Sunday, December 27, 2009

Hybrid vs. Vinifera round two:



At this point, after trying to appear objective, I have no choice but to confess I have an innate prejudice against hybrid wines. You can ascribe it to snobbiness but I dislike them in general for the same reasons that I cannot tolerate stupid people, they tend to repeat themselves ad infinitum and they seem innately incapable either of subtlety or of being insulted.

Where a grape like Cabernet or Pinot seems possessed under the winemakers hand of an almost infinite variation and evocative of an astounding array of flavors and aromas, varieties like Baco Noir and Seyval seem by comparison remarkably consistent in both flavor and aroma regardless of how they are treated. While this may seem to some a virtue, to a winemaker it presents a uniquely frustrating situation. It's akin to going to the Port Authority where you may buy a ticket for a seemingly unlimited number of destinations but finding that the bus invariably drops you off in Brooklyn. (again, don't get me wrong, I love Brooklyn, even minus the Dodgers, but, you know, if you are looking for a quiet beach, Coney Island does have its drawbacks).

Why this is the case is a puzzle but, it is unquestionably true. Hybrids just all seem to have this one dominant personality trait that one simply cannot ignore. It is something like the wart on your great aunt's face, whether you like her or not, it dominates and colors your interactions with her no matter how much you try to ignore it.

This brings us to the the current effort to establish hybrids (warts and all) as the signature grapes of the Hudson Valley. Climate dictates they will always dominate viticulture in the valley (you winemakers who are secretly hoping for climate change,-good luck). (As I said in the previous post, there are some exceptions but these are dependent on huge influxes of cash). If we are to develop a signature grape here there is no question (for the near future) therefore that it will be of a hybrid variety. One clearly cannot build a reputation based on a grape that is not native to or widely grown in your region; not really so much because it is dishonest, but because it presents and insurmountable marketing hurdle. This then presents the would be winemaker in the Hudson Valley with a unique dilemna, they may seek either to become a virtuoso utilizing only the limited flavor notes afforded by the hybrid varieties (which is something akin to becoming a virtuoso on an instrument with clearly circumscribed charm as for instance the harmonica or the accordion) or he or she may abandon any pretense at uniqueness and seek to compete purely on the basis of winemaking skill using grapes as local as possible but without that necessarily being the defining parameter.

The third and perhaps more interesting possibility is the path Carlo of Hudson-Chatham (and to a lesser extent myself) have gone down, which is to begin experimenting with blends of local hybrids with classical varieties obtained from elsewhere in the state. Carlo's 'Empire' offering (and though I kid Carlo about the use of the name Empire, though I named a wine 'Buckethead') I think is a very solid first step in this direction. It blends wines from different areas of the state and combines classical with hybrid varieties. The result is very drinkable and of reasonable complexity. The consistent undertone of the hybrid component which I have referred to emerges as something I can only liken to juicyfruit gum with a hint of licorice, in any case, not at all unpleasant or reminiscent of the astringency often associated with the red hybrid varieties.

Whether or not this turns out to be a viable viticultural/winemaking path time will tell. To hark back to the musical analogy it may turn out to be a curiosity like Mozart's glass harmonica concerto or result in longstanding innovation that vastly expands the available palette such as occurred with the introduction of the more 'strident' brass instruments into the post classical symphony orchestra. My suspicion is that it will be the latter but as I said, I am from Brooklyn and therefore by nature an incurable optimist (go Dodgers). In any case, the geni is definitely out of the bottle (as well as in the bottle), so let's use our three wishes carefully.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pride & Prejudice

Whenever Carlo Devito, as a wine writer, is about to offer some good humored criticism of a fellow winemaker he usually prefaces it in some fashion with a statement evincing his affection and respect for that individual about to come under his less than admiring scrutiny, not that I do not think he is sincere so, just let me say here (and I am not just saying this), I genuinely like Carlo DeVito, as I mentioned in previous posts he is one of the few winemakers in the valley with whom I feel I have something in common that goes beyond wine i.e. we are both enamored at the opportunity of waxing poetic over the grape, however, since this blog is not dedicated solely to my personal literary rants on topics of my discretion but to promoting actual discussion about wine I would like to respond to his recent post on EastCoastWineries blog regarding the hybrid vs. non-hybrid controversy in New York viticulture; in particular the segment called 'My Favorite Hybrid' which as presented, raises some issues that I would like to address. And as far as the preliminary praise, and in the spirit of obscuring shared ambition as exemplified so eloquently in Shakespeare's rendering of Mark Antony's funeral oration, let me first say I come not to praise Caesar nor to bury him, but to 'goose' him.

While the title of his post is obviously coy play on 'My Favorite Martian' (the 1960s sitcom with Bill Bixby and Ray Walston) it is clear that the point Carlo is trying to make with this is that hybrids are not in fact from Mars. He adduces the fact that Cab Sauvignon, one of the most loved and respected of the 'noble' grapes varieties is actually a cross between two venerable varieties, Cab Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.

I must admit here that the innate prejudice of the wine buying public in favor of the 'noble' grapes (a term which embraces all the vinifera genus) grates on some deep egalitarian instinct in me (can't we all just get along?) but we need to get some perspective on this issue aside from the political implications and the constant din of clamoring for 'quality' NYS wine which even when produced remains subject to some unfathomable instinctual suspicion.

Firstly, I must object to the classification of Cab Sauvignon as a hybrid in the same sense as we have become used to using the term here in NY. Hybrids here have generally come as the result of intentional crossbreeding programs at University sponsored experiment stations, they are not the result of natural selection or historical factors such as resulted in the production of many of the European so called hybrids. The reason for this is simple; new wine grape varieties are no longer produced by germination in the field (We all remember Gregor Mendel from Junior High School and his magic peas--not personally of course oh well, age jokes at my age are de rigeur), they are produced in commercial applications by grafting, so the likelihood of developing serendipitous field crosses (such as occurred in the case of Cab Sauvignon) through a process of selection by growers over decades or centuries such as occurred in Europe here is slim to none.

Secondly, as the term is commonly used in America, hybrid refers to varieties that contain genetic material from non-vinifera varieties. This is not the case in the example cited by Carlo. Cab Sauvignon is a cross of two vinifera species.

If I may attempt to play the devil's advocate for a moment, I will agree, there are excellent wines being made from hybrid grapes in New York and as Carlo correctly points out, the difference may lay largely in the skill of the winemaker and not in the native characteristics inherent in the juice but to address this last point let me introduce an analogy from a field I am more comfortable with. I am a bass player and I have two instruments that I own, basses. One is European (Czech) and the second was made by a luthier out of Middletown. You can play Beethoven on either of them and make it sound reasonably well. As a bass player, I am keenly aware that I have to struggle to as they say 'get the notes under my fingers' when using the Middletown bass (at the moment I have no choice because my better bass is in hock as the repair shop). Anyway it is just the way that bass is set up and constructed. Secondly, I know that under most circumstances, I well never get the American bass to make a tone as classically beautiful as the second. In other words, if I am playing Beethoven I would much rather be playing the Czech bass. As
everyone is aware however, Beethoven is not the only composer and classical not the only style of music. The American Bass is much boomier and has a big bottom, (lower range-- not in the booty sense). If I was playing jazz or country I would much rather be playing the other bass despite the physical challenges. I think the analogy to be found in this is appropos to this discussion and bears some reflection.

Also, if you know anything about winegrowing in the Hudson Valley, unless you are a multi-millionaire, growing nothing but vinifera grapes is akin to viticultural masochism. I can tell you this from experience, the amount of labor required to make them productive and the struggles with weather here will require huge constant infusions of that most American of commodities, cash. In case you haven't noticed, that is a commodity presently in short supply.

So, the (average) winemaker in the valley in these times finds him or herself in somewhat of a bind. What to do? Grow hybrid grapes and still be able to take pride in the fact that the product you produce was under your hand from inception or, buy grapes from the Finger Lakes or some other region where the weather is a smidge kinder to the vine or a combination of both?

(To be Continued)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Still Hopped Up


'Tommy Ramone holding up bottle of Silver Stream Gewurz










I went to the Kleinert Center last night for the book promotion of 'All Hopped Up and Ready to Go' with the expectation that I was going to be sorely disappointed and also, that I was going in some fashion, in some as yet unknown way, to sorely disappoint. That is just how I generally approach these things and it is not without justification. These type of events are notorious for last minute no-shows of famous names, conversations based around an avowed disinterest in any topic except self promotion, leggy unobtainable and unapproachable 'hotties' floating at the edges of the crowd, me, I didn't care--I was just there selling wine,--so I thought.

The event proved anything but disappointing, the 'hotties' might have been sixty years old and the self promotion graphic equalizer turned to ten (but in a very classy way) but it was altogether a most enjoyable experience,--there were of course the expected no-shows,--Tony (that's Tony Fletcher, author of the aforementioned book) announced at the beginning that Artie Traum and John Sebastian (two of the big draw names) had other engagements and then graciously added 'well, I am glad at least they are still playing'. (What? no-ironic rancor?) Anyway, who was there? It was Tommy Ramone, (who I prepared to dislike and who was utterly disarming), Elda Gentile (who I had never heard of, ironically not having really paid attention to the punk scene but who proved eloquent and funny), Eric Weissberg (who I remember and whose beard I remember even more than him from the covers of old folk albums), and of course Fred Smith from Cerighino Smith Winery who (surprise surprise), also turns out (like me) to be a bass-player (only successful having played with Blondie and Television), and also currently (like me) a winemaker (only successful) and Tish and Snooky (also formerly of Blondie).

I showed up laden to the gills with amusing anecdotes about Markie Ramone (aka Markie Bell), who had grown up two blocks away in Brooklyn, (and who Fred recalled almost immediately had been a member of the Voidoids), my other claim to fame having played with Huey Lewis back when he was Hugh Cregg in a band called 'Raw Meat'. I kind of expected to be treated with bemused disbelief (as is usually the case unless I happen to run into an old Cornellian or someone from the old neighborhood). Anyway, to my surprise, I was not.

Now, I have to tell you all something, --when it comes to these stories
about the 'old days' nobody really gives an intense shit about them anyway, even the manic punk old days, where grandma and grandpa had safety pins tucked into their cheeks, so I guess the added disbelief is just kind of gratuitous,(witness my unread and perhaps unreadable memoir 'Down By Our Vineyard'), just nobody gives a shit except of course Tony Fletcher whose book is all about 'that scene', meaning of course the New York music scene of and in which we all participated in some fashion, hence this party, hence this meeting with Fred etc. etc.
But! and this is a big but, when musicians, true musicians get together (famous or not), there is a certain unconcerned humility that dominates the tenor of the conversation, this is not because the musicians themselves are humble, far from, we (they) can be as egotistically puerile as the next fellow, moreso, but rather it is from one common shared understanding, --that the distinctions of fame and money (and the corresponding investment in maintaining the fiction that that is what fundamentally separates them) is something like, well how to put this delicately, like watching your girlfriend screw the entire football team and then taking her to a Disney movie and trying to explain to her why Bambi's mother had to get shot,-- somehow you know your heart really isn't in it.

What was interesting about last night was that this was not where the conversation ended; it was where it started. Music was not about fame and tragic inevitability, it was about community, about art and about self-definition; that was a given and that's a pretty cool starting place if you ask me.
The topics and panel discussion really didn't get much past laying out those parameters and sort of devolved into reminiscences (which is what happens mostly when musicians get either hungry or thirsty, it is a sort of process of self preservation in the guise of self hypnosis).

Anyway, when I left, instead of the deflation and disappointment I had expected, I was inexplicably excited and calm at the same time,--I had really enjoyed this, if it was a freak show then I was part of the carnival. By the way, the 'Rock and Roll Red' which was the Cerighino Smith offering at the event was awesome, like the best Bordeaux I have drunk (drinken? drinked? drank I think) anyway cheers and keep up the good work.

Friday, November 6, 2009

All Hopped Up

Just wanted to let all the 4 (four) readers of the blog that there will be an event at the Kleinert/James Art Center in Woodstock N.Y. tomorrow (Nov. 7)5Pm to 7PM for the book release of 'All Hopped Up and Ready to Go' Music from the streets of New York 1927-1957' by Tony Fletcher from . Wine from Silver Stream Winery and Cereghino-Smith will be served along with hors'd'oevres (is that how you spell that?) from Gabriels of Kingston. Article on the event in the Woodstock Times is
at http://ulsterpublishing.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=article&articleID=500891

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Funeral Oration of Lothos

Perhaps the most famous funeral oration of all time is Pericles Epitaphios Logos. Given at the start of the Peloponesian War it is basically a self congratulatory paean to city of Athens and its inhabitants for being the light of the world. It was politics as pure theater and there is a school of thought that it itself fashioned the identity of the polis , the free citizen, the spirit of democracy, the words were not merely the reflection of the light of culture shed on the ancient world by Greece but the cause of it, the logos in its truest sense, as a creative force.

So, who is Lothos, then? Lothos was the Vampire King in Buffy the Vampire slayer. He accosts Buffy at the Senior dance, despite his great power and the fact that her predecessor failed and was killed by Lothos, Buffy, the cheerleader, still manages to kill Lothos.

Yesterday I went to the funeral of Tom LaBarbera. He was an artist in Chester among other things. I knew him but I did not know him that well. My grief at his passing was not really personal, there were not tears, it was regret at the loss of a valuable member of society and the desire to show respect for an honorable life.

It is amazing how we humans are so resourceful that can turn death into so many things. Like Pericles we can use it as a catalyzing flame to weld the varied elements of society into a unified whole, or, like Buffy we can use it to discover a whole unknown dimension of ourselves that contradicts our daily life, the priest at the mass yesterday used it as a means of comforting and a means of strengthening faith. We all find ways to use death to augment and provide purpose in a life that suddenly seems purposeless or pointless,--it is perhaps the most democratic of all states of existence, despite what the priest said, in it we are all suddenly equal.
--it is in fact probably this capability to utilize death to enhance life which most sets us apart from the animals, perhaps even more than walking upright, except of course when it comes to vampires. Vampires, like Lothos, are those who have escaped the great leveler, become something else, something transcendent. It takes a cheerleader to put them back in their place, to set the universe aright, to restore democracy to the human condition.

As life imitates art, it occurs to me the war on terror is something like the fight against vampires, not that it is being carried on mostly by motivated really cute cheerleaders, but it has all the same elements, at times it seems like an attempt to kill the unkillable, (those already dead) and its purpose is ostensibly the spread of democracy. We must be cautious. Like Pericles, it may be used as a pretext to empire. As in 'Buffy' it seems to represent the permanent and final removal from the world of a seemingly indelible evil a goal which we know is a convenient fiction as long as man is man.

On another note, Tom was of Italian heritage. Everyone knows that Italians on the whole love wine more that most people. Almost every Italian immigrant to American had a father or grandfather who use to make wine in the basement, even in the midst of a confusing new life they knew they had to hold on to something that was good. Perhaps it represented to them the glories of a faded empire, perhaps it represented the means for the temporary removal from the world of the seemingly indelible forces of present despair and inevitable defeat. (I'm a Jew so I really wouldn't know, but, as a writer and a Jew I know that the real danger as always is that the portrayal of character will become caricature.) Even in the words we use when drinking it 'Cheers!'. We seem to extol the victory of Buffy over Lothos. (Not that Buffy was of Italian extraction but in her we see the possibility of the ultimate Pax Romana, the restoration of the accord with death itself, allied also with a possibly winning High School football team) In drinking it, for a time a least we seem to become our nobler selves.

So, what does wine represent really, the hope of empire, or the banishment of inequality, the eventual victory of life over death or the attraction of our darker selves as the proving ground of our souls, is wine tied to the perpetuation of culture or is culture itself dependent on the dissolution of differences between men and women of good will. Who knows, and aside from what it represents it tastes good so, in the end, who really cares. Buffy can go back to the Senior dance and have fun, there will be other vampires to slay, Pericles can build a lasting monument to his culture from mere words, in the end all we can do is try to enjoy what is best in our lives and try to preserve it for those that follow --isn't that the point?
The priest said Tom LaBarbera was already painting away in his new abode. I don't know but I hope so, and if he is I hope he has a glass of wine as well.

So, Pericles, Tom LaBarbera, Buffy, Caesar Osama Bin Laden, it all seems suspiciously random and rambling, a bunch of nonsense, a temporary insanity incurred by a recognition of our own mortality, but perhaps it has its own form of exponential sanity, a means of reaching calculably to a higher dimension through mindless blather, maybe it is-- 'blogarithmic' , maybe it is, --one more glass of wine and I won't care.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Why I Like Beer

(With apologies to David Letterman--he needs a few extra)



First of all there is way too much wine in the world and there is never enough beer.

Secondly, Americans it turns out can make beer better than anyone in the world.

Thirdly, wine has a whole personality while beer has a profile. Sometimes you just don't feel like dealing with a whole person.

Fourthly, people who make beer are friendlier on the whole and don't really make you feel like an asshole when you talk about it.

Fifthly, it comes in six packs. (Twelve of anything is just too much and one is always too few.)

Sixth, nobody ever comes up to you and asks you for 'sweet' beer.

Seven, it fits better in the refrigerator and in general you don't have to pamper it for it to stay good.

Eight, nobody is looking for a deeper meaning in beer, if anything they are looking for less meaning.

Nine, bad beer is generally inexpensive while bad wine is generally expensive.

Ten, it looks better when it gets in your moustache or beard.

Anyway, that's my take on it, so people bemoaning the popularity of beer over wine in this country should just get over it. Of course, as a winemaker I am perennially hoping for a reversal of this paradigm but I don't see it happening in the near future. So for now, wine is the ugly girl at the party that the moderately pretty girls bring to make themselves look better.

So, all this begs the question, why don't I make beer instead of wine,--the answer is the same as why did I get married. From the outside it looks infinitely more interesting.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What Am I Doing Here?

My wines were recently reviewed by Tony Fletcher on http://www.ijamming.net/
I think I may have mentioned, Tony's book
"All Hopped up and Ready to Go", W.W. Norton
is coming out soon, October 26th, it is a precis of the NY music scene and I for one,
(particularly as a musician finding someone finally with something intelligent to say about the contemporary music scene) am
eager to read it and so even if I have mentioned it you will forgive me.
Anyway, in the interests of pure laziness I am reprinting my response to the review here: (since probably no one else is interested)


Tony,

Thanks for the plug and the honesty. I would expect nothing less and I think you
captured it to a 'T' (though I think you undershot on the Chard,--it is really something quite remarkable now when at the right temp. Several wine professionals have liked it immensely)
but on the whole you did certainly capture the spirit of what I am doing better than anyone which falls somewhere in between the committed muscular amateurism of a 'garagista punk' on steroids (implying a willful lack of marketing polish) and the image of a parapalegic on crutches trying to make the winning kick at a football game also comes to mind. In short (not to make too much of a virtue of necessity) it is intended to reflect my opinion that great wine should be a drama each time and drama by definition should never be polished. Sweet wine is comedy, I really
have nothing against sweet wine or comedy, (I enjoy Rieslind ,(sic Riesling) and in fact I made a super Pear Wine last year. At $16 a bottle it was as good as $70 ice wine--still have two bottles left), it is only the saccharine approach (of) being driven by the market I really despise and the refusal to be driven by the market conversely something that I admire, even if I fail to achieve it myself, sometimes, --it is a challenge to the moon eyed self-swindlers who come and inquire 'do you have any sweet wine' --it is not a challenge to sweet wine per se only to the reluctance to throw off cultural shackles and actually taste something besides sugar when approaching (a) wine that bothers me.

Just to clear things up,

As for the 'Frankie' 'Franky' contretemps. I was aware of the different spelling versions however,
being a New Yorker, an unreconstructed Brooklyn Boy, putting 'Frankie'
on anything would constitute linguistic heresy.
Never even considered it.
Hence, in short not a copyright concern at all.
My previous successful red was called 'Call me a Cab',
so correct syntax is not really what I was going for.
Still pissed the Dodgers left:)

Ken

Tony's original message follows:


Ken


I posted my first review of the Hunter Wine Fest today. Focused on you and Suhru for obvious reasons. As a good honest winemaker you'll appreciate the need for honest tasting notes regardless of acquaintanceship. I found it interesting that you did so well with the red wines (compared to the whites, IMHO) as I think they're generally much harder to pull off in this region. And I love that you think independently and have fun with what you're doin...


All (the) best ..

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Big Lebowski or Where Have You Been Mr. Robinson


I love old timers. I really do. I always have. They never walk up and confront you directly, they always kind of just sidle up and then you just happen to notice them standing there. As if they didn't want to impose themselves on you. As if they expect to be regarded as irrelevant. They don't necessarily have to be all that old either, like 'The Stranger' (Sam Elliot) in the Big Lebowski, they serve in my experience in our society something like the function of a Greek Chorus; conscience and narrator in one.

The Marlboro Harvest Festival had been rained out so we were setting up our tents on Sunday at Cluett Schanz Park instead of Saturday as had been originally scheduled.
"The grapes are no good this year. Not enough sugar." I had actually noticed the elderly gentleman before picking his way with his cane among the wine tents.
"Well," I temporized 'We'll see, they still got a few weeks, we'll see if it dries out."
"Yeah, I went to Cornell in 1967." This immediately struck me as a bit odd. The gentleman standing there appeared to be in his eighties, his baseball cap and stoop said he had done some farming in his day. I had gone to Cornell in 1968 and he struck me as being at least twenty five years older than I.
"You remember the Boxcar?" (OK, now I was really freaking out, as they said back in the day.)
"Sure I do, out towards Dryden, the Warehouse was in back."
I remembered the Warehouse distinctly. It was what it said it was, a warehouse converted to a club. The likewise eponymous Boxcar had been just a bar, sans music. I had seen Taj Mahal and James Cotton Blues Band among others at the Warehouse in 1969 I had in fact (children look away) got drunk on White Lightning in the dressing room with James Cotton.
"Yeah, sawdust on the floor." He smiled at the recollection.
"I know every joint that served beer within twenty miles of Ithaca."
"Yeah, you went to Cornell alright."
"I know all the farmers around here. I ran the Community Bank in Highland. Knew Mark, you know Mark Miller?"
"Oh yeah, only met him once but helluva nice fellow. Didn't care much for his son, Eric."
I had met Mark Miller at a HVWGA luncheon. He had sat there beaming the whole time but in this kind of impersonal way, the way people who all their life had blinded people with their intellect and now don't want to blemish that impression cultivated over a lifetime with the natural infirmities of old age do. Like an artist who knows when the painting is done and doesn't want to mar it with the extraneous brushstroke. Their erratic blinding light simmers to a steady beaming paternal radiance. They become masks. Finally, strangers to everyone and finally themselves. That was the Mark Miller I met. No doubt he too in his younger days had gotten drunk in the dressing room of some itinerant blues man or jazz artist.
"You know how he got started?"
I shook my head.
"Well he used to live down in Scarsdale. Had these two week deadlines."
Mark Miller used to be an illustrator (Saturday Evening Post and Herald Tribune I think.)
"He got so nervous you know with those deadlines. So his wife bought him this five gallon jug to make wine. That's how he got started."
"Really? Didn't know that. What's your name?"
"Fred, Fred Robinson. Yeah, --I'm the last of the old time community bankers."
"Ken, Lifshitz. I'm from Monroe." This was perhaps the first time I had ever said this and really meant it.
"Oh yeah Citizen's Bank, right?"
"Yeah, right, Marilyn from Citizen's Bank."

Anyway, the Hudson Valley within about the past year has lost two of it's greatest lights. Mark Miller a little over a year ago, and Ben Feder just last week. With their loss, we descend a little more into an impersonal age, an age where machines and algorithms make decision, not people, a world of beaming benign masks, a world where you could never drink White Lightning with James Cotton in the dressing room of the warehouse. I generally don't care really for this 'bemoaning the faceless present' stuff much, but lately it is growing on me. Maybe it's because I am getting to be an old timer myself. Maybe it's because I am getting to be a stranger to myself and everyone else. In either case, that is a shame.
"Yep, no more community bankers after me."
I realize that I am, at 58, a person with the sensibilities of an eighty nine year old man. This is not really surprising, as I have had the sensibilities of an eighty nine year old man since I was fifteen.
"Yep"
"Yeah, not enough sugar this year."
"Yep."

(Note to future biographers: The Mark Miller collection is being held at Cornell,
Mark Miller and Benmarl Winery Collection #6716. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Bookface


So I just sent a birthday message to my daughter on facebook that read
'Crunkay Badunkday' MC Dad

Clearly I have finally lost it.

This morning I burnt my thumb on a pot.
I knew the pot was hot, I was watching it
I watched it heat up with the flame under it.
Didn't stop me.
Something else to post to Face book.

I look at these both as pathetic attempts to keep current,
to feel alive in this computer and image driven age.
To be or at least appear relevant,
but, it is getting a little ridiculous,
the cost is too high,
aside from the second degree burns
I don't care what Debbie from Albany had for supper.
I barely care what I had for supper.
It is also a little scary.
Knowing all these things about people implies
some kind of responsibility, like now you don't just have to remember
their names and their kids names but also what there most recent emoticon
indicates about their current mood.

So I Was at Hunter Mountain Saturday doing the Microbrew and Wine Festival.
Really a blast.
Dave was setting up next to me.
"Yeah, I been doing this festival for ten years. That's the best
door to go out of." Pointing behind me.
"Yeah great. Where's Tom"
"He's doin' a farmers market then he's going to church. He's talking.
He a lectern."
Well to me a lectern is either a piece of wood that goes in front of
a speaker to hold his or her notes or it is just a folksy elision of 'lecturing'
I tried to puzzle this out, was his father-in-law 'lecturing' or was he
saying he was a piece of stage furniture? Still puzzled, I deflected.
"Yeah, the Bounty of the Festival was a bummer. Really didn't like being
treated like I fell off a turnip truck."
Dave treats me to a look of disdain. This is his normal look so I
don't think much of it.
"Yeah I been doing the Bounty of the Hudson Festival for ten yeeeaars."
I have decided finally that he is comparing his father in law to a piece of wood.
He moves away from me toward the vendor in the middle aisle selling watercolors.
"Yeah, my father-in-law isn't coming . He's a lectern." He announces to the politely disinterested watercolorist.
One might think I had learned my lecterns by now. I haven't.
"I'm going downstairs to pee. The bathrooms are really nice."
"I been peein' for ten years."
And so it went.

Then an interesting fellow walked up to me and introduced himself
as Tony.
Tony actually is relevant and,
he immediately got the post punk references on my bottle labels.
(Most people like the cute bulldog).
As it turned out Tony, was Tony Fletcher
music journalist and wine fanatic.
He has parallel interests to mine, wine, music and writing.
His website ijamming.net, apart from the interesting
articles and music interviews contains a better explanation of
the link between wine and music appreciation
than I have seen before and
his new book "All Hopped up and Ready to Go",
due out shortly (From Norton) treats a subject
near and dear to my heart, the pre-CBGB NY Music Scene.
I know I am going to reserve a copy on Amazon. F'Shizzle.

Anyway 'Crunkay Badunkday' to my kids and
F'shizzle to all you lecterns and
fly skiers and post apocalyptic
bubbles on the sea of musical serendipity.
I really know how to talk like this.
I have been doing it for ten years.

BTW Had tuna fish for lunch. OMG Happy face emoticon.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Integration

What is integration:? I am glad you asked.

When I was a dewy-eyed pompadoured freshman at Cornell at the end of the sixties it meant social justice. It also apparently meant that my black friends with whom I stayed up with until 3:00 AM playing hearts the night before would studiously ignore me when they filed in to eat at the Willard Straight Hall Cafeteria at the 'black table' the next day. Word.

Integration was already starting to confuse me!

When I was a musician in the seventies it meant that our band had white guys and black guys searching for the musical apotheosis of incipient white anarchy and black militarism, the military had become the venue for social progress for blacks (not punkass, sleepy, white guys in dorm rooms--sorry Marion and Joe), and all this military precision seemed to infiltrate the music, seep in like toxic waste into Ninja Turtle sewers, mutating, turning snarky slouching blues into crisp sparkling R&B routines, --integration now happened at mealtime too, even if it was MREs in stinkin foxholes, while the punkasswhitedudes screamed, 'so long as it's their ass not mine', and the screamin, screamin' radios, and immaculately unthreatening but precise dance routines, every radio blasting, burning it into the already crisp air 'War, Hunh. What is it good for', the Temps turning psychedelic?,

A ball of confusion. Word.

Then when I was a merchant marine in the eighties it meant watching the Cajun oiler named LeJeuene and an ex-marine 2nd Engineer named Varnish congregate in my cabin, two bookends drinkin' beer. Fraternization was frowned on yo know but to Varnish, LeJeuene the lowly oiler was akin, no, not akin, WAS royalty. The very name echoing back to the cordgrass marshes of his South Carolina youth where he had found manhood and purpose, a purpose that had grown fuzzy and abrasive as the cordgrass at the edges, like the marsh gases obscuring the crisp outlines of the new day. LeJeune, well, he duh' living brea'ding embodiment of dat integration, Cajun, militaristic and anarchic at once and both eventually falling down drunk, but happy, no thought of race no thought of rank, just two shipmates worshipping at the bloodyassholebuddyaltarofsemper fi. When Varnish reported for shipboard duty, he slammed head first into the brick wall that was the side of the MEBA Union Hall, flipping assovercrackers, twisting the handlebars of his Harley into a chrome pumpkin vine and cracking his skull on the mural painted there of 'La casa de Micky Mouse'. Carried up on the ship unconscious, like snoring, bloody luggage. Absolutely nothin',wakin up next mornin hungover and glassy eyed with a bandage on his head and LeJeuene right there with a beer in his hand and his best sweat stained Filipino shirt on.
.

Cajun confusing.

In the eighties it meant taking the chunks of software written at different times in different languages for different purposes, and making them all play nice in the company sandbox, --then came the internet, more anarchy, more militarism, more snark, more temptation-- internet porn. Checking my eBay bids while typing code. LPS disappearing like a scratchy black vinyl tide down some vanished Ninja sewer, run aground on the hard edged (literal and figurative) coral of luminescent CDs.

Digital confusion.

The nineties, OK let's skip the nineties. (After all this is a blog, 'sposed to be.)

OK so now we get to what does integration mean to me now, today? As a winemaker it means getting all the elements of a wine to operate efficiently and pleasantly as part of a larger whole. It is the happy anarchy of the fermentation, blending elements, mixing freely, then the long night of isolation in the barrel, waiting to be called on, soaking in the stern discipline of the wood, values of honor and duty. The tannin integration, hunh, what is it good for. The tannins may have joined the fruit to quell the riot of a misspent youth but they are still standoffish, hard edged in public and suspicious, but secretly they like to drink with the oilers in the Cadet's cabin, bumping into the slew of chemicals racing around the deck of the SS Leslie Lykes on their Harley roadsters. Slammin' into the wall headfirst by definition, something you only do part time.

Tannins when not fully integrated are what give you that biting sensation of finality in the back of your mouth. Harsh, brittle, other descriptors; tense, astringent, bitter but sexy, raw and devout like a combination of Elvis Presley and Alan Ginsburg. When they are correctly integrated they provide amplification of the wines other qualities, like an echo chamber, the fruit and body bounce off them, resonate like the acoustics in a really good concert hall where the Temptations are playing. REAL. What was two dimensional, like a war on the TV screen, suddenly present, and contrary to what they tell you,--reality doesn't bite.

So, like the lame bar pickup line we are inclined to ask 'where do you come from,--originally.' The answer is they come from the parts of the grape that we usually discard, the pits, the stems, some from the skins--the woodier parts that once protected the plant and insured its posterity. They live on, in the wine, but mellow with age, like sixties militants, and ROTC cadets who by the time they hit fifty are both wondering what all the fuss was about, they seek out their former adversaries, the colorful anthocyanins and the starchy tannins seek to bond with each other, together they become more rounded, more colorful, former enemies now fast and never to be parted friends.

I guess that is what integration is. To be honest I'm still not really sure,--

Friday, September 11, 2009

Cockles & Mussels

The song I awoke with this morning is an old one,
it is called Molly Malone and goes like this;
In Dublin's Fair City"
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, Cockles and mussels,
alive, alive, oh! ...


The words are a puzzle,
Who is it that is alive?
Is it the street vendor calling her wares,
or, her wares themselves?
The former reading is more poignant
but the latter more realistic
and perhaps of greater interest to the consuming public.
9/11 answered the above persistent question for me with a certain amount of finality. Who is that is alive?
The answer, at least that day, was loud and clear; 'me'.

We, as human beings are always engaged in an struggle between poignancy and
realism. Ourselves and what we are selling, hope and despair.
The vineyard is a microcosm of this struggle, at least
for me. This year it is realism, next year it is hope.

I watch the 9/11 memorial on TV each year. I don't know why.
I usually hate these type of things. To me they are usually creepy
and calculated attempts to force me to abandon my natural cynicism.
People talking to dead people you know,
pictures of people who I didn't know and
who I am supposed to care about,
PDEs-public displays of emotion,
a willful confusion of the personal and the public,
commemorators inserting their personal messages,
peripheral plugs for their organizations
--memorials inevitably degenerate into the kind of self serving spectacle
that I find abhorrent.

Not the 9/11 memorial.
Not for me.
I watch and listen and
don't know why.

Something is different.
The cops in NYC never look straight ahead.
They are usually looking to the side, eyes averted
or searching for something or somehow aloof, detached.
The cop in back of the speaking stand on the podium
for the memorial, his gaze is straight ahead,
attentive unwavering, present,
this can only mean one thing, somebody is either dead or,
accused of something/ in Dublin's fair city

Yes, and I saw the towers burning with my own eyes,
at least the smoke rising from that fire from the collapse,
the collapse of both hope and despair.
I cried at the display of flowers and wreaths
at the fire company on eighth avenue as I walked
to work in the days following/ Through streets broad and narrow.

The truth is, I did know one of those killed on that day at the trade center,
Nina Bell,--she had been working at TIAA-CREF and
transferred down there just a couple of weeks before.
Chance or destiny. I don't know.
I didn't know her well, but I was at CREF at the time too
and I knew her face.
Maybe that is enough/ Crying 'Cockles and Mussels'.


The vineyard is a mess this year.
I didn't get enough sprays in,
the downy mildew is stripping the green leaves from the vines with
a thorough avarice,
too many trade shows,
too much emphasis on the end product, the market,
not enough on me and my dreams, and new life,
--well, there is always next year, or years,
there'll be time to correct this,
I think, / alive, alive -oh.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Lotos Eaters

I once thought I was fairly unique in this industry in New York as a writer/artistic types-turned-winemaker however I have long since been disabused of that notion. The late Mark Miller of Benmarl was a noted artist, Bill Wetmore of Cascade Mountain winery is a novelist and Carlo DeVito is a wine writer with a book on East Coast Wineries, (Rutgers University Press). Since Mark Miller is deceased and Bell Wetmore has more or less semi-retired from the active running of the winery, most of my recent contact with this rather small community has therefore been with Carlo. I have mentioned Carlo and his wine in previous blogs ('Simple Gifts'), and not only is he a fellow writer (and competitor for the affections of the Watkins Glen ASPCA) but like me, his anger management protocol involves the application of what is called (in psychological circles) the Big Mac. One other thing I have noticed about him is that he has in general an impeccable sense of timing, therefore, when he chose this week to address in his blog the issue of wine in grocery stores and the state of the New York wine industry in general I found the timing most interesting. A bill to allow wine in grocery stores, pushed mostly by the upscale grocery chains like Wegman's and Whole Foods was put before the New York legislature this past spring, by summer it was excised from the state budget. Some of its more vocal proponents, like Scott Osborn of Fox Run vineyards have banded together to revive this effort. We'll see how that goes. For now the issue seems essentially dead. So why is Carlo addressing this issue now?

The rest of Carlo's blog (which you can read at http://www.eastcoastwineries.com) went on to bemoan the fact that New York State wineries have had a dismal history when it comes to penetrating the all important NYC market. At first I didn't see the connection between these two issues,--now I do. Rather than explain I will illustrate it with a series of vignettes.

This past June I happened to do the Union Square Greenmarket and I had the following conversation with Rory Callahan, one of the organizers of the NY Winestand. (I paraphrase)
Rory: 'Too bad about Rivendell.'
Me: 'Yeah well, the winery is closed but at least Susan
(Wine) still has the Vintage New York store'
(a wine store in Manhattan specializing in NYS Wines)
Rory: 'They closed too.'
Me: 'Really!'
Rory: 'Yeah they never made a profit since they were open.'
Me: 'Really?'


This past week, noticing my October calendar was sparse I went looking for events to
participate in. I notice the NY Wine and Food Show. On closer inspection, the website noted that only wineries handled by Southern distributors were being allowed to participate. I sent the following email to Jim Trezise of the NYWGF.

'Jim

It seems to me that the NYC Wine and Food Festival on Oct 8-11 would be a great venue for NY State wines however, it seems none are participating as winery participation is limited to clients of Southern Wine & Spirits which I guess means Constellation. Is there any way to get a new york booth in there? Maybe through
Rory C?

Ken'


his reply follows:

'Hi Ken – No, unfortunately, it is a Southern event, so only their wineries (like Heron Hill and Bedell in NY) may participate. They do a similar thing at South Beach each year. Sorry -- Jim'


OK, so now, a few days later, we come to Carlo's blog about the inability of NY Wineries to penetrate the NYC market.

I read the blog and send the following to Mike Colameco who is an influential food commentator with a program on PBS.

'Hi Mike
I am a big fan of the show.
(I have learned it is good practice to butter up people you don't know and are emailing out of the blue)
I wanted to direct your (sic) attention to a blog
on http://eastcoastwineries.blogspot.com/
called 'The Problem with New York STate Wine.

Ken'


Within minutes I had the following response.

'great article and basically all correct as well
though I'd have to add that some of the LI wineries price their products too high to mind as do many producers from the west coast Cali, Wash Oregon, and as a result
consumers who are always squeezed for dollars often find better value in imported wines from smaller old world producers
esp the Rhone, Beaujloais (sic) Cru's, the Loire, the vast LR regions as well as parts of Spain Italy , Austria and Germany where in the
$10 - 25 range there is a lot of great juice, and we didn't start talking Argentina, Chile Australia S Africa or New Zealand.

But I'd love to see NY get it's act together

mc'



Now Mike is the quintessential New Yorker, and since I grew up in New York too I understand his position. It is true, that New Yorkers routinely expect the best of the entire world to be brought neatly to their doorstep, and at a competitive price. No muss, no fuss. Scott Osborn and others like him who believe (like me) that NY is producing world class wines, and that the marketplace is essentially fair (which I don't) are pushing hard to bring NY Wines to a grocery store near you so we can compete with the flood of wine from Europe, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on an equal footing. (To Scott I say, this is not about to stem the tide and); the effort of course is also partly a Trojan Horse to gain access to the all important NYC market.

All of which brings me to the Buffalo lady I described in my blog last week who suggested that we cut off NYC entirely and let it float away to sea. While this would evidently solve the above problem, in the end it may not be the best solution.

The problem as I see it is that this is not just a NY problem. The problem is that we have become a nation of Lotos Eaters. We produce nothing and expect the best of everything. The most smug, self-satisfied upstater is no less guilty of this than the most urbane, world-weary Manhattanite, they only have different priorities. What distinguishes the Lotos is that it grow directly in water and has no connection to the land. The soil beneath the feet of New Yorkers is what connects them. It is what connects us. When you buy a New York State wine you are touching that which connects us, --as I see it the choice is pretty clear, continue down the path of disconnection or find ways to connect with our own soil, the efforts of our neighbors, the fabric of our lives. To Mike Colameco I say sure maybe a bottle of NY Wine costs a few dollars more but maybe something more interesting will come out of it in the end. Maybe the time is right to look around seek out what it is that binds us together rather than what is tearing us apart. As they say, timing is everything and as the song goes sometimes one finds 'time in a bottle'.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

If the Schubert fits


I have been dreading and hoping for last weekend with all the assiduity, misplaced confidence and suppressed lust of a nerd on a prom date with a bi-polar cheerleader. It was the weekend of the annual chamber concert at the winery. The group had been practicing since October of last year working on the first three movements of the Schubert Octet in F and more recently some Rossini quartets. The logistics of managing rehearsals with eight people's schedules for the past ten months had been a nightmare; scheduling around boy scout meetings, bee stings, 4H clubs, PTA meetings, college visits by the younger players. Consequently it wasn't until two weeks before the concert that we actually had all eight players sitting in the same room at the same time. We were already awash in doubt about the wisdom of our plans. A performance at the annual chamber music concert at Morrison Hall and SUNY in May had not come off. The weekend it was scheduled for at the winery, tropical storm Danny was threatening pouring rain. I personally had two other events that weekend and no prospect of help from either of my two daughters who were attending a wedding in Putnam County. We were facing a looming soggy debacle with over $1,000 already spent on advertising, tent rentals and food.

Then Danny stalled off the Carolinas, (distracted by the sunbathers on Myrtle Beach), my sister's ambivalent agreement to donate her weekend turned into a firm commitment to show up and help, my neighbor, despite the fact it was her birthday, agreed to handle the tasting room duties. By mid morning on Saturday I was drenched from standing glumly all morning at the Cold Spring farmer's market where I had had a tiff with the market manager about where I could park the truck. Then the rain stopped. I drove the fifteen miles back to the winery, my hopes inflated by the series of fortuitous events (not counting the tiff and the drenching), I pulled into the driveway hoping to see the parking lot teeming with a throng of classical music lovers and cheerleaders (goooo Schubert!),-- alas, there was neither,no one there except Mai, the second violinist and Stan the bass player. It was 2:30 PM. Dismal. The concert was scheduled to start at 3:00 Then, a few minutes later the musicians began pulling up, one after the other, still the audience was composed mostly of people who had driven them to the event. Then a few other people begin trickling in. By 3:00 PM twenty of the twenty five audience chairs under the green and white tent were filled. I was ecstatic.
"Just hold off a few minutes to see if anyone else shows up." I asked Stan. He nodded.
"No problem."
Another car pulled up. A few minutes later the musicians launched into the spritely first movement of the Rossini.

Anyway, to sum up, it was a really nice event. The rain held off for the entire performance. My neighbor handled the tasting room like a pro and my sister, who I had not talked for months, and who no doubt was beginning to suspect that I was something of a sullen loser, was gushing with admiration.

Well, this post really doesn't have much to do with wine per se. It is more about how people will surprise you given half a chance. Anyway, the next day I went to Woodstock. It was the day of the Bethel Wine Fest so, I didn't have time to reflect on the concert and how it had gone. Now, some four days later I can sit down and think about it a little and start dreaming about and dreading next year, but it is an optimistic dread. Maybe the cheerleader will take pity on me.
Maybe I won't stab her with the corsage pin by mistake. Maybe she'll finally get some meds for that bi-polar thing. You never know!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Health Care Reform (or, Two Angry Jews with Stethoscopes)

I have only one hard and fast rule in life; never ever do anything that you think is a good idea while driving. I don't know why this rule works or how but it has served me well over the years. So, when I thought of the idea for this post while driving back from the America's Grape Country Wine Festival in Dunkirk this past weekend I was immediately disinclined to write it down (yes despite the fact that these are called 'blogs' we still have to write them). Undoubtedly I will pay for this decision to ignore that rule. Anyway here it is;

It had suddenly occurred to me that at the last few festivals I have been to I have encountered very angry female customers. They weren't angry at me, (at least I don't think so). I suspected somehow it had something to do with anxiety over the ongoing health care reform debate. At the Catskill summer fest there was a redhead who came up to the booth. She seemed nice enough despite several intimidating tattoos. She offered to trade a massage for a bottle of wine. Now, not that I mind getting massages from strange women with tattoos in the middle of the Greene County Building parking lot you understand but nevertheless, I declined her generous offer but as she seemed harmless enough and it seemed like a good deal I suggested my daughter, who was helping me at the show, take her up on it instead which promptly she did. When the local tatteuse came to collect her bottle from me she handed me her card from which I deduced from that she was Jewish,--and that was when I noticed she was angry,- very angry.
Probably partly encouraged by the wine, she had launched into a rather lengthy tirade about how she had been mistreated and misdiagnosed for her medical condition. Her frustration was immediately understandable to me. We who share a Jewish heritage but have not followed the societal stereotype to become doctors, lawyers or accountants, needless to say, still have need of those services. We feel we are entitled to a little better care and attention from our fellow jews particularly in the medical profession, it's only natural. This doesn't ever happen but still we feel entitled to rage at the democratic lackadaisalness demonstrated by overworked doctors who seem only anxious to find the next pill to prescribe. I nodded in somewhat abstract agreement as she railed on (in my defense I was distracted, worried about whether my credit card imprinting machine was imprinting correctly). I saw her point. Despite the continuing perceived indifference we persist in expecting a little more personal interest. You know, after 5,000 years you could offer me at least a plate of 'kishkas' with my electrocardiogram. Of course, as I said, it doesn't ever work that way and speaking for all the jews not identified with professional corporation after their name, just so you know, it makes us angry,--and we're packing.

So, when another middle aged woman came up to me this last weekend at the Chautauqua County Fairgrounds asking me somewhat angrily, 'Where is your winery' I proudly and abstractedly pointed on my laminated map from Staples smack at the Hudson Valley region.
"All our money you know goes down there you know." she asserted unequivocably, pointing at the region just south of where I was pointing.
"You know what I think?" She persisted emphatically perhaps sensing my indifference.
"What?" already intuiting the answer.
"They should cut this whole thing off, (indicating the metropolitan area) and let it drop into the ocean, or give it to New Jersey."
Now, I had lived in the Finger Lakes for ten years and I was very familiar with this sentiment that occurs with some frequency among some upstaters regarding the city that has the hubris to call itself the same name as the state and always looked at it as a kind of veiled racial and anti-immigrant prejudice.
But,
I really was in no mood to deal with this anti-downstate sentiment and so I immediately pointed out that to New Yorkers we were also considered upstaters, trying vainly to deflect her anger by creating some spurious bond that I did not feel. I had been on my feet for six hours amidst the flies heat and hubbub, selling at most six bottles the whole time. My patience and my internal censor were both laying in a noxious puddle on the concrete floor, then for some reason, just as with this blog, full knowing that I was heading for disaster but unable to control it I launched into the following tirade of my own;
"You know what I would like to cut off?"
"What?"
"I'd like to cut off my dog's balls."
I was treated to a look of shocked incredulity. I plowed ahead.
"Yeah, he is always peeing on my bed. He's a chihuahua and thinks my
mattress is one big pee pad."
The conjunctive use of the word 'pee' and 'balls' obviously had offended her more than the sentiment.
She didn't say anything else but just walked away probably thinking I was a little nuts.
Well, equating New York City with a pair of Chihuahua balls may have been a little bit crazy but I was one angry jew and I really felt much healthier after I
said this, as if I had had a mental massage. So, this is my response to the health care reform debate; Whatever they do it's fine with me so long as they don't cut off my balls or send an unlicensed massage therapist to kill my grandma and thanks yes, I do feel better already. Would you like a plate of 'kishkas' with that?
or, perhaps some rocky mountain oysters...?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Pitchman's Paradise (Death of a Salesman)


In the recent swirl of news coverage and subsequent furor over Michael Jackson's death the contemporaneous event of the passing of famous pitch-man Billy Mays was largely eclipsed. Mays was, even to the most casual observer, a true American original, a huckster, part con-man part show-man part self made entrepreneur in the mold of P.T. Barnum. He was a marketer extraordinaire.

Marketing, though widely despised among college graduates (and particularly feared by English majors), is in fact the grease with which the wheels of progress of the American dream proceed, it is also, when one comes down to it, largely a social interaction which is at root heartless and hollow, one which puts the practitioner in the role of observer, removed somewhere above the fray, calculating, making minute adjustments to his 'patter', the fuel for the engine of sales. What made Mays so distinctive and unique was that by sheer energy he lifted himself above that paradigm, he transcended the transcendence, he would have none of that, he was not just an inflated ego looking with a jaundiced eye for the next mark in the crowd, he was what most marketing experts will confess they dread and despise most; a sincere salesman. It is difficult to dissociate one's own ego from the process of sales. We are all marketing ourselves along with the product at least part of the time, Mays on the other hand wasn't selling anything but the product. That is what made him unique.

As you may have guessed, I have been thinking about wine marketing a lot in this season of farmer's markets, festivals and wine shows. There is in fact a certain skill one acquires wherein one can accentuate certain features of the wine and de-accentuate others depending on the buyer. However, when it comes down to it, the wine is either good or bad, it is either sick or healthy, only after that is it a wine you either like or don't like. You can, I have found, sell someone a bottle of wine that fundamentally they do not like. The question is, --why bother

I could write more here about the Bounty of the Hudson festival (my first real exposure to my fellow HV winemakers en-masse), my stint at Union Square Market, (the culmination of a lifelong dream), the Cold Spring farmer's market (stranger in paradise) or the upcoming Catskill event however, my feeling would be that I was merely telling tales out of school. The various and sundry shenanigans that go on to cast these different venues as mini green Peyton Places are the stuff of good story but in the end, unless they are transmuted into art by some means, it remains basically forgettable gossip which interests the participants more than anyone else. Thus I don't find them a suitable topic for a venue such as this, blogs, which are by definition a rather rawer form of communication.

Instead, let me talk about a subject that was close to the heart of pitchman Billy Mays, in his case as found in that (I have since determined somewhat overrated) product called Oxiclean and in wine in a process known and dreaded by all wine makers; oxidation. The fact is, unlike Oxiclean, the results of oxidation in wine are difficult to predict or quantify. The reasons for this are several;

1. there is always going to be a certain amount of oxidation occurring in wine
(unless it is pressed and bottled in outer space)
2. the oxidative processes have different outcomes depending on the compounds
in the wine which are oxidated (like the expression of genes in offspring some
characteristics become evident and some remain hidden) and,
3. the perception of oxidation is to a large degree related not to the mere presence
of oxidated compounds but to their volatility ('Seniors on Hondas' and 'Hells
Angels' are both motorcycle clubs).

Consequently, the term oxidized may refer to a variety of phenomena that occur in the wine and therefore the term is generally thrown around rather loosely to characterize almost any fault in the wine. The two most easily identifiable undesirable characteristics of oxidation are known to wine drinkers as either browning or production of acetylaldehyde. Browning is always evident to the eye, though moreso in white wines (but it can be seen in red wines with some effort) and acetylaldehide production is immediately always apparent as an overpowering nail polish smell. Both these are produced by oxidation but the former is generally a result of the oxidation of metallic compounds in the wine, while the second is a result of the oxidation of ethanols. It is to prevent the oxidation of ethanol from proceeding to volatilized acetylaldehyde that winemakers introduce SO2 which interrupts, but does not entirely prevent this process from occurring. The link in the chain just before the production of acetylaldehyde is the creation of Hydrogen Peroxide. The blondes in the reading audience may know that this compound tends to bleach out color and also reduce fruitiness. Just to complicate matters there are a whole 'nother set of compounds in wine which may oxidize. These are called phenolics and when these oxidize they produce something called quinones. (Armando Quinones also happens to be my neighbor. He works for UPS and plays in the college orchestra with me and the other bass players.)

So, (to sum up--I was told by someone very knowledgeable to keep these things short), as you can see, the effects of oxidation in wine can be varied and pernicious and can lead to anything from a loss of fruitiness in blondes to the presence of bass players in the finished wine. All I can tell you is that I am as confused as you at this point. Perhaps we need someone like Billy Mays to clear all this up! Perhaps we can come out with a product called OxiCab, or OxiMerlot, something which both stains and cleans your clothes at the same time. Just send in $19.95 and we'll add this second set of handy lint reducing wine glasses.

P.S. After an autopsy, the coroner announced that there had been cocaine in Billy Mays' blood. Another hero with clay feet.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Giving Wine (away in) the Finger ---(Lakes)




A tribal roar deep in the bowels of the tent swept up from the crowd cohering like a balloon ascending lazily above the eerily vacant grandstand of Watkins Glen speedway. It was the Finger Lakes Wine Festival,-at last.
"What is that?" the woman with the Bacchus wreath on her head quizzed me mutely.
I shrugged.
"Probably someone getting naked or, -(pause), arrested, -or both"
She smiled, probably recalling the customary toga party of the evening before.
'Did I really say that out loud?' I wondered. I turned,--hoping sheepishly my daughter Julia had not heard me. (Luckily she hadn't, or pretended not to.)
"If one more person asks me 'Do you have a sweet wine' I am going to have to smack them in the face." Sonia, her friend from Indiana intoned, serious as a kidney stone.
"But I thought you were from the Mid West. Aren't you all supposed to be, you know,- nice?"
"Well I'm pissed off now.--"
"East Coast style." Julia winked knowingly.
It was getting to me too. I had to take a walk. Get away from the table for a moment where my wine sat regimented and morose, soldiers returning from an unwanted war, objects of uninformed self congratulatory derision, get away from the hordes of skeptics busily consuming it, blissfully unconscious of the sacrifice involved. I watched my emotional and physical inventory both shrinking before my eyes from a veritable inland sea to a mere dust hemmed puddle , post-war optimism washed away down the newly flushed arroyos of mutual suspicion and distrust. Glasses crashing around me like mortars, below, the ever-present helicopter hum of the crowd. Vietnam at 750 ml a pop.
"What tent is this?" I had spotted a bottle of Carlo's Hudson-Chatham Winery Brulle on the table set obliquely in the middle of the courtyard, (actually the apron of the nearby race track that loomed unoccupied like a monument to futility in the background).
"Humane society."
"Wait a minute!" I scooted back to the table and grabbed a bottle of my 'Franky Say Relax' Cab Franc with the bulldog on label inspired by the brilliant aptness to
pour napalm on the already raging flames of involuntary philanthropy. 'Even amidst the ambient futility can't let Carlo get the jump on me when it came to generosity. War is hell!' I thought. 'Especially Humane Society War!' I looked enviously at his elegant professional bottle and mine next to it now on the table with the hand-made label from my eBay Xerox printer. I began to reconsider my patently self-serving generosity.
"Ohh that's soooh cute! Oohh! There's a doggie on the label!" (Salvation!)
"Yeah--"
"That your dog?"
"No."
"What'zis name?" Ignoring the motto on the bottle "Franky Say Relax", the natural assumption following that it was Franky himself depicted, studiously ignored.
"Chewy Lewis." I replied flatly.
It wasn't till hours later I found out what it was, actually.
realizing how apt the combat metaphor was, that the periodic eruptions of the crowd were actually occasioned by someone shattering their wine glass on the asphalt floor of the tent; a difficult feat since they had been prudently tethered to their necks by the event organizers with varying degrees of rococo ornamentation added afterward by their new owners. It was, it turned out, a commendable service giving apt warning those attendees sporting sandals and an advanced degree of inebriation of possible impalement. There it was; The entire cole slaw and white bread theme of the event in a nutshell. Old fashioned practicality wrapped in the protocol of Bacchanalian frenzy, camouflaged by the American mandatory and muscular good humor, like the 'Have a Nice Day' emblazoned in blinking LED characters on the brow of the oncoming bus, glimpsed the moment before it runs you over; just as my acquiescent, victimized smile was designed to conceal my irritation at the onrushing assumption that I actually enjoyed giving away my wine, the wine that I had labored so mightily over.

I had been working non-stop to get ready for the show all the previous week, bottling, printing, stacking, take it out of the rain, take it back outside, load the truck, unload the truck, make the labels, apply the labels, apply the capsules, check the bottles all so I could give it smilingly away to someone who was mostly already disappointed because I didn't have 'sweet wine' and the guy across the way was selling Chardonnay at $12 and I was charging $15.
I don't know why or if I really expected something different.

I went out to the food service area to mull things over. Grab a quick bite. The lines for the meatballonastick truck was twenty deep. It reminded me of the days at Cornell. Johnnie's Big Red Truck behind the freshman dorms. 'Poor man's pizza and meatball subs.'
"That's a big red! Didn't expect that from you guys." Surprised.
"Why" I wondered silently "Was I wearing a shirt with 'talentless moron' emblazoned across it in big pink letters?"
"Big reds don't really go over here" The guy in the booth next to me from 'Warm Springs Winery' cautioned as his partner spun up another batch of wine malteds made from Pinot Noir and some kind of chocolate mixture in a jug. I had given him a sample of 'Franky' to try. 'Warm Springs? Wasn't that where FDR went for polio therapy?' Then it hit me; Franky said 'relax'.

The nachopretzel truck was no better than the meatballonastick franchise run by Giovanni. It was indeed as if suddenly the depression we had all been fearing for the past year had finally arrived, people on breadlines waiting to get fed, only there was no bread, only nachos with pools of melted Velveeta and skewered meatballs.
The barbecue truck stood curiously bereft of customers. "Out of meat" The hand lettered sign read. I saw stacks of what looked like bar-b-que brisket on the cutting board.
"What's that?"
"Fat, all fat"
"No I mean that piece." Pointed to a four pound chunk of charred meat that stood still proudly erect on the cutting board. It was the butt end of what had been a large brisket.
"You want that?"
"Yeah, better'n standing on line for a half an hour for a stinkin' plate of Doritos."
"Know what you mean." The thin, bearded red haired man nodded sympathetically, forking the impressive piece of gristle onto a paper plate.
"A dollar."
There I sat in the food court tearing the charred shreds of meat that clung to the edges of the impressive hunk, clawing the vagrant strands of delectable protein off with my hands and stuffing them quickly in my mouth, congratulating myself for avoiding the lines and spending less than eight dollars on lunch.
People were looking at me aghast.
"What is that? Roast beef?" A woman finally, with enough courage to ask.
"Brisket fat." I replied smiling greasily. "Can't stand waiting on lines."
I looked back down at the impressively adipose section of cow anatomy spying another strand of sedimentary meat deposit amidst the unctuous geology of gristle and blubber. I was no longer homo-erectus. I was a caveman proud to be worrying the kill that had been transformed with his recent invention; fire, the Eskimo stripping his tribe's whale kill.

Forty years earlier I had been a shiny undergraduate not far from here; On the next lake over; A new shoot of hope planted in the verdant fields of intellect and now I had been reduced to this. "Og Hungry. Og Eat."
Another guttural primal roar rose in the distance from under the tent. Another wineglass bit the dust. Another kill.
Back at the table.
"If someone asks me if we have sweet wine, I'm going to have to kill them."
"Uggh" I nodded.
Fast forward forty thousand years and there she stands; Helen of Troy. The most beautiful wmaan I have ever seen. Undoubtedly the most beautiful woman anyone has seen. She was leaving. Oh well. Og Hungry.
"Reserve Chardonnay? Sure. Oops, just let me clean my fingers."
Leaving the festival, there she was again, pulled over by the cops this time at the gate standing at the side of the road being given a breatholizer test. I continued out the gate, steering my oar-swept ship across the wine-dark sea.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Proper Attire


I was doing the Park Slope in Brooklyn farmers market all summer. That was my plan anyway.
The first day I went down there I was operating on three hours sleep.
Fixing the tractor the day before, resetting vineyard posts all week, no time for a proper laundry, the entire house a disaster area, here I was launching my season,
all my hopes for 'southern exposure' (aka NYC presence) bundled up in boxes in back of a late model Dodge truck with front-end problems. It was Sunday. Laundry day had been Wednesday. I pulled a wrinkled shirt out of the dryer.
Fatal mistake.

I'm setting up the tent, it's slightly dirty, 'I can't do this, wait, I forgot the ice, where can I get ice
in Brooklyn? Do they have ice in Brooklyn? Don't be stupid. I grew up here. We had the Dodgers. We had ice. Of course they have ice.'

The redhead next to me has no tent at all. She his sitting there in a chair with an 'if you please' smile, a sun dress on and a Mexican hat, (not a sombrero, more like a Japanese style sugegasa). In front of her is a tray of what look bonsai gardens in square rock containers. They must weigh sixty pounds apiece. 'How is she going to sell these?' I wonder. 'Who wants to lug around a chunk of concrete all day?'
"Succulents?" I ask, perceptively.
She looks up smiling, as if I had just solved the Da Vinci code.
"Yes that's right, they're succulents."

The market manager is eying me. Not too friendly. More like an appraisal. Something about her is off. The feeling you get when you walk into a 'carny' tent and somehow you know you are just another 'mark'.

The park is a kids' park. Thirty-somethings with strollers. Mostly guys. Mostly white with a few old neighborhood Ricans sprinkled in who were probably there before the area was 'gentrified', whatever that means. All of them have five dollar coffees. Something about them screams, 'I can have everything', --and they do, for now. One hour. Haven't sold a thing. Two hours, still haven't sold a thing.

An attractive older brunette with a fashionable haircut sidles up to me. In a few minutes she's standing next to me, not in front of the table but next to me behind it. Maybe late fifties I'm thinking. The hands always tell, but nicely preserved. Good bones.
"You know, I don't mean to get personal but you know you're shirt is, well, I can't begin to tell you how many things are wrong with it, it's got a hole in it, fraying,
and stains on it."
"Yeah, I know, it's been a rough week. Laundry hasn't been one of my priorities."
"You are a good looking man, but that shirt. Really."
"I'm a what?" I hadn't heard the last part.
"Yeah, you are, you are a good looking man. I just had to say something. I'm a teacher at FIT. You know, it is just something that is in me. Had to say something"
"About me?"
"About the shirt."
"Do you want to maybe grab a coffee later."
"Well," she looks surprised, "Not today,--maybe next week."
"I get it, OK I'll buy a shirt by next week. Save you the embarrassment.
"I used to model you know."
I believe her,the bone structure again. OK, now, never in my life has a woman come up to me and told me I am good looking, and especially not one with good bone structure, (except of course my mother)
I'm driving route 17 back to Monroe.
"What the heck was that?" I wonder, shaking my head.

So the next day I send an email to the people running the market.
I'm not a happy camper. I'm selling the wine right by a kids park. Plus I'm shoved off on the side street, like week old bananas. Paying the same rent as the vendors on the avenue.
I offer to switch to another market. Two days later I get the reply.
"You have to develop a following. Maybe next year we will put you on the avenue. The market manager already told us you were poorly groomed."
Poorly groomed!? This is a farmer's market,-on the street, what do they want? A tuxedo!?
Then it clicks. The woman from FIT. She was a plant. A hundred ten pound bonsai. They had sent her over on the QT to work me. I was the mark.
Next email I send; "I won't be participating in any of your markets. Thanks for
everything."
My world view, restored.
Ahh, Brooklyn.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Poopy Pants Lane

"He ordered prank pizzas to 888 Poopy Pants Lane. Everyone knows Poopy Pants Lane ends in the 700 block." With this line Luigi condemns Bart Simpson most likely to
a life in prison or at the least a long spell in 'Juvie'.

Anyway, for some reason I couldn't get this line out of my head. Working in the vineyard, repetitive motions, tie, trim, repeat, move on, repetitive motions inspire repetitive thoughts, like mantras, perhaps it is meditative perhaps it is just stupid. Maybe in the sixties, if my Yoga mantra had been 'Poopy Pants Lane' rather than whatever it was (still not allowed to tell) I would be a much happier person today.


Maybe when we focus on the ridiculous operatic aspects of life we miss the real problems, maybe the real problem are much more mundane and logical. This is perhaps what Luigi is trying to tell us. What is it to be a winemaker? It is to be at once logical and conscious of the pranks of nature. It is mind numbing, humbling repetition, punctuated by the smile of someone who likes your wine, it is not living on the edge it is living beyond the edge, in a world of imaginary numbers on an imaginary street in Hilbert Space. 888 Poopy Pants Lane.

What is this ranting all about. I am trying to make some Peach Wine and I can tell you, it isn't going so well. The Pear Wine I made last year was excellent, (I can safely say that because it's all gone now) but, for some reason I can't get the Peach to behave, it is not cohering, something is not gelling. Was it ridiculous to believe that I could repeat that wonderful accident that produced the Pear Wine using another fruit entirely. I didn't believe so, but I was wrong. The fundamentals were not there; the wine is turning out acidic, sour like those straws of multi-colored powder we used to get in the candy store.
'How should I correct it. Add vanilla? No, that's a coward's way out, I need to work the wine, work the acid, not cover it with other flavors.' I tried adding Malolactic bacteria. This is the usual method used on grapes to flatten the acid profile. Then, the next day I read somewhere, Malolactic fermentation tends to mute the fruit flavors in fruit wines, sometimes you can even get a sauerkraut aroma profile, peaches and sauerkraut, I am shaking my head, I am going to end up with something more like a hot dog topping than a wine. Is this a prank? 55 gallons of Sauerkraut juice. Maybe I should have just waited, give the mantra of the wine time to work, time to sink in. Everybody knows Poopy Pants Lane ends in the 700 block. Maybe I should have just made the Pear Wine again, at the risk of repeating myself. Maybe repeating oneself isn't so bad. Maybe it is the slow death of creativity. Who knows. Maybe there is a reason. Maybe mindless repetition isn't so bad after all.
Maybe mindless repetition isn't so bad after all.
"Say, is this the bus that goes to Poopy Pants Lane?"

Monday, May 25, 2009

War, Memory and a Pack of Camels


Memorial Day is a unique holiday mostly perhaps because on it, we do something voluntarily that we most often either have to be forced to do or only engage in only when the ravages of physical debility and time have left us little other choice; remember.

Memory is both a funny thing and a powerful thing, jester and king in one. It not only honors the past and the sacrifices of the past but it can provide a powerful alternative perspective that shapes our future behavior. I first realized this when I tried to quit smoking. My theory was that the memory of the pleasurable association with cigarettes even more than the present physical need was what was making this task extraordinarily difficult. I am a very visually oriented person so it seemed evident to me that the continued presence of any visual association with cigarettes was inevitably going to send me into a tailspin of craving and cause me to eventually fail. I went through the house throwing out the empty cigarette packs thankfully bereft of their sweet cargo that had formerly summoned me to their altar, I scoured the ashtrays removing any trace of silky ash that I sift between my finger recalling the lost wonders of Shambala, I opened the windows, clearing the haze that had wafted through my living room like the morning mist on Dunis Moor, I threw out all my videotapes (yes videotapes) of pre-1975 movies, especially war movies depicting cigarettes as one of the few un-guilty (then) pleasures of the foxhole, and any movie with Molly Ringwold. I hid all my lighters and even made sure that all the plastic pull tabs on food items that were similar to the little golden seductive strip of promise at the top of the cigarette pack were pre-removed from any food items in the refrigerator. I knew this last was extreme and dangerous and might cause my Oscar Mayer bologna to go bad, but, I was determined! This was war!

Then I went out back to work on bottling my 2007 Merlot wine and take my mind off smoking. There was clearly something wrong; not perhaps with the wine but with my plan. Despite the fact that I had purged all visual cues to my unhealthy preoccupation I was still seized with an insatiable desire to run out and buy my next pack. Was my theory incorrect? Was the habit of smoking really more a physical than a psychological addiction? As I pondered this question my gaze fell onto the identifying label on the cartons of bottles I was using to bottle my Merlot. They were the dark burgundy style 750 ml. bottles of the sort that lend themselves to red wines. My mind traced over and over the line of numbering and lettering giving the capacity and color of the bottles, staring repetitively back at me from each stacked white carton on the skid, the black bold letters; "750 Smoke". "750 Smoke".

So on this Memorial Day I think it is important to remember a couple of things; first, that no matter how hard you try you cannot escape the past and second that memory can often be a tricky thing and that even pleasant memories are impossible to completely shut out, let alone unpleasant ones. So on this day when we consciously seek to remember the sacrifices made on our behalf by our brave soldiers, let the recollection of their selfless deeds be a spur and prompt us to seek a better future and not a reinforcement of habits causing us to repeat the mistakes of the past. Now where did I hide that lighter again?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Simple Gifts

Usually I have something funny to say. Today I don't. There's an Aaron Copland piece based on an old Shaker melody called 'Simple Gifts'. It and another piece calle 'Ashokan Farewell which was the title theme for Ken Burns mini-series called 'The Civil War' are two of my favorite pieces of music. There is something in the simplicity of these melodies that speaks to me, something beyond the notes or words, something quieter than laughter and louder than sorrow.

The bottom line is that we seem to have forgotten that complexity is somewhat over-rated. Things don't necessarily need to be complex to be good. When I was working as a computer programmer I had one motto 'KISS', 'Keep it simple stupid!" (Of course with apologies to Gene Simmons.) The idea was that if you kept the various parts of these highly convoluted and complicated programs simple, the whole would come out better, more functional and far more elegant.

So, when I finally got to taste some of Carlo DeVito's, from Hudson Chatham winery Paperbirch Raspberry I knew that whoever produced it also valued simplicity. Don't get me wrong, there was complexity if one cared to analyze it, but I realized almost immediately that I didn't really care, here was just something that was welcome and familiar, something that brought an instant sense of recognition and of ease, like a familiar simple melody that somehow has gotten in your bones and makes you smile, like a rocking chair that somehow has acquired the perfect shape for your ass, like an unexpected big wet kiss from your favorite cocker spaniel,
(OK, I could make a joke about Gene Simmons here but like I said, I'm just not in the mood.) That's about all I need to say about that.
Rock on Carlo!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Collagen Monkeys


I was supposed to have been a scientist. That much was clear to me since the age of nine when I got my first chemistry set. I don't know who gave it to me or why but I suspect it was a birthday present and like many birthday presents one that was intended to launch me on a path to a respectable profession or avocation. (Boys got chemistry sets, girls got dolls with sparkling blue eyes). I don't recall the precise contents of the set but I am certain it contained phenolphthalein solution, Sodium Hydroxide and Copper Sulfate the latter two being contained in squat squarish bottles and the former in a little round bottle with the eye dropper already in it. I am quite sure it did not come with a pair of safety glasses (but that was OK because by nine I was already wearing glasses and had long since stopped playing with dolls). I also recall the rather pungent and totally foreign odors that were associated with some of the contents of the set. (On reflection it seems to me that I probably should not have been sniffing them.)

There were several experiments that you could do but by far the most gratifying was the acid titration test. In this test you took the solution of Phenolphthalein and using the provided eye dropper slowly dropped a solution of Sodium Hydroxide into the test tube and watched the liquid gradually turn pink. I remember the excitement when the first shy streamers of pink began suffusing themselves through the mixture. I didn't really know what it meant but it was fun. I never turned anything pink before (though I would many times after that). What was even more amazing was that as you continued to add the base solution the liquid turned clear again. This seemed beyond amazing to me. This was magic! Making something disappear like it never even happened. This, it seems, was sufficient to prepare me for a life of crime which was what I had intended before I got the set.

As a side note, I never followed through on either my scientific or criminal aptitudes and apart for a brief period in the late sixties I abandoned my inclinations to experiment with chemicals.

Making wine has finally forced me to revisit the chemistry set. Controlling and testing for acidity plays a critical part in the winemaking process. You cannot guess at it. Winemakers are told that wines with low acidity will not do well over time, that it is the acidity in part that protects against microbial spoilage. (I don't know if this is really true. Have you ever tasted Orange Juice that has been left out of the fridge for week?)

Acid it something like the wind blowing across your palate and controlling that acid in wine is like flying a kite, Too little wind and the kite sinks to the ground, too much and it tears to tatters or snaps the string and flies away. New York State winemakers are very familiar with the problem of too much acid in the wine which lends the wine a tart character (like sucking on a lime) whereas California winemakers on the other hand are more preoccupied with the problem of too little acid which can result in a flaccid wine (Whatever Man!). So, metaphorically speaking, the difference between a taut well structured aerodynamic system (metaphorically speaking) and a tattered hunk of plastic streamers stuck in a tree is quite simply the acid content. A big part of the reason for this is that acid tends to stimulate saliva flow (the body attempts to dilute any acids entering the system). Good saliva flow is essential to savoring the various components of a good wine in the proper balance. (Where is the Olympic Spitahlon event?).

There are three accepted methods for testing acid in wine, one is titration (known to me from my chemistry set days) the second is a digital pH meter, and the third is paper chromatography. The last and by far cheapest method is tasting it.

Just to complicate matters, there are no less than four organic acids in wine; tartaric, malic, lactic and citric. Tartaric, as its name suggests tends to precipitate out as tartrates and can leave a crust on the bottom of the bottle similar in appearance to what you find on your teeth if you have not visited the dentist, but different in chemical composition (potassium not calcium based). Malic acid tends to be sharp and spiky whereas Lactic Acid, which occurs in milk products tends to be rounded and milder. If you have tasted a sour apple, that is the taste of Malic Acid. If you have tasted sour buttermilk, that is the taste of lactic acid. (If you poach your apples in buttermilk you're on your own.)

Winemakers sometimes will intentionally introduce bacteria into some wines to convert Malic to Lactic Acid. This process also produces, in addition to CO2 and Lactic Acid something called diacetyl which is the flavor element of butter. When you taste a 'buttery' California Chardonnay this is almost certainly due to the presence of diacetyl. If you taste a 'buttery' Cabernet this is probably because some winemaker accidentally dropped a stick of butter in the tank. Diacetyl is also implicated in something called 'Popcorn Workers Lung'. When heated it tends to volatalize as a mist that will irritate your lungs. So, here's a hint, keep your wine out of the microwave and under no circumstances try to smoke it.

Citric acid is usually a minor component of wine but it can be introduced into sweeter wines to diminish the 'cloying' sensation that sugar produces. This is by the way why lemonade tastes so good.

Anyway, you may be asking at this point what this all has to do with Collagen or Monkeys. Well it turns out that scientist have been experimenting with something called a PLLA-braid, testing it of course on monkeys. They have found that PLLA which is a collagen/lactic acid hybrid provides a scaffold for the regeneration of muscle tissue. So, here's another sentence that should be added to the government warning on wine labels : Warning: Consumption of wine by people who have had collagen injections or plastic surgery may result in a rare condition known as 'Muscle Lip'. As for the monkeys, I have personally seen some of them pumping five pound weights with nothing but their lips and Monkeys exposed to both diacteyl and PLLA have been known to eject Popcorn Kernels a distance of fifty yards or more. OK, now I'm turning pink. I do that when I lie.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Bikerman Coefficient


I hate foam. I hate it with an irrational passion that is akin to my hatred and fear of snakes. I hate it in all its incarnations; sea water foam that collects in sickly yellow pools under piers, styrofoam that grates on my teeth with a high pitched dog whistle squeal, couch foam, foam fingers, the foam that exudes from various bodily orifices on episodes of 'House', dish detergent foam that invaded rivers and streams until Rachel Carson pointed the accusatory foam finger at it in 'Silent Spring'; I hate it all. The present fascination of haute cuisine with various types of foamed food is beyond inexplicable to me. The idea that any food could be made more appetizing with the addition of foam to me is a heresy perhaps exceeding that which resulted in the burning of the Czech Jan Hus at the stake in the 15th century.

Having said that, I must admit, there are two incarnations of foam that are not objectionable to me; that on top of beer or on cappuchinos. In both these cases I tolerate it. I suspect it is because I look at it not as real foam but as some kind of fizzy fashion accessory, such as is implied by the use of the word 'head' in relation to beer, (though most people don't look at a head as a fashion accessory, after a few beers it generally can be) and the prefix 'Cappu', implying, in Italian, 'hat'.

Obviously, being a winemaker, (I am told that is what I am now), the inevitable occurrence of foam at certain points in the winemaking process is both fascinating and horrifying to me. It appears at two distinct junctures in the process; first during what is the 'maceration' period of the primary fermentation, when the cap forms on top of the wine and secondly at bottling when a colloidal foam forms in the headspace of the bottle. In the first case the foam is far more pronounced and substantial (as measured by the Bikerman coefficient) in red wines, and in the second case moreso in white wines. The formation of the foam cap in the must of red wines is a welcome and well studied phenomena as well as an integral part of the winemaking process. The formation of foam at bottling is regarded as a mere nuisance and is generally regarded as having no effect whatsoever on the finished product.


Part of the task of the winemaker is to pay attention to things that you have been told not to pay attention to; I call this the 'Wizard of Oz' rule as this process of peeking behind the winemaking curtain is almost always immediately disheartening and only secondarily and eventually productive in helping you reach your goal. So, this week when I was bottling the Cayuga White I happened to notice that the foam produced in the bottle at filling seemed unusually durable and stable, I decided to attempt to yank the curtain aside, so hold on to your dog, Dorothy, it's about to get bumpy, again.

There were two possible culprits that immediately presented themselves; two components of wine that might produce sufficient heightened surface tension to noticeably affect persistence of bubbles, to result in foaming in the finished wine; fatty esters (not one of my relatives) and polysaccharides, both naturally occurring compounds, both also components of glycerine. I immediately dismissed fatty esters. My reasoning was as follows; since Cayuga White has a notoriously low finished alcohol content; this low alcohol content is probably due to the fact that fatty esters tend to break down into volatile ethanol and water (as opposed to fermentation which produces only alcohol). The assumption that it's low alcohol content was probably due in part to the increase in water content as these compounds broke down seemed reasonable. This left me with polysaccharides.


Polysaccharides are interesting little buggers and the fact that they are utilized as foaming agents in the pharmaceutical industry seemed to lend credence to my theory. As it turns out, since they are also the component of the yeast cell wall that when the yeast cells dies and breaks down producing foaming in the must, the fickle foam finger of fate seemed even more firmly fixed on their malfeasance and Occam's Razor further suggested it was at work in both instances of red and white wine.

This led to the secondary question as to why, since the byproducts in the degradation of yeast eventually precipitate out, why would the polysaccharides in the Cayuga White remain in suspension. The answer I have come up with is this: Cayuga White is a particularly cold hardy variety and polysaccharides are implicated in the production of the natural anti-freeze that protects grapes in winter hence it is reasonable to assume the must has a higher concentration of these. The addition of sulphur in the form of Potassium Metabisulfite in the winemaking process causes the formation of sulphuric esters of the polysaccharides in suspension which is more pronounced in Cayuga White because of the higher polysaccharide content. These long chains of sugar-like compounds that are bound together by a fatty ester produce durable foam. QED. Whew! Too much technical jargon but here's the kicker.

Certain polysaccharides, particularly the Sulphuric Esters of Polysaccharides also have a very specific effect on the human circulatory system called 'Brakykinin'. In essence they are powerful vaso-dilators, i.e. they have the tendency to lower your blood pressure. Hence, it seemed that the very effect which was raising my own blood pressure as I bottled the wine and cursed the foam, contained the antidote for that very condition. Ironic! Do you see now how insidious foam is! So, the next time you are at a baseball or football game waving that foam finger in the air, it would behoove you to think how treacherous and tricky foam can be, and to consider the possibility that foam based fashion accessories may in fact produce the opposite of the intended effects and cause your team to lose instead. Just something to consider. And for all you chefs out there intent of finding new uses for foam in the culinary arts, a cautinary word, 'beware of the nefarious mousse!' Now, where is my cappuchino?