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New wine review: A Lambrusco from Cameron Hughes

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Cameron Hughes Non-Vintage “Soft Red Wine” Lot 841 Lambrusco (Reggiano); $15. Few wines illustrate the heterogeneity of the American public’s taste in wine more than this one. Some people will love it; others won’t. Count me among the latter, but that’s not a diss of the wine so much as an expression of my personal taste. To me, sparkling wine should be pale and elegant, not purple and rather heavy, as this one is. I also prefer dryness in sparklers, and this has a sweet, candied edge. So much of what we like about individual wines, though, depends on we’ve been exposed to, and it may be that my lack of experience with sparkling Lambrusco accounts for my reaction.

As for the wine, it is sparkling, but isn’t particularly fizzy. The froth is barely there, a slight prickliness. Underneath is fulsome fruit: cherries, strawberries, raspberries. The wine is very clean, and the alcohol level is very low, a mere 8.5%, making it by definition gulpable. It also has a bit of the carbonic zip of a young Beaujolais, for which it can be substituted at the table. No question but that it’s well made.

This is not a “serious” wine, if you know what I mean. It’s a “fun” wine, also an adjective that can be misunderstood. The price makes it attractive. The winery itself suggests pairing with charcuterie or hard cheeses; I can’t disagree. Make a platter of salumi (prosciutto, mortadella, salami), paté, olives, sharp cheddar or a hard Italian cheese (Bitto, Pecorino), carrots and zucchini, almonds, sourdough bread, roasted red peppers. Munch, relax, enjoy with friends, and don’t compare this wine with Champagne because it isn’t; but it is what it is. Score: 87 points.


Remembering Loma Prieta

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Today is the 32nd anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. I was at home in Oakland when it struck, in the same place I still live. I’d recently decided to become a writer, and was lucky enough to get a freelance gig at the Oakland Tribune, where every day I’d walk over to the newsroom and get an assignment from my editor for an article that would appear the next morning. On that particular day, she’d assigned me to interview, by phone, a Walnut Creek father whose young daughter had won a kite-flying contest. (Yes, it was a lightweight story, but it taught me how to write, work with an editor, interview, and meet deadlines—all important skills that later served me well.)

I was talking to the father when I felt the first rumbling, at 5:04 p.m.

“We just had a little earthquake,” I told him.

“Not feeling anything here.” Walnut Creek is 17 miles northeast of Oakland, meaning that it’s that much further from the earthquake’s epicenter, in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

In my livingroom the shaking increased. “It’s not so little,” I said.

“Now we’re getting it.”

Suddenly there was a tremendous noise and shaking, and I heard things in my apartment falling to the floor.

“Gotta go!” I told my interlocutor. Hanging up the phone, I ducked underneath my kitchen table.

A few moments later, when the shaking stopped, I ran out into the hallway and banged on my neighbor, Robert’s, door. When Robert opened it, a cloud of marijuana smoke drifted out. Robert was a writer.

“Was that The Big One?” I asked him.

All the power was out, but Robert had a tiny, battery-powered T.V. He found one of the San Francisco news stations—I think it was KRON—that was still broadcasting by its generator. From that little T.V. we quickly learned that (a) the Bay Bridge had collapsed (which turned out not to be true) and (b) a sizable stretch of the double-decked I-980 Freeway, known as the Cypress Structure, had pancaked. As it was the height of rush hour, the news reporter said it must be expected the death toll on that 1-1/2 mile long freeway would be massive. (This, too, turned out to be an exaggeration. Although 42 people died under the rubble, the number would have been far higher had not the San Francisco Giants been playing the Oakland A’s at Candlestick Park in the World Series. Tens of thousands of commuters had left work early in order to watch the game and were thus not driving.)

The Loma Prieta Earthquake measured 6.9 on the old Richter Scale. It killed 63 people, injured thousands, and caused $12 billion in damage. And yet, it was not The Big One. That mythic, inevitable temblor is most likely to occur, not on the San Andreas Fault as Loma Prieta was, but on the Hayward Fault, which runs directly beneath Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland and the densely-populated bedroom communities of the East Bay.

As horrible as Loma Prieta was, far worse, in my opinion, was the disaster which hit Oakland just two years and two days later: the Oakland Hills Firestorm. I’ll write about that soon.


New Wine Reviews: Lang and Reed

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I was glad that Lang and Reed Napa Valley asked me to review three of their new releases, because I’ve always loved their wines, and because of my admiration for John Skupny. I remember “way back” when Lang & Reed started up by focusing on Cabernet Franc. It was a bold, risky thing for them to do. Most people thought of Cab Franc as a blending grape to go into Bordeaux blends dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. Cab Franc had long been, of course, a staple of Loire red wines, like Chinon, but was very little known on its own in America. I also remember when I used to visit the Sierra Foothills and taste their wines—this is going back to the 1990s and early 2000s–and concluding that Cabernet Franc was the emerging red wine from that region (Zinfandel was obviously the star).

But Cab Francs from Napa Valley were rare to the point of unicorns! Yet John was making fabulous ones. Now, after all these years, I’m glad to report he still is, and not just from Napa Valley. His “California” bottling is pretty darned good, and the Chenin Blanc is luscious.

Here are my reviews.

2018 Cabernet Franc (California); $29. All I could think of tasting this wine was food. Steak, braised ribs, duck, sausages, roasted chicken, or, if you’re not a meat-eater, a veggie meatloaf or omelet or quiche with mushrooms and spinach. Foods, in other words, that call for a red wine that’s medium-bodied, silky, spicy, fruity, softly tannic, slightly earthy and delicious. Which is exactly what this 100% Cab Franc is. More than 60% of the grapes came from the Sierra Foothills; the remaining fruit is from Alexander Valley and Napa Valley. A red wine like this does need some oak to temper it, but not much; in this case, the oak is what they call “seasoned.” This lovely wine will appeal to sommeliers in the best restaurants, not only for its inherent qualities but the price. Highly recommended. Score: 91 points.

2020 Chenin Blanc, Mendocino; $30. This white wine is deeply flavored, with peaches, pears, green melons, apples, tropical fruits and vanilla. But it’s super-balanced and dry, with excellent acidity and a bracing minerality. With just a touch of oak, it combines the richness of a fine Chardonnay with the creamy elegance of, say, a nice French sur lie Muscadet. There’s just a touch of almond-skin bitterness on the finish, but food will resolve it. The vineyard source is inland Mendocino (not coastal Anderson Valley), on the eastern side of the Russian River as it comes tumbling down from the highlands—an area hot during the day, but chilly at night. Complex enough to pair with fancy fare, like foie gras, spring rolls or—yum yum–oysters. But scrambled eggs for weekend brunch would be perfect in lieu of sparkling wine. A great price for a restaurant wine of this quality. Score: 90 points.

2017 Two-Fourteen Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley; $85. I really liked Lang & Reed’s 2018 California Cabernet Franc, but this is clearly a better wine, in several senses. It’s more deeply flavored. I find raspberry and black cherry purée, mocha, bacon, candied violets and sweet green peas, accented by a dark smokiness from oak. It’s also better structured, probably the result of its Napa Valley mountain origin. The balance of acidity and alcohol is just about perfect. With soft, pillowy tannins, it’s drinkable now at the age of 4 years, but I suspect it will benefit from a few more years in the cellar. Foodwise, the fanciness suggests high-quality fare. I’m not a big beef eater, but this beautiful wine might convince me to have a char-broiled Porterhouse at a white-tablecloth steakhouse. Score: 93 points.


Remembering Sept. 11

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It was early on that Tuesday morning of Sept. 11, 2001, around 6:15 a.m. California time. I was making coffee when the phone rang. It was Marilyn. “Are you watching T.V.?”

No, I wasn’t. I switched on the T.V., as Marilyn described what she knew: a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I don’t think I turned the T.V. off until I went to bed that night. Like everybody else, I was glued to the tube.

And I was pissed. I’m not embarrassed today to admit that, from the very first hours when it looked like Al Qaeda and bin Laden had done it, I was eager for revenge. I kept what turned out to be a Sept. 11 Diary, and some of its first entries were BOMB AFGHANISTAN! This was my generation’s Pearl Harbor, and America needed to defend herself and take out the criminals.

Not too many days later, the U.S. House of Representatives took a vote on the AUMF, Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, which gave the government permission to wage war in Afghanistan. It passed almost unanimously, with but a single vote against: that of Rep. Barbara Lee, who represented my Oakland district (and still does). I was outraged by what I perceived to be her stunningly bad judgment and cowardice, and I told her so, in an email. My language was intemperate, but then, most of my fellow Americans felt the same way I did.

Today, with the end of the Afghanistan War, and with many Americans now thinking it had been unnecessary, Barbara Lee has become a sort of heroine. Hindsight is always 20/20, of course. Historians will long debate the Afghan War (and the Iraq War, too). My own personal view is that we had to do something after Sept. 11. But President Biden was right when he observed that we should have declared victory and gone home after we took out bin Laden, in May, 2011. Instead, we stayed, and tried to nation-build, when it should have been obvious, post-Vietnam, that nation-building is not something America does very well, and perhaps shouldn’t even try. (I still think Rep. Lee was wrong, by the way.)

I’ve been back to New York City, my hometown, many times in the last twenty years, but I never went down to Ground Zero. Didn’t want to see it, didn’t want to feel like I was sightseeing where something so awful had happened, and where so many people suffered and died. I felt the same way after the Oakland Hills Firestorm, in October, 1991. Marilyn and I drove up to see the carnage a few days after the fire was put out, but we spent only a few moments looking at the scene—street after street of homes reduced to foundations and chimneys—before we felt unclean, and got the hell out.

There will be another Sept. 11. In one form or another, haters of America will attack us again. As far as I’m concerned, this attack could just as easily be from domestic terrorists as from foreign jihadis. We already saw forebodings on Jan. 6. Those Republican trumpers are still out there, violent, judgmental and homicidal. We know who their targets are: liberals, homosexuals, abortion doctors, reporters, Black activists, judges, Jews, Democrats, immigrants, Muslims. If I worry about terrorist attacks, it’s not from ISIS or Al Qaeda or Al-Shabab. It’s from the unvaccinated morons like the Proud Boys and all the other militia groups who want to burn the Constitution and establish a clerical-fascist dictatorship in America.


Sen. Feinstein must step down in the next 10 days!

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It’s looking increasingly likely that Governor Newsom will be recalled in the upcoming election. I sincerely hope he isn’t, but because it could happen, we have to make contingency plans. If he’s throw out of office, then the Republican who succeeds him (whoever it is) will be able to appoint California’s next U.S. Senator, should anything happen to Dianne Feinstein, who is 88 years old.

Although the radically rightwing radio talk show host, Larry Elder, is said to be the frontrunner among Republicans to replace Newsom, any of them would be a disaster. They’re all confirmed Trumpers: anti-choice, homophobic, anti-science, anti-immigrant, and in favor of cutting taxes on the rich. Most of them have vowed to do away with all mask requirements, and to make proofs of vaccination illegal. We do not want any of those people to be Governor of California!

And yet it might happen. If it does, what about Feinstein? Everybody knows she could drop dead at any moment. With this in mind, she should resign immediately, giving Newsom the opportunity to name her successor well before the Sept. 14 recall election date.

She may not want to: she’s stubborn. A lot of people urged her to resign before the 2018 election, but she refused. That was then; this is now; the stakes are far higher. Dianne has had a good, long run in the Senate (nearly 30 years), has earned her place in the California history books, and is very rich. With whatever years remain to her, she could retire to a comfortable life, perhaps writing a memoir. Her mansion in Pacific Heights and lavish oceanfront home in Stinson Beach provide her with plenty of comfort. She can be proud of her stellar career.

If she steps down, Newsom would have a wealth of potential replacements from the House of Representatives: Adam Schiff, Eric Swallwell, Jackie Speier, Ro Khanna, Ted Lieu, Karen Bass, Linda Sanchez all come to mind (I’d love to see Maxine Waters in the Senate, driving the Republicans out of their minds, but we need someone who will remain there for a long time, and she’s already 83. Ditto for Barbara Lee, who’s 75).

There’s another good reason to vote NO on the recall: if God forbid a Republican is elected, government in California will instantly come crashing down into total gridlock. The Democratic-controlled Legislature will rightfully refuse to cooperate with a rightwing neo-fascist Trump supporter. This would be an ugly situation, and the ultimate losers would be the People of California.

If you agree with my thinking, please help to advance this message. Contact Feinstein and respectfully ask her to resign. I’ve been a strong Dianne supporter since she was Mayor of San Francisco; I was a young political activist working on transit issues, and she always took my calls and was very helpful. She’s done a great job over the decades as Senator, especially on gun control. But there comes a time in every career when it’s time to step aside and let a younger generation take over. For Dianne Feinstein, that time, urgently, is now.


Old habits die hard

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At Waterbar Marilyn and I ordered a platter of oysters and when our Italian server looked to see who wanted the wine list, naturally I extended my hand. For nearly 40 years in my relationship with Marilyn I’ve been “the wine guy” (Marilyn has her own expertises) but I’ve never been so arrogant as to assume I should do the ordering for her. So after I decided on a Muscadet de Sevre et Maine for myself, I handed the list to Marilyn and she picked a Pouilly-Fumé—another good choice.

When the wines came I had to try them both with the oysters—that’s what I mean by “old habits die hard.” This is a little snobbish and must strike certain people (although not Marilyn, who’s used to it) as eccentric, but what can I say? It’s what I do. Wine-and-food pairing is integral to the soul of the wine lover. The Muscadet was as good with the bivalves as I’d expected. It was cold, light and bracing, steely to the point of mineral, and in the tang you could taste the wind from the Bay of Biscay that washes over the Melon de Bourgogne grapevines.

One hundred eighty miles to the east, also on the Loire, is the source of the Pouilly-Fumé. This growing region, along with neighboring Sancerre, yields what the British writer Andrew Jeffords calls “some of the very greatest incarnations of Sauvignon Blanc.” It’s a cool area, climate-wise, but not as cool as in Muscadet, and nowhere near as cool as, say, Marlborough, which is why you rarely get that methoxypyrazine smell. Instead, Pouilly-Fumés are generous in fruit, and seldom oaky. Compared to the Muscadet, the wine was rounder and softer, and I was surprised that I preferred it to the Muscadet, which was a tad too dry for the sweetness of the oysters.

It’s impossible to talk about this stuff with anyone except another wine lover. Baseball fans go on and on about ERAs and who’s on the IL. Politicos are obsessed with races in Kansas’s 2nd and Virginia’s 7th districts. Tarantino freaks argue about whether The Hateful Eight is superior to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Foodies debate who makes the best tacos in town. But leave it to winos to worry about whether Muscadet or Pouilly-Fumé goes better with oysters!

And yet this is who we are. If you recognize yourself in this scenario, don’t apologize for it. Yes, we have to keep our obsessions under control: it would not be right to pull this stuff at, say, the Thanksgiving table, when Aunt Ethel and Uncle Jerry just want to enjoy the turkey and stuffing, and not be subjected to a Talmudic debate on wine. But when we’re in the rarified company of our own kind, feel free to let loose.


Oakland sued for failure to enforce its own policies

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(Readers: this is a copy of my post this morning on the website of my political lobbying group, the Coalition for a Better Oakland. While it concerns the city in which I live, it’s relevant to cities around the country that are dealing with the scourge of encampments.)

It’s with great pleasure I share with you the news that our friend Seneca Scott, executive director of Neighbors Together Oakland (NTO), yesterday announced that NTO is suing the City of Oakland for failure to implement Oakland’s Encampment Management Policy (EMP).

The EMP, you’ll recall, was unanimously approved by the Oakland City Council last October, with the full support of Mayor Schaaf. It carefully defined “no-go” areas where tents would be prohibited, including parks, and was set to begin on Jan. 1, 2021. It was a sane, wise policy, but never implemented. The City Council, says Scott, “ignored the EMP out of fear of political blowback.” The lawsuit demands “that the courts intervene and hold the City accountable for enforcing the law in order to restore balance to city streets and neighborhoods…”.

While the Coalition for a Better Oakland is not party to the lawsuit, we fully support it, and will do whatever we can to be helpful.

NTO’s lawsuit, which was filed in Alameda County Superior Court, is similar to one filed in Los Angeles by the LA Alliance for Human Rights, which is suing Los Angeles over its failure to resolve the encampment problem. That followed a rash of other cities being sued for the same reason: their epic failure to clean up encampments by providing shelter for the unhoused.

There are several interesting things about these lawsuits. First, they denote very clearly that cities have to be compelled to take action on encampments; left to their own devices, they remain inert, paralyzed by fear of pro-encampment activists. Secondly, the lawsuits require cities to not only clean up encampments, but to offer their residents some kind of “four walls and a roof” in which to relocate. This is not just for reasons of compassion, but for legal necessity: the landmark Martin v. Boise legal decision, which was left intact by the U.S. Supreme Court, requires “that homeless persons cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property in the absence of adequate alternatives.” Cities have interpreted Martin v. Boise, probably correctly, as meaning they dare not roust homeless people unless they can give them someplace else to live.

It’s great that cities finally are being compelled to deal with encampments, after so many years of official denial and ineptitude. NTO has done a brave and good thing. Without their lawsuit, Oakland government, and especially its renegade City Council, will continue to drift in inaction and lassitude, pretending to be progressive but ultimately caring about nothing but campaign contributions.

Left unanswered by the lawsuit, meanwhile, are three huge questions: (1) What kind of shelter must cities provide to homeless people? (2) how do cities pay for it? and (3) What do we do with homeless people who refuse to leave their tents, even after being offered shelter?


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