Monday, September 26, 2011

The Gourmet's Love Song

P.G. Wodehouse

How strange is Love; I am not one
Who Cupid's power belittles,
For Cupid 'tis who makes me shun
My customary victuals.
EFFIE, since that painful scene
That left me broken-hearted,
My appetite, erstwhile so keen,
Has utterly departed.

My form, my friends observe with pain,
Is daily growing thinner.
Love only occupies the brain
That once could think of dinner.
Around me myriad waiters flit,
With meat and drink to ply men;
Alone, disconsolate, I sit
And feed on thoughts of Hymen.

The kindly waiters hear my groan,
They strive to charm with curry;
They tempt me with a devilled bone-
I beg them not to worry.
Soup, whitebait, fricassees,
They bring me uninvited.
I need them not, for what are these
To one whose life is blighted?

They show me dishes rich and rare,
But ah! my pulse no joy stirs.
For savouries I've ceased to care,
I hate the thought of oysters.
They bring me roast, they bring me boiled,
But all in vain they woo me;
The waiters softly mutter 'Foiled!'
The chef, poor man, looks gloomy.

EFFIE, turn that shell-like ear,
Nor to my sighing close it,
You cannot doubt that I'm sincere-
This ballad clearly shows it.
No longer spurn the suit I press,
Respect my agitation,
Do change your mind and answer, 'Yes',
And save me from starvation.

Published in Cyril Ray's Compleat Imbiber, No. 14, Beaumont Books, London, 1989

Friday, September 16, 2011

Recession Drinking

Understandably, alcohol consumption goes up in tough economic times. It also does pretty well when the market’s booming. In fact, the hooch industry is pretty much set, whatever the economic forecast.

But that only applies to Anesthetic Drinking- that unattractive thing we do when the bills are mounting up, and the spouse is in a sour frame of mind, and the boss bursts into harsh laughter when the subject turns to next year’s benefits package. Whether it’s an Anheuser-Busch product or some Korean-manufactured distillate doesn’t really matter, what it tastes like isn’t really germane; we just want lots of it.

Fine Wine is another story. About the last thing we are inclined to do at the wine shop, if we follow current events at all, is to fling handfuls of currency on the counter, with the instructions for the honest proprietor to grab a couple of empty cases and start filling them with the finest and rarest vintages (this has actually happened to me. A splendid fellow from DC, whose remuneration package, according to the Internet, was over $7M for the previous year). No, these days most customers shuffle guiltily around, trying not to meet my eye, and shamefacedly put the discounted bottle on the counter, hoping I don’t suggest anything more expensive.

Fortunately, I am ready for this frame of mind. I have introduced the “Recession Rack”- dozens of wines all priced at $9.99, BUT -this is the clincher- buy a mixed case of any of them and take it away for just $100, plus tax and deposit. That’s $8.33 per bottle, for some pretty tasty wines!

Like the Magnificent Wine Company’s House Wine (Washington), or the Chilensis Carmenere Reserve (Chile), or Les Clos from the Dom. Ste. Eugenie (France). Lovely wines, which often make the trip to my house. Or how about First Drop Red from Australia, or the Legitimo Joven Rose from Bodegas San Valero, Spain? Or the Arida Sauvignon Blanc from Argentina, Leese-Fitch Cabernet from California, or a crisp Santola Vinho Verde from Portugal?

Are you really going to have fun like this in the supermarket?

As Slim Pickens put it (as Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove):

“Say, a fellow could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff!”

Monday, September 12, 2011

Welcome to the Blog

The other, ponderous blog on this page (The Wilton Wine Shop) is a piece I wrote as a participant in the Maine Writing Project. Generally, I'll post blogs which are more relevant to your enjoyment of wine- particular wines, wine types, menu pairings, fun stuff.

I tend to shy away from the techno-talk about wine; when anybody starts in about malo-lactic fermentation I doze off pretty quickly. Likewise, I find some of the descriptions pretty heavy-going: honey-pear tobacco elements with seaweed overtones, I mean, come on. The whole numbers concept- this Beaujolais is an 84, and this Oregon Pinot is an 89- is silly beyond belief, and I look forward to ranting about it in greater detail in future.

I like to learn about the people in the business- their stories, their families. I enjoy both the age-old traditions, and the rebels who thrive on flouting them. It's the endless variety I enjoy the most, and the ensuing discussions with friends over supper. What fun! Stay tuned!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Wilton Wine Shop

I have a small wine shop, in Wilton, near Farmington. I’ve been a student of wine since the mid ‘80s, when I was a grad student in Germany. Founded in ’04, Wilton Wine Merchants is my means of enlightening the citizens of Franklin County with Liquid Art, with Pinotage and Dolcetto, with Riesling and Chateauneuf du Pape and Big Fire Pinot Noir. My regular clients are from all walks of life- nurses, contractors, a UPS driver, a piano teacher, an insurance salesman, a politician, and, of course, the ladies upstairs in Margot's office- and what most of them seem to have in common are intellectual curiosity and a love of cooking. Most are gardeners.

The store made a great counterpoint to teaching. After so many years of spending most of the work day talking with or at adolescents trying to get them to care- even a little bit- about sonnets and punctuation, and taking a wide detour around the almost-just-as-adolescent grousing in the teacher’s room, I found it reviving to talk with grownups about Cabernet and Prosecco- and just as you learn the most about a subject when you teach it, I started learning a lot about wine and the industry. Over the years I had read lots of great writing on the subject, but now I was meeting with distributors, fielding questions from customers, teaching wine appreciation seminars, and attending tastings where legions of wines were available to be sampled. I could leave school, come to the store, whip off the Clark Kent glasses and become the Franklin County Wine Guy.

But is it Art? Is wine an artistic medium worthy of our highest moments of reflection? Isn’t it just fermented grape juice? Well, isn’t the Mona Lisa just some mucky paint slathered on a black background? Personally, given you have to elbow your way through that herd of camera-toting tourists in the Louvre just to get a brief glimpse of that disappointingly small painting encased in its sterile glass box, I’d rather spend the time outside, enjoying the sunshine and the company of friends, with some Beaujolais, in a little cafe, on the Champs Elysees.

Just as you could have spent over 21 million dollars on a small bronze statuette by Degas called Petite Danceuse de Quatorze Ans before some Asian art collector beat you to it, so could you have dropped 230 Grand on three bottles of the 1869 Chateau Lafite if only another Asian collector hadn’t snapped them up. I know what you’re thinking: C’mon now, Pete, is six glasses of fermented grape juice ever worth $75,000? Forget the history, forget the hype, is any bottle of the stuff ever worth even $75?

MmmmNo. Here’s the scoop on wine pricing. Virtually any $10 wine will taste just fine. Step up to $15, and you will find a pronounced jump in quality: the colors are deeper, the bouquet is fuller, and the taste lasts longer on your palate. A $35 wine should knock your socks off. Here is the winemaker saying whatever they have to say, and the difference between this wine and the $15 one is the Grand Canyon. The same winemaker will make deluxe wines at $75 and up- but they don’t taste more than twice as good.

I still know what you’re thinking: I ain’t spending $35 on a bottle of wine, even if it does have the Grand Canyon in it. Of course, you actually do buy wine at that rate- like when you go to Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse and order a $6 glass of Merlot with your slab of buffalo.

Prior to opening the store, I had read about wine, and experienced wine in a purely academic, rosé-colored light. I continued teaching English at the high school and the Junior Maine Guide program at Camp Kawanhee in the summertime, as well as the odd adjunct course for UMA and CMCC, but now, as a wine store proprietor- even a part-time one- I was shackled to Small Business, and I have learned to my cost that I have all the financial acumen of a cantaloupe. I was also manacled to all the elected lawmakers of the State of Maine, past and present.

Thanks to those frumpy, humorless, Puritan governmental forefathers of ours, wine consumption is considered immoral, but still permissible, and so we have the Sin Tax, which applies as much to these humble bottled servants of Humanity, who would love nothing better than to sing along with some B.B.King to tonight’s pork chop, as it does to that horrid mutant spawn of the alcohol industry: Allen’s Coffee Brandy. Allens accounts for 40% of Maine’s hard liquor consumption, down, happily, from 50%. A Pine State distributor once told me “People don’t drink Allens, they’re on it.”

Wine is taxed four times before you serve it up alongside your fettuccini Alfredo: first the maker has to register each label with the State, then the distributor pays excise taxes on each case, you pony up 5% sales tax on top of that, and I pay income tax on my profit as well. Our elected officials also come up with some pretty fruity laws, like the one which prohibits me from selling auto engine parts in my store, or the one forbidding anyone to open a wine shop within 300 yards of a church (What were they thinking? Might the churchgoers be tempted to nip in and grab a bottle of Sancerre for the sermon?) The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our wines, but in ourselves.

For me, the sin tax is syntax without meaning, for there is no sin in this bottle of Corbieres, only

... a beaker full of the warm South!

Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, 

And purple-stainèd mouth;

That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,

And with thee fade away into the forest dim.
(Keats: Ode to a Nightingale)

This Corbieres, incidentally, is one of my summertime recommendations for you. It can take a light chilling. The wine is spicy, cheerful, even exuberant, and will be an ideal companion out on the deck with something fun just off the grill alongside a crisp and colorful salad.

People enjoy and appreciate wines in different ways. Certainly by price: lots of determined matrons out there are firmly convinced that wines are much of a muchness, and so will resolutely not be conned into anything more expensive than the cheapest label on the shelf and they emerge from the store victorious. A lot of fellows are worried that their good taste might be called into question, and so make their selection by picking the most expensive stuff on the shelf. I use those genders advisedly. Some one-upmanship fans ask for Czechoslovakian Gewurztraminer, or some such freaky thing, just to put me on the defensive. Some hoard great wines and never drink them; they just pop down to the basement to stare at them now and again. Some dearly love to pontificate, to fix the captive proprietor with a glittering eye and pronounce that the '05 Napa Cabs will never match the '03s. And many, many customers have precisely the reaction to the labels that those conniving folks in marketing expect: they buy the wines with the animals on the label. Finally, I’m pleased to report a steadily growing number of people who buy the stuff from me because it tastes really good.

Wines like this Cristom Pinot Noir are somebody’s children- only five human beings ever interact with these grapes from the Eileen vineyard to create wine out of them, so the metaphor isn’t that much of a stretch. These wines have been carefully brought up to have something intelligent to say, to make the world a better place. Unhappily, there are those other kids, the schoolyard bullies, coarse, bloated with money and arrogance, which are backing these frail, hard-working, honest wines into an ever smaller corner of market share. I refer, of course, to the wines of Gallo, Yellow Tail, and their completely whacked out, sociopath kid brother, Boones Farm.

It has occurred to members of the Gallo family and to a few other massive conglomerates like them, that every little bit added to what you’ve got makes just a little bit more, and if you were to walk into Hannaford’s this afternoon and look at that wall of wine of theirs, about 80% of that wall- hundreds of wines- is from about 4 producers. A far cry from carefully nurtured grapes hand picked from the vineyard at the precisely correct moment to achieve that poetic balance between the character of the fruit and the nature of the soil- no, no, this is Industrial Wine. This year Yellow Tail will import more wine into the United States than all but three wine producing countries. These winemakers have discovered that they can make giga-vats of sweet wine, and by ratcheting up the acidity, they can mask that sweetness, and thus they can provide perfectly innocuous-tasting anesthesia for the millions out there whose truck payments and 60” TV payments or maybe just a lower sense of self-worth don’t permit them even that modest Corbieres.

Now, let’s not get defensive! If the Yellow Tail chardonnay currently chilling in your fridge helps you establish some parameters of sanity in your busy lives, I understand. If you find self-fulfillment rooting for #24 Jeff Gordon accompanied by some Bud Light and Tammy Wynette, fabulous. And if you are of the happy few who can improve upon tomorrow with just some green tea and tantric meditation today, I salute you, whatever they may say about teetotalers, like Hitler.

But if you think there’s a difference between your homemade eggplant parmesan and a Double Whopper with Cheese, if there’s a difference between the tomatoes from your garden and those pink cardboard things from the supermarket, if there’s a difference between spending time with Thoreau and Maya Angelou and dithering around on Facebook for hours at a time, or if it has occurred to you that the popular culture is threatening to mold us all into something fairly unattractive by replacing the Beautiful with the Easy, or if you’re in the market for the right wine to go with your Tuna Surprise, then maybe we should talk.