Saturday, September 24, 2011

Wines I'm Drinking: Sicilian Wine Tasting at Traverso's in Santa Rosa (September 24, 2011)

Traverso's in Santa Rosa--one of the North Bay's best places to shop for Italian and other wines--hosts wine tastings in the store on most Saturdays. Today the tasting featured two white wines and three reds (one of which was a dessert wine) from Sicily. I especially enjoyed the 2010 Donnafugato "Anthilia" Sicilia Bianco, a blend of 51% Catarratto with other indigenous grapes, mostly Grillo. It smelled of hazelnuts and tasted of citrus fruits. It had a remarkably fresh balance of crisp acidity and fruity sweetness. Something on the rather long finish reminded me of intensely ripe white nectarines--sour and sweet at the same time. I liked this wine enough to take home a bottle and to go by three grocery stores on the way home to pick up foods that I thought would complement it--raw oysters, prosciutto and pears, mushrooms, truffle-stuffed brie....

I also tasted the 2009 Tasca D'Almerita "Leone" Sicilia Bianco, a white again made mostly of Catarratto, but with 20% Chardonnay--another tasty wine, but without the zip and zing of the Donnafugato wine. The dry reds, also from Donnafugato, were a mainly Nero d'Avola wine with some Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, and other grapes (the 2009 "Sedara" bottling), a fairly tannic, somewhat rustic offering with an interesting hint of bitterness on the finish, and the "Tancredi" bottling, 70% Nero d'Avola, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, a very nicely balanced, much more sophisticated wine that I enjoyed very much. The tasting finished with the 2007 Donnafugato "Ben Rye" Passito di Pantelleria, a passito wine (wine with raisined grapes added to the fermentation to boost the sugar and alcohol content of the finished wine) from the little island of Pantelleria, off the southwest coast of Sicily, a wine that tasted like bottled apricots. The "Anthilia" wine was excellent with raw oysters, and with the cheeses I bought. These Saturday tastings at Traverso's are well worth attending.

[Update: Traverso's has gone out of business since this was written.]

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Wines I'm Making: Grapes Coming Along Nicely (2011)

Having recently added nets and raised the level of the electric fence around our grape vines, it's now been about a week without any further damage or losses to the raccoons or possums or whatever it is that eats them at night.

It's the time of year that grape growers sit back and wait, periodically checking sugar and acid levels, looking also at the visible signs of ripeness in their grapes. This morning and yesterday I tested a couple of berries for ripeness. I was a little surprised to find the Sangiovese at 19 brix, the Cabernet Sauvignon already at 20.5 brix. The berries are deeply colored. The Cabernet seeds are uniformly brown and they are crunchy. In other words, the Cabernet fruit is looking rather more ripe than I was expecting. I think it will still be two to three weeks to harvest (I try to pick at about 24.5 brix), but the grapes appear to be coming along nicely, aided by uniformly warm weather in the past week or so. The forecast is for temperatures into the low 90s for the coming week, which should keep sugar levels rising.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Books I'm Reading: The Art Instinct

I just finished Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct (Bloomsbury Press, 2009), a book I picked up remaindered somewhere just because it looked interesting--and it was.

Dutton looks at art, beauty, and pleasure from an evolutionary perspective. That simple sentence would be enough to set off alarms in some quarters--notably among feminists, always wary (and probably rightly so) of anything that might suggest cultural (often male-dominated) norms are somehow determined by evolution (and therefore unassailable) or that mainstream pop-culture ideas about beauty are innate and therefore inevitable. However, Dutton is not a polemicist and he's mostly not making claims about what specifically is and is not beautiful. He is talking more about broad tendencies that go across cultural boundaries. He is less concerned with particular instances of preferences in beauty and art than in arguing that we do, in fact, have preferences, that they appear to be nearly universal, and that the existence of preferences has been adaptive in an evolutionary sense. I think feminists would have relatively little to take offense at here, although I'm willing to admit that, being a man, I may be insufficiently sensitive.

Acknowledging that evolutionary psychology can be rather too easily used to justify existing cultural constructs, I think Dutton has much useful and interesting to say about both people and art. He starts by asking one of many interesting questions: Why should discussions of art be excluded from examination from a Darwinian perspective when so many other fields have advanced through just such a view? As Dutton puts it, "The evolution of Homo sapiens in the last million years is not just a history of how we came to have acute color vision, a taste for sweets, and an upright gait. It is also a story of how we became a species obsessed with creating artistic experiences with which to amuse, shock, titillate, and enrapture ourselves, from children's games to the quartets of Beethoven, from firelit caves to the continuous worldwide glow of television screens." In fact, he argues against the view that feminists seem to fear. Defining art quite broadly to include a wide array of images and creative endeavors (for example, calendar photos), not only what we call "fine arts," he suggests, for example, that tastes in landscapes "are not just products of social conditioning, stemming from manipulative choices made by calendar manufacturers (or by landscape artists); rather people who make and sell calendars are catering to prehistoric tastes shared by their customers across the globe." As the title of the book suggests, the main point Dutton makes is that the need to create art is potent and universal--we instinctively create art--and, to understand that, we must assume that the presence of an art instinct has been an adaptive advantage.

There isn't room in a short review to cover all the arguments in the book, but I applaud the author for attempting to define art--a daunting task--even if I don't agree entirely with the criteria he chooses (for example, his list of traits common to what we call art would seem to slight abstract art and to exclude art created by atheists). The chapter on fiction--storytelling--was especially thought-provoking, and I enjoyed the sections that dealt with artistic intention (does the artist's intent have a legitimate bearing on how we evaluate a work of art?), with notions of originality in art (why do we treat forgeries and originals differently?), with the difference between an art and a craft, and with kitsch. For Dutton, these questions are important because they shed light on aspects of the adaptive advantages of an art instinct. This is the sort of book that's hard to digest on first reading. I suspect I'll read it again. Recommended.

Music I'm Listening To: Yo-Yo Ma with MTT Conducting the San Francisco Symphony (September 15, 2011)

Thursday night [September 15] I attended a performance of the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. Yo-Yo Ma was guest soloist in Hindemith's Cello Concerto of 1940. The concert opened with Beethoven's Lenore Overture No. 3 and closed, after intermission, with a performance of the Symphony No. 1, by Brahms.

The last time I heard Yo-Yo Ma was in Tokyo, about 15 years ago, at a sold-out concert for which I was unable to get good tickets. Many of the seats had been bought up by corporations and given away to clients--people that didn't really have much interest in being there except to see a musical celebrity (that's my theory anyway). Whatever the reason, the concert was marred by a very noisy, inattentive audience and by my distance from the stage. Thursday was a rather different experience: I got the impression the crowd was there for the music and not the star status of the soloist (although a few people left at intermission). Perhaps it helped that the concert was being taped--before the performance began a man came out on stage and asked everyone to be as quiet as possible so as not to mar the recording. Also, last night I was sitting close to the performers.

I'm used to sitting at the back of the first floor at Davies Symphony Hall, but having noticed a dead spot just under the overhang of the balcony, I had the seats changed this season to the fourth row. I like being able to see the instruments at close range--stringed instruments come in a fascinating variety of colors, ranging from deep chestnut brown through various reddish tones and into almost blonde shades. I like being able to watch fingers flying up and down the fingerboards of the cellos and I like feeling the low-frequency vibrations of the string basses. Close seats allow a good view of the soloist (although on Thursday night the conductor blocked my view as often as not). On the down side, the sound can lack integration. Sitting at the right side of the hall (facing the stage), I got rather too much of the basses and the cellos while the violins and other sections of the orchestra seemed slightly distant. As the closer seats are also lower seats, you don't get a full view of the players when sitting close; I missed being able to see all of the orchestra in action, and it was difficult to see which musicians the conductor was acknowledging after each piece. So, the up-front location has both advantages and disadvantages.

Watching Mr. Ma play reminded me of seeing Rostropovich play in Tokyo in the late 1990s and, for what are probably less obvious reasons, of watching violinist Hilary Hahn in San Francisco a couple of years ago. Rostropovich was well into his seventies when I saw him, but he had a focus, intensity, and sheer energy that would have been remarkable in a man half his age. Mr. Ma has the same sort of presence, the same sort of focus and intensity while playing.Both men (and Hahn) simultaneously exude a relaxed self-assuredness and an inner joyfulness that seems perpetually in danger of brimming over. After the Hindemith Mr. Ma spent as much time applauding for the orchestra with a grin of pleasure as he did acknowledging the applause meant for him. He assumes a rather more slouched posture than many cellists when playing, which adds to his general air of easy-going confidence. During passages in the Hindemith concerto when the cello rests, Mr. Ma frequently turned half around to look at the orchestra with a broad smile on his face. Ms. Hahn did something similar during the performance of the Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto I attended. In both cases, you could almost hear an inner voice saying "What fun this is--how lucky I am to be here!" The best performers at their best always seem to be having a great deal of fun, no matter how serious the music. I've seen it in performances by the New Century Chamber Orchestra, by Kyung-Wha Chung, by Elly Ameling, by conductors such as James Gaffigan and Gustavo Dudamel. It's infectious.

The performance of the Beethoven overture seemed correct but lacking in sparkle. I enjoyed hearing the Brahms Symphony No. 1 live for the first time--in places, the unison of the string sections was thrilling, concertmaster Alexander Barantschik played the solo violin sections near the end of the piece especially sweetly--but MTTs reading seemed uneven in the final movement, where the tempo was allowed to wander in a way that broke the tension written into the music--or so it seemed to me. I wonder why such familiar standards as the Beethoven and Brahms pieces were chosen to bracket the very mid-20th century Hindemith concerto (which turned out to be the highlight of the evening)? Despite a little confusion when Mr. Ma's music misbehaved (at one point MTT was crouched down, conducting with one hand, while reaching back with his other hand, trying to hold the pages open for the soloist), the orchestra was tight, focused, and electrifyingly precise. It's unusual to be able to single out a tympanist, but the man behind the copper pots was amazing on Thursday night--shooting out bullets of sound that punctuated some of the more exuberant passages with a superb combination of power and precision. The woodwinds were in top form as well (especially the oboe and flute), but that's normal in San Francisco. I'm familiar with some of the less well known modern cello concertos--those by Dutilleux and Lutoslawski, in particular--but the Hindemith was unfamiliar to me. I enjoyed it enough to think I'd like to hear it again. I wonder who has recorded it?

Photo of Yo-Yo Ma by Michael O'Neill, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony
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