A Problem for Vegetarianism

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field miceI respect people who for moral reasons decline to eat meat. But many vegetarians assume that eating vegetables produces no animal pain or death and that is clearly false. Farming of any sort disrupts ecosystems and destroys animal life. At best, the moral argument for vegetarianism is that eating only vegetables produces less pain or cruelty than the consumption of animals. But  there is evidence that  calls even that argument into question.

Published figures suggest that, in Australia, producing wheat and other grains results in:

  • at least 25 times more sentient animals being killed per kilogram of useable protein
  • more environmental damage, and
  • a great deal more animal cruelty than does farming red meat.

Those are rather stunning figures. The reasons may have to do with the peculiarities of Australia:

Agriculture to produce wheat, rice and pulses requires clear-felling native vegetation. That act alone results in the deaths of thousands of Australian animals and plants per hectare. Since Europeans arrived on this continent we have lost more than half of Australia’s unique native vegetation, mostly to increase production of monocultures of introduced species for human consumption.

Most of Australia’s rangeland cannot be used for crop production and thus arable land must come at the expense of forests. I have no idea if this applies to the U.S. Furthermore, the calculations are based on “usable protein” which is only one part of our nutritional needs.

But the general point is that there is no form of human consumption that does not harm animals, and which diet will minimize suffering is far from clear. Surely for most individuals it is impossible to know, in a particular case, if eating only vegetables and fruit would minimize pain.

There are many reasons to avoid meat in one’s diet but the facile suggestion that vegetarianism is inherently more virtuous than the consumption of meat looks rather shaky if this evidence is sound.

I’ll Drink to That!

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This is off my beaten path. But I think a wine and food blog should sometimes point out things worth toasting. After all, what good is a good wine with nothing to celebrate? (Well actually a good wine in itself is worth celebrating but you get my point)

So grab a good bottle of Pinot. Here is some good news to drink to—Salude!

The World is Getting Better in 11 Maps and Charts:

good news UN-report-poverty_0

 

good news battle_deaths_chart

 

good news N-report-hunger_0

good news UN-report-school-enrollment_0

 

See the rest of the good news here!

Innovative Dessert Wine: The Alchemist Vinavanti San Diego County 2013

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vinavanti the alchemistI love port and sherry but this is not a passion widely shared. While younger drinkers have recently been reaching for the Moscato and sweet red blends, in general, the popularity of traditional sweet, dessert wines, is in a long-slow decline. In part, this is because modern winemakers have learned how to stabilize wine without adding sugar so fortified wines are no longer as important to the wine industry. Furthermore, because fortified wines require aging to reach their potential,  they are expensive to make and unattractive to a wine-buying public that is in the habit of drinking wine soon after purchase.

But their image problem doesn’t help. Port brings to mind old men smoking big cigars and sherry is grandma’s go-to Christmas tipple—neither guise will cause bottles to fly off the shelf.

If sweet wines are to make a comeback, producers will have to innovate and generate excitement with new taste sensations—Vinavanti’s Alchemist does just that.

A burst of apricot pound cake with orange zest and baking spices opens the nose and palate but, with its disciplined backbone, this is no ordinary dessert wine. It has a complex texture with a soft, round layer of fruit in tension with bristling acidity and fiery, medium grain tannins that creep up and grab. Clean, bright, and drying on the finish. If you’re tired of cloying, dessert wines you will find this refreshing.

One of the most original wines I’ve come across.This is 100% Viognier fermented with indigenous yeast on skins, seeds, and stems in a conical-shaped beer-fermenter, which after fortification is sealed for 4 months before bottling. (The cone-shaped fermenter was inspired by the qveri, a conical clay pot used by Georgians in their traditional winemaking.) No. I never heard of it either, but it produces an exhilarating wine that evolves from enticing to fierce.

If you want innovation, you won’t find it in big, commercial wineries with bean-counters poking around the barrel room. Look to your small, local winery where dedicated iconoclasts like Vinavanti’s Eric Van Drunen can be found working through their personal vision.

Vinavanti is an urban winery and tasting room in San Diego, specializing in low-intervention, “natural” wines, and soon to move into new digs in Hillcrest.

Score: N/A [Wine scores are inherently comparative. I don’t know the comparison class for this wine]

Price: $21

Alc: 18.5

Tension makes great wine and great music.  What song evolves from sweet to fierce?

Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe
Love is a banquet on which we feed

 

 

Budget Wine: Stone Wolf Vineyards Muller-Thurgau Willamette Valley 2014

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stone wolf muller thurgauYou may not know it, but if you are a wine drinker of a certain age you have probably consumed a good deal of Muller-Thurgau. Remember those bottles of German wine in the 1970’s and 80’s called Liebfraumilch or Piersporter that were so enticing because they were so cheap?—they were probably made from the Muller-Thurgau grape, a cross of Riesling and Madeleine Royale that was planted extensively in Germany  after WWII because it was easy to grow and ripened early. Thankfully, the German wine industry has gradually transitioned to Riesling and Pinot Noir which make more interesting wine. Yet Muller Thurgau has a place and is still widely grown in many wine regions.

Oregon, in its search for cool climate grapes to compliment their Pinot Noir, grows some some of it.

Some bottle taint was evident when I opened the bottle but it blew off quickly. Nevertheless, the nose smells of over-ripe apples, with bready aromas and floral notes gaining prominence with aeration, simple and one dimensional but quite unique. At first, off dry on the palate with a full body supporting apple flavors, but it evolves as the acidity kicks in leading to a crisp, extended, chalky finish that refreshes. Muller-Thurgau is notoriously lacking in acidity but this one avoids that pitfall. Even lovers of bone dry white wines will not find this offensive or cloying if you drink it cold. An easy drinking summer wine if you’re in a Chardonnay rut with its own character. And at 10.5% alcohol you could have it for lunch and no one would know.

I’ve been complaining, on this blog, about the loss of local particularity when wine industry conglomerates produce generic wine with no sense of place. This wine seems well adapted to Northern Oregon weather and soils, has a different character than most German versions I’ve had of this varietal, and is sold in local supermarkets. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it at a California winery. It is indeed a local wine.

Score: 85

Price: $7

Alc: 10.5%

Speaking of the 70’s, pair with Summer Breeze by Seals and Crofts

The Taste of Words

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taste of words

Photo by Peteso-Dickinson

I found this intriguing question from Jonell Galloway of The Rambling Epicure in my facebook feed recently: “Can words truly express all the sensations you have when you eat a wonderful dish?”

The question is intriguing in part because it is a question about the capability of language in principle, not in fact. The current language we use to talk about food is woefully inadequate to express taste sensations. But the question is whether language, if we paid sufficient attention to it over time, could “truly express” taste sensations.

I’m not quite sure what “truly express” means. At one limit, it could mean the sensory description is so clear and precise that one could fully understand what it is like to have the sensation merely by grasping the meaning of the words. But that is absurd. Words cannot be a substitute for experience. The quality of a sensation can only be felt—“knowing what it is like” via language without having the experience is a poor substitute. There is a felt quality to sensation that language cannot express.

What we need language for is to direct the attention of the listener so she can share in the experience. For this, speakers must use words that successfully and unambiguously refer to the qualities of a sensation so the hearer can pick out that quality from her own experience. Words can’t fully describe an experience but they must provoke an experience in the listener. Thus, sometimes simple descriptions can be powerful if they give the listener something unambiguous to latch onto and use to direct her attention; and sometimes poetic language can be powerful because it encourages a listener to search for meaning in her experience, and in the process discover something she had never noticed before.

When it comes to talking about sensations, the descriptive function of language serves a referential function.

Whom Does Wine Industry Consolidation Serve?

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unesco world heritage siteTwo news items from the last few days pose an important question: Is the wine quality we’ve achieved through modern technology worth the cost?

Over the weekend, UNESCO announced that the vineyard sites in Burgundy and Champagne were designated as World Heritage Sites, joining the vineyards of Austria’s Wachau, Italy’s Piedmont and Hungary’s Tokaj regions, as hollowed ground possessing great cultural value. This is a great honor for these storied wine regions but is also a sign that wine has gained the kind of cultural significance that great works of art or national monuments have.

Meanwhile, Constellation Brands, the wine conglomerate, has purchased Meiomi, a producer of bulk Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, for the astounding price of $315 million. Meiomi has no vineyards—they buy their grapes from growers all over California—so there is little real estate involved in the sale. Essentially what Constellation is buying is an established brand with loyal customers who repeatedly purchase a product because it meets their expectations. Those customers have no interest in where the wine comes from or whether it expresses the character of the vineyard site in which the grapes were grown.

But as wine writer Blake Gray points out, given the pressure of the bottom line and the demands for growth which Constellation will inevitably impose on Meiomi, more and more Pinot Noir will have to be harvested probably from vineyards that can’t grow good pinot. The result will likely be a drop in quality with flaws that can be masked by making sweeter wine with more technological manipulation.

Will Meiomi’s loyal customers notice? Probably not. When you drink a lot of supermarket wine you discover that the big differences are in the branding, not in the wine; one pretty much tastes like the other except for a few rare gems. What they share is a soft mouthfeel and the absence of anything that might stand out and offend someone’s expectations. They are flawless but boring and interchangeable except for the attractive label.

So these two events illustrate two quite different approaches to wine: one in which the characteristics of geographical location are revered, the other in which location is ignored. It is obvious wherein the quality resides.

Wine writer Dr. Vino hails both events as indicators of a healthy, balanced wine culture:

The rarified and the commoditized sectors of the wine industry need each other. One cannot exist without the other. If everyone was producing high-quality vin de terroir there wouldn’t be enough to go around. And if everyone just produced blended supermarket wines, then the wine industry would never have evolved.

At the end of the day, it’s not brand versus terroir. Life, and wine, are far more complicated than that.

There is some truth to this but I don’t share Dr. Vino’s sense of balance in the wine world. Granted, most of us can’t afford quality wine as a daily drink.  But it is not at all obvious that in order to have inexpensive, drinkable wine we must have a low quality, standardized commodity.

When travelling in Italy a few years ago I was struck by how each village, indeed often each restaurant, had their own inexpensive table wine that was made locally and was quite different from the wine down the road. (The French call such wine vin ordinaire). Some of it was quite good and invariably worked with the local foods. Europe has long had distinctive wines that reflect their local regions that are nevertheless inexpensive. If they can make wines with geographical distinction inexpensively why can’t we?

The big difference is that while many of these tables wines are delicious, in bad vintages, wine quality suffered and the quality variations between bottles and barrels are substantial. Through modern winemaking methods we have made cheap wine more consistent and through efficient marketing and distribution accessible to a mass market. The brands that have capitalized on this have profited greatly. But at the cost of creating a  boring, standardized product that has no connection to place or the people who make it.

We’ve eliminated the flaws, in the name of profit and growth, but in return we have lost character. Is the tradeoff worth it? Isn’t it time to ask whether further industry consolidation is really serving consumers or investors?

Mass produced commodities don’t always give people what they want. They give people what they need and too many people lack the awareness to know the difference.

Forgive me if I don’t find these two events to be equally worthy of celebration.

Wine Review: Bonny Doon A Proper Claret California 2013

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bonny doon a proper claretGerman literary critic and philosopher Friedrich Schlegel wrote that “Irony is the clear consciousness of an eternal agility, of an infinitely abundant chaos.” When we take a perpetually ironic attitude towards something it opens an infinite distance between what it is and what we take it to be. The “face value” is inconclusive, complete sincerity unachievable. And so I take this wine label as a statement of irony. It can never be what it claims to be, i.e. a proper claret.

“Claret” is the British nickname for Bordeaux blend, although the term was first used as such in the 1700’s when Britain was at war with France and the British were looking to Portugal for their wines. How ironic—a proper claret may be Portuguese. Furthermore, “claret” used to mean light-colored, despite the fact that Bordeaux wines are dark red. Hmm.

Even the word “proper” has its own ironies. Just as when the Brits say “With the greatest respect” they think you’re an idiot, when they use “proper” they don’t mean “characterized by propriety” but mean “really” or “completely”, an excellent thing of its type. So something could be properly improper, as in “a proper lout”. You see what Schlegel meant by “infinitely abundant chaos”?

So I take Bonny Doon’s A Proper Claret to be properly improper. Strictly speaking a claret or Bordeaux blend must include only currently permitted Bordeaux varietals—the Cabernets, Merlot, Petite Verdot, and Malbec.  This wine has been improperly invaded by Rhone varietals: 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, 15% Tannat, 13% Petit Verdot, 8% Syrah, 1% Petite Sirah.

The bright, rich cherry and plum fruit is not classic Claret; it’s California all the way although thankfully there is no hint of prune or raisin characteristics. The earth undertones are “proper Claret”, but the mint, floral, and thyme notes would lead me away from Bordeaux in a blind tasting. But as the winery tasting notes suggest “it is lean, neither overly alcoholic (weighing in at 13%) nor overly extracted, nor overly oakèd”. Indeed, and here we come to the heart of the matter. It is balanced, with strong acidity, and with fine tannins that have a bit of grip—all properly Claret although I have yet to taste a young Bordeaux with tannins this ripe.

It’s the mouthwatering acidity that makes you think European. I needed a high acid wine to go with my churrasco-style steak with chimichurri sauce I served on the 4th of July and this wine was outstanding holding up well to the vinegar in the sauce.

Randle Grahm, proprietor and winemaker at Bonny Doon, is not above a little irony and humor with his wine labels. Don’t worry if this is a “proper claret”. Just drink it. At this price an outstanding wine.

Score: 88

Price: $13

Alc:  13.5%

Alanis Morissette is enthusiastic about irony. I have no idea if she would find A Proper Claret” as delicious as “a traffic jam when you’re already late”

Budget Wine: La Paca Garnacha Calatayud 2013

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la pacaContinuing my exploration of bargain imported wines from Trader Joe’s, here is a very approachable Garnacha (Grenache if you’re French) for $7. Ripe strawberry and dark fruit aromas are complemented with modest vanilla and earth undertones and a pleasing black pepper note that is characteristic of this hot inland region in Northeastern Spain. Medium intensity on nose and palate, and a medium body, it has a soft fruity opening, then a mid-palate mineral lift as the fruit drops off, and becomes slightly woody on the finish with some bitter herbal notes. The finish is refreshing but short and lacks tannin but the fruit/acid balance is good.

A new world preface with an old world conclusion, the transitions in this wine are interesting, and it takes your head in a variety of directions. A great price for an interesting wine.

Score: 87

Price: $7

Alc: 14%

This marriage of old and new worlds is accomplished in the music  realm by the Gypsy Kings, known for fusing rock and pop sounds with Flamenco:

If You Like Wines with Finesse, Be Afraid

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heat waveFrom Dr. Vino comes this bad news:

Burgundy, which is known for producing wines more winsome than boxum, will have four days in the 100s (39C+) this week–and the balance in the 90s. Yikes. Searing temperatures are expected in Bordeaux, Barolo, Brunello and Britain as well to name a few places starting with “B.”

And the problem may not be limited to Europe. I’m heading to Willamette Valley in Oregon this week where Pinot Noir is king and the temperatures are predicted to creep into 100’s there as well for the next week.

Wines made from grapes that have been exposed to excessive heat tend to have dominant raisin aromas, taste excessively sweet and lack acidity. They become one-dimensional and lack complexity and balance. This is especially true of varietals such as Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo that do best in cool climates.

One week of hot weather, especially early in the season, will not necessarily lead to disaster but it’s not looking good for the 2015 vintage, and scientists predict we can expect such heat waves to occur more often.

Lovers of fine wine may be in for a rough patch. It will take many years to develop vineyards in Norway.

Bored With Fruit

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spoiled-fruitPatrick Comiskey at Lucky Peach is reporting an incipient revolution in California winemaking.

No doubt, in California we love our fruit:

In modern winemaking, fussily sorted fruit samples are vinified in squeaky clean cellars into wines of seamless elegance, influenced in part by the autocratic and antiseptic predilections of Robert Parker, the influential critic who has privileged fruit above all other elements. The result was an industry defined by homogeneity, at the expense of funk.

I doubt that Robert Parker is fully responsible; our weather and tastes would naturally lead us in that direction. But the general point is dead on. Up and down the state from the cool climate of Sonoma coast to the hot, inland Central Valley, to the sea-ventilated hills of San Diego, fruit is king, especially now that winemakers are backing off the oak just a bit. Sure some winemakers are better than others at extracting fruit flavors and capturing the distinct terroir of their vineyard but most seem to be aiming for the same thing—to show the fruit in its most pure expression. There is nothing wrong with that but when everyone is doing it, it becomes rather pointless.

And yet for a small but growing number of California winemakers, mere fruit is not enough. “It’s the one thing we have too much of,” says Kevin Kelley of Salinia Wine Company, in Santa Rosa. “I’m much more interested in minerality, in salinity; those things are hard to find in fruit-forward wines.” Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project speaks pugilistically about the process, of “beating the fruit out of the wine.” Howell is more philosophical. “We’re not doing this to preserve fruit,” he says, “we want to transform it.”

Barnyard, blood, meat, mushrooms, flowers, leather, spice, minerality—wine can show a whole range of flavors other than basic fruitiness. Why not let them flourish? Of course that requires playing around with brettanomyces, flor, excessive oxygen, volatile acidity, and all the little critters that inhabit the nooks and crannies of a vineyard or winery. Abe Schoener of the the Scholeum Project is positively enthusiastic about them:

Schoener addresses the problem of fruit in a multitude of ways; he maintains his winery, for starters, in an almost defiantly untidy state, eschewing the use of soaps or solvents—even hot water is used as a last resort. The hope is that the walls and the tanks and barrels will all support an active population of microflorae which will contribute to the wine’s flavors….

“The molecules that produce fruitiness, I want those in my wine,” he says. “But I want something to happen to them.” So he’ll extract to extreme levels (think of steeping tea), or he’ll expose the wine to more oxygen than is typical, so that those fruit flavors morph into something more savory—toward mushrooms, tobacco, and other articulations of umami.

I know it is heresy and I may be drummed out of the wine business for saying it, but I’m bored with fruit. I hope the rebellion catches on. Bring on the funk.

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