Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Charmed By Berlioz

(This article first appeared in Appellation Wine And Spirits newsletter on 5/17/12)

Jacquère isn’t a garage band, a perfume, or cool way of pronouncing the maestro of boutique chocolates. It’s a variety that rarely finds its way onto a brunch menu, but that’s not the grape’s fault. For one, it’s hard to find, flourishing in the heart of Savoie. Hugh Johnson refers to it as alpine Muscadet.

This noteworthy stuff is found in the village of Chignin which nestles between the communes of Les Marches and Montmélian southeast of The Bauges Mountains. Chignin also refers to the cru in the Vin de Savoie appellation which is often shortened to Savoie. Production is tiny. They make less than a fiftieth of the production in Bordeaux. Hello matchbox. The Bauges Mountains are part of the culprit and the diffused vineyards also add to the slim pickings.

Domaine Gilles Berlioz makes a polished Chignin. This Berlioz is no relation to the composer, but don’t hold that against the biodynamic maverick. The estate’s been practicing biodynamics since 2005. I find this wine to have a delicate aromatic structure of white flowers and just an insouciance of Mackinaw peach. Pale-toned, it is bantamweight, and earmarked for those who value reticence over car chases. I get citrus peel more than I get pulpy juice. There’s also a zestiness girded by a stony minerality. The Bourget Lake, the largest natural lake of glacial origin in France, is probably to thank for this. Lighter-bodied and well-balanced, Berlioz Chignin will go just as well with steamed mussels as with Gouda and wheat crackers. Daredevils might want to try it with medium-spicy Mexican fare— Huarache and Chilaquiles.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Sidekicks: The Short List

Samwise Gamgee
Barney Rubble
The O in H2O
Luigi (Mario’s Bro)
Fully-licensed Sous Chefs
Chewie (y’know your favorite 8-foot wookie)
Schlemazl (Relative to the Schlemiel)
Sancho Panza
Harley Quinn
Jimmy Olsen
George Can’t Stands Ya
Jovian Moons
Any moons
Tae kwon do maneuvers
Art Garfunkel
Cole Slaw

Friday, February 12, 2016

Monkey See, Monkey Do

In honor of The Year of The Monkey, I am sharing this chapter from my 2009 novel Shades of Luz. Considering how the world economy is moving into another recession, I think this passage about dart-slinging monkeys picking stocks is particularly poignant, but what do I know. On the other hand, neither does your so-called financial advisor.

Ahem, Dartboard Theory, Is It?

We were greeted by a fellow in a grubby lab coat. His name was Gus and he chaperoned the dart-slinging monkey room. Two humans, but only one monkey, were allowed in the room at any given time. This was strictly followed so as to prevent too much mammalian mimicry. The object was to keep things as random as possible. The monkeys were kept in holding cells, but they had a beautifully painted mural of St. Tropez or Lagos.

Gus coached through the Plexiglas. On the outside of the door two numbered ladders hung by copper thumbtacks, one ranked the monkeys and the other ranked the trainers. The term trainer was really a misnomer, but who was I, at that point, to make a stink.

Newspaper clippings lined the walls. Rudy, last year’s crackerjack, watched over his monkey, Nietzsche. Rudy’s name topped the ladder outside. He had good rapport with Nietzsche, the lone Rhesus of the lot. Nietzsche made three quick dart tosses each a foot apart from each ticker symbol. Rudy waited behind the masking tape on the floor, the line of demarcation where a monkey needed to stand in order to make his toss. Nietzsche gave his trainer a high-five.

Nobody knew what boomers would boom at least for a week although short-swing breakouts happened by market close. Boomer, referred to a stock that was going to bust through its resistance level and soar into a new stratosphere. No guarantees, but this was the accepted premise. There was no tickertape of any kind in the room. According to Gus, the monkeys might grow smitten with the flashing glow of certain ticker symbols and thus skew the random element driving dart board theory. It occurred to me that even if the monkeys were drawn to a glowing symbol that didn’t mean they weren’t going to tag that respective stock. Stereoscopic vision or not, the monkeys didn’t see such blurry newsprint from their vantage point.

A note on random. It was widely accepted that any stock could bolt into its own orbit, plunge into disrepute, or mosey ad nauseam sideways without a care in the world. The point being, that no cocksure dweeb could cook enough data to prove that his theories rocked the pure and accidental.

“Charlie, you and the new guy are up,” Gus said.

We waited by the door until Rudy came out with Nietzsche. Gus pulled Nietzsche by his fury digits and led him to his holding cell.

“Should we wait,” I said.

“Nah, let’s warm up,” Charlie said.

“What do you mean?”

“We’re getting fresh monkeys,” Charlie said, “Maybe even a couple
that have never tossed a dart before. We’ll need to break them in.”

No sooner did Charlie finish cracking his knuckles did Gus return with two new monkeys. One was a snow monkey the other was a
macaque. Charlie tossed a couple of darts, neither of which stuck to the wall. His monkey almost seemed to be laughing. Actually, it was pretty funny. Charlie’s tosses sucked. The first one didn’t even reach the wall. The second was a creampuff, an underhanded toss tail-first against the wall.

“Okay, enough,” Gus said.

He knocked on the Plexiglas then made a slicing motion across his
throat with his right hand.

“Give it a whirl, Benny Boy,” Gus said.

With that, I clutched my darts. I was afraid I’d prick myself and didn’t look at my hand. Darts was never my bag. I tossed all three with quick snaps. Each one hit the wall with a ping, the second one dead center of a ticker symbol. It didn’t matter which part touched. It counted. A bull’s eye, on the first try, must have been dumb luck, but it still felt

I couldn’t quite make out what Gus was saying behind the soundproof glass, but I saw his mouth curl into an O. When I pulled the second dart from the wall I noticed I’d hit the letter O, right in the hole. For some reason this made me flinch.

My monkey followed me to the wall and tugged my pant leg. I didn’t hand over the darts till Gus tapped the glass. My monkey almost jerked them out of my hand. At least, it seemed that way. He made three quick chucks. Each landed within a close range, as if he were trying to hit the same mark. Two of them actually did.

When I escorted my furry friend out, Gus put his hand up blocking me from crossing the hall’s threshold.

“You know, you’d be disqualified because you didn’t set him behind the line.”


“They always need to stay behind the line,” Gus said, “No exceptions.”

I then looked down at the masking tape on the floor and shrugged my shoulders.

That night I dreamt of great apes, monkeys, and prosimians. I was a hominid trapped in a mud bath and the apes tossed stones, nuts, anything and everything at me; couple of them busy sharpening spear points. A whole pile lay there waiting for my nose as its bull’s-eye. They picked them up and flung them at my head and when they cracked, egg dripped all over my face.

Woke up in a cold sweat. Took a hot shower with a brand new loofah sponge and scraped off dead and itchy skin.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What You Thinking About When You Thinking About Buff?

Quick: What pops into your head when you hear the word “buff”? I’ll bet you’re thinking of a brawny guy who’s got hulkish traps, twenty-four inch pythons, and has difficulty fastening the top button of his Perry Ellis. Well, I’m not thinking about that “buff”, and frankly I could care less about those clunkheads. I’m more interested in sharing the roots of the term “buff” that we associate with a wonkish person, somebody who is really passionate and knowledgeable about some said subject matter like a Civil War buff or an Opera buff.

The word “buff”, as in a person who is enthusiastic and knowledgeable about a particular subject has an interesting etymology, and came about in the early 19th century. It was originally more of a putdown than a compliment. Back then, in the burgeoning New York City, between the 1820s— 1840s, an ad-hoc clutch of volunteer firemen were needed to put out fires. In periods of cold weather, men of this era wore buffalo hide coats, and there were often large crowds, eagerly watching the volunteers hosing down the fires. Buff came from splicing the Middle French word buffe meaning buffalo which had already gone out of fashion somewhere in the 18th century, but had been used even as far back as the 16th and 17th century to refer directly to the skin or hide. Back then, to “be in the buff” meant to be in the army as soldiers wore coats made of hide. The term “buff” naked also owes its heritage to this association of animal skin.

While the pejorative sense of the word “buff” has all but dissipated, the term itself has become dated. You’re more likely to hear somebody say that so-and-so is a stamp geek or a wine wonk. You’re probably even more likely to hear somebody calling that aforementioned stamp geek, a philatelist, and the wine geek, an enophile. That’s because we love to name names if I might snag that Seinfeld line. Not that there’s anything wrong with calling somebody a geek now. In fact, many wine wonks I spend time with sort of relish the moniker. I’m not even sure if I deserve it myself with all the MWs loping around these days.

Now back to the “buff” you were thinking about. That hunky “buff” became a fixture in the 1980s when everybody was “getting physical”. It’s a spinoff of the verb “buff” meaning to polish metals. Even that “buff” seems dated, but less so than the smartypants type.

There you have it. Just indulge me in one last thought. Consider it a homework assignment or a little harmless fun to have at the gym. Watch the musclehead flexing as he curls in front the mirror at Blink. Could he be a buff geek or a buff wonk? If your trainer poses that question as you’re heaving a medicine ball then you just tell him or her that it’s too superfluous to think about anyway.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Sleeping Beauty of the Marche

One of the things I really love about Italian wine is that you always seem to stumble upon a new varietal, a new appellation. You can go a lifetime and still never truly be a master of its boundless bounty. In terms of attaining its regional prowess, Italian wine is a juggernaut. Recently, I had a chance to taste Marotti Campi’s Lacrima di Morro d’Alba Superiore ‘Orgiolo’ from the 2012 vintage, a truly elegant and delicious wine. It hails from the region of Marche, off the Adriatic.

The Marche is known for its crisp Verdicchio and its brodetto, fish soup, which makes for a sumptuous pairing. Marcheans love raw fish or crudo and take advantage of their propinquity to the Adriatic. Their predilection for seafood, especially crudo make them the Peruvians of Italy. Their wine is excellent though not ubiquitous, and their wonderful reds fall even further under the radar. Rosso Cònero and Rosso Piceno are two standouts, but both focus on neighboring blends: Sangiovese from Tuscany and Umbria, and Montepulciano which is mostly associated with Abruzzo. Geographically speaking, this does make sense.

The sleeping beauty of the Marche is the expressive red, Lacrima di Morro d’Alba. Native to area Lacrima di Morro almost went extinct in the mid 80’s. Fortunately, a small but zealous following of growers rescued it from its evolutionary cul-de-sac, and thus helped secure its DOC designation in 1985. With a mere 261 hectares under vine, Lacrima di Morro d’Alba remains one of Italy’s smallest appellations, bottling a little more than 9100 hectoliters a year.

Lacrima means tear in Italian. Its skin is very sensitive, and when it gets close to harvest, the grapes seem ready to burst, their ruby rivulets, seeping from the pierced skin are said to suggest tears. The Lacrima grape is a local varietal of unknown origin, although legend has it the grape was relished by Morro d’Alba’s most famous interloper, Frederick Barbarossa. After the red-bearded Holy Emperor had marched into Ancona in 1167, he passed through the Castello di Morro d’Alba and is said to have grown smitten with the Lacrima-based wine. And why should that be so hard to believe? It’s beguiling floral aromatic reminds me of Ruché and Cesanese, it’s sensual mouthfeel offering a more Rhone-like or even cru-level Beaujolais, maybe Fleurie. The medley of flavors is a wine wonk’s dream come true. I get both redder and bluer berries, some juniper, curiously enough, and allspice. The tannins are well-integrated, pillowy, and the unmistakable rose petal finish lingers.

I’ve only had the varietal on a few occasions, and while I’ve enjoyed Lucchetti’s Lacrima di Morro and Velenosi’s Querci’Antica Lacrima, I’ve grown to enjoy Marotti Campi’s interpretation the most. I find it most compelling. What can it be that makes it so? All come from the Medieval village of Morro d’Alba. Could it be the hand of the enologist, Roberto Potentini and his choice to soft crush the grapes, macerating on the skins for almost 11 days? Or that he ferments in stainless steel and ages the wine for 12 months in second and third passage barriques, and an additional 6 months in bottle before release? Maybe it’s Ivano Belardini’s decision to pick in the last days of September rather than in the first week of October or maybe it’s just the mix of medium-consistency clay and the cordon spur trained vines ranging between 10 and 35 threes old that appeals to me? Do I really taste all that?

What I do know is that when I to peer out at this marvelous 19th century estate, perched 180 meters above sea level between the villages of Senigallia and Jesi, north of the Esino river, the Apennines looming in the distance, I get this incredible sensation, munching on fresh-plucked berries, it might just be what Redbeard had swimming in his noggin before he decided to spare this village and move on to bigger fish.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Soft Peanuts, Soft Peanuts

A few days ago, while I was taking care of Emily, I handled a major league mess like a real pro. My wife, Martha, would’ve flipped out. Lucky for Emily I was on duty. I was in the bedroom, tending to some work. Emily was in the living room playing. It should be noted, and I think parents everywhere can concur, that if your child is up to something you’ll find it unbearably quiet.

Boy did I want a big scoop of quiet. I’m so used to being the butler, Walking Wikipedia, and playing companion to my princess that I’ll do almost anything for a contiguous, twenty-minute reprieve. When Emily rushed into the bedroom, asking for scissors, this should’ve raised the red flag, but I needed to look up something before sending out an email or else consign my urgent message to draft status (to infinity and beyond). About three minutes later, I’m guessing since I haven’t worn a watch since Kerry ran for president, I went into the living room to see what was going on out there. Emily, who knows my footsteps, and has a better sense of diplomacy than 90% of Washington and the UN combined, met me in the hallway and said, “Daddy, promise you’re not gonna tell Mommy. You know how mad she gets.”

I promised her because that’s the best way to build leverage against a five-year-old when whatever she’s done is a complete catastrophe.

Emily escorted me from the hall to the living room, and I saw that she had freed a dozen ceramic piggies, part of an art project my wife had been planning to do for Emily’s birthday party. That, of course, wasn’t a major catastrophe, but she shredded the inside of the box, and kernels of Styrofoam were strewn all over the floor. It looked like a Jiffy Pop explosion. Phoebe, our dilute calico, rolled around in the white crumble, festooning herself in enough Styrofoam that I could imagine my wife saying,

“Get this package weighed and stamped.” It’s a longstanding joke. Martha’s a dog person.

As I’d begun grabbing the Styrofoam bits, I thought of them as the soft peanuts that come in some boxes. Maybe I would be able to refit the piggies after all, but first I had a floor to clean. Soft peanuts, soft peanuts. Catchy. Where did I hear that before? Then a trumpet blew. Soft peanuts, soft peanuts. Of course, Dizzy Gillespie. I hadn’t heard “Salt Peanuts” (the real title) in a quite a while, but the phrase insinuated itself in my head, helped me get through the tedious chore. Emily found the song funny. I told her it was a riff on a song that Dizzy Gillespie recorded. She’s familiar with his “Nights in Tunisia”

As I was air-trumpeting to the beat in my head, Piper was pushing one of the piggies off the dining room table. I rushed to save it in my stocking feet, dropped to my knees and snatched the piggy before it became shards of shame. I wondered if Tim Howard or Henrik Lundquist felt as good when they stopped a goal.

Emily really felt badly, the rueful look on her face was legit, but she was relieved to be under my jurisdiction because I wasn’t going to scream my head off or threaten to give away her toys. She was determined to help, had procured the dustbin and short broom. As a team, it would take forever to get the job done, but at least we had “Soft Peanuts” to motivate us. At some point, I needed to get things moving along so I did what only the best daddies on this mudball do under similar snafus, I handed Emily the iPad, and let her watch “Paw Patrol”. This clearly put me in charge, letting me pick up the pace although Phoebe and Piper kept pestering me up until I grabbed the dustbuster. They bolted off when I flipped it on, and it was smooth vacuuming from there.

Lessons learned: a silly riff goes a long way when faced with a domestic challenge, and always keep your dustbuster fully charged.

Thursday, December 31, 2015


“Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.”
Benjamin Franklin

If you are like most folks you are probably considering your New Year’s Resolutions. You’ve got until midnight to declare your intentions. No pressure. Can you recall when you started making resolutions? Were you in college, high school, or the third grade? You probably made some resolutions because your parents made them. Mom wanted to quit smoking or Dad wanted to finally clean up his den.

Resolutions have been around a long time, and although nobody has proved it yet, I bet they popped up with the earliest agrarian societies, maybe even before. As far as records go, it is said that the ancient Babylonians were some of the earliest people on this mudball to make resolutions at the onset of the New Year. They did so, it is believed, to honor their gods by paying off their debts and returning their neighbors belongings. The Ancient Romans made promises to Janus so that he could absolve them of the previous year’s sins.

When I was in my teens, my resolutions were all about improving my down-the-line backhand and getting more zip on my second serve. Even to grow a few more inches. That’s long behind me now. Thank goodness. At least, I think it is. So maybe tennis has become a sideline for me, a way to blow off some steam on weekends. While I’m no longer gunning for Wimbledon anymore, my resolutions have kept the same germ. Mine are about goals. Smaller ones perhaps, but I’ve never been the type of person who is looking to shed: weight, smoking, gambling. I’ve got my fair of vices, but as I lope into the New Year I think of starting fresh, doing instead of denying.

I list places I’d like to visit, books I’m planning to read, journals I’m targeting to publish work. I also try to procrastinate less. This is one of those vices that has clung to me like a chummy barnacle. We’ve been living a symbiotic relationship for who knows how long. Benny Franklin said be at war with your vices. I say be chums.

When we make a formal resolution, we are said to be determined to follow a course of action with intended purpose. This word comes to us from Middle English (about 1350 – 1400). Merriam-Webster’s definition (a) states that it’s the act or analysis of a complex notion into a simpler one, and though this is not quite the specific definition we are homing in on when we make our annual pledge, I think this aspect nicely underscores the goal, which is to make our lives better, more focused.

Being a writer, I also cannot help thinking of the story definition of resolution which is the abatement of conflict. Some epiphany is achieved and the central tension has dissipated. While this is a great notion, the fact is that the New Year’s Resolution, in all likelihood will create gobs of tension. You’ve thrown down the gauntlet and are trying to change traits or characteristics that have been natural to you that have made you who you are for probably umpteen years if not longer.
No matter how hard it might be we still want to take another crack at our perceived shortcomings, and why not.

I remember a conversation my parents had when I was a kid, about seven if memory serves me correctly. Mom and Dad enjoyed their sparkling wine. I sipped my Canada Dry. The room still redolent of pine needles. We never got rid of the tree until after the Epiphany, Ukrainian Christmas. Mom kept pressing my Dad to share his resolutions with her, and, after a couple of flutes of sparkling wine, he finally did. “I plan to do next year what I didn’t get around to this.” He flashed her his smirky grin, and I remember liking the glibness of that response— its understated sagacity.

I’d like to think there’s a bit of that in me when I claw away at new things on the horizon: Underworld by Don DeLillo, the town of Chablis, and yes, publications in Narrative and Agni. I’m also hellbent on unearthing a real Trilobite fossil. No, keep the shovel. Can you lend me a small awl and a toothbrush? This requires a soft touch and patience.
Happy New You!