The Search for the Genuine

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

I am sitting in a room: concrete floor, pocked and peeling walls. A bare light bulb hangs from the ceiling. A beaded curtain, perfectly still in the dead heat, keeps the flies at bay, their manic geometries iridescently imitating the “stars” you see when somebody punches your lights out. Six simple tables stand in the room. I sit at one of them, the only person in the place. A plastic tablecloth hangs limply in the heat. Outside the temperature hovers around 126˚ Fahrenheit. A liter of water stands half empty on the table.

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Taste and Memory

Monday, January 15th, 2007

It is Proust, first among the moderns, who reminds us that scent evokes memory. The olfactory sense is the most potent, penetrating the cerebellum like a spike. “All art is contemporaneous.” All smell is simultaneous. Our noses not only stick out, they poke down. We’re all pigs rooting for truffles.

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South Africa’s Liquid Assets

Saturday, July 1st, 2006

The most famous sweet wine of the eighteenth century was beloved by Napoleon, esteemed in the courts of Europe, and praised in the novels of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Baudelaire transforms it in Les Fleurs du Mal. “Château d’Yquem?” you guess, picking the only sweet wine included as a First Growth in the Bordeaux classification of 1855.

Pas de tout. The wine is called “Vin de Constance.” It was, and is, produced in South Africa. The unlikelihood of its name and pedigree is only matched by the fact that Vin de Constance happens to be the favorite wine of Nelson Mandela.

Welcome to the world of startling juxtapositions that make up the Rainbow Nation.

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First Crush

Monday, May 1st, 2006

Cloud cover lay over the coast like a blanket of cotton batting. The Andean Cordillera, a spine of jagged peaks, punctured the fluff. The hills, sere by the end of summer, had taken on the richly desiccated colors of autumn. A patchwork of tilled fields appeared as we descended into the valley, and I was startled by the intimacy—ocean, valley, hills, mountain range—so close in the damp air of early fall.

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Effervescent Italy

Wednesday, March 1st, 2006

On rare occasions, we’re released from the obligations of family and become footloose for the holidays. My wife and I found ourselves in just such a situation last fall, and quicker than you can say “la vita bella” we made reservations to spend Christmas and New Year’s in Rome, Florence, and Venice. The “Three Coins in a Fountain Tour,” as Johnna dubbed it.

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Paris by the Glass

Wednesday, February 1st, 2006

We don’t need our fatuous Defense Secretary to remind us of the lines drawn between the Old and New Europe. The Great Divide is everywhere in evidence, and the lines are not as easily discerned as Mr. Rumsfeld would like to suggest. It’s not just a matter of the old guard nations of Western Europe versus the upstart republics of the former Soviet empire. In Paris you can walk a few blocks from one wine bar to another, and the contrast couldn’t be starker.

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Masters of Their Domaine

Sunday, January 1st, 2006

Driving East from Marseille, you dip into the Plan du Castellet from the autoroute just past La Cadière d’Azur. The sun-drenched hills form a natural amphitheater that runs down to the Mediterranean, and vineyards extend in every direction across the Bandol region, their serried ranks broken only by stands of cedar and olive groves. Turning just before the local grammar school and driving a short distance, you enter the grounds of another universe: the world of Domaine Tempier.

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Vino Las Vegas!

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

My wife, a commercial film editor, used to take her staff to Las Vegas every year for a major trade show. Several years ago she invited me to tag along. Having been in the restaurant business for 20 years, I was reluctant. I don’t enjoy gambling, have a low tolerance for crowds, and, other than Cirque du Soleil, abhor marquee acts. To me, “taking in a show” consists of heading straight to a great restaurant, ordering a superlative meal, and drinking a fine bottle of wine.

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A Catalonian Romance

Thursday, September 1st, 2005

In the Middle Ages, a peasant living in a wild region west of Tarragona, Spain, claimed to have had a vision of angels ascending and descending a staircase to heaven, Alfonso II of Aragon commanded Carthusian monks to build a monastery on the spot. Now, amid the ruins of that ancient building, called Scala Dei, one can climb another and very different kind of stairway to heaven: One can drink the wines of Priorat.

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On Mapping the Vineyard

Friday, July 1st, 2005

After visiting wine districts in Europe and North America over the course of 20 years, I decided to create a notebook. I had to. If you taste extensively—four or five serious exercises a year on trips to Napa and Sonoma, the Yakima Valley, Burgundy, or the Loire, not to mention the regular tasting that goes on if you happen to have your own restaurant—you accumulate an unreasonable amount of information. You stand in a cellar before tables with 20, 60, 100 wines, and the lines grow blurry. Barrel tasting is worse. In France you move from one barrique to the next as if you were strolling from one vineyard to the next, and the distinctions between eight different pièces of Meursault or Volnay get as fuzzy as your tongue.

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