Monday, June 24, 2013

Wisdom from 1919

Letter from Edith Stein to Fritz Kaufmann, October 3, 1919:
If this letter reaches you after you get to Freiburg, then you need not read any further. Otherwise, I would like you calmly to weigh the following concern with me. It had already occurred to me on former occasions, but more intensely in connection with your last letter.
I am worried at seeing how, for months, you have avoided doing purely philosophical work, and am gradually beginning to wonder whether your "profession" should not lie in a different direction. Please do not take this as a vote of "no confidence" or as doubting your ability. I only mean that one should not use force to make the centre of one's life anything that fails to give one the right kind of satisfaction.
If you are convinced you have not set out on a wrong path but this is only a depressive phase that temporarily makes any strenuous effort impossible, then do not let my question divert you but rather, wait patiently -- without violent exertion, which would only aggravate the situation -- until the mood to work returns. But should you have had reflections similar to those I have had, then probably it would be time to face them seriously.
-- Letter included in "Edith Stein, Self Portrait in Letters 1916-1942." V. 5 of her "Collected Works" published by the Institute of Carmelite Studies, and translated by Josephine Koeppel.  (With many thanks to my friend A.B.)
[Interesting side-note:  A.B. tells me that Kaufmann had reached Freiburg to be Husserl's assistant, and chose to stay in academia, so must have decided that the funk Stein noticed was only temporary and that he was on the right path.  Stein, on the other hand, eventually left academia to be a nun.  I think her wonderful observation that "one should not use force to make the centre of one's life anything that fails to give one the right kind of satisfaction" was prescient of her eventual departure from an academic life.  I appreciate that she had that life philosophy and seriously followed through on it when she realised that she couldn't force academic lecturing into the centre of her life, and that she had another calling.]

Monday, June 17, 2013

Thinking Volatility - Wine and Career Changes

One night in California, somewhere around St. Helena, I had dinner with Elaine, Jr., Hardy of Dirty and Rowdy wines, and his partner, Kate. Over delicious roast chicken, Hardy told me the story of Dirty and Rowdy and how he got started making wine.  Hardy espouses 'natural' winemaking, which means that the wine is made with little winemaker intervention or use of sulphur to stabilize it for bottling.  His label's name comes from the reputation natural wines have earned; some people say these techniques make the wine dirty and rowdy (which makes me think of a country dance, fun!) or, if a person is feeling less friendly, 'bready and volatile'.  Now, that's not a very nice thing to say.

The idea that natural wines are (or can be) bready and volatile made me start thinking about volatility.  In wine, the word is usually used to connote 'volatile acidity', which indicates what can be a serious flaw.  If there's a certain kind of bacteria present making enough acid in the bottled wine, then distinct aromas and flavours of vinegar will appear, and when it's left like that the wine totally turns to vinegar.  No good.

But in other cases too, volatile gets a bad rap - the word association game brings to mind explosions, volcanoes, and mood swings.  If volatility in wine is bad, volatility in the stock market is worse.  When the US financial market crashed in 2008, starting the most recent recession (which many say isn't over yet), Hardy was cut loose from a company he'd been working with for many years.  He said he saw it coming, as he had a position that included a big travel budget and expense account, which was considered gravy on the company potatoes.  While certainly no fun at the time, getting the axe from the company was a good thing for Hardy; he said it gave him the freedom, opportunity, and courage to make a radical change in his life.  He set out with Kate at his side, and headed into the wine industry the way he'd always wanted to.

Given my current fascination with huge life changes, particularly setting out on one's own with total uncertainty on all sides, this impressed me very much.  It's not all uncertainty for people in a situation like Hardy's; he also works at Corison winery, and Kate has a steady job.  Yet, the notion of picking up everything, moving it to a new place, and declaring "now, I shall make wine!" seems very ballsy and... pretty great.  In a situation like Hardy's with no vineyard land or a winery of one's own, buying grapes that are affordable (and that larger wineries didn't want, probably) and borrowing someone else's equipment (better have a winemaking friend!) are the only options for wine production.  If you can make something drinkable, all the power to you.

Listening to Hardy talk over the course of the evening highlighted an interesting theme among winemakers that I had started to notice through the week.  This is that for many of them, some kind of abrupt and discombobulating life change brought them to the wine industry from a very different path.  The life they were leading at the time that I met them was so radically different from the one they led before, that it's funny to try to fit the two parts together. 

Having weathered the storm of volatility in one area of life, Hardy didn't seem at all worried about the possibility of his wine being perceived that way.  Changing peoples views on natural wines, and demonstrating that the unexpected or unusual can be great, seems to drive his work as a winemaker.  Other people also had tales of monumental changes that lead to their wine careers - relationships ending, getting fed up with jobs, making cross-continent moves - all with a different spark to end their inertia, but ending up in similar places.  They were trying to find their sea legs in an industry that they had little or no experience in, and little or no guarantee of income or livelihood, but they were doing their darnedest to make it work.  And they were happy doing it.


I didn't get to taste Dirty and Rowdy wines on this night, and I'm sad about that.  We drank some other strange and exciting wines instead, which I will now commence to tell you about.  I'm quite certain that none of these can be found at the LCBO, but if you discover otherwise, please let me know.

La Viarte Ribolla Gialla, 2011 - This wine hails from the Colli Orientali in Friuli, Italy, where Ribolla Gialla originates.  Hardly anyone outside of Friuli grows the Ribolla Gialla grape, so it's not easy to come by and I was really interested and excited to get to try it with Elaine and Hardy.  The wine has aromas and flavours of apple, salty almonds, and lemon zest and peel.  It's smooth and round in the mouth, with a zippy edginess to it.  It was unlike any other white I'd had in the past, having a medium to full body but not being overly aromatic.  I'll keep an eye out for it in the future, as I think this particular wine was yummy and the varietal is worth tasting again.

Scodovacca Verduzzo, 2003 - This is also a Friulano wine, and as interesting to taste.  This Verduzzo was made into an orange wine, meaning the must sat on grape skins for a little while after being pressed, giving the wine lots of extra body and some red-wine characteristics.  This wine actually had the colour of an Oloroso sherry - deep caramel in colour - and I'm wondering if that's due to the age of the wine, since I don't know how long an orange Verduzzo would typically last in the bottle.  The nose and palate were nutty, with cooked cherries, sour cherries, brown sugar, and some biscuity notes.  The wine was dry, with soft tannins and a juicy finish, and some heat from the alcohol at the back of my mouth.  Overall, I thought it was very unusual, and great with the roasted chicken we were eating (especially the crispy seasoned skin).

Karasi Areni Noir, 2011 - This wine was a real treat to drink, because it was good and also because it's not yet for sale in North America.  It's from Armenia, grown at 1400m above sea level on the slopes of Mt. Ararat - for those who know their Biblical lore, that's a big deal!  This wine had hints of yoghurt, brown sugar and spice on the nose behind aromas of radish and vegetation.  The palate was bright and driven, with flavours of red cherry, cranberry, tomato vine, and cracked pepper.  It was elegant and fresh.  Hardy said that this wine would go perfectly with his favourite Peking Duck dish from Mississauga.  He couldn't remember the restaurant name, but I understand that there are many good Peking Duck places there - recommendations are welcome!

Karasi is a very special wine, and I felt special drinking it.  The bottle is also really pretty to look at.  I hope that it makes its way into Canada at some point, but first it has to get its foothold in the U.S.  Let's cross our fingers for a northerly migration!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Cutting My Teeth on Barrels at Donelan Winery

During my visit in California, Elaine and I trekked up to Santa Rosa to the Donelan winery, where we were given a tour by the winemaker there, Tyler Thomas.  He was really nice, interesting, and generous, and let us taste about a million Donelan wines.

Tyler Thomas' namesake Fluevog shoes
 - really. He was even wearing them
when we met.
Tyler and I had connected on Twitter over the topic of shoes - he, too, is a shoe-lover.  In fact, he has shoes named after him, which were specifically designed for the winemaker-on-the-go, who needs to troop around a vineyard and then host clients in a pouring room without time for a wardrobe change.  John Fluevog heard this need, and responded with some seriously classy leather boots.

One of the great things about Tyler Thomas is that he has a deep connection with his vineyards.  He is definitely a vine-guy.  Having studied plant biology, and almost getting a PhD in the field, he seems really passionate about the vines and what they're doing.  He spoke about visiting the vineyards frequently and seemed very grounded in the connection between plants and wine.  This was a contrast to many people who I met in Sonoma/Napa, who were winemakers only; there are many people who own land and grow grapes to sell to winemakers, and many winemakers who buy grapes once they're grown.  This winemaker/grower divide is true in a lot of places around the world, and it doesn't mean that the wine is any less excellent.  What I appreciated about Tyler Thomas, though, was the calm competence and down-to-earthness that he has as a person.  I often encounter this trait in farmers or builders of various kinds; there's a distinct lack of showiness or posturing and a genuine passion, drive, and connection to the raw materials that go into the end product. These traits became clear in listening to Tyler Thomas talk about the Donelan wines.

Barrels full of delicious, delicious wine
We started our visit by tasting from barrels.  This was my first barrel tasting experience, and I'm happy to have had the chance to do it for my personal edification, though I'm happy to not do it every day for my dental health.  Because the wines are still in-barrel and aren't ready to come out, you can imagine that tasting them is like biting into unripe fruit, or uncooked bread - it might be pretty yummy, but it's not really ready.  While still in the barrel, there are clear indicators of what the wine will be like when it is ready, and that's what makes it so cool to taste them and see what's different between batches even at that early stage.  That said, it's like electrocuting your teeth.

We first tasted through barrels of Chardonnays, some crisp and clean, some with rounder and smokier notes.  These will eventually be blended into the one Chardonnay that Donelan releases.  Then we tasted all manners of of Syrah, some which will be bottled singly, and some which will be used for blending, as well as a Grenache.  The reds were really outstanding, but really punch-in-the-mouth too.  Lots of everything - tannins, acid, flavours - all energetic and sparky.

I believe that's Obsidian in beaker A, right

After the barrels, we tasted bottled wines, and so many it's hard to keep track.  I really enjoyed many of them, but that's no surprise given that I've expressed my deep, fervent love for Syrah often on this blog.  Two that stand out, for different reasons, are the Cuvee Christine and the Obsidian.  Both of these are 100% Syrah, but very different in character.

Cuvee Christine is a blend of Syrah grapes from four vineyards throughout Sonoma.  Tyler Thomas said to me that he wanted to express the spirit of Sonoma through this wine, replicating the feeling of being there through producing a quintessential Sonoma Syrah.  I thought that he succeeded; the wine was easy to sit and hang out with.  It was like a summer afternoon on a verandah.  There was plenty of Syrah flavour, like black berries, herbs, and spices, along with a smooth, voluptuous body.  A real drinking wine, on its own or with food.

The Obsidian is not a summer afternoon, 'howdy neighbour' kind of wine.  It's deep and brooding instead.  Obsidian reminded me of a huge leather club chair in a book-lined wood-panelled study. Big, burly, dark, the whiff of a recently smoked pipe... Something to really settle down into and chew for a while.  I freakin' loved it.  I was thinking about it the next day. The Obsidian Syrah is a single-vineyard wine, from a vineyard of the same name.  This vineyard is in Knight's Valley, which is the warmest of Sonoma's AVAs, and Syrah loves warm weather.  It was really great to find that the alcohol on this wine was balanced and not too high - sometimes the wine from warm California areas ends up tasting hot, burning with high alcohol.   Obsidian isn't hot or wild; it has manners, it probably went to prep school or something.  It's Gertrude Stein.  It would be great with a massive peppercorn steak and an English bulldog sneaking scraps under the table.

You can read more about Donelan's wines at their website, here.  They've got many others that I didn't try and/or haven't written about, and plenty more detail about places, methods, and wine character.  Thanks so much to Tyler Thomas for spending time with us and letting us taste so many of his excellent wines.  I really hope that I get to drink them again sometime (soon)!