Sunday, October 31, 2004

Wineblogging: Latin Reds
I decided to go with fruit-forward red wines from Spanish-speaking countries this weekend. The first was from Spain, a 2002 Castillo de Monseran Garnacha (same thing as grenache in France). I brought this one over to the Ring Bearer's place on Friday night. It was a hot day, my car lacks air conditioning, and I had several errands to run en route. So I wrapped a wet towel around the bottle and hit the road. First to pick up a couple of delicious Mexican sandwiches (which went great with the wine), and then to pick up the Teacher. Once we got off the main roads, I grabbed the towel-wrapped bottle and held it out the car window. The quick evaporation has the benefit of refrigeration, and upon arrival at the Ring Bearer's, the wine was at a good cellar temperature of 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit. (I seem to recall reading about the technique in Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence.)

Saturday night, I had an inexpensive but incredible 2000 Terrazas Malbec. Malbec is a grape that never really took off in Europe, but seems to thrive in the mountains of Argentina. This had a lot of fruit flavor, but it wasn't sweet. It's hard to describe, but it was a clean and uncomplicated wine. No spice, tobacco, or smoky flavors. I drank with with a bowl of cheese tortellini. (This is one of your general pizza and burgers kind of wine, which means it will go with just about anything.)

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Wineblogging: Statistics
I just learned that the per capita consumption of wine in the U.S. is only 7.38 liters, which is just shy of ten regular 750 mL bottles. Sweet holy fuck! I've easily exceeded that in the past two months. At my background rate of consumption (at least one bottle a week), I'm somewhere around Spain (36.9 L), though with wine tastings, dinner parties, and the odd Bacchanalian feast, I might match Croatia (46.8 L--WTF?!), but I would have to work damned hard to crack the top five. (However, having spent time in Italy, if I lived there I could easily beat the #1 score. I never had wine with breakfast, but that's only because I never asked. And I never had to drive myself anywhere.)
Wineblogging: 1998 Chilean Merlot
One week ago tonight, I consumed an ungodly amount of wine at a gourmet dinner I hosted over at the Ring Bearer's place. Since then, I've had nary a drop of wne, but to be honest, wine tends to be kind of a weekend thing for me anyway. For educational purposes, I try to knock out a bottle or two each week. And tonight, because I had a couple of bottles left over from last Sunday, I figured, why not?

Back in June or July, when I attended a wine dinner with my group of friends, I brought a 1998 Concha y Toro Cabernet Sauvignon. I found a stack of these bottles in a local wine shop, marked down to a ridiculous price, and I thought it was a decent gamble. The wine went over spectacularly, the host was good friends with the vintner in Chile, and it was served along with the main course that evening. (Apologies if I'm repeating myself, I don't recall if I've blogged this story before. My social triumphs are few and far between, so I'm liable to tell the same stories over and over again.)

So I bought up the remaining two bottles on the shelf... And since then, I've been sitting on them. I was going to use them for the dinner last week, but there were enough great old reds brought by dear friends that I decided to sit on them for a while. However, recently I read an article in the New York Times about a man who was going through his father's house after his dad passed away. Among all of the usual sentimental stuff, he found a perfectly air conditioned closet in the father's otherwise un-air conditioned house. Within that closet was a bunch of wine, mostly decent stuff, but with one particular treasure: an impériale of 1986 Château Lafite-Rothschild. An impériale is a six liter bottle, the biggest in Bordeaux with a cork the width of a gas cap. The wine was awesome, a bunch of wine geeks that were friends with the son gathered to enjoy it over a proper dinner, but what I took from the story is that the dad never got to drink it.

And that's the important note. It's an oft-repeated maxim, but it bears stating again: "Don't save wine for a special occasion. Wine will make any occasion special." Obviously there are bottles that benefit from aging, but there's no reason to pin your hopes just on a single bottle or two. It may be corked. It may be oxidized. It might be slowly turning to vinegar. The epicureans had it right: "Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may be dead."

So we come to these two bottles of Concha y Toro... Tonight, with just me and no special foods, I popped open the 1998 Concha y Toro Merlot. It didn't taste all that great at first, but after a bit of breathing, was pretty good. Not as amazing as I'd hoped, but still incredible for the price. There's a bit of licorice and black pepper in the background, but otherwise, it's a standard aged red.

The main point: If I had saved this for a special or romantic occasion, I would have been disappointed. I think the cab sav will be better, but I'm not going to gamble on it either. I might go ahead and knock that one out this weekend. Or I might let it linger in the back of the cabinet while I rebuild the wine collection.

Here's an important footnote for everyone to take to heart: Not all wines age well. Those that do so only age well under ideal circumstances (50-60 degrees, not a lot of light, etc.). Most whites need to be drunk within three years of their vintage; a lot of reds need to be drunk within that same time period. Unless you're a serious collector, know your shit, and can afford to buy lots of expensive wine on a regular basis, there's no need to keep wine for years on end. There is a ton of affordable, easily accessible wine meant to be drunk *now*, or within a couple of months. Aging is like gambling--you've got to be willing to watch your investment money disappear.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't keep wine on hand--quite the contrary, it's good to always have at least two reds and two whites in reserve, and keep the whites in the fridge before the dinner. You never know when you're going to find a corked or sour wine, and it's always important to have a backup plan, preferably duplicate bottles of those you've sampled before. Last Saturday (after moving all of the good wine to the Ring Bearer's place), I was fixing a light dinner for La Principessa. First I opened a fun little pinot noir. It was corked and nasty. Then I opened a $6 bottle of an eight-year-old southern Rhone table wine I'd found recently. It was like sucking on a pickle. I poured both down the drain, and dinner went by with glasses of water. Always have backup bottles on hand.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Wineblogging: California Pinot Noir
Got together tonight with the Ring Bearer for a long-needed dinner and gripe session, polished off with a viewing of Star Wars: Episode IV on glorious DVD. For the menu, we had massive 2 lb. porterhouses, a quarter pound of scallops each, and a couple of side dishes that meekly begged for attention upon the plate.

The wine was a 2001 Villa Mt. Eden Pinot Noir. There was a pleasant bit of black cherry and blackberry flavors, though without the jam. I had chilled it before hand, but in my opinion it tasted best about ten degrees below room temperature. (It's difficult to get a proper "cellar temperature" for a wine without the appropriate climate controlled room. I'm happy to improvise, and find that reds benefit from a bit of refrigeration, as room temperature here in the south can be a bit warmer than that of Europe.) Low acid, low tannins, and good longeviety.

This was an easily drinkable wine, and a good accompaniment for the steak.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Movieblogging: Star Wars Trilogy
I waited two weeks to get it... I had no rushing desire to run out and grab the Star Wars Trilogy DVD set on opening day. Given the controversy over the edits made to the films, I think we were spared the news reports of greasy-haired introverts camping out for weeks in order to get the discs a few hours before everyone else. Before I get to the DVDs, let me back up a bit, and talk about Star Wars and me...

I was born in 1976, and Star Wars came out in 1977. I didn't see it then, but did see The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 at the drive-in, which was enough to get me interested in the toys. (My best friend at the time was a kid one year older who lived across the street, and had almost every figure made during the 80s, plus a lot of the ships and playsets, so I spent a lot of time over there.) In 1981, Star Wars was re-released in the theaters, where I saw it for the first time. In 1982, we got cable and had HBO for a while. At the time, they didn't have a huge library of movies to show, and on weekday afternoons there was always a good chance that Star Wars would be playing, which meant that I saw it dozens of times while playing Legos, chewing on my baseball mitt, and engaging in other wholesome activites. So when Return of the Jedi came around, my friends and I were in full frenzy mode about seeing it, trying to deduce what might happen in the film from the scenes painted on lunchboxes and the figures newly arriving on shelves. That one was a lot of fun, and probably the first movie I ever looked forward to seeing.

Fast forward a few years... Eventually, you grow up a bit and look for other pursuits, and it also appeared as though the franchise was dead for good. Oh, there were always rumors that there would be nine movies in total, with prequel and sequel trilogies, but most of us didn't get too excited about that. I stayed interested in science fiction, reading a lot but never getting into the Star Wars books or comics. In 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation came out, so I spent almost a decade following the various Trek series and books pretty faithfully. (I stopped short of owning any Trek clothing or publicly disclosing said interest. I knew guys who wore their uniforms to school occasionally or would wear Spock ears in public, so I had some good cautionary examples.)

During this span of time, the USA Network would occasionally blow an entire Saturday's worth of programming by showing the Star Wars trilogy, which I sat through once or twice. Cut up with commercials, on the small screen, edited a bit, and run from multi-generation copies, the movies lost a lot of their luster. So it was pretty exciting when the "Special Edition" versions of the movies were released in 1997.

At the time, I was living with a die-hard Star Wars geek from way back. A bit older, he'd seen the first one in the theater, and hadn't stopped thinking about it since. He still bought the toys and figures as an adult, obsessed over details, could damned near quote the entire scripts from memory, and even owned an ILM jacket. When the new movies came out, we were there on opening night of each. Those were a lot of fun, simply because of the retro cool factor and the excitement of seeing them on the big screen again. (I remember one uber-nerd in the audience who brought a suitcase with him, which turned out to be full of figures. As each character appeared on screen, he'd hold up the corresponding figure, either to show off or to allow his precious to watch itself on screen.) My roommate bought the three movies on VHS, but moved out before I was subjected to round-the-clock marathons.

(I'll skip over the prequel trilogy for now; that's a whole other story, but I will note that I've been warming up to Attack of the Clones after multiple viewings.)

So the long, roundabout story here is that until the past two days, I hadn't seen the original trilogy in seven years, which is a good bit of time upon which to forget a lot of details and look at everything with fresh eyes. The set as a whole looks great. There's been a lot of adjustments to color, saturation, and contrast, which makes a big difference. (And I've seen it played on huge widescreen TVs--wow.) Music sounds good, and will probably kick serious ass on a surround sound system. The menus are simple and there's no trailers or annoyances beyond the copyright warning. Each movie also features a commentary track from Lucas, which I'll get around to one of these days. I'd also forgotten how much pulp fun there was in these--they match nicely with the Indiana Jones flicks, in which the actors joke around and actually act like human beings, unlike the prequels, in which every character has to act and speak like a monk or nun, unless it's a bizarre digital creation. Weird things jump out from seeing all three in quick sequence, like the idea that lightsabers are mainly used for chopping off hands, or that you can become a general in the rebellion pretty quickly. But I leave that kind of thing to the fanboys.

And now for the individual movies:

Star Wars: A New Hope
This one stands out the most from the other movies that have followed. If you look at this alongside Attack of the Clones, you wouldn't believe they were made by the same person. Direction, lighting, camera angles, all of that is wildly different. (It even looks primitive in places compared to Episodes V and VI, but here I'm entirely referring to interior shots of people.) Because of this the newly inserted digital scenes and effects (from the 1997 edition) and retouching (2004) really stand out. Glaringly so. One nice thing is that if these things bug you, you can just skip right past with the scene buttons on the DVD remote. Have it in hand if you're a purist. There are also a few scenes without any background score or ambient sound effects--the silence is deafening, but in a good way.

The Empire Strikes Back
I think this one has had the least done to it--aside from some of the good touches like cleaning up special effects errors, the only scene that stood out for me was a shot of Cloud City that was CGI, but that looked nice enough and wasn't jarring. All of the Hoth scenes look spectacular, and the white balancing to avoid video problems is perfect.

Return of the Jedi
Even though this was the most hated installment for diehard fans before The Phantom Menace came out, it holds a special place in my heart for the reasons listed above. The Ewoks don't bother me--if anything, C-3PO's simplified storytelling of the events of the previous movies really touched upon the heart of Joseph Campbell. And it was a nice adaptation of the western heroes among jungle savages archetype used in loads of pulp fiction, except without any racial baggage. (Imagine if the movie had been made in the 50s; the Ewoks would have been played by loincloth-wearing blacks, and would be considered an embarassment to modern eyes.) As for the new scenes... I admit that I had to skip past the jazz and dance number at the beginning in Jabba's Palace. For the scene at the end with the ghost of Hayden Christensen, I think that will have to be evaluated after Episode III. And the final scenes of celebrations on different planets look nice, but don't add much. (Warning: you can't hear it, but if you have English subtitles on when Naboo is shown, the text says "Wesa free!") The rest of the changes are mostly cosmetic, and don't get in the way too badly.

Overall, I'm glad I got it. It looks nice on the bookcase, particularly on the shelf that also contains the Indiana Jones and Back to the Future trilogies, as well as 2/3 of the Lord of the Rings extended editions.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Sulfur usually connotes negatives feelings... The whiff of decay, the stench of brimstone, or the lingering presence of a nasty bout of flatulence. But it's one of the important building blocks of life.

All life depends for the most part on a handful of elements, easily remembered as CHONPS: Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Sulfur. Various sulfur compounds--sulfur dioxide and potassium metabisulfite, among others--are used in the winemaking industry to prevent spoilage, a tradition that goes back centuries. (In fact, most wines intended for any sort of storage beyond a few months will include the phrase "INCLUDES SULFITES" somewhere on the label.) Why was I thinking about the element with the atomic number 16*? Because it was late at night and I wanted me some eggs.

I split and toasted a bagel while preparing a couple of eggs over easy. I'll eat eggs just about any way they can be fixed; I really don't have a preference, though when cooking for myself I either do over easy or a "rough scramble". The latter is something I got used to in Scouts, which was sort of a compromise betwen fried and scrambled eggs that didn't require dirtying up a bowl. Basically you break the eggs in a skillet and then chop them up with the spatula. The end result isn't as fluffy as properly scrambled eggs, but you get bits of pure yolk and bits of pure white combined with bits of scrambled eggs.

But my over easy duo turned out beautifully, and I was quite happy. The final bite was almost all runny yolk, and it was that brief rush of sulfur that inspired this weird post.

And since I'm throwing out various discombobulated pieces of trivia, let me point out that the neatest thing about eating eggs is that you're only consuming one cell at a time. (Bonus points if you eat an ostrich egg, perhaps the largest single egg to ever exist on this pale blue dot.) Though it's chock full of protein and other neat organic compounds, the egg is woefully short on cellular complexity unless you've got a multiple yolk egg. (Or if you're eating the horror that is balut, a Filipino delicacy. Balut is a duck's egg that has been partially developed and then boiled, so you're eating a runny duck fetus. Blecch!)

*Some say this gives it a certain importance when you look at the formation of the solar system... Look at the elements that rise by powers of two, smashed together by the simplest form of fusion: hydrogen (1), helium (2), beryllium (4), oxygen (8), sulfur (16), germanium (32), gadolinium (64)... OK, well only hydrogen, helium, oxygen and sulfur are really important, but it's a neat idea.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Wineblogging: Oregon Pinot Noir
I started to blog this last night while drinking the wine, but decided to wait until morning. The bottle was a 2000 Benton Lane Pinot Noir. (Admittedly, I was taken in by the label design--basically the outline from the famous 1918 inverted Jenny stamp.) I was surprised at the price and date, but an older pinot noir can be a bit of a gamble. When it's good it's amazing, and when it's bad...

This one didn't taste right at first. It was almost fizzy. No actual carbonation, but it had that taste like sparkling mineral water. I let it breathe for a hour, and it was a bit better, but it really didn't settle down until a few hours later. I wouldn't reccommend this, but would like to try one of their younger wines. The winery also practices "Salmon Safe" and sustainable agriculture, which means it might be a good gift for an environmentally conscious friend. Plus the bottle is solid enough for whacking hippies on the head.
Loving Firefox
I installed Firefox at home on the Mac to try out a couple of site-specific plugins, which were kind of fun. Though Safari's still my main axe at the house, I'm using Firefox for a few sites that are amplified with the plugins.

Using Firefox on a Windows machine, though... Wow. Huge difference over Internet Explorer. Some have complained about the speed, but I don't see it, especially when you don't have to deal with popups, annoying flash ads, and the assorted adware/spyware/malware/etc. Plus, TABBED BROWSING! WOOT! That's one of the things I love most about Safari. Firefox does it a little differently, but it's easy enough to switch between the two.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Movieblogging: American Spendor and Crumb
Tonight, I finally got around to seeing two movies I've been wanting to see for a long time, two movies that are closely related. Don't fault me for the order of viewing or real premieres... I'm going to jump back and forth here.

Thewe two movies concern two deeply flawed, cult-level famous figures in the world of underground comics. I speak of Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar. And what are the two movies? Crumb (1994) and American Splendor (2003). Crumb isa straight documentary; American Splendor is half documentary and half... docudrama? Biopic? Pekar narrates it, and he appears throughout the film (as do several of the real-life main characters), but the majority of the film is played out via excellent actors.

I reckon I ought to say that I'm not a huge fan of either artist, though I acnkowledge and appreciate their talent. Pekar's not even an artist, to be honest--he drew storyboards and write the text, which Crumb later translated into comics. Crumb, on the other hand, is an extremely talented draftsman, and his lettering is superb. (This, by the way, is one of my chief complaints with webcomics--many of them use crappy fonts in place of hand-lettered text. The worst offenders use Comic Sans; but any computer generated font is going to pale in comparison to decent hand-lettering.)

Crumb is famous for things like the the Keep on Truckin' cartoon, the hippy guru Mr. Natural, and the original comic book version of Fritz the Cat (though he had nothing to do with the movie of the same name). He's also well known for his odd illustrations of women, replete with big hips and odd proportions, as well as his various eccentricities (rail-thin, fedora, Coke-bottle glasses, bow ties, getting women to give him piggyback rides, etc.)

Pekar, aside from his thoroughly depressing comics, is perhaps best known through his bizarre appearances on the David Letterman show back in the 80s.

Crumb is a weird guy, but is relatively successful and appears to be happy. Pekar is even stranger, nowhere near as successful, and appears to be insane, and seems to surround himself with the similarly odd.

Believe it or not, even though this post seems to favor Crumb, I think I'll pick up a used copy of American Splendor at Blockbuster. Don't get me wrong, Crumb is great, but doesn't have as much replay value. Or maybe it will in the future, but the former has a certain gritty charm that I love.

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