Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Nurse the Hate: French Wine Blitzkrieg Part 3, Champagne

Champagne is delicious.  If you don't drink it, at least on occasion, you're missing out on one of life's affordable pleasures.  “My only regret is not drinking more champagne.” is a great quote that may or may not have been uttered by John Maynard Keynes on his death bed.  It doesn't matter if he said it or not.  He should have and that's all that matters.  I have been drinking an unhealthy amount of the stuff for months during and now after studying the region for that WSET Diploma test.  I just got hooked.  I got a champagne monkey on my back.  Don’t pour me a prosecco or even Cremant de Bourgogne and try to pretend it’s the same thing.  It isn’t.  Champagne is from champagne and is a step above all the rest.  The rest of that other stuff is just “sparkling wine”.  The folks in the Champagne region have it down and these wines are the last word in quality.

The Champagne trade has done an absolutely amazing job selling the wines as the epitome of luxury and class.  The last thing that the Champagne trade wants you to know is how industrialized the making of these wines are, as if small teams of artisans were hand turning the 300 million bottles of champagne made annually.  This is big business with huge corporations running the best known brands like Moet, Veuve, Dom Perignon, Cristal and Taittinger.  There are 5 million bottles of Dom alone made each year.  The whole enterprise is presented as part magic and part artisan craft but it’s really industrialized farming and food processing.

There has been a trend towards “grower champagnes”.  What this means is that small family run wineries stopped selling their crops to the big brands and instead decided to make their own champagne.  These are like the indie bands of Champagne.  They are made in very small quantities.  They tend to be quirky wines and reflect their vineyard sources.  Douchy waxed mustache hipster wine professionals might say something like “I don’t drink anything but grower champagne” which is the wine version of saying “I only listen to Minus the Bear’s early stuff”.  Just like not all indie rock bands are good, the same holds true with grower champagnes.  Waxed mustache guy and his buddy Roger would never admit that the too acidic grower champagne they are pretending to like is about a third as good as Pol Roger or Louis Roederer’s NV bottlings.  However, mustache guy and I would likely agree on the wines of AR Lenoble.  Roger would still disagree, but that's because he's kind of a shit.

A very small operation in the tiny village of Damery, AR Lenoble is run by a brother/sister team.  Christian is the sales/marketing head and poured everything in the house during the two plus hours he graciously spent.  They came one after another.  “OK, here’s our version of a non vintage which we call Intense.  Here’s a zero dosage.  Still pretty rich, right?  You don’t want to try the Demi Sec, do you?  Here…  I’ll pour you some.  OK, now try the 100% meunier next to the grand cru Blanc de Blancs.  Now try it next to the 2008.  That still has a ways to go.”  It was awesome.  Great quality and distinct wines.  While not every one of them played to my style, it’s cool that they made them.  For my enthusiasm for the Blanc de Blancs, I know there’s someone else jacked up about the Blanc de Noirs.  These are wines with personality.  AR Lenoble has my full support.  Good wines and good people.

Driving through the villages of the region was illuminating.   As I had memorized maps of the region certain landmarks took on great import.  The Montagne de Reims (Reims Mountain) looks massive on the map, but it really just a good sized hill.  People in Pittsburgh would be pissed off if they knew the French had called that a "mountain".  I was expecting much greater distances between the villages of the Vallee de la Marne and the Cotes de Blanc.  Instead they are very close, which makes the idea that the valley grows the meunier grape because of frost resistance and chardonnay is grown in the Cotes de Blanc because of different climate conditions all the more remarkable.  American translation.  "Well, we grow corn over here in Covington but all the way over there in Cincinnati we grow wheat as'in the weather being so different and all across da river..."

Things that are smaller than you expect, but still manage to be impressive include the villages around the Montagne de Reims, the Statue of Liberty, Graceland, and the Alamo.  (I debated including "my penis" in that list, but felt it was a cheap joke.  By mentioning it in brackets like this I was still able to make the joke but can now provide distance saying that the whole point of this side bar was to note how I didn't make the remark.)  Things that are larger than you expect and still impressive include Easter Island statues, the Gates of Babylon, Golden Gate Bridge, and the champagne aging cellars in Reims/Epernay.  (See, if I had been thinking in advance I could have said "my penis" here instead, but I think the joke is funnier if you say "smaller" instead of "larger" as it is more self effacing.  Really, the joke isn't that funny at all and I have spent too much time trying to work it in.  Hmm.  There might have been another cheap joke right there too...)

One of the things to prepare for in visiting Epernay where the big Champagne houses headquarter is the expressionless Asian tourists.  Asian tourists love to take pictures of themselves in front of prestige brand landmarks.  They have absolutely zero interest in "very good" champagnes and are only focused on what they perceive to be "the best".  You could make an afternoon of it sitting near the Dom Perignon statue at Moet and Chandon watching blank faced Asians photograph each other in front of it.  I have this vision where you go to their houses and after dinner they roll out an old fashioned slide projector and screen slide after slide of themselves looking miserable in front of recognizable landmarks.  "Here's Lin Chu unhappy in front of the place where they make Cristal.  Oh!  And here he is slightly frowning with a bottle of La Grande Dame.  This is my favorite!  Here he is looking uncomfortable at the Eiffel Tower!".

When I took blind tasting classes in Bordeaux, the table of Chinese would be completely uninterested in a wine.  Let's say the wine was "good" but not "great".  They would be disengaged as we would go through the analysis in a group.  Then, if the bag was pulled away to reveal a prestigious grand cru Burgundy, they would immediately light up, fight each other to take pictures of the bottle, and kill for the last of the bottle to be poured in their glass.  It has to be an entire nation walking around in fake Gucci and Prada with the people of Levi's wondering why they can't make any headway.  In Epernay, the sale of Dom and Cristal must be brisk to these tourists.  Me?  I'd rather have three bottles of AR Lenoble Blanc de Blancs.

On the last morning in Epernay, I grabbed an early morning coffee in the middle of a busy workingman’s café.  A locals place, the patrons teased the bartender who was stoically making coffees and dolling out croissants to his friends.  When he turned his back, they would toss their sugar cubes, purposely missing the basket and filling his back counter.  I hid in plain sight standing in the middle of the bar, all of them ignoring the quiet American as they carried on.  I like the sound of different languages, always imagining the conversations aren’t as inane.  It is easy to imagine that the translated French would somehow be charming.  I stood at the counter slowly sipping my espresso.  At a small round table near the sidewalk a woman sat with a small glass of champagne, cigarette held straight up in the air.  It was eight o’clock in the morning, a perfect time for a glass of champagne

Friday, July 27, 2018

Nurse the Hate: French Wine Blitzkrieg Part 2, the Cote de Nuits

The Cote d’Or is about two and half hours south of Chablis.  It is considerably less time if you drove like I did blissfully unaware of the French traffic cam system of enforcing speeding.  The town of Beaune divides the Burgundy region between the northern Cote de Nuits and the southern Cote de Beaune.  It’s an excellent place to set up base camp, which I did at the absolutely fabulous Hotel Le Cep.  I’m a guy that has stayed in a lot of very nice hotels.  I will go on record as saying that the Hotel Le Cep is probably one of my favorite of all time.  I will likely take up residence at this hotel in the near future where I will pen my bittersweet memoirs and drink myself to death in their unbelievable wine cellar.  I plan on shuffling out of my preferred room, the Meursault, in only my bathrobe and monogrammed Le Cep slippers, where I will walk down to the salon and say things such as “Oh my dear!  Please forgive me as my robe has blown open yet again.  I hope you have not been unsettled to see this unbridled manhood at such an early hour.  Tsk tsk my love.  No worry.  Now tell me… Have you seen Claude?  I believe he has my morning preparation.  Have him send a basket of croissants up to my lady friend sleeping in the room Meursault.  Au revoir my sweet....”

Beaune is a picture postcard town with plenty of refurbished 15th Century buildings.  It looks exactly like the picture that comes up when you Google "France" after you scroll past the Eiffel Tower pics.  There are plenty of places to buy overpriced antiques, poorly considered fashion options and insanely expensive Burgundy wine.  As far as I could tell, everyone was either eating, drinking or trying to figure out where they were going to eat and drink next.  This is Burgundy and it’s what you do.  You don’t come here to water ski.  

There are many places to taste wines of varying quality.  I had a deja vu experience where I had a flight of white wines poured to me by a smiling strawberry blonde woman in her late 20s.  She was very cheerful and dutifully told me about how the Pouilly-Fuisse was made from chardonnay, which was typical of that area.  I was distracted, staring at a small bumblebee ring she wore, thinking “should you let her ramble on or maybe throw in some soil composition facts and Maconnais trivia just so she knows that she doesn’t have to talk to you like an elementary school tourist?”.  She seemed really happy with her talking points, so I let her keep going.  She smiled and talked about how one day she wanted to go to a hotel in the Nordic area that was an igloo.  I was thinking as I sipped a decent Puligny Montrachet that I hoped she gets there some day. 

A quick primer on the wines of Burgundy.  This is all you need to know to be dangerous.  The white wines are 100% chardonnay.  The red wines are 100% pinot noir.  They are considered to be the absolute benchmarks for both types of wines.  Chardonnay can grow almost anywhere, but this is the place where it exhibits the most purity and balance.  The pinot noir is even more special.  Pinot is a pain in the ass to farm and really only grows well in a few places such as Burgundy, parts of New Zealand, areas of Sonoma County, and in the Willamette Valley near Portland. It’s a very finicky grape.  There are other good bottlings sprinkled around the planet, but if you like pinot noir, the Cote d’Nuits in Burgundy is your Mecca. 

Burgundy wines confuse the shit out of most people, but they are actually easy when you get the rules down.  The label shows a hierarchy or geographic location.  The French in their “of course” dismissive way assume EVERYONE knows red wine from Burgundy is pinot noir.  As the location of the vineyard source becomes more specific, the basic thought is that the quality increases.  So you can purchase a wine from the Burgundy region (meaning grapes from anywhere in Burgundy), the Cote d’Nuits, the commune of Vosne-Romanee, or the specific vineyard of Romanee Conti.  The basic red wine from Burgundy will set you back about $15.  The Romanee Conti about $25,000.  It is all about supply and demand.

Another added layer of complexity is knowing who made the wine.  Due to French inheritance law, all the children get equal portions of the estate.  Let’s say your father owns a small vineyard, about the size of a decent sized back yard.  When he dies, you get the same size portion of the land as your sister and your brother.  You have always been into making wine and farming grapes with your Dad, so you make great wine.  Your sister isn’t into it, so she leases her part of the land out to your old neighbor instead of you just to jam you up.  That guy now makes his own wine from your Dad’s yard.  Meanwhile your fuck up younger brother smokes a lot of weed, sleeps in, listens to lots of Sabbath and makes some shitty wine with his friend Nay-Nay. 

Now at the wine store there are three bottles for sale.  Your kick ass wine called “My Wine from Dad’s Vineyard in the town of Pommard in Burgundy France” is proudly on the top shelf.  It is sitting next to “The guy next door’s version of your Dad’s old vineyard in the town of Pommard in Burgundy France”.  Unfortunately for both of you is that the third bottle is “Fuck Up Brother’s wine from Dad’s vineyard”.  They are all priced about the same and look similar so the consumer has to either know that your brother is a fuck up or somehow remember your wine which he had once at a restaurant from those three really complicated sounding bottles.  If not, the guy drops $65 on your fuck up brother’s wine by mistake and then thinks “Dad’s vineyard sucks.  I’m never getting wine from that vineyard again.”.  There’s a million people with tiny little vineyard holdings in Burgundy.  Some make great wine and some are the fuck up brother.

There are some very good large firms making wine there that you will see and can have confidence in like Louis Jadot and Domaine Drouhin.  They make wines spanning from “Burgundy white” to “Montrachet Grand Cru” at corresponding price points.  I tasted through a decent number of bottlings at both places and found the Drouhin to have a delicate grace and house style that shone through, despite a few higher points overall from Jadot.  You can buy a bottle from either producer and show up at someone’s house unafraid of looking like a dope.

The wines made in Burgundy are in great demand.  They are expensive, some astronomically so.  They used to be very expensive and now can be insane thanks to the Chinese rush to market for the finest wines.  Too many people want too few bottles.  This is why not everyone can drink La Tache at $22.  It wasn’t until I drove out to the tiny town of Vosne Romanee that I really got it.  I drove up the “Road of Grand Crus” which is a straight shot that connects all the legendary Burgundy Villages so well known to aficionados from wine labels.  Aloxe Corton sits proudly on a hill surrounded by vines.  Little villages pass in a blink.  I rolled through the town of Cote d’Nuits with its shabby charm to get to my ultimate destination.  The vineyards are a quilt of tranquil green. 

Vosne Romanee is the absolute epicenter for the finest pinot noir on the planet.  It is not a point of debate.  It’s just the way that it is.  They have the absolute perfect soil, climate and combination of intangibles to make pinot noir magical.  It doesn’t look like much.  The town is tiny and remarkably sleepy.  A tired looking old woman swept her doorstep with a cheap plastic broom.  Two teenage girls sat on the church steps and ignored me.  Small claustrophobic alleys lazily slope between run down two story residences.  I could hear TVs insistent chatter behind closed shutters.  I walked the slight incline on a dirt road to get to the legendary vineyards.  I wanted to smell the air, feel the ground underfoot, and actually get a sense of what the place was like that had been written about in such reverential terms for hundreds of years. 

The most striking thing is that despite knowing the legendary vineyards would be small, I have to say one thing.  They are really small!  I knew they would be small parcels of land, but damn…  It is amazing that any bottles of some of these wines are ever seen by the naked eye anywhere.  Based on the size of those vineyards, a bottle of Romanee Conti should be like a unicorn, something you know what it looks like in theory but have never actually seen with your own eyes.  I think I could throw a football across the vineyard, and I’m not exactly possessing a cannon of an arm.  Standing there all by myself on a Sunday morning with the sound of bees buzzing and birds chirping is something I will always remember.  This was, in essence, the realization of the quest I had taken on to get here.  But let’s be honest.  It was also just a guy standing in a farm.  There isn’t much to see.  The significance is all in the knowledge of the past of this tiny spot.  I can’t imagine how many bored wives have been standing here looking at their watch asking “What are you looking at?  It’s a bunch of vines just like all the others.  Can we go?”.   

I was lost in thought at lunch that day when I made a tragic social faux pas, a breach of ettiqette so severe that vengeance was served with swift precision.  I forgot to say “Bon Jour” when I walked into a restaurant.  It is custom when you walk into a French place of business to say “Bon Jour!” in an uplifting tone.  Then the person in the store replies with an equally optimistic “Bon Jour!”.  It’s actually a nice custom, but easy to forget.  So when I walked into the small bistro and the waiter said “Bon Jour!”, I responded with “Table?”.  His face turned to an instant hard expression.  He stopped all movement and looked into my eyes in an almost menacing fashion.  “Bon.  Jour.”.  Oh fuck.  “Ohh… Ah… Yes…  Bon Jour!  Bon Jour!”.  He frowned at me and waved me towards an open table, focused on providing the absolute barest minimum of service possible, which from a French waiter is saying something.

There’s an odd cultural disconnect between French dining and American dining.  Our version of great service is quick and efficient interaction where the server fetches things you request as quickly as possible.  In France, they believe it is rude to run right over to your table when you sit down.  They believe it is polite to allow you to settle in, take a moment and get the feel of the place.  You can be sitting there with your American mind watching a waiter whisk by you a half dozen times before even making eye contact and think to yourself “Am I fucking invisible here?”.  Each step in the dining process is a lengthy decision with long periods of intermission.  It’s why everything except restaurants shuts down between 12-2.  Lunch is a two hour endeavor.  If you can shut your American frantic mind down you discover something.  It’s quite nice. 

While we spend our lives shoving down nacho cheese guacamole beef burritos in our car that we pulled out of a drive through, there’s a French construction worker sitting at a real table eating a poached sea bass with fresh vegetables.  While you are wiping nacho cheese guacamole insanity sauce off your pants in traffic, that guy is waiting for a small piece of cake and a good quality coffee in a cup with a saucer.  The counter argument is then waged about how “America works hard which is why we are the best country that has ever existed!”.  This argument is almost exclusively made by people that have never traveled further than Disneyland and have no idea that in multiple ways other nations have figured out a way to live that is vastly superior to ours.  In France you have a two hour lunch daily, work 35 hours a week, and take 8 weeks vacation.  As I looked around I saw well paved roads, reliable infrastructure, healthy people, and a less frenzied pace of life that is enviable.  It all seems to work.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Nurse the Hate: French Wine Blitzkrieg Part 1, Chablis

As I had threatened, I made my triumphant landing at Burgundy.  The realization of a two-year quest, the point of this trip was not pleasure but rather the righting of the great wrong of my debacle at the EU border in London's regional Chatwick Airport in 2017.  My approach was full on Blitzkrieg. There is no time to waver. There is no time to hesitate. The key is constant motion and very tight schedules to maximize exposure to the areas I had immersed myself in via wine textbooks over the last three years. My decades of band touring have made trips like this possible.  Very tight schedules with razor thin windows of “free” time.  Carefully plotted out daily itineraries all focused out on the idea that this might be my only shot at ever seeing this region of the world.

I could dive into some really technical wine crap here that would bore the shit out of 98% of you reading this.  I’m going to give you a break and not get into viticulture methods, fermentation temperatures, percentages of new oak aging or anything that assholes like me sometimes ask about in group tours of wineries that make all the other people on the tour think “Why won’t this guy shut the fuck up?”  Instead I will try to make this interesting to ordinary human beings.  The initial strike on the Burgundy Blitzkrieg came in Chablis, a remote northern village that not that many tourists trouble themselves to visit.
Chablis is a small village that sits on the edge of where it was traditionally possible to ripen grapes. Climate change, which old white guy Republicans with their heads in the sand are certain isn’t happening, has in fact made ripening the Chardonnay a non-issue in the last ten years.  By the way, if you want to know if climate change is a real thing, ask a farmer.  They don’t care about politics.  They just respond to what their fields are doing.  Chablis used to struggle to ripen grapes and would pick in early October.  Now they pick in late August.  Fact. 

Every textbook I had read made a point about how the best vineyards are in a natural “sun bowl” of this curved hill on the banks of the Serein River.  The fabled Grand Cru vineyards of Chablis have for hundreds of years produced the most sought after wines from this region from this grand vista.  Photographs would show the sweeping landscape arching up from the banks of this mighty waterway.  Imagine my surprise when in reality this is a really big hill that is a good half mile away from something we would probably call a “creek”.  There are no paddle boats majestically churning up and down the River Serein.  There were two leathery French guys smoking cigarettes trying to pull what looked like either a 12 inch carp or maybe a white bass from the creek.  They stared at me when I walked past with a dumbfounded look on my face that must have said, “That’s it?  That’s the fucking river everyone is so concerned about?”  I could have jumped across part of it.  I definitely could have waded across the deepest part in shorts without worrying about getting my shirt wet.  Grand Cru vineyards like Vaudesir and Blanchot are about the size of a big yard in a Midwestern McMansion neighborhood.  Now I understand why some of those wines are so expensive.  Supply is tiny.

Chablis is a word American cheap ass wine companies previously used to suggest their white wine is the same as this benchmark French region.  It wasn’t.  It was whatever white grapes they crammed into a vat.  Chablis is chardonnay from this particular area around this village.  The traditional style of Chablis is a nervous tension, sort of an electric citrus. It’s as if you can taste the struggle against the climate combined with the chalky soils. An afternoon was devoted to trying to discern the subtlest differences in vineyards across the wide portfolios of William Fevre and Albert Bichot. It is like mixing a record and trying to figure out if you should nudge the ride cymbal up or down in the final mix. There are tiny subtleties that no normal person will ever notice or attempt to notice. While Chablis aficionados will wax on about the differences of the Le Clos and Bougros grand cru vineyards (spaced about 11 feet apart), 99.5% of people will drink it and say “Mmmm... lemony!”.

All a normal human needs to know about Chablis wine is it is broken down into four basic types. Petite Chablis is sort of shitty simple citrus tasting wine that is made from grapes planted in mostly dodgy areas. I wouldn’t buy it if I were you.  It's cheap, like $12 a bottle but even then the risk/reward ratio isn’t there. If it’s just called Chablis, this is reliably pleasant citrus and mineral tasting wine that any rational person would want to drink on a warm day of their patio.  These can be some of the best white wine deals in France.  The next level up is the Premier Cru wine.  There are 40 little patches of vines in this classification, and they have more intensity of flavor than the regular Chablis.  They need a little time to open up, so as a rule of thumb five years in the basement is a good idea.  The Grand Cru represents about 2% of all Chablis and comes from the seven little vineyards on the banks of the mighty Serein.  These are wines mostly for rich English/American/German guys and Asian tourists to pay too much for so they can get “the best”.  When you taste these wines now, they don’t taste nearly as good as the Premier Cru and regular Chablis as they are screwed down tight.  They need a decade, two decades to unwind slowly in the bottle.  All the grand cru I tasted in Chablis will probably outlive me.  Almost all of these wines are probably opened too soon by showoffs that don't know what they've got.

So what’s Chablis like?  In the tasting room of Albert Bichot an impossibly cute French girl was dismissively pouring the portfolio of wines and making no pretense in giving a single fuck. As I was noting the more floral notes of the Fourchame, she sniffed and said “of course”. It was as if EVERYONE knew Fourchame vineyard wines have that quality. She could not have been any more French.  The women there have a confidence that suggests not only are you stupid because you are a man, you are even more stupid because you are an American man that doesn’t speak French.  I immediately wanted to jettison out of my current life and move in with her as some sort of cuckolded wine slave. I would spend my time devoted to attempting to please her every sexual desire without any reciprocation. She would disdainfully look down at my face buried between her legs as I sensuously paid tribute to her every crevice.  I would cast my eyes up to her for a look of bliss on her face and instead see her expressionlessly say “you make me sick” as she sipped a premier cru Chablis. It would be a good life of high acid wines and complete submission. Ah, what could have been...

The town of Chablis is very small and old.  It’s at best described as a “sleepy” town.  There are “caves”, or places to taste Chablis, from producers all over the little town.  There are two things to do in Chablis.  1. Drink Chablis.  2.  Eat.  (I highly recommend Hostellerie del Clos, which has the cheese cart that sets the standard for all cheese carts.  I almost wept.)  By six pm the town feels deserted.  I’ll bet that when France won the World Cup the extent of the excitement was when Claude the Town Drunk yelled “oui!” to himself at the mostly empty small café in the center of town when the clock ticked down to zero.  It was impossible to find a place to get an espresso at 8am.  I wouldn’t bet on getting a great slice of pizza.  This is the exact opposite of Las Vegas.  This is the kind of place an older English couple travels to on vacation and falls in love with the romance of the beautifully decaying buildings and slow pace of life.  They buy a small place in town with the dream of a quiet country life.  Then about two weeks in, bored out of their skulls, the husband announces, “Honey?  Pack the shit.  We’re getting the fuck out of here.”  It remains an excellent one-night visit destination however and the wines are fucking killer.     

Monday, July 16, 2018

Nurse the Hate: Red State Blue State

It doesn’t take long when driving from where I live for things to become decidedly rural.  Within 20 minutes I can detect a twang in people's speech.  If I left my house on my morning commute and just kept driving southwest, I could have lunch in Kentucky.  Despite it being a relatively small distance, it is a completely different world, as was confirmed by spending the last few days in Kentucky and Tennessee.  There are Confederate flags, enormous pickup trucks, gun racks, fast food deserts, Wal Marts, trailers, and many, many, many people standing in line at gas stations with lottery tickets.  Side note:  If you cash in a winning lottery ticket so as to buy even more lottery tickets, it is safe to say that you will never “win” the lottery.  I suppose your dreams are still alive and that’s something.

When I was in Nashville I saw a man in a bar sitting with his friends.  They were clean cut with that side part haircut that preppy Southern guys seem to have worn since 1962.  This man was wearing a t-shirt that showed the American electoral college displaying a sea of Red Districts and the relatively small number of Blue Districts to show the large swath of the country that geographically voted Pro-Trump.  The script on top of the shirt aped the Constitution and said “We the Deplorables…”.  It is pretty persuasive until you stop and think that about two thirds of the population live in cities while most of the red on that shirt are cornfields and gas stations.

On the Kentucky border with Tennessee I saw giant flags attached to the backs of pickups that roared back and forth up and down the main drag.  Men wore baseball caps with Patriotic slogans and symbols.  There is a large Army base nearby.  Everyone belongs to a church, mostly Evangelical Protestant.  This is an area of the country that when strangers meet and try to weed out commonalities, they might ask “Which church to you go to?”.  These are very polite people.  They smile when they meet you.  They work hard.  They see themselves as “real Americans”, meaning people of shared values.  People tend to agree with each other.

There is a disconnect there when it comes to understanding differences.  Everyone is so much like one another here and tends to stay in their community that it breeds fear of the unknown.  It is hard to understand another culture when you are afraid of it.  If you don’t understand someone different than you, it’s very hard to have empathy.  It’s a fertile breeding ground for discrimination against anyone or anything different.  Unfortunately for our country we now have a leader that is committed to combining these fears and anxieties while wrapping them up in the same patriotic slogans and symbols that are such a source of pride.  It is leadership through division.  Us against them.  Get on the winning team and be afraid of people that look different than you.

Today should have been eye opening to these supporters.  This man is not your friend.  He is morally and ethically bankrupt.  He always has been and always will be.  To have an American President side with Russia over his own intelligence agencies is easy to understand.  Trump is either stupid or compromised.  There is no other rational explanation.  The good people I spent time with all weekend did not sign up for this.  They believe in their country and the vision of pride I witnessed did not include a leader folding to a foreign adversary to protect his own shrouded self interest.  They are proud of their home and they never thought they would see a man that promised them everything turn on what they thought they stood for on the world stage.

It's a real mess.  Things that all of us took for granted are up for grabs.  This is a crossroad.  It is a historically significant moment in our history.  It will likely come down to enough of these people that supported Trump to shake off the flimsy Fox News propaganda explanations and demand truth.  Can they do it?  It is not easy to admit you made a mistake.  These people got swept up in it.  They got sold.  To admit being suckered by a con man is painful.  I hope that the people that got conned will take that pain and turn it into anger at the lies they were told.  There is a traitor at the wheel.  What are we going to do about it?         

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Nurse the Hate: The Master of Wine Situation

I am becoming more certain that I am going to have to pursue the Master of Wine.  Like a mountain that must be climbed, I feel as if I don’t really have a choice.  Scratching and clawing my way to the WSET Diploma should have felt like an accomplishment.  Instead I had about 12 seconds of what I think was “relief from the idea you might have failed”.  I only had two real options when entering into the Diploma program.  I could pass or embarrass myself.  There was never an option for “blissful satisfaction”.  This either points to qualities suggesting “an ambitious drive” or being “emotionally handicapped”.  Either way, it is what it is. 

39 Americans have earned the Master of Wine distinction.  Even a scant review of their biographies suggest that each one of these people are more intelligent, better traveled, and have a level of experience in wine that dwarfs mine.  It’s like I want to try to take a few cuts in the batter’s box against Max Scherzer after having limited success in a batting cage set to "Pony League".  I am woefully underqualified to even attempt to bluff my way into the program and then have almost no chance of passing the exams.  Yet, I don’t really have a choice.  I have decided that not attempting to become a Master of Wine is to fail.  If I do attempt it, I will in all likelihood fail.  This however seems more acceptable than not forging an attempt, which I have decided is equal to “quitting”.  To summarize, I have two likely outcomes.  A) Failure or B) Failure.  Therefore I must push ahead to fail.

One of the most important areas in the wine world is Burgundy.  I am woefully undereducated in the region.  The source of benchmark pinot noir and chardonnay, the region is insanely complex with a quilt of specific vineyard names arranged in a pyramid of quality with an ever changing army of producers for minute quantities of each wine.  These wines are highly sought after, and as their production is very small, prices range from “high” to “who the fuck can afford to drink this?”.  I have never gotten into Burgundy as it seems to be a version of willingly getting involved in a cocaine habit.  As my associate Scutty once told me, “I know one thing.  If you do cocaine, you will like it.  You will really like it and it will become a problem for you.  You’ll be completely out of control.”  Scutty is a guy that knows a few things, so I took him at his word and never messed with coke.  I have the same wariness with Burgundy.  I just don’t need to spend the rest of my days chasing the dragon of a great red Burgundy that I can’t afford.  We are talking wines that can cost thousands of dollars per bottle.  Yet, I need to know this region inside and out if I want to pretend I can sit for an MW exam.  Hence, my triumphant planned imminent assault on Burgundy.

I have a difficult time truly grasping a place until I have been there.  For example, I knew what London looked like after seeing it in approximately 213 million movies and TV shows.  However, it wasn’t until I had walked around and got the feel of the place did I have a working understanding of it.  You need to know what a place smells like, how the people move and interact with each other, the attitude, the food and the customs.  “London?  Oh, I get it now.  It’s like a rainy Berlin but instead of people protecting themselves with harsh exteriors, they fall back on social niceities to keep others at a safe emotional distance.  Oh, and there's less street food.”  It’s a mental sketch that helps me establish context.  This is what I must do with the Cote d’Or.  It won’t be easy though as I have some real shortcomings regarding France.   

One of my principle downfalls is my complete inability to pronounce anything in French correctly.  I have no feel for the language whatsoever.  I have great envy at people that can effortlessly transform into what to me sounds like a perfect French accent as they melodiously rattle off French wine terms and locations.  I sound everything out like I’m an Oklahoma truck driver that isn’t gonna speak no godddamn French when I can speak American like the Lord himself intended. (said with a twang)  I still cringe internally when I think of the time I went into a gas station for help in getting to Gare St. Jean in Bordeaux.  I walked up to the register and sounded like a total hillbilly.  I wisely didn’t even attempt an accent, but essentially said “Pardon.  Gar Saint Gene?”.  (insert twangy accent again here)  It was a version of a French person walking into an Ohio Speedway gas station and saying “Ehchoose muy.  Zoo you deerec moi two zee Ahpot?”

 A group of very confused French gathered around me trying to dissect what I was attempting to communicate.  Finally they understood.  “Ah!  Gah Sah Jeaa!”  Yes.  That’s what I said.  Gar Saint Gene.  It was a complete disaster.  They fired directions back at me with heavily accented English that I couldn’t hope to understand.  It reminded me of similar disasters in Mexico when I proudly ask for a restroom in Spanish (one of my only useful sentences in Spanish I might add) and get rapid fire Spanish in return.  In retrospect, instead of memorizing Spanish for “Where is the bathroom?”, I should have memorized “Can you point to the bathroom?”.  I now just walk towards the back of the bar and hope for the best when looking for Spanish toilets, or "banos" if you prefer.

I have assembled the most brutal itinerary I can imagine surviving involving every type of transportation possible so that I might see with my own eyes most key Burgundian wine locations.  I think I am scheduled to visit La Tache in an ox cart, but I will need to check my documents to be positive.  I don't know how to ask for a toilet in French, so maybe I can just urinate in the straw of the cart and hope it isn't a cultural faux pas (note use of French lingo).  If it all goes wrong and I find a French farmer screaming at me, I will drop on him the one phrase I will repeat over and over until I have it memorized.  "Mon ami, c'est bien.  Un jour je serai un maitre du vin." or "My friend, it is fine.  One day I will be a Master of Wine."

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Nurse the Hate: Waiting To Derail

I read the book “Waiting To Derail:  Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown, Alt Country’s Brilliant Wreck” by Thomas O’Keefe with Joe Oestreich last Sunday.  It was of special interest especially because we were there either during or directly after some of the noted incidents in the book as The Cowslingers wandered around the indie rock underbelly in the late 1990s.  I hadn't thought about any of that in years.  It's hard to believe it was so long ago, and that anyone thought it was important enough to write a book about.  The book was like finding a long lost book of photographs.  I totally got lost in it.  I remember the first time we played with Whiskeytown in Chapel Hill at the Local 506.  I had the “Faithless Street” CD on pretty steady airplay for the weeks prior to that show.  I really love that record.  I was looking forward to seeing them live.

Just as described in the book, this early version of Whiskeytown wasn’t too together.  They had that obvious cockiness in knowing that at their best, they were fucking dynamite.  The downside was that they didn’t yet understand that an audience wasn’t terribly interested in watching them tune up as they figured out what song to play, and maybe not being rehearsed didn’t make you punk rock, it made you crappy on stage.  I remember Bobby losing interest in about 11 minutes.  I leaned in and said to him “That Ryan kid is going to be a fucking rock star.”  Bobby laughed at me and said “Who?  Him?”  As was stated in the book by an Outpost Record executive “If I would have seen them play live before hearing the record, I never would have signed them.”  No doubt.   Yet, even in that ragged set, there was one song where it all clicked and made you realize the heights they could reach.  The key was the scruffy young guitar player/singer Ryan Adams.  When he sang something, it just sounded important.  In the book they talked about how it sounded like "he meant it".  That's a great explanation.

Many of the venues noted in the book were places we also played.  We played Mac’s in East Lansing shortly after Whiskeytown's disastrous gig that ended with them fighting with the small crowd until eventually falling back to their RV like the Alamo.  The people of Lansing were throwing full beers and tomatoes at them.  An audience has to be quite pissed for that to happen.  We got lumped in a couple weeks later as a potential problem by genre association, which is laughable to think of Alt Country as being “dangerous”.  It was mostly college educated guys in John Deere hats standing around.  Just as laughable is to think that in 1998 there was a moment where major record labels thought alt-country was the new answer to what “The Kids” wanted.  They thought they would sign everything and sort it out later.

We played the same SXSW where Whiskeytown and the Old 97s were the hottest girls at the dance.  I remember Ryan and Phil walking around at night in aviator sunglasses like they were Kick and Keith in San Tropez in 1971.  I get it.  There were so many people with expense accounts kissing their ass.  I would have been doing the same thing if I was 22 and had been in that situation.  Nobody was kissing our ass.  I kept my sunglasses off.  After that SXSW almost every band from our genre ghetto got signed to a record deal but us.  We even had that killer write up in the Austin Chronicle about our showcase, maybe the single best review we ever got.  Looking back, it is fairly obvious that corporate rock radio would never play “West Virginia Dog Track Boogie” or “Cha Cha Heels”.  We didn't know that then.  

There was a gig mentioned in Cleveland where the only people in the crowd were Caitlin Cary’s family.  That is not totally accurate as Bobby’s brother Joe and I were there too.  I seem to recall Phil telling us a story before the gig about him meeting Keith Richards in the studio weeks earlier and it going about as wrong as it could possibly go.  Then we wandered down by the river and talked about fishing as I recall.  The gig was at Wilbert’s on a weekday.  I had talked up the band to Joe beforehand and then Whiskeytown played a half hearted set to the tiny crowd.  It was a big fall from hanging out with Keith in an LA studio to 21 people at Wilbert’s I suppose. 

The thing that really hit me was how the book made all these events larger than life, just like books I have read on the glory days of CBGBs and early days of the British Invasion.  I would devour those types of books, a modern day version of Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast".  Everyone was talented, soon-to-be-famous, and a palpable energy in the air.  Debbie Harry is having drinks with F. Scott Fitzgerald waiting for Jeff Beck to drop Ringo off with Nico and Lou Reed until Hemingway shows up with some beer.  Yet when I look back at that time I remember plenty of bands that I really liked and admired, but we were all slogging it out for the 50-100 people in any given town that understood what we were going for.  The big crowds still went out to see hippie bands and funk.  It's hard for girls to dance to Alt-country I guess.

Now I am confused if I might have underestimated just how good that scene was, or is it all just selective memory?  Maybe even the Haight in The Summer of Love, Paris in the early 1920s and grunge in Seattle were just a romantic dreams that never really existed as they get presented now.  Maybe the Moveable Feast was just a bunch of fuckups in Paris pretending to be artists until a couple of them got lucky with novels.   We need our legends.  The collective agreed history always twists events to make them better.  I can't recall anyone ever saying "You know, there has never been a better time than right now."  It was always better "before", whenever that was.  There is an admitted satisfaction to being involved even in a tertiary basis in a cultural movement that made a blip big enough for a book.  I don't know how important any of it was, but I will tell you this.  That Whiskeytown record that got them signed really was fucking great. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Nurse the Hate: Thoughts on the 4th of July

This fall the band will be doing a European Tour.  We haven’t played in Europe for a few years, so I am very much looking forward to being back.  There is a different feel to playing in Europe and I like to go to new places, experience new things.  One of the gifts of being in this moderately successful rock band has been the ability to travel.  I have been able to go to places I never thought I would see, places I had only read about.

When I was a kid, I became consumed by World War II history.  I read every single book I could get my hands on, watched every movie.  The European Front was especially of interest to me.  The rise of the Nazi party and the madness an entire nation descended into was and still is fascinating.  It didn’t hurt that the German uniforms and weapons had great design.  Nazi Germany was responsible for unimaginable cruelty and ruthlessness, but you have to admit, they looked good while doing it.  While the British were getting shoved around in brown flannel uniforms, the Germans are flying around in Stukas while wearing crisp tailored black and gray uniforms with badass skulls on them.  I mean, c’mon…  What 12 year old isn’t interested in that?

When we tour in Germany and France, I can usually remember off the top of my head historical events from the Second World War that happened in each place we play.  Generally these events are centered on some type of vicious battle with terrible consequences.  From the books I consumed I saw the rise and then fall of the demonized Germans in black and white photos.  I remember standing on the exact spot where Hitler addressed his devoted storm troopers in Nuremberg.  I had seen the photo so many times of that Nazi Rally that to see the location in person seemed impossible.  It still felt like a story, not something that had really happened.

We played a club that was a short walk from the platform where Hitler had whipped his people into the froth that would allow so many atrocities to happen to millions of people across the entire planet.  Hitler had this odd combination of charisma, great public speaking ability, and the talent for knowing what the masses wanted to hear.  Looking back at it now it seems unbelievable that Germany bought in to what was obviously complete madness.  I remember being in history classes in school where fellow students would snort with derision.  That could never happen here.  What the hell was wrong with those people?  I was firmly in that camp.  The German people must have had some sort of defect or at their core wanted to kill the Jews and “undesirables”, follow a cult of nationalism and embrace a dictator.

The club we played in Nuremberg was part of a larger complex.  In the war years the building had been used to house German SS Troops, the elite thugs that carried out the worst of the worst.  After the American troops invaded, the Allies used the location to house their own troops until morphing it into a postwar base for a time.  Eventually it became a multi use space where in one room, drugged up twenty year olds danced to EDM and in another I would sing about dig track racing in West Virginia.  There would not be a greater contrast to the evil that crawled out of here 50 years ago and the utter normalcy of the present.  The people we met were nice and except for a language, just like us.

Something that always struck me in my World War II reading was how often American troops said they connected with the German people.  Despite all the propaganda they had been exposed to leading in to deployment, when they arrived on German soil they found the general population consisted mostly of people just like them.  There is something that never quite lines up with American sensibility with the French and Belgians.  It’s the French part we find so confusing.  The French are often oblique to us, while the Germans are very direct to the point of being blunt.  It’s easier to understand. 

While I was in Germany I would ask people about their family history during the war.  A joke in the van became the answer when you asked about someone’s grandfather in the Third Reich.  “He was a cook.”  All of Western Europe is invaded and yet everyone is a goddamn cook.  Only one guy I met said “Afrika Corps.  He got killed in shelling in Italy.”  Yet, that ratio is probably true.  For every gun-toting soldier, there are four guys driving trucks, filling out reports, and cooking meals.  Despite our willingness to lump everyone in Germany into being a diabolical Nazi like we have seen in cheap Hollywood movies, most were just people like you and me.

There weren’t that many actual Nazis.  Most people joined the political party as a way to gain advantages in business or social standing.  They jumped on when it became evident that it was the way to make more money and live more comfortably.  When Hitler first came into power with an election victory, he was looked at like a kook.  This was something that would blow over is what most reasonable people thought.  It was a temporary situation.  Then, little by little, things that were once crazy seemed normal.  Germany went from a democracy into a fascist state not by a swift seizure of power but by a series of concessions by the people, a failure to defend what had been their basic values.

Things in America today are eerily similar to when Hitler rose to power in Germany.  A charismatic public speaker tells his base what they want to hear and ignores basic facts.  The free press is demonized so the population is convinced only the leader is telling them the real facts.  Slowly the free press is replaced with media created by the state.  Minority groups are identified as threats to the public well being despite no evidence to the point.  The nation is urged to ramp up militarization all in the name of protecting the country and its values.  If you swap out the details, we are busy going down the same path to fascism that the Germans did.  Just like the Germans, we are pretending that it could never happen here.  We are allowing all these small concessions add up until there is no going back to what we had considered our ideals.

I spoke to a man yesterday.  He is what would be called a “working class guy”, a manager at a plumbing business.  He floated out some conversational trial balloons, perhaps to see where I sat on current events.  I don’t know him well, but well enough to know he is a decent guy.  He has two kids, coaches soccer, and roots for the local sports teams.  He is, by all accounts, totally average.  He said to me, “You know, I don’t even follow the news any more.  You can’t believe the media.  They are just trying to take down the President.  They are probably one of the biggest problems we have in this country.  I mean, I don’t agree with everything that Trump says, but I was so tired of the usual politicians.  I don’t even look anymore.  The media just distorts everything.”

Today in the Cleveland daily newspaper, the editorial board printed a guest editorial from a right wing radio program.  The headline read “If Trump Fans Are Called Nazis, You Can Expect More Violence”.  In what was once considered the most mainstream of all news outlets in the city, they printed an opinion piece stating such basic ideas as “facts” such as “the ever-descending moral and intellectual state of mainstream news media” and “if the American Left calls the president and his supporters Nazis…morality demands it takes violent action against Trump supporters”.  The writer then plucked examples of common people yelling out against Trump cabinet members in public places and can’t believe they have not had systematic retribution.  He suggests a Civil War is not only possible but also probable, and if violence happens then “just like Fort Sumter, it will be the Left that started it”.  To summarize, his idea is that to speak out about government action is to invite wholly justified military/police response.  This entire column from a right wing Trump radio host on the 4th of July is focused on forgiving as yet to come government carried out violence and incarceration against those that disagree with their elected officials.  This is in the daily newspaper of a major American city normalizing these ideas.  I find it chilling how similar this is to the 1930s in Germany.

While you enjoy the 4th of July celebrating the birth of our nation, reflect that we have a president that is having “rallies” with his supporters that are a Wal Mart version of Nuremberg, the highest courts are being stocked with “loyal” judges, we’re being told by our leader that “the free press is the greatest enemy of the American People”, a Fox News executive just became the president's head of communications, our military budget has just been raised to a level more than all other nations combined, systematic racism and vilification of non-whites is becoming so common that it is a non-discussion point, we have the highest incarceration rate of any nation on earth, the term “law and order” excuses any strong armed tactics, and religion is being used by government officials to justify their whims. All you need to do is swap out the details and this is the 1930s in Germany, with the exception that Hitler and his cronies were not being investigated for working with a foreign hostile adversary to take power.     

Happy 4th of July.  God bless America.  We need it.