Saturday, July 27, 2013

Christmas at the beach

This is only the eighth batch of Pine Barrens single malt “American” whiskey, according to the hand-marked label. It's meant to reflect the lovely evergreen expanse of eastern Long Island's pine barrens - not Tony Soprano's New Jersey version -  made by Long Island Spirits from full-blown beer  (Blue Point Brewing Company's 10 per cent barley wine) distilled and captured in this cunning, pricy little bottle. The initial taste has a distinct note of nutmeg with some caramel, not pronounced enough to get in the way of the overall pleasure. Christmas is definitely evoked, then a sharp, clean poke in the back of the palate (it's 95 proof). Pine Barrens is remarkably bright, aged for only a year to preserve the freshness of that unique taste. However, I’d love to try it with a bit more age on the finish.   
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Thursday, July 25, 2013

On Writing: The novel as loss and recovery

   Often journalists finding that an assignment has dropped out of the ether - they once dropped out of stamped envelopes - and that they themselves are about to be transported to a realm unknown, think, “This would make a good novel.” As if in the unrealized state a novel depends solely upon access to a world apart, and our own lovely sentience, and all we have to do is write it.
  Nice to think so, and almost impossible not to say those words aloud from time to time, but no, those experiences rarely make good novels. They don’t even make coherent ones.
  The reasons for this are almost as varied as life itself but basically boil down to the fact that good novels come out of loss - of love, fortune, ideals, experience, writing itself. Whatever emotions you were originally possessed of are transformed into something less than the experience itself, and the cherished illusion that worked so beautifully in the imagination is either reduced, or frittered away in the rendering.
Most people are unable or unwilling to endure for long the second sort of loss, which involves attempting, over and over again, to get it right, followed by the spectacle of the thing itself evaporating into the slip-stream of constricting distance. This usually means, at least in my case, that the experience hasn’t been pushed through the filters enough, or it has been pushed through too often and all perspective lost, making of the original experience something else entirely. Not the crystalline truth you were so sure of, but a candidate of last resort which is in fact what most novels, even good ones, turn out to be.
I suspect that even the most celebrated examples of fiction are unacknowledged compromises. In Remembrance of Things Past the subject was so masticated in the author’s mind over a long period of dissolution and decline that it sprang full-blown decades later from an almost sexual encounter with a cookie dipped in tea.
There’s an extraordinary American example – Moby Dick - the long-gestating novel and forceful emergence of an entire world out of the fecund rot of the re-imagined past. In it, an aging Melville sets sail again in a great sloshing, mnemonic vessel of obsession, transcendental belief and yeomanly know-how; what works its way up from the seemingly depthless springs of his brain is part of the culture now, an exuberantly alive story in language of the same ilk.
How I would like to know what Melville thought as he struggled with that experience, seeing it evanesce beneath his pen into characters of another world as well as his own, all set on a narrative course to the literal end of things and infused with a vision most novelists yearn for but never glimpse.
Melville’s loss must have been three-fold, including the first two I mentioned – diminishment of the experience by the very act of setting it down, and any author’s knowledge that the novel could have been just a bit better – and the fact that few appreciated Moby Dick when it was published. Melville then passed into obscurity, in his time, a kind of scribal Van Gogh sitting out the February of the soul somewhere in New England and gazing out onto sere, dry land lit by the descending sun.
There are quicker and more satisfying ways than a novel to replicate and cherish a moment in life and impose a modicum of control you never really had. Doing this can preserve something of the moment’s essence, but in what form? Memoir may be the most obvious and approachable, redeploying the past as revelation for writer and reader, but memoir lacks the sheer exuberance of the imagination and, more importantly, can’t easily accommodate the unforeseen. And memoir’s really lost to the liberating, sometimes demonic possibility that is the novel’s glory, even though memoirs’ strengths and satisfactions are many.
Non-fiction in general has the same limitations as memoir, only more so, enjoying the underpinning of constant factualness the novel lacks in all but the particulars but fatefully bound by the same thing. Fact sets nonfiction on its way and provides confabulatory tree blazes through lands both wooded and desolate, but it’s always “real” and the journey’s outcome usually known before boot meets ground.
Which brings me to my own recent novel, Nose, set in a vernal, isolated valley in northern California, bound by the great prospects and occasionally great fortunes of wine. I'll get to that, but be prepared: the journey from imagining to actually holding a book in covers is harder than ever these days. So much has changed in the process that it’s almost unrecognizable to a writer remembering the hopeful, once quite wonderful, not-so-long -ago.

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Monday, July 15, 2013

On Writing: Wine as speed

(Excerpted from my keynote address to this year's wine bloggers conference in British Columbia.) 
     Wine is an accelerant. It lifts the spirit and loosens the tongue and at least in the beginning inspires and energizes. Wine provides human beings with a glimpse of the eternal for which we have yearned for from the beginning, and still do. On a more prosaic level, wine greases commerce and what’s now called social interaction - it makes business deals more palatable and occasionally gets you laid – but best is the exponential speeding up of social standing. Wine’s one of the best ways yet discovered to re-write one’s story, or to recreate an entirely different one. Money acquired in unremarkable or unsavory ways may be instantly laundered in stainless-steel tanks of chardonnay rapped with arteries of glycol and in pricy barrels of cabernet whose indelible stains cover a lot more than aging capacity.
     The idea that you can take two steps away from  destructive and enriching real estate development in a distant place and claim devotion to nature and “the land” in this one shows how easy this transformation is. Cooler clothes, a studied recitation of wine descriptors and cultivars, a pretended knowledge of and affinity with ageless European culture and, “Viola, I’m a vintner!”
We all know the tired cliché, “It takes a large fortune to make a small fortune in wine,” truer today than ever maybe, but if you believe it then why not back out of it with the Balzac-ian one: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime”? Not all are based in real crime, of course. That term can still be applied to bribing politicians, but what about just entertaining them lavishly and pouring money into their causes or their spouses’ “non-profits” that aren’t really?
      What about misrepresenting a pile of rocks to get a plot zoned for a house in a vineyard, or acquiring some of your neighbor’s land with an aggressive lot line adjustment? Are those crimes? Yes, if tacky ones. And what about getting tradesmen to effect a landscape adornment and then not paying? What about finessing effluent reports or, for that matter, technically disassembling an entire wine and putting back together minus the defects and calling it what you will?
     There’s more to wine writing than chronicling the seasons of the vine or Ridel-diving for exotic olfactory associations. However intriguing these subjects may be, some of the adverse public reaction to wine criticism in general – what’s perceived as its snobbishness and lack of utility - might derive from a widespread if subliminal adverse reaction to terms like “forward” and “plush” and other fatuous stand-bys.
     Wine writing can be a lot more than tasting notes and puff pieces about corporate chateaux and the cycles of the vine. The unhappy effects of monoculture are evident today and in evidence in much of California, better than houses and malls, granted, but with the ever-increasing effectiveness and cost of high-end trellising, thousands of miles of steel cables bind gorgeous landscapes from San Diego to British Columbia and, when concentrated in places like Napa and Sonoma, can be seen as figurative stays  keeping the lid on both development and the ever-expanding demands of big growers and corporations for water, tax advantages, and wine-related enterprises that can become poor substitutes for an uncluttered view and true nature’s casual, soul-healing variety.
     Indeed, the question of environmental impact of wine, including the fine sort, is inadequately – often never – addressed by professional critics and the journals they write for. Obviously those organs are for people hungry for quality, insight, and glimpses into the personalities of those who make the stuff and envision ways to push the limits of terroir and technical manipulation.
     But most such publications ignore the impact of what is a unique form of agriculture, at least in terms of making and marketing a beverage that has no real nutritional benefit for the imbiber, however gargantuan the temporary psychological one. Wine’s wonderful if ancillary enhancement of actual food is a value all its own. But the body does not in any medical sense actually depend upon wine, yet it is treated in many circles with an almost religious devotion, as if biblical transubstantiation no longer requires the blessing of the host.
     Those who fail to rave in print about the practices of wine are in turn raved against as blue-noses or ingrates, the point being that there is room for a holistic approach to wine, both its production and its imbibing, that some leaders in the industry embraced long ago and still do. Unfortunately they’ve inadvertently provided cover for big producers who feel no real devotion to the land beyond its service under the plow, most notably corporations making the usual green noises while seeking in every covert way imaginable to get around them.
     Aspiring wine writers should look at the whole glorious, imitable culture of wine, as seductive and often rewarding as it is, and at its human costs as well. Also the money tree that shades it all these days. There are the usual cliches, like “You need a large fortune to make a small one in wine.” Well, that’s often true, but not always. As relevant of course is old Balzac’s maxim: “Behind every great fortune is a crime.” This is true in spades if crime includes influencing politicians to approve potentially catastrophic development and subverting changes in product content and labeling that could extend or save human life and also maintain land that bears some resemblance to the America that formed us and our children.

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Monday, July 8, 2013

On Writing: Napa Redux

(Excerpted from the keynote address I gave at this year's wine bloggers conference in British Columbia, continued from my July 3 post)               
  When Napa: The Story of an American Eden first came out, the members of the GONADS were among my many critics, particularly the vintner who told the joke and had to buy his wife a new Mercedes. (The punchline was, "You rarely get either at home.") Others belonged to established Napa families. I had committed an act of “faction” with Napa, according to the daughter of one revered valley clan writing in the San Francisco Examiner, after gaining admission “to peoples’ confidence” through my “serious, gentlemanly approach” and then producing “a misrepresentation and a betrayal.”
  I liked her and am sorry she felt that way. But I recognized something distinctly southern in her notion that one must be either a cultural acolyte, or a betrayer.
  I had simply wanted – and still do - to capture a unique part of the country, one with the most valuable legal crop anywhere and a product that embodies all the charms and excesses of making it in America. Here the sainted family farm had acquired hyperthyroid bells and whistles, but pointing that out wasn't comfortable, and still isn't.
  That same impulse inspired my novel, Nose, set in a valley much like Napa, one in the midst of the last recession when many of the shibboleths of California’s high-end wine trade were threatened. Maybe fiction's better suited to the imaginary exploration of greed and landed fealty, I had thought at one point. And it was less likely to produce literary casualties among the natives of broader Enotopia, which has increasingly come to resemble Napa Valley.

  There are two stark and instructive ways of looking at places like it, both a bit cliched at this point but still instructive. One version is as a giant hot tub full of naked little Jay Gatsbys standing up to shake it and be noticed. The other is as a veritable Eden at the outset of the nineteenth century, when grizzlies still dipped steelhead from the river and high on the Mayacamas range a raindrop needed a week to reach the earth, so thick was the canopy of redwoods and other trees.
  This was the southern tip of of the most extensive temperate rainforest on Earth, a domain starting way up in the southeast Alaska whose demise is one of the great tragedies of a dying planet. The tension between those two visions is what inspired me and is a fitting subject for any writer.
  Michael Pollan says that eating is an agricultural act. Well, so is drinking wine. It can also be an environmental one. In that possibility lie all sorts of stories that anyone interested in writing about wine can and should explore. All the awkward manifestations of industrial success of the last two centuries - disappearing water, particulate in the air, chemical penetration of the very mysteries of life, rising seas and temperatures - are reflected in the glass in your hand.
     Even the indirect environmental effects of wine should be inherent in writing about it, like an enduring light in the back of the writer’s mind. There’s also inspiration in the past lives of those involved in making and moving wine, as well as clues about what sort of wine they might make. I’ve found that people who destroy beautiful landscapes elsewhere to make enough money to construct their Edens in wine country are likely to behave just as ruthlessly in the wine business.
     It’s all grist for the writer’s mill anyway, and totally justified. It may not make you popular with some so-called “vintners” - usually a silly description since most of them aren’t really. They’re accustomed to perceptions of emerging from public relations campaigns, or from critics ignoring the foibles and often the desecrations of those behind the labels.
     The relevance of wine is broader than most people realize, or admit to. In our loud, exhaustively political era even becomes political. In part at least you can predict a person’s politics by the wine they’re associated with, not so much the varietal as the way its made and the claims made for it. To generalize a bit, you could say that big, jammy alcoholic cabernets are Republican, and restrained, classically-structured, food-friendly cabernets are Democrat. The former’s about power, individualism, exclusivity, the latter about balance, community, finesse. In that equation, Screaming Eagle’s a Romney and Frog’s Leap an Obama.
     Writing about all this matters, but learning how to do it isn’t easy, and young writers today face challenges that are doubly daunting.

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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

On Writing: Beyond Thunderbird

(Excerpted from my keynote address at this year's wine bloggers conference in British Columbia)

    I grew up in Memphis, in the long shadow of bourbon about whose vast penumbra danced the lesser shades of gin and scotch. My father and uncles all drank bourbon, often at odd hours, and although there was beer, too, it was a far less significant phenomenon. Wine there wasn’t, unless you included a sweetly sour beverage characterized as “Sauterne,” that appeared only at Thanksgiving to test your sophistication.
Generally, wine was foreign, weird, and more or less useless except for that sub-category, Thunderbird, which was both cheap and instantly transformational. A fraternity brother of mine used Thunderbird to make Tom Collins instead of the standard mix and one night rendered insensate a whole roomful of Tau Delta Taus and their dates at the Peabody Hotel.
Today when I think of the raucous, intensely alive, often violent ‘Fifties, I’m struck by the unlikelihood that I would someday write a book about proper wine and its social manifestations on the far side of America, that it would get the attention of the New York Times’s wine critic, the late Frank Prial, and make it onto the best-seller list; and that I would be accused of unfairly enticing stories from valley vintners with southern charm.
Now you might think the South and the vernal creases of northern California have nothing in common. If so, you’re mistaken. For openers, viticulture was first envisioned as an American enterprise in the South, by Thomas Jefferson who rightly predicted that wine could positively affect the culture of the country. But first, the journey.
My wife, Penny, and I came to wine like many of our generation, the stations of the cross being Blue Nun, Lancer rose, and a desiccated red in the proverbial Chianti fiasco with the straw base, a built-in lagniappe because you could use the bottle later as a candle-holder. Also, of course, Gallo’s Paisano in a jug with a metaphorical handle that helped launch many a climb to more ambitious heights.
We lived in San Francisco and New Orleans for a couple of years, and a few more in Europe. I worked briefly for both the Times-Picayune and then the Rome Daily American, where I had our wine jug filled weekly from a spigot in the Roman equivalent of a 7-11 up the street. Then in London I wrote a novel about New Orleans while buying cheap claret in an intimidating wine shop on Kensington Church Street.
We eventually settled in Washington, D.C., where I wrote another novel and drank my way slowly upward, like most everybody vaguely interested in the essence of grape, unable to afford the really good stuff. Figuratively speaking, wine was a large, hoary cask into which much disposable income was poured. However, the subject itself seemed almost infinitely varied, the people involved in it interesting, the landscapes lovely, the pastime mellow. After consuming too much wine – unlike with bourbon – one retained some reason and ability to speak. But wine could also be a bottomless trough of seemingly arcane knowledge, sensual obsession, and penury; the only way for a freelance writer to really take that plunge was to find a figurative sugar-daddy.
I found the Washington Post. Hired by Ben Bradlee to write profiles for the magazine and then the Style section, I also became the default wine critic after the real one quit and the editors had to fill a column every week with words like “approachable” and “buttery.” Now, for any writer worth his or her salt, that’s not too difficult. But to avoid terminal phoniness one has to then actually learn something about the substance in question.
To my great surprise, I discovered that many of those associations have a basis in chemistry. A wine really can have a cigar-box nose and a spicy middle palate and even a long berryish finish; it can be both approachable, and buttery. The best examples of all this cost a small fortune. Bradlee couldn’t have cared less about the wine column but, hey, the Grahams were buying.
The next stage in the development of all oenophiles is insanity. Fortunately mine was temporary, a kind of vinous Tourette’s Syndrome in which you shout out wine descriptors at dinner parties and hang around stores in bad neighborhoods stacked with wine boxes and attend tastings of inky east European liquid in misshapen bottles. Enabled by the Post, I followed my insanity to Napa Valley, and things were never quite the same again.
There was a genuine sub-culture where smudge pots and wind machines were advertised in the newspaper and the entire civilization rocked to the diurnal rhythm of wine. Oh, and ate really well, too. The seed was planted for a book, not about wine but about the people involved in making and promoting it and the incredible beauty and fragility of the place.
First I had to finish a peripatetic book I was already writing about the inter-mountain West, which I mention because it was financed in part by the wine column I continued to write after leaving the Post. (I must be the only person ever to write a column about Arkansas Muscat on a battered Remington typewriter in the back of a Dodge van converted to a camper and parked outside Clovis, New Mexico.) Then I moved temporarily to Napa, whose phenomenal story had never been told because most wine writers were more interested in the substance than in the convoluted back stories of the families involved, and ordinary reporters were intimidated by wine.
Delving into Napa, I was reminded of the South: many in the valley were related, if not by blood then by experience; they shared equipment and sometimes spouses, a love of wine, and a willingness to help each other. People inter-married with slightly less alacrity than in east Tennessee and raised their children to take over what was an odd combination of farming, high craft, and an almost religious belief in the god-given rightness of the cause.
The more established families were primarily agricultural, but the scions were rocketed into a sudden celebrity for which they weren’t prepared, the gusher syndrome like that evinced by Jett Rink in Giant. The Mondavis, for instance, Italo-Central Valley émigrés to Napa who made it with hard work and the old man’s uncanny promotional abilities, were replete with conflicts befitting Absalom, Absalom, if not Genesis: brothers brawling over patrimony in the vineyard, the expulsion of the eldest son, multiple matrimonial trade-ins, spectacular dissolution. And the valley attracted a few sun-struck iterations of Faulkner’s Snopeses, although unlike the environs of Oxford they often hailed from LA’s real estate salons or mid-Peninsula dot-comery.
Some of those I interviewed were actual southerners, like the man who today owns more vineyards in northern California than most anyone and arrived in the valley a milk-drinker; his son, who grew up in Napa, has a wife nicknamed Boo, after the character in To Kill a Mockingbird, and sells a wine called Hogwash.
Another similarity with the South was, of course, drinking. Wine may lack the immediate, stunning clairvoyance of bourbon but it does, I will now reveal, make you drunk if you consume enough of it. More expensive wine is required to do this than is the case with bourbon; getting hammered on the good stuff may build fortunes, but not yours. I saw in the valley impressive displays of sobriety among heavily-engaged cognoscenti talking about assault, balance, finish, but behind the gorgeous backdrop of Douglas firs and designer stressed steel inebriation was not unknown.
This I discovered most forcefully when invited to a meeting of crypto-revelers known as the GONADS (Gastronomic Order of the Nonsensical and Dissipatory) who met once a month at a different member’s house, ate wonderful food and drank fabulous local wines pulled from some of the best cellars in the valley, all on a patio high on the east slope of the Mayacamas Mountains. There must have been thirty different bottles, including old, legendary Stony Hill chardonnays and vintage cabernets from Stag’s Leap to Spring Mountain; we ate cheese and fettucini and veal scallopini and osso bucco and fresh-baked bread.
Business and politics had been banned from discussion, so there were games involving funny hats, thrown firecrackers followed by thrown crusts, wrestling, spilled fine wine, and jokes that included one about oral sex and eggs Benedict. Shirts came off to let burgeoning stomachs breathe free, and napkins were draped over heads to ward off the sun - another southernism. I had agreed not to write a column about the GONADs’ lunch, but the book was another matter, and I periodically sat in the bathroom to take notes and avoid expulsion, torn between totally abandoning myself to the grape and retaining some semblance of mind, aware that Tau Delta Tau would be thoroughly at home here.
(Next: Napa Redux)
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