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When Bad Things Happen to Good Wineries

If you are in one of the markets served by the Trader Joe's chain, you currently have the opportunity to benefit from the misfortunes of others. De Loach Vineyards of Sonoma County is an established and reputable one, producing enjoyable Zinfandels, Cabernets, Pinot Noirs (and some well-regarded Chardonnay, if you really must drink the stuff). Unfortunately, De Loach is one of the victims of the slump in the California wine business, and was driven to file a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition this past May. One of the upshots of that filing is that Trader Joe's was able to purchase De Loach's entire inventory, and an array of those wines can now be found in Trader Joe's stores. I have not sampled most of them yet, but I will recommend them nonetheless based on the strength of the brand and the deep discounting for which the Trader is known. The price to quality ratio should be very favorable.

The De Loach wines are not about to disappear from the scene, despite the winery's woes. De Loach was the 15th largest winery in Sonoma County when it filed for bankruptcy, and the family has now entered into an agreement to sell the brand, the winery and the remaining inventory to the American subsidiary of French wine concern, Boisset . This is not the first time Boisset has picked up the assets of a good winery struck by trouble: it took over the Lyeth winery following the death of its founder, Chip Lyeth, in an aviation accident in 1988. At that time, the Lyeth winery was making progress toward establishing itself as a top flight producer of Bordeaux style blends, red and white, from Sonoma County.* The post-Boisset Lyeth wines are not up to that standard (and are no longer made exclusively from Sonoma County grapes), but they are still -- again contradicting the canard that such things don't exist -- good California wines under $15.00. Boisset's longterm plans for the DeLoach brand have not yet been disclosed, but should bear watching.

[*Someday, I will undoubtedly hold forth on the reasons why Sonoma County is to be preferred to its heavily hyped and, yes, oft-overpriced eastern neighbor, Napa.]

Tricky Treats for Our Readers

Never let it be said that conservative opinion journalists are No Fun. Here are three Perfect Time Wasters, all linked over the course of this week by Jonah Goldberg and the Merry Band at The Corner on National Review Online. For your pointless pleasure, we've got:

Halloween Cat Bowling, and we've got

Clay Kitten Shooting, and in case you actually like cats (even cats made from ones and zeros), we've got

Dustbin Basketball.

This Fool is in a service profession. I am here to help.

Tiny Bubbles, Reasonably Priced

One of this Fool's favorite subjects is affordable wine, as evidenced in various previous installments. Here, friends, is another disproof of the notion that there is no good California wine to be had for under $15.00.

Chez Fool, we look for whatever excuse we can find to partake of sparkling wine. True Champagne remains, regardless of your personal views concerning our friends the French, the class of the field. Sadly, there really is no such thing as a good inexpensive Champagne. California now has several decades' worth of experience in producing good quality sparking wine, often reasonably priced, but it generally tends to emphasize ripe fruity characteristics (not that there's anything wrong with it) rather than the more complex toasty-yeasty qualities that underlie much of Champagne's appeal. You can find that quality in California, but generally only at higher price points.

Recently, the celebration of our son's 16th birthday (he didn't partake in the bubbly in question) we had occasion to try Mirabelle, the non-vintage California sparkler from Schramsberg Vineyards.

Schramsberg is an old-line Napa Valley estate. Robert Louis Stevenson stayed on the property on his honeymoon and wrote about it in The Silverado Squatters, from whence comes his much quoted assessment of Napa Valley wines circa 1880 as "bottled poetry." In more recent decades, Schramsberg has been owned and operated by the Davies family, which set out to produce French-quality sparking wine in California. To a large extent, they succeeded. My chief quarrel with the Schramsberg wines, which are generally very good, has been that they cost too much. Enter Mirabelle.

While Schramsberg wines, and the property's top echelon sparkler J. Schram, have carried the Napa Valley designation, been drawn from the estate vineyards and been vintage dated, Mirabelle bears a North Coast designation and contains grapes from Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. It is also non-vintage, allowing for blending of wines from several years, and the winemakers have included what tastes like a healthy dollop of older, more complex wine in the blend. The result is a readily enjoyable sparkler with a backbone of the toasty quality that comes from a longer time in the yeast.

The list price for Mirabelle appears to be around $14.99, and the Trader Joe's chain in southern California has it at the entirely acceptable price of $11.99. Worth your search if a festive occasion -- such as sundown or a day of the week ending in "y" -- should beckon.

Linkin' Logs

In the increasingly frequent -- nay, immortal! -- words of Aaron Haspel, "Rick Coencas comments" on approaches to web journal-ism: "linkers" vs. "thinkers" and "portals" vs. . . . well, clever folks like Aaron and Rick who link, when they do, primarily to have a jumping off point for their own thoughts.

The subject has even driven Rick to the composition of light verse -- or shall I call it bloggerel?

[Any Fool with a Google can tell you that last is not original with me, but I'm sticking with it natheless.]

Update -- Here's a random example of the phenomenon Aaron and Rick are on about -- reading these sorts of sites to get the personal voice and insights of the site's author(s):

Kimberly Swygert of the education-related Number 2 Pencil is taking a poll on her site to see whether her readers are more interested in news about testing and education or Kimberly's opinions about that news. No particular surprise in the current results: opinion is solidly in the lead.

(As with most on-line polls, and as Kimberly acknowledges in her Comments thread, the sample is self-selected and the results need to be considered with that fact in mind. Since the poll is designed more as a means of collecting reader opinion efficiently rather than as any sort of properly scientific survey, the objection is a minor one.)

Hank Jim -- All the Golden Hits

Over yonder at About Last Night, the well-read and mysterious Our Girl in Chicago has been holding forth on the subject of Henry James.* I've been reading my way through the James canon over the past few years, with an emphasis on the stories over the novels, and because I have this forum there's nothing to stop me from offering my own recommendations and caveats.

In conjunction with what sounds like a fine, albeit obscure, French film, OGIC mentions The Other House, which I endorse as "James for People Who Think They Don't Like James." It is a relatively short novel, written in the aftermath of James' disastrous foray as a dramatist, and he puts the lessons learned in terms of constructing an efficient but surprising plot to good use. No one other than James himself much liked it when it was first published, but its reputation seems to be growing. It features James' only on-screen murder (of a child, no less) and the to-be-expected well-drawn characters and revealing dialogue. Perhaps the great guilty pleasure for Jamesians.

Over 30 years ago during the first season of Masterpiece Theater, PBS broadcast a 4-part BBC adaptation of another James novella from the same period, The Spoils of Poynton, starring Gemma Jones as its heroine, who sports what then-host Alistair Cooke called "the unlikely name of Fleda Vetch." I was impressed with it at the time of the PBS broadcast, but only actually read it in the past month. (It features in the Library of America's latest James volume, alongside The Other House, the OGIC-commended What Maisie Knew (which I've yet to read) and The Awkward Age.) Ostensibly a battle of wills over the possession of a country estate and the beautiful objects it contains, Spoils comes well equipped with scheming, heartbreak and a "twist" ending. Oddly, it reminds me a bit of the harder-edged, "sorrow is only a step away" Jane Austen of Persuasion.

I have to take issue with the OGIC recommendation of The Princess Casamassima. James seems out of his element in that one, unsure whether he wants to be Charles Dickens or Dostoevsky. The joints and gears running the plot seem to stick out all over the place, and it is ultimately an unsatisfying book. More enjoyable from the same period (ca. 1890) is The Tragic Muse, which sports a young man giving up a career in Parliament to become a painter (happens all the time!) and the rise of an ambitious young woman to the heights of theatrical stardom, breaking hearts (of course) all along the way. It's soap, but it's really really good soap.

Now, if you take my suggestions and those of OGIC and Terry Teachout to heart, and if enough other web journal-ists respond, you will find yourself obliged to read everything James ever wrote. At the least, it will keep you off the streets and out of the pool halls for a good long time.

[* "Hank Jim, " get it? It's a puckish satire on contemporary informality. Someday perhaps I'll write about the eminent Italian composer, Joe Green.]

They're Educators, But Can They Be Taught?

At California Insider, Daniel Weintraub continues to offer helpful suggestions to California's next governor. Responding to a rumor that former Los Angeles mayor (and almost-candidate in the gubernatorial recall) Richard Riordan may be the choice for California's next Secretary of Education, Weintraub suggests an alternative: eliminate the position altogether:

In California, the education secretary is a glorified adviser to the governor with few real duties and only a handful of education programs to administer. We already have an entire department full of bureaucrats run by an elected superintendent (Jack O'Connell). And we have a policy-setting state board of education whose members are appointed by the governor. The job of education secretary was created by Pete Wilson in 1991 to prove that he was a pro-schools Republican and to give him more bodies in the battle against the bureaucracy. The office has grown steadily since then, even as its authority remains fairly limited. . . . The move [to eliminate the office] would save only about $1 million and would be criticized by status-quoists who equate government departments with concern about an issue. But it would be a gutsy step showing that the new gov is not wedded to the old way of doing things.
Extra levels of bureaucracy are rarely a good thing, and public education is notoriously rife with such levels. Next exhibit: this Washington Post report on a study finding that systemic flaws in many urban school districts actively thwart the hiring of better qualified teachers for high-need schools. For example:
It was standard procedure to let impressive applications sit in file drawers for months, the researchers found, while the candidates, needing to get their lives in order, secured work elsewhere. One district, for example, received 4,000 applications for 200 slots but was slow to offer jobs and lost out on top candidates.

In some cases, the report said, big-city school boards -- with teachers union support -- approved vacancy notification policies that allowed veteran teachers to announce retirements or resignations late in the summer, long after many good potential replacements have given up and accepted other jobs. Three school districts in the study had either a summer deadline or no deadline for notification by departing teachers.

State lawmakers and budget officials also were notoriously late with the projections that school superintendents needed to figure out how many teachers they would be able to hire, according to Levin and Quinn.
And so on. Plentiful cooks credited with this unsavory broth. [Post link via Hit & Run.]

It is a continuing scandal that not one state requires background checks to determine whether their education administrators have a lick of sense.

Mickey Kaus, Unplugged and Unedited

Mickey Kaus has posted a lengthy and articulate defense of the web journal medium (he uses the archaic term for it: "blogging") in the wake of Gregg Easterbrook's faux pas and ensuing loss of employment. The Kaus article is on its own page, so I can't even whine about it lacking permalinks. Worth reading on general principles, but particularly for the coining of the term "Gutenberging," as in:

And if there's a hubris of Weblogging, there's also a hubris of Gutenberging--the idea that you can routinely comment on current events in a way that merits permanent committment to paper. What's more arrogant than hitting 'send'? Hitting 'print.'
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Mr. Easterbrook himself is practicing theology, thus bringing down a further shower of brickbats upon himself.

The Los Angeles Times, Splitter of Spouses

Kevin Roderick of L.A. Observed reports that more than 9,000 Los Angeles Times subscriptions have been cancelled by readers irate over the Times' coverage of the California recall election generally and of sexual misbehavior allegations against governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger in particular. The paper may also be causing friction in some marriages:

Apparently some of the drops are starting to return -- according to one source, spouses are calling in to restart the paper, saying their husband/wife dropped in a fit of pique.
That should make for some lively breakfast table conversations.

Better Living Through Prosody

I've previously noted Erin O'Connor's link to Canadian poet Tom Henihan's vigorous thrashing of poetry generated out of creative writing programs and workshops. I remarked on those posts chiefly to join those who posit that poets with their feet firmly planted in the day to day trenches of earning a living may have a leg up (if they can get those metaphorical feet unplanted from the goo) on those who soak their poetical toes in the reflecting pools of the academy.

I did not comment on Henihan's suggestion that poetry as such cannot be taught. Aaron Haspel, however, has taken up that very topic, with his usual relish. Aaron asserts -- and you may be sure that I agree! -- that while it may not be possible to learn the many intangibles that contribute to the very best poetry, the practical skills that lead to better poetry are available to all:

Doing original mathematics requires inspiration, creativity, a 'feel' for numbers, all the mysterious qualities that Erin posits for poets; yet no one would dream of saying that teaching calculus to a class of sub-Eulers and sub-Gausses is useless. Why, then, is there no point in teaching poetry to a class of sub-Jonsons and sub-Dickinsons? Poetry is every bit as technical as car repair, and poets, like car mechanics, need to know what they're doing. . . .

[* * *]

I've never attended a poetry 'workshop,' and I stipulate that they are as ghastly as Henihan says. My poem's OK, your poem's OK. The fact that poetry is often taught badly, however, does not mean it cannot be taught at all. If I had a two-week poetry workshop to teach, I guarantee that I would improve the poetry of everyone in the class. Or your money back, no questions asked.
Whereupon, he generously offers up the student's first three assignments, which are as good a starting point as one could wish for. (They also covertly disclose a bit more about our instructor's tastes, which in these instances favor "metaphysical" poets both distant (Jonson, Donne, Greville) and Modern (Stevens). Students take note: he's tough, but fair.)

By all means, do try this at home.