Thursday, January 26, 2012

Various Ways to Appreciate Wine

This afternoon I was perusing my copy of the Oxford Companion to Wine (an exercise most students of wine will attest to engaging in on a near daily basis), and came across the entry for Michael Broadbent, one of the world’s truly renowned wine professionals. As prolific and near-celebrity wine writers go, Mr. Broadbent is as recognizable by name as Oz Clarke, Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson, and others of impeccable vinous standing. The entry on Mr. Broadbent detailed many of his titles and accomplishments over his years in the wine trade, but one portion of the entry struck me as rather peculiar (in a good way):

“His passion is not for wine consumption, or for the relaxed sociability associated with it, but for the rigorous analysis of each measured mouthful of wine (he sees his wristwatch as an important tasting accessory, monitoring how a wine evolves in a glass).”

This portion of the entry on Broadbent got me thinking about how people involved with wine, professionally or by way of recreation, judge others for how they think and communicate about wine.

When asked what it is about wine that they like so much, I trust that many, if not most, individuals in the wine-consuming populace will point to wine’s aesthetic pleasures. Plainly enough, wine is great because it tastes great. You’re likely to hear this sort of response from wine “laypeople” as well as professionals in the trade. I’d venture a guess that most wine drinkers came to wine by way of liking the way it tastes. After an aesthetic appreciation, delving deeper into the world of wine surely reveals the aw-inspiring complexity of the subject, from issues of viticulture, vinification, maturation, etc. Sometimes, however, it seems that we take for granted the fact that all people who work with wine view consuming it for pleasure as a primary reason for enjoyment. But what if wine’s good taste was not one’s principle concern?

I should admit that I did not become interested, enthused, or even obsessed about wine initially because of the way it tastes. Rather, I came to wine through an appreciation for its merit as a subject of study, and a respect of its incredible uniqueness. Wine truly does express a sense of place, and it may be the only mainstream beverage in existence today to truly do so. Use the term ‘terroir’ if you like (I know some don’t much care for it), but opening a bottle of wine truly is an experience of experimentation and learning. I believe wine tastes good, but I feel similarly about Cherry Coke (one of the only beverages that may be able to rival wine for the number one spot in my heart). In fact, if we’re going to use taste and aesthetic pleasure as the sole barometer for evaluation, there have probably been a few (or more) moments in my life when an ice cold Cherry Coke sounds more appealing than a glass of wine. Wine earn (and retains) top-notch standing in my book when I take hedonism out of the equation, and when I factor in my appreciation for how a bottle of wine came to be.

Although some of you may feel fine with me stating that I often prefer the taste of Cherry Coke to many wines, there will surely be others who find that such a statement makes me unqualified (or rather, unworthy) to take part in serious study of wine. It is to those (hopefully few) whom I’d like to invoke the aforementioned passage on Michael Broadbent. I think it’s perfectly acceptable for someone to love wine for reasons unrelated to the hedonistic pleasure it provides. As a subject of study, wine and issues related to its production are as vast and detailed as you’re likely to find in any academic discipline. In fact, it probably trumps many. I believe the world’s wine enthusiasts can be part of the same community of lovers and appreciators for a great many different reasons.

I’m “all in” on wine, and I have been for quite some time now. I’ve embarked on a number of educational “routes” through self-study and various academic bodies, and have begun spending money I have no business spending on a nice bottle to share with friends. I want to make wine my career, as is the case with a great many fine people I interact with daily on twitter, facebook, etc. We should all love wine, but not necessarily be forced to love it the same way.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Flukey Flutes

My mother has stated for years that she no longer wishes to receive gifts around the holidays. I don’t particularly view my mother as a Scrooge-like individual. For the most part she is a happy person with a pleasant disposition to her family and friends. However, lately she has been rather adamant on a yearly basis about her disdain for receiving gifts, especially from her immediate family members. After chatting with Mom about this, I eventually realized that it was years of accumulating unwanted trinkets and “knick knacks” that eventually led her to deny holiday gifts. Although this year I had fully planned to abide by my lovely mother’s wishes, I decided eventually that I should, at the very least, get her SOMETHING. I reckoned this something should be an item that she will enjoy, but that won’t find itself cluttering up our family home after a few weeks time. In the end, I decided that a nice(r) bottle of Champagne should do the trick. Much to my joy, Mom adored her gift.

One of the primary reasons why Mom enjoyed her gift was because it was something she could share and enjoy with me. She of course knows about my passion for wine, and appears to genuinely enjoy sharing a bottle with me. Unfortunately, my mother’s traditional drink of choice, Woodbridge Sauvignon Blanc (a 1.5 litre, to be precise), is not necessarily my cup-o-tea. This fact made this year’s gift particularly lovely. After properly chilling down Mom’s gift, I popped it open (with as little sound possible in preparation for my upcoming Certified Sommelier examination) and poured it into two Champagne flutes. Mom and I toasted with our respective glasses, and took the first glorious sip. The wine was deliciously complex and refreshing, and appeared to be just what the doctor ordered, especially for Mom. For me, however, there was something… off. Much to Mom’s dismay, I proceeded to pour the contents of my flute into a standard white wine glass. “What are you doing?” Mom said with a sense of urgency. “Eh, I like my sparkling wines a bit more out of a standard glass” I replied. It’s true. I have come to prefer my sparkling wines (Champagne included) out of typical wine glasses. Yes, I fully acknowledge the reasons for pouring bubbles exclusively in flutes, but I must declare, here and now, that such a “pairing” just doesn’t do it for me anymore.

Of course, there are some differences in taste that go along with such a change in consumption vessel. My experiences have taught me that drinking Champagne in a white wine glass tends to diminish bubbles at a much more rapid pace, and as a result, tends to tone down a wine’s autolytic character (the bready, yeasty, buscuity tastes that come across in many higher quality Champagnes). This may be one of the reasons why so many people are so strict about the flute being the ideal (if not to exclusive) glassware for serving sparkling wine. It appears to me that we have come to view these autolytic flavors as being directly correlative of quality, particularly in Champagne. I, However, am not convinced that such a thing should be the case. In truth, I find many Crémants (wines produced outside of Champagne but still made in the “traditional” method) to be just as, if not more enjoyable than many Champagne wines I’ve tasted. It could just be that autolysis is not a flavor profile that “does it” for me. In any case, the effect that a traditional wine glass has on champagne is something that appeals to me.

In addition to not being an extreme proponent of autolytic flavors in sparking wine, I am also what many refer to as an “acid head.” I make no attempts to suggest any sort of drug use on my part. I use this title more as a way to describe my overwhelming attraction to acidity in the wines I drink. I have come to appreciate mouthwatering acidity in sparkling wine a bit more than an overtly creamy mousse or mouthfeel. This could be why I am one of the only persons I know who gets excited by the prospect of decanting a sparkling wine. A few less bubbles and higher acid content is just something that I dig.

I understand that there may be some individuals who are made upset by my sparkling wine preferences. I’m more than willing to have a discussion with them about it, but I can almost guarantee that I will begin by uttering something along the lines of “sorry, I can’t help what I like.” Perhaps this means I should have a bit more understanding for my mother when she insists on putting ice cubes in her wine…

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

La Belle Amour

The song “Nature Boy” (covered over the years countless times by a slew of artists) provides us with one of the most insightful lyrics you’re likely to ever find. I have heard the song countless times in, sometimes in the periphery and sometimes while paying strict attention. The lyrical content of the song still strikes a chord with me (I promise that was not intended to be a pun), even after all those listens. The lyric is “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is how to love, and be loved in return.” I find the song’s popularity over the years remarkably refreshing, considering how wonderfully poignant and insightful it really is. The idea that it takes effort to love someone is something that most of us come to understand over time and through experience. We learn that falling in love can be relatively sudden and easy, but that demonstrating that love takes work. Actually, it takes quite a bit of work. Unfortunately, the amount of work we put into to giving love leaves is negligent to the idea that we may need to learn how to be loved… in return. I feel that all too many people struggle (more than they may think) to be comfortable with being loved. Amidst all of this, it is exhilarating to find an example of two people who not only love one another every day, but who are at peace in being loved by the other.

In my humblest of opinions, there is no better way for someone to learn how to be loved than to be accepted for exactly who he or she is. In a world where individuals seeking romance feign qualities in order to appeal to a potential romantic partner, the process of learning how to be loved is deterred as a result of resistance in revealing to someone your “truest” of selves. As a young adult male, I know all too well the reasons why individuals pretend to be a certain way. In the end, it may just be a product of over thinking. The presuppositions that go along with attempting to appeal to a certain someone are often counterproductive to the end goal of being accepted by that person. To be accepted for who you really are is the first real step in learning how to be comfortable with being loved.

There has been no romantic partnership, real or fictional, that has embodied this type of love and acceptance more than Paul and Julia Child. My knowledge of their love and commitment to one another comes from having read Julia’s nationally bestselling book My Life in France (co-written by Alex Prud’homme). The book documents the couple’s lives living overseas while Paul was stationed as an employee of the United States government. As most of you probably know by her personal fame, Julia took to culinary arts with a tenacity and drive that is enviable by anyone’s standards. Still, despite the glorious successes she had during her career, there were some serious ups-and-downs. Disputes over authorship of work, unsuccessfully “shopping” for publishers, and tensions with culinary school instructors are just a few of the arduous and tedious events that no doubt placed stress on Julia’s shoulders. As she mentions countless times throughout the course of the book, however, it was her husband who helped her get through all of these troublesome steps on the way to fame, fortune, and happiness. Happiness, I feel, is something that Julia found long before literary and televised fame. In reading her book, I was genuinely inspired by the ways she described her life with Paul before they had any money to speak of. While they were able to live off of his government earnings, they spent the vast majority of their adult lives as expatriates with no considerable fortune to speak of.

Let’s be honest. By no means would Julia Child be acknowledged as a stereotypically attractive woman. I’m sure she would tell you the same. On the other hand, I like to imagine that she felt more beautiful than any woman who has ever walked across a beauty pageant stage or adorned the cover of a magazine. I like to think that Paul made it a daily ritual to tell his wife how beautiful she was. In a way, a scenario like this makes me think about the perceptions we have about the people we are the most fond of. How evident imperfections, over time, become what we cherish most about them. Apart from her inordinate stature and height, Julia most likely never attracted second or third gazes from onlookers roaming the streets of Paris. I doubt it mattered. I take great joy in believing that she was made to feel radiant every day by the person who held the opinion that mattered most.

For as much as I love Julia Child’s book, I was overjoyed to see that the union between herself and Paul was depicted on the screen in as genuine and heartfelt a fashion as it was in the book, penned by the Julia herself. Julie and Julia (2009) principally follows the life of Julie Powell, the woman who set out to conquer all the recipe’s contained within Julia’s opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In addition to tracking Ms. Powell’s culinary conquest, the film also incorporates a storyline that follows Paul and Julia as they live their lives together in France (essentially based on the writing in My Life in France). The story of Julie and her husband is cute in its own right, and echoes many of the relational themes that were present in the lives of Paul and Julia. However, the present-day narrative doesn’t quite compare, if only because Julia and Paul had uniqueness about their relationship that is hard to replicate with any other subjects. Luckily, the filmmakers were able to cast the superb Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci in the leading roles. While these two have certainly contributed stellar screen performances in the past (some that are certainly more dramatically memorable than what is contained in this film), there is something special about the way they captured the incredible connection that the real life Paul and Julia had together.

While there is really no doubt in my mind that Paul and Julia child were physically and romantically compatible, Julia’s glorious writing on the subject leads me to believe in their relationship as the pinnacle for what companionship should be. As well all surely know (but are often too afraid to admit), physical beauty fades away with the passing of years and the accumulation of experience, making it all the more important to find yourself walking alongside a lover who is also the dearest of friends. Someone with whom you can share life’s grand and idiosyncratic moments, and whose mere presence will put you at ease like you never knew possible. Finding such a person may be difficult, and it will most definitely prove frustrating at some point(s) along the way. Still, I trust that it will all be worth it in the end.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Pen in the Stone

I have felt increasingly burdened lately with the ability to write relatively well. This may not seem like a burden to some, but it is. I can write, but I am by no means a writer. While I openly acknowledge my prowess as a composer of a coherent sentence, I am ashamed to admit that I do not come close to possessing the discipline it takes to write for a living, or to be a writer. At least, I don’t possess those skills yet.

During my time as a Masters student, I spent a great deal of time becoming in awe of real writers, both academic and non. Academically speaking, I became enamored with the writing of Dr. Bud Goodall, professor of Communication Studies at Arizona State University. Dr. Goodall is a superbly gifted writer and thinker. Although he spent the better part of his early academic career as a researcher in the subfield of organizational communication studies, he took an “interpretive turn” later on. Since this transition, he has published numerous books and journal articles on what it means to be an interpretive ethnographer. Dr. Goodall’s work taught me that not only must the writer maintain a presence in his or her work (even if he or she attempts to disguise the work as objective), but that that presence places a wonderful “spin” on research. While the discussion of objectivity vs. subjectivity in academic research is a rather large and complicated one, I will state here that I am moving closer and closer to being a complete proponent of the latter when it comes to conducting research. This may be why I have always been drawn to autobiographical works. I most certainly understand the proposed purpose of objectivity in academic research, but there is an inherent (and necessarily posed) question of whether such a concept can even exist. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this entry, I feel content in stating plainly that I am a proponent of acknowledging the author in the presence of his or her work. Dr. Goodall’s ethnographic accounts of his life as an academic and as an observer of the world inspired me to document cultural phenomena as they stand in relation to other artifacts and stimuli, most importantly, myself. Experiencing the world as a detailed observer and documenter is something that I am working on every day.

In truth, Bud Goodall’s work may represent the totality of academic writing that had an impact on my life. While it may make some of my former professors cringe, most of my assigned academic reading was dismissed to make way for more pleasurable literary accompaniments. (Pleasurable, only in the sense that I had a special inkling to read them over academic texts). Although this may be a rather awkward spot to place it, I would like to note that I did not appreciate the concept of reading for pleasure until at very least my second year of graduate school. I labeled myself a “film buff,” most likely because viewing motion pictures was an easier exercise for me than reading a book. I am ashamed to say it here and now, but I spent a very long period of my life too lazy to read a book. Shamefully, I made it through high school, community college, and undergraduate studies quite easily, with the assistance of Spark Notes and the ability to skim passages. The fact that I was able to “bullshit” insight also served a noble purpose in getting me to my first degree. Still, there was a ton of guilt. Returning to the subject at hand, I became enamored with a number of authors and literary works during my graduate studies. It was at this time that I finally became fed up with the unsupported claims of religious institutions. This led me to absorb the works of esteemed writers and scholars like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens, in particular, has become a role model for me both as a writer and thinker. Moreover, Hitchens floored me with his outstanding eloquence as a speaker and public figure. I recall during one interview I saw him featured in that he was once told by a colleague or friend that he speaks in the way most people wished they could write. This appeared to strike him as an impeccable compliment, and is the kind of thing I can only dream of hearing from someone during my own lifetime. Since I have realized my passion for literature, I have also tried to consume seminal literary works that I should have appreciated when they were assigned to me during my younger days. I enjoyed Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment when I skimmed it in high school, and can only imagine how the masterful work would strike me today. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden has been cemented recently as one of my very favorite works, but I still must face the fear that I would not have appreciated it if I had actually read it when it was assigned to me in high school.

My recently acquired love of reading has partially contributed to my lack of productivity as a writer. When I sit down to write, I usually can only go about five minutes before I conclude that my time would be better spent reading one of the almost countless literary masterpieces that are in existence. I don’t know how long I have on this earth, but I know now that I want to absorb as much knowledge and insight that past writers have left for me. I would feel guilty if I felt any other way. I have noticed that a great many splendid writers have remarked that one must be a great reader before he or she can be a great writer. I completely agree with this. However, I also feel that there is a risk that comes along with being a great reader. That is, you may never want to stop reading… to the point where you will find that the transition to composer is futile when attempting to conceive of worldly insights that may rival the esteemed “scribblers” of past and present. This is the trap I currently find myself in.

I am beginning to realize that there is no quick fix for my lack of writing discipline. I am beginning to understand that I must progress slowly from penned coherency to worthwhile prose. Lord only knows I’ve tried my fair share of “tricks” to expedite this process. When I was having trouble sitting down at my desk and writing for long periods of time, I tried sitting in a reclining chair, with my computer resting on my lap. When the reclining chair didn’t prove any more useful than the desk, I tried relaxing on the couch in a half-lying down position. This strategy only led me to become drowsy – the opposite of productive. Later, I thought that conceiving of copy on my laptop was the problem. Perhaps a blank, white, pixilated canvas was not what I needed to write a masterwork. So, I began writing longhand on a yellow legal pad and transposing that copy onto a word processor. This worked for a blog post or two, but then I noticed that my hand would begin cramping up after short stints of fervent writing (this was most certainly the time that I regretted not growing up in a time when cursive writing was revered and practiced). Lately, I have turned to the bottle for assistance. When my body is completely sober, my mind has trouble focusing. It is hard for me to focus on any singular task for an extended period of time, so the prospect of writing something long and halfway decent is a far-fetched whim. Through experimentation, I realized that I can remain relatively insightful when inebriated. So, I figured why not try using liquor to enhance focus and perhaps stumble on some insight? I’m currently three quarters of the way through a bottle of inexpensive but surprisingly good quality red wine from Rioja, one of Spain’s most heralded wine regions. My fermented indulgence seems to be working (I have been writing for quite a long time now), but I am starting to feel a rather uncomfortable pain in my side. This could prove troublesome very quickly.

Last, but certainly not least, I now officially have to deal with the burden of being related to an astonishingly fabulous writer. Those of you who keep up on my sporadic blog posts will know that my great grandfather was himself a gifted writer. I wrote a post for this blog months ago that attempted (however in vein) to pay tribute to his brilliance. If you find this post, you will most surely notice that the quotation I feature from his book at the end of the post puts my writing to shame, in an absurdly intimidating fashion. He wrote brilliantly, and the frustration I feel over his relative anonymity as an author is rivaled only by the frustration I feel when I realize I must do him justice. My grandmother once told me that she has his trusty typewriter stored away somewhere. If I remember correctly, she even told me that I could one day have it. If I were to receive it, I would most likely have to store it away in a secluded place of my own, for fear that keeping it out in the open would remind me of my shame on a daily basis.

Writing isn’t difficult. Writing something that matters, however, is extremely difficult. Perhaps the sad truth is that no writer thinks that what he or she writes is any good. If this is the case, then I smirk when I think about brilliant writers like Steinbeck or Hitchens, somehow reflecting on their own works as subpar. At this point in my life, all I can really do is revere them for all that they are. With any luck, they sat in front of stationary or a word processor during their early twenties in the same fashion I sit in front of my computer screen today… youthful, ambitious, and petrified.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Art Appreciation 101

My parents didn’t see much of me while I was in high school. Why? Because most of my time during these four “crucial” years of my development was spent away from my parents’ home (I recall being at home to sleep and to eat some kind of sugary, not-so-good-for-me cereal the next morning before school). My time spent away from my family home was spent, rather, in the home of the Young family. The Young family was comprised of parents Greg and Barbara, twin sons Kevin and Paul, and an adorable Pug named Rocky (who I was told regretfully passed away some time ago). In addition to the core members of the Young household were the teenage riffraff who could often be seen rummaging through the house at any given hour (myself included). When you’re in high school, most of what you do when spending time with your friends is called “hanging out.” If this term still means to high schoolers what it did to me between 2001 and 2005, it essentially means that you and a group of your friends spend countless hours being completely immobile while processing some sort of media that has very little to do with the schoolwork you were assigned in class (which, after having completed graduate school, I can attest to being completely worthless). It seems to me that adults spend a decent amount of time reflecting on their times of “hanging out” as teenagers, often arriving at the conclusion that it was completely worthless, perhaps even counterproductive to the human beings they eventually became. This sort of thinking most likely pleases their parents, who probably literally were counting the days until their children came to the realization that they were always right about how they should be spending their time. If asked directly, I’m sure even my parents would claim that I wasted much of my adolescent and teenage years “hanging out” and allowing precious brain cells to be lost. Unfortunately for my parents, they are going to have to wait until another time to pop the “I told you so Champagne.”

While it is true that I spent many hours during high school as an immobile, media junky sloth, I can say with full confidence today that these times were some of the most productive I ever had for becoming who I am today. It was the time I spent at Young Manor (not a name we ever used back then, but seems fitting as I type this) that provided me with the initial footing for appreciating arts and media.

I became acquainted with the Young family through a friendship with Kevin. Although our friendship developed during our freshmen year of high school, I believe we initially met when he and I accidently switched backpacks after P.E. in eighth grade. When I opened my bag to retrieve my homework for my last class of the day, I noticed that my binder (not quite a Trapper Keeper, but pretty close to it) had been replaced by a loose collection of papers and drumsticks. It was this moment that clued me into precisely how Kevin prioritized his interests. After sorting out the incident, he and I remained acquaintances through the end of middle school and into high school. While I forget how the invitation was initially extended, I ended up at Kevin’s house one day after school. I’ll never forget the first time I walked into the Young home... it exposed me to a type of media-based junky-ness that I had never before known. Where the reasonably sized television should have been was a giant projection screen (backlit when necessary). Rather than having a single stack of CDs, Kevin’s parents had thousands of them perfectly catalogued. Apart from storing the physical recordings, Kevin’s dad had the family’s entire musical collection stored on a shared computer hard drive that could be accessed from any computer in the house. It is important to understand that at the time, I came from a household that was close to the least technologically savvy you could get. While I was revered as a sort of technological messiah by my own parents, navigating through the Young family labyrinth of media clued me into just how naïve about the whole thing I really was. And, as if such an absurd collection of music wasn’t enough, the Youngs had done quite a decent job of collecting DVDs. Their collection was stored in quite an intimidating fashion, against a wall in the living room (yes, the collection basically took up the entire wall). All in all, I was overwhelmed with astonishment as I realized that I had discovered a safe haven for my fellow geeks and myself. Over the course of the next four years, the Young home proved to be our Jerusalem.

During my time as a frequenter of the Young home, I spent large quantities of time sitting on a leather couch in an almost pitch black room, being exposed to films, actors, and thought processes completely foreign to me. It was in this room that I was first brought to tears by a motion picture. It was in this room that I was placed in a state of awe over an actor’s performance. It was in this room that I learned to focus on film as an art, rather than simply absorb it as sensory stimulation. It was also in this room that I realized the mediocrity of microwavable popcorn (thanks to Barbara for concocting copious amounts of her homemade popcorn). Although I am plagued to this very day by an offensively sluggish metabolism, I don’t for a second regret the willing immobility of my teenage self. The time I spent sitting in the Young’s home theater was time very well spent… it forced me to focus attentively on the visuals in front of me, and to think critically and creatively about them. I became so enthused about my newfound “filmbuff” identity that Kevin and I created our own audio movie review show. Essentially, we were the most vulgar versions of Siskel and Ebert fathomable. While my vocabulary widened extensively in the direction of vulgar terms and phrases, the process of communicating my thoughts and opinions about a given film into a five dollar computer microphone helped me to establish the critical thinking and communication skills that eventually got me through graduate school (and a handful of collegiate film studies courses). For this reason, I wouldn’t take back a second I spent recording those offensive reviews.

Today, my friends and family will testify to the fact that movies aren’t the only medium to which I have a special affection. I also have a love for music. Although an affinity for playing an instrument never seemed to be “in the cards,” I adore many kinds of music. However, just as my appreciation for film didn’t truly develop until my teenage years, my obsession with music also took some time to develop. While my love of Motown and other such genres is rooted in the time I spent with my father, most of the other genres of music I have come to love came to me by way of the Young family. It was Kevin who first introduced me to progressive rock, the genre that I will most likely always consider to be the closest to my heart. My exposure to “prog” bands came about simply by hanging out (there is that infernal term again) in Kevin’s room, while he freely sifted through what seemed like endless musical files stored on the family’s network. As I sat patiently waiting, he would open a program called Winamp (remember that one?!), and simply click and drag musical files into a playlist until he was content with the selection he had made. From there we simply sat and listened. Most of the music I expose my friends to today was exposed to me first by Kevin and his family. Artists exposed to me then that are especially meaningful to me today are: Spock’s Beard, King’s X, Dream Theater, The Flower Kings, Pain of Salvation, Mr. Bungle, Oingo Boingo, Devo, Tool, Opeth, Rhapsody (thanks go to Brian Rudloff on this one…), Tori Amos, Kansas, and countless others. Kevin took music very seriously. In fact, upon purchasing a new CD, he had a tradition of listening to it all the way through on headphones, before he would share it on the family network. To this day, no way of listening to music compares to sitting comfortably with headphones on. It was with the Young family that I also experienced some of the best concert experiences of my life. And while Kevin was surely my primary liaison into the world of music appreciation, his family and friends most definitely aided in this endeavor. His parents should be singled out in this regard, for it was they who taught me the value in maintaining a household where some kind of music is playing almost all the time. Also, I would be remiss if I went through an entire blog post about the Young family’s influence on me if I didn’t at least give Paul Young credit for teaching me how simultaneously brilliant and irritating it is to hear someone whistle rock/metal songs.

I give my own parents credit for teaching me how to love people, but the Youngs taught me how to love art. Although we rarely see each other or speak these days, it was important to me to give credit where it is surely deserved. I only hope that one day my own children will spend inordinate amounts of time with friends who can teach them something as worthwhile as what was taught to me… during all those hours of hanging out in the dark room of a house tucked away on Citracado Parkway.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Business Trip to Paso Robles

My tenure as a representative for McClean Vineyards has to this point been relatively brief, but filled with massive amounts of enjoyment. Our office is small, in personnel and physical location, but houses creativity, goodwill, and camaraderie like I could never have imagined in May when I received my Master’s degree from Cal State Fullerton. All I knew going into the month of June was that I wanted to work with wine… somehow.

Considering that the role of our office is to sell and market the winery’s 2005 Syrah, it seemed to be beneficial for our young staff to embark on a trip to Paso Robles in order to better understand the land (terroir, if you will) and the people that have a hand in the winemaking process. This process is a long and detailed one, ranging from arduous undertakings in the vineyard to vinification, and finally to bottling and selling. As individuals assigned the task of getting the finished product into the hands of consumers, we were delighted when we learned of the opportunity to travel North to gain a better understanding of precisely what we are selling. So, at 6 A.M. this past Monday morning, a few folks from our staff met at our Newport office to hit the road to Paso.

Our first stop in Paso Robles (after a commute that was made bearable by scenic routes and caffeine) was a facility known as Paso Robles Wine Services. This remarkable venue plays host to the vinifying ventures of many small, family-owned wineries in the Paso region. A room of gargantuan stainless steel fermentation tanks gives way to the barrel room, where many vintages of wine are aging toward a states appropriate for bottling, where they will continue to age until they are poured into the glass of an appreciative consumer. Led through PRWS by Michael McClean, our vineyard’s owner, we navigated the many rows of barrels until we reached the small batch of his Syrah nestled into a small space of the room (relative to the absurd quantities of barrels owned by some). To my joyous dismay, we were given the opportunity to taste barrel samples of the ’06, ’07, ’08, and ’10 Syrah (the ’09 vintage was lost as a result of weather conditions). Tasting these barrel samples was one of the better practical educational experiences I’ve had in my short time in the wine trade. Comparatively tasting wines in this fashion is stellar when attempting to track how a wine’s qualities change with time in barrel. Additionally, it offers a valuable lesson in drinkability by giving tasters the opportunity to pinpoint wines in the series that are ready to drink now, and which ones will still benefit from treatment in an oak barrel (should the winemaker decide to treat the wine with oak). The ’06 and ’07 vintages were the highlights of the tasting experience for me. The ’06 very closely resembled the ’05 (which we are currently selling) in its soft tannin structure and balance of dark fruit and a beautiful old-world style “earthiness.” And still, while the ’06 proved to be perfectly ready to drink, the ’07 showed even more magnificently with a stagger-inducing complexity of flavors and brilliant weight on the palate. A short business meeting followed the barrel tastings just before our team ventured out to explore more of the area.

After having lunch and a drink at an Irish pub in Downtown Paso Robles (a cuisine equally hedonistic, but a perfect contrast to that of wine and wine-appropriate h’orderves), we checked into our hotel and took off for another business/ “looking for insight” meeting with a Bill Grant, co-owner of 4 Vines Winery. The rather steep dirt road that leads to Bill’s home is surrounded by grape vines. This humble path is ironically appropriate given the beauty of Bill’s home and surrounding estate. Much to our delight, we were greeted by Bill and Janell Dusi (of Dusi Wines) carrying wine glasses and a gigantic plate of appetizers. The giddiness on the faces of the McClean team was a sight, to say the least. The meeting that ensued was a valuable learning experience for a number of reasons. As prime participants in the Paso Robles wine scene, Bill and Janell had an extraordinary wealth of information to share with us regarding wine business in general, as well as insights that were provided regarding our specific plans for our own business. Much more than what was offered in the form of specific business insights, the meeting we had was great for witnessing what real business is… or maybe what it should be. In The Thank You Economy, Gary Vaynerchuk remarks that real business doesn’t take place at a conference table, but occurs over a plate of hot wings and a beer. Although a slight variation on that scenario, our meeting with Bill and Janell was a fantastic integration of friendly conversation and topical business speak. While no formal business was conducted during the ninety-ish minutes we spent laughing, drinking, and eating overlooking grape vines, it was the perfect start to what will hopefully be a long-term friendship relationship... with hopefully more “business” meetings to come in the future. Monday evening concluded with dinner at the McClean’s home in Templeton and “sightseeing” in Downtown Paso (assigned the moniker “DTP” by the end of the night). Our less-than-motivated return trip to Orange County was filled with laughter and stories regarding the events of the night prior.

Although I had been wine tasting in prominent wine regions before this excursion to Paso Robles, it was this trip that solidified my interest in working in the wine trade for the immediate future. Even though many of my whimsical notions were sobered with the reality that wine is, first and foremost, a business, I have never been more assured of what I want to do with my days than I am at this moment. While it turns out that a day in the wine “biz” doesn’t revolve exclusively around drinking and eating, it has proven (thus far) to include working with fun, intelligent, and motivated people. But, just to be on the safe side, I’ll say a prayer for my liver.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mr. Denver's Musical Restorative

I have great deal of trouble doing many things, but getting through the night restfully has never been one of them. While my friends and relatives often become disturbed mid-sleep by earthquakes and rowdy neighbors, I generally have to be told of these disturbances in the morning. It takes an act of God to wake me from a slumber. This fact increases the peculiarity of one night years ago. The night began as most do for me, reading from a book before bed. I made an effort to fall asleep around 11 PM, and actually fell asleep (I’m guessing, of course) at approximately 11:15. Based on prior nights of similar routine, I should have woken up rested (albeit slightly groggy between 7:30 and 8 AM. This night, however, did not go undisturbed.

When I awoke at 2:30 AM, it was just like I would have at my normal waking time. There was no nightmare that sparked my sudden rise, and it was not an issue of not being able to fall asleep in the first place. I woke up quite normally; simply at a time much earlier than to what I was accustomed. After trying to fall back to sleep for roughly twenty minutes, I decided that it was just not going to happen. So, I ventured out of my bedroom and into my living room where I turned on the television. When I flipped on the television it was precisely 3 AM. Strangely enough, the set was turned to PBS (a station I rarely, if ever watch). Beginning just as I sat down was a documentary program titled, “A Song’s Best Friend: John Denver Remembered.” Although I had certainly heard of John Denver before this moment, I’d be lying if I claimed to be at all familiar with his music. I’d be an even worse liar if I claimed at that moment to be an admirer of Denver’s genre of music. Folk and Country music were long ways off from the “classic” and “progessive” rock of which I claimed to be an enthusiast. My distaste for Denver’s genre was coupled with a presumptuous notion that his lyrics concerned solely the most cheery and falsely idealistic facets of life. I didn’t care much at that point in time to indulge in sappy campfire music. All of these sentiments combined should have served as ample motivation for me to change the channel. But for some reason I didn’t. I sat for the next sixty minutes fixated on the screen. In the end, I felt completely changed.

The hour-long special covered significant events in Denver’s career and personal life, as well as insightful commentaries by loved ones and professional acquaintances regarding some of his most notable and enduring songs. The program served as an outstanding introduction to Denver’s accomplishments as a songwriter, lyricist, and social activist. Since then, I have become familiar with a much wider selection of Denver’s music, and have developed an affection for the sentiments he contributed to an often diluted music industry, as well as an often troubled world. In this piece I’ll do my best to point out why two of Denver’s most popular songs are worth listening to.

“Honesty” is the word that strikes me whenever I listen to some of Denver’s most famous tunes. “Annie’s Song,” which has become a personal archetype for what a love song should be, conveys the feeling of love in an astoundingly evocative way. The song begins with a vulnerable admission: “You fill up my senses like a night in the forest; like the mountains in springtime, like a walk in the rain.” This opening strikes a chord with me with each listen. We all know what it is like to feel euphoria. Often, it seems, these feelings cause us to pause and take in life in ways that we never thought possible. For John Denver, feelings of euphoria could be found in the intricate beauties of nature. Given his admitted love of the earth and natural splendors, it is all too flattering to the subject of this song that his love for her was compared, even equated to the most magnificent of nature’s feats. Also, I should point out how powerful it is that Denver described this love as filling up his senses… completely engulfing him in that brilliant euphoric feeling. We should all dream of being so lucky to experience this, just once… even for an instant. The lyric continues with other evocative comparisons for life, such as “like a storm in the desert, like a sleep Blue ocean.” Finally, the song concludes with the line, “Come fill me again.” For me, this all-important conclusion illustrates a raw and powerful human compulsion to repeatedly crave moments of love and grandeur.

One of Denver’s other great feats as a songwriter was his to capture the allure of things that have come to be perceived as mundane or insignificant. “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” one of Denver’s other beautifully honest compositions, illustrates how we do not need to modify our instinctual responses to stimuli in order to be profound. Again, the appeal of the song and its messages are rooted in the honesty and childlike simplicity of the lyrics. “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy. Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry. Sunshine on the water looks so lovely. Sunshine almost always makes me high.” While these words can easily be labeled as primitive, unrefined, or lacking sophistication, I argue that they are the product of an insightful form of sophistication. They are an acknowledgment that sometimes, possibly at the most important of times, the beauty of an idea should speak for itself, without being tampered with by a writer’s ego or need to impress with flowery prose. This song also makes an effort to convey the splendor that accompanies the sharing of something beautiful with someone else. Denver writes, “If I had a tale that I could tell you, I’d tell a tale sure to make you smile. And if I had a wish that I could wish for you, I’d make a wish for sunshine all the while.” These innocent sentiments are divine.

Writing briefly about these two songs beings me a great sense of joy, but also makes me feel slightly ashamed that I didn’t do them justice. Of course, after all, no words of mine could come close to capturing Denver’s own, especially when composed where he was at his best: accompanied by his trusty guitar, immersed in the exquisiteness of the world he cherished so dearly.

I still don’t know why I woke up that night years ago, and I certainly don’t know why my television was left on PBS. But, I can honestly, say, I’m glad it all happened as it did.