Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Go: Vancouver


  Something happens to the traveler in Vancouver, British Columbia, that is both delightful and paradoxical. This the most remote of the northwest’s coastal cities should inspire, with its dry, cool summers and air seemingly brushed clean by Pacific breezes, the sort of hard work and cultural reserve associated with north European settlers. Instead, Vancouver surrounds the newcomer with an almost Mediterranean light and sensuality, a farrago of languages other than English, a dedication to physical exertion, and Anglo-Saxon efficiency.
In this new world Amsterdam backed by gorgeous mountains and surrounded by water, do not miss Stanley Park, the extensive – 1,000 acres - maritime landscape protruding like a vernal thumb into English Bay in the city’s west end that astounds newcomers with its beauty, size, and remove, as well as its practical, unfussy preservation. What’s left of the extensive temperate rainforest that once blanketed the continent’s entire northwest coast here acts as the urban foil, a remarkable triumph of nature over development and the myriad pressures of big city life.
My introduction to Stanley Park was serendipitous: I had booked a room at the nearby, historic (1912) Sylvia Hotel, despite a warning in an otherwise reliable American guidebook that the Sylvia was “old fashioned.” So what? Worn gentility merely added to the charm of old-timey, ivy-covered but stylishly efficient digs long favored by artists, writers and professors. A Vancouver Heritage Site, the practically-priced Sylvia had big windows that actually opened and a greensward spread out front like an enormous, living doormat.
The first thing I noticed about Stanley Park and its immediate surroundings was absence - of noise, billboards, contention. The park drew natives and visitors, walkers and bench sitters, granola-ites and gourmands when they might otherwise have been working, drinking, eating, looking at art, or riding one of the cameo passenger ferries bobbing on inland waterways. In Stanley Park people walked, jogged, rode bicycles, and skated in-line on designated paths as if they simply enjoyed it, without elaborate regalia or self-righteous determination.
An introductory stroll took me along the edge of salty, kelp-   filled water remarkable for its clarity in the presence of shipping and industry, with thick undergrowth on my other side, presided over by towering cedars, hemlocks, and firs that have grown up in the 120 years since the peninsula was logged. The entire loop is more than five miles, and I determined to walk it early the next morning, and to learn about the park’s provenance and what diversions its resurgent forest offered.

Stanley Park was established in 1886, after the land was leased by the Canadian government for Vancouver’s benefit. This was the city’s first preserved green space, and although Vancouver today has almost 200 parks, Stanley is by far the largest. Once part of the Musqueam and Squamish Indian nations, it was named for Governor General of Canada, to be managed by a board independent of successive politicians.
The seawall, built primarily to prevent erosion but also as the foundation of a continuous walkway, had been started in 1920 and worked on for 60 years. The elevated promenade, along with the park’s other distractions, accommodates 8 million visitors a year and sets an example of a preserved natural landscape for cities everywhere. It’s lovingly used by joggers and aging, apparently pleased, arm-swinging heart rate enthusiasts. I passed the famous statue of the girl in a diving mask, perched on a rock. Big container ships hung far out in the morning mist, but the overall feeling was bucolic. The five and a half mile wake-me-up offers a 240-degree view of the sprawling bay, passes beneath the towering modern span linking downtown with the city’s North Shore, and passes by Coal Harbor and Lost Lagoon.
I discovered two good restaurants, both requiring the navigation of narrow, one-way roads cosseted by giant trees. The straight-forwardly named Fish House was built in 1930 as a sports pavilion and later remade into a restaurant that today has both quality seafood and a wine list with plenty of Canadian wines. But it was the Sequoia Grill that for me held the most promise, touted by more than one native as the second best restaurant in Vancouver after Rain City Café around the corner from the Sylvia Hotel.
Formerly this historic wooden structure on Ferguson Point was been used by the Canadian military during World War II and transformed into a tea House 1978. Then, with fanfare – marching band, cannon firing, flag ceremony, Reveille – transformed again, this time into a restaurant overlooking English Bay and the North Shore, with a glass conservancy and lots of fireplaces. I sat down I sat under a glass ceiling and sipped good British Columbia sparkling wine. The maitre’d came with a long metal rod and closed the overhead windows against the growing chill of evening on the continent’s northwest edge.
I was hungry from wandering, and the safe menu reassured: Digby scallops, baby spinach and pear salad, Queen Charlotte crab cakes, bouillabaisse. It didn’t seem to matter what I ordered, since the medley of food spread around me on white tablecloths, discreetly attacked by a multi-national clientele, served as visual smorgasbord. The highlight proved not to be caloric, however, but scenic: a brilliantly orange sun dipping into blue-gray water that led to collective sighs.

The next day I took a little ferry to famous, from a dock within walking distance of Stanley Park. These quaint little craft hold a dozen people and on the half-hour ply the entrance to False Creek, charge only two Canadian dollars, and offer a lovely civic panorama. Granville Island’s a refuge for artisans and artists, a bazaar for foodies, a boating mecca, cultural potpourri, and parking place for reefs of bicycles.
The Wooden Boat Society of Canada had brought together gorgeous, hand-crafted kayaks, rowboats, sailboats, and bridge-deck schooners for everyone to gawk at; the galleries offered, in addition to original painting and sculpture, African carvings, Indian weaving, handmade jewelry, and so on. It seemed that most (innocent) human appetites could be satisfied here, but it was the fresh produce and meat market that really held sway.
Arrayed in vast, connected sheds were scores of stalls that sold, among everything else, dried horse meat and whole king salmon, ducks’ necks, smoked buffalo, pig’s ears, boneless Irish hams, a universe of salamis, huge, glossy blackberries, Canadian figs, local cheeses, gorgeous fresh vegetables, cut flowers in bundles, fuscia in pots that in a climate like Vancouver’s grow up to be bushes, and an infinity of variations on these themes. There were no announcements, radios, or piped-in music, just rivers of sedate, wide-eyed people, local and otherwise, moving in something close to awe through this daily cornucopia best dipped into before noon.
I gathered some Genoa salami, ripe camembert, olives, a crusty French roll, and figs, and happily ate at a table outside, with a view of the harbor. It was, of course, time to do what is required of all dutiful tourists, heritage and otherwise – re-cross the water, hail a cab, and stroll through Gastown, with its famous steam-powered clock, or the Vancouver Art Gallery; take a turn through the third largest Chinatown in North America; troll boutique-y Robson Street; find my way to one of Vancouver’s many lush, rain-swaddled gardens.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Bloggers, northward!

    The 2013 Wine Bloggers Conference, held last year for three rollicking, informative days in Portland, OR, is being held this year further north, in Penticton, British Columbia. I recommend attending for both enjoyment and a chance to meet experts and to taste new wines, etc. For details and a look at the program go to:
    I was in Portland for last year's conference and learned a lot. I'm being honored this year with a slot in the program and am looking forward to it. Also to expanding my knowledge of that part of the Pacific Northwest. Although the conference isn't in Vancouver, one of the great North American cities, it's close enough to attract some attendees. Later I'll post a piece about my own expereinces in Vancouver, with recommendations for food, etc.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bottle-stock: Super Tuscan Napan

    The reason this bottle looks empty is that we drank it all. That’s proof enough that it tasted good, but more is required in this case. The wine comes from the famous Dario Sattui of Castelllo di Amorosa, which is not in Italy but northern Napa Valley and one of the most authentically-assembled, intriguing structures ever to grace that New World version of Tuscany (or Provence, or whatever Mediterranean association you prefer).

    Fittingly, the 2008 La Castellana (“The Lady of the Castle”) is a “super Tuscan,” which means, as you know, a blend of Bordeaux varieties (70% cabernet sauvignon, 16% merlot) and  the more southerly sangiovese (14%). It makes this wine more enticing at an early age and adds to the remarkable depth of flavor. Generally, the Lady’s a testament to the distance Sattui has traveled in wine-making, as well as in architectural daring, and another indication of the inter-relatedness of the global vineyard.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Drink: Jack Rose, America's biggest (best?) whiskey bar

Appropriately, it’s in the nation’s capital – in scruffy, forever interesting Adams-Morgan: long granite bar, towering shelves of spirits, notably bourbon and scotch (including the world’s peatiest single malt, Bruichladdich’s Octomore 5.1), a drinks menu longer than both your arms and legs, with labels ringing bells for more than a century. Portions come in 1- and 2-ounce shots, many from arcane bottles reached with the aid of old library ladders; bartenders are knowledgeable, the clientele mellow (how could it not be?), the founder a self-confessed elbow-bender and former performance poet, Harvey Fry, whose long white beard, mariner’s gaze, bandana, overalls, and bottomless trove of whiskey knowledge pleasantly enable and entertain.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

This is an except from my novel appearing in American Scholar


All he wanted was to work his land in peace, never knowing that what mattered most to him was about to be taken away


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Drink: Rummy

    The fortunate are off to Aruba or St. Maarten or Jamaica, or about to be, when they are not off to Sun Valley or Gstaad. But rum is one of the few drinks versatile enough to suit most any clime. The demon goes swimmingly with boiling water and a touch of cloves in a glass with a silver spoon. Devotees drink it in the American West and in Switzerland, where rhum grog is served aprés-ski. But it’s better sipped under an equatorial sun with tonic or fruit juice, or just shaved ice, while the shaded eye takes in blue sky and water. Rum was not invented in the Caribbean but perfected in those latitudes, and today its mellow charm accounts for a large chunk of the U.S. spirits market.
     The history of rum is tied up with that of sugar cane, which supposedly was first brought back from India by Alexander the Great three centuries before the birth of Christ. Not until the middle of the seventh century did it arrive regularly in Europe, by Arabian caravan, probably from the South Pacific. Speculation has it that Columbus took sugar cane to the West Indies on his second voyage, and it was from there that this alcoholic product of fermented and distilled sugar cane juice first became available when Spanish settlers in the 16th century began making and exporting it.
   Although written records from Barbados in 1600 contain a recipe for rum punch, the origins of the name itself are obscure. Some say it derives from the Latin name for sugar cane, others attribute the name to the British Navy, where an admiral known as “Old Rummy” prescribed rum as an antidote to scurvy. Rum is perhaps our most romantic beverage, as rich in history as in calories. We associate it with the discovery of America, West Indian adventurers, pirates, and the Spanish Main. Rum was a favorite of the American colonists for the same reason it’s popular today - it tastes good, and is relatively cheap.
   Allegedly Paul Revere got pumped up on rum before shouting about the approaching British, and George Washington was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses by distributing 75 gallons of rum to his constituents. Before the Civil War rum was also made in New England and part of an infamous trading cycle: sugar cane imported from the Caribbean was made into rum; this was sent to Africa to purchase slaves; these were sent to the West Indies to buy more sugar cane, profits raked off at every stop.
   During Prohibition, rum found its way through the swamps of Florida and Louisiana to many a cocktail glass,and even today rum carries a raffish association. To make the stuff, sugar cane is crushed immediately after harvest and then boiled to concentrate the sugar. Most of the sugar’s removed by centrifuge, but the molasses that’s left is still quite sweet. Distinct styles of rum are produced by distilling either the cane juice or the molasses, varying the time and amount of distillation, aging in wood, and adding caramelized sugar.
Rum’s available in distillations that range from 80 to 151 proof. With a few exceptions, the lower the proof the more complex the flavor.
   Americans have always liked mixtures of rum and fruit juice or coconut milk. Although the daiquiri and the pina colada make good vehicles for high-proof rum, the best way to drink it is neat. Rums from the islands of the Caribbean and some South American countries are often filtered to make them light in color and body, and high in alcohol. Puerto Rican and Cuban rums are commonly 100 proof, and are big sellers, but usually not as flavorful as other versions. Flavorful, heavier rums often come from the English-speaking islands, notably Jamaica, and the process for making them is more involved. The residue of previous fermentations, known as “dunder,” is added to a new batch of molasses, and then a natural, leisurely fermentation is allowed to occur. The fermented juice is distilled twice, which produces clear liquor, and then aged in oak casks. Caramelized sugar is added for deep color in Jamaican and other heavier rums (and also used to improve the appearance of cheap brandies and other spirits).
   Haiti and Martinique make rum from sugar cane juice, rather than molasses. It is aged in oak and comes close to French brandy in delicacy. Barbancourt, of Port-au-Prince, makes a number of grades and uses stars on the labels to distinguish among them. The Barbancourt Five Star, tasted blind in a snifter, could fool a connoisseur of cognac. From Martinique comes La Manny, aged in Limousin oak and also with the allure of a good brandy. I recommend plain ole Mount Gay, from Barbados, however, with medium body and good flavor. It goes well with Schweppes, or simply with ice and a squeeze of lime juice.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The mysterious grape

   This from the Science section of the NYT, about the variations among grapes in the same vineyard. (Hint: it's microbial.) My interest is selfish, rather than scientific, since the plot of my novel hinges on the identity of a wine that can be discovered only though creative analysis:

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A generous review

By Michael Perlis, contributing editor of Eve's Wine (

NOSE, a novel
Copyright 2013, 320 pages
Copyright 1990, 529 pages
Copyright 2002, 381 pages
All by James Conaway:
NAPA: THE STORY OF AN AMERICAN EDEN, published in 1990, and THE FAR SIDE OF EDEN, published in 2002, together present a fascinating history of the development of Napa Valley.

     I don’t necessarily review current books. I typically acquire books that happen to catch my eye, regardless of publication date, and then get around to reading them sometime later – often a lot later. But, not to worry as both non-fiction books are still available.
     That being said, the first book mentioned above, NOSE, is about to be published (more about it later), the second covers the history of the Napa Valley from the mid-1960s through the 1980s (along with looks back to earlier times), and the third book picks up where the second left off, taking the reader through the next decade.
     Very well written, and very interesting to read about the people originally behind some of the iconic wineries still around today, as well as those wineries no longer with us. The books also give great insight into the various forces and factions that shaped the development of the area – the growers, vintners, investors, conservationists, developers, and of course the politicians.
     I definitely recommend reading these books, particularly if you are planning a trip to the area.  Sometimes seeing those famous names, especially the mega-wineries, one forgets that they were started by people just like us. As is often the case, some became victims of their own success and became huge and attractive to large corporate suitors. Did wine quality suffer as a result? Well, that is only for the reader/taster to judge. Fortunately, Napa (and wine regions in general) always see an influx of new talent with the right pioneering spirit to continue to excite us with great wines to please our palates.
Photo by PeterMenzel
     Conaway is the author of several other books, has written for numerous magazines, as well as being a renowned artist.  I had the opportunity to speak to Conaway to ask him if he had any plans to add a third volume to his non-fiction Napa series. Well, the answer to that question was “maybe”, but I was very excited to hear about his novel coming out March 2013, called NOSE, which takes place in “Northern California wine country”. While the site is non-specific, Conaway said it includes elements from “Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties”.  Taking place after the “Bush crash, post 2008”, the book, while written as entertaining fiction, looks at current issues in wine country as well as focusing on wine critics, bloggers, and that perfect bottle of wine.
    Conaway also maintains a blog: which I suggest you check out.  You can read the advance Kirkus review of NOSE there, along with a lot of other interesting stuff.
And contrary to what I said at beginning of the article, NOSE is one book I am really looking forward to reading as soon as it comes out. Conaway will be touring when the book comes out, so stay tuned for updates on when he will be in Southern California.