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