hot in Park Forest and everybody’s going to make the best of it when they get the chance.
                   

   At the conclusion of the last war, 800,000 women were fired from jobs in the aircraft, automotive and other industries, to make way for men. Women belong in the home now, using their “pretty heads” to advance their husbands’ careers. They try to look sexy and house-bound at the same time, one-piece bathing suits for beauty contests and for sitting in the kiddy pool in leafy neighborhoods far from a city. Skirts are long, underwear powerfully conforming. Matrons look matronly, but then so do teenagers, many of whom are taking up sewing “two-piece patterns.” Women still on America’s assembly lines look neither matronly nor, even if pretty, remotely like the women on magazine covers who seem to have been poured into molds dusted with pancake makeup, teeth preternaturally white, their auroras of hair luminously, lusciously blonde, their good humor painfully intense.
               (from The Forgotten Fifties)                                                                       
To see my bio, click on: http://cjonwine.blogspot.com/2014/09/heres-my-new-bio.html
For other, newly-released titles, go to:
To order my novel, Nose, click on:  
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Monday, November 24, 2014

Remember the 'fifties? Maybe not...

What's largely forgotten is McCarthy, women's prescribed "place" in the world, segregation, more.
                                                                               
                                                                                           
Black kids without shoes, and white babies with new ones, sitting on the laps of black nannies whose expressions say more than any words – not just their inequality and doubt, but also perseverance and… could that be irony?       
                           
  

The shot of the cop on the bench and the old Negro man with a cane confuses. Is the cop mad at the photographer, or at the Negro. The latter holds his hat in his hand and gazes off to one side, patient, knowing he’s not allowed to sit. Is he waiting for the tension, or whatever’s causing it, to be dismissed along with him, or does he see something coming that we can’t?
                    From my new book, The Forgotten Fifties (Rizzoli/Library of Congress) 

To see my bio, click on: http://cjonwine.blogspot.com/2014/09/heres-my-new-bio.html
For other, newly-released titles, go to:
To order my novel, Nose, click on:  
To order my book of travel essays go to:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Re-purposing III: Day into night

                                                             
                                                         Night Job, oil on canvas,
                                       
      This painting started out as a kind of colorized negative of a 1954 Ford pickup I owned years ago and sold to Brian Noyes, for whom it (and a subsequent '54 bought from Tommy Hilfiger ) served as inspiration for Brian's bakery, Red Truck. That's in Warrenton, Va., with another to open in Little Washington, Rappahannock County, not far from the Inn.
      I thought the original painting lacked subtlety and the colors were too bright, and decided to paint something else. I began sanding the canvas, and the dimmer the pickup became, the more interesting it got. 
      Originally it was dimly lit, most of the light on the outside of the shed, but in the new painting the exterior became night (with the assistance of Prussian blue painted on and then wiped off) and the blossoms on the clinging honeysuckle barely visible. The interior of the shed was now suffused with light from a hidden bulb, while truck itself with its raised hood assumed the ghostly reality of the not-so-distant past, almost medieval in its technical simplicity.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Mystery, heft, provenance: Tequila

The secret's out: Agave reigns.
From Intelligent Travel, the National Geographic's primo website
http://intelligenttravel.nationalgeographic.com/2014/11/07/tequila-101/

Tequila 101

The ritual looked simple enough: Lick the back of your hand, sprinkle salt on it, lick the salt, knock back a jigger of distilled cactus juice, and suck a lime wedge. Trouble is, those things tended to get mixed up: lime preceded salt, tequila followed, everything dribbling from my chin as the ritual was repeated. Nobody gave a damn, though—until the next morning.
That was a long time ago, of course, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Since then my tequila drinking has gotten a bit more sophisticated and my tastes more expensive. But even behind the best tequila lurks the physical heat and spiritual intensity of the country of its origin, whether you’re drinking it by the shot (caballito) or in the heavenly embrace of lime juice con orange liqueur and shaved ice.
The gleam in the eyes of the men drinking in San Miguel back then was rooted not in demon worship but in that unique, slightly strange botanic wonder known as agave tequilana, that sprawling blue-gray plant suggesting a muscular, upended octopus with spines on the tentacles. It’s actually not a cactus but a cousin of the lily, the only reassuring thing about agave, which is grown in the states of Tamaulipas and, more notably, in Jalisco, where the town of Tequila is located.
Mescal is more or less the same stuff, but made from the maguey, or americana, variety of the agave down toward Oaxaca, and not entitled to the name, tequila (and not because a worm sometimes ends up in the bottle). The novelist, Malcolm Lowry, whose fine novel, Under the Volcano, is set in Mexico, described mescal as “ten yards of barbed wire.” Lowry wasn’t known for connoisseurship but for writing exquisite prose, under the auspices of serious hooch.
A farmer harvests an agave plant in Tequila, Mexico. (Photograph by celso, Flickr)
A farmer harvests an agave plant in Tequila, Mexico. (Photograph by celso, Flickr)
Jose Antonio de Cuervo was given land that included a small mescal factory some time in the late 17th century, but it’s tequila that eventually took over the market. To make it, the agave leaves are lopped off by experienced mescaleros and—for the good stuff—the hearts (piñas) extracted, tossed into a pit of smoldering charcoal, and shipped off to the distiller where they’re cooked and crushed. The fermented juice that’s produced is then distilled to about 150 percent alcohol and eventually cut with good water to about 80 percent.
For blanco, the tequila goes straight into the bottle, but for reposado it is aged first in wood casks, which gives it greater complexity and a warm, golden hue. Tequila may be the national drink of Mexico, but most of it goes down the gullets of Americans. It has progressed in the popular imagination from firewater for peasants to cozy fuel for the upwardly (and downwardly) mobile.
The good stuff should be drunk by itself, so go easy on that salt and lime wedge, which get in the way of the appreciation a well-made tequila deserves. There are many of those, including Patrón which is good but over-priced. One of the best so-called “single field” tequilas I have had is Ocho, which with its small-batch production and high standards is worth seeking out.
You won’t get a hangover from good tequila, unless you go rogue (that, admittedly, is a problem). For one thing, the alcohol level is generally lower in tequila than in vodka, gin, and so on, and tequila’s made not from grain but from fruit, a whole different category in the glorious tradition of CalvadosCognaceau de vie, etc.
Middling level good tequila—Espolón, say, or Hornitos—makes what I consider to be the very best warm weather drink, one with character and complexity and, yes, charm, plus your daily requirement of citrus. It’s known as the margarita. Best to make a small batch in a pitcher, with a quarter of a jigger max of Cointreau per drink, not the watery Triple Sec, and a couple of squeezed limes tossed into the mix. The essence of oil the fruits impart is crucial to the drink’s frisson.
Use good (un-iodized) sea salt for the rims of the glasses, which should be put in the freezer for a few minutes before the main event. The margarita is a noble drink, despite the fact that it was made famous by a plebeian. Jimmy Buffett sang of “that frozen concoction that helps me hang on.”
Let go is more like it.
James Conaway is a featured contributor for Intelligent Travel and writes for other publications devoted to travel, history, and culture. Read more from James on his wine blog and check out his latest book, Nose.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Re-purposing II: The hand of time (mine)...

                                                                                 
                                             (Home, oil on canvas, 24x18 inches )

       This painting started out as a conventional portrait of our place in Huntly, on the border of Rappahannock and Fauquier counties and close to the eastern base of the Blue Ridge mountains. But the colors were too bright and the mood too contemporary for what the house really is (there's been a stone foundation there for a very long time) - a retreat out of sight of any neighbor. So I decided to sand it down and paint something entirely different, but as the house faded beneath the sandpaper it took on authenticity, and pathos, an evocative memory in dim attic light. I put a coat of varnish on the image that remained and on impulse pressed my hand into the still-wet finish, leaving the truest signature I could - my fingerprints. I felt I had discovered a painting sometime in the future, with tactile affirmation of the dusty and long-forgotten.
     

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Re-purposing goes to the heart of it


                                             Cellphone Silo, Dawn (24x27, oil on canvas)    

        I recently took some of my older paintings that never really worked and leaned on them. With sandpaper. The intent was to eradicate the old images and paint something entirely new, yet I liked many aspects of the old paintings and regretted their loss.
      What happened next was a revelation.
      After sanding the paintings to get a smooth surface, but with vestiges of the old images remaining, I painted over them to create a new ground - with burnt umber, ultramarine blue, and/or orange. I let that dry and started gingerly sanding again, to even out the new surface, when old images forcefully emerged, transformed and in my opinion more powerful.
      This painting was reduced to its essential elements, but day's now night, and the horizontal lines suggest an unseen power, in this case of telecommunication, as well as the symbolic loss of a traditional farm building transformed into yet another instrument of the internet, with a forlorn beauty of its own.
         Cellphone Silo, Dawn doesn't show well on cell phones - the revenge of the Net - but is better experienced in person. It and others can be seen as part of the Rappahannock artists' show next weekend (Nov. 1), with headquarters at the firehouse in Little Washington but with most of the work of the artists on view in studios around the county. My work joins with other artists' in nearby Huntly, where directing signs will be set up on Hwy 522.
                                                                             
                                                                             

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Drinking bourbon, spitting Kahlua, recent southern presidents...

and maybe future First Husbands. Hillary's impending announcement brought to mind this piece I did for Garden & Gunand the question, "What would another four years of Bill be like?"


Michael Turek
BY JAMES CONAWAYWASHINGTON, D.C. 
Washington’s Southern ties may be fading, but it hasn’t entirely lost its drawl, especially when it comes to a few recent West Wing residents
       I came to Washington, D.C., the autumn Jimmy Carter was elected president and lived in the city through the protracted reign of George W. Bush, two distinct brackets indicating the South’s continuing influence. But how Southern were they? Carter’s religion was somewhat familiar to me, being an Episcopalian raised in Memphis, then home of the world’s largest Baptist church, but he seemed remarkably righteous even for a Baptist, and resolutely anti-Washington—those cardigans, and insisting upon carrying his own bag off Air Force One!
       When his chief of staff spat Kahlúa onto a girl’s bodice in a Georgetown bar, I thought, “That’s more like it.” But Carter disappointed a city that expects hauteur among its entitled. White House staffers were rarely seen in Sans Souci, a fancy French restaurant in the sixties and seventies, with its banquette in the middle of the floor for maximum exposure.
       Food other than peanuts didn’t seem to rank with Jimmy, who never knew the solace of fried chicken and collards at Thompson’s Lunch off U Street. He ran for reelection on the very un-Southern platform of “cold showers and root canals,” as one Washington commentator put it, and of course lost.
       George W. Bush was demonstrably less Southern than Jimmy by heritage and by geography, but a lot better at playing the part. At least W had once been a devoted corn drinker and knew how to hold a shotgun. He gave himself up willingly to beef, carbs, and melted cheese, even though it was often in, well, nachos. For W, foot- and other balls were the reason weekends were invented. Also afternoons.
       The accent was certainly from America’s Down Under, if also from Out There. Way Out There. His only lasting literary legacy may be the mismatch of singular verbs with plural objects (“There’s many people…”), now standard American usage. We all knew W wasn’t really Southern, of course, more the scion of a Connecticut Yankee in LBJ’s court whose avowed interest in pork rinds was embarrassing. Accepting entitlement was never a problem for father or son.
        For many Washingtonians, the most memorable thing about W’s presence was the daily ejection of Dick Cheney from the vice president’s mansion on Massachusetts Avenue, in a shrieking caravan of identical black SUVs bristling with destructive capability, an over-the-top showing-off that was distinctly un-Southern. (Okay, Gore did it too, but more quietly, and slower.) But then D.C. as Cowtown East was as much a shuck as the Bush bunch’s being by extension good old boys.
        It was President Kennedy, a Yankee, who said something about Washington being a blend of Northern hospitality and Southern efficiency. But Washington reflects its Southern exposure in a number of ways. Magnolias, crape myrtles, dogwoods, and cherry trees soften the contours, and the climate is closer to Richmond’s than Philadelphia’s due to an invisible weather line passing just to the north.

PagesBut the city overall has moved figuratively northward, according to a recent article in the Washington Post. “In the 150th anniversary year of the start of the Civil War, the region at the heart of the conflict has little left of its historic bond with Dixie.” Experts say that a linguistic line separating Southern from Northern accents today passes a mere forty-five miles north of Richmond, capital of the Confederacy.Baltimore, close by to the north, was a prominent slave market in the 1830s, and the District of Columbia linked to that industry. Many old families known as Cave Dwellers, who were here for the duration and not linked to any one administration, are still a fixture in Washington, and many of their forebears were Confederate sympathizers. The ring of forts built around the city was constructed as much to intimidate them as the Rebs, but no one in D.C. worries about Cave Dwellers defecting anymore. “How long have you lived here?” is at least an approximation of Southern pride of place and endures in D.C. Local politics is all about the Democratic party, an echo of a vanished past in most of the South now, and so in an odd way makes Washington more traditionally Southern than, say, Little Rock.                                        

      But the city overall has moved figuratively northward, according to a recent article in the Washington Post. “In the 150th anniversary year of the start of the Civil War, the region at the heart of the conflict has little left of its historic bond with Dixie.” Experts say that a linguistic line separating Southern from Northern accents today passes a mere forty-five miles north of Richmond, capital of the Confederacy.
       Baltimore, close by to the north, was a prominent slave market in the 1830s, and the District of Columbia linked to that industry. Many old families known as Cave Dwellers, who were here for the duration and not linked to any one administration, are still a fixture in Washington, and many of their forebears were Confederate sympathizers. The ring of forts built around the city was constructed as much to intimidate them as the Rebs, but no one in D.C. worries about Cave Dwellers defecting anymore.
        “How long have you lived here?” is at least an approximation of Southern pride of place and endures in D.C. Local politics is all about the Democratic party, an echo of a vanished past in most of the South now, and so in an odd way makes Washington more traditionally Southern than, say, Little Rock. 
       Washington has acquired some selfconsciously Southern restaurants—Acadiana, Blue Ridge, Bubba’s BBQ (in nearby but thoroughly ’burban Falls Church)—and it retains the status of northernmost city where grits are often served with breakfast as a matter of course. But Washington has become so sophisticated that the south of France is as likely an influence on the cuisine beyond a few soulful dives like the Florida Avenue Grill. The deepest Southern roots in D.C. are still about food, and most often in the black community.
       Efficiency has improved since Kennedy’s day, particularly if you’re interested in purchasing a tune-up for a BMW. Hospitality hasn’t necessarily if you’re not part of a recognizable influence center, Washington being as much about taking advantage of affiliation as talent. But if you can get beyond the opportunism, there are real people in your nation’s capital; the variety of their talents and generosity is awesome. An underground nexus of professional holdovers from Carter, Gore, and other Southern shape-shifters between government, moneymaking, and philanthropy keeps the embers glowing in Cleveland Park, Georgetown, and the inner burbs, helping in its way to blunt those Northern bristles.
        Between Carter and Bush there was that other Southern president, Bill Clinton. But Clinton wasn’t readily recognizable as Southern, despite all the stories about burgers and Astroturf in the pickup bed. The dramatic lip biting, and the wonkiness, were learned traits, and Bill was just a tad too together to be properly Southern. He remained an enigma to his briefly adopted city—including to those who almost lost their wives to the presidential limo as it departed cocktail parties, a smiling Pres in the half-opened door.

        When Clinton’s distant relatives came wandering out of the woods, a Southern presidential requisite (remember Billy Carter?), I thought things would improve. But this changeling was born-again of the Ivy League, not the Ozarks, and recognized early on the political and social advantages of professional Southernism, riding Dixie slick across exposed flanks on Capitol Hill and Wall Street.
        Clinton’s example brought out the worst in his fellow transplanted Southerners, even those who had adjusted to life in D.C. A journalist I know reverted to an accent as thick as Carolina vinegar and pulled pork. Late one night at a fancy party in Kalorama he turned to his wife and said, “Let’s piss on the fire and go home.”
       Clinton’s downfall was hilarious despite the damage, and lacking in the tragedy expected of a protagonist from the ole CS of A. He also lacked the grace to lie well, and the true regret required to be believed and forgiven, something most any Southerner could have explained to him.
      President Kennedy’s insights were really about the edgy nature of Washington, sitting as it does on the cusp of ultimate might and the hinterland. In what other city can you walk out of a meeting with some of the most powerful people in the world, cross a middling river or a highway, and encounter someone in camo trying to shoot a deer? Think of Washington as the eternal frontier, a twenty-first-century Jamestown, a St. Louis on the eve of western expansion, all about energy, ambition, and—too often—ideology, potentially enriching, and heartbreaking.
     Which brings me back to Carter.
     After he lost to Ronald Reagan but was still in the White House, Carter sat for the famous portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, and a friend of mine, an Alabaman and Karsh’s agent, asked if I would like to come along for the shoot. Naturally I said yes.
     It was December when we all gathered in the Oval Office. Carter had injured his shoulder skiing and was obviously in pain, but he stood beneath the bright lights, a gray presence on his way out, listening to the sound of hammers out on Pennsylvania Avenue where bleachers were going up for Reagan’s inaugural—the proverbial rising gallows. He made conversation without mentioning his troubles, personal or political; he didn’t balk at the tedium of portraiture. Then, smiling, he shook hands all round and went back to the nation’s business.
     While the photographer packed up his gear, my friend and I took turns lounging in the president’s chair, behind his desk, unimaginable behavior post-9/11. But I couldn’t get Carter the man out of my mind. He was gracious, stricken, real. Southern.

                                                                        ***

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

What's the proper subject of landscape painting in the age of calamity?



     
My oil painting, Thaw, hangs in the Robert Ballard gallery in Little Washington, Virginia,  just down the street from the Inn. Inherent in the painting's sharply contrasting complementary colors is a kind of violence and - I hope - a clear suggestion that it's not limited to a local scene but replicated the world over.
                                                   



Saturday, October 4, 2014

Yes, Texas does make good wine

... and that really was a dust storm I landed in.

Lost Draw Vineyards, near Brownfield, Texas


From the Oct/Nov issue of Garden and Gun:
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    I looked down from the 757 at crop circles cut in dirt by irrigators on wheels, a vast dun-colored landscape pinned to the geology by galloping telephone poles. The plane landed in a dust storm, with me trying to imagine how people—much less grapevines— lived here. I had come looking for the origins of the best wine in Texas, knowing that the state wins its share of medals in national wine taste-offs and has a glitzy, Napa-wannabe wine trail in the Hill Country near Austin and San Antonio. But I also knew that, if there was soul in those bottles, most likely it arrived in tanker trucks after a six-hour hard haul from much farther west, starting right here on the Texas High Plains.
    People like to say there’s nothing between the THP and the North Pole to stop the wind but barbed wire. The area is also called the Llano Estacado—the Palisaded Plain or, more commonly, the Staked Plain—and at up to 5,000 feet in altitude a testament to endurance and conquistadorial madness. Coronado passed through in 1541, looking for a city of gold, and found more or less what you find today with the exception of assorted structures protruding from the 360-degree horizon. Disoriented, harassed by Comanche, Coronado ordered his soldiers to drive stakes into the ground, according to local lore, so he could find his way back to Mexico.
    There were no fine wine grapes on the Llano Estacado in those days, but now dozens of European varieties of Vitis vinifera grow here, and from them flow good wine and good stories. Like that of the man who met me outside the Lubbock airport in an old pickup. He wore Levi’s, a plaid shirt, a down vest, and sneakers (cowboy boots don’t cut it on cold concrete winery floors). The crease in his graying beard was full of white teeth. “Gol-lee,” he said, “it’s almost seventy degrees, and tonight it’s dropping into the twenties. Welcome to West Texas.”
    He was Kim McPherson. His father, Doc McPherson, was a chemistry professor at Texas Tech and a true pioneer of the state’s modern-era wine industry. Back in the sixties, Doc and a colleague found vines that researchers had thrown out and planted them next to Doc’s patio, without knowing exactly what they were. Some flourished, proving that fine wine grapes could take the climate. (Doc also tried planting grapevines from Spain that one of his students had wrapped around the rims of a used VW Bug and smuggled over aboard a ship.) From these serendipities sprang an industry and a way of life no one predicted for the THP.
    In the seventies Doc and his friend started a winery called Llano Estacado on the outskirts of Lubbock. Though they later sold out, the winery remains part of the McPherson legacy and is now the second largest producer in the state, bottling upwards of 180,000 cases annually. Texas as a whole now makes about 1.2 million cases of wine a year, although it remains a vinous puppy compared with, say, Bordeaux or California. (Little Napa Valley alone produces enough grapes for some 9 million cases.)
    Wine was made in Texas out of various fruits from early on, but Prohibition shut down what little commercial production had once existed. Now, the industry is growing rapidly—270 wineries at last count. So far, however, the national swirl-and-sniff press hasn’t given Texas wine much good ink, the general belief among critics being that the state concentrates too heavily on its swilling tourist trade.
    The THP is the second largest viticultural area in Texas, behind the Hill Country, but it has a bare handful of wineries and an overall paucity of fruit. Llano Estacado is by far the area’s largest winery, and it has to buy grapes and juice from elsewhere, including New Mexico and California, to meet ambitious commercial goals. McPherson Cellars, started in Lubbock by ole Doc’s son in 2000, has a tenth of Llano Estacado’s production, and though it too may supplement on occasion, the vast majority of its wines are made only with grapes grown right there on the plains.
    Kim McPherson believes strongly in terroir, that unique combination of soil and climate that creates truly distinctive wine. This has gained him a considerable following in Texas and beyond. It was Kim to whom I was referred whenever I asked knowledgeable people about Lone Star viticulture, one adding pointedly, “He’s an individualist.”
    A vineyardist told me, “Kim can be blunt. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into business with him. Thank God I did.”
    Kim drove me past the Buddy Holly Center and the old Cactus movie theater, along sparsely populated streets typical of small Western cities that emptied decades ago and are beginning to refill as suburbanites seek better schools and something to do at night. He pulled in behind a low building on Texas Avenue left over from the thirties, a classic example of art deco and functional minimalism that had once been the local Coca-Cola bottling plant.
    “I wanted to hear the fire engines,” he said, of his decision to build his winery here, instead of out on the plains. The long, curvilinear “pillbox” window on the sidewalk that once offered a view of Coke’s bottling line now revealed visitors happily bending their elbows next to stemmed glasses of red and white wine. We joined them and in the next hour went through a dozen McPherson wines from screw-cap bottles, a proven technology still not embraced by traditionalists but accepted by edgier winemakers.
    What surprised me about the wines was their quality, and consistency. No matter what grape had gone into the bottle, they all had originated in hot European climates, and all had a recognizable McPherson signature: balance, structure, and lean, bright fruit well suited to assertive food.
    “We’re the Ribera of America,” Kim said, a reference to the Ribera del Duero, one of Spain’s choice wine-producing districts on the dry, rocky northern plateau. It produces Tempranillo, Mourvèdre, and other varieties Kim thinks best suited to the THP. “The fruit behaves a little different here,” because of the extremes of temperature. “During growing season it’s ninety degrees during the day and sometimes forty at night. So we get great color and body.”
    He grows some cabernet sauvignon—still the darling of American red wines—in a small legacy vineyard started by his father, but he isn’t really interested in grape varieties from Bordeaux. “When I mention merlot to Kim,” one of his growers told me, “he makes a spitting sound.”
     My favorite McPherson red was La Herencia, which means “inheritance.” (“Which I’ve spent,” Kim added.) The wine’s a blend of mostly Tempranillo with Carignan, Grenache, and Mourvèdre, all widely used in Spain, and Syrah from the hot Rhône Valley in southern France. Kim doesn’t hesitate to blend grapes associated with different countries, and even mixes colors, a no-no in more genteel climes. (His Tre Colore is a blend of Carignan, Mourvèdre, and Viognier, a white Rhône variety that does exceptionally well on the THP.) I also liked his unblended Roussanne, a full- bodied Rhône white.
    The McPhersons, father and son, have the reputation as the collective patriarchs of Texas wine. It was Doc who encouraged Kim to attend the University of California at Davis to learn winemaking, and later urged him to leave the less-stressful winemaking in NoCal to return to Texas and make wine for Llano Estacado Winery. A dutiful son, Kim complied, saying only, “I didn’t think you’d insist, Doc.”
    Kim said of his time in Napa, where he worked for Trefethen Family Vineyards and others and knew many of the people who went on to enological fame, “I didn’t give a big one about the Texas High Plains then. Now I’d love to get four or five guys here together, the ones that do a really good job, and put on a dog and pony show. Bring Texas wines to the forefront.”
    Eventually Kim went out on his own—with Doc’s encouragement—and has since been recognized as the THP’s vinous Yoda. Doc him- self had died just a few months before my visit, at age ninety-five. “Doc’s old ticker finally wore out,” Kim said, without elaboration.
    We crossed the street to La Diosa (the Goddess) Cellars, a bistro run by Kim’s wife, Sylvia. Dark tiles, Spanish art on the walls, good smells. A lean hombre in a black shirt sat alone at the bar. He said as we passed, without turning around, “They’ve run out of Herencia,” an ominous pronouncement. 
    The scene was straight out of the 1890s except that the man wasn’t talking hooch but wine made fifty yards from where he sat. And it wasn’t a double-action Colt, the weapon that enabled Texans to prevail over the Comanche, next to his hand, but a luminous iPad.
    Kim and I sat at a table and I ordered home- made empanadas. We drank tea but kept talking wine. Herencia costs $12 a bottle and could sell for twice that, if the world knew about it. So could many of Kim’s wines. “Down in the Hill Country you could get forty dollars for it,” he said. “That’s pretty spendy.” I asked why he didn’t price them higher. “I like to think of myself as a friend of the working-man,” and he added, “Millennials like these oddball wines.”
    While older American wine drinkers are stuck in the high-alcohol cabernet/chardonnay ditch, unglamorous varietals like Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Mourvèdre, Aglianico, and Albariño are cruising past in stemmed glasses held by thirty-somethings.                                      



That night in my hotel room I listened to the wind on the other side of sealed windows. When I swept back the drapes, I saw a layer of dust on the sill and, outside, light poles bobbing in the horizontal gale. There was snow on the ground, and a few hours before it had been seventy degrees. This climate would give anything color and body.
    One of Kim’s growers, Andy Timmons, picked me up the next morning and we headed west across flat, dry farmland, past Ropesville (“Ropes”), the soil on one side of the road a red- dish color signifying iron, on the other a choc- olate brown studded with old cotton stalks. I had encountered reminders of the Deep South other than the Coca-Cola bottling plant—towering lemon meringue pies and “chicken fried chicken” at the Cast Iron Grill, for instance—but cotton was the strongest. 
    Lubbock had been named for Colonel Thomas S. Lubbock, a former Confederate officer and a Texas Ranger. Texas got plenty of Southern farmers after the Civil War who left notes on kitchen tables at home, scrawled with the letters“GTT,”familiar to many a left-behind wife and sweetheart: Gone to Texas. Today, cotton is still the state’s foremost crop, far ahead of grapes. Yet new vineyards were being planted even as we rode.
    Timmons wore a little goatee and drove his big four-door Ram pickup—“the Texas truck”—with care. “Grapes don’t like wet feet,” he said. “There’s clay in this red dirt, where the vines grow best, but not enough to prevent good drainage.” The stress vines need to build character, he added, includes minimal rainfall that limits grape size and concentrates flavor. But with only about nineteen inches of rain a year, and ambient moisture often as low as 15 percent, the THP can have too much of a good thing. “Grapes get a little shrivel on them,” he said, when wind moves towers of dust, haboob-like, across the land.
    Irrigation is a desperate standoff between the twin specters of evaporation and a falling water table. The THP sits at the dead end of the abused Ogallala Aquifer, which starts up in South Dakota. Growers use drip irrigation, just as in California, but many bury their lines to minimize evaporation—and then have to dig them up again after they freeze. Sudden frost often arrives late in the spring, as it did in 2013, the harvest from hell when vines were struck three times during bud break and the forming grapes dropped to the ground. Then in early May the temperature fell to 26 degrees, and 80 percent of that harvest gave up the ghost.
    Timmons had daringly installed four wind machines at a cost of more than $30,000 apiece as frost protection. The traditional method—coating the clusters with water that in a cold snap will freeze and thus protect the grape inside—was too expensive because of the cost of water. The machines come on automatically at 32 degrees and temporarily move cold air out of the vineyard, a system that works in isolated valleys but until Timmons’s gamblehadneverbeenprovedontheTHP.
    “People think I’m crazy,” he said, “but all you need to do to justify the cost is save one vintage.” That in itself indicates just how valuable are grapes capable of producing fine wine. As it turned out, this past spring would prove to be the worst yet for grapes on the THP, and Timmons’s wind machines indeed saved much of his crop.
    Quality grapes can’t be grown just anywhere. The THP has real terroir, as Kim McPherson and others were demonstrating. The demand for good grapes already outstrips what the state grows. The common sense of planting hot-climate varieties here, despite their difficulties of survival, is as clear as a windless morning, but identifying the best blends, after the grapes have become wine, is still a work in progress.
    Such experiments must have once been conducted in Greece, Sicily, Tuscany, Rioja, the Rhône Valley, Bordeaux. The THP shares a living provenance going back to prehistoric times in the Ural Mountains, on the other side of the earth, where Vitis vinifera came from. The THP’s search for what Andy Timmons called “the Texas taste”—a signature of quality and subtle distinction—could well have been called “the Mesopotamian taste” millennia ago.
    Listening to him, I had a vision of some THP blend dancing in a bottle labeled “Plainage,” or “Mirage,” sitting on a restaurant table in Charleston, New York, London, Madrid, or Beijing.page3image122832 page3image122992                                                                         

Unexpected lines cross in the THP: ethnic, historic, viticultural. Coronado’s failed expedition left behind a lot of destruction but also made a cultural addition to native Mesoamerica. It’s ironic that his country is also the origin of so many of the grapes that are proving themselves here, in intensely flavorful wine conjuring up distant landscapes as it washes down a shaving of Manchego or a fajita, some foie gras or a braised short rib.
    “We’re still trying to figure it out,” I was told by the head winemaker at Llano Estacado Winery, Greg Bruni. He had taken me out to see one more vineyard, reinforcing the max- im that without good grapes you can’t make good wine. Bruni wore a padded Windbreaker between himself and the elements, and he gestured affectionately toward gnarly old cab- ernet sauvignon vines—“cab sauv”—planted by an Indian from Mumbai named Vijay Reddy, a soil scientist.
    “These grapes are blended with our Sangiovese to produce Viviano,” he said, refer- ring to a Llano Estacado wine and a “super Texan,” a special category. (The same blend was used in the seventies in Tuscany, where the Italians called it “super Tuscan.”) Viviano was the first Texas wine I had ever tasted, and that mouthful of flavor had brought me to West Texas, only to learn that cabernet is far from the backbone of winemaking on the Llano. Reddy, for instance, was growing twenty-eight other varieties as well.
    Bruni worked for fourteen years in winer- ies in the Santa Cruz Mountains and could have climbed more in NoCal’s vinous meritocracy, just as Kim McPherson could have. He had recently gotten a dose of perspective on what he and his High Plains colleagues are up against, when he visited Napa and told a viticulturist there about the THP’s drought, wind, dust, hail, brutal winters, and bud- killing frosts. “He said, ‘I don’t know what to tell you. We don’t have any of those problems. My main job is not to screw things up that happen naturally.’”
    The hardship and the uncertainty of any given harvest seem to unite THP winemakers in common cause. Llano Estacado Winery may make ten times as much wine as McPherson Cellars, but the two are intimately linked. “Kim makes such beautiful wines,” Bruni said. “We’re lucky to have him here. I’ve known him for twenty years and feel like he’s a brother.” He added, “It’s all about pioneering. The struggle requires passion, and we’ve got that here on the High Plains.”

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