A Child's Book of Scorpions of Medical Importance

Things that may one day save your life

Tag: California

Why is tonight’s Chablis different from all other nights’ Chablis?

My fiancée, a swarthy heathen who covets life’s luxuries, reminded me this evening that in between the plagues, visited upon Pharaoh and his luckless subjects, there must have been a few moments of respite, when everyone took a break for lunch, and the afflicted might even have been distracted enough to believe their boils were subsiding.

Living in a dismal, seaside town in California, blighted by rampant crime, untreated mental illness, and an abundance of shitty wine, I face similar dilemmas.  There are tortuous moments of hope, when a local merchant (the single local merchant whose staff are not perpetually high) might come to the rescue.  Tonight is an example:  a beautiful 2006 Sancerre from the ‘Monts damnés’ vineyard accompanied the sunset, and the warm, summer air, and I thought for a moment this might actually be a nice place to settle down and raise children.  The police raid on the meth-amphetamine dealers encamped  in the flop house across the street jolted me back to despairing reality like an unexpected swarm of locusts just when the pustules seemed to be itching less.

The momentary shock reminded me of an experiment I conducted over a decade ago that calls into question our understanding of winemaking, culture, and even ‘intelligence’.  In 1988, I had purchased two bottles of wine that should have been, chemically, very similar.  I did this in full awareness of the opportunity for future mischief.  One bottle was the 1988 Bonny Doon Vineyard ‘ Le Cigare Volant’ [sic]; the second was Guigal’s 1988 Châteauneuf du Pape.  I even set aside a bottle of Guigal’s generic 1988 Côtes du Rhône as a control.  Six years later (and I was assured by the Bonny Doon Vineyard staff that this was near the height of the Cigare’s ‘drinkability’) I tasted all the wines.

The Guigal Châteauneuf du Pape was delicious.  The Guigal Côtes du Rhone was drinkable, even good.  The Cigare was a lifeless shadow.  The bright, sunny fruit, characteristic of Californian wines, and that is required by the domestic market, had died quietly in the bottle.

The Cigare was the product of the University of California at Davis oenology department, a school that has attempted to codify the best winemaking techniques in a single generation.  But I wondered if anyone could capture the subtleties of a millenium of viticulture across regions as diverse as the Rhône river valley, the entre deux mers, the Kamptal, Slavonia, Tuscany, and even the Bekaa Valley, and a thousand other places where the alchemy of apparently irrational tradition rules the production of wine that slaps any California vintage to the mat, then rolls the mat up and smokes it like a delicious Oakland blunt.

What was missing from the Californian recipe?  And could Californian winemakers exercise the patience to defer the imperatives of their consumers, to experiment, to set aside vintages for comparison a decade later and possibly gain an understanding of the subtle interplay of terroir and artistry that creates a great wine?

I wondered how intelligence develops among species we would otherwise never consider as sharing our gifts for rational and long-term planning.  The anthropological world went figuratively ‘ape shit’ when it was discovered that chimpanzees could fashion and utilize tools, such as a twig, whittled to fish termites from a hole.  But what about spiders and their gossamer?  An individual spider is far less adaptable than a chimp, but there is an astonishing variety in the use of gossamer as a tool.  A species of spider creates a webbed net that it affixes to its feet, and uses with pinpoint accuracy to fish insects from the air.

I can imagine a Slavonic winemaker who farms, year after year,  the same hillside that his great-great grandfather had farmed, who himself had long forgotten why his own great-great grandfather had chosen this spot.  The modern Slavonian spoliates the vines in a very particular way, a practice for which he can offer no scientific explanation.  But the end result is magical, as the master sommelier at the Hotel Esplanade in Zagreb led us to know by simply pointing at the menu:  ‘This one is good,’ he affirmed, without embellishment.

Perhaps the local, Californian wine market doesn’t know what it wants.  And perhaps the frantic efforts of the academics at Davis to address the desires of wine consumers won’t get us any closer to a cure for the plague of mediocre vintages.  Perhaps complex and dynamic systems develop an intelligence that outstrips the understanding of rational, individual actors.  And perhaps ‘revolutionary praxis’ (to borrow the hideous, clumsy term of a local professor of the ‘History of Consciousness’) can be discovered in a wholly unexpected context, far removed from the meta-discourse of semiotic frippery, or the énoncés of a slap-headed, French S&M enthusiast.   I am a revolutionary, after all, and despite a rhetoric and sub-text that would raise the hives on any cultural studies professor like a persistent, Old Testament curse, our language is not so different.    Perhaps achieving the cure is less tortuous, and less remote than we believe.

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Richard’s Brilliance, Berkeley’s Shame

My friend Richard is a genius.  The nature of his genius will become clearer at the end of this post.  First, let me say a few things about California, and Berkeley in particular.

When our ancestors abandoned the security of Europe and stumbled beyond the Mississippi following the lunatic visions of Joseph Smith, or racing as fast as thirsty cattle could carry their wagons ahead of the law and debtors’ prison, they forgot a few things on the long journey west.  And what they did remember were pieces of patchwork:  meaningless, disembodied and quickly mislaid by their feral offspring.  But humans need culture; to tell them who they are; to allow them to live happily together; and, in the best possible cases, to show them the marvelous, unexpected limits of human achievement.  In the last case, even with the intercession of genius, it often takes more than a few generations to create something profound.

Those near relations of ours, who dropped their cultural inheritance like used tissues somewhere on the trail from Boston, were only recently scratching out a meagre living in the San Joaquin or Salinas Valleys, dying of whooping cough, and crying themselves to sleep after ‘Pa’ had told them they would have to shoot Old Yeller.  Or, like my own close relations, fishing for sharks in the Gulf of California in the quixotic struggle to ‘strike it rich’ in the days before synthetic vitamin A.  So you wouldn’t expect much from California today.  But Berkeley?  Berkeley?  Seriously.

Admittedly, the strong local weed and clumsy application of 19th-century utopianism were bound to hold things back, but I expected, at this stage, Berkeley would have produced at least two good restaurants.  We ate at Gather which embodies perfectly the blind, Californian eclecticism that outsiders, and particularly Europeans, find so liberating, until they have to live with it for more than twenty minutes.

When Californians didn’t need to worry so much about rabies or diptheria, they turned their attention to rebuilding a few of the things that make life worthwhile, if not possible.  Hmm… Where to start?  I seem to recall that my great-grandfather had a small library, and a collection of French portraiture, but we had to sell those when cousin Silas got the gangrene and couldn’t farm no more.  But with the money I earned pan-handling, I bought this didgeridoo, and I invented a dance cobbled from the vague memories of a Javanese Gamelan production I saw as an undergraduate.  We are as close to Asia as to Europe, after all, and this seems to make sense.

Culture requires a language that suits.  Of course, it will never be perfect; like the small bright spots that illuminate pieces of a vast reality, physics, chemistry, biology, and which are all synonyms of each other.  The French have their portraiture, their philosophy, even their philosophy of portraiture, which runs in parallel to, and competes viciously with, its sister German or Italian schools.

But in California, and in Berkeley, this language has been re-developed quickly, and in isolation.  If there were a genius who could intercede, and help to make sense of a fathomless problem, here, on the edge of the world, where civilisation has been sadly suspended, his name is probably Ajithkumar;  he lives far away, in Fremont, and devotes his intelligence to system architecture for application hosting ‘in the cloud’.  I doubt he wastes much time with the philosophy of portraiture.

And so Gather assembled the best local ingredients, in the hands of the best local cooks, to create an eclectic blend of vegan charcuterie juxtaposed with meat-heavy dishes such as pork belly and hamburger, to cater to a clientele who exist only in the fever dreams of a weed-addled executive chef.  Admittedly, some dishes, on their own, were delicious.  Some ingredients, on their own, were also delicious.  But the combination was a mystery.  And the wine list made us all want to cry:  old-world varietals, combined in new and exciting ways under the guidance of a recent graduate of the University of California at Davis’s Oenology department who felt he could improve upon the millennia of French (or Italian, or Austrian) viticulture by serving a sunny, ‘fruit-forward’ Malbec on its own.  Malbec, known as Côt in Cahors, was, until recently, only seen fit for export in bulk to Russia for Orthodox religious ceremonies on a budget.

We nibbled at the bright plates and wondered how to make sense of a cuisine that married the purest vegetarianism with an incoherent blend of sour wine and fried flesh.  Perhaps there was a statement that brilliantly captured the absurdity of ‘vegan charcuterie‘ or the heartbreaking betrayal of an ethical convert to vegetarianism who now had to share his table and cutlery with gruesomely braised pigs’ feet.

During a long pause in the conversation, as I peered daydreaming through an untouched glass of cloudy wine, Richard remarked, while I picked up a forkful of apparent flesh from the charcuterie board, and as my expression fell when I realised it was thinly sliced, Japanese eggplant.

‘Man, you just kissed a dude!’