30 May 2008

Monein changes everything

[sign in pau]It’s a miracle we’re here at all. I can only conclude that “fun” in the Languedoc involves moving signs around so that non-locals can’t find anything. Time and time again, signs point exactly in the opposite of the true direction, and eventually we end up navigating by feel and landmark, keeping the massif of the Montagne d’Alaric firmly on our right. This works until we lose sight of it, after which there’s a lot of stopping to check the Michelin map, driving to the next town, stopping to check the Michelin map…

There’s a rustic charm to the area, despite its navigational vandalism. Historic sites are strewn like litter, and with a few exceptions, villages seem not to have changed for centuries. And vines? They’re everywhere.

…continued here, and featuring a visit to Jurançon’s Domaine Cauhapé.

16 May 2008

Loss, keenly felt

[robert mondavi © Carolyn Tillie]The last time I saw Robert Mondavi, who passed away this morning at the age of 94, was at a restaurant in Boston about ten years ago, for some sort of celebratory event at which his wines were being poured. Even then, he was getting older. You could see it in his carriage, in his face. From a distance, he seemed to be shrinking in front of our eyes.

Anyway, on this occasion he was with his wife Margrit and Boston’s own culinary royalty, Julia Child. Margrit is even tinier than Robert, and though Julia obviously towered over both of them, by this point in her life her back was stooped with age, bringing her down to a somewhat normal height.

What struck me right away was that these three people – all at an age where a well-earned lifetime of rest by the pool should be appealing – all exuded a powerful, intense energy. When Mondavi looked at me, shook my hand, said a few words, I felt the force of his will. The same will that drove him to revolutionize American wine…not just from a qualitative standpoint, but also in the way it was marketed and sold. The energy flowing from this fairly slight man was, unmistakable, and seemingly undimmed by age. Up close, he seemed larger, stronger, more alive.

But my lasting memory of the evening came later. The Mondavis and Julia were seated together, and they were speaking a bit about each course and its wine pairing as it arrived from the kitchen. I believe we were about to move on to a chardonnay, but before Robert could get started, Margrit spoke up.

“I didn’t like that pairing at all.” I believe I saw the chef – one of Boston’s most celebrated – stick his head out from behind the kitchen door at that one. “It didn’t work.” Julia started laughing. If she had an opinion, she kept it to herself.

At first, Robert looked slightly startled. Then he smiled, and joked, “well, I guess we can’t blame the wine.”

Margrit shook her head. “Yes, Robert, I think we can. I think it was the fault of the wine.”

Robert turned to look at her, love and bemused admiration in his eyes. There was a silent pause while the rest of us waited. Would they continue their entertaining little disagreement? No. Clearing his throat, he simply moved on to his philosophy of chardonnay and its food pairings as if the exchange had never taken place. Always the tireless promoter.

And that, I think, was Mondavi in a nutshell. Passionate about his relationships (for good and, sometimes, for ill), but always…always…focused on his wine. There have been many who have done their part for America’ wine industry, but among all of them he reigns like a giant. And now, a fallen giant. We will all be the poorer for the loss of him.

10 May 2008

Ten years after shadow

[doge’s palace]After lunch, I head to the Doge’s Palace for a temporary exhibit on the deep historical links between Venice and Islam. It’s a fascinating collection, tracing the early years of mutually beneficial trade, the architectural and artistic borrowings, and the temporary alliances that long defined the relationship. It also details the long decline into open warfare, with brief but temporary reconciliations, to the point where even persistent and essential trade links had to be abandoned.

The true brilliance of the exhibit, however, is that it’s set in one of the palace’s great halls (the Sala dello Scrutinio), one filled wall-and-ceiling with massive murals. It is certainly no accident that the hall the exhibitors have selected is dominated by a massive, incredibly violent rendering of the Battle of Lepanto, with the Venetian navy in the midst of a bloody slaughtering of the Ottomans.

…continued here.

06 May 2008

The last of the BWE notes

[vineyards]No one's happier than me to bring these to an end, and only a few months late. That's like some sort of record for me. Anyway, here's the final bunch: Portugal (plus a small handful of Spanish-speaking regions), New Zealand (including one pricey Australian interloper), and South Africa.

02 May 2008

Youth gone wild

I don’t know if it’s just another facet of this geographically and historically youthful country, but while grizzled veterans certainly exist, New Zealand’s winemaking scene sometimes seems to be one huge youth movement. Not everyone hosts weekly raves, perhaps, but this youthfulness does contribute to the pervasive energy and optimism of the country’s wine industry.

Continued here...