Saturday, February 27, 2010

Wines I'm drinking: 2007 Pago Florentino Syrah (Spain)

A small triumph of modern winemaking. I recently tasted the 2007 Pago Florentino Syrah, made from grapes grown in Castilla-La Mancha, the southern half of Spain's great central plain, and part of the old Spanish kingdom of Castile (Castilla). With its vineyards mostly at high elevations (1,600-2,300 feet), La Mancha is brutally hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Traditionally, the area has made large quantities of ordinary wine sold mostly in bulk (although I have had excellent wines from Valdepeñas, one of the Denominación de Origen areas within La Mancha). Castilla-La Mancha makes something like half of Spain's wine. The most heavily planted grapes are Airén (far and away the most common) and Cencibel (the local name for Tempranillo), along with Garnacha (Grenache) and Monastrell. Airén is a white grape about which no one ever has anything good to say. It's main distinction is that it has long been the world's most planted variety in terms of acres under the vine--and entirely because so much is planted in La Mancha in vineyards with widely spaced rows. Because of Spain's connections with the New World, the ageworthy reds of that country have traditionally been aged in American oak. All of this information is a prelude to the following observation: The 2007 Pago Florentino Syrah is a non-conformist--thoroughly modern in its philosophy.

The wine is made from Syrah--widely planted around the world, but truly great in only a few places and not generally in Spain. It reaches its greatest heights in the northern Rhône valley in France (think Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie--two of my favorite wines) and in Penfold's Grange, from Australia--that's the conventional wisdom, anyway. So, the grape is "wrong," and, according to the label, the wine is aged for 30 months in French oak rather than American oak.

I'm generally not a fan of Syrah. Too often it's all fruit, with no other dimensions, especially in California and most of Australia (although I admit to relative ignorance here; because I generally don't like Syrah, I usually don't drink it). In extreme cases it can taste like grape Kool-Aid spiked with rather too much alcohol. So, buying a case of this wine on spec was out of character for me. I have to confess that I was convinced entirely by the advertising of the retailer--PJ Wine, in New York (212 567-5500)--which is also out of character. I've been on their e-mail list for about five years now, maybe longer (where has the time gone?). Have you ever made a single purchase from a catalog and then had the catalog follow you around for the rest of your life? That's what happened to me here. Years ago I bought a case of my favorite wine from Provence, Clos Milan, from PJ, as I could find it nowhere else at the time. Since then, I've been receiving their newsletter every week or so in my e-mail (not that I've minded). But something was markedly different this time. The text describing the wine had a palpable enthusiasm I'd never seen before. The buyer admitted to a prejudice against Spanish Syrah and said he had tasted it with great skepticism. But he liked it so much that PJ ended up taking the entire vintage, and it is now the only place this wine is available. My shipment arrived a few days ago. Last night I decided to open a bottle. Had I wasted my money? I was expecting to be disappointed.

They say honesty is the best policy. Although I've come to the conclusion in the past couple years that Mark Twain was right when he said that that isn't always true, honesty is called for here. I was a little disappointed. I wanted this to be truly great wine, and it isn't. Having said that, it is a very good wine--a very good wine, indeed. I don't regret buying a case of it. In fact, I recommend you do the same thing.

It was a limpid, strawberry jam red--not the inky purple that Syrah often is. It had a perfume-like nose at first, but the floral scents blew off fairly quickly to reveal cherries and suggestions of tobacco. With a little time in the glass, I began to detect blueberries, bacon, cinnamon, smoke, and even some citrus scents. The blueberry was intriguing because it immediately put me in mind of the Penfold's Grange.

The taste of a wine is difficult to describe at the best of times. Blueberries were again present, but, as the wine opened up, I began to detect strong hints of licorice and citrus. What was perhaps most remarkable was the wonderful balance. This is what wine writers talk about when they say a wine is "elegant." "Poised" is the word that kept coming to my mind. The 2007 Pago Florentino Syrah is excellently balanced between restrained fruit, moderate tannins, and soft acidity. What keeps it from being truly great is that the fruit is a trifle too restrained. The wine is a trifle too light in body. It doesn't have quite the grip I would have liked. Despite very good length, it is not as long as it might be. Yet, these are all relatives. I reiterate: This is a very tasty wine. While I'm fairly certain it won't appeal to palates used to powerfully ripe California-style Syrah, it should appeal to anyone who appreciates a somewhat more restrained European flavor profile. All in all, a very pretty wine that I look forward to sampling repeatedly over the course of the next five to seven years.

Finally, the bottle is extraordinary. The package is irrelevant if the wine is poor, but a nice package is always...nice. The 2007 Pago Florentino Syrah comes in what is the most substantial still wine bottle I've ever encountered. The punt is deep enough to take the entire length of my middle finger. With three inches of wine still in the bottle, a round glass island floats above the level of the liquid (the tip of the punt sticking up inside the bottle). The label, silver embossed on black, is adorned with a pair of deer with grape vines growing from their antlers. All this adds to the pleasure. No, I don't regret buying a case at all.  Highly recommended. $17.99 a bottle, at PJ Wine, New York--which is an excellent price for a wine of this caliber.

[For the record, I have no connections of any kind with PJ Wine except as an occasional customer.]

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Birds I'm Watching: Northeast Santa Rosa

I used a free hour and a half today to take a walk along one of the creeks near my house--about a three-minute drive away--to look for birds on a strip of land there about 50-feet wide on either side of the creek. (Accessible from Arroyo Sierra Dr., between Summerfield Rd. and Hoen Ave., in Santa Rosa.) I saw many birds, including dark-eyed juncos, turkey vultures (14), a belted kingfisher (which was something of a surprise; I've never seen one so close to home before), ruby-crowned kinglets, California towhees, scrub jays, brown creepers (3), yellow-rumped warblers, chestnut-backed chickadees, Nuttall's woodpeckers, robins (10), crows (6), bushtits, house finches, a mallard, an oak titmouse, American and lesser goldfinches, black phoebes, a raptor that went by too quickly to identify (but probably a Cooper's hawk), and, improbably, an Osprey. I've never seen an osprey in suburban Santa Rosa  before.

The bird was soaring at a very high elevation, not anywhere near water, so at first I doubted my eyes, but nothing else made sense. It was an osprey (and the location is only about two miles from Lake Ralphine). Also of interest was a rather oddly colored female downy woodpecker (pictured). I'm almost certain the bird was a downy, but the markings are somehow shifted. There was almost no speckling on the very plain black wings, and the bird did not have the usual white stripe down the back, although I did not get a very good look at it from behind. The photo was hastily snapped, but shows enough to get an idea. Considering the short time I spent, I saw a solid 22 species.                          

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Plants I'm Growing: First Blooms--Rhododendron "Pink Snowflakes" and Tulipa Bakeri (2010)

First 2010 blooms today on the rhododendron "Pink Snowflakes" (lower photo) near the bird bath and on the species tulips at the front of the house--Tulipa bakeri. The Rhododendron bloomed on February 22 in 2009. A year according to this plant was therefore 363 days. The bakeri tulips bloomed on March 5 in 2009, so their calculated year was markedly shorter--356 days. I plan to start graphing my data points soon to see what the botanical year looks like. From the data I've collected so far, I can say the plants in my garden seem to think a year lasts about 362 days (the median result). 
The tulip photo is from last year. This year's flowers are not nearly so fully open. The Rhododendron photo is also from last year. So far, only a single bud has opened on "Pink Snowflakes," but soon the plant will be covered in pink.

Rain: 1.5 Inches More Rain (February 24, 2011)

We had yet another 1.5 inches of rain overnight. That brings our total to 21.15 inches so far in the 2009-2010 season. That's still a little below the average. Average rainfall by this date (February 24) has been 22.59 inches historically in Santa Rosa, but other local stations have reported as much as three inches more than the average. We finished last year 8.5 inches below the historical average, so we are doing very well in either case. We've already had more rain this season than in all of last year.

[Update: Had another 0.9 inches of rain on the evening of the 26th. As of today, the 27th. Our total is 22.05 inches.]

[Update: Another 1.5 inches overnight on March 2. As of the morning of March 3, we have now had 23.55 inches of rain in the 2009-2010 season.]

[Yet another update: Another 0.25 inches fell on March 4. Our total is now 23.8 inches, as of March 7. According to the forecasts, we aren't going to have much new rain for the next week or so. Beautiful sunny day today.]

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Places I'm Visiting: The Annex Galleries, Santa Rosa

During the past month, I've been teaching printmaking at my son's school, the Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts. We've talked about etching, done relief printing using styrofoam, done the same using found objects, and we've begun to talk about linocuts, which are essentially the same as woodcuts (the process is much the same, that is).

Today we took a short field trip to The Annex Galleries, at 604 College Ave., in Santa Rosa, one of the best print shops in the north Bay Area; few galleries/shops in the vicinity (if any) have the breadth and depth of what's on offer here. The Annex Galleries specializes in modern prints with an emphasis on prints from around the start of the 20th century until around 1970.

The gallery is now doing a show entitled A Century of American Color Block Prints that is well worth seeing. Many blocks are on display along with the prints, and there is a flipbook that shows the successive stages of printing a multi-block print, which adds an extra dimension (bottom photo). Recommended. Free admission. Street parking only. Monday through Saturday, 12PM to 5PM. Through February 27.

Movies I'm Watching: Fargo and Selective Memory

I recently saw Fargo (1996, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen) again for the first time in many years. The DVD was on sale for a modest $5, which seemed a bargain, and, having recently cancelled my TV service, movies on DVD have acquired a stronger appeal. I can't remember when I first saw Fargo. I was living in Tokyo when it was released, and I know I didn't see it in a theater there, but I clearly remember the first time I heard about it.

I was driving a rented car. I must have been on a business trip in the US or visiting family, or doing both. I was listening to NPR on the radio--All Things Considered, no doubt. I think I was driving from Dayton, Ohio, to Nashville, to visit the Bridgestone headquarters in the US. At the time, I was a securities analyst covering companies making tire and rubber products.

Someone was interviewing Frances McDormand--an actress I had never heard of at the time. The topic was her new film, Fargo. The interviewer played a clip of the officers investigating the first murders, at the start of the story. I had no images to work with, only sounds, voices (this was radio). The contrast between the horror of the scene (as I imagined it) and the matter-of-fact assessment by McDormand's character, Margy, pregnant Chief of Police in Brainerd, Minnesota, was comical in a black sort of way (as intended), and even more so because of the silly accent the characters use throughout the film.

Seeing it again last week, I was shocked. I should say I was shocked because my 10-year-old son watched it with me, which was not at all appropriate (although he had parental guidance and doesn't seem to have been much affected by the violence). I hadn't intended to show him such a violent film. The experience reminded me of my childhood discomfort watching films at the theater with my parents that I probably shouldn't have been watching. The traumatic big three were Zulu (1964, directed by Cy Endfield, today a favorite film), Bullitt (1968, directed by Peter Yates), and Bonnie and Clyde (1967, directed by Arthur Penn). I don't blame my parents. Film ratings then (and awareness of them) were not what they are today, and my father was (and remains) obsessed with films. We saw most everything released that seemed worthwhile to him, regardless of whether it was appropriate for children. (Having said that, I would have been only four years old when Zulu was new; we must have seen that one at a second-run theater at a somewhat later date.) As my son and I watched, I wondered if Fargo would become my son's Zulu.

Fargo is a very violent film. So, why did I choose to watch it with my son? Because, I realize now, that I had completely forgotten about the violence. It's not that I didn't remember the murders. I had blocked out their graphic depiction. The patrolman shot in the head early in the movie (the first murder) reminded me of one of the most memorable (and horrible) images from the Vietnam War--Saigon Execution (1968), by Eddie Adams. You know the photo: the man shot through the head as he stands in the street. The other murders in Fargo are no less bloody, no less realistically depicted. Only the final gruesomeness--the stubborn leg and foot of the murdered kidnapper sticking out of the wood chipper--is somewhat less horrible, simply because it is so absurd that it's hard not to laugh.

I don't object to the violence. It's integral to the story. The point of this short essay is very simple. It's that the humanity of the main "good" characters, and especially Margy, is profound--so profound that, with time, Fargo can become distilled in memory into an essence that retains only the goodness of the film's strongest characters. What did I remember about Fargo? Mostly the solid uprightness of Margy and her husband in the face of bleakness--both bleakness of the soul and bleakness of landscape (although that landscape is beautifully filmed here). Not blood gushing from the head of a brutally murdered patrolman, but Margy's husband making eggs for her after she's called out in the middle of the night to investigate the first homicides. Not the vast stupidity, vulgarity, and violence of the criminals, but Margy telling her husband to be proud that his painting has been chosen for the design of a new postage stamp, even if it's a stamp of low denomination--"one of the little ones." She reminds him that people need the little ones when the postal service changes rates. His contented smile at the end of the film is one of its quietest moments, but one of its most powerful. The large gap between the way I remembered the film and its actual violence is perhaps a testament to its greatness. Fargo remains one of my favorite films. I wonder how long it will be before I forget the violence again?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Plants I'm growing: First Blooms--Ceanothus "Ray Hartman," Dwarf Peach, Santa Rosa Plum

The warmth and sun today has coaxed out new flowers in the garden. The "Ray Hartman" Ceanothus (or California lilac, top photo) and the dwarf peach (bottom photo) have both started blooming today. The Ray Hartman is now a small tree. It looks fabulous when at its peak, which should come within about two weeks. The dwarf peach has grown very slowly--left behind by a dwarf nectarine planted on the same day. Small differences in location (the trees are only a few feet apart) can make such a big difference; the peach gets an hour or so more shade both in the morning and afternoon. The fruit of the two trees is delicious. The deep pink blossoms contrast nicely with the rosemary always in bloom at the same time.

Yesterday brought the first flowers of 2010 on the little Santa Rosa plum tree and on the two-toned daffodils that went in last year.

I missed the first blooms on the Ceanothus in 2009, but I seem to have noted on March 19 last year that they had been open for about a week, suggesting the tree bloomed around March 12. That would make the flowering quite early this year. The dwarf peach started blooming on March 2 in 2009, which means a year according to the peach was 357 days. The Santa Rosa plum bloomed on February 23, 2009, so a year according to that plant was 363 days. I don't seem to have a 2009 record of the first blossoms on the pretty white and coral daffodils that opened yesterday.

I write about many subjects, not just the plants blooming in my garden. Use the tabs at upper right to explore other topics. 

Rain: Clear and Chilly After Rain (February 22, 2010)

It's a beautiful, sunny (if chilly) day in Santa Rosa. The air is clear following a little rain overnight. We got 0.15 inches, according to my rain gauge. That brings our total for the 2009-2010 season to 19.65 inches. The average for February 21 (yesterday) in Santa Rosa is 21.96 inches, according to the site I monitor. That puts us more than two inches below normal, but other locations in the city have reported as much as 23.26 inches, which would put us ahead. In any case, the reservoirs are full and we have already had more rain this year than we had in the entire season last year--which is great. Still, it's nice to see the sun. As soon as work is finished, I hope to go out and enjoy it a bit.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Art I'm Looking At: More Found Art (February 21, 2010)

Putting gas in the car not long ago, I found myself looking down at the covers over the gasoline tanks at one of Santa Rosa's gas stations. Beautiful. More found art.

The Great Yogurt Taste-off Part IV (More Yogurts)

Four more yogurts reviewed. (You may want to start at the beginning--see links below.)
The Great Yogurt Taste-off Part I (Introduction)
The Great Yogurt Taste-off Part II (The Yogurts)
The Great Yogurt Taste-off Part III (The Yogurts--Continued)

Cascade Fresh Nonfat Vanilla Yogurt
($0.85 for a 6 oz. container, or $0.14 an ounce, 0% milkfat, 16 grams sugars, 90mg sodium)

Pale, creamy white. Quite solid. Stays put in the cup. Strong vanilla scent. Nice creamy texture when well stirred. Good texture in the mouth, too. No vanilla bits and nothing to stir up from the bottom. Creamy, but not too thick or sticky. Moderate vanilla flavor. Moderate yogurt tang and not excessively sweet. Good balance. A nice, middle-of-the-road yogurt. Not exciting, but solid. Tastes like yogurt and has no objectionable characteristics. I liked this one more than many. Has more active cultures than any of the other yogurts I've compared (eight rather than the usual four to six). All natural ingredients. Sweetened with fruit juices.

Yoplait Thick & Creamy Lowfat Vanilla Yogurt
($0.99 for a 6 oz. container, or $0.17 an ounce, 1.5% milkfat, 28 grams sugars, 110mg sodium)

Slightly yellowish in color, but there are no colorants listed on the label. Shiny, gelatinous look that put me off immediately. Doesn't mix well. remains in chunks, kind of like stirring Jell-O. No scent of yogurt. Hints of vanilla. No vanilla specks. Nothing to mix up from the bottom. Very thick, sticky texture. Strongly flavored, but tastes mostly of sugar. Had an unpleasant way of sticking to the roof of my mouth. Really doesn't taste like yogurt at all. Sweetened with sugar and corn syrup. Did not care for this. 

Chobani Nonfat Vanilla Greek Yogurt
($1.49 for a 6 oz. container, or $0.25 an ounce, 0% milkfat, 13 grams sugars, 65mg sodium)

Very pale white. Quite thick. Solid in the cup. No vanilla specks. Nothing to mix up from the bottom. Good yogurt scent. Thick, slightly cheesy texture, but quite smooth when well stirred. Nice texture in the mouth. Creamy. Good vanilla flavor and a good yogurty tang. Nice balance of sweetness (just noticeable) and tangy flavors. Sweetened with sugar. Delicious. This is close to my idea of what yogurt should be--thick and creamy, but smooth (and not sticky or gelatinous), distinctly tangy (but not sour) and not with so much sugar that the yogurt flavor is overwhelmed. 

Kirkland* Lowfat Vanilla Yogurt
($0.53 for a 6 oz. container, or $0.09 an ounce, 1% milkfat, 24 grams sugars, 95mg sodium)

Pale, gelatinous look. Slightly runny. No vanilla specks. Nothing to mix up from the bottom. Moderate yogurt scent. The vanilla was more noticeable than yogurt. Tasted very sweet. It immediately reminded me of the frosting on cheap, horrible birthday cake. Very artificial flavor. Slight tang on the finish, but tasted more like an acid addition than like the sourness of yogurt. Looking at the label, this has lime juice added, and I realize now that that is what I was tasting. Thumbs down. One of only two I was unable to finish eating; this was actually unpleasant. Sweetened with sugar and inulin. For more on inulin, see notes to the Weight Watcher's brand yogurt in Part III of this exercise. It's probably no coincidence that that was the other inulin-sweetened yogurt and the other one I was unable to finish. This has the advantage of being inexpensive, but I thought the comparably priced Safeway brand product much better if price is the main consideration. 

* Kirkland is the Costco house brand. Manufactured by Dannon. I'm assuming this is identical to the Dannon product. I wonder who makes the Safeway yogurt?  

Whole Foods Organic Nonfat Vanilla Yogurt 
($0.99 for a 6 oz. container, or $0.17 an ounce, 0% milkfat, 28 grams sugars, 110mg sodium)

Slightly creamy color. Solid in the cup, but a bit watery on top. Smells like yogurt but not much like vanilla. Slightly chunky texture, but quite smooth when stirred up. No vanilla specks, nothing to stir up from the bottom. Not much vanilla flavor. Overall impression is one of tartness--but not a yogurt-like tang. Rather bland actually, except for the tartness, which suggested a cheap white wine that's been balanced after the fact with acid additions. I wasn't surprised to find citric acid among the ingredients. That's what it mostly tastes like. Sweetened with evaporated cane juice. Would have expected better from Whole Foods.

Trader Joe's Organic Greek Style Nonfat Vanilla Yogurt 
($1.69 for a 5.3oz. container, or $0.32 an ounce, 0% milkfat, 17 grams sugars, 45mg sodium)   

Creamy off-white color. Full of vanilla specks. This yogurt looks delicious. Good vanilla scent, but not much scent of yogurt. Thick, rustic texture at first. Creamy when stirred well. Nothing to stir up from the bottom. Thick, creamy flavor. Moderate sweetness. Just enough, but doesn't have much in the way of a yogurt tang either. Excellent texture, but a bit disappointing taste-wise. Not bad, but not especially exciting either. Sweetened with cane juice. Contains citric acid, but doesn't have the exaggerated sour taste that some have had when citric acid has been an ingredient.

Brown Cow Nonfat Vanilla Yogurt
($1.59 for a 5.3oz. container, or $0.30 an ounce, 0% milkfat, 12 grams sugars, 55mg sodium)

Quite runny-looking, with liquid on top. Pale, creamy white. Very creamy and smooth when stirred. No vanilla flecks, nothing to stir up from the bottom. Not a lot of scent--of vanilla or of yogurt--, but has a good yogurt flavor. Neither sweet nor especially tart. Great texture again, but not a lot of vanilla flavor. Sweetened with evaporated cane juice.

Liberté Méditerranée French Vanilla Yogurt**
($1.19 for a 6oz. container, or $0.19 an ounce, 12 grams sugars, 55mg sodium)

Beautiful fresh cream color. Fairly liquid appearance, but moderately thick when well stirred. Very nice vanilla scent. WOW! Sweet. Too sweet for my taste, really, but amazing flavor. Decadently creamy and rich tasting. Easily the most delicious of all the sweeter yogurts, yet this one managed to achieve a noticeable yogurt tartness at the same time. Outstanding. Absolutely delicious. Very sweet (sweetened with sugar), but somehow I didn't mind in this case. Will definitely buy this one again! [But see notes below--this was NOT a low-fat or non-fat yogurt.]


What is good yogurt? It seems to depend on whether you like your yogurt to taste like yogurt or sugar. While some of the sweeter yogurts among the 18 yogurts I've tasted so far were quite appealing (notably the Trader Joe's Organic Vanilla and (Wow!) the Liberté Méditeranée French Vanilla**), I prefer yogurt to taste like yogurt--that is, I like it to have a sour yogurt tang. The Icelandic Skyr, at the other end of the spectrum, was a bit over the top--rather too tart for my taste--but still, it was among the most interesting examples simply because it had some character. My favorites among the less sweet yogurts were the Stonyfield "Oiskos" Organic Greek Vanilla Yogurt and the Chobani Vanilla Greek Yogurt. The least interesting yogurts were thin and runny, although bulked up with gelatin, and they tasted mostly like corn syrup (the sweetness overwhelming the yogurt flavor), or they had other artificial-tasting flavors. I was surprised to find that the yogurts I liked least were those made by Yoplait and Dannon (the Kirkland yogurt)--both of which used to be decent brands. I found both really unpleasant, especially the Dannon product. My dislike of these two may be related to the presence in them of inulin as a sweetener.

I hope this taste test will be of use to someone out there. If nothing else, my digestion is back in tip-top shape. One thing bothers me, though. This is Sonoma County. Where are all the handmade artisan yogurts? They must be out there. I guess I go to the wrong grocery stores. Farmer's market maybe?

[**This yogurt is wonderfully delicious, but I was mistaken about the milkfat content. This is not a lowfat yogurt, so should not properly be compared with the other yogurts in the tasting. I was trying to figure out how they packed so much richness into a lowfat product. It turns out they didn't. This one is made with whole milk AND cream. Still--it's delicious.]
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