Friday, December 23, 2011

Taking a different reward home each day

A friend told me about her childhood living in Manhattan. She had grown up in a small building on 27th Street, several decades ago. She said that on one side of the family flat there were the wholesale flower vendors, warehousing daffodils, and that in the other direction were the furriers, busy cutting large swathes of mink down into stoles and pillowy muffs. Each weekday my friend would walk home from her school, and if she walked by the flower stalls, the slender, serious men who worked in them would give this young girl a flower to take home with her. And if she passed instead by the furriers, the large men with long smoking pipes who tended the shears there would present the young miss with a small swathe of fur. She would rub the soft fur between two fingers and find the texture of treasure there. On the other afternoons she would burrow her nose into a single flower stem, finding the fragrance held inside. And each day she could pick which direction home to take: fur or flower.

I know how she felt. This winter I find myself luxuriating in the plush texture of red Saint-Joseph, or with my nose buried deep inside glasses of intensely floral Roussanne.


In the winter they pruned the vines

When you consider that this:

1. One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
- ah, the sheer grace! -
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
- him I knew so well -
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

from the Catholic Friar Saint John of the Cross (written originally in Spanish in 1585)

is possibly apt to turn with time into this...

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winters nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tinny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

from the scholar Clement Clarke Moore (written in 1822)

I tend to give, in this cold season, an extra thought to those monks who toiled amongst vines for those many years to hand down to us more clearly the thinking of their place, written in translucent liquid.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

East Coast Raj

I remember the first time I met Raj Vaidya, I had ordered a bottle of the 2002 Huet sparkling at Cru - far from the most expensive wine on the list at that time, to say the least - and Raj practically bounded to our table with the bottle, asking "Who is the smart person who ordered this??" Well, of course this was a person that I liked right off. And I've seen this same attitude again and again from Raj in a multitude of situations. He gets ebullient and jazzed about wine, but comes across in a disarming manner, quick to appreciate other people's love of wine as well. This is a pretty much ideal disposition for a man with his job: Big Man on Wine at Restaurant Daniel.
And have you seen the list at Daniel lately? It is a superb mix that includes classics from the likes of Raveneau and Chateau Latour, offering vintage depth, with superlative lesser known producers such as Ledru in Ambonnay, and Gahier in Arbois. There is tremendous drinking at all price levels, and wines that are very much in keeping with the spirit of the food. After having been in his role for two years, it is easy to see that Raj is very eager to maintain the Daniel tradition of offering guests a "thrilling document" (as the NYT once phrased it) from which to select wine.
Raj and I recently sat in the skybox at Daniel, a perch that is one of the country's truly superb tables, and we spoke about how Raj got to Daniel and about what he wants to accomplish there in the future. Along the way, he gave a few tips to those looking to break into the business, and described some of the wines that he most loves. Check out the interview on snooth.
Restaurant Daniel especially glows during the holidays. It possesses that same halo as the tree at Rock Center, or The Nutcracker production at Lincoln Center. A highlight of New York City in December. Maybe this would be a good time of year for you to introduce yourself to Raj?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The wine that slips away from itself

"Nets are for catching fish; after one gets the fish, one forgets the net. Traps are for catching rabbits; after one gets the rabbit, one forgets the trap. Words are for getting meaning; after one gets the meaning, one forgets the words. Where can I find people who have forgotten words, and have a word with them?"   - Zhuangzi, Chapter 26

This passage is part of the Zhuangzi, a collection of writings at least some of which are attributed to the historical Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosoper who lived during the 4th century BC. I particularly like the English rendering above because it artfully captures in the wordplay some of the duality that can be seen in Zhuangzi's thinking as a whole. Zhuangzi's "Transformation of Things", from the second Chapter of the writings, states clearly what I think of as this duality, or easy "slippage" (my term) between two forms of existence:

"Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction!"

Where do I see this kind of slippage of worlds in the original quotation, from Chapter 26? Well, how about that phrase "Words are for getting meaning" which was so well set up by the two previous examples from the animal world? You might say the line aloud and listen to what you hear. Are words forgetting their meaning in this passage?

Or what about "Where can I find people who have forgotten words": have the people forgotten the words, or do they instead have the forgotten words?

And when the author asks to "have a word" might he be asking for his own name amongst these people - and thus a defineable meaning for himself - in addition to the gist of having a conversation?

It is interesting to think of these kinds of dual meanings in the context of wine, because I think that in general, we don't. At least not when we write about wine. Often enough we make note of a wine as we perceive that it is, and fail to acknowledge that what we perceive also contains in itself the beginnings of a change into something else. As I was reminded recently, a 2000 Chateau Simone Blanc tastes today nothing like it did on release. All sorts of savory and rich characteristics have evolved out of a deeply creviced liquid that once displayed a fresher fruit and a softer glide. What do we make of this? As we place a verbal image of a wine into text, are we fully acknowledging that we are in a sense standing at the edge of a moving river, taking a snapshot of a liquid that will change as it progresses down the arc of its loop around the visible bend? What we see, what we imagine as the total sum of the river in our minds, slips away and is replaced. Perhaps as we raise a glass of wine to our lips, we should try to remember this.

As a wine has a bottle and a label, we tend to believe it to be contained entirely. But as time goes by, do the words on that label forget one meaning in favor of another?

Monday, December 19, 2011

My List of the Top Wine Movies of All Time, Part 2

Well, without further ado, I include here the remainder of my personal list of the TOP Wine Movies of Forever. See what you think!

L.A. Story, 1991

Perhaps not the first Wine Movie that would come to mind for a lot of people, but this certainly deserves inclusion for one scene alone, wherein a character describes how she puts her wine in the Spinning Cone and then takes off the first fake fruit she sees in there. Also notable is the sequence where the pruners threaten each other with loaded firearms as they race one another on tractors down the vineyard rows. Certainly this film is a must see if one wants to learn more about Southern California winemaking as it was in the heady days of the early '90s.

Citizen Kane, 1941

The story of a man of ideals who thought "it would be fun to run a Wine Critic Newsletter". He is subsequently lionized, and wields great power, telling a correspondent "You furnish the wine, I'll furnish the waiting list." But is he ultimately misunderstood by the people he sought to influence?

Broadway Danny Rose, 1984

A well meaning Jewish Sommelier takes the only job he is offered, and finds himself watching as people tear apart hundred dollar bills and throw them at Super Tuscans. He tries to get customers to appreciate the wines he holds dear, but encounters boatloads of difficulty as people dismiss his Frappatos as balloon art. Soon enough he wonders if he can develop the backbone of a top flight Taurasi, or if he must forever be a ventriloquist for wines he does not enjoy. Looking for solace amidst pastrami, he runs past the Carnegie Deli, realizing that it is strictly for tourists, and heads to his true love Katz's.

My Night at Maud's, 1969

At a dinner party featuring seductive older vintages, the protagonist Jean-Louis (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) must decide if he will stick to his own stated ideal of drinking Muscadet young, or if he will follow the logic of Pascal the Vigneron, who famously waged that if God does exist he must be often drunk, and most surely understanding of those who also take a tipple.

Last Year at Marienbad, 1961

A man repeatedly and in different places claims to have had Overnoy's "Black Capsule," but the woman he claims to have had it with does not remember him, and an apparently smarter man resembling Joe Dressner frequently abuses him. Has the first man, known only as "X", actually sampled the masterpiece, or is he only hopelessly confused? Why can he not remember the vintage, even though he says that he asked for the label to be removed? And did he really wear that formal black evening jacket to a hipster wine bar in Williamsburg after all??

2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968

As everyone else around him is sleeping late at night, a man gets into a seemingly polite but highly emotionally charged argument on a Computer Wine Chat Forum, where the question at stake hinges on who is foolproof and incapable of error in their subjective assessments. When it becomes clear that neither party is incapable of error, and that oxidation might be harmful to wine but that lack of oxygen surely kills, one of the accounts is deleted. After this episode, the man travels a tremendous distance to an Ian Schrager lounge designed by Philippe Starck, but finds that he has arrived late (early?) to the dancefloor and is the only one there. He subsequently and simultaneously sees himself as an old man and as childish.

Friday, December 16, 2011

My List of the Top Wine Movies of All Time, Part 1

When you think about great - really Great - movies centered around wine, multitudes come to mind. There are so many superb wine movies to name, it is more a matter of whittling down the sizeable list to something more manageable. I've gone ahead and put together my list of All Time Wine Movie Favorites, and I thought I would share it with you here. Maybe one of your favorite wine flicks has been left off? Please do say so in the comments.

Despair, 1978

Of course any list of wine movies would have to include something from Fassbinder. It is just a matter of chosing one in particular from amongst the several wine themed Fassbinder pictures. The neglected classic Despair  finds Fassbinder at his most wine-y. Dirk Bogarde plays Hermann Hermann, a man slowly gone mad, unable to tell the difference between Saint-Bris and a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. He hatches an elaborate plot to serve the later to his guests at a dinner party, confident that they will find minerality in the glass. Amazingly enough, the film is set in 1990's Berlin, against an imagined backdrop of the problems inherent with German reunification. Throughout the movie Hermann Hermann remains blind to the fact that his wife is having a tawdry affair with Pinot Grigio.

Blade Runner, 1982

Harrison Ford plays a man charged with hunting down fake Jeros of '45 Pomerol with only his corkscrew and his palate to go on. In this dark vision of the future wine world, Rick Deckard (Ford) must track down each fake wine before it enters the market and does irreperable harm. He faces a deep moral dilemna when he encounters a wine that he knows to be "fake" but which he loves the taste of. Should he continue this dangerous relationship? And Deckard's very identity is called into question when it is revealed that his first experience of '45 Pomerol may have been from a forged bottle, implying his earliest taste memories may not, in fact, be "real." A bleak cinematic picture of global wine world sprawl and a wine terrain far removed from terroir and the indisputable sense of place. An imagined dinner table where every dish smells of synthetic truffle oil. How pliant is a reality that absorbs the fake whole? Is it possible to escape a permanently dark city-world built upon the convenience and desire for replication?

Rebel Without A Cause, 1955

Perhaps most disturbing today owing to the three shining bright talents starring in the film having been taken too early by the scourge of Hollywood: Premox. But when viewed again, this picture painfully renders the spirit of a boy unable to find solace or faith in his parent's love of straw-covered fiasco Chianti, and unable to find answers in a school life devoid of Poulsard. A reminder of the loneliness of youth when the desire is to drink verticals whole, but who knows of what.

to be continued...

Monday, December 12, 2011

Locally Famous

My host explained to me that these two were locally famous in town. Two mutes, neither ever saying a word. And I was told that they were always together. Early each day they would come out from the large house where they lived and criss cross along to the very edges of the road until they would stop, which was often. The one who steered the way was a wide dog with a pot belly and rich brown coat, and who most times walked so slow that his leash fell loose behind him. The other mute was a slender man. He possessed a sharp, clear eyed expression. Always immaculate and very soberly dressed, he wore a pressed suit firmly buttoned down against the morning chill.

The old dog was not in a hurry. He would halt and hug the very ground with his fat paws, rolling his pot belly fully across the deep earth. The trim man would stand behind him quietly, a firm grip on the leash. If he was impatient to get to a set appointment, he never showed it. Instead he would wait, eyes very fixed in the present, and when the dog was ready to move again he would give a silent nod and they would go forward. Each day they walked in this manner, without sound, taking their time.

Locally famous. Perhaps it doesn't sound like much, but I have realized that this is what I set out to find some time ago, when I became a sommelier. I'd like to tell the small stories of a particular place, and it if applies to everywhere and always, maybe I'm not interested. I don't know anything about epics, or what is the greatest. I know that in this place, across an ocean from where I live, there were two mutes who did not speak for themselves, and I have a mind to tell you their story for them. Life is what happens in front of you.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Me, You, and #SommChat, together

Tomorrow, Wednesday the 7th, I'll be taking questions live on Twitter from noon to 1pm (EST) via #SommChat. This is your chance to ask me about the smallest white Grand Cru in Burgundy, which Woody Allen movie name I believe to be the greatest, and what brand of comfy soft socks I prefer in winter (Answers: Criots-Batard-Montrachet, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Wigwam, not necessarily in that order). Tune into #SommChat tomorrow on Twitter, facilitated by @KeeperColl, to follow the flow! I am sure that I will say something mildly embarrassing, if not truly profound.

This is actually not a picture of me. It is a picture of Walt Whitman. I'm not sure why this picture is here, but I am sure that I do dig that hat.

The Amazing Jordan Salcito

Jordan explores the roots of wine by travelling far underground, and somehow also manages to have great glassware on hand.
Awhile back, when summer was still humming along, it was with great pleasure that I caught up with Jordan Salcito, the young and talented wine director behind the wine program at Crown restaurant in upper Manhattan. You have probably heard a bit about Crown already, but here is a look back to what Jordan was tackling in the time ahead of the opening, when every line of the list was still a possibility, and nothing was written.

Most of the wine interviews you hear about, they are with people who have been in the business forever. Those people may have replied to the same question with the same answer on repeat for who knows how long. Here is a new face making up fresh answers to the difficult challenge of a restaurant opening, and the responsibility of taking up her own first wine list. This is someone who in a short span of years has managed so much, including stints at top restaurants and cellar visits to amazing producers. Why not take a moment to hear what she has to say?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Blog Birthday

Well, the blog is one year old today, and I'm sorry that the real commemorative post will have to wait a day or two, as I am late for work at the moment. But I will say that I started this blog to voice the kind of stories, theories, histories, poems, and travelogues that are difficult to elucidate tableside. And I've been happy with the result. The wine life has to be about more than "Would you like the wine to be fuller or lighter bodied?" and I hope you have also enjoyed some of the conversation that has happened here over the last year.

I leave you now with a print of a man making an infused distillate in olden times, a clip from the Amari File. Of course the exact recipe must remain a secret until I can decode the written script.

Thanks for your time. Thanks for tuning in and commenting as this blog has done its thing. As recent birthday boy JLG has said, every story must have a beginning to the story, a middle, and a finish, but just not necessarily in that order.