Winston Churchill drank a lot of booze. I consider myself something of a student of the Second World War, having read an enormous body of literature on the topic, and I find it interesting that all three of the Allied leaders, Churchill, FDR and Stalin, liked to drink. FDR preferred his cocktails. Stalin, needless to say, liked vodka. But FDR always kept his input limited to a few rounds, while Stalin was known to have his butler substitute water for vodka at parties, when dozens of toasts might be proposed, and even his top aides would collapse from drunkenness.
But Churchill outdrank them all. Port, wine, whiskey, Champagne, Cognac, he mixed them all, frequently starting in the morning as soon as he woke up, and going until the small hours of the next morning. (There’s a story that he almost refused to meet with the Saudi king because alcohol would not be served.) FDR loved Churchill, who often stayed at the White House for weeks at a time, plodding about in his bathrobe and even meeting people naked in the tub; but FDR always breathed a sigh of relief when Churchill finally returned to England, because keeping up with Churchill’s hours, and his boozing, was close to impossible.
The fourth man of WWII leadership was famous for being a teetotaler. Adolf Hitler did not drink. While there are published reports of him occasionally sipping a glass of wine or beer, they are rarer than hen’s teeth. I have always thought it interesting that the Good Guys in that war drank while the Bad Guy didn’t.
As I survey our current political scene here in America I note that some candidates profess to not drink alcohol. I, myself, would prefer a President who does enjoy a nip now and then, and not just a nip: I like a man or a woman who takes his or her booze seriously enough to have favorite drinks and pursue some understanding of sourcing and quality. This is not a Republican or a Democratic thing. I just think that people who drink with some desire to know about what they’re drinking, who study their beverage and meet with its producers and apply some intellect to the experience of drinking, are superior to people who don’t drink.
Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. If somebody is an alcoholic and has a problem with booze, then obviously they cannot and should not drink, and that does not make them a lesser person. I’m in no way suggesting that. But if I had to vote for somebody who really likes his booze and somebody who chooses not to drink, or to drink only very little and with no understanding of what they’re drinking, then I will always choose the former. Ronald Reagan was a discriminating wine drinker who promoted California wine. President Obama is a dedicated beer drinker who makes his own brew in the White House.
I think the reason I trust drinkers over non-drinkers is because drinkers seem more well-rounded to me as human beings. It’s easy to become rigid and ideological about stuff, but when you drink and get a little buzzed, the edges of life get softer. Ideologies tend to fuzz up; alcohol opens the heart chakra and in general makes you friendlier and happier and more accepting of life. Aren’t those qualities we want in our leaders, instead of anger, bitterness, closed-mindedness?
The Welsh poet, W.H. Davies, put it well: Teetotalers lack the sympathy and generosity of men that drink. But maybe Ol’ Blue Eyes expressed it best: I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.
Kudos to the New York Times (and to Eric Asimov, if he had anything to do with it), for this superb interactive map showing how the number of wineries has spread across America from 1937 to the present. If you hover the cursor over any one state, it tells you the number of wineries in it.
(I hope the Times link works without you having to buy an account and sign in. If it doesn’t, try this link.)
It was eleven years ago, in 2002, that North Dakota became the fiftieth, and final, U.S. state to have a winery. Today there are more than eight thousand in all fifty states, scattered from northern Maine to south Florida, eastern North Carolina to Texas, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Arizona, and, of course, from southern California on up to the Washington-Canadian border.
On the map, wineries are depicted by blemish-like rose-colored circles, with the biggest circles signifying 500 wineries; and the most, and biggest, circles are right here in the Bay Area and Northern California. The Central Coast of California also has some big circles, as do Washington State and Oregon, the Finger Lakes and Long Island regions of New York State, and the Alleghenies, mainly Virginia. Texas, too, is getting blotchy, as is Colorado, especially along the Front Range. If there’s a viticultural desert in this country, it’s the Great Plains, where Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas (but, surprisingly, not Oklahoma) are remarkably blemish free, as are Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Montana. Whether this is due to issues of terroir or culture (either or both of which may be unsuitable to the development of an indigenous wine industry), I couldn’t tell you.
I like to think that a wine-drinking America is a better America. Our Founding Fathers drank wine, including fortified wines like Madeira. Jefferson famously cultivated grapes (or tried to) at Monticello, and to Jefferson is attributed one of the most accurate quotes about wine in history: “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.” Teetotalers, at least those that make it into the media (usually as politicians or religious leaders), seem like mean, intolerant people, with a rigidity that demands everyone else hew to their ideology, or else. Such an attitude is antithetical to the real spirit of wine, which is best suggested by the Prophet Isaiah’s hope for “a feast of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.”
I’ll drink to that!
People are always asking me when they should drink this or that wine.
I wish I had an easy answer for them, like, “Oct. 29, 2024, at 7:18 p.m.” They want specificity and certitude, not a lecture. But the question of when to drink a wine is very complicated.
First, it depends on how mature the person likes his wines. It’s not as if a wine is terrible now and will remain terrible until it hits a Magic Moment of transcendent loveliness, after which it once again descends back into terribleness. Wine doesn’t behave like that.
Most wine is fine to drink as soon as it’s released, even if it’s ageable. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to open a young Latour or Barolo. It’s really not a good idea at all. But you can, and the Aging Police won’t come after you. Certainly, the majority of top California Cabernets, Syrahs and Pinots are ready to drink soon after release.
But if a wine is balanced, and you cellar it properly, it will “age.” What does “aging” mean? The wine changes, gradually over time. The tannins may drop out as sediment, leaving the wine softer and clearer and letting the sweetness of the fruit emerge. The fruit itself changes, evolving from “primary” characteristics of fresh fruits to “secondary” ones of dried fruits, herbs, earth, nuts and flowers. This process can go on for a very long time before the wine is “too old.”
But what does “too old” mean? Reasonable people will disagree. I once read (in Michael Broadbent? Could have been Hugh Johnson) that the French used to think the British liked their wines “with the first blush of death.” This was an implied criticism. The French supposedly liked their Bordeaux younger and fresher than the Brits, who kept theirs cellared for decades. Neither the French nor the British was right or wrong on this; it’s a matter of preference.
Another thing is that we usually talk about wines in the abstract, when in reality, we drink them with food. And, if you’re into the pairing thing (which is often over-preciousized, but that’s another conversation), it’s important to understand that the age of a wine conditions the best foods to eat with it. For example, a young, robust Napa Valley Cabernet can be great with a complex dish–say, char-broiled steak, with a wine-reduction sauce and sautéed Portobello mushrooms and sweet potato crisps, or the same steak in a Gorgonzola cheese sauce. But if you have, say, a 20-year old Cab that’s clear and mellow, I’d drop the sauce and stick with a plain steak, maybe with a brown butter sauce. An old wine is a delicate wine that can get crowded out by overly elaborate food.
You’d think these would be easy points to convey yet most consumers–especially those with a little knowledge of wine–still believe in the Magic Moment. Maybe it’s the romanticist in us, or the mystic: we believe in fairy tale endings, when the Prince kisses the sleeping Princess who, after long years of slumber, opens her eyes. They embrace, and live happily ever after.
But life isn’t a fairy tale, and wine seldom has such perfect endings. And think of this: How many times have you enjoyed an older wine, only to have someone you’re with say they don’t like it? (Or vice versa.) So this is eye of the beholder stuff. We haven’t even talked about bottle variation and storage conditions, which obviously are critical. Finally: the expectation of a “Magic Moment” has probably led to more sadness and disappointment among wine drinkers than anything else. They cellar something for 10 or 15 years, anticipate popping the cork and soaring into wine ecstasy. Then the moment comes, and the wine is dull. We writers and critics have got to do a better job disabusing consumers of their belief in the Magic Moment. It does no one any good.
My friend Ryan Flinn, who is Bloomberg News’ San Francsco correspondent, alerted me to this article describing research done by a professor on “wine drinking cups over a 500-year period in ancient Athens” and how “[c]hanges in cup form and design point to political, social and economic shifts.” It’s a fascinating bit of original research, part of what seems to be new interest on the part of scholars in the culture of wine (think of that exhibit at San Francisco MOMA on How Wine Became Modern).
In the study of wine drinking cups (they weren’t called wine “glasses” because most of them were made of clay or metal), the professor, Kathleen Lynch, focused especially on the Symposium. Lovers of the classics will recognize the Symposium as the name of one of Plato’s philosophical books, but the word “Symposium” referred to a specific Greek practice that lasted “nearly a millennia”: an all-male drinking party.
In Plato’s Symposium, the men, who included Socrates, were required to drink (no teetotalers, please), and each in turn had to deliver a speech, in this case, in praise of love. The format seems not to have changed much over the centuries, but the kinds of wine cups the men employed did; and from an examination of them, Lynch is able to make inferences about shifts in the culture of “the ancient world’s ultimate cocktail parties, with established rituals and rules.”
The Symposium changed over time. At first, “The drinking gatherings (symposia) were reserved for the elite,” but over time, “the democratization of the political and social arenas” led to “the democratization of the symposium.” Didn’t the same thing happen in more modern times? In the 18th, 19th and for most of the 20th century, fine wine was reserved for a thin upper crust that ruled society. By the end of the 20th century, the love of wine had permeated the middle classes, with the result that the America of 2011 can be described as a wine-drinking nation. But by the time of Alexander the Great, in the period that represented the end of classical Greek culture, “the [Symposium] practice was again the prerogative of the elites as a luxury and display of ostentatious consumption.” Interesting…
(Another feature of Greek drinking habits was that, as time went forward, “The overall number of wine-drinking vessels increased dramatically.” Think Riedel.)
Lynch, in her study, didn’t deal with one of my favorite parts of the ancient Greek Symposium: the game called Kottabos. Hugh Johnson describes it in Vintage: The Story of Wine. Symposium participants–suitably inebriated, one assumes–would throw the dregs from their wine cups, from some distance away, at “a special stand…with a tiny statuette on top with its arm held aloft. On the hand, precariously balanced, went a faintly concave bronze disc. Halfway up the stand [was] fixed a much larger bronze disc. The idea…was to dislodge the top disc [with the dregs], so that it fell and hit the lower one…which when hit rang like a bell…Kottabos became the rage,” Mr. Johnson writes, “for no less than 300 years…”.
I’m trying to find our modern day equivalent of the Symposium and having some problems. It’s not at all like the big wine and food dinners a lot of us get invited to, like at the World of Pinot Noir, or the Wine Bloggers or Wine Writers conventions, or meet the winemaker dinners at great restaurants, or the big, fancy auctions that end in a fabulous meal. Those are formal affairs; guests typically don’t know each other, and much energy is spent just breaking the ice. At these things, because people aren’t really friends, but simply find themselves at the same place together, there’s a tendency to keep the subject matter light and, one might say, irrelevant. That’s completely in contrast to the spirit of the Symposium, which was deep personal conversation.
We also gather to drink wine at family occasions, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, and while we all do know each other–oftentimes too well–these are hardly occasions for philosophical deliberation and relaxation. (The stress of these big family get-togethers is a staple of TV and radio psychology talk shows during the holiday season.)
In a way, the Symposium reminds me of the classical literary salon, defined here, at Wikipedia, as “a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase their [sic] knowledge of the participants through conversation.” I always wanted to have a salon. In my fantasy, I live in a big house with a garden and terrace overlooking San Francisco Bay (I was in Gordon Getty’s mansion a couple times and that’s what I have in mind). My salon guests are stimulating, outgoing, thoughtful, intelligent, successful at their careers and amusing; among them would be a few chosen for their beauty. (Needless to say, the “men only” rule would be dispensed with!) I’d have the heat on if it was cold, so nobody had to overdress. We would relax on couches, and I–as host–would define the topic. “Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, we are going to discourse on–” it could be anything. I’d have dainty little plates of tapas to munch, and only the greatest wines would be served (not by slaves, as was often the case in Greece). Around midnight, things would start getting interesting. We might even play Kottabos!
kottabos player about to toss his dregs
The proximate cause of yesterday’s hangover was the simplest of all: the wines (and food) were just so delicious, we couldn’t stop drinking (and eating). Who worries about the possible consequences later on when life affords you so much pleasure now?
So Marilyn and I drank. Some people begin planning the menu with the wines, some with the foods. My strategy was a cross-breed of both. I knew I wanted sparkling wine. I had a bottle of Roederer Estate’s 2002 L’Ermitage Brut, a wine I’d given 91 points two years ago, but that, I figured, could well be showing better than that now. But other than that sparkling wine, I had no idea what other wines to serve. That would depend on the food.
There is a hot-smoked Pacific salmon they sell in my local Whole Foods. This form of smoking is different from the cold smoke by which the lox of my childhood fantasies is prepared, being drier, smokier, flakier and, to my tastebuds, spicier. I have developed an addiction to it, even though, at $22 bucks a pound, it isn’t cheap; but a little goes a long way. I knew I wanted to do something with it for Marilyn that would allow the sweet, smoky fish to star, but not be overwhelmed, and so I asked my Facebook friends for suggestions. There were lots; Wilson Daniels’ (who wrote it? Lisa Mattson used to but she’s with Jackson now, I believe) was the best and simplest. Garlic-rubbed bruschetta (Semifreddi’s sourdough baguette), toasted with a little butter and EVOO, topped with the fish, a poof of crême fraiche and a sprig of dill. With that, of course, the bubbly.
While I was shopping at Whole Foods in the fish department, it was impossible not to remember that this is Dungeness crab season. I’ve already had plenty over the last month or so since it started. It’s easy enough to have the fishmonger crack it, and the added advantage yesterday was that they were practically giving it away, at $3.99 a pound. So one cracked crab it would be. Marilyn de-meated the crab, carefully making sure no shell pieces remained behind, while I prepared the rest of the mixture, which was a modified version of a Paula Deen recipe.
I like Paula Deen’s recipes. They’re fancy enough to satisfy my tastes, and everything she does seems delicious. For the crab cakes, she had recommended binding with–not just any old bread crumbs–but ground-up Ritz crackers. Well, they certainly don’t sell Ritz crackers at Whole Foods, but they do have an “organic saltine cracker” from a brand called Back to Nature that sounded Ritz-like, so I bought it, ground 8 crackers with a mortar and pestle, threw the fine crumbs in with the cleaned crabmeat, added 2 chopped green onions, some mayo, an egg (but skipped Paula’s recommendation of 1/2 cup of chopped bell peppers), Worcestershire sauce, dry mustard, lemon juice and Cayenne, and mixed.
“Don’t mix it too heavily,” Marilyn, an old crab cake maker, admonished me. “And don’t break the crab pieces up.”
“I was going to put everything in the food processor,” I said with a straight face. She ignored me, as Marilyn has largely learned to do concerning my puns over the years.
I made patties with the resulting mixture, put some EVOO and butter into the cast-iron pot, got it hot, dredged the patties lightly in white flour, and fried them for about 5 minutes on each side.
But a topping was needed. Crab cakes need something pretty to dress up in–nothing too heavy is needed. I’d happened to have two golden mangoes I’d bought, again at Whole Foods, two days previously, because instead of their usual $3 price, they were $1 each, a bargain. I pinched them. One was still firm, the other pliant and squishy; it was ripe for the slaughter. A perfect thing to combine into a relish with mango is corn. This is not corn season, however, one of the more lamentable aspects of winter. But Whole Foods has a very good 365 Brand of canned corn, very sweet, far superior to anything frozen. The rest of my corn relish consisted of chopped jalapeno, green onion, cilantro and garlic, splashed with a little lime juice and soy sauce, and sprinkled with salt and pepper.
That was all good enough, but more was needed–something to precede the salmon bruschetta. Something small and savory, not filling, but that would excite the palate. Since the menu already was developing along piscatorial lines, I spied the most perfect, plump and fresh scallops in the self-same fish counter, right behind the cold-smoked salmon. Instantly I understood the preparation: sear the scallops rapidly over high heat in butter, EVOO and a few chopped garlic pieces. Throw them over a few leaves of chicory. Sprinkle with toasted black sesame seeds, then drizzle the leftover hot butter sauce over all, slightly wilting and sweetening the tart greens. That would be my first course, the amuse bouche.
The Roederer provided a bridge between the scallops and the salmon bruschetta, and how good both those two dishes and the wine were. Pinpointed umami, essence of the salty ocean, waves of interlocking flavors, with the bubbly both finer and nuttier than it had been two years previously. The crab cakes were cooked quickly, all the prep work having already occurred. They were a little too liquidy; next time I will put in more crushed crackers for binding. At one point I told Marilyn they were more like blintzes than true cakes. But she hushed me and told me how good they were, with the mango-corn relish sweetening them and adding texture, and I had to admit, they were the greatest crab cakes I ever savored. Or maybe it was just the night and the company that made them seem so. With the cakes I opened a Bouchaine 2007 Estate Pinot Noir that was light-bodied and silky and so spicy with cinnamon and raspberries that it seemed an ethereal embodiment both of the Carneros and the perfect 2007 vintage. A perfect match.
There would have been no hangover had it ended there, as it should have, as any sane host would have done. We’d already consumed two bottles of wine, not to mention two glasses of Chardonnay each I’d served as a cocktail (and I will not mention the brand because the wine wasn’t very good). The meal, however, did not end with the last sip of Pinot Noir (which I decanted). Somebody had given me a bottle of Port: Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny. I had decanted that, too, earlier in the afternoon, before Marilyn arrived, and just to make sure, I took a sip. If you know Tawny Port, you know its rich, silky, refined, almost taffeta mouthfeel, and how good, wise and wonderful it can be; and the Taylor Fladgate was all that, and more. With it, we ate the only things I hadn’t made from scratch: chocolate brownies, brought once again at Whole Foods. The decanter of Port was almost empty by the time all was said and done.
The amazing thing is that Marilyn suffered no ill effects from all this imbibing. I, however, had the most severe hangover in years. It receded, mercifully, as the day wore on. Chuck asked if we could meet for coffee at Whole Foods at 2, and when he saw me–unshaved, unkempt, stooped over, in black stocking cap and shades–he said I looked like somebody who was begging for money. In fact I was begging for the ill effects of the hangover to fade. I could not drink coffee, so Chuck suggested something salty and protein-y, to help the stomach. I got three large turkey meatballs from Whole Foods’ hot-food area. They were perfect turkey meatballs, sweet, spicy and buttery, and they did have the effect of settling my digestion. I suppose, if I ever get another hangover this severe again, I will again turn to turkey meatballs as a curative. But I hope not to have another hangover. The thing I don’t understand and probably never will is why we think, the night before, all will be well, as we throw caution to the winds and eat and drink as if there’s no tomorrow. There’s always a tomorrow until, well, the day there isn’t; and then we won’t have to worry about hangovers anymore. The reason, I suppose, that we drink, eat and make merry before we die (and as I said in opening this piece) is simply that the wines were so delicious. That’s the story of my life: I love, not wisely, but all too well.