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.