Friday, December 30, 2011

Buy this $15 pinot noir now

Buy this $15 pinot noir now

Bourgogne wines, like all red Burgundy, are hit or miss. To navigate Burgundy, you have to have rely on good producers, good vintages and good luck. Wines labeled “Bourgogne” are ranked lower in appellation than village level, premier cru and grand cru wines. This means they come from outside of classified vineyards, and they are sometimes a blend of pinot noir from different regions. Since the appellation is so broad, the wines can vary wildly. Many times Bourgogne wines are mediocre. Many times they are decent. And every once in a while there’s one that really stands out and says, “I’m pinot noir, bitch. You best recognize.”
I am drinking just such a wine right now. It is the 2009 Joseph Faiveley Bourgogne “Paulee” and I bought it from Calvert Woodley Wines in DC for $15.

It’s a vibrant, black cherry color in the glass. It shows a lot of black cherry and ripe plum aromas, but there’s an underlying earthiness that I love. With time in the glass, it opened up aromatically to show rose petal and coffee aromas. On the palate, this wine has grainy tannins. Dark cherry flavors lead into plum and mocha. There’s some oak in this wine, but not too much. It’s fresh all the way through, with a solid dose of acid. The cranberry fruit on the finish is pure and delicious.
This really is a solid pinot noir, and an amazing value at $15. I really like the 2009 vintage in Burgundy. Joseph Faively has done a great job with this wine.

88 points
Buy this pinot noir, thank me later. Post your tasting notes!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Words I Learned from Bad Religion - #1

Southern California punk rockers Bad Religion not only changed punk music, they educated a lot of people in the process. The band's lead singer, Greg Graffin, is also an evolutionary biologist and a phenomenal writer. He's a student of the English language as well, and has amassed quite a complex and unique vocabulary.

I started listening to Bad Religion when I was thirteen. When I was fifteen I smuggled their albums into a missionary boarding school in Germany. Their guitar riffs and melodies sustained me. I continued buying every album during my teens, into my twenties, and even now. This band has always thrilled me, and I can honestly say that I’ve learned a lot from them.

Plus, they just put on great friggin’ shows.


Words I Learned from Bad Religion

The Word: Prescience

The Album: “The Process of Belief”

“It’s a matter of prescience,
no, not the science-fiction kind.
It’s all about ignorance,
and greed and miracles for the blind.
The media parading disjointed politics,
founded on petro-chemical plunder,
and we’re it’s hostages.

If you stand to reason
you’re in the game.
The rules may be elusive
but our pieces are the same.

And you know if one goes down
we all go down as well.
The balance is precarious
as anyone can tell.
This world’s going to hell.”

Prescience, derived from the Latin word praescientia, means foreknowledge.

But isn’t the word prescience just awesome? Pre-science. It practically defines itself. It’s such a great word, and I’ve used it many times over the years in my own writing.

In the Bad Religion song “Kyoto Now” the word references the coming disaster of global climate change. Their album “The Process of Belief” came out in 2002. I remember 2002. It sucked. But this song was a bold, albeit melodic, call for the United States to join the world in curbing carbon emissions that cause climate change. It was a direct call for action to implement the Kyoto Protocol.

“You might not think it matters now,
but what if you were wrong?
You might not think there’s any wisdom
in a fucked up punk rock song.”

But the way it is
cannot persist for long.
A brutal sun is rising
on a sick horizon.”

It’s somewhat depressing to listen to the song now, in 2011. It’s still unbelievably catchy and powerful, but it also reminds me of how little progress we’ve made on climate change.

“Kyoto now.
We can’t do nothing
and think someone else
will make it right.”

What a great song, and what a great message. Unfortunately, singer-songwriter Greg Graffin’s warnings have proven to be prescient.

Like David Sedaris, Only Not as Good

While I was reading Augusten Burroughs’ “Magical Thinking: True Stories,” I asked my girlfriend what she thought of the author. “He’s not as good as David Sedaris,” she said.
The comparison is telling. Both are middle-aged, gay satirists who adopted Manhattan as home. Both write similar essays, in a similar style, about similar subject manner. So when one (Burroughs) comes on the scene several years after the other (Sedaris), I can’t help but make the comparison.
Well, now that I’ve finished “Magical Thinking,” I have to admit: my girlfriend was right. (There, I said it.) Burroughs ain’t got nothin’ on David Sedaris.
Whereas David Sedaris’ writing comes off natural, witty and effortless, Burroughs writing does not. The biggest issue I have with “Magical Thinking” is that Augusten Burroughs just tries way too fucking hard. He’s a funny guy, a decent writer, but he overdoes it again and again. He tries so hard to shock his audience with his overhyped personal confessions that all else is lost.
I don’t think he’s an inherently mean guy, but he sure as hell tries to be. This book is filled with fantasies of people who irk him getting mowed down by cars, buses, trains, etc. There is literary value in writing down such deeply personal thoughts, but Burroughs seems unable to find it. He hates everything. And not in a clever, ironic kind of way. To be honest, his disdain for everything but himself gets very boring very quickly.
If Augusten Burroughs is anything, it is king of the hyperbole. In this book, finding a live rat in his bathtub is described as, “far worse than suddenly finding yourself walking through a prison cafeteria wearing Daisy Duke shorts and a Jane Fonda headband.” I understand his sentiment about rats, but the aforementioned prison scene makes any other problem seem irrelevant by comparison.
At times, the hyperbole is so extreme that the point he is trying to make becomes meaningless. When he writes about the frustrations of losing his hair in his early 20s, I can’t exactly relate, but I try to sympathize. But when he compares going bald to dying from breast cancer, I lose interest. I’m all for making extreme jokes, but Burroughs does it carelessly and repetitively. This frustrates me (but not the way cancer would).
And despite all the interesting things that have happened to this man, frankly, he isn’t all that interesting. He lives in the west 50s, hates ironing his clothes and works at an advertising firm in Manhattan. Let me just say that if there is one more story about someone who works at an advertising firm in Manhattan, I really don’t want to hear it… unless it somehow incorporates zombies, boxing or a bank heist, preferably all three.
There’s one subject, however, that Burroughs writes about with passion and realness: his partner Dennis. When Burroughs tells me that he loves this man, I believe it. His words of love are pure and beautiful, and it is clear he and Dennis have something special, something worth writing about. This relationship features more prominently in the latter pages of the book, and the final story about Dennis is by far the best. Burroughs’ love for Dennis is so rich that he comes across as disinterested and bored when dealing with other subject matter.
Burroughs’ childhood memoir “Running with Scissors” is currently collecting dust on one of my bookshelves. I haven’t read it yet, and it may take me a while to psyche myself into picking it up. I understand that “Running with Scissors” is his childhood memoir, although he does refer to his childhood in this collection of “true stories.” He’ll be talking about shopping or dating and make a flash reference to his “terrible” childhood, something about his mother being insane, his own stint in some unnamed mental institution, being sexually abused. He lobs these references out so quickly, and then moves on to some other mundane topic. For me, the effect is jarring. You don’t drop a sex abuse bomb and then continue writing about buying an iron at Kmart. Perhaps his hesitancy to discuss his childhood is because he expects that his readers have already read “Running with Scissors,” but I think this book still needs more than an occasional reference to his upbringing.
His relationship with his parents is also barely mentioned: “My parents hated each other, and I hated them. I longed for them to die in an auto accident so that I could be whisked away by uniformed social workers and sent to live in a compound near a major city.” This piques my interest, but he immediately drops the issue. Yet he will write for pages about seeing P Diddy (or Puff Daddy or whatever-the-hell he calls himself) at a race track.
Perhaps this is just his style, perhaps this book is just wildly unfocused, but I had a hard time relating to his stories. They seem removed from reality, which is very odd for a collection of “True Stories.”
I hate writing bad reviews, but this book left me feeling cheated. And, damn it, I don’t get cheated without writing about it.
Now, back to some more David Sedaris.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Friday Night Blind Tasting With Good Friends

Back in my the late 1990s, Stephen, Ian and I lived at the same dorm at a German boarding school. They were my best bros. Over the years, we've kept in touch. It had been ten years since the three of us had been together, so we were in the mood to celebrate. It just so happened that my wine tasting group was having a pre-holiday tasting.

So we wrapped all the wines in paper bags and met at good ol' Weygandt Wines in Cleveland Park. We served all wines blind and unveiled them at the end. There were very few non-stellar wines. The tasting was just phenomenal, and nearly every wine was interesting, complex and good for starting conversation. Pizza was served as well, which worked with the reds we were tasting. It was great to have Ian and Stephan stop in on such a great tasting. Tooch, you were missed.

Palate Cleanser

White Flight

  • 2009 Eric Morgat Savennières L'Enclos - France, Loire Valley, Anjou-Saumur, Savennières
    Golden color. Aromas of apple, wax and hazelnut. Pulpy pear fruit on the palate, with nuts and golden raisins. The acid is intense, which keeps it balanced. I could tell this wine had some oak, which I don't find too much in Savennieres, but I still guessed it as a Loire chenin blanc. This is my first time with Morgat, and I've never heard about this producer before. But this style of zingy acid and minerality, combined with dried fruit and some nutty oak is really working for me. Absolutely delicious, and I think this would improve with a few years in the bottle. (91 pts.)
  • 2001 Zind-Humbrecht Zind - France, Alsace, Alsace AOC
    Dark golden colored. Nose shows explosive honey, pistachio nut, and lychee. The palate is fresh with plump fruit, and high acid. There's some sweetness that reminds me of riesling, but an olive oil flavor that makes me think of some sort of strange Italian white wine. After much internal debate, I guessed this as an Alsace riesling. I think this does have some riesling in it, but I was had this feeling that there was just something Alsatian about this wine. (89 pts.)
  • 2005 Domaine Fontaine-Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Vergers - France, Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru
    Light gold color It was love at first sniff: gala apples, popcorn, marshmallow and then a rush of lemon. The palate is rich and creamy, but the acid is right on. Big, but balanced, with lots of hazelnut on the finish, which is really long. I guessed it as a 2009 chassagne-montrachet. This was my first time with this producer, and I was very impressed. (93 pts.)
  • 2009 Cameron Chardonnay Blanc Clos Electrique - USA, Oregon, Willamette Valley, Dundee Hills
    Medium yellow color. Aromas of flowers, lemon cleaner, tangerine rind. Very complex nose. The palate is gorgeous, and heavy on the fruit. But there's delicious high acid. It starts really plump with lots of honeycomb, then transitions to fresh, lemon and floral flavors. Incredibly long finish. It got better with air, and it was clear tasting this blind that it was too early to be drinking this. I was happy to see it was a Cameron Clos Electrique, which has become one of my favorite domestic chardonnays. The 2008 I had recently showed better, but I really think the 2009 has a long, increasingly complex life ahead of it. (93 pts.)
  • 2005 Domaine Bernard Defaix Chablis Grand Cru Vaudésir - France, Burgundy, Chablis, Chablis Grand Cru
    Medium yellow color. The nose shows popcorn, pear and a distinct aroma of brie rind. The palate is bold and intense, and there is some butter and oak here. Tasted blind, we're clearly in chardonnay territory. What's unique about this wine is the distinct flavor of limestone and seashell that made me think Chablis. I was glad to see this was a Defaix, as I've enjoyed this producer for years. It was really delicious, and I like the combination of flavors. Thanks, Bob, for popping this. I loved it. (91 pts.)
  • 2009 Crowley Chardonnay Maresh Vineyard - USA, Oregon, Willamette Valley, Dundee Hills
    Light gold color. The nose showed lots of honeydew melon, like pure, concentrated honeydew. Absolutely intoxicating. Also aromas of apricot and rich apple. It almost reminded me of a white rhone blend on the nose. The palate is a confluence of intensity and freshness that is just delicious. Coconut, cream, marshmallow, lemon, yellow apple. It's absolutely delicious, and I guessed it as a Sonoma chardonnay. Go Willamette Valley! This is an excellent chardonnay that really impressed me. It got more expressive with air, and it has years ahead of it. Thanks, Brett, for again reminding me that Oregon produces some blissful chardonnays. (94 pts.)


  • 2001 Domaine des Lambrays Clos des Lambrays - France, Burgundy, Côte de Nuits, Clos des Lambrays Grand Cru
    I'm not going to score this wine, because once it was unveiled I, and the other tasters, thought this was not a full-quality bottle. Maybe it was stored badly or just an off bottle. It was drinkable, just not at all as good as I know this wine is. Bright red color with a hint of amber. It smells like meat and red cherries. The palate shows dense tannic grip. Something tastes burned in this wine, like someone threw a bunch of cherries onto a grill. It doesn't taste of oak, just ash. Short finish. I thought it was a messed-up syrah. I scored it 82 blind.
  • 2008 Uwe Schiefer Blaufränkisch Szapary - Austria, Burgenland, Südburgenland
    Bright red color in the glass, just vibrant and clear. Aromas of sour cherry and hemp. It seriously smells like cranberries wrapped in dried seaweed. The aromas on this wine are nothing short of ecstatic. The palate is really silky and juicy, with ripe brambly fruit, solid acid, and a kick of tannins. Tasted blind, I was guessing all over the map. It wasn't dark and dense enough to be new world, but I couldn't place it in the old world. I was thrilled to see it was an Uew Schiefer. I've loved his blaufrankisch before, and this one was just exceptional. (91 pts.)
  • 2010 Daniel Bouland Morgon Vieilles Vignes Corcelette - France, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Morgon
    The color and nose on this wine are classic cru Beaujolais. Vibrant red color, and you can see your fingers through the glass. The aromas are bright and lively, cherry, some vanilla. The palate has surprisingly grippy tannins. Lots of plush currant fruit, but it maintains a lightness and sexiness. Tasted blind, I guessed this as a 2009 cru Beaujolais. I'm excited about the 2010s, and this was a solid example. Thanks to Stephen for this contribution to the tasting. (89 pts.)
  • 2003 Louis Jadot Nuits St. Georges - France, Burgundy, Côte de Nuits, Nuits St. Georges
    I tasted this wine blind and loved it. I was really surprised to see it was a basic, village-level Burgundy. This wine outperforms its appellation. The color is ruby, with just a hint of brown. The nose is very focused on earth, mushroom, bacon and loam. I absolutely love the nose. The palate is full, with lots of tannins. Flavors of olive tapenade are mixed it with sour cherry. It's a big wine, expressing the heft of the 2003 vintage, but it maintains a feminine mystique. Absolutely delicious. (93 pts.)
  • 2004 Domaine de Baron'Arques Limoux - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Languedoc, Limoux
    The nose smelled very unique on this wine. It was off-putting for some at the tasting, but I enjoyed it. I got a distinct note of sardine, also white pepper and some cherry and rhubarb. Really strange nose, but I like strange. The palate has gritty tannins, dense black and red fruit. There's a flavor on the finish that reminds me of curry, maybe a little bit of allspice? I guessed mourvedre, just because I knew it was going to be something a little bit out of the ordinary. Turns out it's a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Grenache, Syrah and Malbec. It's a kitchen sink of grapes, but it's a solid wine that will surely start up some academic discussion. (89 pts.)
  • 2009 Domaine Monpertuis (Paul Jeune) Vin de Pays du Gard Cuvée Counoise - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Languedoc, Vin de Pays du Gard
    I tasted this blind and was excited to find out it was only twelve dollars! It really overdelivers for the price. The nose shows fresh cherries and some earthy aromas. The palate is really lush and delicious, with a soft and round feel to the wine from beginning to end. I wondered if it was pinot noir, but there was something in this wine I couldn't recognize. For the price, this is a really solid wine that has some complexity. (88 pts.)
  • 2009 Reynvaan Family Vineyards Syrah Stonessence - USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley
    Wow. This is a really unique wine. The aromas are amazing: sour cherry, rare steak, plum skins and a distinct note of green pepper. Smelling this blind, I was wondering if this was some sort of crazy cabernet franc. But the palate is something else entirely. It's big, bold and rich, but maintains a beautiful freshness. The plum fruit and meat flavors glide over the palate. I love this producer, and even when tasted blind these wines wow me. Apparently this 100% syrah is only made in certain years. It's a beautiful interpretation of syrah. (94 pts.)
  • 2009 Rivers-Marie Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast - USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
    The nose on this wine is heavenly: strawberry rhubarb, licorice, rose petal and orange rind. On the palate, this wine is fresh and fruity, but balanced with delicious cranberry fruit. There's a distinct orange rind flavor that I absolutely love. It tastes so fresh and pure. This is an absolutely gorgeous wine. Tasted blind: 94 points. I was a bit tipsy at this point of the night, but it wasn't just that. Everyone loved this wine and it was several people's wine of the night. (94 pts.)


  • 2001 Château Lamothe Guignard - France, Bordeaux, Sauternais, Sauternes
    This was my contribution to the tasting. It's golden honey colored in the glass with lots of viscosity. The nose is textbook Sauternes: apricot, botrytis, a bit of nail polish. The palate is full of honey, apricot, candied peach, but there's also some chalk and minerals on the finish. The acid isn't very high, but I found it delicious. It's a solid, classic Sauternes. (90 pts.)
  • N.V. Broadbent Madeira Five Year Reserve - Portugal, Madeira
    Beautiful caramel color. The nose shows almond shell, caramel, and a bit of red apple. Very gushy on the palate. Thick, but not too much. Lovely nutty, honey finish, which is long. (88 pts.)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Jennifer Egan's Genre-Bending Novel, "The Keep"

I’m an obsessive writer and an avid reader. And sometimes I come across a book that makes me think, “Damn, I wish I would have written that.” Jennifer Egan’s novel “The Keep” is one such book.

In an era when genre-bending has become a genre itself, Jennifer Egan does something truly new with this novel. Published in 2007, it’s unlike anything I've ever read, but at the same time it incorporates elements from a dozen different literary works.  

It starts off as a story about Danny and Howie, two young cousins. Howie is the messed-up adopted one and Danny is the good kid. At the outset, it seemed we were destined for a story of two teenagers. And, in a sense, that's what this novel is. But it's also many other things

When they're teenagers, Danny leaves Howie in a cave and Howie almost dies. It's so traumatic, it's referred to as “the incident.” From then on, Danny has serious guilt and Howie has serious anger.

But, hold on a second. Now we're twenty years in the future and we're somewhere in Eastern Europe. There's a castle with a mysterious “keep” and people with secrets. We're with Danny and Howie again, but we're in Kafka's territory now.

Wait a sec. All of the sudden, the narrator jumps out of the story and addresses the reader directly. He's in prison, and we're not sure why. He admits that “this is all some story some guy told me.” But is it? Of course not. Nothing is as it seems in “The Keep.”

This all happens before page 35. If you're not tripping by this point, you will be soon enough.

There’s a baroness of the castle who lives in the keep and says she’s descended from the people who built the castle 900 years ago. She looks young and beautiful from afar, but the closer Danny gets to her the uglier and older she gets. It's strange, but by no means the strangest thing in the novel. What exactly lies in this “keep” and why is this shape-shifting baroness guarding it?

As the castle story builds toward a powerful and unexpected climax, we learn more and more about this jailed narrator. These two elements compete with each other for the reader’s attention, but as the book moves forward, the two storylines run together in an ingenious fashion.

There’s an inherent risk in narrating from the perspective of someone with chaotic life circumstances, such as a convicted criminal. You’ve got to get the reader to believe the person who is narrating. In this case, our narrator is a man in prison for a terrible crime. His life is one of boredom, fights and more boredom. There are some times when Egan slips out of her prisoner narrator and throws in a phrase that sounds forced and fake, like: “his voice was butter melting in a pan,” and, one page later, “his voice is like a butterfly wing moving.” Still, these are few, and for the most part Egan’s prisoner narrator is believable. Egan is at her best when describing this prisoner’s attraction to a woman who comes into the prison to teach a writing class. Yes, there’s a love story element to this tale as well.

Description is lacking in some places. Egan has a great skill of describing people and places, but she doesn't use it much here. A lot of the scenes read like a screenplay. (And I'll admit it: I wondered for most of the book if she wrote this with a movie option in mind. Until the last fifty pages, when a plot turn makes me think this would be nearly impossible to film.) Egan's language is fast-paced, close-up and quick, creating an experience similar to the one I got while watching films like “Memento” and “Pulp Fiction.” This is not a book to read slowly. It almost needs to be read fast, because so much is going on, and the pace is so important, that to read it over the course of weeks would take away from that.

With whatever minor criticism I have for this book, I can not deny the reality that Egan is one of America's greatest living novelists. This is only the second novel by Egan I’ve read, the other being “Look at Me,” which was one of the best books I read in 2010. This is up there with the best of 2011. Next, I’ll move onto “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” a novel that earned Egan the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If it’s anything like her previous two novels, I’m sure the award is deserved.