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White Trash: an American tragedy

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Nancy Isenberg’s 2016 book, “White Trash,” traces the history of this American underclass, and underscores the little-known fact that what we call “white trash” is not a new phenomenon, but has scarred the American landscape almost from the first moment Europeans set foot on our shores.

Isenberg reports (and I’d never before heard this) that large numbers of the original Britishers (including Scots and the Irish) that settled the new North American wilderness were considered undesirables in their home country, and were exported here in order to rid the Mother Country of them.

They were called “the waste people,” but acquired other monikers over time (all of these terms are attested to in the book through historical citations): filth, offal, sluggish idlers, losers, debauched, offscourings of society, parasites, landlubbers. They were unhealthy: had ghastly complexions, open sores on their bodies, with missing limbs, noses, palates and teeth, ignorant wretches: an early Governor of North Carolina called them “the meanest, most rustic and squalid part of the [human] species,” whose hovels had “dung and nastiness” on the floor.

The South quickly became their habitat. Northerners, who felt superior to them, argued that the “peculiar institution” of slavery had debased poor white people. Because labor was so cheap, white people did not really have to work; black slaves–a “natural servant class”–would pick the cotton and tobacco and do all the dirty work, leaving poor whites free to eat, drink, fornicate, forage, sleep and drink themselves to death, in the “dismal swamps” where they erected their shanties and hovels.

Needless to say, “gentlemen and gentlewomen”—the productive, educated class—did not much care for the waste people, who were a blemish on the “city on a hill” they were trying to build. Ben Franklin called them “the vilest and most abandoned of mankind,” a “scandalous Collection of drunks and low white servants.” His friend, Thomas Jefferson, called them “rubbish,” squatters who were the opposite of the “cultivators of the earth” who worked hard to build civilization out of the wilderness.

By the late 1700s the waste people were called “crackers,” described by a British official (in the 1760s) as “a lawless set of rascals on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia.” Crackers—white trash—it doesn’t matter what you called them. Decent people knew what they were: an undesirable population, antithetical to American values if not actually dangerous, a people to be deplored. By the time the Civil War came, northerners had identified white trash as “the bogeyman of southern hypocrisy.”

Over the next century, the epithets continued to pile up to describe this class of vagabonds and illiterates: scalawags, poltroons, poor folk. W.E.B. DuBois called them “some of the worst stocks of mankind” and noted the irony of southern whites describing Negroes as “inferior” when the southern states were crammed with such “degenerates.” Today, we might call these people “trailer trash” or “rednecks” or, in Hillary Clinton’s apt phrase, “a basket of deplorables.” But the old descriptor, white trash, still seems the best.

They are, of course, Donald J. Trump’s base. They didn’t always used to be Republicans. To the extent they voted at all, in the mid-twentieth century they were for Franklin Roosevelt, and remained Democrats for a generation. Some bolted away from the party when it nominated John F. Kennedy, in 1960; white trash has always been anti-Catholic. More went over to the Republican Party after Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights laws were passed. In the 1970s and 1980s, evangelicalism swept through the south (and Midwest) like a prairie fire, and the unholy alliance of Reagan-style Republicans, unscrupulous pastors such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and conservative political operatives like Lee Atwater and Ed Rollins managed to turn white trash into solid Republican voters.

Which is where we are today. Sadly, this American underbelly, which has tainted our culture from the start, continues to metastasize, eating away at the vitals of American excellence and threatening our stability. I know it’s not politically correct to bash poor white trash: we’re supposed to reach out to one another to discover our common values (Obama constantly preaches this). But once you understand how loathsome this class is, and how feared they’ve been by men and women of knowledge and substance—how much they have undermined our country—how they have formed a third column of depravity and deplorability—how they continue to try and drive our country into the mud–it’s very hard to forgive them. They’ve plunged America into the gutter of this guttersnipe, Trump, and the clowns he surrounds himself with. The Founding Fathers hated them; Democrats and Republicans of good conscience alike have been appalled by them; and so are we, the decent citizens of America in the year 2019. What we eventually do with, or to, them, I do not know; but I know this: They must be resisted.


Review: A new, small book from Jancis

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Jancis Robinson, “the most respected wine critic in the world” according to the cover of her new book, goes the route of brevity in this, our Twitter-addled world. “The 24-Hour Wine Expert” was just published by Abrams, a small house publisher specializing in art, photography and fashion. The book itself is small and thin, deliberately designed for easy-breezy reading.

For the beginner crowd—and, Lord knows, we love you, you are the future—“24” is a pretty good read. More experienced winos won’t find anything new in it, but let’s give Jancis credit for reinventing her brand for one, or even two, new generations who may not know of her renown but are about to discover it.

It’s a good, useful book, but I do have some gripes, and that is Jancis’s tendency, like that of so many world-famous wine writers, to stick with the same old famous names, a safely conservative but unsurprising and all-too-predictable practice that is a constant challenge for wine writers to avoid, if for no other reason than to show that they’re not stuck in some dusty old niche. Jancis has a category called “bottles to knock socks off,” presumably showoff wines. These are for your “label drinkers.” They are the classic illustration of the saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” People who clamor for these wines have just enough knowledge to pass themselves off as experts, but beyond that, there’s not much going on. Every once in a while they memorize another famous name, because some critic they love said so, and so it goes onto the “socks-knocking” list.

Here are Jancis’s “bottles to knock socks off” from California. These are the only nine California wineries she includes: Arnot Roberts, Au Bon Climat, Corison, DuMol, Frog’s Leap, Littorai, Rhys, Ridge and Spotteswoode. An eclectic list to be sure; one might add others to it. Jancis has also two lists whose relationship offers perhaps a glimpse into her attitude towards Napa Valley: the first, “Twenty heart-stopping (and bank-breaking) wines,” includes nothing from California. The second, “Some overpriced wines,” includes “California’s cult Cabernets.”

“The 24-Hour Wine Expert” is ultimately a useful little book, a sort of stocking-stuffer for a holiday gift for that budding wine aficionado who’s probably younger and just starting out to explore the world’s most fascinating beverage. Experts will glance at it if for no other reason than to check out what Jancis, “the most respected wine critic in the world,” is up to.


Does a grower’s personality enter into the wine?

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In our ongoing attempt to understand terroir, or cru–the sum total of influences upon the character and quality of a wine—we now come across the statement by Eric Lebel. He is (or was, when Champagne, Uncorked was published, earlier this year), the Chef de Cave, or cellarmaster, at Krug Champagne.

The book’s author, Alan Tardi, interviewed him extensively; Tardi wanted to know in particular what makes for the highest quality in a Champagne. Lebel told him this: “For Krug, it all begins here, in the vineyards…by carefully selecting the specific parcels we want, those that produce high quality, yes, of course, but also high personality. The character of the grapes from the individual parcels, and the characters of the individuals that grow them, are preserved by this approach, and all of them will eventually turn up to play their part in the wine.”

“The characters of the individuals that grow them…in the wine.”  Wow. Really? Krug buys many of its grapes from local growers, some of whom are portrayed in Tardi’s book: Gerard Moreau, taciturn, “solid, like the earth.” Robert Blanc, “gregarious, extraverted, the complete opposite of Gerard Moreau,” and others. Each sells fruit to Lebel, “and this is a big part of where complexity comes from,” Lebel tells Tardi; “this mix of personalities contributes as much to the [Krug] Grande Cuvée as the meteorological events of the season or the terroir where the grapes are grown.”

When I read these words I had to put down the book, rub my eyes and think. Grower personality as important as weather and soil? Sacre bleu! It’s not just that each grower takes a different approach to his viticulture; in fact, it’s not even clear that they do. By and large, growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Champagne is all about beating the climate and coming up with a good, clean crop. But here is Lebel stating, as fact, that somehow, beyond all measurable weather and soil conditions or physical practices in the vineyard, the personality or soul of the grower finds its way into the final wine.

This is an exceptionally curious and provocative thing to say. How does the “personality” of a grapegrower enter into the wine? Can it really be as important as chalk? We are talking about sheer mystery…the inexplicable. It would be easy to dismiss this as humbug, except that Lebel has a great deal of credibility. One has to believe that he knows what he’s talking about. I have no idea if Moreau’s earthiness or Blanc’s gregariousness actually play a role in what I experience when I drink Krug Grande Cuvée (which I wish I could more often). But I really, really like the thought that, somehow, these gentlemen’s spirits are in the wine. That is about the most romantic thing I’ve heard in a long time–and what is great wine, if not romantic?

Have a lovely weekend, and if you can, drink Champagne!


A new wine book, and some 23-year old predictions

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Every wine writer eventually has to make the Big Decision: How deep into the tall weeds of technicalities do you want to go?

I’m talking about everything from solar radiation and new vineyard roping systems to row spacing, different types of trellising, spraying, leaf pulling, clones, rootstocks, the chemical properties of grapes and wines, the details of carbonic maceration, cold soaking, skin contact, yeasts—and I’m just getting started! After all, this is why students spend years at V&E school.

Some writers are naturally attuned to these things and actually get a pretty good handle on them, but most don’t. I’m in the latter camp. I know a lot about wine tasting, history and California, but I’ve largely avoided tackling that university-level stuff any more than I had to—as I suspect most writers have. You can get by quite well with a minimum of knowledge in this business, although it does help to have some technical books on your shelves to look stuff up if you really need to know.

I do have a couple books, but recently a publishing company sent me a book I wished I’d always had: The Business of Winemaking, by Jeffrey L. Lamy (Board and Bench Publishing, San Francisco). Lamy, who just died, was an Oregonian with deep roots in the wine business; his hard-cover book is really an indispensable guide to wine writers. Want more information on the distribution system, phylloxera, different kinds of tanks? Look it up in the index. This may not be a book to read yourself to sleep at night, but it is the best source of technical information I’ve seen.

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And, on a different topic, I was doing some Spring cleaning and there in my bookshelf I found the June, 1993 issue of Decanter with the cover story, “What Will You Be Drinking in the Year 2000?” Being a Baby Boomer who was told (by the experts) that by the year 2000 we’d all be using our personal jet-packs to travel, I have an irresistible urge to see how wrong prognostications can be. So what did Decanter say?

Well, they had a bunch of different people make predictions. Here are some of the ones that weren’t quite accurate. I won’t name names, but they are (or were, in 1993) some of the biggest names in the business). One pundit said that Eastern Europe would offer the best value for the money. Didn’t happen, at least not here in the States (although, who knows, maybe it will someday). The same pundit predicted that Bordeaux and Burgundy would be “finished” and would be “buried.” That didn’t happen either. Two very famous personalities said that Cabernet Sauvignon’s position would be challenged by Syrah and Merlot. Wow. Talk about wrong.

A number of the pundits predicted that China would “develop dramatically” by 2000. I don’t claim to have much knowledge of Chinese wine, but I don’t think that in 2000 there was much going on there, quality-wise. Maybe there is today.

One interesting question was whether Champagne would continue to be the world’s best sparkling wine. Some (Hugh Johnson) said yes. But some people predicted that other regions (Australia, California, South Africa, Chile, Moldova) would rival Champagne. I, personally, think Champagne still beats California, but the best of California (hello Schramsberg) is pretty darned good.

Anyhow, it just shows to go that even the smartest people don’t have crystal balls.


On geological faults in Burgundy and Sonoma County

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I’m reading Benjamin Lewin MW’s new book, Wines of France, and as usual with his books, there’s more thoughtful information packed into almost every paragraph than most other wine books contain in 100 pages.

I’ll have a more complete review in a few weeks, but for now I want to comment on the role of geological faults in Burgundy and in Northern California. As Lewin writes, “Burgundy is a land of faults that create intricate variations in terroir.” The major fault, the Saône, runs down the length of the Cote d’Or; the famous Route Nationale 74 more or less marks it.

The major terroir features that the fault contributes to the Cote d’Or are the hills themselves that are oriented towards the southeast, from where they pick up that beautiful morning sun. The fault also has brought, through uplifting I would imagine, limestone close enough to the surface for the vine roots to touch it, especially mid-slope, which is where the Premier and Grand Crus are.

Yet, to a Californian, to say that the Saône Fault has created “intricate variations in terroir” is almost laughable. Compared to, say, Sonoma County’s, the Cote d’Or’s terroir is as simple as a child’s toy. Where the Cote’s soils are (as Lewin writes) a mixture of various types of limestone and marl (clay and shale), the soils of Sonoma County are complex almost beyond understanding, encompassing everything from volcanic debris to ancient bedrock, sand, pebbles, dust and clay. And where the Cote is geometrically simple to visualize (close your eyes and try it), Sonoma County is a mass of jumbled hills, valleys, swales, cliffs, riverside flatlands and orientations. It defies visualization.

Our relevant fault system in California is the San Andreas. My friend, the well-known wine writer Bob Thompson, once described these soils as a “slagheap,” a word that only begins to describe the cluttered mess. It is often said that Sonoma County contains more soil types than all of France—I may be mis-remembering the specific reference, and I’m hoping someone will point me in the right direction. But you get the point. Walk ten feet from any given spot, and the soils (structure and chemistry) under your feet will change, sometimes drastically.

So if the Cote d’Or displays “intricate variations in terroir,” we’d have to search for a word for the terroir of Sonoma County that means “intricate on steroids.” This is the main reason why the Russian River Valley will never be classified according to vineyards in the orderly, logical way that the Cote d’Or has been. It cannot be done, because there is no pattern to the soils.

The climate is another matter. It is relatively easily explainable throughout Sonoma County. But climate alone cannot be the basis of terroir; indeed, climate plays a minor role in Burgundy, where soil is King (or Queen). There is something decidedly American about the disorderliness of Sonoma County. It’s untidy, a mélange. The French dislike untidiness; it goes against their grain for organization and classification. Lucky they were to have, in the Cote d’Or, a place that really can be organized and classified by soils. They would go crazy if they had to deal with Sonoma.

I doubt if the notion of terroir would have developed the way it has, if the wine world had been centered on California, instead of France. The French not only are obsessive organizers and classifiers, they also possess a sometimes exaggerated patriotism that can verge on chauvinistic. They feel that France is the supreme nation (I am not prepared to disagree in some respects), and, once they realized that the limestone and slopes of the Cote d’Or were responsible for the fabulousness of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, they rightfully coined the concept of terroir to imply that no where else in the whole world—no country, no state, no region—could ever match the Cote d’Or in quality, because the Cote d’Or is, by definition, the place that it is, and no other place on earth can be identical to it. This is a redundant truth, and it is not entirely false. But it also is not entirely true. Great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be grown elsewhere. And it also is not entirely true that California cannot produce Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that rival those of Burgundy, and can be very difficult to discern from Burgundy. What, then, does this do to the very notion of terroir? It suggests that all terroirs are equal (in a political sense, like the members of the United Nations all are equal), although, to torture George Orwell, “All terroirs are equal, but some terroirs are more equal than others.”


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