Winemakers who inspire me
Two posts for you today. I was originally going to post only the second one, but an email I received prompted me to write the one immediately below.
My blog on Helen Turley elicited lots of comments, but one of the most striking, to me, was this:
…you would come off less petty if you spent less time giving WS and Turley a hard time and more time expanding on the question by discussing the winemakers who have inspired you, etc. Otherwise, it’s just a tantrum.
I replied: fair enough. May just do that. Anyhow, it’s my blog and I’ll throw tantrums if I want to!
Well, it is my blog, and one man’s tantrum is another man’s legitimate expression of feeling. However, I will now talk about some winemakers who inspire me.
First, some parameters. I’m inspired by every winemaker, even those whose wines I give poor scores to. Winemaking is an ancient, honorable profession, and every winemaker is a person worthy of respect. (Wish I could say the same of politicians.)
Second, the reason I’m loathe to name certain winemakers is because I know I’m going to forget some people who are deserving, and I don’t want to do that. I’ve met a lot of fantastic winemakers in my 22 years as a wine writer, and I can’t remember them all. So just because your name isn’t here doesn’t mean you didn’t inspire me.
O.K., in no particular order, here goes. Living winemakers only.
Josh Jensen. He was one of the first winemakers I ever met to write about. I liked his story, his pioneering spirit, and today I admire the fact that he’s managed to stay active and successful in a very stressed-out industry.
Genevieve Janssens. Another great story. A woman who dreamed big and made it happen, and who has survived tumultous changes at Robert Mondavi Winery.
Greg La Follette. For being a great winemaker and the world’s nicest man.
Greg Brewer. Because of the purity of his vision, his articulation in both wine and words, and his spirit, which embodies the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills. On my list for both Brewer-Clifton and Melville.
Randy Ullum. He oversees something like 5 million cases a year at Kendall-Jackson and manages to make everything interesting, from Vintner’s Reserve to the tiniest production Cab and Pinot.
Heidi Barrett. Because whatever else you can say about her wines, she’s carved out a successful niche and nobody does it better. She’s a hard worker. (And, no, she doesn’t send me hardly anything she makes!)
Margo van Staaveren. Like Genevieve at Mondavi, Margo has led the team at Chateau St. Jean for many years and through all kinds of ups and downs, and always produces wines of charm and finesse.
Bob Cabral. He was called in to pinch-hit at Williams Selyem and smacked it out of the park. An awesome winemaker and an all-around gentleman.
Ehren Jordan. Mainly because of Failla. Such great wines that show the essence of the true Sonoma Coast. He saw barren hillsides, had a dream and made it happen.
Steve Pessagno and John Falcone (Rusack). Two salt-of-the-earth guys who work it hard year in and year out. They may not get the credit more famous vintners do, but they are California winemaking.
Dan Morgan Lee. He helped pioneer Santa Lucia Highlands. He gets all kinds of awards for his wines, and deserves them. A guy who worked his way up from nowhere to the top.
Nick Goldschmidt. He’s had more jobs than Colonel Sanders has wings, and always delivers. His personal brand, Goldschmidt, defines Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. And he’s the most charming Kiwi you’ll ever meet.
Rick Longoria. Santa Barbara County winemaking could hardly exist without him. Behind the scenes, in front of the scenes, he’s The Man. Plus, his own wines are tremendous. A hard-working, honest and talented guy.
Looking back over my list, I notice a few things. Most of my winemakers
- are hard-working guys who made it on their own
- are collaborative
- are survivors, and somewhat older. In order for me to be inspired, a winemaker has to have a track record
- were in my last two books
- have earned high scores from me for their wines
I guess it’s hard for me to identify “inspiration” without including the personal qualities of the winemaker — what Dr. King called “the content of their character.” I think a good character goes into the making of great wine as much as any objective qualities of terroir. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it’s what I believe.
Finally, I also want to say I’m inspired by all the young men and women who continue to get into this industry everyday. They go to school, apprentice, work their butts off, stay up long hours in hot and cold, sometimes work for numbskulls, and do it all against long odds; the chance of success in the wine industry today is not as great as it once was, and the risks are high. So I’m lifting a glass to all the newbies. Here’s looking at you, kids!
The greatest wine I ever had
Did you read about that 220-year old Champagne that divers found at the bottom of the Gulf of Bothnia?
I just happened to be staying in Reims at Veuve Clicquot, which made the Champagne. I was actually with the Countess when news of the fantastic and improbable find reached her. We were in the garden, sipping — what else? — ‘87 La Grande Dame.
The Countess’s iPhone rang. At first I was mildly annoyed that our conversation — about social media in the wine industry — had been so rudely interrupted. But then, as the Countess grew increasingly excited, my interest was piqued.
“Oh, my!” she exclaimed.
“You don’t say? Sacre bleu! Incroyable! When? Where? What? How? Mon Dieu!”
I was dying to know what was going on. Eventually, the Countess switched her phone off, and said, “You won’t believe it, cher ami. They have found cases of old Clicquot at the bottom of the sea!”
We had to celebrate, of course. More Grande Dame was brought out: ‘71, ‘52, ‘29. The bells in the abbey church were rung 50 times, summoning the townsfolk to the ancient rituals. The Countess caused numberless bottles of Yellow Label to be poured, while monsieiur le curé gave thanks to the Almighty.
I was scheduled to leave the following morning, but the Countess insisted I postpone my departure. “Etienne, you must be here. You must! They are sending the wine for us to taste! It is said to be in excellent condition!”
“Who said that?” I asked
“The captain himself, a person called Jacques, or Jean, or perhaps it was Jérome. He assured me.”
“And who is this captain?” I enquired. “Is he an expert? Un homme de Champagne? Does he have the proper experience?”
The Countess’s face fell. “I had not thought of that,” she confessed.
“Think about it. What if he is a complete simpleton? What if the wine is, enfin, undrinkable? All the world’s critics will demand a taste. James Suckling, for example, will be banging on your door–”
“Not anymore,” the Countess purred. “Now that he has left Wine Spectator, he is nothing, rien.”
“You miss the point,” I insisted. “It will be someone else. Parker, or Roger Voss, or someone else of equal luminescence. They will insist upon tasting the fabulous Champagne from the bottom of the sea, and you will be compelled to allow them. If you do not, you will be subject to the most vile attacks in the press. And if they find it undrinkable, they will announce to the entire world, ‘Veuve Clicquot cannot age for 200 years, even in the world’s coldest cellar’! The reputation of this house, and of yourself, will be ruined.”
“How true,” the Countess mused. “But how will we know if the wine is undrinkable, or a gloire a Deux?”
“We shall taste it,” I replied, logically. “Which means we shall have to await its arrival.”
The next few days were spent in unbearable tension. We had to arrange for proper shipping. What if the wine had been splendid, once it emerged from its 200-year cold water bath, only to be spoiled by the rigors of travel across half a continent? It was, after all, summer in Europe, the hottest in 100 years, thanks to global warming. We had to make sure that the conditions of travel were impeccable — a difficult task, even for someone as powerful and well-connected as the Countess.
But we did it. The wine arrived safely, yesterday morning. When the refrigerated lorry drew up before the chateau’s main gate, the Countess and I, and her considerable household staff, were anxiously awaiting it.
Butlers lifted the heavy cases onto pneumatic carrying machines, which transported them quickly to the cool cellars. The Countess’s cellarmaster, M. Hungue, lifted a bottle. It was crusted with the detritus of age. There was, obviously, no label. M. Hungue looked at the Countess; the Countess looked at me; I arched an eyebrow. She gave the cellarmaster a silent cue. He removed the capsule.
The cork snapped out with a satisfactory explosion. A puff of smoke, a white whiff of cloud evaporated into the chill cellar air. M. Hungue brought the bottle to the tip of his pointed, red nose. He gave a sharp sniff. He looked at the Countess.
“Well?” she said, imperatively.
M. Hungue smiled, a small, profound grin spreading beneath his bushy white mustaches, and said not a word.
A servant handed out glasses. M. Hungue poured. The liquid came out clean and clear, the color of molten gold. The mousse was excellent, consisting of fine, small, violent beads of gas. I inhaled. Perfect old Champagne aroma, all honey and marzipan. In my mind, I gave it 100 points.
The Countess called for food: beluga caviare on toast points, paté de foie gras, smoked sturgeon. A celebration was in order! The Mayor, the priest, the chamber of deputies all were summoned. The Marsellaises was sung. The Countess was generous enough to offer each guest a tiny sip of the precious nectar. And then she summoned her secretary.
“Arrange for M. Parker and M. Voss to visit,” she commanded. “Inform them they are invited to taste my Champagne from Le Vintage de Mer, the Vintage of the Sea, which was created by my great-great-great grandmother herself, La Veuve Clicquot.” And then, turning to me, she added, triumphantly, “You see, cher Etienne, I still know how to market.”
And that is the story of how I tasted the rarest, most wonderful wine it has ever been my good fortune to enjoy! (My full review of the 1785 Clicquot Champagne will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast.)
Oded Shakked is throwing down the gauntlet.
“When you go to most good restaurants these days,” writes the winemaker/owner of Longboard Vineyards, “you often hear the staff talk with pride about the fact that local produce is used to make your meal…You now can understand why I get irritated when I go to the grocery store and see a person wearing a ‘Slow Food’ t shirt putting a $5 Argentinean Malbec in their shopping cart.”
Oded blogged on the topic of talking local, then buying non-local, the other day, where he let his emotions out for a run. Give it a read, then come back here.
His point is that these are extraordinarily tough times for many wineries — not just little ones like Longboard, but even big, entrenched wineries. (You think Diageo would have sold Beaulieu and Sterling if times were good?) Wineries are in a Darwinian struggle for existence; when Oded concludes his post with a poignant, “So please, make you next purchase from us, your neighbors,” he’s speaking not just for himself, but for California winemakers from Temecula to Boonville, Murphys to Lompoc. Some wineries are as endangered as the northern right whale, and Oded is telling wine drinkers that they — we — have an obligation to support our local wineries.
I’ve known Oded since the early 2000s. I put him in my 2005 book, “A Wine Journey along the Russian River” (which University of California Press has just re-issued, with a new preface) because he’s such an interesting guy, and his Longboard wines (mostly from Russian River Valley) are quite good. He used to be the winemaker at J Wine Co. before taking the plunge to devote himself fulltime to Longboard. That was before the recession.
Lots of winemakers with their own personal brands continue at their day jobs. It must be a terrific decision to go out on your own, especially if you have a family, as Oded does. Part of you wants the freedom and independence that go with running your own company, doing things your own way and not having to take orders from anyone. On the other hand, you covet the security of a real job. In Oded’s case, I think, he made the jump because the economy was booming, and it seemed like a hard-working young winemaker, with access to good fruit, could make a go of it.
The recession, of course, took Oded, and everybody else, by surprise. I don’t know how Longboard is doing, but from the sound of Oded’s cri du coeur, I’d guess there’s some wear and tear on the balance sheet. Hence his plea. “Next time you are in a restaurant and see no California wine…ask to talk to the wine buyer and give them a piece of your mind. Understand that supporting your local winery helps preserve a heritage and make our local communities more diverse and therefore stronger.”
If you want to know what I think, it’s that I fully understand where Oded is coming from. In these tough times we should support our local businesses. It’s the patriotic thing to do, but it also helps our neighborhoods and, ultimately, ourselves, by keeping our spending money in our communities.
On the other hand, buying strictly local does limit your choices. There’s no Riesling, Tempranillo or Sangiovese in California that approaches its European counterpart. So what’s a consumer to do, especially one with a conscience? Next time you’re in the wine store deciding what to buy, do you go with that Argentine Malbec, or that racy imported Sancerre? Or do you take your locovore sensibilities and stick with California (or Virginia, or Texas, or Washington State, or wherever you happen to live)?
Easy question. No easy answers.
Had a call from a guy working on his WSET. He’s doing a paper on rising alcohol levels over the last 20 years and wanted my viewpoint.
He began by listing 6 reasons that, in his judgment, account for higher alcohol: later harvest time, climate change, locale (planting in warmer areas, is what I think he meant), viticultural practices, vinification techniques and consumer demand. Then he asked if I thought any of them was more important than the others.
Here’s what I said. “Obviously, one of them is driving the rest.” He knew I was going to say “consumer demand.” The others (excluding climate change, which I’m not sure has a place in this discussion) are manipulatable — they can go any way the owner wants. An owner or winemaker can pick earlier or later, farm the way he wants, make the wine any way he wants. The one uncontrolled factor — the only thing he can’t manipulate — is consumer demand. Which is what matters: a winery is a business, not a charity. Therefore, consumer demand drives all else.
So we have to ask, why is the consumer demanding these high alcohol wines? Well, they’re not demanding high alcohol in itself, they’re demanding lots of fruit. And the way to achieve lots of fruit is extreme ripeness, i.e. high alcohol. It’s an unintended consequences type thing, like energy consumption. Consumers don’t consume gasoline (with all the political, financial and environmental problems it causes) because they like gas. They buy it because they need gas to drive.
Winemakers don’t want to make high alcohol wines; it’s the price they pay for ripeness. Which is why the holy grail is to achieve physiological ripeness at lower brix levels. If there was an easy way to do it, everybody would know, but there’s not. You have to try lots of different things, over many years, and even then, it’s not entirely in your hands. There’s no formula.
The WSET guy wanted to know if the high alcohol trend is reversible. I said that, while cooler vintages in California may be helping, and there’s a critical backlash against high alcohol, in general the answer is, no. We’re not going back to 11.5-12 percent alcohol.
Then he asked if high alcohol leads to homogenization. I said it does, because it leads to similar flavors in all varieties. I’ve said this before, but everytime I do, somebody — usually Charlie Olken — smacks me upside the head. But I do think fruit flavors are all pretty similar across varieties in California. (Do we really need an argument that one area is red cherries and another is black cherries? I don’t think so.) Flavor isn’t hard to achieve: I could grow grapes and get them really flavorful. Just don’t pick until they’re super ripe! But what I couldn’t achieve in wine is structure. And structure requires 3 things: money, talent and good taste (that’s assuming a good vineyard). Even if a winemaker has the first two, that doesn’t mean he has good taste. You’d be surprised at how much bad taste is out there. I constantly am.
So does high alcohol mask terroir? I said I don’t think so. The wines of Saxum have terroir. I know that vineyard. It’s a very special, unique place. It also happens to be in a hot area. Justin Smith’s wines routinely approach and sometimes exceed16%. And yet they’re delicious and compelling. So high alcohol in itself does not mask terroir. (And low alcohol doesn’t necessarily guarantee it.) I told the guy, “If you want to talk to someone who’s on an anti-high alcohol crusade, find Dan Berger. High alcohol doesn’t bother me, if it’s balanced.”
In the end, it all comes down to the consumer. Justin Smith caters his small production to his admirers. So does everybody else. And until the broad mass of consumers says “We’re sick of high alcohol and we won’t take it anymore,” high alcohol isn’t going anywhere.
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A couple years ago, Dr. Vino had a blog on “wine tattoos.” I found it after Googling “wine and tattoos” (it came up second, just after a hit for a brand with the word “tattoo” in the name). Dr. Vino had pointed out how so many people, especially Millennials, are not only getting tattoos these days, they’re getting wine tattoos. Tyler showed pictures with wine cork tattoos and tattoos of glassfuls of wine. In return, people commented and sent in pictures of their own wine tattoos, including a guy with big, purple grape bunches on his arm.
I got my own tattoo the day before yesterday, but it wasn’t a wine tattoo. When I first decided to get a tattoo, Philip, the artist, asked what I wanted. I said I didn’t know. “What about grapes?” he asked, knowing my proclivities. “Or wine bottles?” “Good heavens, no!” I said (well, words to that effect), fairly screaming. I live and breathe wine 24/7. The last thing I wanted was to have my first tattoo be anything about wine.
Anyway, we finally worked out the design.
The process took about 3 hours and wasn’t nearly as painful as I’d feared. While I watched Philip do his art (with his chihuahua, Lula, in my lap, which helped ease me), it crossed my mind that there was a similarity between Philip’s work and that of a winemaker. A tattoo is first envisioned in the imaginations of both the tattoo artist and the tattoo getter. In my case, there was real collaboration with Philip, because the actual image, being on you for the rest of your life, should not be trivially conceived. Philip and I engaged in what was almost like psychotherapy, as he tried to help me figure out what image I wanted. The theme of black-and-red roses, intertwined on thorny vines, was what we came up with. (Don’t ask me to explain it here. Next time you and I are drinking, I can tell you.)
Then the hard task of creating it occurs. There is physical effort, some degree of discomfort, and the task is time-consuming. And while the tattoo artist is working, he’s usually playing his favorite music on a CD. When the new tattoo is completed, it still isn’t ready; it needs a week or so to firm up, for the skin to recover. When the tattoo finally is ready, there it is, in all its glory.
Wine, too, first is envisioned in the winemaker’s mind. He imagines all he knows of the vintage (I’m talking about good wine, not supermarket stuff), all he remembers of past vintages, everything he knows about the vineyard. He is, in fact, communing with himself, to determine with the greatest precision he can what his eventual wine will be like. This process is ongoing; even after the grapes are crushed, the winemaker will be making decisions, right through to bottling. He wants to get the reality of what’s in the bottle as close as he can to the Platonic picture in is mind.
There are hard tasks in winemaking, too. Winemakers sweat and get hurt and occasionally bleed in the performance of their jobs. They grow cold in winter and hot in summer. There’s almost always music playing in a winery, unless the tourists are filling up the place and they have to turn it off. And when the wine finally is in the bottle, it’s not yet ready to drink. Like raw skin after a fresh tattoo, the new wine needs time to settle down, to get over its shock, to heal. But when it’s finally ready, there it is, in all its glory.
Okay, maybe I’m stretching comparisons a little thin. But believe it or not, going through this experience of getting a tattoo has made me more sensitive to the intricacies and agonies of making wine.
We wine writers who visit winemakers have lots of different choices of how to spend the time. One thing you can do (which I suspect most writers do with winemakers) is to taste the wine. That’s not my favorite thing, because to tell you the truth, I don’t feel I can be completely objective. Sometimes you’re in a cold cellar and the winemaker siphons the wine right out of the barrel. It almost always tastes pretty good under those circumstances. Other times the winemaker will line up bottles and glasses anywhere that’s available: the lab, the tasting room, his office, even on top of a barrel. At any rate it’s hard for me to properly evaluate a wine when I’m sitting with the person who made it.
Another thing you can do with winemakers is to let them take you on a tour of the winery. At this point, I’ve been on so many winery tours, I have bottling lines and fermenting tanks coming out of my ears. These days, when a winemaker walks me through the winery, it’s not uncommon for him to begin by saying, “You’ve probably seen a million wineries,” to which I silently think, Yes, I have, but I would never say that. Instead, I let the winemaker point out whatever he wants (I’m a polite guest). But really, the technological side of a winery has never much interested me (although the architecture does. I can just as easily appreciate a luxurious winery as a shed with a tin roof).
You can also walk through vineyards with winemakers. I like that because it takes me to the heart of where wine is made: the rows of grapevines that produce the grapes that make the juice the yeasts ferment into wine. But after a while, all vineyards begin to look alike. I know that’s heresy to those trained in the art and science of canopy management, but that’s how things are with me.
So what do I like to do with winemakers? I like to drive with them. Specifically, I like piling into the passenger seat of the winemaker’s vehicle (often an SUV, 4-wheel drive or pickup truck) and letting the winemaker do the driving. Winemaker vehicles are usually dirty and in disarray. You know how you sometimes apologize to a visitor because your house isn’t quite as tidy as it might be? Winemakers do the same, although I always tell them not to, because I could care less. Take a look at the inside of a winemaker’s car. Maps, gadgets and junk all over the place. Dried clots of earth on the floormats. Empty soda cans and water bottles. Clipboards on the dashboard, sunglasses and cell phone and pencils and pads and keys and boxes of tissue and little broken bits of metal and plastic. The inside of a winemaker’s vehicle is a veritable junkyard, but it’s a place I love to be.
Where do we drive? Typically around the property and/or the appellation. That’s what I really like to do with winemakers. They can tell me all about the hills and clefts inbetween the ridges that let the maritime influence filter in. They can point out that outcropping of limestone, that jumble of stones, or the way a bench rises suddenly from an alluvial plain. They can show me their neighbors’ vineyards. We can drive to high points where you can see for miles and miles and from that aerial vantage point gain an appreciation of an AVA’s physiognomy (if that’s the right word). Of course, you can do all this driving yourself, on your own, but then you can’t pay proper attention, and a winemaker is the best tour guide in the world. Winemakers know their appellations like they know the palm of their hand. (One of the nice things about chatting while driving is that, because it’s so casual, sometimes there’s some good gossip, oops I mean news, to be had.)
I was reminded of this because I just read my notes of my drive-around the southern Santa Rita Hills with Richard Sanford. One thing that struck me about that appellation was how quickly its vineyards have become famous. Ten years ago everybody knew about Sanford & Benedict Vineyard and Babcock, but who had ever heard of Cargasacchi, Fiddlestix, Fe Ciega, Richard’s own La Encantada, Sea Smoke, Clos Pepe, Melville, Mt. Carmel, Rancho Santa Rosa, Carrie’s, Huber? (I know I’m forgetting others.) Look how well-known they are today. There’s not another appellation in California whose vineyards have come so far, so fast.
I like winemakers anyway, most of them, and somehow they seem more themselves when they’re behind the wheel of their own vehicle.
Every time I start thinking that Paso Robles has turned the corner on red wine, along comes a bunch that makes me think the bad old days never went away.
First, the good news. I talk up Paso Robles all the time, especially in Napa Valley. You’d be surprised at some of the “names” to whom I say, “They’re doing some fiercely good stuff down there.” Many of them — Napa vintners — are freaked out by the collapse following the third quarter of 2008. For the first time ever, they’re looking over their shoulders; even Paso Robles, for all they know, might be a contender. So they listen. It reminds me of when the French Rhônistes came over here, in the early 1990s. They weren’t exactly worried about the Californians, but they’d heard distant rumblings…maybe they should find out for themselves what was going on.
Napans would do well to pay attention to Paso Robles. We are in game-changing times. Napa Cabernet is not immune to a market turnaround. A Toyota moment always threatens, or threatens to threaten; the current recession may already have dealt a serious blow to über-Cabernets. There’s a lot of Southern California money invested in Paso, the way that Silicon Valley goes to Napa. If there’s a lesson to be learned from Paso Robles — young, aggressive, ambitious — Napa’s smart winemakers want to learn it.
There’s plenty of evidence on the Paso side. At their best, Paso reds are juicy-good and balanced, and if that means they spent a little time inside a spinning cone, so what. Saxum is a good example of how delicious these wines can be, but, as Saxum is so rare and expensive, perhaps a better example is Vina Robles. To name just one, I reviewed their Signature red blend (Petite Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) last Fall, gave it 93 points, and might have gone higher, I suppose, had I let it play with the air in the glass; but at some point in reviewing, you have to close each chapter and get on with the next.
So that’s the good news, but then come those awful Paso Robles reds, and once again I despair. No names, please. This blog is not the place for that (you can look up my reviews in Wine Enthusiast’s database, and it won’t cost you a penny). There are wine companies down there that charge $30, $40 and more for red wines that are so terrible, I think of quitting my day job and becoming a coal miner. What goes wrong in Paso Robles?
a. Overripe grapes. There is nothing more disgusting than inhaling a wine and getting a lungful of raw, harsh port.
b. Thinness of fruit due, I suppose, to overcropping. I have nothing against 15% alcohol, in and of itself, but when there’s not enough fat on those bones, the wine is hot and disagreeable.
c. Bizarre acidity. I imagine some winemakers add stuff out of a bag because the wines are too soft. Nothing like unnatural tartness to make the palate gag.
d. Residual sugar. A longtime bugaboo of mine.
e. Uneven ripening. Sometimes you get asparagus. Not pleasant.
f. Uneven tannins. This probably comes from inferior viticulture or from problems at the sorting table (if there is one).
Why do these things happen in Paso Robles but seldom in Napa Valley? I put the question up on my Facebook page and got some interesting comments. Matt Garretson, who used to make wines in Paso, said, “The issue isn’t so much with the raw materials (which are every bit as good, if not better), but has more to do with the intentions/talent of the grower/winemaker. Far too many posers there, IMHO.” Another commenter, John Danby, noted, “Part of the reason you get some less-than-stellar wines in Paso is that it’s still relatively affordable for the dreamers (gotta love ‘em), making their own wine and finding their way along. In Napa, if you can afford to be here, you can afford the consulting winemakers, etc.” I agree with both statements.
Paso has its work cut out, but they’ve shown enough critical mass of intelligence and fortitude that I retain hope. Anything can happen.