Thursday, December 30, 2010

Don't Make That

These days, it seems fashionable to be 'anti-art'.

It seems that no matter what art it is or where it is placed, somehow, someone will be against it. But what does that mean, to be 'anti-art'? Is this a new phenomenon, or is it something ancient, built-in, so to speak, to society itself?

I tend toward the latter explanation because while it is sometimes fashionable to be iconoclastic, it has always been safe to be anti-art. The most common example of this is trite.

"That's not art. My five-year old could have done better than that!"

While uttered often in our era, I suspect that down through time, there has always been some observer off to the side muttering that very sentiment, even stretching back to the Neanderthals. Critics, even cavemen, have ever been so cruel. Another, less articulated but still prevalent attitude is more direct.

"I don't care what you call it. Stop. Don't make that."

This is most often directed to artists at the extreme edge, whose position there is to elicit that very response, but it is what is really at the core of most objections to art. If being anti-art is somehow seen as being pro-order (or anti-anarchy to double down on the negative) then it is a rather common feeling, I suspect.

Many people feel--and, perhaps, have always felt--that art and artists have simply run away with (from?) the rules of society. There is a prevalent feeling that for most people, most art is no better than graffiti, and certainly is no less harmful to society. Art, like graffiti, is a sign of decay. Art is anarchy that threatens the order of society and some people think that they are defending not simply their opinion, but their very way of life.

Sometimes it's tempting to think this way. It'd be much easier to reject art than think about it. But common sense and some reasonable humility are in order. When we see ourselves as the last bastion of civilization, it's a sure sign we are overreaching.

Monday, December 20, 2010

California Wine Country: Sonoma & Napa

I took my first trip to California wine country last week.

Yes, truth be told, the secret is out: though I have sold many a bottle of wine from Sonoma and Napa, I have never been to see where they come from. While it might seem like a trivial thing--after all, I haven't been to most wine producing regions of the world, let alone the many in California alone, or even Texas for that matter--in fact it was a way of providing some background, a context, if you will, for the wines that I sell every weekend.

Seeing the sky, smelling the earth and experiencing the terrain where the grapes are grown is as important as tasting the wine they are made from.

That much I was prepared for, but only in the way of knowing that was how I wanted to experience it first; raw and unprepared except for a few appointments at wineries whose products I know and whose wine makers I have come to respect by virtue if that product. Some of the wine makers I had already met, like Robert from Deerfield, Paul from Red Car, Gove from Neal and John from Caldwell.

We went to see five wineries in Sonoma and Napa in two days. Our first winery was in a rainy, mossy, and foggy Sonoma, at Deerfield. Here we were met by Robert Rex and his wife P.J. Their home was full of wonderful smells, most cozy and welcoming, as were they. P.J. claimed that she was cooking stock and pea soup because Robert had left the freezer open when he'd gone for some ice late the night before. If it was just a ruse, it was a wonderful one, because it made us feel right at home.

Robert and P.J. were also most interesting and easy to talk to. We drank some of their wines and ate some delightful cheeses--an Argentinian 'parmesan' and a French bleu--with some little bits of toast and garlic oil in a little bowl. P.J. served us demitasse cups full of the fresh pea soup she was making along with a little truffle oil on top. it was bright green and fresh, and I could really taste the peas.

We talked around their table for about two hours. I learned a lot about Robert and P.J., their business and their passion for wine. The latter we already knew about, but finding two very likable and open people was a highlight of our trip.

Next, we drove through the rain to Dutton, where we got more of the classic 'tourist style' of tasting. We went to the tasting room, where we met Ruben, the General Manager. He tasted us on a couple of wines and gave us a nice, if rather perfunctory tour of the winery and warehouse where they store all the barrels. We bought a bottle of the syrah.

We ended the day with a trip to Red Car, which is actually winery but there isn't much to see. They were having an open house to celebrate the opening of their new tasting room. We were among the first people to arrive, mostly because we didn't want to go to our hotel till we had had a chance to say hello to Paul, who had come to our house a couple of years ago.

That night, we stayed in a Hyatt in Santa Rosa and ate dinner in a restaurant called Syrah. It was very good, and affordable only because we split an appetizer and an entree with no dessert. They had a wine list that looked more like a book; it must have listed 300 wines. I think the waitress was a bit disappointed when Valery had a glass of chardonnay and I had a beer.

The next day we went to Napa and began the day at Neal, whose Cabernet is unquestionably my favorite Napa Cab, and whose winemaker Gove was out to Hudson's for a wine dinner a couple of years ago also. The Neal winery is one of those complete shops. They have their own vineyards, all the winemaking equipment, including de-stemmer, crusher, press, tanks, barrels, cave, bottling room, label printer and tasting room. They've only been making wine since 2001, but they have lots of money. Mark Neal, the owner, is a grape grower.

That's something I learned, about all the different roles that people play in a wine producing place like Sonoma/Napa. You have your farmers, grape producers, and your brokers, who sell grapes to wineries. You have the wineries, which can be in a beautiful purpose-made building with a cave (like Neal) or just a warehouse (like Red Car) and the winemakers, who are mostly UC Davis grads, but there are still a few autodidacts out there, like Gove at Neal. You have grape brokers who are also winery owners (but not wine makers) like our fifth and final stop on our mini-tour.

We met John Caldwell outside his 5,000 square foot cave drilled into the volcanic ash of a hillside. Inside is a state-of-the-art winery, with all the trappings of the big-time, including a special tasting room that is actually a dome carved out of the rock inside the cave. Caldwell is bit of a curmudgeon, but only because he's been in the business long enough not to be impressed by money or power, only by passion and an earnest desire to learn about his wine, which he was happy to talk about for about two hours.

If anything sums up our experience, it was the feeling that if one were to live in Sonoma or Napa, one's life would almost necessarily revolve around wine. So pervasive is the industry that when I went to get a hot-dog at a roadside stand in St. Helena, they had a wine list. I wouldn't be surprised if they also had a sommelier.

While I learned a lot from this trip, mostly what I learned is how little I really know. It was wonderful to put a few wines in context, but I doubt I'll ever even learn a fraction of what there is to know about wine, wineries and wine makers. So, while what I know may not qualify me to be a sommelier at a Napa Valley hot dog stand, it'll have to do for Hudson's. At least I'm learning!