Nomaville: Notes from the Underground

Abandon all hope ye who enter here...I thrive on the underbelly of Nomaville the way Amazonian mystics lick the tummies of certain tree frogs to invite hallucinogenic visions. Yesterday, however, while spelunking a local wine cave, I found myself no longer on Nomaville’s underbelly (which is to say, negotiating the purchase of a bottle of wine alleged to contain one of the devil’s own tears) but rather in the town’s digestive track. Specifically, the lower intestine, at least so far as I surmise from a map hastily drawn by the dealer on a cocktail napkin.

This dank corridor was an algae-slicked labyrinth that I had no sooner entered than wanted to exit. It was lit by a symphony of votive candles plotted such that it resembled a scale model of a constellation – Chiron, in this case, from the mythical toll-taker at the river Styx when en route to the underworld. Of course, I wasn’t on my way to the underworld, I was on my way out – or at least I hoped I was, though this premise began to dim with the waning candlelight.

As I passed the last flicker I was pleased to hear voices cavorting around the corner and deduced that I would either emerge in a nearby tasting room or City Hall, which, according to local lore, sits atop a nebulae of such tunnels and caverns radiating below the Plaza like the arms of a vast subterranean starfish. Either way, I figured I could likely charm my way through an awkward entrance by brandishing my reporter’s notebook and a knowing smile (engineered to imply that I’ve already got the answers to my questions, “so let’s buy me a drink and chat about public perception”). No such luck. I had stumbled into what was clearly a very private party and suffered the wrathful glare of a couple dozen rough-hewn revelers – in jerry-rigged miner’s helmets.

“Surface dweller,” one spat, before downing what was left in his glass and shuffling toward me. In the moment I had before landing atop a wine barrel from a deft thump to the chest, I realized that the phrase “surface dweller” had the vague glint of a racial epithet.

“Listen, I didn’t mean to crash your ‘eyes wide shut party, gents,’ I just took a wrong turn, you dig?” I sputtered, folding my notebook back into my breast pocket. So much for the charm, I thought.

“And you’re a reporter,” the hirsute gent clucked, eyeing my hand as it retreated from beneath my lapel. “We don’t like reporters. Or newspapers. They’re only useful by the toilet.”

“No shame in reading on the john.”

“We’re not reading ’em.”

I made a mental note to ask the Sun brass if we might someday have a “moon” edition, before making a dodge for the door – an escape that was foiled when I tripped over a case of wine and landed on my good knee, which in that moment, became my other bad knee.

The cavern filled with howls of derisive laughter. A brutish hand pulled me to my feet.

“You think you got something on us, do you ‘surface boy’?” the man chided, as I flinched from the light on his helmet.

“Besides vitamin D?” I retorted, which was rewarded with a sudden slug in the gut.

“Looking for a story to break in your rag?”

“No, I’m looking for wine.”

The troglodyte eased his grip and looked me hard in the eye.

“What kind of wine?”

“You know, the blasphemous kind,” I panted.

He took a step back to regard me, even lifted my chin to better survey my blanched face.

“The Devil’s Dew?”

“The one with the tear, whatever it’s called,” I wheezed back.

“Oh, dear,” the subterranean said as he brushed off my coat and straightened my collar. He snapped his fingers and his helmeted minions began to arrange the crates and barrels lying
about the floor into an improvised tasting room.

“Our apologies, sir. A lot of tourists wander off wine cave tours and well, you know, it’s bad for our kind of business. Would you like to see the tasting menu, then?”

“Please. Would you mind if I took notes?” I asked as I was seated upon a case of magnums, glad for the turn in my luck.

“The press receive complimentary tastings as well as a 30 percent discount on all purchases.”

“I thought you despised reporters.”

A glass filled before me.

“Well, you’re not much of a reporter are you, Mr. Howell?” he said and winked.

I took out my notebook and sifted to a fresh page. Then I wrote: “Must work on charm.”

Nose to the Wheel

Big wheel keep on turnin'When cold and flu season hits wine country, the perceptual powers of aficionados–especially those that require a nose–are rendered useless; indeed, those like myself rely on a sort of gustatory synesthesia to free-associate an impression of a wine based on its bouquet, taste, mouth-feel and color. Without olfactory capabilities, and further addled by Theraflu, the wine hack’s mind lacks the stimulus necessary to make an observation beyond “it is wet and likely red.” Fortunately, Ann C. Noble, a professor emeritus from the viticulture and enology school at UC Davis, has been hawking her lauded Wine Aroma Wheel over the Internet. Think of this $6 marvel as a sort of circular cheat sheet to aid in identifying the flavor components of wine.

“The requirements for words to be included in the wheel are that the terms are specific and analytical and not hedonic or the result of an integrated or judgmental response,” reads the printed matter accompanying the Wine Aroma Wheel. Mine arrived just in time for the 2006 Sonoma County New Release Tasting hosted by Sonoma’s Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery, and though I feel contrary about notions like “hedonic” and “judgmental,” I thought I’d bring the wheel to serve as a sort of wine decoder ring if I found my senses too clogged to function.

They were.

The fact is, I spent much of the day unable to taste anything–at least not correctly. The Rodney Strong Vineyards Sonoma County 2004 “Knotty Vines” Zinfandel, without a full complement of nostrils, momentarily tasted like a spritz of WD-40, which is clearly not the case. Vainly, I searched for the wheel for the name of the lubricant, until, radiating from the header “chemical,” I found the word “petroleum” and under that, the descriptors “diesel, kerosene, plastic and tar.” WD-40, of course, smells like all the above.

I began to jot this observation in my notebook when I realized how patently unfair my process had become. After a trumpeting through a wad of tissue paper, I tried the wine again, and finally its flavor profile emerged like the autumnal sun–muted currants, cinnamon and dark chocolate. I referenced the wheel to see if there were any words worth borrowing, and under the header “berry” found “cassis,” which is not only accurate, it also looks nice on the page (thank you wine wheel).

For more information about the Wine Aroma Wheel, point your browser to www.winearomawheel.com. Purchase online at the UC Davis bookstore, www.bookstore.ucdavis.edu.

SonomaWino: Nose to the Wheel

Big wheel keep on turnin'When cold and flu season hits wine country, the perceptual powers of aficionados–especially those that require a nose–are rendered useless; indeed, those like myself rely on a sort of gustatory synesthesia to free-associate an impression of a wine based on its bouquet, taste, mouth-feel and color. Without olfactory capabilities, and further addled by Theraflu, the wine hack’s mind lacks the stimulus necessary to make an observation beyond “it is wet and likely red.” Fortunately, Ann C. Noble, a professor emeritus from the viticulture and enology school at UC Davis, has been hawking her lauded Wine Aroma Wheel over the Internet. Think of this $6 marvel as a sort of circular cheat sheet to aid in identifying the flavor components of wine.

“The requirements for words to be included in the wheel are that the terms are specific and analytical and not hedonic or the result of an integrated or judgmental response,” reads the printed matter accompanying the Wine Aroma Wheel. Mine arrived just in time for the 2006 Sonoma County New Release Tasting hosted by Sonoma’s Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery, and though I feel contrary about notions like “hedonic” and “judgmental,” I thought I’d bring the wheel to serve as a sort of wine decoder ring if I found my senses too clogged to function.

They were.

The fact is, I spent much of the day unable to taste anything–at least not correctly. The Rodney Strong Vineyards Sonoma County 2004 “Knotty Vines” Zinfandel, without a full complement of nostrils, momentarily tasted like a spritz of WD-40, which is clearly not the case. Vainly, I searched for the wheel for the name of the lubricant, until, radiating from the header “chemical,” I found the word “petroleum” and under that, the descriptors “diesel, kerosene, plastic and tar.” WD-40, of course, smells like all the above.

I began to jot this observation in my notebook when I realized how patently unfair my process had become. After a trumpeting through a wad of tissue paper, I tried the wine again, and finally its flavor profile emerged like the autumnal sun–muted currants, cinnamon and dark chocolate. I referenced the wheel to see if there were any words worth borrowing, and under the header “berry” found “cassis,” which is not only accurate, it also looks nice on the page (thank you wine wheel).

For more information about the Wine Aroma Wheel, point your browser to www.winearomawheel.com. Purchase online at the UC Davis bookstore, www.bookstore.ucdavis.edu.

Nomaville: Paracosmic, dude

How the other half lives.Whenever I get official-looking mail at the office, my colleagues crowd around me and insist that I open it on the spot. Apparently, they’ve got an office pool on whether I’ll be served a summons or asked to testify before Congress. Of course, my correspondence has never prescribed either of these fates, though a recent envelope from the Paracosmological Society seemed like a bit of both.
The primary mandate of the Paracosmological Society is to recognize emerging paracosms in contemporary letters and, according to the society’s Web site, “foster their prosperity in the off-chance that someday we may have to move there.”

By paracosm the society means an imagined, detailed, fictional universe of the ilk most often witnessed in fantasy films and literature. The concept was first clinically explored in the ‘80s by Brit psychiatrist Stephen MacKeith in his tome “The Development of Imagination: The Private Worlds of Childhood,” and referenced as recently as Tuesday by the New York Times in a review of Neal Gabler’s biography “Walt Disney: Triumph of the American Imagination” (though the venerable Grey Lady spelled paracosm wrong).

Similar in some ways to the alternate universes that conveniently bloom like mushrooms in quantum physics, paracosms have been the rage in intellectual circles in recent months since the real world is such a mess and because endowments are burning holes in the tweed pockets of those whose budgets must be drained by the end of the fiscal year.

I first learned of paracosms in the third grade during a parent-teacher conference (about a half breath before my instructor said “same planet, different worlds” while reporting my academic performance) and was bemused to see it on official stationary that included an invitation to panel an upcoming Paracosmological Society conference as a substitute. It was one of those sing-for-your-supper deals that came replete with accommodations in West Marin and a coupon for a free bicycle rental. Of course, I accepted the gig and last weekend found myself winding up Highway 1 in the shadow of Mt. Tamalpais, contemplating what had brought me to the society’s attention besides perhaps an errant Google search. I learned soon enough, however, while onstage before a couple hundred paracosmonauts, that the invite was a result of this very column. Flattered as I was, a lingering professional ethos compelled me to suggest that perhaps the organization had confused the notion of a literary parallel universe with my mere local allegory (a necessity, lest I join the bodies I’ve helped bury).

“When I hearken back to my original intentions, ‘Nomaville’ was to be Sonoma as observed through a glass darkly – specifically a wine glass,” I explained, then waited for a laugh that never came. “Eventually, however, Nomaville became less a vaguely disguised locale and more of a state of mind.”

“Some might say a ‘mode of being,’” my bespectacled interlocutor elaborated. I agreed, though my follow-up quip that, “I’d really rather make Nomaville a brand concept and flip it in 18 months” only received a few cautious titters.

“We asked our members to submit questions to our panelists,” the man said, thumbing a handful of index cards. “Would you mind if I read a few now?”

I smiled, shook my head and suddenly understood why firing squads dispense blindfolds.

“As the primary architect of Nomaville, would you forgo your omnipotence to live amidst your creation?” the man read.

A young woman in the back row high-fived her companion, so I addressed my answer to her.

“How do you think I ended up here?” I joked – again, nary a giggle. I endured the audience’s uncomfortable silence as I mulled my utter failure to amuse them. Then it dawned on me – my answer wasn’t funny at all. It was true.

Nomaville: Dead Fish

Something fishy.I used to think the term “living fossil” was a pejorative way of referring to the elderly, that is, until a local brasserie started serving coelacanth – a species of fish once thought extinct that has evolved nil in the gills since appearing on the fossil record 450 million years ago. The ancient fish went unseen for 80 million years until a fisherman plucked one from the east coast of South Africa in 1938, a discovery that bolstered Charles Darwin’s stock, which had suffered some from the monkey business of the Scopes trial (we forget that the teacher was convicted and fined $100 for teaching evolution, though the verdict was later reversed on technical grounds by the supreme court).

“Living fossil” is Darwin’s coinage, a vestigial phrase from his The Origin of the Species, which first appeared 150 years ago, hatching another phase of the “chicken or egg” dilemma (i.e., did God create man or did man create God?). The notion, of course, is an infinite regress (in more ways than one), which is both vicious and tiresome. Even the word “chicken” seems to have gone out of fashion, at least around these parts. Haughtier drafters of our local menus have discovered that they can add a sawbuck to a poultry entrée by upgrading to the loftier synonym “hen.” Ditto the phrase “living fossil,” which appeared italicized in the restaurant’s description of the coelacanth (apparently grilled and served with a tartar sauce). Since I’m allergic to most seafood,
I encouraged my wife, the Contessa, to order the ancient fish so that I might stew in vicarious decadence.

“Is it endangered?” she asked the waiter.

“A fish that hasn’t evolved in 450 million years, endangered? Sister, apparently it’s evolutionary
perfection. Eat up, they’ll make more,” he chided.

I nodded in agreement and added, “Plus, they can hide for 80 million years at a time. That’s some serious hide-and-seek. I know I couldn’t do that.”

“No, because your attention deficit disorder kicks in after about a minute-and-a-half and you’re out wandering around.”

The Contessa’s words were lost on me – I was too distracted by the view of the kitchen afforded my table. Between sweeps of the kitchen doors I could spy the coelacanth, laid out on a stainless steel table as if were about to undergo an autopsy. I excused myself and ambled closer, made a friendly nod to my pal the chef and dodged through the kitchen doors.

Coelacanths put the “ick” in ichthys as the Greek in me might say (if I had any left). I could see my reflection in its shining black eye, which suddenly blinked. That’s when I realized that the hulking fish was still alive. It gasped, for air, or water, or – as it suddenly seemed in this moment – words.

“Eat me.”

I glowered back a moment before I realized the fish wasn’t insulting me.

“Eat of my flesh,” the fish elaborated.

“No. I’m allergic.”

“Drink of my blood.”

“Like that’s more appetizing.”

Nearby, the chef sharpened a knife with such alacrity that persistence of vision made it seem as though an “X” levitated between his hands. The fish looked over and sighed as if its pending butchery was routine, a bloodbath played out over millennia, more a nuisance than a death sentence.

“Makes you want to rethink that 80-million-year peek-a-boo game doesn’t it?”

“Not in the least. Been pronounced dead before and will be again. Remember, scribe, I’m a creature of time immemorial, you’re the flash in the pan.”

The chef’s blade fell with swift, merciful accuracy and I exited the kitchen for fear of losing my dinner before even eating it.

Later, while the Contessa savored a filet of the coelacanth, curiosity got the better of me.
“What does it taste like?” I asked.

She shrugged her shoulders.

“Chicken.”