Wednesday, November 30, 2011

George Pelecanos: DC's Crime Aficionado

“Three teenage boys cruised the streets in a Gran Torino drinking beer, smoking weed, and listening to the radio.” It doesn’t take much to imagine how this scene could go wrong.
And it goes very wrong.

Although it takes place over the course of thirty years, George Pelecanos’ novel “The Turnaround” is really about that one night in the 1970s, when three white kids the Maryland suburbs get into a car and drive south into The District, looking to taunt some black kids. The worlds of three white kids and three black kids collide, and like atoms the collision creates a massive explosion. One dies, one goes to prison, one is permanently injured, but all are scarred for life.

Thirty years later, the events of that night still haunt everyone involved.

Best known for his screenwriting works like HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme,” Pelecanos wields words like they’re weapons. This isn’t crime genre fiction (although there’s a lot of crime involved). It’s literature, and the best works of literature always involve crime. Pelecanos knows crime, and it shows in his writing. In addition the twists of plot, the depth of characters and the breadth of socio-political issues addressed in this novel, it’s simply damn well written.  

While horrifying and startling, this novel is also filled with hilarious ruminations on life in DC. Puffed-up lawyers speak condescendingly to food service staff. People shop for groceries at run-down Safeway stores. There’s an incredible dissection of the history and cultural intricacies of DC’s neighborhoods.

While it feels so much like DC, there are some great references in this novel that show how much the area has changed since the 1970s. For example, Shady Grove, now a sprawling suburban hell at the west end of Metro’s red line, is referred to as farmland.

One character in the book expresses what I assume is the author’s views on most crime genre fiction. It was “a fascistic genre because in these shows the criminals were always apprehended, and the police and prosecutors always won. The shows were warning the citizens, in effect, to stay in line. That if they dared to break the law, they would be caught and put in jail.”

While it’s true that some crime doesn’t pay, other crime does. And Pelecanos’ book is anything but fascistic. It tells the truth about violence, crime and resentment, which is something you don’t find in the Washington Post very often. Put down the newspaper, stop watching violence on the 11:00 news, and pick up this book. This portrayal of DC crime is much more realistic.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Adieu to a Wine Buddy

My friend Matt (aka Tooch) and I have been tasting wine together since 2008. We've thrown dozens of tastings and shared hundreds of bottles. It's fair to say that most of the best wines I've had over the past three years have been tasted with Matt. Along with several others, he's been at the core of an unofficial wine tasting gang. (Hazing consists of tasting through 10 fruit bomb syrahs in half an hour.)

Since he's leaving DC and moving across the country, a small group of friends got together for one last wine hoorah. We started off at our adopted home of Weygandt Wines and moved to Ripple, a relatively new restaurant in DC's Cleveland Park neighborhood. The food was unique, tasty and masterfully prepared, as usual. However, it was the wines that stood out.

It's been interesting to see how our palates have changed over time, and how they've stayed the same. I have always loved syrahs from the Northern Rhone, and we tasted two spectacular ones at Matt's goodbye tasting. Over the past year, I've gone from a lover of German riesling to an addict. I tend toward rieslings from the Mosel Valley, while I think it's fair to say that Matt enjoys wines from the nearby Nahe region more, or at least more frequently. This tasting included a great riesling from quintessential Nahe producer Dönnhoff as well.

Well, enough of an intro. Let's get down to the wines.

Cheers, Matt, and I hope to see you back in DC soon for even more great wine.

Pre-Game Wines
We started off the evening at Weygandt Wines with two whites and a red.
  • 2006 Recaredo Cava Gran Reserva Brut Nature - Spain, Cava
    This was the first vintage-dated Cava I've ever had. In fact, I had never seen one before. It showed a lot of biscuity aromas, along with lemons, pistachios and a hint of balsamic as well. It has a tangy palate with razor-like acid, but it's still quite full. Lots of lime, chalk and a flavor that reminds me of a green olive. Long finish. The bubbles dissipated quite quickly, but it was still a solid Cava. (88 pts.)
  • 2006 Clos Roche Blanche Touraine Sauvignon No. 2 - France, Loire Valley, Touraine
    This is one of the most unique sauvignon blancs I've had in a very long time. The aromas are really fantastic. It started off with floral and honeysuckle aromas, and opened up to show banana peel, lamp oil and an aroma that reminded me of soil with lots of rocks. The palate has some weight to it, with pulpy white peach fruit, and medium+ acid. I really enjoyed the complexity and balance of this wine. It has a synthetic cork, which is a shame because I'm curious what this would taste like if it had a few more years on it. (89 pts.)
  • 2009 Domaine Guion Bourgueil Cuvée Prestige - France, Loire Valley, Bourgueil
    I didn't know the price point when I tasted this wine, but I would've guessed about $40. I was amazed to hear it was less than $15 a bottle. This is a very serious cabernet franc that offers the depth and complexity of a wine three times the price. Wonderful aromas of sweet blackberries, tobacco, leaves and dense loam. The tannins are fine and almost feel leathery on the palate. The red plum fruit, smoke, beef brisket and green olive flavors glide over the palate. This wine is big, and could improve for years. This wine is a candidate for 2011 Value of the Year. (90 pts.)
Whites with Dinner
What an interesting bunch of chardonnays. This was my first time tasting a Marcassin chardonnay, and it was quite an experience. This being a tasting in Tooch's honor, we had to have a Dönnhoff Riesling Großes Gewächs thrown in, of course.
  • 2008 Jean Collet Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre - France, Burgundy, Chablis 1er Cru
    I liked this wine a lot, even though it is somewhat of an anomoly as a 2008 Chablis. The aromas are really explosive, with white peach, mixed nuts and circus peanut candy. The palate is plump and bold. The main flavor reminds me of bruised yellow apples, although chalk and honeysuckle are there throughout. Acid lingers on the finish. I never would've guessed this as a 2008 Chablis, but it was very nice. (89 pts.)
  • 2004 Marcassin Chardonnay Marcassin Vineyard - California, Sonoma Coast
    This wine was met with mixed enthusiasm by the tasting team. Thoughts about this wine are usually prefaced with: "This isn't really my style of chardonnay, but..." Yes, this chardonnay demands attention. It stands up and grabs your palate and takes it for a crazy ride. The wine is very cloudy in the glass. The aromas changed with air, and each time I smelled this wine I detected another aroma. All sorts of aromas: lemon custard, roasted peanuts, smoke, almond biscotti. Big and bold are words too weak for this wine. Flavors of pineapple upside-down cake, apricot, lemons, buttercups, etc., etc. It's extreme on the palate, but by no means overoaked. A sweet vanilla flavor lingers underneath, but it's equally matched by a dose of chalky minerals. The oily, buttery mouthfeel, combined with the acid, makes this a really intense experience. It's not white Burgundy, but it's a treat. (94 pts.)
  • 2009 Crowley Chardonnay - Oregon, Willamette Valley
    I found this wine to be very balanced. Aromas of banana peel, pear butter and honey. The palate shows creamy fruit, highlighted by just a bit of oak. The green apple flavors and the acid keep it in line. This is a very drinkable chardonnay with all the elements in the right place. (90 pts.)
  • 2009 Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Großes Gewächs - Germany, Nahe
    I tasted this wine earlier in 2011 and loved it, and it showed even better at this tasting. The aromas are intoxicating: white peaches, whipped honey, lemon-lime and slate. The palate is absolutely delicious, showing plump orchard fruit, apricot and pineapple. The acid and minerals are really high, but the wine maintains a beautiful sense of balance. It's intense, yet so easy to sip. I know Dönnhoff GGs can age, and this surely has a lot of flavors to unravel over time, but it's incredible right now. (93 pts.)
Pierre Gonon St. Joseph
It was a treat to taste two Gonon syrahs with twenty years of age difference between them. Both were fantastic, but I gave the edge to the 1989. While the 2009 was great, it seems time does wonderful things to Gonon's wine.
  • 1989 Pierre Gonon St. Joseph Les Oliviers - France, Rhône, St. Joseph
    With twenty years of age, this wine showed very strongly. Mature, sexy aromas of red plums, violets, beef bouillon and charcoal. With air, the wine opened up to show herbal (thyme) and bacon notes. The wine glides over the palate with soft tannins. It's meaty, with cranberry, charcoal and thyme flavors. The acid and rhubarb flavor combine to give this wine a sappy mouthfeel. A distinct note of mint leaf on the finish. What a complex wine, and a great way to bid adieu to an old wine tasting buddy. (93 pts.)
  • 2009 Pierre Gonon St. Joseph - France, Northern Rhône, St. Joseph
    It was fun to taste this wine after tasting a 1989 from the same producer. This baby is packed tight, but it's showing serious promise. The aromas are powerful and bold: beef jerky, charcoal and an aroma that reminds me of cow hide. The palate is dense with gritty tannins and plump black fruit. Secondary flavors of pepper, coffee and beef are already present, but will surely unwind with some age. Lovely coffee note on the finish. I love what Pierre Gonon does with syrah, and tasting both of these wines made me realize I need to keep some Gonons in the cellar. (92 pts.)
Three Big Reds
These wines were very impressive, and went very well with my steak dinner.
  • 2005 Celler Vall Llach Priorat IDUS - Spain, Priorat
    This is a big, boastful blend of carignan, merlot, grenache, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. The nose is a burst of liquer, black licorice and chocolate-covered berries. The palate is full of ripe fruit, but the tannins and acid come in to save it from being flabby or offensive. Nice black cherry and mocha on the finish. (90 pts.)
  • 2004 Copain Syrah Broken Leg Vineyard - California, Anderson Valley
    I've been drinking a lot of older Copain, with much success, and this was no exception. That said, I do think it's in a bit of a strange stage right now, and could probably benefit from another few years in the bottle. Aromas of plum, charcoal and hints of black olive. The palate has gritty tannins, fresh acid, ripe purple fruit, charcoal notes and a long finish. It's good, but I feel like it's still wound up and needs some more time to show its full potential. (91 pts.)
  • 2008 Cayuse Grenache God Only Knows - Washington, Walla Walla Valley
    Aromas of wild strawberries, red plums and hint of bacon. It's big and juicy on the palate with fresh plums and blackberry extract. This is just plain delicious. It doens't have much in the way of complexity (maybe it needs time?), but it is way up there on the yummy scale. (90 pts.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Wine for Nerds

Some fellow oenophile and wine bloggers got together at my favorite wine shop, Weygandt Wines, for an impromptu tasting. There was no theme, we all just brought a bottle we thought the others would find interesting. There were a surprising amount of unique, rare and nerdy wines. Some stood out from the pack, but I can honestly say I enjoyed every wine. It was great night of wine and conversation. I can't wait for the next one.

Whites and Nouveau
The whites were all unique and wonderful, while the Nouveau won over some haters.
  • 2002 Philippe Prié Champagne Brut Tradition - France, Champagne
    This Champagne was a great way to start off the evening. The lemon and wheat bread aromas were just explosive. The palate has a ton of acid and intense yeast. It's a powerful wine, with laser-like lime, pear and biscuit flavors. A long finish. (91 pts.)
  • 2006 Domaine Philippe & Vincent Jaboulet Hermitage Blanc - France, Northern Rhône, Hermitage
    I brought this wine hoping to win over some people who are hesitant with rhone whites. This one had more than a few fans. Hazelnut, lanolin, smoke and lemon oil aromas. The lemon oil aroma is dead on, and reminds me of growing up when my mother would clean all her antiques with a lemon-based dusting oil. The palate is full of nutty, pear and yellow apple fruit, backed up with medium acid and a mineral streak that reminds me of oyster shells. The palate has a long finish of honeycomb and hazelnut, but the acid maintains throughout. (91 pts.)
  • 2008 Domaine Ganevat Chardonnay Grusse en Billat - France, Côtes du Jura
    I've had this wine before, but liked it even more this time, maybe because I spent a lot of time with it. Aromas of yellow apple, marshmallows, smoke and honeycomb. The palate is plump and smoky, but the acid and mineral edge are so intense that the wine feels perfectly balanced. Gorgeous hazelnut and peanut shell flavors, with a hint of seaweed and minerals. While I love chardonnay in all its interpretations, this one has a little bit of everything in it. It's a very approachable Jura wine. Fantastic stuff. (92 pts.)
  • 2010 Pascal Janvier Jasnières - France, Loire Valley, Jasnières
    I was really wowed by this wine, and impressed by how much it offered. The nose is just gorgeous, with slate, salt, pear and minerals. The palate is richer than I was expecting, based on the aromas. The pear, chammomile and honeycomb mix with sea salt and stones to make for a balanced and lively wine. There's a hint of ginger on the finish that I love. (90 pts.)
  • 2011 Domaine du Vissoux / Pierre-Marie Chermette Beaujolais Nouveau Primeur - France, Burgundy, Beaujolais Nouveau
    This is a Beaujolais Nouveau for all the haters out there. For that wine snob who refuses to touch the stuff, this is a wine to pour for them. It's the best Nouveau I've ever had. The nose is rich and explosive with sweet cherries, but I'm impressed by the amount of dark fruit aromas as well. The palate is like a burst of plum, black cherry and there's even some earthy-spicy flavors as well. Great acid makes it fresh and, frankly, delicious. (87 pts.)
A Plethora of Reds
We had some Jura, Loire, Sicily and California reds all thrown together for a fascinating flight.
  • 2006 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Ferrington Vineyard - USA, California, Anderson Valley
    This pinot was just lovely, with a gorgeous bright purple color. The nose showed rose petals, smoke, red cherries. Over time, the wine opened up to show a bit of rhubarb, which was great. The palate was full of boisterous cherries, tangy acid and smooth tannins. The palate showed lots of finesse and restraint, while maintaining a lush and rich mouthfeel. Long, lingering finish with a touch of acid. (93 pts.)
  • 2009 Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon La Croix Boissée - France, Loire Valley, Chinon
    This is an incredibly young wine that has a long life ahead of it. Even now, though, it's delivering. The aromas are dark, with black cherry and currants, along with a hint of pepperoni. With time and air, the aromas opened up, and I think the long-term aromatic potential of this wine is very high. The palate has gritty tannins, tangy acid and rich dark fruit. The mouthfeel is huge, but it somehow maintains balance. I enjoyed the plum, loam and green pepper flavors. Long, tannin-filled finish. This could use a decant, or ten years in the cellar. (92 pts.)
  • 2008 Jacques Puffeney Poulsard Arbois "M" - France, Jura, Arbois
    It's not every day a wine made from poulsard is thrown into a tasting, but this wine had some fans, and I was one of them. The color of this wine in this glass is a mix of auburn and bright cherry red. Aromas of sour cherry, red apple, flowers and an aroma that reminds me of spaghetti and meatballs, or meat stewed with tomatoes. I was surprised by the tannic structure of this wine. It has real grip to it. The flavors of meat, dark cherries, olive and earth are compact, but delicious. This could develop a lot of complexity with age. It was fun to drink now, but I'd love to try this again in five or ten years. (89 pts.)
  • 2010 Clos Roche Blanche Touraine L'Arpent Rouge - France, Loire Valley, Touraine
    This tasting turned out to have wines made from all sorts of grapes, including this pineau d'aunis. This wine is really unique, but not for everyone. In the glass, it looks like fruit compote, with a lot of cloudiness. It needed a decant to blow off some of the very funky aromas. Initially, it smelled a bit like carrion, but that blew off. After about a half-hour, it started smelling like hippies. Seriously, it smelled like dark incense, hemp and dirty ponchos. It's one of the most interesting aromatic profiles I've come across in a while. The palate shows dense tannins and tangy acid. Rhubarb, wild strawberry and onion grass flavors, with some smoke as well. There's a taste of rotting leaves on the finish, which I really enjoyed. This is a very interesting wine that could probably use a bit of time in the bottle, although this one came with a faux cork, so I'm not sure about the aging potential. (89 pts.)
  • 2008 Arianna Occhipinti Nero d'Avola Siccagno Sicilia IGT - Italy, Sicilia IGT
    It's been a few months since I've had a nero d'avola, and this wine makes me think I should drink them more often. It's a smoky, cloudy red color in the glass. The nose shows explosive black cherries and smoke. The palate is bold, but also very bright and easy to drink. The tannic grip is matched with zippy acid, all backed up by blackberry, lamb and olive tapenade flavors. A very unique wine that's clearly doing it's own thing. (88 pts.)
  • 2007 Volker Eisele Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon - USA, California, Napa Valley
    I have a feeling I would've enjoyed this more alone, rather than tasted with so many wines. It was strange to have a Napa cab thrown into the tasting at this point. The nose was closed at first, but ipened to show smoke, currants and blackberries. The palate is rich and creamy and the cassis and pipe tobacco flavors mingle with the oak on the finish. (87 pts.)
Palate Cleanser
It's always good to split up a bunch of reds with a nice sherry.
  • N.V. Emilio Lustau Jerez-Xérès-Sherry Lustau Solera Reserva Light Manzanilla Papirusa - Spain, Andalucía, Jerez-Xérès-Sherry
    I needed a break after the first bunch of reds, and this manzanilla sherry did a great job of cleansing the palate. The nose showed almonds, lemon rind and a bit of vermouth. The palate was briny with sea salt and peanut flavors. Very briny, in fact, like green olive brine and some sea shells. I enjoy these flavors, so I had a good time with this wine. (86 pts.)
More Reds
To finish off, we threw some random reds together. The Bandol stole the flight, and was a great way to end the tasting.
  • 2005 Domaine du Bois de Saint-Jean Côtes du Rhône Cuvée de Voulongue - France, Southern Rhône, Côtes du Rhône
    When I turned 21, the 2003 Rhones were just hitting the market. I was just getting into wine and focused heavily on this area. I remember buying many wines from this producer and really enjoying them. I haven't had one in years, so it was fun to try this 2005. The nose really stunk upon opening. It wasn't faulty, just stinky: seaweed, olive paste and lamb wool. The palate had good acid and tannins, with some dark plum and earth flavors. A savory meat flavor lingers on the finish. Good, but just couldn't compete with some of the other wines being poured. (87 pts.)
  • 2010 Domaine du Vissoux / Pierre-Marie Chermette Fleurie Les Garants - France, Beaujolais, Fleurie
    One of only a few 2010 beaujolais wines that I've had, and I really enjoy this vintage. Cherries, plum cake and loam on the nose. Gorgeous on the palate, with dense plums, silky tannins and fresh acid. This wine has it all, compacted into a tight ball, and could use some time to open up. (88 pts.)
  • 2010 Domaine de L'Octavin Arbois Commendatore Les Corvées - France, Jura, Arbois
    I really enjoyed this trousseau. Very light red color in the glass, almost like cherry juice. The nose smells like Fruity Pebbles mixed with sour cherries. The palate is light and fresh with cherry candy, rose petals and hints of earth. If a Jura wine can ever be called a quaffer, this is it. Thanks again to Tom for representing the Jura. They should hire him as a wine ambassador. (88 pts.)
  • 1997 La Bastide Blanche Bandol Cuvée Estagnol - France, Provence, Bandol
    This Bandol has years ahead of it, but it's lovely right now. Very cloudy and gritty in the glass. Rich aromas of black plums, olives and meat. The palate shows sour cherries, olives, meat and leaves. A taste of mushrooms lingers on the finish. I really enjoyed this, and think it will continue to develop complexity for a few more years. The tannins and fruit are still big and bold. (90 pts.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thanksgiving Wine? Drink Whatever the Hell You Want

It’s almost Thanksgiving, and every year around this time there’s a plethora of media attention focused on what wines to drink around Thanksgiving. Wine shops all over the country are proudly displaying their wine picks for Thanksgiving dinner, offering Thanksgiving mixed cases of wine, etc.
Truth is, there’s not much involved in pairing wine with Thanksgiving dishes. My advice is pretty simple: Drink whatever the hell you want.
Food and wine pairing is by no means rocket science. There are some general guidelines that will help make the food and wine pairing experience more enjoyable, but there are no real laws. I don’t know about your Thanksgiving plans, but mine always involve tons of people and tons of food. I come from a huge extended family, and when we get together there’s always stuffing done five different ways, at least two turkeys, and enough mashed potatoes to fill  a ditch. There’s Amish cranberry sauce with spices, venison cutlets, bacon-wrapped (insert other delicious food item), yams, jams and hams. If you put all these items on one plate — which you do, because it’s Thanksgiving — your dinner plate becomes the food equivalent of a soda fountain “suicide.” The food is delicious, but its not exactly easy to pair with wine.
Look, there’s enough to worry about around the holidays. Wine pairing shouldn’t be one of them. Whatever wine you bring, there’s bound to be a food it pairs well with. There’s also bound to be a food that contrasts with the wine.  
My only suggestion is that the wine be good, or even very good. What better time to drink great wine than around the holidays? That awkward political conversation with Uncle Joe is easier when you’re sipping an glass of good wine. There’s an argument to be made that most people won’t pay much attention to the wine, so why serve good stuff? Well, because life is short, goddamnit, and holidays should be something special. Around the holidays, many wine shops will host tastings, so try to get your palate around some wine before you buy it.

At the end of the day, drink whatever the hell you want. And when all the family members are gone, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.
Drink and be merry. Cheers!

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Stellar California Pinot

2004 Radio-Coteau Pinot Noir Savoy Vineyard
(USA, California, North Coast, Anderson Valley)

I drink a lot of California pinot noir. I know it's trendy and frequently overpriced, but I can't help myself. Especially when it's a pinot noir from Anderson Valley. And especially when it's from a great producer like Radio-Coteau. I drank this wine with my girlfriend over the course of an evening while we were just hanging around the house. It was not tasted with food, and I think that's what I like about this wine: it was just so wonderful to sip alone.

This wine is a beautiful dark ruby color in the glass. It smells wonderful, with lots of black cherry fruit to start. There's a real sense of earthiness on the nose, with loam and rich soil. I seriously smell some venison in this wine as well, and I love it. (Initially, the aromas were closed down but with some time in the glass, the wine really opened up beautifully.)

On the palate: The first thing that hits me about this wine is its mouthfeel. The fruit is pure and bold, but the wine is full of tannins. It's really like biting into a fresh black cherry, with that dense, pulpy fruit along with a shot of acid. The acid keeps it all balanced and fresh while the waves of fruit roll in. The fruit almost tastes cool, like it's been chilled, it's just that fresh. There's some currants, plum, and a slice of minerality. The tannins and fruit in this wine stand up and demand attention. The finish is long, with slightly toasted oak.

It's showing very well now, but this wine could sleep in the cellar for a few more years and open up a bit more. I'd love to revisit this wine in three years or so.

My totally subjective and meaningless score would be 93. Not bad for a bottle I picked up for $30.

It's wines like this that keep me coming back to Anderson Valley pinot noir, year after year.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Islam, Immigration and Bruce Springsteen

He’s an unlikely Bruce Springsteen fan, a Pakistani kid living in the blue-collar English town of Luton. But he’s quite possibly the most avid Boss nut I’ve ever heard of, surpassing even my mother and my aunt who both went to the same high school as Bruce, and my friend from the Jersey Shore who has “Born to Run” tattooed on his chest.

Sarfraz Manzoor’s love of Bruce is the one thing that gets him through his chaotic circumstances. He’s a strange kid in a strange place. Manzoor was born in Pakistan to a Muslim family, but his father was living in England to support the family. It wasn’t until years later that the rest of the family moved to England to join Manzoor’s father. Times were not easy for Pakistanis in 1980s England. Margaret Thatcher, economic stagnation, racist hatred, terrific working conditions, etc. Manzoor’s father works all the time in factories to save money for the family and relatives back in Pakistan., and his mother and sisters work for hours on end making dresses by hand for upscale London shops.

Manzoor wants to be close with his father, but it does not seem destined to happen. (To say Manzoor’s father is strict is a gross understatement, tantamount to saying that “Thunder Road” is a decent song.) The connection he seeks with his father is unattainable, so Manzoor turns to music. And music changes him. It opens his eyes to the beauty of romantic love (as opposed to arranged marriages), free expression (as opposed to religious structure). And Manzoor is at his best when describing his adolescent connection with music in general and with Springsteen in particular. After seeing The Boss for the first time in London, Manzoor tells his friend: “I had started getting sad before the end of the concert, the knowledge that it would soon be over almost ruining my enjoyment. We had spent so long dreaming of this one evening that now [that] it was over there seemed nothing left to look forward to…” Maybe this is why the next time Bruce comes to England, Manzoor goes out and buys front-row seats for six concerts in a row.

Being a music nut myself, one who has chased Social Distortion across the country, I completely understand Manzoor’s drive. There is a unique sense of belonging that comes from understanding a musician’s lyrics, feeling the beat and the guitars, and experiencing it all live among crowds of other people. The differences among the fans fade away, and all that’s left is a shared enjoyment. Manzoor, perhaps because he was fiercely sober his entire life, does a great job describing these moments of musical bliss.

Friday, November 4, 2011

"We" Are in Trouble

A review of the novel "We" by Yevgeny Zamyatin
The future is looking bleak. Powerful institutions are gaining an even stronger hold on society. People are retreating further into apathy, accepting whatever they are told. Free thinkers are being marginalized. Automatons are gaining strength. No, this isn’t a cynical diatribe about life in 21st Century America, although it very well could be. Rather, it’s the overarching theme of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel, “We.”

I’ve put off reading this classic science fiction novel for some time, and on a recent trip to Europe, I finally dug into it. I cannot recall the last time I read a historical work of literature that spoke so clearly and prophetically about the future. Zamyatin’s dystopian view of society is so real, so vivid and so complex that it’s uncanny to think it was written in Russia 90 years ago.

In the world of “We,” society is dominated by the great “Benefactor,” a mysterious, elusive source of repressive dictates. The citizens have ceded their power to this “Benefactor” and his benevolent OneState, which controls the minutiae of everyday life. Society is structured according to the theory of “mathematically infallible happiness,” that monopolistic power can and must determine the life it decides is best for its people.

No one has a name, only a number. Imagination has been all but destroyed through propaganda, violence and, eventually, forced lobotomies. Sex is regulated according to a system of hormone tests that determine how much sex people need. “Pink tickets” are handed out to each person based on their hormone levels, and these tickets are then exchanged with their sexual partners. (There are no booty calls in OneState. Talk about a depressing future.)

The narrator has some number that I don’t remember and didn’t write down. He’s so loyal to OneState that he is the chief engineer behind a technological project to spread OneState’s ideology to alien planets. He is working on a spacecraft that will explore the galazy for life forms in order to preach the gospel of OneState to them. The narrative takes the form of a journal and something of a missionary pamphlet on how great OneState and the Benefactor truly are. The narrator is a faithful follower of the Benefactor. He doesn’t “like or understand jokes.” He respects authority and law for its own sake. He doesn’t drink (which is illegal), and he doesn’t think.

That is, of course, until our monotone narrator meets the sexy, rebellious I-1330. Yes, he falls in love with her, and, yes, he has a change of heart and mind. But it’s a long and arduous process of realizing how to think and function outside of the system. Once he drinks and has sex with I-1330, he deems himself “sick” and “done for.” Liberation of the body and mind is, to the narrator, akin to self-destruction.

I won’t give away the ending, but it’s magnificent, like that last loop on a speeding rollercoaster that leaves you out of breath.

The story behind “We” is equally as intriguing as the story itself. It was written in Russian, though it appeared first in English. Only in 1988 did people living in the Soviet Union get the chance to pick up this novel in its original Russian. If you give a rat’s ass about history and politics, and have even a remote interest in science fiction, this book is a must have. I am an idiot for taking this long to read it.

Newly-Released Wines

I stopped by my favorite wine shop, Weygandt Wines, on a Thursday night to taste some of their new releases. Most of the wines were from the 2010 vintage, which is apparently spectacular all over Europe. I brought a 2010 riesling from my recent trip to the Mosel Valley, and it showed very well. It was a great time, with great people and discussion. This tasting was another example of why I'm going to be buying lots of French wines from the 2010 vintage. In Austria and Germany as well, 2010 is just a great vintage, and I can't wait to stock up on them.

2010 Kurt Angerer Grüner Veltliner "Kies" - Austria, Niederösterreich, Kamptal
I love how kurt angerer can put out a $20 gruner veltliner of this quality. The nose shows lime, grapefruit and slate. The palate is really spicy and full of acid. Flavors of grapefruit rind and slate. This is a really compact wine that will probably show better with a littler air or time in the bottle. Great stuff. (90 pts.)

2010 Weingut Jacob Steffen Erben Kestener Paulinshofberg Riesling Kabinett trocken - Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
I bought this wine back from my trip to the Mosel Valley and popped it for some friends. I liked this wine a lot, and it seemed to be quite a crowd-pleaser. Perfumed nose with white flowers, lychee and white peach. the palate has great acid, chalk and minerals. On the midpalate, I get a flavor that reminds me of almond or chestnuts. Slate and lime linger on the finish. (90 pts.)

2010 Catherine et Pascal Rollet Mâcon Solutré-Pouilly Domaine de la Chapelle - France, Burgundy, Mâconnais, Mâcon Solutré-Pouilly
I've enjoyed this wine in the past, and am excited to report that the 2010 is quite a steal. The nose shows lemons, salt and nuts. It's plump on the palate, and really zesty, but it's backed up by green apple fruit and hazelnuts. A very balanced chardonnay from a great viontage at bargain price. (89 pts.)

2010 Château de La Greffiere St. Véran - France, Burgundy, Mâconnais, St. Véran
pear and green apple on the nose. the palate is really creamy with buttescotch and hazelnut. lots of pulpy fruit. not as balanced as i'd like. (86 pts.)

2010 Domaine Auchère Sancerre - France, Loire Valley, Upper Loire, Sancerre
This was my first Sancerre from 2010, and what a good one. Aromas of lemons, slate and seashells. The palate is fresh and the acid is kicking. I love the key lime, orange rind and slate. This is a powerful, intense Sancerre that is really enjoyable. (90 pts.)

2009 Yannick Amirault Bourgueil La Coudraye - France, Loire Valley, Touraine, Bourgueil
Dark purple color in the glass. The nose is a wonderful medley of black olive and black cherries, and I also get a distinct paprika and even a curry aroma. I love the nose. The palate is a pure burst of fresh cherry fruit. The tannins are chewy and it's all wrapped up with flavors of meat, olive and iron. This is a more bombastic style of cabernet franc, but I really enjoyed it. (90 pts.)

2010 Daniel Bouland Côte de Brouilly Cuvée Mélanie - France, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Côte de Brouilly
The 2010 beaujolais wines are very impressive. This is no exception. It's very aromatic, showing fresh strawberries, cherries and some soil. The palate is plump and fresh with solid tannic structure. I like the plum and jolly rancher flavors, and also the iron flavor on the finish. This is tightly-wound now, and I think it'll get better with years in the bottle. (89 pts.)

2007 Mas Martinet Priorat Menut - Spain, Catalunya, Priorat
Each time I taste this wine I'm impressed by the power, elegance, balance and price. For $20, it doesn't get much better than this. Fresh raspberry and smoke on the nose. The palate is full of fruit, highlighted by just the right amount of vanilla and oak. Delicious wine. (90 pts.)

2009 Château La Fleur Morange Mathilde - France, Bordeaux, Libournais, St. Émilion
This is my first 2009 Bordeaux, and I enjoyed it a lot. 100% old vine Merlot. The color is dark purple. The aromas show plums, tobacco and fresh tilled soil. The aromas point to Bordeaux, but the palate is full of California sunshine. Dark plums, vanilla coke and black cherries lead the way. The oak and smooth tannins add a creamy mouthfeel to this wine that I just find irresistable. It's drinking well now, but could use some time to mellow out a bit. (92 pts.)

2010 Domaine des Soulanes (Cathy et Daniel Laffite) Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes Kaya - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Roussillon, Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
Lots of paint and spices on the nose. This is a really big wine that could use some time or a decant. There's an explosion of blueberry and blackberry fruit, along with some dusty tannins. (88 pts.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Blurry Lines Between Fact and Fiction

A review of  "Lenz" Georg Büchner, translated by Richard Sieburth

Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792) was a complicated man. Perhaps the best way to capture the life and work of this poet, playwright, schizophrenic and visionary is through an equally complicated literary work. Richard Sieburth has put together such a masterpiece, in his new translation of Georg Büchner's biographical novella “Lenz.” 

This was my first time reading anything about Lenz, and my first experience with Büchner’s work. And I’m glad I read this edition, because the different parts of this book combine to form a unique whole. The book is composed of “Lenz” the novella, the journals of an Alsatian priest who looked after Lenz, and Goethe’s impressions of Lenz. These individual pieces offer, as the translator says in his afterword, “something like a cubist portrait painted from several perspectives at once.”

Büchner’s novella is simply impeccable. The piece is decades ahead of its time, providing perhaps the first widely-read work of fiction seeped in the perspective of someone with mental illness. The book is a third-person view into the mind of insanity. It's startling, moving and wonderfully poetic. Presented in the original German on one side of the page and English in the other, "Lenz" really is a literary experience to remember.

After “Lenz” the novella, the book moves on to the real-life journals of Johann Oberlin, a priest in Alsace who takes Lenz in while he is facing serious mental problems. It essentially acts as a factual recounting of Büchner’s fictional work, adding an entirely new perspective to the novella. In his collection of journal entries, titled “Mr. L.,” Oberlin analyzes the weeks he spent looking over Lenz. Oberlin describes Lenz’s “fits of melancholy,” which Büchner so eloquently writes of in his novella. After a suicide attempt in which Lenz jumps out of a window, Oberlin becomes overwhelmed with Lenz's mental and emotional state. He tells Lenz that, “things have gone on long enough now, now you must be watched.”

The end of the book contains a lot of Büchner’s own thoughts on Lenz, as well as his thoughts on poetry, politics and psychology. Büchner, like Lenz, believed in the raw power of poetry and prose to address the complexities of the human situation. “The dramatic poet is, to my eyes, nothing but a writer of history, but he is superior to the latter in that he recreates history for a second time for us and transports us immediately into the life of an era instead of giving a dry account of it…” Büchner uses his fiction not as an end in itself, but as a means toward understanding history, and subsequently, understanding human consciousness.

In the translator’s afterword, it’s very interesting to read how Georg Büchner’s mental state mirrored Lenz’s. Buchner was studying at the University of Giessen, and wrote about how much he hated the city: “everywhere a hollow mediocrity; I can’t get used to this landscape, and the city is abominable…” He later writes: “Every night I pray to the hangman’s rope.” A short-lived left-wing agitator who died at 24, Büchner's life was as chaotic, if not more so, than Lenz's.

As the translator explains in the afterword, “Lenz” the novella isn’t only inspired by events, it actually is a sort of nonfiction. About one-eighth of the text is lifted directly from Oberlin’s journals. This blending of fiction and nonfiction is masterfully done, and it also fits with the subject matter. As the translator says, “Far from merely constituting a covert act of plagiarism, Buchner’s strategy of quotation is in fact a brilliant (post-)modernist experiment in intertextuality, for it allows him to incorporate bits and pieces of documentary ‘fact’ as design elements in the larger collage structure of his fiction.” And isn’t that, in essence, what all great fiction writers do to some degree or another?

If you’re interested at all in German literature, mental health and the blending of different literary traditions and genres, this new translation of “Lenz” is for you. If you’re going to read it at all, read this edition. It’s a complex work of art, one that I devoured with glee.

And, hey, it appears to be free for Kindles on