Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Five More Thoughts: Whine Tasting Ed.

You folks don't know how lucky you are. A lengthy post months (garnering months in the procrastination) has been averted yet again due to some recent reminders about both being boring and the overestimation of sincerity. So maybe just this once, I'm going to limit my woeful indictment of society and shadowy conspiracy theories to more obviously deserving microcosms (the NFL and the French wine mafia), and then crank up the goth records and complain bitterly to the dog. Meantime, let's keep it light, 'kay K?

1. Back East – What's up with that?
When I was on the left coast last month, I kept telling people I was from back east, in Massachusetts. Now, this made sense considering the relative geography, but I worry that "back" is a universal modifier in this country for "east." Do people who grew up on the west coast also say "back east?" I am pretty sure I have never heard anyone come from back west, instead they are from "out west." At least the latitude is more sensible. When one is from "down south," you might go and visit "up north," perhaps reluctantly if you are sensitive about your redneck cred. People who are already up north only have the option of visiting "upstate," even if they live in a different state.

2. Maybe ...mesquite?
Little did I suspect that I am incapable of a week straight of wine tasting. In the course of a day, your palate gets so swamped with tannins (mostly Bordeaux styles in Napa and Sonoma) that you can taste little else after a while. Even worse, I have somehow inherited the stamina of a 37-year-old, and day after day of drinking just wore me the hell out. By the third day, I was actually using the spit cups. The indignity, I tell ya.

A lot of your wine's flavor (naturally enough) comes from the fermentation conditions, and I heard some interesting discussions about the grades and sources for the oak barrels that are often used. I'll concede that toasted oak does possess many similar flavor notes as the grapes do, but my smoking experiments verified earlier impressions that oak, and especially burnt oak, is about the most chemically intense, acrid tree you'll find among the common hardwoods.

The tradition of aging wine in oak barrels is, I believe a French invention, and at least seems consistent with their culinary heritage of twisting out the most variety and subtle perfection out of a limited set of ingredients. I mean, just look what they did with eggs and dairy. (Is French oak considered superior to American oak? Do American oaks produce garrulous obnoxious wines? Naturellement! Or at least some of them are, where it occurred to them somewhat earlier to be careful about cutting them all down. Older trees (and different species also may) have tighter grains, which gets you less surface area and more subtlety of flavor.) So oak because it's been known for centuries, but man, it's just so inherently nasty, and there other fine woods out there—when will the innovation in wine-making finally hit us?

As just one example, Twif mentioned the awesomeness of smoking meat with bourbon-soaked maple. Something like this has real possibilities. People love the flavors you get out of maple, and think of all the pleasing nuances it could impart to wine, ramp up the vanillas and cooking spices maybe, with less of the peppery or astringent. Or let's defy Europe and take a purely American wood, age a wine in hickory, maybe, see what we get. How about cherry wood to age a nice cab or anything else with a big dark fruit character? Walnut is pretty heavy with tannins, and probably is to be avoided unless you're an oak nut (an acorn?), but maybe age a brandy in it. A port made with walnut brandy? Now we're talking.

When I mentioned this question to a guy on one of the wine tours, he said that one reason was a shortage of coopers these days. He told me that some of the early California vintners worked with barrels made from the local redwoods. You must get some really shitty flavor notes from conifers. Mmmm, turpentine...

I'm also convinced that while it takes a well-trained palate to appreciate wine, any half-drunk oaf can make it. (Not grow the grapes or make a predictable batch, but rather make something that tastes like wine that you can explain after.) Some people were fermenting with wild yeast out there. The high sugar content in the grapes ensures that once the yeast gets chomping, their populations will soar and exclude any other bugs. The high alcohol content keeps them from growing afterwards. Your off flavors come from the grapes (and all that went in growing them) and your barrels, and in wine, let's face it: off flavors are a feature.* Grain, on the other hand, takes major coaxing to ferment, and there's something that can go wrong at pretty much every one of the 3,204 stages, including brushing your hand on some piece of equipment and infecting the whole batch with your disgusting finger-print bacteria. This guy at the winery was manhandling a siphon, that he dipped right into the storage barrel. Right into the barrel! If you did this to beer, you'd be growing macaroni noodles** in it.

*I'm exaggerating, if only a little. It's interesting that these flavor notes all correspond to known chemicals, and, since they have to remain soluble, there's a good concentration of fairly simple chemical species that add flavor. Some of these are common in an industrial chemical lab. Ethyl acetate is easy as hell to spot, and some reds develop simple thiols. I react very negatively to these flavors. Will avoid the Semillon grape in the former case, and catching the latter in the occasional red made for the very rare times I called something undrinkable. (I had to really choke it down.)

**True story.

3. What happened to Engineering?
Back when I was more impressed with myself (the 90s, roughly), I thought engineering was the shit. I liked what Scott Adams said (back then) about other fields appending "engineer" to lend themselves significance. We engineering students mocked the sciences as people who couldn't do honest math. By grad school, of course I'd learn that this was wrong for any discipline that had the "physic" strung anywhere in its title sequence, or any discipline given to modeling complex systems, but (especially when it comes to the Chem/ChemE chasm) here are engineers more invested in questions that anyone cares about or can ever make work. (Chemists were the sorts of hopeless buffoons that'd spend four years synthesizing just barely enough of a chemical they could hope to prove existed.) In the internet age, I've been horrified to see a diminution of the engineer. Somehow, we've gone back to automatons who can't handle the deeper understanding and the thirst for fundamental knowledge that is the provenance of big-S Science. People see that engineering badge I once wore proudly as something like a junior technician of the sciences. Possibly it's because I approximately joined the sciences, and this is just their prejudice surfacing.

In the research areas, they blur anyway, and on a good day, I can't tell you where I fall on the spectrum (applied scientist? that's probably closest), and what the hell, it's not like I'm a sterling example of either anyway. I guess the trouble is more conversational. I've always imagined "engineer" to carry a certain freight, and I've been derailed by short comments or funny looks. Different times, or different circumstances, and most importantly, how come everyone doesn't think exactly like me?

4. A Good Doodle, Spoiled.
Recently quipped (and deleted): Writing is a lot like golf. Early on, you hit a few good ones and think, "yeah, this could be a really satisfying activity for me." Keep going, and you find that not only is it difficult to relive those positive performances of your style, you somehow get worse trying to repeat or improve them. Even longer, and there's the grudging realization that at best you can achieve terminal mediocrity, unable to stop, and unable to prevent yourself from doing the same dumb things over and over again.

And look, I know it's not true of everyone. Some people can swing the club or dash a sentence with a natural talent, or can actually improve to amazing levels. And it's no less true of any other field or activity you'd ever want to take up. Why compare it to golf, and not, say, music, or science? Well, I have been wise enough to not take up golf.

5. At Least They Still Have To Share It.
I'm finally starting to understand why people have hated the Patriots for the past ten years. I always blamed it on the fact that they were awesome and their team wasn't, or on Bill Belichick's lifelong dyspeptic troll impression, or on Tom Brady's clean-cut good looks and junior partner attitude. Or maybe the conservative NFL was supporting the 2001-vintage jingoism by shedding a little love for the Revolutionary-themed team. But I'm finally starting to see that there was something specially annoying about getting the national media soft-pedal for ten years, and it's taken a shift in affection to the hated rivals to really make me understand it.

The Jets have brought in a few named, although not young, players, and Darelle Revis finally signed, and yeah, part of it is the loud blathering of their coach Rex "strong men also cry" Ryan. And there's the HBO special, which seems to have gained some traction, but it's hard for me to tell because (a) I don't watch it, and (b) I never sprang for the service before this year. But there's something even more: the perennially disappointing Jets seem to have a whiff of media magic about them this year. As a full disclosure, I don't hate the Jets as much as a good New Englander should. Got me some close friends who are big fans, and the only NFL games I've ever attended were home games at the Old Meadowlands, and there's something cute about their colorful, loudmouth, drunken, asshole fans you meet there. But I am conditioned to not really respect them either, and I remain enough of a local to wrinkle my nose at the attention they're getting.

You can't watch a televised Pats game without one of the flaks telling you how amazing the stadium is. This is because three years ago, the Krafts teamed with CBS to develop some silly mall complex around the stadium, which combined the business genius of bringing in the crowds to absorb more sports-themed crap at gametime and getting big plugs in every CBS broadcast. I'm a fan of the team, but it's a little hard to listen to them lionize the civic goodness of the pie-faced old nepotist who dandled Hartford and Providence on his knee in a successful effort to leverage $70 million in state infrastructure, subornation of existing zoning codes, etc. from Massachusetts just in time for me to move here and help pay for.

One thing I didn't realize was that Kraft secured a hefty loan for the stadium from the NFL itself. I assume that this is not uncommon, and I picture the owners' meetings as proceeding according to rules of shadow organizations you find in Bond films, with lots of hairless cats. As stadiums go, Gilette was not so expensive as the more recent builds, but he seems to have been pretty shrewd in investing the broadcast media into local fame as well winning some conspiratorial league support, as mentioned above. I remember some enhanced positive chatter about Indy when they built their stadium, although they were actually winning games in '08 and the constant-circumference head of Peyton Manning was already achieving Orwellian ubiquity, and the Cowboys (who deserve an eternity of ignominy for being a Texas product ever labeled "America's team") also got the HBO deal coincidentally with their then-record stadium build. A new bowl rehabilitated Arizona's record, but I'd be committing the fallacy of small numbers to get too impressed about that one, and anyway they did land them some talent. Maybe anyone in Chicago can tell me if Soldier Field, the sequel, did anything for the team.

I don't know what soul-selling it took to get the New Meadowlands stadium built. I know that the fucker was expensive ($1.6B) enough to price workaday lawyers and marketing pukes out of season tickets, and one assumes the blue collars in green jerseys will be watching on teevee a sea of greige suits ogling the Flight Crew from the stands. Go corporatism! Man, I expect nothing less from the NFL. Just so long as they don't start winning.


august said...

On #3: science seems to me to be back out of favor. I had been hoping generation Obama would give it a boost, but I'm afraid it's going to take another sputnik-esque burst of national paranoia, or maybe a really cool video game.

On #4: oh Lordy. Writing, the real vocation of trying to write well, knowing that you've turned a phrase or two in your day but not being sure that you can wrestle the current ideas into words with syntax, ughh. That is the sinking feeling I get in my stomach on a daily basis nowadays.

Keifus said...

I'd considered responding with empathy to your post on fighting the boring, but I realized it was (a) incredibly self-centered, and (b) boring.

When I can hit, even though it's just at my own schtick, I find it's quite a high, but obviously there's not much market even for that. Sometimes I tell myself that writing proposals for a living is developing the skill in any meaningful way, but I don't really think that.

Aaron said...

Man, I hope writing isn't like Golf. If my writing is as bad as my golf game, I'm going to be under a death sentence if I keep it up.

twif said...

I've always imagined "engineer" to carry a certain freight, and I've been derailed by short comments or funny looks.

i saw what you did there. [grin]

Keifus said...

Thanks Twif.

Errata, while I'm typing: I recently learned in Maine, that they call it "down east," so that's one oopsie. And the Pats let me down, or at least I missed their usual CBS shill. The Jets didn't win.

(Aaron, I hope mine isn't as well.)

Archaeopteryx said...

Me write bad. Me wish I could write good like you.

Keifus said...

Nonsense, you need to write more, Arch. Shutting up about the damn mosque was excellent advice, but you didn't need to shut up about everything...