Saturday, October 23, 2010

Wines I'm Making: 2010 Cabernet Pressed

Despite the rain today (October 23), I pressed the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc, ending up with eight gallons of new wine, which will make 40 bottles of wine. The wine is in two carboys, one holding five gallons, one holding three. Although I vinified the two batches identically, one seemed to have an especially spicy, strong Cabernet scent to it, so I kept that mostly separate in the smaller carboy. We'll see if the difference persists as the wines mature. Tomorrow I'll inoculate both batches with malolactic bacteria and keep the wines warm with electric blankets until the malolactic fermentation is done, which usually takes two to three weeks. After that, it'll mostly be a waiting game. I have high hopes for these wines, but it'll be a year before they are ready to drink. In the meantime, I'll bottle the 2009 wines.

Music I'm Listening to: Joshua Bell, The San Francisco Symphony

Excellent concert last night, hearing the San Francisco Symphony with guest conductor John Conlon (regularly with the Los Angeles Opera) and guest soloist Joshua Bell. The concert opened with the Prelude to Act I of Wagner's Die Meistersinger, followed by Bell playing the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1. On the second half of the program were three Dvorak overtures, or, as conductor Conlon pointed out, tone poems--In der Natur, Carnival, and Othello. This was the second of four concerts. Bell, Conlon, and the Symphony perform again tonight (Saturday, October 23), Sunday, and Monday.

I do wish I could like Wagner. Not liking Wagner has become a cliché. I don't dislike Wagner because it's the thing to do. I'm afraid I just don't understand his appeal. Clearly, there are very smart people that know music and like Wagner, and I try to keep an open mind, but he seems to start always at full throttle, leaving himself nowhere to go. If you start with the kettle at full boil, no amount of additional heat will make it do anything more than boil, until it boils away. Competently played, but not my thing. I guess it was a good warm-up exercise for the orchestra.

I attended the pre-concert talk the symphony sometimes gives, having arrived earlier than usual. I was surprised by the way the speaker kept talking about Bruch as a one-hit wonder, suggesting that the Violin Concerto No. 1 was the only significant piece of music he ever wrote, and wondering aloud why he never wrote anything as good. While it may be his best known and most popular piece, that's giving the Scottish Fantasy rather short shrift. I'd be hard pressed to say which I like better. Kol Nidrei is a staple of the cello repertoire, and his three symphonies aren't too shabby either, in my view.

It was fun to see Bell from the fourth row. I've heard him perform on the radio and in recordings but never seen him live before. He reminded me of Kyung-wha Chung. Both are rather physical. Chung shrinks to two-thirds her normal stature when bowing long, low notes and then stretches up on tiptoes while going furiously through passages of high notes. Bell has a very similar habit. My favorite recording of the Bruch concerto is, in fact, the one Chung made with Rudolphe Kempe and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the late 1970s (the original LP, London CS 6795, includes a wonderful version of the Scottish Fantasy as well--my copy is autographed). I try not to get too attached to any particular performance, but it happens. I'm happy to say that Bell's rendition was not a disappointment--lush, but disciplined and technically brilliant. Bell let the inherent romantic sweep of the music work its magic without milking it for more than it has to give. The performance was a great pleasure. I thought it virtually flawlessly executed.

The sound of Bell's violin was phenomenal. According to the program, he plays the 1713 Stradivarious known as The Gibson, formerly owned and played by Bronislaw Huberman. Bell's website has an interesting piece about the violin's history on the Biography page. The violin was stolen twice from Huberman, the second time in 1936, disappearing for nearly 50 years, only resurfacing in 1985. Bell purchased it in 2001. It's one of the most beautiful violins I've ever heard in person.

After an extended standing ovation, Mr. Bell returned to the stage with his violin to play an encore. It wasn't apparent at first that he was playing a set of variations on Yankee Doodle Dandy, but as soon as the audience recognized the tune, there was a ripple of laughter. Bell was playing Henri Vieuxtemps's Souvenir d'Amérique--Variations Burlesques sur Yankee Doodle. The crowd loved it.

After the concert, Bell very graciously signed autographs for a line of at least 100 people. The only other performer I've seen so patiently sign autographs is, again, Kyung-wha Chung. Hmmm.... While signing CD covers Bell remarked that he had embellished the Vieuxtemps variations a bit. It appears to be his signature encore piece. I see there are numerous videos of him doing it on YouTube.

After intermission, Conlon addressed the audience to talk briefly about the Dvorak tone poems. He pointed out that a common theme runs through them and had the orchestra play the theme as it appears in each of the three short pieces--light-hearted in In der Natur, darker in Othello. I wish conductors and performers would talk to the audience more often. It makes things more interesting when the music is unfamiliar. It makes things more personal if the performers acknowledge the audience directly. Conlon asked the audience not to clap between the three pieces, as he wanted to present them as a unified whole.

Carnival is very familiar, but the other two pieces appear to be rarely performed. I wonder why?  I hadn't heard either one before, but they seemed typically Dvorak to me--with the composer's hallmark optimism (something about his orchestration, I think). I liked them both, but particularly the Othello. It was fun to watch the various themes move through different sections of the orchestra. I thought the ensemble unusually responsive to the conducting--particularly to the dynamics Conlon indicated. Sometimes musicians appear oblivious to the conductor and you wonder what he's up there for. Last night, the San Francisco Symphony was highly attentive, the performers seeming to adjust themselves at the slightest hint.

A quick snack afterwards at Absinthe was a nice way to end the evening. Absinthe has some excellent (if overpriced) wines by the glass. I had a glass of the 2009 Daulny Sancerre (perfect with oysters) and later a glass of the 2008 Bernard Baudry "Les Granges" Chinon, a yummy Cabernet Franc.

Photo of John Conlon, courtesy of The Ravinia Festival. Photo of Joshua Bell by Timothy White, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wines I'm Making: 2010 Cabernet, Sangiovese Rosé (October 21)

The 2010 wines are coming along nicely. As of today, the Cabernet Sauvignon has been fermenting for six days (the grapes were picked on the 12th), following a three-day pre-soak--so nine days on the skins so far (above). The fermentation is slowing now. The must--by now it's properly called wine, I suppose--is no longer very sweet and the alcohol is apparent. I'll test it tomorrow. If the specific gravity is low enough, I'll probably press. The wine is a deep purple-black. It continues to smell wonderful. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to steal a real taste during pressing--far too early, of course, to know what the wine will finally taste like, but its general quality should be apparent.

The Sangiovese has been fermenting for four days now. If it goes at the pace of last year, it'll bubble slowly for another week or so (second photo). I'm hoping this year's rosé will be as good as last year's.

I never know what to do with the pressed skins. it seems such a waste to throw them out. Clearly a lot of pulp and juice remains. I thought I'd try to make another second-pressing wine. I soaked the leftover Sangiovese skins for two days in a small volume of water, pressed the "juice" that resulted (surprisingly, it measured 11 Brix, having been at 6 Brix initially) and then added sugar and yeast to see if a second pressing works better with rosé than with red wine (last year's Cabernet experiment was not very encouraging--but it's all interesting). Because of the soak, the second pressing (bottom photo) is much more deeply colored than the real rosé. We'll see what it tastes like. All three containers are fermenting in the garage while the cabernet sits in primary fermenters near the front door. It's supposed to rain tomorrow. I may have to press the Cabernet in the garage--a true garage wine.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Books I'm Reading: The Discovery of France

I've just finished reading The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography, by Graham Robb (paperback edition, Norton, 2007). Having put the book down, my strongest impulse was to pick it up and start reading all over again. The Discovery of France is packed with surprising and enlightening information--too much to take in all at once.

If you think you know France, this is likely to be a revelation--on many levels. As Robb notes in his short introductory essay headed "Itinerary," the book grew out of his observations of France from the perspective of a bicycle seat: "This book is the result of fourteen thousand miles in the saddle and four years in the library" he says.

There is the knowledge of a foreign country one can gain from superficial contact and the knowledge gained by living intimately among a country's people and speaking their language. Despite Robb's deep knowledge of the land we call France today (his "superficial" knowledge of the country was already far deeper than most non-French people could ever hope to gain; Robb has written books about Victor Hugo, Balzac, and Rimbaud, among other topics), traveling the country at the pace of a bicycle revealed to him a different France from the one he thought he knew. In deliciously readable prose, Robb passes on his insights in vivid detail, giving us a view into what seems another world--France before it came to be what we think of as France. Suddenly the country seems a less civilized, less homogenous, far more colorful place.

I lived in Japan for nearly twenty years, my first year as the only Caucasian in a small town in Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four main islands. In that year I went from being a 17-year-old monolingual high school student to being a moderately fluent speaker of Japanese, a huge advantage in getting to know a place. Even from so brief a stay as my year as an exchange student, it became clear that living somewhere and speaking its language was a very different thing from traveling there (I had traveled in Canada, the Caribbean, in Germany, Holland, Belgium, and Denmark). At the end of my year, I thought I knew a thing or two about Japan. Yet, when a few years later I moved more or less permanently to Japan, I lived in the Tokyo area. It was startling to apprehend quite suddenly that the Japan I knew was just a snapshot of one very small part of rural Japan. Tokyo was another Japan altogether. The contrast between those two views of Japan was disorienting but revelatory. Robb's writing evokes very much the same sense of knowing and not knowing that I remember from my early years in Japan. Sometimes it happens that we know the people in our lives in this same way, seeming to know them intimately, yet knowing nothing about them at the same time.

Reading The Discovery of France has left me feeling ignorant, humble, and yearning for more. While I would never have called myself intimately acquainted with France, I have traveled there on five or six occasions and I spent two and a half months living in the south of the country this past summer; I have more than a passing acquaintance with the place. Still, virtually every page of this book seemed heavy with unfamiliar treasure. The Discovery of France is nothing less than a survey of how France's idea of France has changed from before France was even a meaningful concept. I particularly enjoyed the sections on travel and how modes of travel (especially the speed of various forms of travel) altered perceptions. I was reminded of similar discussions of how the arrival of the train in the United States affected world views there in Rebecca Solnit's excellent book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (paperback edition, Penguin, 2003). The Discovery of France was thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Rain: Second Rain of the 2010-2011 Season (October 17, 2010)

Second rain of the season today. This morning we got 0.20 inches. Not much, but the plants seem to have appreciated the gesture. That brings the season total to 0.35 inches, at my house anyway. It's a start.

Wines I'm Making: 2010 Sangiovese Pressed

I got up early this morning to get work done (translation work, that is) before pressing the Sangiovese to start the rosé fermentation. At about 10:00AM, I finally got to the wine, so the juice was on the skins for about 18 hours--about what I had planned. I pressed the grapes fairly aggressively, though, so the wine is likely to be comparatively deeply colored.

I added a dose of Epernay yeast to must in two carboys, one holding five gallons, one holding three. I'd say there is about seven gallons of must now starting to ferment. I plan to keep the must as cool as possible to make sure the fermentation proceeds slowly, as that seemed the key last year to making the rosé so good. I hope it is as good or better this year, but the grapes were not as ripe, so it's unlikely. The weather was a real problem. I hope the wine is at least pleasant to drink. In the photo to the left, I've just added the dry yeast culture. You can see it floating on the surface of the newly pressed juice.

Plants I'm Growing--Figs (2010)

A couple of days ago, I posted a photo of the apple tree in the garden. It's blooming in the middle of October, which is somewhat bizarre. The strange weather this year--the wet spring and long, cold, summer followed by a couple of heat spells (we've just finished another one)--all conspired against the fruit trees. We had no pears, very few "Dapple Dandy" pluots, no apples, and very few peaches or nectarines this year. Only the "Flavor King" pluot had an appreciable crop. I had given up on the fig tree as well until the late warm weather that saved the grapes finally got the fruit to start ripening. We have a dwarf variety called "Black Jack." The figs taste and look much like "Mission" figs, but the tree stays small. With minimal pruning, it's remained low enough that I can reach the fruit without a ladder. Suddenly, we've got many, many figs ripening all at once.

I enjoy them best just sliced in half with Trader Joe's Greek Style Honey Yogurt on top--and then drizzled with honey harvested from the beehive. Standing near the tree, you can smell the fruit. That corner of the garden smells like Sardinia.
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