Monday, December 11, 2017

Archive for the ‘Overthinking’ Category

Unraveling a Mystery: Minerality

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Posted by Burke Morton On January - 28 - 2010

QuartziteIf you have ever wondered if you were missing something when you heard someone say a wine "has great minerality," then you are not alone. It used to be one the more trendy buzzwords in wine, but it has lost some luster because it has been attacked from all sides as being impossible to quantify or prove. As far as I am concerned, "minerality" is a useful descriptor for aromas and flavors, but only insofar as it can convey the perception of an appealing, non-fruit-derived quality.

There is a sense of unease surrounding minerality (hence the attacks) specifically regarding how it gets into a wine, and what exactly it is. I have a natural acceptance of this kind of mystery, so I am content to let the answers come as they may. Many, many people, however, have long been and continue to be minerality deniers, writing it off as the flights of fancy from exuberant and self-righteous wine writers. I wonder if these folks are impatient for answers. Just spend some time surfing wine blogs and you'll find more missives obviously borne of insecurity than anyone should have to endure on such an esoteric topic. This is too bad, because it's only a drink.

Anyway...since minerality is a commonly-used term, it is worth understanding it.

What Minerality Is...And What It Is Not
Minerality is a non-fruit-oriented notion a taster detects in a wine's aroma or flavor:

In the AROMA: any scent that your nose will immediately recognize as normally non-consumable, such as chalk, slate, silicate (like mica), calcium (like limestone), flint, or petroleum. When accompanied by ripe and succulent fruit aromas, these notions are quite attractive and usually the more pronounced and intense the minerality, the more mouthwatering the scent.

In the FLAVOR: a non-sweet, non-fruity, non-bitter quality that can be a component of a wine's flavor, usually expressed through shades of salty, savory, and/or sour flavors. For example, if a wine seems to have a rocky quality to the flavor, and this reminds you of the way the quartzite-laced flower bed behind your childhood home smelled (taste and smell are so closely intertwined) after a warm rain, then you've hit on it.

From Whence Minerality?
Does quartzite in the soil actually get into the vines and therefore our wine? This isn't fully known, but so far the evidence does not support the idea that a vine metabolizes soil-based minerals, thereby enriching the grapes with their essences so that we can taste them. However, plant biology still has too many dark recesses that are as yet unexplored for us to know conclusively what is happening. As any good erstwhile Liberal Arts student (and I am--the University of Chicago drubbed this into me!) would do, I'll wait until we know more before I decide that vines do not directly transmit the flavors of certain minerals in the soil, because I suspect this will be politicized for some time to come, and people will fall on one side or the other, probably even when the evidence is finally overwhelming in one way or another. This won't have the impact that Evolution has had on society, but it would spice things up if it were similarly controversial.

For now, the provenance of minerality remains beneath some stone unturned.

Popularity: 2% [?]

A Brief Post-Hurricane Wine Essay

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Posted by Burke Morton On December - 15 - 2009

Arms of Hurricane Ike (photo: NASA)Thank you to the many of you who asked me to post this piece: it is an essay that I wrote for the print edition of The Pulse of the City the week after the long arms of Hurricane Ike--not yet satisfied by the destruction of Galveston, Texas--laid waste to a large portion of the power grid covering the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys in September 2008.

--Power (Loss) Provides New Perspective--

The power is off in my house as I write this. It’s been off for a while and no doubt will be off for a few more days yet. I’m actually writing longhand, which is not my typical way of writing these days. The house is quiet, my family is asleep, and it would be hard to not enjoy the poetry of a moment like this. The scratching of my pen is the only sound this side of my breathing, and the candles in the center of the table gird me and my surroundings in an appetizing red-yellow glow. I’m drinking red wine. It is beautiful, but it is really not what I wanted to open. I’d rather drink something white, but since refrigeration becomes a problem when the power is out, I have chosen to curl my fingers around the stem of a New Zealand Pinot Noir--it is as fragile and tensile as any good Riesling, but it grows beefier with every sip, until I have some water, and then it seems edgy again.

I’m not trying to indulge some pretentious nonsense. This is just an illustration of how I am interacting with wine at the moment. It reminds me of the slightly thrilling sensation of driving alone at night: self-aware, open to knowing the impact we have on our surroundings and the way our surroundings affect us. We are not usually in this state (or at least I am not), so we are not usually decoding the messages our senses are receiving.

We are so assaulted by information that it has become a cliché to mention it. We barely have time to process what we get paid to do, much less concern ourselves with such avocational topics as wine. We’ve been primed to turn off some receptors, which allows us to sit through an exciting action film or watch a friend embarrass himself. Turning our senses back “on” is not easy, but doing so allows us to be immersed in the world and the world to be immersed in us. This requires a lot of energy, but I’ve found it to be worth it.

So what the heck does this have to do with wine? Well, only everything! Wine is one of the few things that engages all five senses at once, while at the same time stimulating the intellect (provided the wine is of genuine interest for one reason or another). It is perfectly easy to slurp down wine just for fun, but it is more rewarding to let the wine both tell its story, and help shape the story of drinking it.

I realize that this runs the risk of sounding like snobby new-age esoterica, but think about how you interact with food and drink. Does it interest you only for sustenance; do you like it for all of its facets, warts and all; something in between? Either way, it will affect the way you remember the food or drink, as well as the way you relate the experience of it.

Back to the story here--that New Zealand Pinot Noir which is getting more muscular with each sip is really a delight to drink. It is the Olssons Jackson Barry Pinot Noir, and I would recommend it for its multi-layered complexity as well as its ability to overcome a big hurdle. As I said, I didn’t really want to drink this wine. When I realized the refrigerator wasn’t going to get my wine cold, it was either rally and find something else to drink, or go without wine altogether. I obviously chose the former, and in doing so, though it was not intentional, I have gotten to relate the experience of it.

After all that, if Hurricane Ike hadn’t treated our fair city like Tina so that I had to make a choice, I would be drinking Champagne right now. And with those bubbles tickling my nose and a working overhead light, this would have been an entirely different article.

Popularity: 3% [?]

Syrah v. Shiraz on the Radio

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Posted by Burke Morton On November - 30 - 2009


The always provocative Randall Grahm, the mind behind Bonny Doon wines, who is also the king of the well-marketed wine (Big House Red, anyone?), was on The Splendid Table (listen to it above) a couple of weekends ago promoting his new book, Been Doon So Long. Not one to miss an opportunity like this one, he stirred the pot on Australian Shiraz, and poked a bit at the well-marketed ones, too.

He did acknowledge that not all Australian Shiraz are manufactured, overdeveloped swamp juice, but if one cares deeply about OZ Shiraz, the main point may have been irritating enough to cause them to miss that.

Too Easy to Get Into
His main position is that many too many a Shiraz from Australia is TOO EASY to drink, thus ruining the experience of (or making more difficult the transition to) balanced, carefully made Shiraz and Syrah from all over the world. "Shiraz" as a moniker has come to embody assembly-line wine with over-the-top, fat, roasted, syrupy qualities, and this is evidenced by estates in California using the name to indicate the nature of a Syrah (which is what it is usually called there). There are even some Australian wine makers who have taken to calling their Shiraz "Syrah" to indicate the style of the wine. Some folks feel that (the stereotypical) OZ Shiraz is the Avignon Papacy compared to the TRUE SYRAH found elsewhere. Nonsense. It is just that the empirically less-interesting--if quite delicious--wine happens to be extending the hand of friendship, while great Syrah often presents (if opened and drunk too young) a clinched fist.

A Problem Where There Shouldn't Be One
Why is it a bad thing that Shiraz should be too easy to drink? Well, nothing, per se, is wrong with that, any more than there is anything wrong with White Zinfandel. Despite some who hold out for White Zin's promise in the way that Sarah Palin thinks that elected officials should be no better than an average person, it really is not a true exposure to the best potential of the wine grape in question. Of White Zinfandel I used to say, "that's not wine." But it technically is, just as Yellow Tail, Little Penguin, Three Monkeys (or any other critter-named wine) are also--despite the purists' desire to deny it--wine.

An unadulterated Zinfandel is a RED WINE, bold, plump with berry fruit and in some regions has the potential for such high alcohol that one bottle alone can be a party. Syrah/Shiraz can and should be in that league too: the nature of Syrah is that it is at its best and most emotionally evocative when it tastes appropriately of fruit AND of herbs, rocks, and the undefinable mystery that only great wine grapes possess.

A Road Map for Peace
To my mind, Syrah should not be a front-line wine. Merlot? Of course! Malbec? Naturally! But well-made Syrah--even when it has a forward, friendly fruitiness--has an aloof quality...the vinous equivalent of a cool reception, which evaporates, however, the more time one spends with it. A great wine grape shouldn't be relegated to making one dimensional wine with such preponderance that its name suffers. Merlot has endured this affront at the hands of some irresponsible growers; Pinot Noir may have dodged it in the post-Sideways drift away from mass-consumption of the variety; let's help Syrah/Shiraz avoid it, too.

I applaud Shiraz if it's tasty (no matter the style) and deplore those that aren't (whether they are tarry and overripe, or so "elegant" that they are "dreadful"). Running alongside this is the assembly-line approach to many Shiraz from Australia, which turns me off: wine is not intended to be manufactured, but shepherded from the vineyards through the winery to the bottle. When most of the Shiraz in the world meets this kind of standard, the swamp juice will disappear, the schism between Shiraz and Syrah will heal, and we can raise a glass of the two together.

Popularity: 5% [?]

Appellations and Their Shortcomings

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Posted by Burke Morton On October - 15 - 2009

Chianti (photo: leeloosu)I was walking my dog this morning and we walked by a recycling bin containing an empty cardboard box that was once a case of Chianti. I won't name the Chianti, because I can't say anything nice about it, but it did fire my brain on this topic--that this wine (and others like it) bothers me. It is here that people are immediately suspicious of where I'm going with this, and some have even said, "Oh, so it's not good enough?" or "What, you can't imagine someone is actually drinking that?" Um...in truth, there are better choices, but that really doesn't bother me at all. Indeed, it is a necessity, because--while I am annoyed that the wine is from a HUGE production cooperative that masquerades as an estate--it is cheap, potable wine that people buy by the case, and this is one of the principal engines of the wine industry. What bothers me actually has more to do with politics.

The Chianti region is a DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), which is an Italian designation for wine of superiority, modeled after the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system in France. The rank of Italian delimitations goes, from the humble to elite, DO to DOC to DOCG. The Chianti zone is supposedly in the top class, yet its wines can be so uninteresting! Thanks to political maneuvering, it is the same exalted level as is assigned to the Chianti subregions of Chianti Classico and Chianti Rufina, both of which produce decidedly more captivating and significant wines. In fact, some of Italy's finest wines come from Chianti Classico.

I'm not suggesting that every wine be "significant", because that would be BORING. DOCGs are supposed to stand for a certain level of quality. At least, since the wines have to pass a panel tasting to be approved for the classification, one might reasonably conclude that this is a quality assurance step. There is no evidence that it will assure my enjoyment of a Chianti. At a minimum, it assures that the DOCG designation means LESS than it should. I'd reclassify Chianti as a Denominazione di Origine, because DO is seldom used and is about as noble as the average Chianti. There are certainly some Chianti producers whose wines are superb, but as a class, they are not reliable as anything other than a good steady drink. There's something to be said for that, but that isn't supposed to be the definition of a DOCG.

It's not like the Italians are the only ones guilty of this. In France, all wines submitted for Appellation approval have to be anointed by a tasting panel...except in Burgundy, which is the area that MOST NEEDS TO MEET A STANDARD!!!!! So you could pay $200 for a Grand Cru Burgundy and get a pretty bad wine, because the Burgundy wine establishment pulled the ultimate snow job to get out of having to submit every wine to meet approval. Burgundy is so fragmented, they argued, and estates often have so many wines, that it would be confusing, and someone might be able to slip a second bottle of good wine in the place of a substandard one so both would pass consideration. They also questioned whether there were enough qualified tasters to adjudicate the proceedings, and of course, tasting young wines is such a difficult thing to do. So to keep the governing body (the INAO) that determines these things from being overwhelmed, the growers suggested that they submit only one wine as a representation of an estate's portfolio...and that is how it is. That's BS! If ever there was an entity that was efficient with bureaucracy, it would be the French Government, and here is one sure way to screw the consumer without having to be responsible! "It's not my fault--the INAO gave the wine its approval...."

Based on this, you might wonder "why bother with Burgundy?" Well, once you've tasted a great one, you'd understand without having to be told. Besides, I can report that things are improving in Burgundy, as a new generation of growers take over and strive for quality in a way that their forebears thought economically unfeasible.

For the most part, the systems of regional quality control in France and Italy work well, but political wranglings have weakened them, but the soiled spots are routinely exposed by writers who specialize in the regions, and of course, none of these things can be perfect. In these days of retooling the Health Care system, these things seem rather small, but they are also perhaps an object lesson.

Popularity: 11% [?]

Gourmet Magazine Gets Its Pink Slip

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Posted by Burke Morton On October - 6 - 2009

Gourmet MagazineGourmet Magazine got started in 1941, so no I wasn't a charter subscriber, but when I discovered it was this old (which seemed odd, given the climate of apprehension in the U.S.A. while the world was at war), I spent some time doing a retrospective investigation. The magazine's transformation through the decades has at different times reflected food trends, ignored them altogether, or--when it was at its best--nudged the trends in a new direction. Its departure is a real loss.

I don't have any of the old issues in front of me now, but my recollection is that originally Gourmet was a foodie magazine with a lifestyle splash.  It developed a more elitist feel in the 70's, and later became oriented very directly and obviously toward French food  (nothing wrong with that, and at the time it was a good idea, as it often dwelt on the standard repertoire of technique that one can build within that cuisine). They began to cover other cuisines that were seeping into food lovers' collective consciousness, but they were rather academic about it, such that by the mid-90's I stopped reading it because I was tired of reading (what felt like) the same article over and over again.  This in a food magazine?  The wide, delicious, and emotionally stirring arena of epicurean delight somehow became boring in the pages of this magazine (and others, too...which may explain why Saveur felt like such a reactionary publication when it got started around this time. It has an academic backbone, but the writing, especially in the features, shows a real lust for food).

Gourmet Transformed
So I was walking past a magazine stand on north Michigan Avenue in Chicago in 2001 and a cover of a food magazine grabbed my attention--it was a Gourmet, which I hadn't seen in a few years. Something about it was different--the photo seemed spare, but yet not soulless--there was nothing getting in the way of my mouth salivating over the food...so I bought it and loved it!  I initially thought that I felt this way because I hadn't read a food magazine in a while, but as I continued to read it over the following months, it was clear to me (and I didn't know anything about magazine publishing then) that the editor had changed, and that now the right person was on the job.  It had transformed into a magazine that reached into all sectors of food, with long feature articles, often by well-known food writers (which was expensive, no doubt), and it dealt with both the time deficiencies of modern families, and how one can inexpensively eat very well.  

Realities Take Over...
Well, the economy and perhaps also the internet have exacted too steep a toll on Condé Nast, and it's hard to justify having two magazines (the other being Bon Appétit, which, as a recipe-driven magazine, is surely more cost-efficient to produce) on the same topic--competing with yourself--when revenues are falling.  The magazine with healthier advertising and larger circulation is now the one left standing.

Perhaps it will be resurrected when the economic climate improves.  One can only hope that this is why they didn't sell it, or apparently even try to sell it.  I can't imagine that there would be no one who would want to buy it (though Condé Nast wouldn't be likely to have a fire-sale for Gourmet!).  Perhaps future revenues of a revived magazine mean more than a low sale price on an ailing one.

...But Even the Shareholders Will Eat Less Well, Now
Food magazines on paper are much better than food magazines on the web, though I use both, of course. To my mind, the magazine is important exactly because you don't have to be on a computer. Besides, the computer can't cook your food for you (well, mine can't, anyway).  Food is personal and interpersonal--a joyous, rhapsodic thing to be shared (not sacrificed for the sake of a share price). I am sorry to see that Gourmet, which was a great promoter of this, is the victim of cost-cutting.

Popularity: 3% [?]

Off-topic: Incident at the Border

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Posted by Burke Morton On September - 16 - 2009

Vintage Tractor (photo: MBM)August 6--International relations between the United States and Canada were soured last Saturday by an incident at the Michigan/Ontario border.

Returning from vacation in northern Ontario the Morton family were deep into day two of their drive. The old trapper's town of Temagami (pop. 1,000) and its eponymous lake were the environs of the vacation, and a more beautiful place on Earth would be difficult to find. After a week in the semi-seclusion of a cottage on a lake so crystal clear you can still see the bottom fifty feet down, seven-year-old Sebastian knew it was too good to be true.

"I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop. It hit me in the head with a colossal waste of time at the border crossing."

Anticipating the madhouse created by the construction rerouting at the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit, the family chose to cross back into the US through Port Huron, MI.

Port Huron looked like smooth sailing upon approach. "We even took a pit stop before we crossed over," says Burke Morton, 37. "Thank God we did!" When they got back into the car and began to climb the bridge, there were three lanes, the far right marked with an overhead sign reading "CARS"; the middle lane marked with a sign for "TRUCKS"; the left-hand lane had a credulity-straining sign over it reading "Vintage Tractors".

Mr. Morton: "Vintage Tractors? My first thought was that since this was farm country for both Ontario and Michigan, it didn't seem too implausible for there to be a tractor lane, and perhaps some Amish-looking German Anabaptists would chug past on their way to do some freelance plowing across the border." Doubting there was such a community in Port Huron, MI or Sarnia, Ontario, the family pressed on, but as they reached the zenith of the bridge, they could see a Vintage Tractor Parade beginning.

Hulking & Sleek Machines
"The tractors weren't on our side of the bridge, they were heading into Canada. We were a bit disappointed that we would miss seeing it, because it sounded to me like good, quirky fun," says Mr. Morton's wife Cynthia, 34. "We could see a bit of the tractors through the bridge railings, and we even saw a combine, but it really wasn't a rewarding view."

Cars piled up at the check point. The Morton's mini-van was three cars from the Border Agent's booth--tantalizingly close to freedom. "We waited for an hour. We started worrying about some kind of border lock-down--had they found drugs? An illegal immigrant? Explosives? And then out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a vintage tractor returning from Canada!" At this point Morton started ranting things that cannot be printed in a family publication, but he was, according to his wife, not the only one frustrated by this.

"I got out of the car with the kids and walked over to the side of the bridge to watch the parade. I figured we might as well make the most of it, and my husband wasn't really fun to be around just then. We were joined by lots of other wives and kids, too."

Having regained his composure and looking a bit sheepish, Mr. Morton tried to save his dignity by saying that "people all around were worked-up and getting angrier at the ridiculous parade, because they didn't actually use the designated 'Vintage Tractor' lane. There were at least two thousand cars backed up that I could count, and there's no way there weren't twice that over the crest of the bridge. People--even those with Ontario license plates--were swearing at the Canadian government for consenting to this nonsense."

Memories of the Fields
Port Huron resident Fred Ramsey, 72, extolled the virtues of the Vintage Tractor Parade. "I just love seeing these tractors. I grew up on a farm and vineyard here in St. Clair Township, and we had an old 1952 Minneapolis-Moline--it was an ugly thing...had a rusty orange color...." He heaved a sigh. "What a great old gal!"

The Black River Area Antique Power Club's annual Vintage Tractor Parade causes traffic snarls every year in Port Huron. "One year we had a 15-minute traffic jam," said Earl Roberts, 59. "For Port Huron that's like Detroit rush hour, so I hear."

After crossing the Blue Water Bridge, the parade ended at the Thomas Edison Inn, for Port Huron's Concours d'Elegance of tractors--110 of them on display, some from as far back as the 1940s.

Implicated & Exonerated
It seems that drivers stuck at the U.S. Border misplaced their ire. For while the tractors did cross the Blue Water Bridge, they turned around in a maintenance lane without ever getting off the bridge. Turns out the city leaders of Sarnia, Ontario saw the problem from the beginning. Tractors aren't allowed on the major roads leading off the bridge, because they are too big and slow, and would cause major traffic problems.

Popularity: 11% [?]

Video Today


You don't need to speak French to know that the iPad can double as a Champagne Sabre.... Happy New Year!

Popularity: 66% [?]

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