Aromas of ripe blackberry join the melding of raw wood and dusty earth. On the palate, oak inflected fruit sits on a medium plus frame, developing dried sour cherry midpalate with firm, grippy tannins supporting the somewhat bitter finish.
Very dry from front to back with an unyielding texture, it’s over-oaked for my taste but has plenty of big flavors and good acidity. The overall impression is of no nonsense fortitude and urgency. It will benefit from a hghly marbled steak.
Brought to you by Bronco Wine Company.
Price: $7 at Trader Joe’s
Hard, edgy, urgent like British Sea Power Apologies to Insect Life
Some diligent soul compiled a list of the best selling artist born in each state of the U.S. Minnesota, California, Arizona, Virginia and some others, nice work.
But some states are really falling down on the job. What’s up with Iowa? And who is Spencer Bohren?
I used to write about politics but gave it up because wine and food are a lot more enjoyable. But today I make an exception because of the cataclysmic events of last night.
There will be lots of analysis in the coming days about the relative importance of race, gender, culture and economics in explaining Trump’s victory. Suffice it to say that they are all inter-related because all complex social events have multiple causes. It’s all of the above.
But what happened last night—less educated, rural and exurban voters inviting fascism to our shores—is part of a larger historical context that must be understood if we are to make sense of it. Here are two facts that have been widely known for a long time that go a long way toward explaining the electoral results:
1. In a modern information-driven society, the uneducated are left behind.
2. In a global market small towns, small cities and rural areas have little to offer that would allow them to grow. The decline of local farm economies and, later, the loss of manufacturing has destroyed small-town America.
We have tried to address these problems.
In response to (1) our answer has been to educate more people. But that is enormously expensive, difficult, and after a point impossible. Education is a merit-based activity that depends on students having natural ability, proper motivations, and background. In the absence of those enabling conditions only so much can be done without a massive investment which we, as a society, have failed to make. And even with that investment many people will fall behind. By definition, half the population will be below average and less able to compete.
In response to (2) we have offered the service economy. But small communities lack the population base to grow as a service economy especially when people are leaving rather than coming. It takes a critical mass of diverse service producers and consumers to create a service economy. That is best accomplished by large cities not small towns.
Our solutions to these two problems have been grossly inadequate in part because there may not be a solution. I certainly don’t have have one ready to hand.
When you combine the resentments built up by our failure to address these issues with the racism, sexism and loose connection to facts that seem endemic in human history and you get a President Trump.
San Sebastian is a small, picturesque city in Spain (pop. 186,000) situated on a bay that opens to the Atlantic Ocean within shouting distance of the French border. Despite its relatively small size it contains multitudes. San Sebastian is:
1. The center of Basque history and culture in Europe;
2. The home of pintxos, a type of tapas often served on a small skewer;
3. The primary location that cultivates and makes wine from the Hondarabbi grape;
4. A mini-Monte Carlo where Europe’s A-list celebs mix with a bohemian surfer culture;
5. And it features the 2nd most Michelin-starred restaurants (seven) per capita of any place in the world (trailing only Kyoto Japan).
Our two-day visit to this former fishing village felt like a whirlwind tour through millennia. Our first stop was Valle Salado (Salt Valley) a natural salt spring that was discovered 6500 years ago. The ancient people who lived here diverted the water from the spring into shallow pens. As the water evaporates high quality fleur de sel is left behind. The salt content of the spring water is 30 times the salinity of ocean water.
This facility was abandoned 20 years ago when industrial salt production cornered the market. Today, a local non-profit has begun a restoration project and the salt fields are now both an archeological site (having recently achieved UNESCO site status) and a functioning artisanal salt producer with parts of the original facility now producing salt again. In fact several of the Michelin-starred restaurants in San Sebastian have their own salt pens here. The guided tour of the facility was a fascinating look back in time.
After Valle Salado we visited Txomin Etxaniz, a Txakoli winery nestled in the mountains overlooking the bay. Txakoli is a white wine made from the indigenous Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza grape varietals. I have occasionally come across these wines in the U.S. but they are almost always from Basque country, with some minor plantings in nearby Cantabria and Burgos. It is a simple, dry yet fruity white wine with distinct apple notes, marked high acidity, and some CO2 to give it spritz. The bubbles are enhanced when the wine is poured from a height of 3-4 feet above the glass as is typical in Basque country. It is wonderful with anchovies.
The vines are grown on steep hillsides in a very wet climate. Vintners do battle with the inevitable rot and mildew by trellising the vines with a system of tall poles that keep the grapes high above the ground. The vines first grow straight up about seven feet in the air before being trained to follow a wire mesh between the rows creating a tunnel that funnels sea breezes through the grape bunches keeping moisture to a minimum. This is a variant of the Pergola system of trellising used in some regions of Northern Italy and Argentina.
San Sebastian is also famous for pintxos. Pintxos were originally tapas served on a small skewer or toothpick, but pintxos bars in San Sebastian now serve a full range of tapas taking advantage of their abundant seafood. Our tour included a short ferry boat ride to the village of Cibure where we assembled at a charming rustic restaurant Ziaboga for our lesson in how to make pintxos from seafood freshly caught that morning. The chef and his staff guided us through the process of selecting and butchering fish and putting together the dishes to be served that day.
I spent the morning fileting tuna, slicing paper-thin servings of jamon and assembling one of their classic pintxos dishes, white anchovies gently cooked in warm garlic oil, and served on bread with a condiment made of alioli and tomato. We then were able to eat the fruits of our labor. My favorite was marinated shark, served on a slice of lime topped with a bit of wasabi.
This was an an abundant feast but I had to show some restraint because we were on our own for dinner and Lynn and I had reservations at Akelarre—a 3- star Michelin restaurant with stunning ocean views and serving tasting menus that update traditional Basque cooking. We chose the two menus dubbed “innovative” but each of the 8 courses included a reference to traditional ingredients and preparations.
I didn’t take extensive notes on each dish—the conflict between being present and documentation is irresolvable for me—but here are a couple highlights.
The first dish was prawns flamed in a small, covered pot at the table that gave the seafood an exquisite, smoky flavor, especially when sucking on the head. The contrast of smoke and brine with the concentrated freshness of the beans gave this dish great intensity.
But for pure comforting enjoyment, squid cut to the size and shape of grains of rice, and briefly cooked “al dente” in a squid ink sauce ( and thus appearing as a “risotto”) topped with a flower of butter and parmesan cheese that melts into the dish, was the most satisfying.
Three-star Michelin restaurants are as much about presentation as flavor. This salad called “the leaves and foie under the rain” was the most impressive in appearance. That bottom leaf covering the plate is actually foie gras and the luscious dressing was an infusion of herbs with no oil or vinegar.
As I argued in American Foodie, if cuisine is to qualify as art it must be “about” something, making meaningful references to food traditions and the sensibility of a people while extending that sensibility in new directions.
Akelarre succeeds on that score. Chef Pedro Subijana’s cuisine is influenced by French, Italian and modernist cooking but avoids the trap of being merely “showy” or novel. His dishes have meaning because they express a sensibility rooted in local traditions while incorporating influences from afar when they make sense.
From ancient salt fields to modernist cuisine there is indeed a universe to explore in San Sebastian.
We have a brief stop in Madrid waiting for our tour of Rioja to begin. What to do in Madrid? Do what the madrileños are most famous for—tapas hunting. I don’t know that there is a more vibrant food culture in the world than the several neighborhoods in Madrid that feature hundreds of quirky tapas bars crammed into a few blocks patronized by hordes of strolling tourists and locals seeking the perfect bite.
In the U.S. we think of tapas as creative small plates offered as appetizers in upscale restaurants. But in Madrid a tapas bar is typically a small hole-in-the-wall with a few stools crammed to the rafters with tapas aficionados, who drift from one spot to the next well into the wee hours of the morning.
These crisps filled with savory parmesan ice cream and foie gras with maple syrup are from Estado Puro, with innovative dishes designed by El Bulli-inspired chef Paco Roncero.
The best methodology for discovering the good stuff is to find out what the specialty of each bar is, order a small plate to be shared among friends, washing it down with wine, beer, or cider and then wander down the street to the next destination, rinse and repeat until stuffed and thoroughly sloshed.
However, our final meal in Madrid was no tapas plate. This roasted suckling pig served at Restaurante Botin, allegedly the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world ( founded in 1725) was tender and juicy with cracklin’ skin—a fitting finale to our brief stay in Madrid.
Tapas culture is informal, playful, quirky and irreverent ….an attitude well captured by the retro wall image in Estada Puro featuring a young woman sporting a traditional Mantilla comb distinctly unimpressed with her companion.
A good meal and a great bottle of wine. There is nothing as effective at improving one’s mood. But I doubt that even a meal cooked personally by Thomas Keller accompanied by a nice bottle of Petrus could improve the mood of some Americans who seem to think the world is falling apart. So here is a bit of good news to savor while sipping the Petrus:
Did you know that, in the past 30 years, the percentage of people in the world who live in extreme poverty has decreased by more than half? If you said no—if you thought the number had gone up; that more people, not less, live in extreme poverty—you aren’t alone. According to a recent Barna Group survey, done in partnership with Compassion International and the new book Hope Rising by Dr. Scott Todd, more than eight in 10 Americans (84%) are unaware global poverty has reduced so drastically. More than two-thirds (67%) say they thought global poverty was on the rise over the past three decades.
It is hard to imagine why someone would think this news irrelevant but I doubt you will find it in the headlines this week.
It doesn’t attract eyeballs.
Two significant acquisitions in the wine world caught my eye this week. Penner-Ash, one of my favorite Willamette Valley producers, was acquired by Kendall-Jackson; and Patz-Hall a small producer in Sonoma will now be part of the humungous Chateau Ste. Michelle.
As Bob Hunnicut points out, these acquisitions are all about Pinot Noir:
Most of the recent stories of money changing hands in the premium wine market has been about the large guys buying into Pinot Noir because Pinot is hot. How much longer will the demand seem to exceed the supply? How much longer will the people with lots of money throw a bunch of it chasing Pinot? And who’s next? Well, if I was a small producer of Pinot Noir and was ever thinking about retiring rich I’d be sticking my for sale sign out now.
For Pinot fans this is not good news. Pinot Noir is a delicate, temperamental grape that needs cool weather to flourish and cannot be grown anywhere. And it doesn’t lend itself to industrial winemaking either. All this demand is encouraging more planting in marginal vineyards and big producers trying to make a fast buck. Quality will suffer.
I agree with Sonoma Bob. This looks like a bubble although the inherent virtues of the grape may mean a slow leak rather than a burst. There are, after all, not a lot of options for light-bodied, food friendly, reds that manage to be both lush and vibrant even when not particularly well made.
But it will make finding good Pinot Noir at reasonable prices even more difficult.
But now I’ve been stationary in San Diego for two months while I teach my Spring classes, and life has settled into a routine.
But “settled” is too kind a word. When I repeatedly move through the same streets a place becomes too familiar. I suppose it is comforting knowing the buildings one sees and the easiest route to a destination. But I naturally fall into habits so I no longer have to think about where I’m going. I can feel my level of attention decline and nothing really attracts my attention. Even brilliant things—a unique building, an interesting person, a piece of public art—are dulled by repeated exposure and fade into the ordinariness of everyday. It’s easy to fall into a daydream, and think about tomorrow, or next week. Being present is not necessary; everything becomes background unless something goes wrong. Only when my expectations are flouted do I have to focus.
In other words, familiarity breeds a loss of aesthetic experience. Aesthetic experience now requires conscious effort and planning. I suppose feeling at home in a place and succumbing to the torpor of habit is comforting and has its own aesthetic feel to it. But there is no edge and no need for exploration. Nothing seems distinctive; there is no rhythm or movement; it hardly seems worthy of being called “aesthetic”.
By contrast, when traveling I have to be alert and pay attention to details. I’m more sensitive to how things look and feel. I’m never quite sure that my assumptions about where things are located are correct and everything has an aura of freshness about it accompanied by the thought that I may never pass this way again and so I have to enjoy it while I can. The lure of exploration beckons and the anticipation of the unknown stimulates the imagination.
No doubt feeling at home in a place is a basic human characteristic, something we seek out and miss when it is not available. Most importantly, I sorely miss the friends and family I leave behind when traveling. And I can get more work done when I don’t have to drive for 8 hours or think about making travel arrangements.
But even after just a few weeks I miss the sensory intensity that comes with a constantly changing geography. It’s time to start making plans.