Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Art I'm Making: Untitled Collage No. 206 (Santa Rosa)

Another recent collage, mostly in blues.

This is Untitled Collage No. 206 (Santa Rosa). August 6, 2018. Acrylic on paper, acrylic monotype, collage. Image size: 19.6 x 17.4cm (7.7 x 6.9 inches). Matted to 16 x 20 inches. Signed on the mat. Signed and dated on the reverse.

For more, visit http://ctalcroft.wixsite.com/collage-site

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Miscellaneous: The 100th Anniversary of the End of World War I

Marine Sergeant Warren R. Laity—my mother's father. As a Quaker, he chose not to become directly involved in combat service but volunteered his skills as a photographer. He served as an aerial reconnaissance photographer in France (the same service that Edward Steichen performed) in 1918. Warren's brother served as an ambulance driver.

My son, Warren, is named for this man. Honoring his memory today, the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Shown here is one of his best-known images, the US Capitol in the rain, circa 1918.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Music I'm Listening To: Sharon Isbin and Hilary Hahn

Last week was a busy week on many fronts. Musically speaking, I attended one of the November Santa Rosa Symphony concerts featuring guitarist Sharon Isbin. The following day, I had the privilege of hearing Hilary Hahn in recital at Davies Symphony Hall, in San Francisco. Isbin played the Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Also on the program were Dances of Galánta, by Kodály, Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1, and Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from Westside Story.

The Santa Rosa Symphony Youth Orchestra joined the main symphony musicians at the end of the concert to play Bernstein's Overture to Candide in an unexpected encore--a piece that was on their tour program in Europe earlier in the season. Isbin, too, played an encore--one of those extremely familiar Spanish guitar pieces that I can't immediately put a name to.

I did backstage photography for the Santa Rosa Symphony again. Isbin tuned before going on stage using an electronic tuner. Just before it was time to go on stage, she turned to conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong and said "I'll take an A from the oboe so I can pretend to tune," which struck me as rather funny.

I have almost no words for the Hilary Hahn performance. She was superb, as always. She played one of the Bach solo sonatas for violin and two of the solo partitas, including Partita No. 2, with the famous extended chaconne. As an encore, she played a movement from another of the sonatas. It was strange to see the Davies Symphony Hall stage entirely empty of chairs, music stands, and instruments except for the lone figure of Hahn who nevertheless commanded the attention of perhaps the biggest crowd I've ever seen at Davies Symphony Hall. I counted six empty seats. During the encore, having already left my seat, I was able to watch and listen from one of the doorways into the hall and to see the rapt audience all focused on Hahn, her violin, and the music she was making with it. A lone figure, a very small instrument in a very large space. The way she commanded the attention of every pair of eyes and ears was impressive.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Art I'm Looking At: Sherrie Lovler on The Art Wall at Shige Sushi (October 30 through December 30, 2018)

I'm pleased to announce the next show on the Art Wall at Shige Sushi. We'll be showing paintings by Sherrie Lovler, known for her poetry as well as for her work inspired by the Western calligraphic tradition. Opening reception will be Monday, November 5 (5:00PM to 7:00PM). Sherrie will do a poetry reading and give a short art talk at 6:00PM, but come early to enjoy the work, have a glass of wine, and meet the artist.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Books I'm Reading: American Eclipse and The Education of a Coroner

I've recently finished two books—David Baron's account of the total solar eclipse visible across much of the American West in 1878, The American Eclipse (Liveright, 2017) and The Education of a Coroner (Scribner, 2017). The 1878 eclipse path stretched from the northern tip of Idaho to the heel of Louisiana. Author Baron suggests the eclipse offered the first opportunity to show skeptics that American scientists could hold their own against more seasoned investigators in Britain and Europe, and it was the first total solar eclipse widely visible in the Western United States since the nation's founding, according to the book (although there appears to have been a total eclipse on August 7, 1869 with a path that stretched from Alaska to North Carolina; perhaps that eclipse came too close to the end of the Civil War for much to have been done about it), but as many as one hundred expeditions were organized to view the 1878 eclipse.

Baron focuses on three groups of eclipse viewers. One was organized by astronomer James Watson, known as a planet hunter (more precisely, as discoverer of asteroids), who appears to have been chiefly interested in the opportunity the eclipse seemed to present to see the planet Vulcan, said to orbit the sun inside the orbit of Mercury (he claimed to have seen it; the claim proved a distraction to the pursuit of astronomy for many years subsequently). Another group was led by Maria Mitchell, a pioneer among women interested in the heavens. The third group included inventor Thomas Edison who was eager to gain the respect of serious scientists. He brought with him his "tasimeter," a hyper-sensitive heat-detecting invention with which he hoped to measure the heat of the sun's corona during the eclipse (it proved a failure).

Trips into remote parts of Colorado and Wyoming presented numerous difficulties. All the groups had to put up with primitive accommodations, while Maria Mitchell and her all-female entourage (primarily gifted students of astronomy she taught or had taught at Vassar) had the additional burdens of dealing with prejudice against the undertakings of a woman scientist and of trying to locate equipment lost by a railway company more interested in a feud with a competitor than it was in locating luggage critical to her investigations (ultimately recovered in the nick of time). Edison garnered far more attention in the press than Mitchell, despite her credentials.

Although the book seemed a bit anti-climactic as it devotes little space to the eclipse itself (being focused on the events leading up to the event), it appears to have been meticulously researched and it is well written and entertaining. Recommended.

John Bateson's The Education of a Coroner, subtitled "Lessons in Investigating Death," presents a selection of cases handled over the years by Ken Holmes, who worked for 36 years in the Marin County Coroner's office, starting as a death investigator and ending his career as the county's coroner. The case studies involve everything from obscure but intriguing incidents such as the discovery of a Golden Gate Bridge suicide with no labels in his clothes and no suicide note who was identified only by chance more than twenty years after his body was found to a few high-profile cases, such as the case of the so-called  Trailside Killer, whose first victim was found on a Mt. Tamalpais trail in 1979.

Beyond the case studies, the book is interesting for the procedural details it gives, for its look into how coroners operate in general, for its local focus (many of the locations discussed will be very familiar to residents of Northern California and San Francisco), and for its look at how politics impinged on the career of Mr. Holmes. Worth the time.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Wines I'm Making: 2017 Cabernet and Sangiovese Bottled

Newly bottled and labeled 2017 wines
I finally got around to bottling and making labels for the 2017 wines--a very small batch of Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc from the backyard vines and two batches of Zinfandel from the neighbor's grapes, some oaked, some unoaked.

2018 Sangiovese in the press
In other wine news, I pressed the 2018 Sangiovese from our vines on October 14, after an 11-day fermentation. We got a little under four gallons of Sangiovese, which will make 20 bottles. I pressed the Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc today, October 17. The 2018 yield was six gallons, which will make 30 bottles, or 2.5 cases.

Sangiovese ready for the press

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Music I'm Listening to: The San Francisco Symphony with Leonidas Kavakos

I attended the September 28 performance of the San Francisco Symphony, at Davies Symphony Hall, part of an ongoing Stravinsky Festival. MTT conducted Petruschka, The Rite of Spring, and the Violin Concerto. Leonidas Kavakos was the soloist in the concerto.

It was fun to hear Petruschka live for the first time, but I was more  interested in the rest of the program as this was my second time hearing the San Francisco Symphony doing each of the other two pieces. Back in 2013, I heard Leila Josefowicz play the Stravinsky concerto (my comments on that concert here) and heard The Rite of Spring just last summer, with Susanna Mälkki conducting (comments here). I was curious to hear these two pieces again and with MTT conducting.

I don't know what it is about MTT. I know he's popular. He's won multiple Grammy Awards. I just don't get the way he conducts. I thought The Rite of Spring oddly static in the first half. It's a piece that should be marching forward, relentlessly, and he managed to make it seem like it was standing still at times. I always feel a disconnect between him and the orchestra (with one notable exception, his brilliant reading of the Mahler Fifth Symphony I heard back in March this year). In the second half of The Rite of Spring, things finally seemed to be in gear and the audience was very appreciative, but this performance, while enjoyable, didn't leave me with anything of the excitement I felt hearing virtually the same musicians under Mälkki's baton back in June of 2017.

I felt kind of the same way about the concerto. The opening chord—the chord that opens each of the concerto's movements—seemed weak. It should come as a shock. I had never heard Kavakos play before or even heard his name, so I went into the concert with an open mind. After the initial chord, I was prepared to be disappointed, but, it got better. Again it took some time for the players and the conductor to convincingly join forces, or so it seemed to me. In the end, I liked Kavakos. That said, this performance didn't have the fire of the 2013 performance I attended with Josefowicz on the violin. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Art I'm Making: Untitled Collage No. 205 (Santa Rosa)

A recent collage, mostly in blues.

This in Untitled Collage No. 205 (Santa Rosa). August 6, 2018. Acrylic on paper, acrylic monotype, collage. Image size: 12.5 x 12.1cm (4.9 x 4.8 inches). Matted to 11 x 14 inches. Signed on the mat. Signed and dated on the reverse.

This piece is in the Art Trails preview show now on at The Sebastopol Center for the Arts.

For more, visit http://ctalcroft.wixsite.com/collage-site or, even better, come visit my studio during the Art Trails open studios event. October 13 and 14 and October 20 and 21. This year I'm Studio 40, at 973 Stone Castle Lane, in Santa Rosa, California.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Rain: First Rain of the 2018-2019 Rain Year

Following brief showers on September 30, we had real rain last night and into this morning, the first rain of the 2018-2019 rain year, which began on October 1, 2018. We got 1.25 inches at my location in northeast Santa Rosa. Rain is a welcome difference from the strange weather we had almost exactly a year ago--the windy weather that led to the fires of October 2018.

[Update: We got another 0.25 inches on the 3rd, bringing the total to 1.50 inches at my location. The forecast now is for sunny skies for the coming ten days or so, but at least we don't have to worry about the kind of fires that devastated Santa Rosa at almost exactly this time last year.]

Books I'm Reading: The Thirsty Muse

Tom Dardis, in The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer (Ticknor & Fields, 1989), looks at four American writers—Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and O'Neill—and their relationship with alcohol. He argues that, while these men believed drinking aided their creativity or was even essential to it, alcohol was more often responsible for their creative decline.

The book asks why so many American authors have been alcoholics. Dardis points out that of the eight Americans that have received the Nobel Prize in literature (at the time the book was written), five were alcoholics. The number of winners has swelled, however, and the list would in any case depend on how one defines "American." I had to look it up, but the group would now be: 1930 Sinclair Lewis, 1936 Eugene O'Neill, 1938 Pearl S. Buck, 1949 William Faulkner, 1954 Ernest Hemingway, 1962 John Steinbeck, 1976 Saul Bellow, 1978 Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1987 Joseph Brodsky, 1993 Toni Morrison, and 2016 Bob Dylan. As none of the last three appear to have been alcoholics, the argument has been somewhat dimmed by time, and Dardis never really answers the question of why there have been so many drunk American writers (including plenty that were not Nobel Prize winners). The book also seemed a little flawed in its assumptions about the nature of alcoholism the disease, which in places seemed a trifle out of date. Nevertheless, the book is nicely written, engaging, and fascinating for its details of the lives of four important writers, particularly details about the role that writing for Hollywood had in the lives of Faulkner and Fitzgerald (in both cases, the only way they could make money once publishers began rejecting their work). Worth the time.   

Wines I'm Making: 2018 Harvest

Cabernet grapes, just harvested
Harvest 2018: As rain was forecast for this week (and it's raining right now--first rain of the 2017-2019 rain year), I picked our backyard grapes on September 28, both the Sangiovese and the Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc section of our little vineyard of 34 vines.

Grapes in the crusher
We got 84.5lbs of Cabernet grapes, about 30% more than last year. The must tested at 24.0º Brix, which is just about perfect, although I could have let them hang another week or so. I decided to pick because of the rain and the fact that critters were beginning to discover them (despite being netted and protected by an electric fence). Today, October 2, I pitched the yeast, so they've had a three-day pre-soak, which is in line with my usual practice. The only deviation this year has been that I did not sulfite either the Cabernet or the Sangiovese must, as having more grapes this year allowed me to choose only the best, healthiest grapes.

Crushed grapes--on their way to becoming red wine
We got just over 70lbs of Sangiovese. Normally, I make rosé from the Sangiovese, but circumstances conspired against that. I've been so busy with work and other obligations in the last week that they'd already been on the skins for about 30 hours by the time I got back to them. I could have pressed them and made a deep rosé, but I didn't have the energy, so I left them; this year we will make a red wine from the Sangiovese for the first time in many years. The must tested at 20.5º Brix, which is on the low side. I added 2.5 ounces of corn sugar to the must (all I had on hand), which will raise the alcohol level slightly. This wine probably will be best pressed early to make a lighter wine. We'll see how things turn out....

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Miscellaneous: Things We Need Words For

Things we need words for: The uncracked or barely cracked pistachios that accumulate at the bottom of the bag, having been repeatedly rejected for the easy-to-open ones.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Places I'm Visiting: San Francisco Film Locations

The plaque on Burritt St., near Bush and Stockton
111 Sutter St., the Hunter-Dulin Bldg.
Walking around San Francisco last week I looked up some old film locations. I finally figured out where the plaque is that locates the murder of Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon (1941). It's on the wall of a building on Burritt St., near the corner of Bush and Stockton. There is now a building in the spot where Archer breaks the railing and tumbles down the hill in the film, which is why the location is a bit confusing today, but the plaque is there. It reads "On approximately this spot, Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O'Shaughnessy" 
(The coordinates 37.7902, -122.4075 will take you to the location of the plaque on a map.)

Elevator lobby of the Hunter Dulin Bldg. Spade and Archer had offices here
Entrance to the Hunter-Dulin Bldg.
In the opening scenes, there's a view of the Bay Bridge from Spade's office windows (that establishing shot is one of the few actually done in San Francisco, apparently; most of the film was made on set). The view is supposed to be from the fifth floor of the Hunter-Dulin Building at 111 Sutter Street. Built in 1927, it was originally the head West Coast office of NBC. The entry and interior are rather ornate. They don't build them like they used to....

Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall) lived here, in Dark Passage (1947)
Art Deco reliefs at 1360 Montgomery St.
I also found the building that was Lauren Bacall's apartment in Dark Passage (1947), where Humphrey Bogart hangs out while waiting for his face to heal after his plastic surgery. The building has some interesting Art Deco-style reliefs. The address is 1360 Montgomery St., but it's best approached by car on Union St. On foot, you could walk up the Filbert St. steps to approach the apartment (with a view of Coit Tower behind) as Bogart does in the movie....

View from the top of the Filbert St. stairs

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Books I'm Reading: Barcelona

I don't know how long ago I picked up Barcelona, by Robert Hughes (Vintage, 1992). It's been on my bookshelf for a long time. Could it have been sometime after I visited the city, in 2010, prompted by that visit? It's a book I ought to have read before going to Barcelona, but, even long after my trip there, it was a worthwhile read. The book clears up a lot of misconceptions about the city and about Catalonia more broadly. Notably, it makes clear the relationship between Catalan and Spanish (Catalan is not a dialect or corrupt form of Spanish, as so many seem to believe) and it goes a long way toward explaining why Barcelona and the rest of Spain have so long been at odds with one another.

The book is dense, particularly in its first half, which devotes rather a lot of space to political history, with a long cast of characters that can be hard to keep straight, but Hughes is a consummate writer. His prose is lucid and he's a lot of fun to read almost regardless of  subject matter because of that and because of his inventive use of language. The clarity of his writing makes it possible to push through the more difficult sections until you get to what seemed to me more interesting material; Hughes really comes into his own when he turns to art and architecture.

When we think of art and architecture in the context of Barcelona, we tend to think only of Antoni Gaudí. This book puts Gaudí into his historical context and explains his relations with the people that became his patrons, mostly Eusebi Güell i Bacigalupi. Hughes introduces a host of other architects working at the time, several of them far better known in their day than Gaudí, most notable among these Lluís Domènech i Montaner, designer of The Palau de la Música Catalana, which is dissected in detail (as are many of Gaudí's most important projects, including Sagrada Familia, which, Hughes notes, has became a travesty of itself). Again, I would like to have read this before having visited Barcelona's many architectural gems years ago, but the critiques were very pleasurable to read nevertheless.

Likely to be a bit too demanding for readers casually interested in Barcelona, but a very satisfying deep dive for anyone with a serious interest in history, particularly history of art and architecture. Recommended. Read it before you go.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Wine I'm Making: First Berry Sample of 2018 (September 14, 2018)

I took my first sample of the 2018 vintage of fruit on our 34 backyard vines today. The Sangiovese looks healthy and comparatively plentiful this year. The berry sample I took showed a brix of 19 and a pH of 3.22. The Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc sample showed a brix of 22.6 and a pH of 3.16. I like to pick the Sangiovese (from which we usually make rosé) at about 22 brix and the Cabernet at about 24-25 brix. So, we've probably got a couple of weeks to go in both cases.

So far, it looks like we'll have much more Cabernet fruit this year than last because of the removal of trees that were shading the vines, although there is a disheartening amount of mildew in some areas, despite careful sulfur spraying and exposing the fruit more than I usually do by pulling leaves earlier in the season. I don't know what the answer to that problem is, but, at least we've had no animal or bird damage so far. Fingers crossed.

I'm also watering the vines today. They'll get a six-hour drip, but this is only the second time they've been watered this year. It will probably be the last time as well.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Art I'm Making: Untitled Collage No. 204 (Santa Rosa)

A recent collage. This is Untitled Collage No. 204 (Santa Rosa). Acrylic on paper, acrylic monotype, fragment of a doodling robot drawing in archival marker, collage. August 5, 2018. Image size: 13.3 x 13.1cm (5.2 x 5.2 inches). Matted to 11 x 14 inches. Signed on the mat. Signed and dated on the reverse. One of a number of recent pieces I've done using mostly blue monotypes.

For more of my collage work, visit my website at http://http://ctalcroft.wixsite.com/collage-site/

2018 will be my fifth year participating in ArtTrails, Sonoma County's autumn open studio event. This year, I will be Studio 40. Studios around the county will be open from 10:00AM to 5:00PM on October 13-14 and October 20-21. Come by and see my art in person. In addition to new collages, I'll be showing photography and printmaking.

Miscellaneous: Reflections at SFMOMA

Last time I was at SF MOMA, I noticed these reflections in the top of a display case positioned near a window looking out over the city.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Cocktail Glass Collection: The Buddha Lounge

I recently came across The Buddha Lounge, in San Francisco's Chinatown—a new addition to my collection of photographs of neon cocktail glass signs outside of bars. The glass itself looks fairly generic, but it's in an unusual pink that goes with the "Buddha" text. The bar is at 901 Grant Ave., San Francisco, CA 94108.

For more, click the "Cocktail Glass Collection" label at right toward the top of the page.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Books I'm Reading: How to Paint

I imagine it's rare to finish a book feeling that you've retained nothing at all from reading it, but that's how artist Jerry Zeniuk's book How to Paint (Sieveking Verlag, 2017) left me. Having finished it recently, I'm struggling to recall anything useful in it.

I picked this book up while traveling in Germany, in June, at the museum store in Pinakothek der Moderne, in Munich. I admit that I was attracted to it in part because of its cloth cover and because of the promise of its title—however unrealistic: how nice it would be if you really could just read a how-to book and suddenly know how to paint better. I didn't expect that, but I suppose I was hoping to glean something useful from its pages. I suspect this is a book that needs to be mined during several readings. Happily, it's a short book of 37 chapters of only one or two pages each at most. Some of the chapters are less than a page long. I may come back to it some day. For the moment, judgment reserved. This is a bilingual German/English edition.

Miscellaneous: Another Funny License Plate

Best license plate I've seen in a while. Captured yesterday in Santa Rosa California. And then the little bumper sticker.....

Friday, August 24, 2018

Art I'm Making: Untitled Collage No. 203 (Santa Rosa) and Untitled Collage No. 202 (Santa Rosa)

A newer collage—one of several I've finished in the past three weeks in a spate of activity following a period of too many distractions (What I need is a year-long artist's residency that would allow me to do nothing but work, instead of having to work. All expenses paid, with a stipend, of course. Oh yes, and somewhere like Paris.)

This is Untitled Collage No. 203 (Santa Rosa), August 4, 2018. Acrylic on paper, acrylic monotype, collage. 11.3 x 11.4cm (4.5 x 4.5 inches). Matted to 11 x 14 inches. Signed on the mat. Signed and dated on the reverse. 

Having just posted the above, I notice that I never put up the piece that preceded this one. Below is Untitled Collage No. 202 (Santa Rosa). May 13, 2018. Acrylic on paper, acrylic monotype, collage. 15.9 x 12.2cm (6.3 x 4.8 inches). Matted to 14 x 11 inches. Signed on the mat. Signed and dated on the reverse. 

 Click on the image for a larger view. For more, see my collage (and photography) website at http://ctalcroft.wixsite.com/collage-site

Monday, August 20, 2018

Miscellaneous: Things We Need Words For

Things we need words for: The little raft of dead fruit flies that floats on top of the wine you've just poured from yesterday's bottle left uncorked overnight.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Art I'm Making: Imagery Estate Winery 2017 North Coast Viognier Featuring My Art to Launch August 19, 2018

I'll be helping launch Imagery Estate Winery's 2017 North Coast Viognier, which features one of my collages on the label, next Sunday (August 19th) at the winery (14335 Sonoma Hwy, Glen Ellen, CA 95442).

I'll be there between 1:00PM and 3:00PM showing some recent collage work, signing bottles, talking to fans, sipping some wine.... If you're in the neighborhood, come by and say hello. :)

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Serendipitous Art: Red, White, and Black (August 5, 2018)

A perfect, unintended composition. Paint and glue on concrete. Serendipitous art.

Click on the image for a larger view. For more unintended art, see my blog Serendipitous Art.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Two More Inexpensive 2015 Bordeaux Wines from Grocery Outlet

A few days ago, I compared four inexpensive Bordeaux wines from the 2015 vintage from Grocery Outlet. Here are two more.

2015 Chateau de Reguignon, Bordeaux: Comparatively deep in color for a young wine, but looks youthful nevertheless. A medium purplish red. The deepest in color of the six young Bordeaux wines from Grocery Outlet I've recently compared [see below]. Leathery, meaty scents initially on the nose. On the palate, subtle fruit nicely balanced by tannins from the outset, tannins that linger through the mid-palate before receding on a moderately long finish. Something milky on the mid-palate as well. Overall, seems well made, compact, and honest. Not especially complex, but immediately appealing. Probably a bit too dry and too tannin-driven for consumers used to more fruit-driven California wines, but anyone familiar with Bordeaux will recognize this as an attractive "little Bordeaux" for everyday drinking. $6.99 at Grocery Outlet.

2015 Chateau La Cure, Bordeaux: Typical medium red of a young Bordeaux, but looks a bit thin, relatively speaking. Light floral scents with hints of something citrusy. Something reminiscent of those orange marshmallow peanuts that used to appear in Halloween candy bags--which is to say, oranges and marshmallow. Later, somewhat darker scents, but I'm at a loss to characterize them more precisely than that. Maple and wood perhaps? On the palate, light citrusy fruit but also with a hint of cherries. Tannins considerably lighter than in the Chateau de Reguignon, but not so distant as to make the wine seem unbalanced. Light, but immediately approachable. Already drinking easily. Tannins are soft enough that I suspect this won't be for long keeping, but delicious now. Another inexpensive, attractive little Bordeaux from a very good year. $6.99 at Grocery Outlet.

I have no financial or other connections with any producer or retailer of wine. For more wine reviews, use the "Wines I'm Drinking" label at top right.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Miscellaneous: Blood Moon (July 27, 2018)

A view of tonight's "blood moon," the result of the moon being in the Earth's shadow. As seen from Santa Rosa, CA, at around 11:00PM, July 27, 2018.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Wines I'm Drinking: Four Inexpensive Bordeaux Wines from Grocery Outlet

It's been quite a while since I sat down and did a comparative blind tasting of cheap wines from Grocery Outlet, but, as 2015 was such a good year in Bordeaux, it's likely that even small, little-known producers made good wine. I tasted four wines from my local Grocery Outlet in the hope of discovering at least one gem worth going back to stock up on. Brief tasting notes follow.

2015 Château Jalousie Beaulieu Bordeaux Supérieur
Medium ruby red. Typical color for a young Bordeaux. Fairly closed at first, with vague hints or red fruit—cranberries, perhaps—and oak. Later something a bit metallic on the nose. Initially seems quite ripe on the palate but with pronounced tannins on the mid-palate that fade into a fruity, moderately long finish with decent acidity. Not exciting at first, but balanced, and with promise. With a little time in the glass, began to suggest cherries and roses on the palate, becoming richer, more approachable.  $6.99

2015 Château Saby Bordeaux Supérieur
Again, a medium ruby red. Typical color for a young Bordeaux. Closed at first, but with distinct earthy notes not present in any of the other wines. Later, some floral scents. Has considerable body and presence on the palate. Round, fruity, and with light tannins. A bit hot for a Bordeaux, and, checking the label, I see that this is 14%, the most alcoholic of the four wines. Immediately appealing for its up-front fruitiness, but could do with more tannin and a bit more acidity. Seems somewhat unbalanced—too alcoholic. Likely to appeal to California palates used to big, fruit-forward wines. This one is 100% Merlot. $7.99

2015 Château du Peuil Bordeaux Supérieur
Medium ruby red. Fairly typical color for a young Bordeaux but this was the palest of the four wines. Flowery, perfumey scent at first, with leather and candied citrus rind in the background, fading later in the direction of woody scents. Less fruity than the other three wines on the palate, at least at first. Flavors tending toward wood and leather with the citrus element present on the palate as well. Overall, light, very soft tannins, and a little low in acidity, yet with enough nuance in the flavors to make it interesting. My favorite of the four wines on first tasting (also see below). Only $4.99 a bottle.

2015 Château du Pin-Franc
Medium ruby red. Again, fairly typical color for a young Bordeaux but this was the deepest in color of the four wines. Initially very closed. Little scent on the nose at all. Later developed suggestions of cherries and wood. Quite closed on the palate as well. Good tannins. Likely to need time to develop. An attractive push of red fruit on the finish, but, ultimately, not very approachable at the moment. Would be interested to try this again in about five years. $6.99

Any of these four wines is a decent value. Ranging in price from $4.99 to $7.99, it would be hard to fault any of them. My initial impression was that the cheapest, the Château du Peuil, is the best, but given a little time to open up, the Château Jalousie Beaulieu began to seem more interesting than at first. The Pin-Franc may improve with time. That said, coming back to them the morning after, the Château du Peuil still seemed most appealing. Although it's a bit disappointingly light in body, it has a resiny, citrusy quality that I liked. I went back for more.

[Subsequently, I tasted two other inexpensive 2015 Bordeaux wines from Grocery Outlet: see also this post for details.]

I have no financial or other connections with any producer or retailer of wine. For more wine reviews, use the "Wines I'm Drinking" label at top right

Saturday, July 14, 2018

On the Road: Prague, Day 2

St. Vitus's Basilica, Prague 
On my second day in Prague, I took the tram up to Prague Castle, finding myself without the energy to make the trek up the hill on foot following 10 hours or so walking around the Old Town the day before. I was surprised by the tight security. It was much like airport security, but I realized later that some of the buildings in the castle complex are today used as government offices. The nested courtyards of the castle complex were confusing, but I soon found myself in front of the west façade of the Basilica of St. Vitus, which is a bit drab compared with the magnificent south façade with its massive central tower (pictured).

According to Blue Guide: Prague (A&C Black, 2004), the cathedral's origins go back to a "rotunda" founded by St. Wenceslas in 925, while a church was first built there about 50 years later, in 973. That church was replaced by a three-aisled basilica in 1060 that stood until 1344 when construction of the existing gothic building began under the direction of Matthew of Arras, court architect to the papal court at Avignon, called in by Charles IV. "Matthew of Arras laid the foundations of the cathedral and had completed the east end of the structure up to the triforium level before his death in 1352" the book says. (The triforium is a gallery or arcade above the arches of the nave, choir, and transepts of a church.) Construction was passed on to Petr Parléř in 1353 and he remained in charge until his death in 1399 when his sons assumed the work. Construction was halted when the Hussites took over the building in 1421. The partially completed building was then walled up until the end of the 15th century, when fitful construction resumed on parts of the interior, but it wasn't until 1861 that construction began again in earnest. The cathedral was finally completed only in 1929.

The Renaissance Grill
The south façade (photo above) is dominated by the main tower which is interesting for the intricate renaissance grill that protects the main window, among other things. The base of the tower was built by Petr Parléř's sons in the 15th century. Above is a 16th century arcaded gallery and above that a steeple begun in the late 18th century. The façade has a porch with three arches, decorated above with a mosaic that Blue Guide: Prague describes as "heavily restored" made by Venetian artists. It includes depictions of the work's sponsors, Charles IV and his wife on either side of the central arch. The fanned ribbed vaulting of the porch is rather interesting, and above the porch is an openwork staircase (not easy to see in my photograph of the south façade) that is considered architecturally daring.

Arched porch in the south façade of the cathedral
Stained glass window designed by
Alphonse Mucha
The interior has beautiful stained glass windows, mostly relatively modern, including one designed by Alphonse Mucha. The various chapels around the building are each interesting in their own way, but the Wenceslas Chapel and the tomb of St. John of Nepomuk are probably the highlights, the former jutting into the transept and roped off now so that you can see the interior only by peering in from a small distance. The tomb of St. Wenceslas (14th century, although the saint died around 929) is in the chapel—another bit of the cathedral Blue Guide: Prague describes as "much restored." Otherwise notable are the large wooden door from 1370 that incorporates a lion-headed knocker to which Wenceslas is supposed to have "clung as he was murdered by his brother." The lower level of the interior is set with huge semi-precious stones in gold-painted stucco such as amethysts—some the size of a football. There is a series of paintings here that seemed interesting as well, but they were too far away to get much of a look at. The tomb of St. John of Nepomuk is set rather awkwardly, I thought, into the ambulatory so that it half blocks the way. It is an elaborate silver affair with a canopy and draperies and flying angels.

The tomb of St. John of Nepomuk
After visiting the cathedral, I moved on to the Old Royal Palace, which I thought most interesting for Vadislav Hall and the famed windows of the Second Defenestration of Prague (1618), which involved the attempted murder of two Catholic regents during a row with protestants led by one Count Thurn over questions related to the rights of protestant believers in Bohemia. It's quite a drop from the windows. Surprisingly, the two survived. Blue Guide: Prague repeats the story about a heap of excrement breaking their fall, but a sign in the castle refutes that claim, suggesting it was simply the slope below the windows that was responsible for the relatively minor injuries suffered by the regents. This incident helped to precipitate the Thirty Years' War, while the First Defenestration of Prague (1419) helped precipitate the Hussite Wars.

Vladislav Hall, Old Royal Palace, Prague
Vladislav Hall (built 1493-1502), with its simple Renaissance windows, looks like nothing much from the outside and it is approached by a fairly simple passageway, but the interior is rather splendid. First, the room is huge. I overheard a guide say that it was the largest secular interior in Europe at the time of its construction. It's big enough that jousting tournaments were held here—indoors. At one end is a slope with broad, shallow stone steps leading into the space that allowed riders to enter mounted on their horses. This is known as The Riders' Staircase, built around 1500. The vaulting above the Riders' Staircase is a complex mesh of intersecting ribs almost as elaborate as the ribbing in Vladislav Hall itself, which looks like an elegantly espaliered tree has been used to hold up the ceiling.  

There was much more to see in the castle complex, but I had time only to look briefly at the Convent of St. George and then to take a walk down "Golden Lane," so-called because it was once the haunt of goldsmiths. Golden Lane, a row of tiny houses built at the end of the 16th century, also housed castle guards, although in the 18th and 19th centuries, the lane mostly housed the very poor. It wasn't until the 1960s that the little dwellings were painted the bright colors we see today and transformed into souvenir shops, although some are mini-museums of a sort. One shows a goldsmith's shop, for instance, another an alchemist's. One is a mini Kafka museum, as Franz Kafka lived at No. 22 Golden Lane for almost a year in 1916. He is said to have been inspired to write his novel The Castle while living there. Poet Jaroslav Seifert (Nobel Prize in Literature, 1984) is also associated with the street. He wrote two collections of poetry while living in Golden Lane in the late 1920s to early 1930s.

Man on Paris Street, Prague
Most of my last day in Europe was spent on the train from Prague back to Munich, my starting point. It was supposed to have been a straight run, but some foul up caused the train to stop short of its destination and we were forced to make two connections using local trains to get into the city, arriving more than an hour behind schedule with a phone running out of power (meaning maps to my lodgings for the night were about to disappear). I finally made it and, happily, there was a very good Italian restaurant still open nearby where I enjoyed a simple but delicious rucola and parmesan cheese pizza and a selection of Italian wines by the glass. The flight home the next day was long but uneventful—which is how I like flights to be.

From Wenceslas Square looking toward Old Town Square

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