Edible Arts is on a brief hiatus while I finish up a writing project. Posting will resume on Wednesday.
Uncertainty, mortality, suffering, change—the coronavirus has dropped all of them on our doorstep. When we face circumstances like this, activities we’ve always taken for granted suddenly become salient in their mattering and urgency, and we confront questions about what we really value.
These intruders are unwanted guests to be sure and they may well trash the place before they leave.
But sometimes the provocation is just what we need.
Throughout human history we have never changed without a crisis. It’s just not in our nature to evolve in rational, measured sequences. Only when forced to, will we discard old paradigms and cast about for new ones.
We have not done ourselves proud over the last four years. The civilization that emerged from the provocations of world war and showed such promise at the close of the 20th Century has been teetering on the brink of a dark, turbulent chasm. This virus will surely push us over.
But in the process of re-inventing ourselves there is an opportunity to change our behavior and way of life to give our planet a chance to heal. When the doctors and scientists have done their work it will be time for the rest of us to step up.
No one would confuse me with an optimist. (I disliked Pollyanna as a kid). But suffering and uncertainty have a way of focusing our attention.
When robbed of inertia, motion is the only option.
I’m sitting in front of my window on the world sipping a pricey Napa Cab from my cellar (that is a bit disappointing) and thinking about travel plans for next summer and fall. I’m proceeding as if everything were normal knowing full well they won’t be.
Normally on Sunday my wife and I would be hanging out with our son. But he was exposed to a sick person in court last week (probably not Corona but who knows) so we decided to be on the safe side and forgo the visit.
Every time I try to write something insightful about wine, this runs through my mind:
They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tightrope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row
Everyone from consumers to wine shop owners, to wine critics, to winemakers are in the business of distinguishing good wine from bad wine and communicating those distinctions to others. Ask any winemaker why she controls her fermentation temperatures and you will hear some version of the claim that doing so makes better wine. If wine quality were purely subjective there would be no reason to listen to anyone about wine quality. Wine education would be an oxymoron; quality control an exercise in futility; wine criticism just empty piffle.
The most telling fact about the existence of objective judgments and genuine expertise is the fact that many wine experts successfully pass the rigorous Master of Wine or Master Sommelier exams. To pass the tasting portion of the Master of Wine exam you have to sit for three 12-wine blind tastings, each lasting two and a quarter hours, in which wines from anyplace in the world must be assessed for variety, origin, winemaking, quality and style. They aren’t consulting oracles or hallucinating their answers. If you don’t know your stuff, you don’t pass, period. If wine tasting is wholly subjective what explains their ability to pass the exam?
However the fact that wine expertise is real does not quite secure the argument that judgments about wine quality are objective. This is because, too often, reasoning about wine quality is circular. (This by the way is a well known problem in philosophical aesthetics.)
Here is the problem:
How do we know what wine quality is? The best answer is that competent, qualified judges determine what wine quality is—the folks that pass the MW exam for instance. But how do we know they are the competent judges? They’re the ones who can identify wine quality.
That is a logical circle. A is true because B is true. But B is true because A is true.
The problem is we need an independent account of what wine quality is. One way of solving this problem is to point to a consensus. If all competent judges come to agreement about wine quality, that is evidence that their judgments are objective.
As we know from debates about wine quality, competent judges come to vastly different conclusions about the value of the wines they assess. Although there is broad consensus in the wine world that a Chateau Lafite from a good vintage is of higher quality than your bottom shelf $8 Chianti, more fine-grained judgments elude the consensus necessary to avoid the circle.
Something to ponder for the weekend.
The best thing about the day after Christmas is that I won’t have to listen to Christmas music for an entire year.
I was tempted to ask readers for their votes on the worst Christmas song in existence. The competition would be fierce. But then that would probably just create an earworm and ruin December 26th for me.
Last week, New York Times restaurant critic Peter Wells published a scathing review of one of the iconic restaurants in the U.S.—Peter Lugar Steakhouse. Luger has been around since 1887 and is considered by many to be New York’s finest steak house, appearing on many lists of the best restaurants in the U.S. But Wells complained about every dish he tasted, as well as the price, claiming he felt scammed.
This is neither surprising nor noteworthy. Wells is well-known for the occasional vituperative, negative review and I’ve never been to Peter Lugar so I have no opinion to offer. But what I did find noteworthy is one response to Well’s review in Huffington Post by Nancy Koziol. Posing a question about whether critics are “out of touch” she writes:
But does Wells’ opinion really hold much weight?
According to Facebook, the steakhouse is still knocking it out of the park: It has a rating of 4.7 out of 5 based on the opinion of about 4,200 of the site’s members. Scroll past the last few days of reactionary reviews and it’s clear that people love Luger, which makes one question whether professional critic reviews speak to the average diner. Luger’s reputation on Yelp is great, with over 5,000 reviewers giving it an overall 4-star rating. Several 5-star reviews have come rolling in this week.
She then goes on to look at the continued popularity of several restaurants that Wells has trashed in the past.
The underlying assumption of the whole article is that the validity of food criticism is somehow dependent on whether it conforms to popular taste. A critic that goes against a Yelp rating is “out of touch”. This is beyond silly. If the purpose of food criticism is to conform to popular taste, then critics really are irrelevant. Since we have Yelp and Facebook to tell us what’s popular we don’t need critics.
This has it backwards. The purpose of food criticism is to hold restaurants to a higher standard than mere popularity. The relevance of food criticism today depends on the idea that what is popular may not be good, and someone with vastly more knowledge and experience than the average diner can provide a useful perspective on culinary matters. The problem with crowdsourced opinion is twofold. First, 1000 uninformed opinions do not add up to an informed opinion. Secondly, most human beings have a tendency to follow the crowd and approve of what’s in fashion. Crowdsourced opinion has no antidote to that tendency and is in fact nothing but a measure of “trendslavery”.
And so the food critic’s job is to point out when the emperor has no clothes. The last thing we want from a food critic (or wine critic for that matter) is to rubberstamp conventional opinion.
The tragic news of more fires in Sonoma County (as well as LA) has me sick at heart. Most of us connected to the wine industry have friends in the area whose homes and livelihoods are threatened once again. It has become a yearly occurrence each fall when the winds come. The burdens on the people who live there are exacerbated by the new policy of shutting down the electric grid for days on end to prevent faulty equipment from sparking new fires.
Worries about the welfare of residents there are accompanied by a feeling of helplessness. There just is not much we can do in the short run to forestall these events. Once the fire is out, of course, we should visit Sonoma and buy their wines. That’s important up to a point but clearly not a solution.
It should be obvious at this point that the situation is unsustainable. We cannot live like this.
So I heartily endorse Steve Heimoff’s post “California needs a Marshall Plan to combat these fires.”
For those unfamiliar with the aftermath of WWII, the Marshall Plan was a U.S. recovery program that provided massive economic development aid to Western Europe following the devastation of World War II. It has come to symbolize any large-scale, government funded rescue plan.
As Steve writes:
In calling for a Marshall Plan, I mean for the Governor to reassure an anxious public that these fires are no routine matter—that they have now placed themselves at the top of his to-do list. Newsom didn’t run on combating wildfires. I doubt that there’s ever been an American politician who ran for office with disaster prevention his or her main priority. But here we are: politicians need to be flexible, in order to respond to real-world events, and these fires are as real-world as you can get.
I have no idea what the solution is and neither does Steve. But he is right that establishing fire prevention and mitigation as a fundamental priority is the first step. It will likely require new thinking on a host of issues from the construction of the electrical grid to where development occurs and how forests are managed. It will probably require more taxes.
And all of this is of course bound up with the problem of climate change and the boneheads (a more polite term than the one I had in mind) who ignore it.
But sitting around hoping that next year won’t be so bad seems like a vain and foolish hope at this point.
Another wind event is predicted for today that could wipe out the progress made yesterday in fighting the fires.
It probably won’t help but–fingers crossed. What else can you do?
Situated on the east side of the Pyrenees in southern France, this region is best known for their sweet wines. Côtes du Roussillon is a minimally selective appellation for their table wines. These are blends of Rhone varietals. This one is made from Syrah, Grenache, and Carignan produced by the Bordeaux wine impresario Bernard Magrez, and lives up to the region’s reputation for rustic reds.
At seven years past its vintage date, the nose is showing some glorious complexity. Plum and fig, roasted coffee beans, and a hint of emerging caramel are dominant. There is a bit of oxidation, a nut aroma, developing as well and you get hints of tarragon with aeration. In the mouth it’s broad shouldered with lots of fruit power and very firm tannins. The tannins are integrated and the wine is balanced but the mouthfeel is hard and unyielding, a linear evolution without much finesse. The midpalate brightens briefly with herbal notes but there some bitterness on the medium length finish.
A stoic, unperturbable personality, stolid and unsmiling except for the age-induced aromatic generosity. The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Can’t Stop seemed to add textural depth to this wine.
Technical Notes: Aged in 50% one-year old barrels and 50% stainless steel tanks, 15-25 days maceration
In the middle of one of the darkest eras in American history, let this Labor Day be a celebration of immigrant labor. Without immigrant labor there would be no wine industry or food industry as we know it.
Immigrants have been the backbone of our economy since the beginning. The colonists were immigrants and refugees. Chinese immigrants built the railway system. German and Irish immigrants built the modern infrastructure of our cities. The early days of the auto and garment industries, all driven by immigrant labor. Today, immigrants from South America and Asia fill low-wage positions in the service economy.
Studies have shown that immigrants are more likely than non-immigrants to start a business and in many small towns and cities across the county the demand for goods and services from immigrant communities keeps their economies afloat. And only the continual influx of young immigrant labor will keep social security and Medicare solvent in the years ahead.
In the face of the savagery and cruelty visited upon immigrant families by the neo-fascists, it is immigrant labor in particular that needs our compassion and support.
I mention this similarity only because it’s that time of the year when I have heaps of barely comprehensible prose to decipher, thankfully leavened by the occasional gem. It’s not unlike evaluating budget wines.
At any rate, I must devote full attention to professorial duties until semester’s end and no doubt the wine rituals will suffer.