Friday, May 30, 2008

Alice in Wine Blog Land

A while back, someone offered me a taste of a California cabernet sauvignon. My impression was of a suspension of Woo-Woo-Welch's grape jam (without, however, the concord foxiness) fortified by a generous splash of Everclear. I spat and said the first word that came to mind, which was "Parkerilla."

It wasn't Graham Parker, whose album The Parkerilla was a blot on an otherwise distinguished, and still ongoing, rock 'n' roll career, to whom I referred. It was Robert Parker, fellow lawyer turned tastemaker, publisher of The Wine Advocate, author of several wine books, and unquestionably the most powerful person in the world of wine today. In assessing wines, Parker gives the usual "hints of black currants and kippered herring" kind of commentary (Some such commentary makes me think of Humpty Dumpty: "When I use a means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."), but also assigns precise numerical grades to each vintage, in effect saying, Red Queen-like, to those scoring less than 90, "Off with their heads!", and thereby playing into the American mania for quantification and score-keeping. Consequently, lots of people do their wine shopping on the basis of Parker ratings, which many stores include in their ads and helpfully display next to each bottle.

Parker's preference for what he calls "hedonistic fruit bombs", that is, wines with overpowering fruitiness and high alcohol, has shaped demand to the extent that many wineries, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, have tailored their technique to produce wines that fit that description and stand fair to get high Parker marks. Because of these wines' massive, chest-thumping quality, I decided to give them the epithet "Parkerilla." As you may have guessed by now, I prefer wines with more--how you say?--nuance. So, I shudder as the Parker juggernaut rolls, apparently inexorably, along.

Fortunately, I have some allies who are waging anti-Parkerilla guerilla. One of them is my Kings County compatriot, Brooklynguy. Another, whom I have just discovered, is Alice Feiring, who puts out the estimable blog Veritas in Vino. Up top on her home page, under the heading "Appellation Feiring", she lets you know where she stands:
I’m looking for the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world. I want my wines to tell a good story. I want them natural and most of all, like my dear friends, I want them to speak the truth even if we argue. ...I’m trying to swell the ranks of those who love the differences in each vintage, who abhor homogenization, who want wines that make them smile, think, laugh, and feel sexy.
Ms. Feiring champions the concept of terroir, which, like many French words, is hard to translate neatly into English, but boils down to the notion that a wine's taste should reflect the idiosyncracies of the environment in which it was produced (Again this brings to mind Humpty Dumpty: "When I make a word do a lot of work like that, ...I always pay it extra."). She has taken the battle into the heart of enemy territory, writing an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times titled "California wine? Down the drain", in which she characterizes the bulk of that state's wine as "overblown, over-alcoholed, over-oaked, overpriced and over-manipulated." In other words: Parker-ized to the hilt. This prompted a counter-attack in the same newspaper, in which Matthew DeBord called her a "terroirist" and delivered such gems of wisdom as:
[T]he "terroirists" lambasted California -- which by this time had become the most successful winemaking region in the history of, well, wine -- for imposing a bland style on the rest of the world. America promotes democracy and market capitalism. California promotes wines that don't suck. This cannot stand.
Alice, of course, responded, calling DeBord "the Sean Hannity of the Wine World" and herself a "terroir jihadist." The comment thread following her post, in which she participates, is well worth reading. She offered further commentary in a Q&A format here.

Alice is promoting her new book, The Battle for Wine and Love, or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, and, in furtherance of that, will be at my daughter's favorite after-school hangout, the new Barnes & Noble at 97 Warren Street (corner of Greenwich) in Tribeca, at 7:00 P.M. this coming Monday, June 2. New Yorkers, and anyone else who happens to be in town then, please take note. I'll definitely be there to:

(1) buy the book;

(2) get her to sign it; and

(3) blow her a kiss on the way out.

Subsequent events, including some in mid-June in California (this woman has intestinal fortitude!), are listed on her blog.

Update: I meet Alice! Yes, I was there at the Tribeca B&N at seven sharp yesterday, to find most of the seats already taken. With luck, I found a vacant one at the end of the second row. After a couple of minutes, a woman who looked like Jackie O. when she was a young Jackie Kennedy, but with a nasal piercing, took the podium and introduced Alice, who looks like the fifth grade teacher you had a secret crush on, pretty not in a cover girl fashion, but in a wise yet vulnerable way.

She began by reading several sections of her book. The first was how she discovered wine, when her father's second wife invited her to raid the cellar amassed by her previous husband. The second was about her quest to meet the man who made the Barolo that she took in that raid and with which she fell in love, a quest that failed but in the course of which she learned much about Italy, its wines, and the reasons for their sad decline. The third was about Burgundy and her meeting with Parker. After reading, she invited questions. There was much discussion of new winemaking techniques, especially something called "biodynamics", of which Alice generally approves, but is afraid may become simply a marketing ploy. Asked what wines she particularly enjoys these days, she said she was especially fond of Loire wines, as well as some Côtes du Rhône and some Beaujolais.

When my turn came to have my copy of her book signed, I handed her my blog card, and she said she had read this post, and liked it. She then signed the book, "Thanks so much." I will now put on my shameless shill hat and say, "Buy Alice's book. It's great."

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Auf wiedersehen, Franz

...I have been concerned with...the way the dynamics and iconography of the Great War have proved crucial political, rhetorical, and artistic determinants on subsequent life. At the same time the war was relying on inherited myth, it was generating new myth, and that myth is part of the fiber of our own lives.
-- Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975)
I was a handsome man and had many women. But more important is to have a good wife, with whom one can share one's life.
-- Franz Künstler (1900-2008)
It's a commonplace to observe that World War I, the "Great War", was a hinge for history. Before August 1914, vistas of endless progress; after, disillusionment. Before, a balance of power; after, a constant struggle for supremacy. Of course, this oversimplifies. Bolsheviks had their belief in the inevitable triumph of the proletariat that would bring about utopia, but only after great struggle. Social democrats believed that melioristic policies could bring about a better world, but that belief was strained by the collapse of Weimar and the subsequent Great Depression. The Depression validated pessimism, and World War II enshrined it.

The number of people alive now who can remember the world before 1914 is quickly declining. Two days ago, one of the last surviving veterans of the war, and the last who fought on the side of the Central Powers, Franz Künstler, died at the age of 108. His life in a way reflected the turmoil of the just-over-a-century for which he lived. He was an ethnic German born in the Hungarian portion of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire to parents who were part of the German diaspora that extended through Eastern Europe to the valley of the Volga. When maps were redrawn following the collapse of the Empire, the place where he was born became part of Romania. He maintained Hungarian citizenship until the second defeat of Germany in World War II led to the expulsion of many East European Germans from their native countries to the now-diminished and divided Germany. Like Frank Buckles, the last surviving U.S. armed forces veteran of World War I, he also served in World War II.

Thanks to Ed Lenci for passing to me the news of Künstler's death.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

From my window this afternoon.

The sound of an idling diesel engine brought me to the window, where I saw a busload of blondes in hot pink dresses competing to be the next Elle Woods in Legally Blonde (contest sponsored by MTV). They were assembling for a photo shoot on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. For a view of some of them there, with the lower Manhattan skyline as a background, see my post on Brooklyn Heights Blog.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Remembering Korea

Nobody wanted to call it a war, except those who fought in it. It could have been over soon after it began, thanks to General Douglas MacArthur's brilliantly planned and executed amphibious assault at Inchon, the success of which allowed Republic of Korea (ROK) and U.S. troops to capture the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, in October of 1950, less than five months after North Korean troops had invaded the South.

Shortly after American troops entered Pyongyang, as the late David Halberstam tells in his last book, The Coldest Winter, word came that some ROK units that had proceeded north from the capital towards the Yalu River, the border with China, had encountered some resistance and needed help. Units of the U.S. First Cavalry, still wearing summer uniforms, were sent north for what was expected to be a quick mop-up against remnants of the defeated North Korean army. What ensued was a horror, as inexperienced commanders, brought over recently from stateside, deployed the troops poorly, and headquarters willfully ignored intelligence that showed a substantial deployment of Chinese troops in the area. MacArthur was determined to take his troops to the Yalu, while China had warned that it would consider any move into the North Korean provinces bordering the Yalu an act of war. MacArthur, confident in his knowledge of the "Asiatic mind", was sure they were bluffing.

The unit that took the heaviest hit in the Chinese attack was the Eighth Regiment of the First Cavalry, which had been deployed in a northern salient that, as one experienced soldier put it, made it stand out "like a sore thumb." After the Eighth's position had been almost completely overrun, a battalion command post, where many wounded had been taken, remained with a tenuous escape route to the south. The soldiers there realized that before long their defenses would fail and the command post would fall. As Halberstam describes it:
On midday of November 3, Peterson, Mayo, Richardson, and Giroux went over to the CP for a final doomsday kind of meeting. Because he was not an officer, Richardson [a sergeant first class] did not attend the meeting, but he knew what it was about. All of the officers, many of them wounded themselves, were talking about a forbidden subject--what to do with the wounded in the terrible final moment that everyone knew was coming. ...

What heartbreaking decisions for young men to make, Richardson had thought to himself and still pondered half a century later.
Of these four men, only Mayo escaped. Peterson and Richardson both were captured, and survived two and a half years in prisoner of war camps. Giroux was also captured, but died of his wounds. Overall, in this battle, the Eighth Regiment suffered eight hundred casualties, losing half its authorized strength.

The Korean War began at least in large part because of an unintentional omission from a speech by a consummate diplomat: Dean Acheson, Truman's Secretary of State, neglected to include South Korea within the Asian "defensive perimeter" of the U.S. It was prolonged by the willfulness, in the face of convincing conflicting evidence, of a great military commander. Remember this.