Thursday, June 30, 2011

Two Rockin' Napa Cab Blends

It takes a lot for a wine to stand out in a tasting of 20+ wines, especially when those wines are tasted near the end of the event. The event in question was a wine tasting dinner at the newly-opened steak house Medium Rare in Washington, DC's Cleveland Park neighborhood. About a dozen friends got together and tasted through a slew of wines. Some were good, some were not. But two were truly great. And they both happened to be Napa Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends from the 2005 vintage. Napa Winemakers had a great year in 2005, and I've found the best Napa cabernets from 2005 to show lush, dark fruit and solid tannic structure. They have been delicious in youth, but the best 2005s have the stuffing to improve for decades. Enough lollygagging. The two wines are:

2005 Dancing Hares Vineyard - USA, California, Napa Valley
this is a superb bordeaux blend. pitch color. on the nose: dark, dark cherries, dark chocolate shavings, loam, charcoal. the nose is nothing short of intoxicating. the palate is so dense and viscous. this is ridiculously rich. you can't even think while sipping it because all your brain cares about is processing the unbelievable amount of flavors and sensations. its like paint drying on your palate. gorgeous finish. the intensity of this wine is matched only by its deliciousness. (95 pts.)

2005 Colgin IX Estate - USA, California, Napa Valley
what a cabernet blend. definitely one of the best i've had in a very long time. the nose is a wave of gorgeous aromas: red licorice, currant jam, charcoal, pencil shavings, plum pits. the palate is as round and beautiful as marilyn monroe. the tannins are grippy and dry, providing superb structure. the wine glides across the palate like melted butter, leaving flavors of cassis, plums, charcoal and toast to mingle on the incredibly long finish. this is one hell of a sexy wine. yes, it's young, but it's too good. (96 pts.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Dispatches From Anorexic Hell

"Maybe maybe maybe," Marya Hornbacher writes, exhausting a list of things that could have gone differently in her life. Maybe if her parents weren’t so distant. Maybe if she had gotten professional help earlier. Maybe then she wouldn't have struggled so terribly with anorexia and bulimia. "But all this is moot. Sometimes things just go awry." That statement is as close to an epiphany that Marya ever gets in her memoir Wasted. There is no easy explanation for why she spent years of her life in anorexic and bulimic hell. Instead of offering answers, Hornbacher tells stories and asks questions. And even though there’s no real resolution at the end of this strikingly tragic and beautiful memoir, Marya’s words have a powerful and haunting effect.

Eating disorders, Marya points out, citing a wide array of medical and psychiatric data and studies, are frequently symptomatic of other mental illnesses. But sometimes perfectly healthy people develop debilitating eating disorders. Of course, the nature of eating disorders is such that they lead to other mental health complications: depression, anxiety, mania, paranoia, insomnia. It’s a cycle of disorder. Marya is not arrogant enough to claim she can pinpoint the exact cause of her eating disorder. She tries to point to plausible explanations, but refrains from black and white answers, which gives this memoir a kind of novel-like feel to it.

Still, there are some obvious factors that contributed to her chaotic disease. Family is a huge one. She doesn't hate her parents or blame them for screwing her up, which is refreshing. Instead, she's brutally candid about her upbringing. Her parents "were perhaps less than ideal candidates for parenthood." I think it's safe to say that's a fitting description to all parents. It’s obvious to the reader here that fear of food and an unhealthy obsession with food in her parents contributed to her eating disorder. Her mother, who herself was bulimic and has always had disordered eating behavior, tells Marya: "You didn't pick up anything. You just came this way." Basically, her messed up family tells her it's all nature, no nurture. And it's clear from evidence that much about anorexic and bulimic behavior is in fact learned, not innate. Still, Marya rightfully places the weight of her own decisions on her own shoulders: "Let it be noted here that it is decidedly not their 'fault.' If someone tells you to jump off a bridge, you don't have to jump."

This book isn’t just about food or the lack thereof. It’s also a tour through the dark corners of insanity. Marya totally loses her mind for a good part of her life. She doesn’t sleep, goes days without eating, ends up binging and purging until she passes out. She gets pregnant and solves the problem by purposefully falling down some stairs. "Flush the red matter away. No tears." That’s just one of many examples of her life gone awry. Large portions of this book are clearly hard to read. It’s not easy reading of someone killing themselves slowly over the course of many years.

Of course, she ends up in more than one hospital. When she finds herself in a treatment center, she writes: "I was light years away from understanding my Issues." And she proves this to be true in the years after she gets out of treatment. She systematically starves herself again, knowing full well what it is doing to her body. It is only after her stint in the hospital that the severity of her masochism is fully realized. This woman hates herself so intensely that it’s incredible she’s alive. It seems Marya's truly in love with her eating disorder, in love with destroying her body any way she can. She squelches real love from her family and her friends, and turns all her love and attention to brutalizing herself. It's absolutely terrifying, but it's also oddly resonant. It’s like Marya is reminding us that somewhere deep inside all of us is the ability to inflict terrible harm upon ourselves. Sometimes, our desire for death can equal or surpass our desire for life.

Marya spends much of the book speaking about the learned aspect of eating disorders. Disordered behavior can be learned, through parents, through media images, cultural mores. Many people with eating disorders have larger mental health issues, it just so happens that they translated into an eating disorder. At least that's Hornbacher's take. And, I've got to say, I tend to believe her, not totally, but enough. There’s also some interesting discussion about how eating disorders tend to fall on the middle and upper classes with far higher frequency. Mayra herself enjoys significant class privilege. She quotes a psychologist’s study that found thinness has become, “an ideal symbolizing self-discipline, control, sexual liberation, assertiveness, competitiveness, and affiliation with a higher socio-economic class.”

This is part of a larger discussion of how society views eating disorders. And it’s amazing and atrocious to read about, for example, a school boy telling his anorexic girlfriend she needed to lose weight while she's literally starving to death. That our society produces males like this is disturbing.

She points to eating disorders as social diseases, problems that are encouraged by mass media and modern American culture. "We lived in a larger world where there is also a sense of hunger and a sense of lack. We can call it loss of religion, loss of the nuclear family, loss of community, but whatever it is, it has created a deep and insatiable hunger in our collective unconscious." I understand the hunger she's trying to convey. I don't necessarily equate the innate sense of hunger in the human consciousness to the lack of anything in particular. I view that insatiable hunger as a natural byproduct of human consciousness. We're always trying to find perfection, and when it never comes, there's a sense of loss. This hunger is based on a loss of something that was never possible to attain in the first place. In Marya’s case this “perfection” was a sixty-pound, shriveled, skeletal woman.

It was impossible to read this book without having flashbacks to my own disordered history. In 2008 I nearly died from malnutrition and ended up in a psychiatric ward for people with eating disorders, which I chronicle in my novel Broken Bones. I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and a slew of other problems. Going into this book, I knew it would be a tough read. Still, I couldn’t have prepared myself for how deeply this book shook me.

It was like reliving a nightmare. It was as if some of these words had been written about my experience. I could relate so much to her story. For example, when you feel your body is worthless, it doesn't take long for you to believe that life itself is worthless. Suicide becomes a more and more attractive option the further you go. Marya grows lanugo, or, as she calls it, “fur.” And that's not too much of a stretch. It really does look like baby kitten fur, or a peach with overgrown fuzz. This is the body’s way of keeping warm when it reaches the brink of death from malnutrition. The way malnutrition spawns manic episodes is described in terrifying detail. I remember having manic episodes, and it was always shocking how bad things got so quickly.

After nearly killing myself through anorexic behavior, spending a month in a treatment center, reading many books on the subject and writing one myself, I still came across things in this book that I’d never heard before. For example, people with anorexia commonly die of broken hips. It makes sense. Brittle bones break easily, and an anorexic's body simply does not have the materials needed to heal itself. A trip or fall can put their weakened body into a quick death spiral.

On pain, she writes: "In truth, you like the pain. You like it because you believe you deserve it, and the fact that you're putting yourself through pain means you are doing what you, by all rights, ought to do." What begins as disordered behavior quickly  if not immediately  turns into masochism. Pain is the body reminding the mind that it exists. She also liked the attention that being sick brought. "You are so sick. When people say this they turn their heads, you've won your little game. You have proven your thesis that no-body-love-me-every-body-hates me, guess-I'll just eat worms. You get to sink back into your hospital bed, shrieking with righteous indignation. See? you get to say. I knew you'd give up on me. I knew you'd leave." She makes it clear that her eating disorder wasn’t as much an experiment with the limits of the body as it was a suicide pact with her own mind. “I was trying to die, in a curious, casual sort of way.” It was her only way of coping. "My only means of self-regulation was self-destruction."

Like so many women I met in the psychiatric ward for people with eating disorders, Marya grew to love the protective environment of a hospital facility. She loved being sick and cared for, and in the unit she could be sick and cared for. Her compulsive, disordered behavior was minimized in the unit, not because Marya tried to kick her habits, but because she simply couldn't harm herself as effectively when she was in the hospital. She tried, as did all the girls I met in the ward. They tried to puke when no one was looking. They tried to cut themselves. But someone always found out. Marya's health improved in the unit, but her mind was still set on self-destruction, proof that treatment can only do so much. Once an anorexic or bulimic person steps out the doors, it’s up to them to survive or die.

Marya does a terrifyingly good job at recounting the horrors of life in an eating disorder treatment center. This is where the book rings most true to me. I was in such a facility: locked doors, plexiglass windows, no mirrors, no sharp objects. It's pretty scary to wake up and know you're stuck, and Marya is definitely stuck. And she's blunt about her decision to "get well." It only came about because she was forced to get well.

What haunts me is the big hole at the end of this book: the complete lack of resolution. There is no come-to-Jesus moment. There is no epiphany. In the end, Marya marches on with her life, balancing precariously between “normalcy” and relapse. Fortunately, she has stayed on the healthy side of the cliff in recent years, enough to write an incredible and moving book.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Top Five Wines of First Half of 2011

I can't believe it, but 2011 is halfway over. Time goes so fast it's ridiculous. What's also ridiculous is the incredible amount of top-notch wines I've been able to taste so far this year. At halfway through 2011, I looked back at my tasting notes and found my top five wines of the first half of 2011. Interesting thing is: They're all white wines. I've always loved whites, but so far this year I've found myself seeking out some great white wines. Maybe it's just my palate shifting over time, but I can't seem to get myself away from riesling, gruner veltliner and chardonnay. Here are my favorites so far this year:

2009 F.X. Pichler Riesling Smaragd Loibner Steinertal (Austria, Niederösterreich, Wachau) 4/3/2011, rated 96 points
i don't throw around 96 points very often. but this wine is just immaculate. it has the sexiest nose: flowers, lemons, white peaches, fresh laundry. i feel like i'm running through a field of blossoms and hanging sheets in one of those downy commercials. the palate is fresh, but really dense and complex. right off, i could tell this wine needs years to show its true potential. right now the flavors are so compacted that it needs time to develop. but there is no denying the complexity and mouthfeel of this wine. apricots and honey flavors stay from the attack to the finish, but they're mixed with granola, peanut brittle, golden apples and a hint of cinnamon. the acid is intense throughout, making this a massive but balanced wine. the finish is seamless and incredibly long. i've now had the 92, 07, 08 on several occassions, and this was my favorite FX riesling stienertal experience.

2008 Cameron Chardonnay Blanc Clos Electrique (USA, Oregon, Willamette Valley, Dundee Hills) 6/3/2011, rated 96 points
this is truly an amazing chardonnay. it is complex, bold, sexy but also balanced. the nose is a massive burst of pineapple and lime juice. it kind of smells like someone poured a salty margarita on top of cotton candy. the sweet fruit is by no means overwhelming, indeed everyone at the table loved this wine, even those who are not fans of riper chardonnays. the palate is silky, creamy and alive. lime and honeydew flavors glide across the palate, highlighted by vanilla extract, pear butter and lemon drops. the focus and intensity of this wine is astounding. great acid lingers on the long finish. no oak here, but a richness that almost reminds me of a kind of neutral oak aging, although i'm not sure. this is the best chardonnay from oregon i've ever had, and it's way up there on the list of best chardonnays i've ever had.

2006 Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel (Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer) 4/3/2011, rated 95 points
the color is an intense honeyed orange. the fruit is pure and powerful on the nose. i get canided pears, golden apples and apricto, all highlighted with a stony minerality. the palate is viscous, rich and exciting. massive creaminess, golden grahams cereal, apricot puree, honeyed apples, hints of spice. its not at all cloying, which is why i loved this so much. it goes down easily with the acid, and the acid and sweetness linger in perfect balance on an incredibly long finish. that has an incredible 25+ years of development ahead of it.

2007 F.X. Pichler Grüner Veltliner Smaragd 'M' (Austria, Niederösterreich, Wachau) 4/3/2011, rated 95
the nose is intense and lovely. lemons, yellow apple, tobacco, lemon zest and heating oil. apricots, honey, oil, creamy, tobacco... the flavors are unbelievable. gorgeous wine.

2007 F.X. Pichler Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Dürnsteiner Kellerberg (Austria, Niederösterreich, Wachau) 4/3/2011, rated 95
rich, honey, peaches and cream on the nose. the palate is rich and creamy, white grapes, green pepper, honey, rosemary. while i'm sipping this wine, i really wonder, does gruner get better than this? i don't know.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Zinfandel With a Great Friend

2008 Seghesio Family Vineyards Zinfandel Sonoma County
I drank this Sonoma County with Austin Graff to celebrate his coming marriage to an amazing, beautiful, remarkable woman named Theresa. I opened it because I knew Austin liked his red wines big and fruity, and this was a great choice. This wine was bright purple color with thick ruby legs. The nose showed dark red berries, chocolate shavings and tobacco. Bright red fruit on the palate with chocolate, creamy oak and vanilla. Rich, but solid tannins keep it balanced and acidity keeps it fresh. What a great bottle to pop for a great friend. Austin and Theresa, may happiness fill all of your days and may you be best friends forever.
90 Points - IJB

Monday, June 13, 2011

Consciousness, Love and Literature in David Lodge's Novel "Thinks..."

The novel “Thinks…” aims high, and on all fronts, it succeeds brilliantly. It’s a philosophical discussion, an analysis of consciousness, sex, the basis of morality, the human spirit, but it’s also a hilarious, witty page-turner. I’m frankly amazed at what author David Lodge accomplishes in this book and how hard he makes it to put this book down.

The novel is set in 1997 at a fictional University of Glouchester. The aptly named protagonist Ralph Messenger is a scientist who studies consciousness with the ultimate goal of using a scientific understanding of consciousness to produce artificial intelligence. He’s an atheist, a materialist, an opportunist. He’s also very smart, kind of an asshole, a driven man, but one who is susceptible to the whims inherent in his personality. He’s married and likes ladies a lot, which of course adds all sorts of drama to this tale.

The other main character, Helen, is the polar opposite. She’s a recently widowed novelist who tries to understand the world through literature, language and story: "Of course one can argue that there's a basic human need for narrative: it's one of our fundamental tools for making sense of experience - has been, back as far as you can go in history.” Ralph likes her immediately, and they have many fascinating discussions about science and literature. Helen maintains: “Literature is a written record of human consciousness, arguably the richest we have.” After attending a philosophy conference, Helen, the champion of literature and story as a way of knowing, makes a great critique of highfalutin philosopher talk. "Where was the pleasure of reading in all this? Where was personal discovery, self-development?" This is how she as a novelist tries to understand the world, a means of consciousness that stands in opposition to the scientific and philosophical materialists. Helen was raised Catholic, and initially feels hesitant about the idea of having an affair with Ralph. Things start to get complicated as they start the affair, but they always maintain really interesting discussions. One of the biggest strengths of this novel is the realness of Helen’s voice. Lodge is a master at crafting characters and making them feel absolutely real.

In this novel, Lodge plays with literature like he plays with science. He throws these two forces up against each other, just like a great philosopher. And then he dissects these ideas through character development, plot and place, drawing the reader an exciting philosophical debate.

The points of view in this novel correspond perfectly with its themes. The reader transitions from Ralph’s first-person to Helen’s first-person narration to an omniscient third-person narrator, a cycle that is repeated through the entire novel. Portions of the book are made up of reading assignments that Helen has given her students. One such assignment is to write a story about a woman who was raised in a closed room with no colors except black, white and the shades of gray in between, and what happens when she goes out into the world and sees a red rose. The students’ responses are a really interesting blend of scientific writing and fiction, showing that the two forces can be combined to attempt to answer questions about consciousness. Some other portions are made up of emails or of Ralph’s recitation to a voice recorder. It all plays well with the theme that different people experience the same event in completely different ways. One can never fully know what another person is thinking. And Lodge does a great job of demonstrating that through differing points of view.

This book is, among many things, a foray into the undercurrents of sexual desires. It's a peek into the minds of sexual beings, and an analysis of the things people think about, their innermost sexual fantasies. The reader gets to see how Helen acts around Ralph through a scene written in limited third-person. Then the reader gets to hear Helen’s take on the scene through her first-person narration. What the reader sees happening, and what the reader hears Helen saying, are two very different things, as they should be. She pretends not to want him, but clearly does when she’s vetting to her journal.

This is more than just a novel about sex. It's about vulnerability. In the end, a whole lot of crap that has been simmering over the course of the novel all explodes. Ralph’s sordid affair with Helen goes awry. His work at the University is thrown in jeopardy when police discover someone in his office is downloading child pornography. And his health catches the better of him. It seems, for someone who had it all figured out on paper, that the world is turning on him. Ralph doesn't have a forced, corny, made-for-television epiphany, but he is, like any great character, changed.

“Thinks…” is an analysis of love, pain, science, deceit, god and morality, but it’s also just a damned good read. This book gets an official recommendation, and it would make a great beach read this summer, if you’re looking for some solid writing that is also mentally intriguing.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Saturday of Wines

I spent a Saturday touring some wine shops in DC, sipping some, buying others. What a great way to spend a hot day.

Austrian Wines at Bell Wines

These wines were made by a religious order called the Society of St Leopold. Interesting wines. And one of the first times I've had a priest in full garb around while I'm sipping wine.

2009 Stift Klosterneuburg Wiener Nussberg Gemischter Satz - Austria, Wien
interesting white field blend. a bit light for my tastes, but some good zip to it. (80 pts.)

2008 Stift Klosterneuburg Riesling Franzhauser - Austria, Wien
a bit herbal on the nose. white peach kicks in on the palate. nice and zesty. (86 pts.)

2008 Stift Klosterneuburg Weissburgunder Jungherrn - Austria, Wien
i liked this pinot blanc the best of the bunch. fresh and floral on the nose. good, creamy body with golden apple. zesty as well. (87 pts.)

2006 Stift Klosterneuburg Escorial - Austria, Niederösterreich
st. laurent, some cab, and some other red varieties. the nose is lively and light with dherries, raspberries. the palate is fresh, tangy. good raspberry and rhubarb. (85 pts.)

2006 Stift Klosterneuburg Chorus - Austria, Niederösterreich
plush, showing more cab flavors and textures: currants, velvety tannins. this is like a california cabernet but with a bit more acid. (86 pts.)

2006 Stift Klosterneuburg St. Laurent Barrique - Austria, Niederösterreich
vibrant fruit, but for me the oak was a bit too much. (84 pts.)


Nothing's better than good Chablis on a hot day.

2009 Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis Domaine Sainte Claire - France, Burgundy, Chablis
lovely, vibrant chablis with minerals and lemons on the nose. rich, golden fruit on the palate, but still great acid. i love the creamy fruit of the 09 vintage maybe more than others, and this is a great example of that at a great price of $20. (89 pts.)

2008 Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis 1er Cru Quintessence de la Rive Droit du Serein - France, Burgundy, Chablis, Chablis 1er Cru
this was a lot zestier, showing the lively acid and brightness of the 08 vintage. nose of flowers, limes and salt, almost like a fresh margarita. from the first sip to the finish, this wine has linear acid, a ton of minerals and bright citrus fruit. great finish. (90 pts.)

2008 Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos - France, Burgundy, Chablis, Chablis Grand Cru
what a spectacular young chablis. the nose is vibrant with flowers and lemons, creamy whipped butter, pears. the palate is intense. lots of powerful citrus, pears, nectarine, razor-like acid, just a bit of toast. gorgeous. (92 pts.)

2008 Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis Grand Cru Les Preuses - France, Burgundy, Chablis, Chablis Grand Cru
orange blossoms on the nose, lemons, hint of hazelnut. the nose on this is bigger and richer than the 08 les clos. creamy palate, intense richness, ripping acid. smoked nuts and minerals on the finish. a gorgeous wine that has years of complexity to gain. (93 pts.)

Weygandt Wines

Last stop on the trip was Weygandt Wines for some whites and roses.

2010 Domaine des Cassagnoles Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne - France, Southwest France, Gascony, Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne
this is a wine to buy for summer by the case. lemon peel, saline on the nose, minerals as well. i got some nectarine fruit and peach pits, creamy fruit to stand up to the zesty acid and rush of minerals. what a great buy fo $9! (88 pts.)

2010 Domaine des Cassagnoles Sauvignon Blanc Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne - France, Southwest France, Gascony, Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne
if i tasted this blind, i would have guessed this as a new zealand sauvignon blanc. grassy and grapefruity nose. creamy guava fruit on the palate with a streak of lively acid. not complex, but a great summer wine. (87 pts.)

2010 Domaine Duseigneur Lirac Rosé - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Lirac
bright pink. tons of strawberries on the nose, strawberry shortcake. rich cherries on the palate, there's almost a bit of unerripe strawberry. a bit bitter on the midpalate and short on the finish but still interesting. (84 pts.)

2010 Château des Baumelles Bandol Rosé - France, Provence, Bandol
light pink color. the nose shows lighter fruit, limes and grapefruits. the palate is a lot richer, with juicy white cherries. i got a flaor of tangerine rind, some rhubarb. really interesting rose with some unique elements. (88 pts.)

2010 La Bastide Blanche Bandol Rosé - France, Provence, Bandol
i always love this bandol rose, and this year is no exception. the nose is really intense, showing vibrant strawberries, plump cherries. really clean fruit. some soft tannins, a bit of caramel as well. this is what i look for in a rose. (89 pts.)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Jean Baudrillard is Kind of a Douche

Jean Baudrillard is an armchair philosopher. He lives in a fantasy world of his own linguistic creation. And that world seldom contains anything of value to the rest of us. I just finished reading Baudrillard's "Simulacra and Simulation," and I'm exhausted. I’ve decided that it's not philosophy, but literary masturbation.

I don’t know how much of the opaque and pretentious language in this slim book stems from Baudrillard’s construction and how much is due to the translator. I imagine it’s a combination of both. That said, almost every sentence in this book is structured to be deliberately convoluted. Baudrillard is incredibly intelligent, but he is simply incapable of being precise or clear-spoken. Most of his ideas are shrouded beneath walls of torturous prose. There are points to be made and concepts to be understood, but Baudrillard purposefully makes them nearly impossible to discern. If prose is a trail and words trailmarkers, Baudrillard takes his readers on the furthest possible trail over the mountain and then ditches them in the woods before they get there. His ideas are fascinating, but the process of reading his ramblings in order to arrive at those ideas is long and arduous. The rewards (ideas you can take with you, new ways of thinking about things, images, phrases you'll remember) are there, but this book is so packed with diversions and nonsense that it reaches the point of not being worth reading at all.

Much of this work is barely more than linguistic shuffling. He doesn't “theorize the postmodern,” he just playfully inverts language to create something that seems profound. But it’s actually quite meaningless. By taking two polar opposites ideas and throwing them together, Baudrillard may seem to be making a point. But it’s just a nonsensical game of language. And since he doesn’t bother with using the building blocks of language to create an idea, every third word is italicized for emphasis. There's no reason to write a fucking sentence that is a page long with eighteen commas, three dashes, two semicolons and two sets of parentheses. This book is a punctuation nightmare, and it's irritating. Baudrillard plays with his readers, but then doesn't come through for them in the end. And this all can't be blamed on the translator. French and English are similar in a lot of ways, and even in the French this must suck ass to read.

He is able to get his act together and make a few “points,” if they can be called that. One of the most interesting being: every power structure and ideology is reinforced by, and actually defined by, the backlash against it. “It is always a process of proving the real through the imaginary, proving truth through scandal, proving the law through transgression…” For example, neoconservative social policy is solidified by its counter-ideology: liberalism, civil rights, human rights. He states: “Power can stage its own murder to rediscover a glimmer of existence and legitimacy.” This was proven in post-September 11 America. Go-it-alone, gangster foreign policy got a real shot in the arm. Indeed, it gained in legitimacy because it now had an enemy, a symbol, a stark, unforgettable counterforce. The best example of ideology crystallizing in the face of countervailing forces is one that Baudrillard mentions, but not nearly enough: religion. Christianity, Islam and other religions survive through martyr complexes. Religion is nothing if it is not in danger from some other person, group or intangible force. It is nothing unless it is contrasted against a counter-ideology. It is kept alive only by the presence of its opposite.

But just when he makes a point, he attempts to shock his readers into agreement. It doesn't work for me. He throws linguistic jabs all over the place with the skill of a right-wing extremist. He makes countless assertions that are flatly ridiculous.

Baudrillard then spends an entire chapter blasting cinema and television as essentially worthless media. Films have “no value as conscious awareness, but only as nostalgia for a lost referential.” He criticizes films for not portraying history according to his liking. But film is art, and Baudrillard seems unable to grasp the concept of audio-visual entertainment as an art form. He comes across as a cranky old man bemoaning media he doesn’t understand. The entire chapter is a compilation of highfalutin nonsense.

Baudrillard seems unable to criticize a specific work of cinema, literature, philosophy or even a historical event. Examples, facts, studies or any other basic objective criteria don’t enter into his analyses. Instead he falls back on tired and vague rhetoric of “capital,” “power” and “the hyperreal,” words garbled together so frequently as to become meaningless.

Statements frequently start with phrases like the following: “One would have us believe that…” “What no one wants to understand is…” Who constitutes this amorphous opposition? Everyone except Baudrillard?

When he does quit his nonsensical beat-off sessions and attempts to make a coherent “argument,” he fails miserably. For example, he maintains that nuclear proliferation, "does not increase the risk of either an atomic clash or an accident," because, "all those who have acquired it since will be deterred from using it by the very fact of possessing it." There's an assumption here that leads to an erroneous conclusion. That assumption is that all individuals and groups act in their own self-interest. Radical religious nuts don't act in their own self-interest, but in accordance with a bizarre set of irrational mandates written down in ancient texts. What happens when extremists who don't care whether they live or die get a nuclear weapon? There's also the assumption that political elites will somehow act rationally and consider the well-being of others before taking nuclear action. The Cuban Missile Crisis (just two decades before the original publication of this work) was not a joke. We almost saw nuclear war. And it could, and probably will, happen in the future.

Baudrillard's dead, but I wish when he was alive he smoked a few more joints. Because he seems like a kind of guy you could talk to if he just mellowed out and got over himself.

An Epic Wine Tasting

A group of friends and I got together at Palena in Washington, DC, to celebrate Brett's 30th birthday, a friend and long-time wine drinking buddy. Bottles were opened, bliss ensued. Almost every wine was incredible. I would've been happy just sipping any one of these wines on a Sunday afternoon, but to taste them all together was truly a remarkable experience. This has to be one of the best tastings I've been to in a long time. I loved the blend of Old World and New World wines. This tasting also marks the beginning of what I hope will be a long love affair with Cameron wines. Happy birthday, Brett! Thanks so much for organizing this and providing these incredible wines.

The night started with some gorgeous Champagne, paired with "fritto misto," a blend of delicious fried fish, shrimp, cheese, onions, calamari and even fried lemons, which was a first for me.

1998 Ployez-Jacquemart Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut - France, Champagne - the first wine of the night was one i had earlier this year and loved. i loved it even more this time. the aromatics are enchanting: almond shell, lemon zest, sea air. it's so fresh, but shows some of those more intriguing aromas of aged champagne. the acid on the palate is ripping, but it's balanced by superb yeastiness. bright lemons, granny smith apples, lemon-lime, and a bit of a nuttiness as well. the finish is gorgeous. (92 pts.)

N.V. Ruinart Champagne Brut Rosé - France, Champagne - gorgeous strawberry color in the glass with fine bubbles. strawberry, minerals and a bit of fall leaves on the nose. starts off rich on the palate with watermelon and wild strawberries, then there's a rush of acid. the finish is above average. this is a fine, easy drinking champagne. (89 pts.)

2004 Vilmart Champagne Brut Premier Cru Grand Cellier Rubis - France, Champagne - this rose champagne really amazed me. so unique, from the pour to the finish. light strawberry color. for the light color, the nose is full of cherry skins, raspberries and a distinct mushroom aroma. the palate is rich and gorgeous. melon fruit on the palate, but the most intriguing flavor is this kind of dark cherry extract. it reminds me of kasteel rouge, which is a beer blended with pure cherry juice. the purity of this dark fruit flavor is incredible. but the richness is equally matched with searing acid. the finish is incredibly long. one of the best rose champagnes i've had in....? (93 pts.)


Three gorgeous expressions of the chardonnay grape.

2001 François Raveneau Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre - France, Burgundy, Chablis, Chablis 1er Cru - nose of almond shells, golden pear and nectarine. the palate is rich, but zesty as well. golden apples, mixed nuts, honey and pears. long finish laced with minerals and a hint of sherry. this is in a really great place right now. i think this could improve for another year or two, but it's definitely singing right now. (92 pts.)

2005 François Raveneau Chablis Grand Cru Blanchot - France, Burgundy, Chablis, Chablis Grand Cru - aromas of lemon spray, lamp oil and lanolin. just gorgeous on the nose. the palate is plump and starts off with flowers and lemons. that transitions into caramel, homenycomb and more lemons. it feels dense on the palate, heavy even. this is an intense wine, no doubt about it. this wine is great, but it has the potential to be even better. it needs time to come together and show its full power. i would've felt bad drinking it so young, but it was too delicious. (91 pts.)

2008 Cameron Chardonnay Blanc Clos Electrique - USA, Oregon, Willamette Valley, Dundee Hills - this is truly an amazing chardonnay. it is complex, bold, sexy but also balanced. the nose is a massive burst of pineapple and lime juice. it kind of smells like someone poured a salty margarita on top of cotton candy. the sweet fruit is by no means overwhelming, indeed everyone at the table loved this wine, even those who are not fans of riper chardonnays. the palate is silky, creamy and alive. lime and honeydew flavors glide across the palate, highlighted by vanilla extract, pear butter and lemon drops. the focus and intensity of this wine is astounding. great acid lingers on the long finish. no oak here, but a richness that almost reminds me of a kind of neutral oak aging, although i'm not sure. this is the best chardonnay from oregon i've ever had, and it's way up there on the list of best chardonnays i've ever had. (96 pts.)

Old World Whites
Brett and I have always been kindred spirits when it comes to unique white wines from the Old World, especially the Loire. He truly wowed me with these three incredible selections. I was excited about the Spanish chenin blanc, as I've never had a really serious one before.

2000 Nicolas Joly Clos de la Coulée de Serrant - France, Loire Valley, Anjou-Saumur, Savennières-Coulée de Serrant - amazing golden color. a wonderfully executed attack of aromas: peach rings, honey, oil, orange rinds and white tea. so joly. just classic. on the palate this is rich, creamy and fat, but balanced with solid acid. it kind of tastes like someone melted butter with orange zest and some spices and poured it on an apricot. golden krisp cereal, chammomile and licorice. the finish is long and very complex. my fourth or fifth time with joly's clos de coulée de serrant. they're always unique, and this is no exception. the sweet apricot and melted sugar flavors lead me to believe this has a bit of botrytis. (93 pts.)

2006 Celler Escoda-Sanahuja Conca de Barberà Els Bassots - Spain, Catalunya, Tarragona, Conca de Barberà - if the 2000 joly coulee de serrant is the ramones, then this spanish chenin blanc is the sex pistols. i feel like this producer was inspired by joly and attempted to do what joly did. of course, it's not the same, and it's not as good, but it's still really intriguing. medium yellow color with a lot of cloudiness in the glass. the nose smells like someone tried to burn a bunch of walnut shells. there's definitely a bit of rubber tire here too, which is interesting considering this wine is made without sulfites. the palate tastes like smoked salmon. seriously. simultaneously odd and awesome. then take that smoked salmon and pour lemon juice and pears on it. what a freak of a wine. there's a very distinct dried mango and kosher salt flavor on the finish. this is some crazy stuff, but i like it a lot. (90 pts.)

1981 R. López de Heredia Rioja Blanco Gran Reserva Viña Tondonia - Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja - this white rioja is almost orange in color at this point in its evolution. the nose shows honey nut cheerios, caramel apples and some sherry. the palate is rich and bold with honeyed pears, graham crackers, caramel apple. but i found the acid to be fresh and lively. only slightly oxidized, and i think it really increases the complexity of this wine. this wine seemed so young. i couldn't believe it was 30 years old. still going strong, this was indeed a memorable wine for a memorable event. (92 pts.)

Cameron Pinot Noir Clos Electrique Vertical
This was my first time with Cameron pinots, and to be able to taste three vintages next to each other was great. It really showed the character of the vintages and gives some indication of how these wines age. This is such a great style of pinot. Brett's the Willamette Valley expert, and this is one of his favorite producers. These 2006 (and now the 2008) Clos Electrique blanc hooked me on Cameron, and these pinots have solidified this producer's spot at the top of my best of Oregon list.

2004 Cameron Pinot Noir Clos Electrique - USA, Oregon, Willamette Valley - black cherry, red raspberry on the nose, along with an aroma that really reminds me of a great muffaletta sandwich. it's got that green olive and oil aroma, but there's also an aroma of cured meat. gliding, silky, sexy fruit on the palate. red licorice, cranberry, raspberry and sweet pipe tobacco. rich, but laced with minerals and a streak of red meat. a hint of bitter chocolate comes out on the finish, which is incredibly long. my favorite wine of the bunch. i love this for its mouthfeel, silkiness and the purity of the fruit flavors. great stuff that will surely improve with years. (94 pts.)

2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Clos Electrique - USA, Oregon, Willamette Valley - what a difference from the 04! the nose on this shows bacon, black pepper, cranberries and pickles. the acid is higher. still rich with fruit, almost milky mouthfeel. i got a bit more grilled meat on thte 05, which i like. amazing wine. (93 pts.)

2006 Cameron Pinot Noir Clos Electrique - USA, Oregon, Willamette Valley - i've heard it described as "cameron funk," but for me the aroma is more like smoked meat and charcoal, which is really evident on this nose. this wine is so rich and its youth shows. so ripe and rich, even for me. chewy, meaty tannins. i loved this pickle flavor that stuck around behind the plums and milk chocolate-covered cherries. long finish. this needs time, but it's absolutely gorgeous. (92 pts.)

Old World Reds
My palate still had some strength left, which was good because these Old World reds were great. It would've been better to taste these before the Camerons, but I'm no purist when it goes to arranging flights. I was happy to taste these oldies but goodies.

1981 Domaine Tempier Bandol - France, Provence, Bandol - this unfortunately didn't show too well. still interesting though. it's light brick color. pepperoni, beef heart and tomatoe paste on the nose. the palate is overhwelming with this spicy tomatoe paste flavor. some meat drippings, too. it really collapses on the finish though. (85 pts.)

1981 R. López de Heredia Rioja Gran Reserva Viña Bosconia - Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja - this 30-year-old wine showed wonderfully. the nose is an interesting blend of cherry compote and tomatoe paste. the palate still maintains richness. the flavors are exquisite: garlic pickles, tobacco, rich cherries and mushrooms. the finish is long and those aged red fruit and earth flavors linger. i would've loved to have this wine alone over the course of a full day and see what happened to it. (91 pts.)

1999 Chateau Musar - Lebanon, Bekaa Valley - i believe this was my first experience with a red musar, and it was definitely a memorable one. nose of raspberry, cinnamon and braised pork. the palate is lush but powerful. the cherry skins and pomegranate flavors are backed up by white pepper, forest floor. long finish. showing very well and will continue to do so for a long time. i can't imagine what this was like upon release! (91 pts.)

Yes, Still Drinking
My note-taking abilities became... let's say a bit impaired by this point. I'm leaving off a wine or two that I don't think I got to taste.

2007 Reynvaan Family Vineyards Syrah The Contender - USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley - a stunner of a syrah. i would've been happy with just this wine all night, it's just so delicious. dark purple color. the nose shows toasted marshmallows, blackberries and blueberry pie. the palate is huge, but sexy. dark fruit gallore, hints of smoked meat, great tannic structure, impeccable balance, long finish. everything i love in a walla walla syrah and then some. (93 pts.)

2005 Linden Vidal Late Harvest - USA, Virginia, Northern Region - very aromatic, showing honeysuckle and white flowers. not as much acid as i'd like, but the rich apricot and honey flavors are great. (88 pts.)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Old Fashioned Religious Satire With an Edge

Review of "Beware of God: Stories" by Shalom Auslander

This book of short stories is filled with hilarity of a uniquely dark, absurd and blasphemous variety. Shalom Auslander pokes fun at the ridiculous religious environment of the 21st Century, and while sparing no self-appointed prophet or vengeful deity from ridicule, Auslander manages to keep his stories funny and insightful. I couldn't put this down, and ended up finishing it in a day.

Each story is so unique, but this bizarre compilation somehow works as a whole, as each story deals with some sort of thematic commonality: God, sin, death, the afterlife, the relationship between humans and animals. And a warning to those easily offended or holders of religious sensitivity: Some of this stuff is really edgy. In this day and age, it’s hard to shock a reader, but Auslander shocks even me with some of his stories. Sex, masturbation, the Holocaust, it’s all in there. And it’s all somehow funny. Auslander’s prose occasionally reminds me of Terry Pratchett. His literary sci-fi-humor reminds me of some of Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Coming from one of the biggest Vonnegut fans ever, that’s really saying something. But Auslander has an incisive wit and a sense of pop-culture awareness that is purely his own.

The first story is one of the best. It’s about an aging Jewish couple obsessed with the afterlife to the point that they can't function in real life. Bitter, stuck in a sexless marriage, they end up trying to get each other to sin. They both want the other to end up in a deeper level of hell. She feeds him bacon and nonkosher wines. The wife drives herself crazy trying to figure out how to get her husband to sin without getting herself sent to hell in the process. This is just one example of the absurdity of the whole scheme: “Of course, if the total punishment of causing a sin is a sin of causation plus the sin of the sin that is being caused, then shouldn't causing a commandment to be fulfilled result in both the reward for the commandment of causing a positive commandment to be fulfilled plus the reward for the positive commandment she was causing to be fulfilled.” The mathematics of sin and punishment are absurd, and Auslander shows that beautifully through this chaotic short story.

In another story a man scheduled for death escapes because his Volvo has good side impact safety features. God, Lucifer and Death are all in it together to kill him, but they don’t take the car’s safety features into account, and therefore botch the operation. The man becomes convinced God is after him and tries to go about his days hiding. The rabbi’s advice for this man who believes God is after him? “Do what He says any nobody gets hurt.” As God devises more ways to kill man, man just comes up with a way of slowing down God’s death-dealing. Cancer patients now have chemotherapy. Cars now don’t explode as easily. It’s an arms race between God and man, and it makes for a very funny story.

The awkwardly hilarious story “Holocaust Tips for Kids” features one child writing down all the advice he can think of on how to fight back against Nazis when (not if) another Holocaust happens. These tips include things like pretending to be dead in firing lines, to building bombs out of tennis balls and match heads and throwing salt packets in Nazis’ eyes. While it may be a bit sadistic, Auslander has written a hilarious story about a child’s crazy Nazi-killing fantasies.

Then there’s a story told from the perspective of two hamsters: one religious and one skeptic. I will say this is probably the first piece of fiction I’ve read written from a hamster’s perspective. And it’s just as funny and ridiculous as it sounds. The most hilarious part is when one hamster tries to defend the writer James Patterson to the other hamster, who is a literary snob and completely baffled that his friend enjoys reading that crap.

A man goes to Israel and finds the oldest version of the Old Testament ever recorded. Only thing is that it is prefaced by the following statement: “The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.” But no one wants to hear about this new, old, Old Testament because they’re all so engrained in their own religious structures. “Whatever they believed was unbelievably right, and whatever everybody else believed was unbelievably wrong. Piety and passion were in great supply… Arms dealers had never been busier.”

There’s also a story of religious war told through the characters from Schultz’ Peanuts: (Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy, Schroeder) that made me laugh aloud while I was reading it on the train.

In an era of political correctness when extremist religious beliefs frequently pass by without question or critical doubt, this book is a breath of fresh air. No doubt, many people will consider it offensive blasphemy. But even if you’re religious, as long as you have a sense of humor, this book will crack you up. And, more importantly, it will make you think.