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, will hang in the main hall in Little Washington, Virginia (just down the street from the Inn), one of many in: 
The Tenth Annual Studio & Gallery Tour
The Rappahannock Association for the Arts
and the CommunityThe Tenth Annual Studio & Gallery Tour
The Rappahannock Association for the Arts
and the Community
Invites you to tour the Studios and Galleries of Rappahannock County Saturday and Sunday, November 1 & 2, 10 AM to 5 PM. 
 In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains lies Rappahannock County, home to Virginia's finest artists. You are invited to view the works of over 50 artists at 20 studios and 7 galleries.
Pick up your program at the Tour Headquarters Gallery at the Fire Hall in Washington, Virginia. Admission is $10 per person. View selected works of the artists at the fire hall and then continue the tour at the studios and galleries located throughout the county.
Directions: From I-495 VA take I-66 west to route 17 South to Warrenton. In Warrenton turn right on Business 29 and then right on route 211 West. Go 22 miles and turn right on Warren Avenue, Business 211, the first entrance into Washington, Virginia. Turn right on Firehouse Lane to the tour headquarters at the Washington Fire Hall, 10 Firehouse Lane, Washington, VA 22747.
                                                   



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:
page2image1368
    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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Thursday, September 25, 2014

From amphoras, the taste of place

                                                                                               
          
         "Robert Parker has made things very difficult for us," said the publicist. Parker had given a 96 to one of their reds - Maldafrica, a blend of (you guessed it) cabernet sauvignon and merlot, with some native Sicilian frappato tossed in - although it's neither a characteristic blend for COS nor one of their best. However, Parker's review caused a world-wide run on all of them.
      It's a difficulty most wine producers would welcome, but not the Azienda Agricola COS. The acronym was formed by the first initials of the three Sicilians, Giambattista (Titta) Cilia, Giusto (Justo) Occhipinti and Cirino (Rino) Strano. They were friends who came late but enthusiastically to the trade. In 1980 they became the youngest winemakers in Italy by purchasing Joseph Cilia’s old family winery in the town of BastonacaTheir first harvest produced only 1470 bottles, but got attention beyond the region of Cerasuolo di Vittoria in southeast Sicily.                                           

     COS is farmed bio-dynamically, a radical step there and a measure of commitment. They conform to Rudolf Steiner's prescriptions for maintaining a self-sufficient agricultural enterprise, and presumably to the lunar requirements for planting and all that implies. Downspouts on the property lead into a single reservoir used for irrigation when needed; there are enough solar panels to meet the winery's appetite for power. Chopin is piped into the cellar, not so much for the music as for the vibrations inherent in piano sonatas.                                        

   Intrigued by ancient cellar practices, they decided to use big clay jars called amphoras instead of steel tanks or barrels for fermentation and aging. Modeled on ancient vessels, the new amphoras were shipped from Spain in 2000, and sunk in gravel where they remain.The practice raised eyebrows all over Italy, where winemaking innovations are often reluctantly received, adding to what was already a reputation for innovation and risk.   
Justo
  
"The amphoras allow the grapes to express themselves naturally in their evolution towards becoming wine," says Justo, although that doesn't really explain their appeal. Yet in 2005 COS earned Cerasuolo di Vittoria a prestigious DOCG designation (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), the only single region permitted to have it in Sicily. The 150 amphoras comprise one of the largest collections in the world, and today the Locanda COS near Acate is a world-wide draw.                    
   It's a magical spot overall, but don't drop in. First make an appointment, then chance your way through through  confusing rural byways of which there are thousands. Getting lost can be a pleasure until you realize you might miss lunch. We finally found the place in time to dine al fresco with the crew during their break in the picking of the last of the  pithos bianco, the local Grecanico grape.                           
    I later tasted through all the wines, the overall impression being one of intensity, a unique freshness of flavor, and low alcohol. I attributed this to the absence of wood in most of the wines, though I can't explain the low octane and COS can't either. ("Cool air comes down from the mountains," said the publicist, Joanna, "and cool breezes from the sea.") Usually hot countries like Sicily - think of the Rhone valley, or Napa - push the upper limits of alcohol, yet COS's hover for the most part between 12 and 13 percent. 
   Some of the reds do get a bit of time in barrel - the 100 percent Nero d'Avola, and the Bordeaux blend - but even in the amphora-bred ones there is detectable tannin picked up from the grape skins. The vineyard sits on thin clay overlying lots of limestone, hence the strong mineral component in the wines. One question is whether or not these wines age well. The frappato doesn't evince the guts for a long haul, though it's delicious when young and a good addition to the nero.                           
                                                      Dirt in the sky over southern Sicily
    Sicily shares the geology of both Sicily and north Africa, which is close enough for you to see the occasional dust storm blowing out of the Sahara. The name, Maldafrica, for the Bordeaux blend Parker swooned over, was chosen on a whim, and is indeed impressive. More characteristic, and interesting, is that Sicilian classic, Contrada, all Nero d'Avola in French oak for two years, with big body and a long earthy finish.                                 

     The 2012 Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico is 60 percent Nero d'Avola and 40 frappato and, yes, has lots of black cherry on the nose and real presence. The whites, too, are memorable, with deep golden hues that have nothing to do with oxidation and much to do with exotic grapes of a place where wine-making goes back almost to the beginning. 
       We slept in the manor house, in a bed watched over by a painting of sporting putti. That was fortunate because I was awakened at 2 a.m. by gunshots, not mafiosi but a neighbor unloading - I think - on a rabbit.
      I stepped out onto the balcony. Moonlight hung dimly in the eastern sky, and everywhere was the smell of arid earth and things growing: dirt, smoke, precious water, night-blooming trees and, as in the wine itself, the fragrant mystery of an ancient, unknowable land.                              
                                                          Photo by Penny Conaway


                 



Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Here's my new bio

Photo by Jayne Taylor, Palermo Sept., 2014
In addition to a live radio interview, review of my books, a link for the ebook and on-demand editions of The Big Easy, Memphis Afternoons, World's End and The Kingdom in the Country, there's much here to read, including a lot that's new. If you want to comment directly or ask a question without going through the usual ordeal, just write to me at: conawayjim@gmail.com
Please go to the archive, right, click on years and months to see previous posts. They make up an unofficial compendium of my work going way back - excerpts from novels, nonfiction, lots of articles including my round-the-world trip, the long essay on the Tongass in Alaska, wine criticism and profiles, cultural reportage and commentary, my paintings, etc. The site has a cleaner look, I hope, though I'm still working on that. If you're wondering about the odd line spacing it's because I haven't figured out yet how to fix it, and I had nothing to do with the broken lampshade. 
                                                                             *
       I am a former Wallace Stegner writing fellow at StanfordUniversity and an Alicia Patterson journalism fellow, the author of three novels, The Big Easy, World’s End, and Nose, eight books of nonfiction, and too many magazine articles to count. I have been writing since I was a kid and have never been able to shake the habit, which brings an essentially ruminative view of the world that can be both an asset and a hindrance.
After I left Stanford I had a new wife, Penny, and a baby, Brennan, and I badly needed a job. The Times-Picayune dangled one: general assignments reporter. I grabbed it although I never took a journalism course and didn’t know New Orleans. I arrived alone right ahead of Hurricane Betsy, drank too much Dixie beer the night before I was to report for work, and woke up surrounded by downed trees and streets full of glass. I got to the old Picayune building two hours before anyone. When the city editor arrived he asked who I was and then, because I was the only person available, told me, “Go out and write a story about the effects of the storm on New Orleans.”
It wasn’t a very good story but it was printed on page one, with a byline, because no other reporters had showed up. For the next two weeks I worked 14-hour days, learning more than I ever would have in J-school, and thereby became indentured to a great profession that would later inspire The Big Easy, one of my three novels, the others being World's End and Nose. I’m also the author of nine books of nonfiction including the best-selling, Napa: The Story of an American Eden. Frank Prial writing in the New York Times said I was "a reporter with a Saroyan-like sense of humor and a Balzac-like eye for detail," which made me very happy. That book has been in print continually since 1990 and people still tell me they enjoy and learn from it.
Napa’s sequel appeared in 2002. The Far Side of Eden: Old Land, New Money and the Battle for Napa Valley was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year and described in the New York Times Book Review as "an important story, emblematic of our time."
My other books include the memoir, Memphis Afternoons, about growing up in Memphis in the Fifties, and The Kingdom in the Country. It’s a personal journey through the public lands of the American West described by Wallace Stegner as "a very lively book... He got into places and activities that most westerners never even get close to," and by novelist Jim Harrison as "a wonderful and well-considered evocation of the New West."
Of my history of the Smithsonian Institution, Evan S. Connell wrote, "Nobody will attempt to one-up Conaway for a long time because he, like his subject, has gathered all things relevant." I’m also the author of America's Library: A History of the Library of Congress, 1800-2000, published by Yale University Press.
For four years I was the editor of Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and I took up oil painting around that time, some of it inspired by travel. Those paintings reflected landscapes, structures, and artifacts affected by accelerated change, what had developed as an on-going theme in my writing. One series was inspired by photographs of western landscapes I took from the windows of airplanes, done in both the conventional manner and by moving paint on the canvas to capture the mystery of land viewed from 35,000 feet.
Painting was another way to reflect the land and the rapidly altering face of our natural and cultural worlds.
My next book, Vanishing America: In Search of Our Elusive Landscapes, was a collection of travel essays about lost culture and landscape. Lehrer wrote that it represented my “journalistic and insightful best,” and I agree. Writer Tracy Kidder kindly described it as “an enthralling, lovely tribute to a lot of what is precious in America.”
My latest novel, Nose, from Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin’s Press), is about the wine-growing culture of northern California and described by the publisher as “Bonfire of the Vanities meets Sideways.” Jim Lehrer calls it “the novel for all seasons—and readers... a love(s) story, an under-all-the-soil good and evil saga plus a marvelous tour through and about the world of winemaking. And Jim Conaway’s prose is as gorgeous as some of the Northern California scenes he describes.”
       My most recent book is a narrative built around photographs from Look magazine in the Library of Congress, called The Forgotten Fifties. For that book I tried to develop a first-person plural voice that reflected the confusion underlying the various conflicts that arose in the Fifties and have been largely misrepresented in books about that time.
I’ve written for lots of magazines over the years, including The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Republic, Gourmet, Smithsonian and Nat Geographic Traveler. I won first place in a North American Travel Writers Association competition for my series, “Walk into America,” that appeared inTraveler, and I’ve taught creative non-fiction at the University of Pittsburgh and at Johns Hopkins and George Mason universities.
I still contribute tor Geographic’s travel blog, Intelligent Travel, as well as my own cjonwine.blogspot.com. I’m working on a prequel to Nose, about the explosion in the popularity of previously little-known California wine, the beautiful countryside of northern California that produces it, and the rise of a young British critic, Clyde Craven-Jones.
Meanwhile Penny and I divide our time between Washington, D.C., and the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, with frequent trips to California. Our mutual hobbies are cooking, travel (our children live in the Midwest and on the West Coast), hiking, and some fly fishing.
                                                 *

To see all my posts on National Geographic Traveler's website, Intelligent Travel, where I am a featured contributor, go to:  http://intelligenttravel.nationalgeographic.com/?s=james+conaway
To see the new releases of some of my books, go to: http://www.fearlessbooks.com/Conaway.htm 

      For Jeff Schechtman's radio show, "Specific Gravity"  click here: http://bit.ly/10IT7SJ