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Classifying Cabernet? I don’t think so

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The University of California at Davis’s Department of Viticulture and Enology asked me to donate my wine books and paraphernalia to them for permanent display, which I’m honored to do. As part of it, they want me to identify the books that were most important to me.

One of them was certainly California’s Great Cabernets, the 1989 tome by Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube, my former colleague. It was, and remains, “a landmark book,” as Marvin Shanken described it in his Foreward. I devoured every word, as I suspect a lot of other Baby Boomer wine fans did, back in the day when California wine, and Cab in particular, was dramatically increasing in importance.

There is, however, one aspect of California’s Great Cabernets that has not aged well. Jim decided to classify the Cabs into five categories: First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Growths. He justified this for two reasons: “I hope to put the top California Cabernets…in historical perspective.” And “I have tried to sort out for consumers the quality of the wines and how they rank.” Jim himself conceded that such an effort is controversial and is “resisted” by “most California vintners.” While modeling his 5-tier system after the 1855 Classification of the Medoc, Jim admitted that the Bordeaux classification is “outdated,” and he predicted, accurately, that no classification “will ever be undertaken by the California wine industry.” Still, despite these provisos, he went ahead and classified anyway.

Jim wasn’t the only writer of the era to attempt a classification. Seven years previously, Roy Andries De Groot wrote The Wines of California, which he subtitled “The first classification of the best vineyards and wineries.” Roy opted for a four-tiered system, using not numbers but adjectives: “FINE, NOBLE, SUPERB and GREAT.”

I loved both books, but even at the time, I had an uneasy feeling. The Bordeaux 1855 Classification had centuries of data upon which to depend, and was moreover fixed by law. California Cabernet, in the 1980s, had barely a few decades of serious production, and was in a state of constant evolution; my old friend Rob Thompson said keeping track of California wineries was like trying to count “rabbits in a hutch.” Many of today’s superstars (Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Bryant Family, Colgin and so on) didn’t even exist at the time, while others that Laube and De Groot praised have faded away completely, or been downgraded by new owners.

Still, as historical curiosities, both books have their place. Speaking of Cabernet Sauvignon, I opened this bottle recently, and here’s my review:

Stags’ Leap 2013 “The Leap” Cabernet Sauvignon (Stags Leap).  Tasting this wine reminded me of those 19th century clarets I’ve read about that remained stubbornly tannic for decades. It was wicked of me to pop the cork when the wine is only eight years old; I should have known better. That’s awfully young for a Cabernet, particularly from Stags Leap, where the tannins tend to be hard in youth. But open it I did, and what I found was a flood of fruit. Massive, gigantic in black currants, blackberry jam, mu shu plum sauce and raspberries, with subtle nuances of espresso, dark chocolate and spices. Dry and smooth, just a splendid wine, but I’m kicking myself for committing vinous infanticide. It’s nowhere near ready. Will the fruit outlive the tannins by, say, 2030? Will it be alive in 2040? Who knows? I won’t be here. Score: 93.


Krushchev denounced Stalin. McConnell denounced Trump. Will we see a period of de-Trumpization?

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One of the most famous moments in the modern history of the former Soviet Union occurred in 1956, when then-Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev bitterly denounced Joseph Stalin’s excesses, especially his mass purges, and for fostering a “cult of personality.” This “cult,”explains the Stanford University political scientist Jan Plamper, consisted of “the systematic elevation of one person”—Stalin—such that “He, and only he, embodied the endpoint of the utopian timeline.”

During Krushchev’s secret speech to the Politburo, the other delegates “heard him in almost complete silence, broken only by astonished murmurs. The delegates did not dare even to look at each other as the party secretary piled one horrifying accusation on another for four solid hours. At the end there was no applause and the audience left in a state of shock.” History records that Stalin’s distant successor, Vladimir Putin, is in the process of “rehabilitating” Stalin, as Russia slides further into autocracy.

We can see the recent exit of Donald Trump from the American political stage as uncannily similar to Stalin’s exit from it when he died, in 1953. Just as the Soviet Union, and then Russia, had to cope with the fallout from Stalin’s murderous thirty-year rule and from Krushchev’s denunciation, so too are U.S. Republicans struggling to understand Trump’s continuing impact. As we see that party divided between (let’s say) the more moderate, anti-Trump Romney/McConnell faction and the radical pro-Trump Taylor Green/Lindsay Graham faction, we can learn by looking at how the Soviet Union coped in the years following de-Stalinization. In general, that period can be said to consist of two eras: (1), almost total ignorance of Stalin’s crimes by the Russian people themselves, and (2) a gradual realization of the destruction he caused, causing a reassessment of what most people had formerly believed. As Andrei Gromyko, the former Foreign Minister and President of the Soviet Union, remarks in his book, Memoirs, such a reassessment “must be objective, impartial and, given the crimes involved, merciless.”

It’s not easy for people who belonged to “cults” to objectively and impartially scrutinize the cult leaders, since this requires self-scrutiny, which is hard for all of us. In Stalin’s case, as the example of Putin shows, the re-interpretation of Stalin and Stalinism is a never-ending evolution, now utterly rebuking the dictator, now conceding that, maybe, he did more good than harm. Here in America, historians and the general public constantly refocus the lens through which they see former Presidents. Harry Truman, reviled when he left office in 1953, has since been “rehabilitated” as a near-great leader. So what of Trump?

Following the catastrophe of Jan. 6, Trump has been deservedly viewed as a dangerous menace, unfit to hold future office, and possibly (probably?) deserving of jail time. McConnell’s tirade against him, which he delivered on the Senate Floor on Feb. 12, 2021, is analogous to Krushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, 65 years previously. Analogous, too, was the reaction of the Republicans who heard him: they listened ”in almost complete silence,” and at the end of McConnell’s broadside,  “there was no applause and the audience [Republicans] left in a state of shock.”

Both Krushchev and McConnell were leaders in their countries (Krushchev No. 1, McConnell the leader of Republicans in the Senate). Both men were praised for a certain courage in speaking truth to power. Both men were “merciless” in their analyses. “Former President Trump’s actions that preceded the riot were a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty,” McConnell said, in words that pleased the tens of millions of Americans who had already reached that conclusion.

But will the U.S. now see a period of “de-Trumpization,” as the Soviet Union witnessed de-Stalinization”? It seems far less likely. In Russia, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when de-Stalinization was at its height as more or less official Politburo policy, it was easy to compel the mass of the populace to think in a certain way. Russia, after all, was a dictatorship, a one-party authoritarian state with state-run media. The U.S. is far different. We are not yet an authoritarian state (although Trump did his best to turn us into one). We do not have state-run media (although during Trump’s four-year reign, Fox News came close). And Americans, as a people, are far more used to independent thinking that were Russians, who for a millennium had lived in a closed society, only barely removed from feudalism. It is much harder to convince a majority of Americans about anything, especially those who subscribe to cult-like thinking.

Again, look at Plamper’s characterization of “cults of personality:” “the systematic elevation of one person” such that “He, and only he, embodied the endpoint of the utopian timeline.” In the cult wing of the Republican Party, we still see people elevating Trump as the one individual who will achieve their utopian timeline. Granted that that is nowhere near an absolute majority of the American people: Perhaps 40% of Americans are Republican, and perhaps 60% of those can be described as Trump cultists—delusionaries who believe the election was rigged. Still, that’s a lot of people. Like the deadenders who refused to go along with Krushchev in denouncing Stalin, they will never be persuaded their former leader was and is a crook, a menace, a sociopathic danger. The difference is that, in Russia, for decades the pro-Stalinists had to keep in the shadows; speaking out would have exposed them to risk and ridicule. This is not the case with the pro-Trumpers. Far from feeling inhibited, they’ve been emboldened—by Jan. 6, by the Impeachment acquittal, by the behavior of top Republicans like McCarthy, Hawley and Graham to kiss the ring of the disgraced ex-president in exile at Mar-a-Lago. What do we do with those people?

In my view, nothing. Let them stew. Let them howl. Let them hurl their lies on social media (and continue to be banned). Let them wear their little MAGA hats and join their militias (which are being systematically infiltrated and dismantled by a reinvigorated FBI). Let them live in their caves, like the Japanese soldiers on their Pacific atolls after World War II—fantasts who refused to believe they had lost the struggle, who believed their Emperor would lead them once again to victory. Those old Japanese soldiers lost their minds, went quietly crazy in their jungles, and eventually died. The same will happen to the pro-Trump Republicans. We needn’t bother with them. We needn’t reach out to them—they’re beyond reasoning with anyway. The truth is, they simply don’t matter.


The U.S. had an earlier coup before Jan. 6. Here’s the story

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A common perception of the events of Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol is that it was the first time in American history that a band of criminals tried to stage a coup d’état against the U.S. government.

We’re used to coups, both successful and unsuccessful, occurring in banana republics and authoritarian regimes. The idea of a coup in a democracy like ours was shocking. But it shouldn’t have been. Jan. 6 was the second coup in American history. The first occurred back in 1898, in Wilmington, North Carolina. Nor should it come as a surprise that the people who pulled of that coup were of the same ilk as those who attempted the Jan. 6 coup. “White militias – including a group known as the Red Shirts, so named for their uniforms – rode around on horseback attacking black people and intimidating would-be voters,” reports the BBC.

The 1898 coup plotters were egged on –just as the Jan. 6 rioters were egged on by trump—by a white nationalist rabble-rouser named Alfred Moore Waddell, who “gave a speech demanding that white men ‘do your duty’ and look for black people voting.” The phrase “do your duty” is precisely the kind of incitement that trump gave to the Jan. 6 crowd, immediately prior to the assault on our government. “We are going to have to fight much harder,” he harangued them, adding, “Let’s walk down to the Capitol.”

What prompted the white militias of 1898 to engage in their coup? The era was Reconstruction. The South had lost the Civil War. Republicans had outlawed slavery and passed numerous laws granting freedom and civil rights to Black people. Southerners bitterly resented this intrusion into what they regarded as their “state’s rights,” and nowhere were they more upset than in North Carolina, where Reconstructionists had taken over state government. The Democratic Party back then was the party of white supremacy. With November elections just days away, North Carolina’s racists feared that Blacks would consolidate their power. In urging his crowd to “do your duty,” Waddell gave them this explicit instruction concerning Black people: “And if you find one, tell him to leave the polls and if he refuses, kill, shoot him down in his tracks. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns.”

That prompted the rebellion. Two thousand white supremacist militia members stormed the city, “expelled opposition Black and White political leaders…destroyed the property and businesses of Black citizens…and killed an estimated 60-300 people…”. It was, says Wikipedia, “the violent overthrow of a duly elected government.”

The coup plotters of Jan. 6 were the mental descendants of the 1898 coup criminals. They even had the same color, red, for their marking: 1898 was red shirts, 2021 was red MAGA hats. Same old same old: pissed off, angry, fearful white men, willing, even eager, to resort to violence in order to bring about their illicit ends. The irony today is that, for all their complaining and fear-mongering about the radical left and Antifa, it’s always white supremacists that launch coups d’état against the U.S.A.


God loves America

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Oh my name it ain’t nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side

Bob Dylan

The British journalist Robert Fisk, in his epic “The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East,” describes an interview he conducted in 1993, in Abu Dhabi, with a man named John Hurst, who was a vice president of the American arms dealer, Lockheed Martin. Hurst was representing his company at an international munitions exhibition—tanks, missiles, body armor, that sort of thing—where military officials from around the world were buying weaponry from arms sellers around the world. Hurst, who had earlier worked on developing the Pershing II nuclear ballistic missile, was now selling Lockheed’s Hellfire ground-to-air missile to “friendly” countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—yes, the same UAE that recently partied with Trump at the White House.

Fisk had seen, as he writes in his book, “thousands” of dead, torn and mutilated bodies during his years covering the Middle Eastern wars (and he was to see lots more in the years that followed). Appalled, he asked Hurst, respectfully, about “the morality, or immorality, of his work.” After all, Hurst’s descriptions of the Hellfire’s “percentages and development costs and deals” essentially “stripped (it) of politics and death.”

Hurst was thoughtful, Fisk writes. “I’ve had great debates (about that),” he replied. “On a religious basis, too.” He went on to explain his point of view. “I’m a very strong Christian. I’m Episcopalian. You can look through your entire New Testament and you won’t find anything on defending yourself by zapping the other guy. But the Old Testament, that was something different. There’s plenty there that says God wants us to defend ourselves against those that will strike us down. In the New Testament, it says the Lord wants us to preach his Gospel—and we can’t very well do that if we’re dead. That’s not an aggressive posture…the guy that wants to hurt me has to think twice…the Lord wants us to defend ourselves and arm ourselves so that we can spread his Word.”

Yes, an eye for an eye, in the name of Jesus. And there you have it: the basis for American defense [i.e. killing people] policy in the 1990s, according to Lockheed Martin, was so that America could spread Christianity throughout the world, especially in the Muslim Middle East.

Do you need me to point out the insanity of Hurst’s statement? At the very moment he was making it, Osama bin Laden was living not far away, in Sudan, planning his expansion of Al Qaeda into a terror organization. That same year would come the first bombing of the World Trade Center, as well as the ambush of U.S. soldiers in Somalia (“Black Hawk Down”), both attacks planned by bin Laden. And eight years later, of course, came World Trade Center attack #2.

And how was bin Laden justifying his attacks? “God willing, our raids on you will continue as long as your support to the Israelis will continue.” And here is what he said a few weeks after Sept. 11: “There is America, hit by God in one of its softest spots. Its greatest buildings were destroyed, thank God for that.” Can the Hursts of this world not see the irony? Hurst—echoed by U.S. Presidents—insists God is on America’s side and America is thus justified in using weapons of mass destruction against its enemies. Bin Laden insists God is on the side of the Muslims, who thus are justified in using their own forms of weapons of mass destruction to use against us. And so it goes, round and round, an insane, out-of-control merry-go-round of death, spiraling out of control.

What I’m writing here has little or nothing to do with America’s national interests. Perhaps we do sometimes have to fight “just” wars. We were right to defend ourselves after Sept. 11, and after Pearl Harbor as well. I’m not a rigid pacifist. But can we please move away from this silliness about “God”? People have differing understandings of God. No one’s view of God is better, truer or realer than anyone else’s. That should be obvious to any rational person. As soon as someone insists his “God” is the one, true God, and the other person’s “God” is a fake, we should move away from that person and not listen to him anymore, because he’s suffering from a mental condition. Yes, that includes, especially at this current time, idiots like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., who happily no longer is around to plague us because his “God” failed to warn him that having polyamorous sexual affairs would get him in trouble. And this also includes, more than anyone else, the imposter Donald Trump, a lifelong agnostic who, having discovered what useful idiots evangelicals are, never fails to hoist up Bibles (upside down) and claim they’re his favorite book.

It’s people like this—the militant preachers, the sociopathic politicians—who keep getting us into trouble. This election is about a lot of things, but to my mind one of the biggest is that it represents a chance to begin to isolate these warmongering religious frauds. If we can’t get rid of them entirely—and I guess we can’t—we can at least make them irrelevant.


Why I weep

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I cry easily these days. There’s so much to cry about. The pandemic, and the lives upended, the economic pain it’s brought to so many of my friends and my city. And I cry because of Trump, and the stain upon our country and the presidency. I’ve been reading biographies of great Presidents lately: Robert Caro’s “The Path to Power,” the story of Lyndon Johnson’s later career, and David McCullough’s “Truman.” Those books make me cry, too. Reading of those men, who did so many great things, who worked so hard for liberal democracy, it’s almost impossible to comprehend the mediocrity currently in the Oval Office, doing his best to undo it. Then, too, the history of those presidents echoes my own history. As I grow old, and peer into the grave, it gives me comfort to revisit my past.

Caro writes with great power and vividity of the assassination and funeral of John F. Kennedy, when LBJ ascended to the presidency. Caro’s description of those four days in 1963—Friday Nov. 22, Saturday Nov. 23, Sunday Nov. 24 and Monday Nov. 25—the four most tumultuous, horrifying days in American history–the flight of Air Force One from Dallas to Washington, D.C, with two Presidents, one dead, the other living, and the slain President’s widow—the arrival of Bobby and Jackie, in her blood-splattered pink suit at Andrews Air Force Base, with the coffin—the insanity of Oswald’s murder by Ruby, live on T.V.—and the funeral procession itself, the grandest State event in American history—I, along with everyone else in America, watched nonstop on television. I cried then, and I cry now, 57 years later.

I went to YouTube to relive that experience, not from any ghoulish interest in the macabre, just…because. And more tears. They came unbidden. The sound of the muffled drums…in relentless, repeating cadence…from the White House to the Capitol, and the next day, to Arlington…the drums, and the clip-clop of the horses on the cobblestones, including the riderless steed Black Jack, with empty saddle, and boots reversed in the stirrups…and the steady, mournful tread of thousands of uniformed sailors, soldiers, marines, and air men in somber, grievous march…not a sound from the crowd of hundreds of thousands lining the wide avenues, except for an occasional sob…but those muffled drums, stately, filled with pathos, like a beating heart. And I cried.

Why do I weep at something from so long ago, something that, to millions of Americans, is as distant, as buried in history as the death of Davy Crockett at the Alamo? I weep, because those muffled drums beat, not just for John F. Kennedy, but for me, and for all of us…for America. The flag-draped casket, drawn on the same catafalque that had carried Abraham Lincoln’s, contained, not only the mortal remains of the President, but my heart, and the hearts of the world. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee…Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

This is why I cry, so many years later. John F. Kennedy brought us what is best in our lives. Now, instead of gallantry in the presidency, we have greed. Instead of courage, we have corruption. Instead of heroes, we have a hooligan. I cry, too, because old men weep, as they realize their lease on life will soon expire. None of us has the luxury of knowing the moment of our death. But as the death of John F. Kennedy, at such a young age, at the height of his promise—as that reminds us, our demise might meet us at any moment. Now. A minute from now. Without warning. And so old men cry.

At JFK’s funeral, and at Jackie’s request, a military band played the official U.S. Navy hymn (Kennedy had been in the Navy), “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” (you might recall it from the movie, Titanic):

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm does bind the restless wave,
Who bids the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee 
For those in peril on the sea.

As I was walking in Oakland yesterday, pondering these thoughts, I passed a bookstore with a shelf out on the sidewalk: paperbacks $1 each. The first one I saw, literally, was Profiles In Courage, JFK’s Pulitzer Prize-wining 1956 book. These things are never coincidences. The book was a 1964 reissue of the original, but with a twist: Robert Kennedy wrote the new Foreward, on Dec. 18, 1963—less than a month after his older brother had been killed. The still-grieving Robert wrote, in words that are as alive today as then:

“[John Kennedy’s] life had import, meant something to the country while he was alive…It was his conviction that a democracy…must and can face its problems, that it must show patience, restraint, compassion as well as wisdom and strength and courage, in the struggle for solutions which are very rarely easy to find.”

Imagine a President whose life has import. Imagine a President with wisdom, strength, compassion and courage. For that reason, too, I cry.


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