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December 2003
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February 2004


♣ Say what you will about Governor Schwarzenegger's proposed budget, at least he's showing some environmental sensitivity.

♣ Via Brian's Culture Blog, look on this work, ye mighty, and despair . . .

♣ On the commercial front: please note the attractive advertisement on the sidebar for my good friend Rick Coencas of the Futurballa blog, who is now offering top-quality prints of his photographic work for sale. I am pleased to have a copy of the photo featured in the advert -- of a door at Mission San Juan Batista, famed for the prominent place its non-existent bell tower occupies in Hitchcock's Vertigo -- hanging on the wall above the terminal at which I am typing these words. So click, and the door will be opened to you. Only 11 months remain until next Christmas, so shop early and often!

Art Imitates Wine

Here's a fine coincidence for you: As I was finishing up the "Two-Buck Chuck" post immediately below, I was listening to my freshly-received copy of the debut Ken Layne & the Corvids CD, Fought Down (which will merit a more expansive comment sometime soon), when what should leap all snake-like from my speakers but these lyrics from "Here's To You":

When I'm hearing angry voices
And I've run clear out of choices,
When all I've got is trouble
And this case of Charles Shaw wine . . . .

Looks like Chuck's got itself some street cred.


ABC's 20/20 ran a story last night on the "Charles Shaw" wines, increasingly well known as "Two-Buck Chuck." You can read the online version of the report here with a parallel story on a comparative tasting of two of the Shaw wines against higher-priced brands here; prior Foolishness on the subject is available here and also here.

Random comments on this story:

♣ The lawsuit by various Napa Valley vintners against mega-winegrower Fred Franzia (maker of the Shaw wines and many others) contending that the reference to "Napa" on the Shaw label is deceptive, strikes me as a non-starter. The front label of all the Shaw wines states truthfully that the origin of the grapes is "California," meaning that those grapes could have come from most anywhere within the state. (Some large but unspecified portion of the Shaw wine grapes comes from Franzia's own vineyard holdings in the Central Valley; the remainder comes from excess grapes or excess unfinished wine produced throughout California and purchased by Franzia on the open market, and includes grapes/juice from perfectly reputable regions such as the Central Coast and possibly even Sonoma or Napa Valley.) The only reference to "Napa" is on the back label, which indicates that the wine was "cellared and bottled" in the city of Napa, California. This, as the ABC story acknowledges, is absolutely true: Franzia owns a large facility in the city of Napa -- which is at the far south end of the Napa Valley in a location that is not particularly good for, and has never really been associated with, growing or making interesting wine -- where the Shaw wines receive their final processing and where they are bottled. The rules govering wine labeling are nicely summarized here, from whence we learn:

The name and address of the bottler must appear on the label of all American wines, immediately preceded by the words "bottled by."

If the bottler also made at least 75% of the wine by fermenting the must and clarifying the resulting wine, the terms "produced and bottled by" may be used.

"Made and bottled by" may be used either if the named winery fermented and clarified a minimum of 10% of the wine, if the named winery changed the class of the wine (see #2) by adding alcohol, brandy, or carbonation, or if the named winery produced sparkling wine by secondary fermentation.

"Cellared," "Vinted," or "Prepared" means the named winery subjected the wine to cellar treatment, that are specified in the regulations, such as clarification or barrel aging, at that location. "Blended and bottled by" means that the named winery mixed the wine with other wine of the same class and type at that location. [Emphasis added.]

The only "deception" at work lies in the coincidence between the long-established name of the city of Napa, and the name of the hifalutin Napa Valley wine growing region to its north. Perhaps the city can be persuaded to change its name, so that the Shaw labels won't be allowed to use the Magic Word "Napa"?

♣ It would be nice to be told more about the standards that the ten tasters were instructed to apply in ABC's blind tasting of Shaw vs. other wines. A wine can be judged "good" or "better than another" in any number of ways, ranging from the highly technical (is the color, aroma, etc., "correct" for the type of wine?) to the purely subjective ("Which would I most enjoy quaffing on the veranda, or with a nice Stilton?"). And why does ABC's scale go up to "6" when tasting Merlot, but only to "3" when tasting Chardonnay? (Or were the Chardonnays really that bad?)

♣ The most interesting aspect of the charts ABC has put up is not so much that the Shaw wine did well compared to wines costing $50 as it is that consistent winner in both tastings was Gallo. The Gallo winery has come a long way from its Thunderbird/Night Train.Hearty Burgundy origins, and is now the largest owner of vineyard acreage in Sonoma County. Judging from the labels ABC showed on the broadcast (and from the reported price), ABC was tasting relatively low-end Gallo -- the "Twin Valleys" label -- which probably still had a decent percentage of Sonoma County fruit in it. The rise of Gallo to serious respectability is one of the more heartening stories in California wine over the past decade or two.

♣ This seems as good an opportunity as any to take several Napa Valley vintners of good reputation to task for affixing their own names and reputations to secondary labels drawn entirely from cheap Central Valley sources. Robert Mondavi is justly credited with pioneering the renaissance in California winemaking through the late 1960s and into the 1980s, but he should be ashamed over the frequently dreadful plonk that he foists on the world under the "Woodbridge" label. The "Sutter Home" bottling that ABC tasted is a similar situation: an entirely reputable winery that deserves much of the credit for bringing the Zinfandel grape into its own, Sutter Home can be tagged for multiple sins: it is the inventor of the dreaded "White Zinfandel" in all its insipidity and, as have many other Napa Valley wineries, it has expanded its market share by attaching its name to large quantities of mass-produced and uninteresting wines. Hang your heads, gentlemen, and get back to what you do well.

♣ Finally, here is a link to Trader Joe's own write-up on the Charles Shaw phenomenon, which gives a pretty good explanation of how that price is kept so low:

Trader Joe's has a great relationship with our wine supplier [Franzia]. Great meaning that we buy as direct as we can. We've cut out as many middlemen as is legally possible. The supplier buys in huge volume (huge being an understatement at best), is one of the biggest vineyard owners in the world, has the capability to bottle large quantities and can deliver the wine very efficiently for us. So we're able to pass along a great deal to our customers.

Trader Joe's has always had an eye for bargains in the wine trade: possibly not the best wine you ever tasted, but generally very good for its price point. Not perhaps the most exalted of niches, but a darned useful one for wine consumers.

Brilliant Observation

Special thanks to Kevin Roderick and L.A. Observed for his link to this Fool and to the Disneyland-related story on my legal sibling-weblog Decs & Excs, and for his kind and encouraging comments. Timing couldn't have been better: Friday was the highest-traffic day here since the migration to the new TypePad URL.

I would add L.A. Observed to my blogroll, but it was already there (under the 'cultural' heading). Give it a look if you haven't already: If you are not in Los Angeles, it's almost like being here.

Pick Me, Crush Me, Make Me Wine

Bear with me please as I ramble on a bit about California wine, market conditions and learning by doing.

Newsweek belatedly catches up to the California wine industry's "good news for consumers, bad news for growers" story under the puckish title, "The Wrath of Grapes." The sad tale of the De Loach winery - which I highlighted previously here -- gets a mention. [Patriotic/conservative blog readers will reel in horror at the photo caption in the Newsweek piece: "Michael De Loach sold his vineyard to the French." The actual lesson of the article is not Francophobic: it's that you had best keep your eye on those clever Australians.]

There is one peculiar observation in the middle of the story, when the troubles at De Loach are blamed on a too speedy expansion of production:

Growers like De Loach Vineyards in Santa Rosa, Calif., for example, boosted production from 90,000 cases in 1995 to more than 250,000 cases by the end of the decade, expanding into such non-native varietals as pinot grigio and syrah, and selling not only to restaurants but chain supermarkets and hotels.

Tut, tut, now. Let's get this straight, Mr. Journalist: All of the wine grape varieties grown and harvested in California (and most everywhere else in North America) are "non-native," having been imported from Europe, to which in turn they had migrated over the centuries from faraway places such as the Tigris-Euphrates watershed. The varietals mentioned -- Pinot Grigio and Syrah [aka "Shiraz," which gives a clue to its ancient origins in the Fertile Crescent] -- are not any less indigenous than the more widely planted Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon, simply less well known.

It will be a real pity if the market forces battering California wine makers cause them to be less exploratory in their planting. One of the major strains in the California wine story over the past twenty years or so has been the constant exploring by adventurous vintners to find out which sorts of grapes actually make the best wines, and in which parts of the state each produces its best self. Finding the "most right" locations has been one of the ongoing delights of drinking California Pinot Noir, for example, which is proving year by year that the places it does best -- such as northern Santa Barbara County or the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County or the lovely crinkly edges of the Russian River below Healdsburg -- are not the places it was generally planted during most of the 20th Century (read: Napa Valley). As for exploring new wine grapes, Cabernet, Chardonnay and the other old standbys of Bordeaux and Burgundy are all well and good, but the grapes associated with the Rhone region of France -- Syrah in particular among the red varietals, with Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne carrying the banner for the whites -- and to a lesser extent the grapes of Italy have been coming into their own in the Golden State, producing wines of greater interest with each passing vintage. Santa Barbara County (again!) and San Luis Obispo County have been shining in this field so far, but there's no telling where the really optimal planting spots will eventually be found. And because those varietal-locational concatenations may still remain undiscovered, it is to be hoped that California wine makers, in Eliot's phrase, "shall not cease from exploration" and will find them out.

Incidentally, the De Loach version of Pinot Grigio to which the Newsweek article refers is a good one, if you should stumble upon one of the few remaining bottles at your local Trader Joe's market. It has a good deal more heft, acidity and lusciousness than the mass-produced Italian versions out there, and strongly resembles some of the fine Pinot Gris -- same grape, different Romance language -- coming out of Oregon. I could go on about Pinot Gris being the white grape for which Oregon wine growers should abandon that pesky Chardonnay, but I think I've run on quite sufficiently for the moment and so I won't.

Don't Panic! [A Query for Journalists]

A question has been bothering me for the past few days, triggered by various post hoc reports on the array of scientists and Homeland Security forces who went wandering among the New Year's revelers all the while keeping their sensors attuned the possibility of a "dirty bomb." You can find plenty of reporting on this in the last 48 hours, of which this ABC News story is fairly representative.

So far as I can tell, nearly all of these stories include a description of how a "dirty bomb" works -- a conventional explosive spreads radioactive material -- and emphasizes that the direct impact of such a device on life and limb, at least outside the immediate blast zone, is relatively modest. The aim is not direct destruction. Rather, the object is to spread fear and panic and, yes, terror. Here's ABC's version of the trope:

"The problem with a dirty bomb is not that it will kill a lot of people, but that it will scare a lot of people," said ABCNEWS consultant Dick Clarke. "A dirty bomb is a pure terror weapon designed to cause panic [and] collapse in economic markets."

Now here is my question: Do the major news outlets, both print and broadcast, have any plans as to how they would report on such a device if, heaven forfend, one were actually detonated? How can you report the story -- simply ignoring it is, I would think, inconceivable -- without acting as an "accelerant" of sorts to the very panic the device is designed to instill? This may pose the ultimate case of news coverage of the story "becoming the story," since every report would necessarily carry the risk of making a bad situation worse.

That risk is arguably compounded by journalists' innate, and often valuable, skepticism when reporting statements from government authorities: even if official spokespeople are entirely forthright and accurate in their descriptions of the situation, at least some reporters either will simply assume based on their training or experience that they are not getting the Whole Truth, or else will feel compelled to incorporate less accurate, more doom-filled views of non-government "experts" in the interest of "balanced reporting."

This is a puzzler. Being a mere consumer of news and not a journalist myself, I have no idea what the appropriate analysis ought to be. On this one, I'm with Socrates: All I know is that I know nothing. I am very curious about it, though. Has anyone actually addressed the issue head on? Comments or links to discussions of this problem will be welcomed.

In Time, Everyone Gets to Phoenix

Like the Man Sez: 'Keep Clam'

It's some sort of Blogospheric Convergence: web-journalists big and small are suddenly descending upon the Valley of the Sun. At one extreme, we have James Lileks, in his new persona as El Padrone, has settled in to Scottsdale for a week's vacation, holding forth on matters such as the parallel evolutions of ice cream and fine dining:

The ice cream of this era [the 1950s] preceded the SuperPremium Era of delicious arterial spackle. It’s the ice cream I remember growing up, the stuff we all rejected when we first got a taste of Haagen Daaz [sic -- doesn't this guy have an editor?]. You realized that this was all your tongue had to look forward to, back then– commercial roast coffee, underwhelming ice cream, egg-salad sandwiches cut into triangles. And those mild tastes had to fight their way through a three-millimeter-thick carpet of tar-fur on your tongue, the day’s paving from your pack of Chesterfields. Is it any wonder that the renaissance of American restaurants began when smoking started to be frowned upon?

He reproduces a shocking pink ice cream parlour menu; no doubt he would approve of the Los Angeles City Library's searchable Menu Collection (of which he probably already knows, but of which I learned only yesterday through Kevin Roderick's L.A. Observed). I took a fancy to the 1950s vintage drinks menu from Ivar's Clam Digger Room in Seattle, the cover of which is reproduced at upper right. There are plenty more where that came from.

Meanwhile, Scheherazade is en route to Phoenix to fulfill her long-planned ambitions to walk this marathon. Cheer her on, won't you?

Each is coming in from the cold -- Lileks from Minnesota and Scheherazade from Portland, Maine -- and who can blame them?

[Updated to correct designation of the Los Angeles City Library. Thanks to Kevin Roderick for catching the error.]

Sound Advice

Another politically inclined double dactyl for your dining and dancing pleasure:


Single-term president
George Herbert Walker Bush
(W’s dad) offers
Practical tips:

I made a big mistake.
Son, don’t you ever, not
Even rhetorically,
Say: ‘Read my lips!’”


Q: How do you know how many flying prehistoric reptiles you can buy for ten cents?

A: Consult your Dactylic Dimeter.

Coat Tails

When one's own inspiration fails, there's nothing like listing things you've enjoyed on OPW (Other People's Weblogs). In no particular order:

Mike Snider has returned from his holiday travels and is touting (and perhaps gloating at his possession of?) out of print poetry collections by Louise Bogan and John Hollander, with examples from each. Hollander provides an appropriately randy translation from Catullus, while Bogan's "Heard by a Girl" is the sort of thing Dorothy Parker might have written if she were trying to play it straight, leaving her usual dry wit on the cutting room floor. Mike is recommending a new translation of Ovid as well, and confesses inadequacy as a plumber.

(In a comment, below, Mike has also provided a link to his own page of double dactyls.)

♣ Elsewhere in the poetry-oriented weblog world, Henry Gould launches the second year of his HG Poetics with a clear-eyed comment on inter-stylistic sniping:

The enemies of poetry : dullness, boredom, hypocrisy, fakery, lack of talent, lack of inspiration. Neither the redoubtable resources of these enemies, nor the forces that poetry arrays against them, have anything much to do with institutions or bureaucracies of supposed progress or reaction. To turn poetry into an illusory rivalry of factions is the best way to render it too petty and negligible for any serious public (or private) purposes.

Talent and dedication and sensibility will come to the fore in the arts, on their own merits and by their own efforts. No program or critique will ever keep up with them.

♣ Still more poetry! American Digest offers up a Homerian Keats pastiche on the occasion of the Spirit rover's successful landing on Mars. (Here in Pasadena, of course, we are duly proud of our neighbors up the hill at JPL.)

♣ And while we're on the subject of space flight, Colby Cosh reveals the tasty current whereabouts of astronaut James (Apollo 13) Lovell and son. (As a bonus for Apollo afficionados, be sure to take a look at the mural over the bar.)