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December 2003
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February 2004

From the Fool Family Compound in Hiatus-port

Posting was light this past week thanks to the necessity of clearing my desk so that I could slip away for a few days' family vacation. In consequence of those vacation days, posting will be light this next week as well, especially because it has been decreed that this will be a computer-free trip. (A perfectly reasonable decree, that.)

Do please check back despite my physical absence. I have a small handful of items pre-posted to be published as the week rolls along -- there is a fresh Shakespearean double dactyl for Monday, among other things -- so that the site won't stagnate entirely. And I promise not to bore you with photos on my return.

Glub, Glub, Globalism (and a Foot Note)

Just as a glut of grapes has been driving wine prices down domestically -- Exhibit "A" being the wines marketed under the Charles Shaw label, concerning which I have previously written more than a little -- the weakening U.S. Dollar is opening foreign markets to California wines. MSNBC (with the San Francisco Business Times) reports the story:

The surge in California wine exports has come none too soon for the state's wineries, whose margins were squeezed by a recent gusher of high-quality grapes that pushed the price of even many acclaimed bottles under $10. Compounding the supply issue were years of recession and economic uncertainty that left many wineries with faltering sales and an uncertain future.

Now, with the American dollar down in the last year 20 percent against the Euro, 15 percent against the pound and 10 percent against the Japanese yen, California wines suddenly enjoy a price advantage in overseas markets. What's more, other "New World wine" producers like Chile, who have traditionally been able to underprice the United States, have also seen their currencies rise against the dollar, in Chile's case by 21 percent over the last year.

The Los Angeles Times runs a similar story (registration required, the bums) on its front page this morning. That story also emphasizes that the conditions that have been fueling the "race to the bottom" in California wine pricing may be subsiding:

The confluence of a massive invasion of inexpensive imports and a statewide surplus of grapes appears to be ebbing. Mother Nature, the removal of 50,000 acres of vines around the state and a sagging U.S. dollar are finally turning things around.

"A lot of the factors that worked against us are now working for us," said Vic Motto, who heads consulting firm MKF Group in St. Helena, Calif.

State agricultural officials won't issue their report on the 2003 wine-grape harvest until next month. But many believe the amount of grapes crushed in the fall was 10% to 15% below 2002's yield of 3.1 million tons. An odd pattern of hot and cold weather, as well as rain at the wrong times, cut into the 2003 crop, especially for Merlot.

The result: There is less cheap bulk wine on the market, and wineries are moving out some of the surpluses that they have long had in stock.

Tom Selfridge of the Chalone Wine Group is cited as predicting that "the best deals for bargain-hunting wine drinkers will have been crushed out of the market" by 2005.

It should be noted that there is apparently no truth to the rumor that grape growing or winemaking will soon be outsourced to India and Thailand.

Digression: The MSNBC report, as an example of a company taking advantage of those improved export opportunities, cites the Barefoot Wine Company, a division of Sonoma County-based Grape Links, Inc. The Barefoot wines were readily available nationwide -- not only at the Trader Joe's market chain -- well ahead of the recent successes of "Two-Buck Chuck." I won't vouch for all of them, but the Barefoot Zinfandel is usually worth your time if you are seeking an enjoyable accompaniment to lower-brow cuisine such as pizza or something hot off the backyard barbeque; it has been seen priced as low as $4.99 and probably should not top $6.00 in other parts of the country. Like the Charles Shaw wines, the Barefoot wines tend to be bottled young, with the fruit components very much up front. Perfectly pleasant drinking and a relaxing and unpretentious accompaniment to a relaxing or unpretentious meal, but without the layers of complexity that more prestigious bottlings bring to the fore.

The "Barefoot" name was originally used for jug wines produced by San Francisco journalist turned vintner Davis Bynum. (A brief history attributes the name to a crack by Herb Caen.) Bynum sold the rights to the name to a friend, Michael Houlihan, in 1986; Houlihan continues to operate under the Barefoot brand with winemaker Jennifer Wall at the helm. The Barefoot Wines website is here. The Davis Bynum Winery has continued most respectably without the Barefoot brand in its repertoire, and enjoys an ongoing relationship with winemaker Gary Farrell, whose own winery is rightly admired for its Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels.

(Half the fun of following California wine is keeping track of the players, histories and personal and professional relationships.)

En Passant [Now Improved With Post Facto Updates!]

♣ A C Douglas, the seriousness of whose musical judgments will brook no argument, has discovered the particular pleasures of the original cast recording of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I've never picked it up on CD, but I developed a similar enthusiasm for that recording in its original vinyl edition. On this coast, the Los Angeles Opera will be essaying the work in July 2005. Details are here. The mighty Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel will take on the title role; no word yet who has the thankless task of following Angela Lansbury in the part of Mrs. Lovett.

Updated 1/28/04: AC Douglas is still listening and still finding more to hear, but just try to track down an actual copy of the score . . . .

♣ Via Gideon Strauss, who is listed as a contributing editor, comes a link to the premiere issue of the New Pantagruel, self-described as "a quarterly electronic journal run by a cadre of intemperate but friendly Catholics and Protestants who have seen other electronic journals run by Christians, and thought that while they might not be able to do better, they could certainly do no worse." This first edition incorporates essays (including an appreciation of the late Neil Postman, whose Amusing Ourselves to Death is as timely as ever), reviews, poetry, fiction, and a look that is clean, attractive and customizable for the reader.

Update 1/29/04: More recommended reading in this issue: New Pantagruel Editor (and practicing attorney!) Caleb Stegall's comments on "virtuous vice" and the mechanization of sin. Two Williams in particular -- Bennett ("America's Jiminy Cricket") and Jefferson Clinton -- are summoned to the woodshed.

♣ Gideon Strauss has been a mainstay of the "Varieties of Religious Experience" category in the links list to your right. That category had been strictly a Calvinist stronghold until this week, when I added a link to Jim Kalb's Turnabout weblog, which espouses a traditionalist Catholic view or the world. Additional links should be forthcoming in this category as I stumble on to them.

♣ Also new to the links list over yonder is Notes from the (Legal) Underground. in which St. Louis attorney Evan Schaeffer poses the question: "Can lawyers be entertaining?" If you are at all a regular reader here, I hope for my own sake that you have answered that question in the affirmative some time ago. In any case, you can do worse than looking into Mr. Schaeffer's weblog, which today features his confession to sneaking out early from a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. He has also been engaging in a give and take with attorney/haiku-crafter David Giacalone inspired by David's suggestion that attorneys should perhaps emulate Southwest Airlines in dealing with those they serve. (Reply here, riposte here.)

Update 1/29/04: What began light-heartedly in "duelling metaphor" mode spiraled into a rather heated exchange between messrs. Schaeffer and Giacalone on the subject of contingent fees, but seems now to have settled into at least grudging respect. That's one of the things people either love or hate about attorneys: at one another's throats one moment -- typically on behalf of their clients' positions -- best of pals the next. In any case, all concerned are busily linking one another and showing off professional demeanor galore. You're welcome, gentlemen.

London Bridge is Rising Up

This is a Tower not mentioned in the accompanying post
Brian Micklethwaite has a deep-dyed fondness for skyscrapers, even those that he himself declares to be utterly daft. At the moment, he is waxing all enthused-like about the newly-approved London Bridge Tower, an enormous pyramidal sliver to be constructed on the south bank of the Thames. In response to a comment (from one of we ill-informed Americans, of course) suggesting that London is best left with as few skyscrapers as possible, Brian begs to differ and offers this compact encomium:

The skyscraper was discovered and perfected in the USA yes, in Chicago and then in New York. But the idea that the rest of us should refrain, just so that Americans can be charmed by our silly little old cities, disgusts me. Why shouldn't we build them too? What are we, Hawaiian dancers in grass skirts who only survive by demeaning themselves with faked-up derangements of their past? If tourists don't like London when it finally gets kitted out with a proper skyline, say by about 2030, stuff them. Actually, they're going to love it.

Skyscrapers solve a universal problem, not a specifically American problem, which is how to fit lots and lots of people into one working place, of that special sort now called a World City. Skyscrapers are the way that cities Keep It Real. Paris, denied the twin stimulants of the Luftwaffe and the Modern Movement in architecture, now has nowhere to put any skyscrapers. London has been luckier. Result? London is a real place with a great, great future, and Paris is an increasing tatty nineteenth century stage set.

Paris, of course, does feature one famous skyscraper of sorts, but it is a resolutely impractical one.

Dactyls of Empire

For those who want a convenient way to seek out -- or to avoid -- the continuing stream of double dactyls being generated on this site, I have added a new category to the archives for that purpose.

This latest was left, it seems, while I was sleeping, under the influence of Fitzgerald's translation of the Aeneid. Readers may recall that Virgil, no doubt meaning to please his target demographic (the Emperor Augustus), includes some disparaging references to our subject in his description of the shield forged for Aeneas by the god Vulcan.

A Roman in the Gloamin'

Orat'ry, orat'ry,
Marcus Antonius:
Lend me your ears."

Conquers at Phillipi,
Conquered at Actium;
All ends in tears.

Thood for Fought [w/ Updates]

I reported below on last Saturday's arrival of Fought Down, the debut release from Ken Layne & the Corvids. It sounded very fine indeed coming out of the computer speakers. After kicking myself all day Sunday for having left it in the CD drive at the office, I moved it into the car on Monday and it has been living there ever since. It served me well while driving to Santa Barbara and back today.

"You're in for a good time," promises Mr. Layne on the opening track ("Ain't They Pretty") and he and the Corvids are true to their word. This is 38 minutes (perfect length for a vinyl LP) of top quality "alt country," in love with the sound of guitars and manly mournfulness. The songs that repeat from Layne's earlier Analog Bootlegs CD (sales of which funded the recording of this one and to which I referred a'way back here) emerge shiny and new: "Lincoln Town Car" is a great fell-in-with-the-wrong-woman-and-boy-do-I-regret-it tale -- dark enough that Richard Thompson would sound right covering it. The revamped "I Should Be That Guy" is riveting, with a searing bridge and fearsome coda; the live version on Bootlegs had the primal anguish meter turned up to 11, and the song benefits hugely from the more controlled performance here. My only quibble is with "Worried," which is the irresistible highlight of Bootlegs. The version here is a poppin' piece of work, a barrel of fun to listen to, but it won't replace the earlier acoustic guitar/harmonica/drum machine version in my particular affections. [The new version is available as an MP3 download at Amazon, here.]

The new songs are equal in quality to the older ones. "Here's to You" is a drinking song with a spring in its step that yields the "Charles Shaw Wine" lyric I quoted previously. (I e-mailed Matt Welch about it, and he informs me that he wrote the beginning of that verse but that Layne is responsible for the product placement.) "Fought Down" chugs along crunchily while "Glitter On" is as mournful and pretty as it's title would lead you to expect.

Ken Layne still sounds a lot like Mick Jagger when you could still believe he meant it (circa Sticky Fingers), with a fair dollop of Jennings (Waylon, not Peter) and Haggard mixed in. Axel Steuerwald's lead guitar work brings out the best in these well crafted songs. The production is loose but clean: you can hear what every member of the band is doing throughout. And when he isn't providing the odd guitar or dead-on backing vocal, Matt Welch picks up a tambourine and becomes The Next Davy Jones!

I've added a link to Amazon's page in my Music list below -- there's no cover photo available there yet, and they are listing the CD as being available on February 1 -- or you can purchase it direct from the source.

P.S., for all you wine fanciers, there is "a bottle of Rioja" secreted about the person of the title track, in addition to that case of Charles Shaw referred to below. Ken Layne seems to know an important rule in life: Real Wine is Red. Or it has bubbles in it. But never both.

UPDATE: The aforementioned Matt "The Cute One" Welch has kindly linked to this review. Thanks, Matt, and welcome Matt's readers.

So which one's "The Quiet Corvid"?

STILL FURTHER UPDATE: The King Corvid himself, Ken Layne, has also linked approvingly, claiming that I have figured out his voice better than he has himself. It's all a bit much for a simple lawyer from Pasadena, it truly is. Thank you, Mr. Layne, sir, for the link and above all for this fine, fine music.

A Weblogger's Bliss

I am practicing law vigorously today, I truly am, but that doesn't stop me from taking a furtive peek at the referrer logs, where I find I have achieved one of my secret ambitions: to be linked by name by at least one out of 2 Blowhards. Mercy sakes, Michael Blowhard has even updated the piece -- which generated a string of commentary about Pasadena of all things -- to include a link to a second post o' mine. Thank you, sir, and thank you all Blowhard readers who drop on by.

Michael also links, as I should have done days ago, to Mike Snider, who has launched into a serious sonnet-writing project. Mike kindly linked to some of my double dactyls, below, which are loads of fun to compose but not nearly so weighty as what he is taking on.

And it's a good thing I already put in a word for Rick Coencas yesterday, or I'd feel obligated to thank him for yet another pair of links.

Now, back to work.

Later . . . . A quick update to convey thanks as well to Professor Bainbridge, who continues to serve all your corporate law and wine tasting note needs.