Misconceptions about Wine Country Living

You say oeno, I say winoOne of the benefits of having a presence on the world wide web is being accessible to a readership beyond the city limits of scenic Sonoma. Lately, their e-mailed queries have surpassed the usual “Is Daedalus your real name?” and “Are you single?” to those pertaining to life in the wine country. With ’Noma Pride, this week I attempt to answer their questions and disabuse them of their often charming misconceptions.

Q: If you put empty wine bottles on your doorstep do “winemen” pick them up and leave full bottles in their place? A: Yes. Like the milkmen of yore, winemen retrieve the empty bottles from our stoop and replace them with fresh bottles of zins, cabs and sauvignon blancs, based on the recommendations of my personal sommelier-to-the-stars, Christopher Sawyer. Like their predecessors, these winemen also deliver dairy products: brie, monchego and that stellar Vella Dry Jack are among mine and the Contessa’s quotidian faves. If you tip well, the winemen will let you ride in their rickshaws.

Q: Do the people who work at wineries also live there? A: Sometimes. Though colonial law has prohibited indentured servitude since 1670, many wineries have scuttled around the ban by defining work in the wine industry as a “lifestyle choice.” In fact, most winery employees can leave anytime, but what’s the point if your home planet is a 100 million light years away?

Q: How can I tell if a wine is corked? A: Look at the neck of the bottle – if the cork is still lodged within it, the wine is, as it is known in the trade, “corked.” Similarly, if the wine is closed with a screw cap it’s said to be “screwed.” Hence the term “screwed up,” which is colloquial slang for “empty bottle.” For example, the bottle presently in front of me is empty, thus, “I’m screwed up.”

Q: What does the term “terroir” mean? A: It’s French for “scary.” Likewise, “appellation” is the Gallic term for “hillbilly,” which stateside, of course, is no longer a politically correct way to say “toothless, inbred person from Appalachia.” I understand that Sonoma County itself has12 such appellations, but Napa County – clearly – has more.

Q: In a “barrel tasting” you don’t actually taste the barrel, right? A: Don’t be silly, of course, you don’t taste the barrel – that would be unhygienic. Instead, small shavings or “le snips” are broken off the barrel to be tasted individually. Of course, this is an archaic tradition that should have been banned years ago to prevent injury from splinters. As any winemaker will tell you, all barrels taste the same and contribute little if anything to the wine, but hey, if we can’t respect another’s culture, how can we expect them to respect ours when we takeover?

Q: In a tasting room, when should one spit or swallow? A: My advice to new imbibers is to always suck it up. A simple rule of thumb: If you are wine tasting – spit; if you are wine drinking – swallow. If the room is spinning while your head is in the toilet bowl – throw up. When you flush the toilet, pay attention to the direction that the water drains – it will be always in the opposite direction of your “spins” and will help balance you out. This is not “magic” as some people like to think, but a simply one of the many unexplainable phenomena of the universe.

Nomaville: Misconceptions about Wine Country Living

You say oeno, I say winoOne of the benefits of having a presence on the world wide web is being accessible to a readership beyond the city limits of scenic Sonoma. Lately, their e-mailed queries have surpassed the usual “Is Daedalus your real name?” and “Are you single?” to those pertaining to life in the wine country. With ’Noma Pride, this week I attempt to answer their questions and disabuse them of their often charming misconceptions.

Q: If you put empty wine bottles on your doorstep do “winemen” pick them up and leave full bottles in their place? A: Yes. Like the milkmen of yore, winemen retrieve the empty bottles from our stoop and replace them with fresh bottles of zins, cabs and sauvignon blancs, based on the recommendations of my personal sommelier-to-the-stars, Christopher Sawyer. Like their predecessors, these winemen also deliver dairy products: brie, monchego and that stellar Vella Dry Jack are among mine and the Contessa’s quotidian faves. If you tip well, the winemen will let you ride in their rickshaws.

Q: Do the people who work at wineries also live there? A: Sometimes. Though colonial law has prohibited indentured servitude since 1670, many wineries have scuttled around the ban by defining work in the wine industry as a “lifestyle choice.” In fact, most winery employees can leave anytime, but what’s the point if your home planet is a 100 million light years away?

Q: How can I tell if a wine is corked? A: Look at the neck of the bottle – if the cork is still lodged within it, the wine is, as it is known in the trade, “corked.” Similarly, if the wine is closed with a screw cap it’s said to be “screwed.” Hence the term “screwed up,” which is colloquial slang for “empty bottle.” For example, the bottle presently in front of me is empty, thus, “I’m screwed up.”

Q: What does the term “terroir” mean? A: It’s French for “scary.” Likewise, “appellation” is the Gallic term for “hillbilly,” which stateside, of course, is no longer a politically correct way to say “toothless, inbred person from Appalachia.” I understand that Sonoma County itself has12 such appellations, but Napa County – clearly – has more.

Q: In a “barrel tasting” you don’t actually taste the barrel, right? A: Don’t be silly, of course, you don’t taste the barrel – that would be unhygienic. Instead, small shavings or “le snips” are broken off the barrel to be tasted individually. Of course, this is an archaic tradition that should have been banned years ago to prevent injury from splinters. As any winemaker will tell you, all barrels taste the same and contribute little if anything to the wine, but hey, if we can’t respect another’s culture, how can we expect them to respect ours when we takeover?

Q: In a tasting room, when should one spit or swallow? A: My advice to new imbibers is to always suck it up. A simple rule of thumb: If you are wine tasting – spit; if you are wine drinking – swallow. If the room is spinning while your head is in the toilet bowl – throw up. When you flush the toilet, pay attention to the direction that the water drains – it will be always in the opposite direction of your “spins” and will help balance you out. This is not “magic” as some people like to think, but a simply one of the many unexplainable phenomena of the universe.

And now I have a question for my favorite reader, The Contessa: Will you marry me?

Originally published in the Sonoma Valley Sun

Hollywood Ever After

Preparation HIn astronomy, a star dies like so:

The radius of the star increases until it becomes a red giant. The core becomes hot enough to cause the helium to fuse into carbon after which the core will expand and cool. The upper layers will expand and eject material that will collect around the dying star to form a planetary nebula. Finally, the core will cool into a white dwarf and then eventually into a black dwarf. This entire process can take a few billion years.

In Hollywood, courtesy of The Guide to Hollywood Death, a star’s demise can be charted by icons depicting any of a number of final exits: pills, firearms, aircraft, decapitation, kinky sex — over 16 in all. For example, Bob Crane of Hogan’s Heroes fame (see Autofocus for a brush up) features three icons: beating, murder and kinky sex — a process that can also take a few billion years.

An “exclusive publication” of San Diego’s Home Town Press, The Guide to Hollywood Death is available by sending a couple of bucks to Home Town Press, 1166 24th Street, San Diego, CA 92102. Tell them Daedalus Howell sent you.

Unrelated links…

Nomaville: Big Fish

Nomaville: Big Fish

Size matters.“Big fish, small pond” is a notion some puddle-jumping media types like myself have come to aspire to as a career model. We like to believe we’re above the bottom feeders but admit we’re pure chum when swimming with the sharks. Our main adaptive trait is increasing our magnitude by relocating to increasingly smaller ponds. In bite-sized Sonoma, of course, the media outlets can be counted on a single pectoral fin so it’s not difficult to make a splash or make waves depending on how much you care to pee in the pool.

Personally, I just want to float on my back and sip umbrella drinks, or in the case of this past week, nearly drown in the endless deluge of wine that flowed from Cinema Epicuria, the Sonoma Valley Film Festival. As I write this (on my back, drying out in a darkened room surrounded by a number of ersatz hangover remedies) the Contessa advises that it’s time to take the sin out of cinema and put the wean into oenophile, or put more plainly, “get your life back together!”

“Be cool, baby, I’m a big fish now, you know,” I protest, to which she reminds that no fewer than 42 press credentials were issued for this year’s festival, in effect a lot of big fish to fry.

“With a program of 75 films, that means there was roughly a ratio of over half a reporter for every flick,” she calculated. “So being a big fish isn’t anything special.”

Nor is having an MBA, I thought of saying, but thought it better to tell her which halves of which reporters I thought went to which flick. She wasn’t interested. This was merciful, for my mind began to hurt the moment I began to cogitate festival sommelier Christopher Sawyer’s cinematic tastes.

Earlier in the week, I had deputized myself Sawyer’s pilot fish so as to better navigate the roiling sea of wine that I knew would come in the wake of such stewardship. The spillback from the arrangement arrived on my kitchen counter Saturday night in the cases of wine Sawyer delivered to fuel an impromptu after-party I found myself hosting (it ended only precious minutes before sunrise lest we turn back into minnows). Following the gala event, some errant enthusiast had invited the entire guest list back to my pad, apparently confusing “after-party” with “aftermath.” The Contessa took it in stride, however, producing appetizers from thin air as car after car arrived, like a circus train, courtesy of the Native Sons.

When I saw a partygoer attempting to open a bottle of wine with her teeth, I thought I would attempt to play host, but soon learned that she had no idea who that was.

“Then who do you know here?”

“Um, I know Daedalus Howell.”

Flattered though I was having my own name dropped to me, when I informed her that I was, in fact, Daedalus Howell and that we had never met, she upped the ante by saying she had meant the other Daedalus Howell.

“And whom would that be?” I asked, surveying the sea of flushed faces for the imposter, glasses of Sawyer’s slough bobbing in their hands.

“Duh, the one who writes the column,” she sneered back.

I reached for a copy of the Sun (I keep a stack of my published work at the ready for such occasions) and showed her the mug shot above my byline. Her mascara-rimmed eyes darted between the inky photo and my furling brow for a moment. Then she diplomatically offered “You’re much more handsome in person.”

Manipulated by my vanity, I fetched her a corkscrew.

It slowly dawned on me that fish are always wet behind the ears.

Originally published in the Sonoma Valley Sun.

George Burt, Composer

“A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians,” rock maven Frank Zappa once said, rather uncharitably about those who write music.

George Burt, a composer recently transplanted to Sonoma from Los Angeles, probably wouldn’t mind Zappa’s summation of the craft and is just as likely to agree with him as is to laugh. A veteran film composer and educator, the affable Burt moved to Sonoma with his wife six months ago and continues to compose, having recently completed a symphony and an octet dubbed “The Mystery Hour.”

As with many in his profession, Burt’s musical odyssey began as a child seated in front of a piano. The instrument was not Burt’s native passion as a six year-old but his tutelage proved mercifully brief.

“My mother said ‘Well, you don’t have to practice anymore.’ I said ‘How come?’ She said ‘Your piano teacher, Mrs. Miller – she died.’ Actually, she hung herself. I was six years old and could imagine her in her sensible shoes, grey stockings kind of swaying back and forth. I felt bad, but not too bad, I went back to playing with my little cars – I was six and happy I didn’t have to practice,” Burt recounts drolly.

Later, musician neighbors presented Burt with a saxophone, which he mastered, eventually leading to “what seemed a thousand shows” performed between his adolescence and early thirties.

In was in high school, however, that Burt discovered parallel thirds, the rudiments of harmony, which would spur his early forays into composition. Impressionist composers Debussy and Ravel likewise piqued his interest. But it was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that galvanized Burt’s burgeoning passion for composition and in many ways set the aesthetic course he still follows.

“I thought immediately that I was on the wrong track and I’ve been in trouble ever since,” laughs Burt, who paid his tuition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music working as a deckhand in the Merchant Marines and touring with bands as a “doubler” or a multi-instrumentalist (woodwinds are his specialty). Eventually, Burt ventured to Los Angeles with the hope of studying with lauded Austrian composer Arnold Shoenberg, a notion that evaporated when Burt learned that the maestro had died the very day he had arrived (Burt would later earn degrees in music from Mills College, Princeton and the University of California at Berkeley where he studied with influential composer Roger Sessions).

Burt eventually found himself working in the screen trade – his first score was for a low-rent horror flick that screen that he sneaked to the drive-in to see, for fear of being publicly associated with the film. The experience, however, proved edifying to the composer who would ultimately work with filmmaking legend Robert Altman, for whom he scored Fool For Love, based on the Sam Shepard play of the same title and Secret Honor, a one-man drama depicting President Nixon in the throes of a stream-of-conscious confessional. Throughout, the various permutations of his career, Burt’s creative process has remained essentially the same:

“Some people work very fast and write the first thing that comes to their mind — and often it sounds like that, but that’s how they work. Others write two notes and then erase one. That’s being a little too careful,” the composer explains. “For me I just kind of sketch. It’s kind of like discovery. When I get an idea I just hope that it develops into an extended piece. I work out of curiosity in way to see what I can do with it and see what ideas it leads to. That’s the interesting part.”

There’s an adage popular among filmmakers that an effective score is one that is essentially “unheard” by the audience. Burt concurs, inasmuch as the score should serve the film not itself, but suggests not enough due is paid what scores actually accomplish.

“Mentors say you don’t want to write anything that’s too noticeable otherwise it gets in the way of the film and so forth. My argument is that if you take the music away, you really notice its absence. Therefore you have noticed its presence,” says Burt who wrote The Art of Film Music, a tome widely used in universities.

“Suppose you had a shot of New York and you wanted to express the fact that a character was lonely. You could use xylophones and horns, you could have no music at all – which might be the best thing. Or you could have solo flute and will probably identify with the sense of loneliness,” says Burt. “Take a little cottage in the bottom of a canyon, it’s eight o’clock at night, smokes coming out the chimney. You can imagine several things going in that cottage. It could be a family happily putting the children to bed or someone could have just killed somebody. You could make that distinction right off with the right kind of music.”