Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Poem for a Philadelphia Friend

A Philadelphia Night

I showed up on your doorstep
loaded down with freedom, wine
and half a pack of cigarettes.
You invited me into your home,
gave me a drink and a listen.
To this day I remember it all:
the kitten kneading the couch,
smoke rising from the ashtray,
the smoothe taste of good gin.
You told me about Portofino,
where truffles prefer to grow,
how to hotwire a car in seconds.
I told you about Social Distortion,
where to catch the big waves,
how to fight dirty when needed.
We stayed up until dawn
betting on when the moon
would disappear over the rooftops.
It was a good night, and the sun
rose early on Philadelphia.
(c) Isaac James Baker
August 2011
Washington, DC

For discussion on this poem, visit:

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Review of "The Power of One" by Bryce Courtenay

Peekay epitomizes the underdog. As a “rooinek” (of British blood), the other students in his largely Afrikaans boarding school hate him. They mock Peekay for speaking English, “the infected tongue that had spread like a plague into the sacred land and contaminated the pure, sweet waters of Afrikanerdom.” As a white kid in 1940s South Africa with a soul untainted by racism, he doesn’t fit in with the white supremacist crowd. As a boxer, he is small and stringy, nowhere near as big as Boers he fights in the ring. His name itself is a derivative of the nickname his elementary schoolmates gave him: Pisskopf. Yeah, it’s fair to say Peekay is an outcast.

The first 100 pages of this boxing story deal very little with actual boxing. Byrce Courtenay instead takes readers through Peekay’s struggles as a bedwetting screw-up in an Afrikaner boarding school for elementary students. Peekay is brutalized by his peers, forced by his superiors to sleep in his own piss. His only friend is a chicken named Granpa Chook, but even the chicken doesn’t stick around long. Peekay develops a bleak and cynical view of the world during these formative years. (“One thing is certain in life, just when things are going well, soon afterward they are certain to go wrong.” “All children are flotsam driven by the ebb and flow of adult lives.”)

Young Peekay’s narration is lovely, and considering this novel tops 500 pages, a solid narrator is a necessity. Peekay does offer a disclaimer to his own narration: “You may ask how a six-year-old could think like this. I can only answer that one did.” Peekay’s narration, language and personal understanding grow and develop with time and pages. By the end of the book, Peekay speaks as a young man who has garnered a whole lot of life experience.

The first mention of boxing comes while Peekay is on a train from his boarding school to home. Here young Peekay meets Hoppie, a railroad worker and amateur welterweight. Peekay is changed after watching Hoppie defeat a light heavyweight with a couple dozen extra pounds. It’s Peekay’s first introduction to boxing, and it has a profound impact on the impressionable boy. The fight, to Peekay, is “a perfectly wrought plan where small defeats big. First with the head and then with the heart.” Seeing Hoppie knock out a much bigger man gives Peekay hope. “ I had witnessed small triumph over big. I was not powerless.” It is Hoppie who helps Peekay realize his life-long goal: to become welterweight champion of the world. “You see,” Peekay explains when he decides to start training, “I’ve got to start boxing because I have to become the welterweight champion of the world.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

1999 Kestrel Cabernet Sauvignon

I have a thing about wine shops. I have to go into them, and then, once inside, I have to peruse their the entire collection. I guess it could be called compulsive behavior, but I like to think of it as a passion, or at least a decent way to spend a Saturday afternoon. On such a recent afternoon, I found myself on the Jersey Shore with two of my sisters and my brother. We'd spent a lot of time on the beach and wanted to pick up some wine on the way home to have with dinner.

It was supposed to be a quick stop, just some shop in a strip mall. I ended up in their California and Washington section, checking each bottle individually. It was like a wine thrift store, and there were all sorts of oddities on the shelves: Napa cabernets from as far back as 1989, Duckhorn merlots from the early 2000s, Au Bon Climat pinots from the late 90s. Judging from the dust on the bottles, it seemed likely that many of these wines had been sitting in this store since their release, which had me wondering about the quality of the wine in the bottle. Still, I picked up a few, including a 1999 Kestrel cabernet sauvignon from Washington’s Yakima Valley. It cost $30, and it was definitely worth it. I’m sure I lucked out, because some of the bottles on those shelves were certainly way past their drinking window. This wasn’t one of them.

1999 Kestrel Cabernet Sauvignon (USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley) 

the color on this 11-year-old cabernet is still a solid purple and almost opaque. this must have been a massive wine upon release. time has done its work on the aromas, providing dried currants, topsoil and sweet chewing tobacco. the palate is still vibrant, and the acid is tangy. this wine has dusty tannins and chewy currant fruit. i find a very distinct dark chocolate flavor in this wine, and i love it. sour cherries and earth flavors carry on to the finish.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Chorus of Mendocino County Wines

My brother Zeke and his wife Bekah have been on a cross-country road trip from California to the East Coast by way of Utah, Chicago, Detroit and Ohio. After a weekend at Belmar Beach, the New Jersey town my brother and I grew up in, we came down to DC for a wine party I organized. The theme: "Mostly Mendocino."

It was the wedding of Zeke and Bekah that first brought me to Mendocino County, California. Since then, I've fallen in love with the region. I've toured many vineyards and tasting rooms: Breggo, Parducci, Roederer Estate, Nelson Family, Tahto, McFadden,Yorkville Cellars. I hiked through vineyards in Potter Valley and helped the maker of Tahto wines crush his chardonnay. I explored the redwoods and the rugged coast. Mendocino County is an enchanting place, and many wine producers seem capable of bottling that enchantment. So, I figured, since my family was in town, I'd open some Mendocino County wines. I was surrounded by great people and great wines, so it was obviously quite a night.

2007 Syrahs
I had two 2007 syrahs from Mendocino, both from producers I know, visited and loved. I figured it would be fun to open them together. These wines were drained quickly.
  • 2007 Parducci Syrah - Mendocino County
    this was the first wine of the evening, and the crowd loved it. it smells like earth and bright red fruit. the palate is fresh and lively, with plum and spicy red fruit. candy apple red and licorice on the finish. zeke and bekah really liked this wine. i love parducci wines, and this is a great bargain at $20 (89 pts.)
  • 2007 Breggo Cellars Syrah - Anderson Valley
    this wine showed really well and was a great contrast with the 2007 parducci syrah. aromas of spiced clove, bacon and plum sauce. the palate has great acid and smoothness. wonderful balance. delicious plum flavors and some earth on the finish. (90 pts.)

Coro means chorus in Italian and Spanish. The term sums up the idea behind this collective group of wines: producers working together with common goals and grapes to make delicious wines, each with its own distinctiveness. Coro is kind of like a winemaking club. If you make an amazing wine with zinfandel, syrah, grenache and a few other grapes, and you submit it to this organization, you just might be able to label a bottle of your wine "Coro." The labels are striking similar, even from different producers and vintages. I love zinfandel and Rhone varietals like syrah and grenache. These wines were all very different, but all intriguing in their own right. They paired wonderfully with a wide array of creamy cow cheeses, although, to be honest, the Parducci Coros would have gone well with chocolate or dates and nuts.
  • 2005 Parducci Coro Mendocino - Ukiah Valley
    the first coro of the evening impressed a lot of people. the nose is gorgeous: dates, port, prunes and raisins. the palate is absolutely gushing with fruit. it's like chocolate pie and raspberry tart. smooth finish. this is a really fruit-forward, unashamed wine. it is what it is, but this hit the spot. 60% zinfandel, 25% syrah and 15% petite sirah. (89 pts.)
  • 2006 Parducci Coro Mendocino - Ukiah Valley
    the 2006 coro was much different than the 2005. the nose showed raspberries, plum cake and cinnamon disk candies. this is bright and tangy on the palate. shows great smoothness. the 2006 is made up of 55% zinfandel, 20% syrah, 15% petite sirah, and 10% grenache. (88 pts.)
  • 2007 Guinness McFadden Coro Mendocino - Mendocino County
    the 2007 guinness mcfadden coro was also very different. lots of vanilla on the nose, along with a medley of fresh red and black fruit. fresh and silky on the palate. smooth and lucious with bold fruit. the acid and solid tannic structure in this wine keeps it balanced. very impressive effort. thanks, zeke and bekah, for bringing this great bottle. 60% zinfandel, 27% syrah, 13% petite sirah. (91 pts.)

Three California Reds
Well, we didn't just stick to Mendocino. I've been a fan of the Sonoma Coast and Paso Robles, and this flight showcased three solid wines.
  • 2007 A.P. Vin Pinot Noir Kanzler Vineyard - Sonoma Coast 
    Three Bakers: Zeke (left), me, and Priscilla (right)

    i had this in 2009, but this wine has softened down since then. the nose is absolutely intoxicating with its ripe, gushing fruit. it's a bit candied, but i still enjoy it. zeke, bekah, me and a whole lot of others really loved this wine. (90 pts.)
  • 2007 Tahto Petite Sirah Limited Production Reserve - Potter Valley
    this bottle was another one of zeke's contributions to the tasting. the nose is inky and dark. i love the boldness of this wine, its dark fruit, and the meaty note on the finish. (90 pts.)
  • 2009 J. Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon Seven Oaks - Paso Robles
    this wine wasn't from mendocino, but we threw it into the tasting. this wine is always a solid, fruity cabernet. smooth tannins and some toasty oak. never great, but always crowd-pleasing. (85 pts.)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

In Memory of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

I first read “Slaughterhouse Five” when I was at boarding school in Germany, and the book had a profound impact on me. It started me on a quest to read every novel, every short story and every essay he ever wrote. Vonnegut’s work gives me hope, it makes me laugh. It’s bold yet beautiful, simple yet complex, smart yet accessible to anyone with an open mind. It was while reading Kurt Vonnegut’s novels that I realized I wanted to write my own.

So it was quite a thing when I first met him at a Kinko’s in Midtown Manhattan.

This was 2005, and I was working twelve-hour shifts on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays to pay my way through college. It was almost midnight when he stumbled in. I thought I was seeing things but, at the same time, it was so clearly him. He was just so real. He stank of cigarettes and coffee. I walked up to him and offered to help. He told me he wanted 10 copies of some poems that he was working on. I made him 11 and asked him to sign the last one for me. He did, and scribbled a few pictures here and there.

I told him I was his clichéd “biggest fan.” He replied: “I hope you’re a Republican.” I laughed my ass off. We talked about politics and women and the generalized chaos that was the Bush II years. He spoke like he was writing a novel with his words.

This became a routine over the next several months. Each time Vonnegut came in, he walked right up to me. I never let any of my coworkers help him; they knew when Vonnegut came in that I had to drop whatever I was working on. I was a good copy boy and I dressed up his work in black leather backing, clear covers and black coils. He liked them that way, but he would ask for a velo bind every once in a while, just to mix it up. He always thanked me.

I left the Kinko’s shifts to take a job with a daily newspaper in Maryland. I moved away before I was able to say goodbye. Before I was able to work up the courage to ask him out for coffee. He was old and he seemed to like his personal space and privacy. But late at night or early in the morning or on rainy Sunday afternoons, he would come into the store, shake my hand and crack jokes. It was a life-changing experience for the artist in me.

I teared up when I read his obituary in the New York Times. Then I cracked a beer, grabbed my notebook and sat down on my front porch. I wrote this poem in his honor. I’ve been trying to get it published since 2007, but to no avail. Oh well. At least I still have all those poems and essays, some of which were published only after his death.

So, enjoy. (And, by the way, if anyone wants to publish this poem, post a comment!)

So it goes...

The scent of stale cigarettes
wafted through the store
when he waddled in.
Pall Malls, to be exact. Unfiltered.
“These things were supposed to have
killed me
by now,” Vonnegut said.
“I’m gonna sue.”
He threw some wrinkled pages,
those jagged, silky poems,
on the counter
and asked for 10 copies. He let me make
another one
for me, his biggest fan.
He penned a squiggly face on the page
and scribbled what I guessed was his name.
Looked like chaos to me.
“Thanks, kid.”
From then on, I didn’t mind
going to work on Saturdays.
He’d come in
from time to time.
I’d follow his every word,
waiting for some profundity to come
spilling out.
It was usually just Pall Mall breath
and jokes.
Good jokes.
But I left Manhattan. He didn’t.
He told jokes. I didn’t hear them.
He fell and cracked his noggin yesterday.
What a hilarious way
to die.
As his brain was swelling,
I’ll bet he was
As he’d say,
“So it goes …”

(c) Isaac James Baker
2007 - Westminster, Maryland

Friday, August 5, 2011

$21 Got me a Great Super Tuscan Red

2007 Argiano Non Confunditur Toscana IGT (Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT) 

I can't believe how good this $21 wine is. I love this Super Tuscan wine, and it really outdoes its price point.

This wine is gorgeous in the glass, bright purple. it's a screwcap, so I'll admit, I wasn't expecting something amazing. But don't be fooled, because this is a seroius wine. The nose is dense and sexy, with aromas of currants, plums, meat and loam. This wine smells like a raspberry bush in the woods, sweet but so earthy. The palate is really bright. Right from the start, this wine coats the palate with fruit and acid. The tannins are like coffee grounds. It's really an incredible mouthfeel. It must be noted: this wine contains oak. That's the disclaimer. I think it has enough acid and tannins to balance out, but some traditionalists might find this too oaky. The flavors linger long on the finish, which ends with a touch of dark chocolate and toasted marshmallow. I'll admit, I haven't had many 2007 Super Tuscans, but this is an absolute steal at $21!

This wine was purchased from Bassin's in Washington, DC.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Bukowski is Still Relevant

A Review of “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town & Other Stories” by Charles Bukowski

When asked “What’s the difference between prose and poetry?” Bukowski responds with one of the best quotes I’ve read from him: “Poetry says too much in too short a time; prose says too little and takes too long.” Well, this prose collection says a lot, and it doesn’t take long at all. At 200-plus pages, it’s a blur of horseracing, drinking, shitty relationships and shittier jobs.

I’ve always been intrigued by Bukowski’s love-hate relationship with the “the public,” “the people” and “the poor.” Although he never sticks to these issues for longer than a couple of paragraphs, this collection contains a lot of his musings about the working class, people’s movements and politics. He respects the poor and, rightfully so, counts himself among them. His characters are poor, his language is poorer and his settings (bars, racetracks, skid rows, post offices, loading docks, alleyways) are poorer still. He writes beautifully about the poor and downtrodden: “Only the poor knew the meaning of life; the rich and safe had to guess.”

At his heart, I think Bukowski is a populist. He maintains respect and admiration for poor people, even while he’s lambasting them for their idiocy and compliance. He’s also an introvert, quite possibly the most prolific introvert in modern American letters. He’s a man easily fed up with the hoi polloi. To Bukowski, people are crazy and scary. Individuals can be okay, but the collective “people” are a joke. They fritter away their lives at pointless jobs, and they maintain a pathetic hope that somehow they can change the ingrained system that is screwing them. But their votes, protest pins and catch phrases never amount to much. Just pick up the newspaper. Working people are also terrible at accomplishing large-scale goals, Bukowski says. (“once the public gets onto something it is dead and it changes. the public is not allowed to win in any game ever invented and that includes the American Revolution.” ) He also has no patience for the political process. Right wing, left wing, to him it's all crap, or, as he titles one of his stories: "Politics is like trying to screw a cat in the ass."

But while Bukowski gets in a few jabs here and there, he never gets bogged down in the corner with sociopolitical issues. He just doesn’t have time for it. For example, while much of Bukowski’s best work is seeped in skid row realism, he’s great when he adds in a dash of science fiction. There’s one story in this book about an ex-Nazi scientist who been retained by the American government to create a sex-bot. Bukowski meets this strange German guy in a bar, and he agrees to introduce Bukowski to the sex-bot. The sex-bot falls in love with Bukowski and says she doesn't want to be with other men. It ends, like many stories involving Bukowski and women, in tragedy.

I love the way Bukowski plays with his readers in this collection. He tells this great story about this sex-bot love affair, and ends it on the line: "what would you do?" This has the effect of drawing the reader into the story on a deeper level, and it's that deeper level that I think Bukowski works best. If his stories don’t really have an ending, he just wraps them up with a line like: “let that be story enough.” I love it.

In “The Gut-Wrenching Machine,” Bukowski takes on one of his all-time favorite enemies: work. The story is set in The Satisfactory Help Agency, a temp firm that keeps a factory of men and women work slaves around to rent out to companies. Before sending the human work-bots out into the world of 7-day work weeks, the Agency puts them through this machine that squeezes “the guts” out of them, metaphorically speaking. They’re still alive, they are just made compliant and pliable. After going through this machine a number of times they come out with no heart, no soul, no desire for leisure. They just want to work endlessly and follow orders. It’s an age-old theme for Bukowski (that mindless and heartless toil in pursuit of materialistic gain destroys the human spirit), but this story tells it in a hilarious sci-fi-inspired kind of way.

The titular story is perhaps one of his most heartfelt pieces ever. It’s about a beautiful woman who despises her beauty. She can’t stand herself, even though everyone wants her. It’s a truly heartbreaking piece that is worth reading.

That said, this collection is not for everyone. There are stories in here that will enrage even the most hardened and cynical. A few stories left me feeling like I needed to take a shower, or go back in time and punch Bukowski in the face for being such a prick. But, maybe in some odd and perverse way, that’s a tribute to a man who spent his life not giving a shit. It’s what brings me back to him after all these years. And it’s what makes this collection special.