Saturday, August 6, 2011

Books I'm Reading: The Age of Wonder

I've just finished The Age of Wonder (originally published in England, by Harper Press, 2008, although I read the 2010 paperback edition from Vintage Press), by Richard Holmes, a writer with a long list of publications preceding this, mostly works on Shelley, Coleridge, and the English Romantic Poets. Covering the romantic period of scientific investigation in Europe (roughly from 1770 to 1820), The Age of Wonder is a portrait of the birth of modern science and the period during which many still-current views were formed about the meaning of the pursuit of science.

Holmes paints his portrait of the age through biographies of some of the most influential men and women of the day. The story is told mostly through the lives of Joseph Banks, William Herschel and his sister Caroline Herschel (and, later, William's son John), and Humphrey Davy--although the text is delightfully wide-ranging, with sections on balloonists and Frankenstein, and much about the response of poets and writers to advances in the science of the day. Other major themes include faith--and it was during this period, it seems, that many European thinkers really embraced the notion of a godless world, even if few of them (Shelley being an outstanding exception) were willing to openly profess atheism--and the debate on vitalism (the question of whether there is something that can be called a life force). Sections on Banks in Tahiti, on Caroline Herschel (an unjustly neglected figure), on Davy nearly killing himself during experiments on laughing gas and other gases, and on the context of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein were particularly vivid. I needn't add much more, I suppose, as this was a bestseller and has been widely reviewed, but I'd call it a top-notch piece of intellectual history. I very much enjoyed it. Recommended.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Wines I'm Drinking: Sonoma Wine Tasting

I hadn't intended to go wine tasting yesterday, but I did, and it's something I should do more often, given the proximity of the Sonoma wineries. I had planned only to drive over to Rochioli, one of our best producers of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, to pick up some wine waiting for me there, but I got to talking with the man behind the tasting room bar and the conversation turned to rosé. Regrettably, Rochioli has run out of the most recent batch of their Pinot Noir rosé, but the man recommended Lynmar Estate for another good rosé of Pinot Noir, so I decided to make a stop there on the way home. I got sidetracked by Moshin Vineyards, which was between the two. So, I visited three wineries in all.

Moshin is a name I've heard a lot, but I'd never tried their wines, so I decided to stop when I saw the sign. I tasted a range of wines ($5 for five wines, the $5 refunded if you make a purchase) that included an usually crisp, citrus-scented Sauvignon Blanc. Usually I prefer the grassy, catty style of Sauvignon Blanc, but I thought this one successful despite its lack of the hallmark Sauvignon Blanc scent. A refreshing summer wine. I tasted two good Pinot Noirs, one a rather barnyardy Burgundy-like wine, the other a much cleaner, plummy wine. I liked both well enough to think they'd be worth sitting down with and taking some time over. Friendly staff and atmosphere.

Lynmar Estate is simply stunning. I think this is probably the most attractive winery I've ever visited in California. How have I missed this one? The garden at the entry (photo above) is overflowing with sneezeweed and bee balm pushing up in clumps through ornamental grasses, reminiscent of America's prairie lands when the wildflowers are in bloom. The building is new (2006) and of some interest architecturally, with much use of exposed wooden beams--the kind of building that likes to show you how it's engineered--and attractive sitting spaces around the tasting bar. Most striking, however, is the view from the interior spaces over the gardens and the vineyards; the rows of vines rise up like theater seats in rows on gentle slopes behind the plantings closer to the building.

These are full of colorful flowers like sunflowers, cock's comb, and salvias, but there is a heavy emphasis on edible plants as well, notably several varieties of kale, one with striking frilly black leaves. The scent of herbs was in the air (which was very pleasant, although it interfered a bit with tasting the wines; all the wines seemed to smell of herbs, mostly something like dill). An outdoor dining space appears to be used for occasional events, but it begs to be put to use as the setting for a permanent restaurant. The place has an inviting European look that suggests good food, good wine, and good conversation outdoors on summer nights--late into the evening. But, alas, this is Sonoma County, where life shuts down at 8:30. A shame the space is wasted in this way, but Lynmar Estate is a beautiful property worth visiting even if you don't care much about wine or food--which is not to put down the wine. However, there is a downside to the extravagance (see below).

The Pinot Noir rosé I went to try is delicious--dry, crisp and with some delicacy, but with stuffing as well. Aside from the rosé, the tasting room offers two tasting options, an estate tasting of four wines for $10 or a reserve tasting of four for $20--which, frankly, seems a trifle steep to me, especially as the tasting fee is not refunded in either case unless you make a purchase of $100 or more (or over $150 in the case of the reserve tasting). I have to say the wines here seem overpriced--like most California wines. As is too often the case, the consumer is being asked to pay for the unnecessarily expensive facilities, and that is the downside of the meticulously cared-for setting; it's costly. The facilities are beautiful, but when it comes right down to it, entirely unnecessary for the production of fine wine.

Having said that, I enjoyed a crisp 2009 Chardonnay and a 2007 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (cherries, almonds, something creamy, and with a suggestion of pencil shavings on the nose). The 2008 Quail Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir (big, alcoholic, concentrated and with a hint of oranges) seemed somewhat out of balance to me, but it's young. A 2007 Sonoma Coast Syrah seemed less successful (candy, blueberries, closed tannins), although still in need of time to open up. It could still evolve nicely but it's not very approachable at the moment. Peter, behind the tasting bar, was delightful. Turns out he's an active opera singer who lived for years singing in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The conversation, the Pinot Noir rosé, and the gardens were the highlights of the visit.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Places I'm Visiting: Farmers' Market, Santa Rosa

I went to the Santa Rosa Farmers' Market this weekend in search of good tomatoes, but I was mostly disappointed. There weren't a lot, and it was mostly hothouse tomatoes on offer. It's still a little too early in the season, I guess. There was much else to see. I picked up some fresh garlic from a stand that was offering five or six different kinds. I chatted with the beekeepers. I nodded hello to the man that sells oysters, although I didn't order any today--not sure exactly why. I listened to the traditional jazz band that was playing. I admired a woman's lilies and noticed that the older woman who sells jams and jellies from Southern recipes was looking a little frail. I hope she is well. I love her pepper jelly and her tomato jelly--although they last me so long that I don't buy either as often as I wish I could. I hadn't been to the market in a long time, but it was a pleasant way to start the day. As tomato season approaches, I'll be going more often in the coming weeks.
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