Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Books I'm Reading: Winston Churchill's Closing the Ring (December 26, 2012)

Closing the Ring, volume five of Winston Churchill's six-volume history of WWII, The Second World War, is the shortest of the six volumes, at about 640 pages, but it is as interesting as the preceding volumes. Closing the Ring takes the reader from June 1943 to June 1944--to the eve of "Overlord," the Normandy landings that opened a second major front in Europe. Perhaps the central event of the period was the shift of Italy from the Axis side of the conflict to the side of the Allies, with the successful invasion of Sicily and the overthrow of Mussolini. In the Pacific theater, Japan is no longer expanding but instead struggling to maintain control of the vast area her armies had conquered.

Much of the volume deals with the conferences among the allies at Quebec, Washington, and Tehran held to unify strategy, mostly centering on the ongoing preparations for the Normandy invasion. Sections dealing with actual fighting focus on the above-mentioned progress against Japan and events in Greece and Italy (mainly Anzio and Cassino), as well as the fighting around Imphal, in India.

Perhaps of greatest interest in this volume is the drama surrounding the British, US, and Soviet discussions about whether to stage a diversionary attack in the south of France (up the Rhone Valley) in conjunction with the Normandy invasion and the timing of such an attack. The southern invasion was conceived at the Tehran conference as a means of keeping German forces pinned down in the south and away from the struggle anticipated on the northern beaches of France as "Overloard" began. Churchill sees a stubborn US attachment to the southern invasion plan, known as "Anvil," at the expense of making further advances in Italy (and after conditions have changed) as a mistake in strategy (conditions were no longer what they had been at the time of the Tehran discussions--in particular, progress in Italy had been much slower than anticipated). Churchill believed also that the Rhone Valley was too far from Normandy to be an effective diversion anyway--better to press ahead in Italy while concentrating in France on "Overlord." In this volume, we begin to see growing American muscle overshadowing British contributions, and Churchill's frustration and annoyance at US influence are at times palpable--which is not to say that he is ungracious; he remains single-mindedly focused on winning the war by whatever means--but ultimately the US view prevailed over what Churchill saw as a superior plan. Closing the Ring, like the preceding volumes is well-written, detailed, and insightful, but I sensed Churchill's energy beginning to wane, and he paints with rather broader strokes here than in earlier volumes. Nevertheless, another worthy installment. On to the sixth and final volume....

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Plants I'm Growing: Outliers (December 25, 2012)

Recently I noticed a couple of plants in the garden blooming earlier than usual. First blooms on the dainty little cyclamen Cyclamen coum under the Japanese maple at the back of the house opened the day before yesterday (December 23). This is usually the first flower to bloom each year. Typically the earliest buds open in the first week of January. They bloomed on December 23 also in 2010 (which I counted as 2011), so this is not unprecedented, but on January 8 in 2009 and January 3 in 2010, so still earlier than usual (photo above).

The white flowering plum (Prunus mume) began blooming on December 21 or so, which is considerably earlier than usual. This plant bloomed on January 4, 2011, January 19, 2010, and January 20, 2009. Perhaps early because of all the rain this year?


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Miscellaneous: Take Back the 2nd Amendment (December 22, 2012)

It seems to me that to take back the 2nd Amendment would be to restore its reading and interpretation to what it has been through most of US history--that the government shall not have the right to prohibit the creation and maintenance of a well-regulated militia. The current pro-gun, NRA-created and abetted view of the 2nd Amendment that claims all Americans have the right to own as many guns as they like and guns of any type whatsoever, regardless of their redundant lethality is recent and anomalous, as far as I can tell. With this in mind, I Googled the phrase "Take back the 2nd Amendment." Should I have been surprised to find a Facebook page with that name and that it's a page run by gun advocates? I'm baffled. What do they mean by taking back the 2nd Amendment, I wonder?

Rain: And Thunder and Lightning (December 21-22, 2012)

An electrical storm last night (unusual here in Santa Rosa) dropped another 2.85 inches on us. That brings our 2012-2013 rainy season total to 17.70 inches. Normal for this date is about 11.5 inches, so we are way ahead so far. Historical average annual rainfall for Santa Rosa is about 36 inches, we're half way there.

[Update: Very heavy rain fell during the morning and early afternoon today, December 23--some of it about the heaviest downpour I've ever witnessed. We've had another 2.30 inches since the report above. That brings our total as of the evening of the 23rd to 20.00 inches.]

[Update: More rain on Christmas Day added another 1.25 inches, bringing the total to 21.25 inches.]

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Movies I'm Watching: Lincoln (December 18, 2012)

I've just seen Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, and many others. I enjoyed the film. It never felt like it was dragging, despite its length (150 minutes), but it could have been much better, it seems to me.

The period is nicely re-created. The props and costumes seem carefully researched and accurate. The use of a muted color palette--colors that look slightly faded--is an anachronism, but it works, somehow making it easier to believe that we are back in 1865. Although it's nonsensical to think color would have been any less vibrant then than it is now, the subdued tones somehow make it easier to suspend disbelief, despite the logical contradiction involved. It is the one anachronism in the film that seems worth the sacrifice of truth. The device is used particularly in some of the outdoor scenes.

For the most part, the cast seemed of the period. The rather colorful goings-on in the House of Representatives and the flamboyant language used seems consistent with the history I know (imagine how much better C-Span ratings would be if our representatives spoke with the same forthrightness, animation, and verbal invention today). Daniel Day-Lewis is entirely believable as Lincoln, and the long shots of him, in particular, beautifully capture the tall, lanky form we associate with our 16th president. As usual, Day-Lewis delivers what seems a pitch-perfect performance. David Straithairn (as Seward) and Hal Holbrook (as Blair), are stand-outs among the supporting cast. Sally Field gives a fine performance, but her face is so strongly associated in my mind with her early TV role as "The Flying Nun" that I'm afraid I found it hard to completely accept her as Mrs. Lincoln--a curse of my generation. No fault of Ms. Field's, of course. The boy playing Tad (Gulliver McGrath) seemed right as well. It would take a second viewing to connect all the names of the various other actors with the many well-played smaller roles. The end credits rolled by much too quickly.    

Above I've listed some of what seemed right about Lincoln. A few scenes seemed out of kilter with the rest of the movie, however. The bloody opening scene, in particular, seemed entirely unnecessary--a gratuitous reminder that the Civil War involved a great deal of bloody hand-to-hand conflict with comparatively primitive weapons, a point that no longer needs to be made. This seemed an overdramatization. Spielberg never seems willing to give his audience credit for any intelligence, but perhaps this particular choice was more the fault of the script than the director. The early scenes seem to be designed also to make the point that former slaves and freedmen were fighting as soldiers for the Union, a point that could have been more subtly made.

I found it hard to accept another early scene that had Lincoln talking to soldiers, both black and white, that recite by heart his Gettysburg Address--a piece of writing that is rightly revered, but a speech I doubt was accorded then (scarcely a year after it was uttered) the same almost worshipful appreciation it enjoys today. It was admired among the president's political supporters (although ridiculed by newspapers unsympathetic to the president) and it was widely printed and disseminated, yet it seems unlikely that so many soldiers would have known the lines by heart that a randomly chosen handful would be made up entirely of men that had mostly committed Lincoln's now-famous words to memory. Perhaps I'm wrong about this. I don't know.

A later scene involves the president arguing with his oldest son, Robert, who wants to enlist and fight (President Lincoln and his wife, still grieving from the loss of another son, have done all they can to keep Robert out of the army). Robert feels his non-participation is an affront to his manhood. He is finally prompted to defy his father by the sight outside a military hospital of two men pushing a wheelbarrow dripping blood. Robert follows the men to the back of the building where they dump a pile of amputated limbs into a pit already partly filled with arms and legs. What seems wrong about the scene (if it was necessary at all) is that a blanket or some such large piece of cloth is thrown over the wheelbarrow, hiding the limbs. After four years of bloody war and in an age when people were far less squeamish than we are, it is likely that no one would have bothered, and it takes little imagination as a viewer to guess what the men are transporting. Why be coy? This seems another example of overdramatization and lack of respect for the moviegoer's intelligence. Are we supposed to be surprised when the cloth is drawn away and the limbs tumble into the pit when it has been obvious from the outset?

Among the biggest failings, in my view, is the handling of the climactic scene--the roll call vote on the 13th Amendment to the constitution that abolished slavery. It's drawn out needlessly here. It's very simply preposterous to think that there would have been any kind of cliffhanger moment--that no one would have known the outcome until it was formerly announced to the speaker of the house. As the count came in, those present would surely have been keeping tally themselves. It would have been apparent that the amendment had passed as soon as the required number of votes came in—before the entire roll had been called. Another example of force-fed drama where a quieter, more subtle approach would have been sufficient—and ultimately more powerful. Repeatedly in this film we see Spielberg as magician reaching into his hat to pull out a rabbit, the magician seemingly oblivious to the fact that he's chosen a top hat made of glass: We can see the rabbit before the trick is done.

The end of the film, too, seems poorly conceived. The scene between Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and his quadroon housekeeper in bed, for example, was somewhat baffling, as it comes out of the blue (unless you already know the history). Their relationship was a real one. The housekeeper was Lydia Hamilton Smith and apparently she and Stevens were lovers, but the relationship could have been more subtly suggested if there were no time to develop it as part of the story. Instead of trying to surprise us with this sudden revelation (another rabbit), why not explain what their relationship actually was? Throughout Lincoln there is an overt, well-intentioned surface effort to be respectful of the African Americans portrayed without any attempt to clarify exactly what these people were doing at the time, which, apparently, was far more than the film suggests. Spielberg's treatment gives the impression that free blacks in Washington and elsewhere were patiently waiting around for white men to hand them freedom--which is not entirely true.

Likewise, I fail to understand the point of the late clip of Lincoln delivering part of his Second Inaugural Address, which comes after we are shown Lincoln dead. The way it's presented, it has the feel of an outtake pinned to the film's backside just because someone thought it would be a shame to waste it. The assassination itself could have been left out, too, for that matter. We know that part of the story. The film would have been far more effective if it had concentrated on the drama chosen for its focus--the politics--letting that drama speak for itself.

Not a bad film. As I say, it's sufficiently interesting that it doesn't seem overly long, despite its two-and-a-half hour running time, but it suffers from perhaps the most common flaw of much Hollywood filmmaking: It is heavy-handed where it doesn't need to be. It assumes that its audience lacks intelligence and is incapable of enjoying anything but the crudest forms of entertainment.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Rain: More Drizzle and Rain--and More on the Way (December 17, 2012)

We've had more rain and drizzle in the past couple of days, particularly on the 16th. The rain gauge has another 0.9 inches in it. That brings our total so far in the 2012/2013 rain year to 14.85 inches, well ahead of normal. Today was clear, but more rain is on the way....

Found Art: Mud Ripples after Rain (December 17, 2012)

Last week, heavy rains caused Spring Lake, a nearby reservoir, to overflow, along with many of the channels that feed the lake. The overlow left behind mud and debris that was generally a mess, but in certain places, it created rather beautiful ripples of mud--mud that is now mostly gone. Ephemeral art.

For more found art, see my blog Serendipitous Art.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Miscellaneous: Yet Another Mass Shooting (December 15, 2012)

It is deeply disturbing, sad, and tragic that not two days after the mall shooting in Oregon, the nation--the world--is in mourning for 20 young children and six schoolteachers murdered with handguns in the United States, this time in Newtown, Connecticut. In addition, the shooter killed his own mother.

Enough is enough, isn't it? Let the rage lead to something this time. We are not impotent. Write to the president, your representatives, your senators. Make it clear that you want sensible gun control if that is what you want. It's what I want. There appears to be much support for arguments that point to a lack of adequate mental health services as a contributing factor in this and similar incidents--another area of policy that could use an overhaul.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Miscellaneous: "Typical for Mass Shooters" (December 12, 2012)

Yesterday, yet another killer armed with a semi-automatic weapon opened fire in a crowd, this time in a shopping mall in Portland, Oregon. He killed two people and wounded several others before killing himself. The shooter was 22 years old. How does a young man of 22--or of any age--get his hands on an assault rifle? It must be a fairly easy thing to do, which says something about our idiotic gun laws that no one wants to hear.

But we are used to such things by now. They have become positively normal. The tone of news reports about the incident is indicative. One report I read noted that the young man wore a ski mask and went on to quote former FBI agent (and ABC News contributor) Brad Garrett as saying "The shooter's mask is typical for mass shooters, who often dress up in costume or wear something other than their regular clothes when they open fire in public." Is it just me? Or is it not deeply depressing to hear a news commentator use the term "mass shooter" as if he thinks it a rather ordinary category of persons--like "golf player" or "gift shopper"? "Open fire in public"? It's what mass shooters do.

[Update: And today, December 14, a man armed with three guns walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and killed (besides himself) 20 young students and six staff members. Earlier in the day, he shot and killed his own mother. I know all the arguments, but it still seems to me that we REALLY need to do something about the availability of weapons of mass murder in this country.]

Friday, December 7, 2012

Music I'm Listening to: The San Francisco Symphony's Inaugural Concert at the Green Music Center (December 6, 2012)

Last night I attended the first performance of the San Francisco Symphony in the new Green Music Center. I had seen the main concert hall at the Center twice before--once before the seats were installed and a second time when Santa Rosa Symphony subscribers were given an opportunity to see the finished hall, a few months back. This was my first experience of a performance there. The new complex is in Rohnert Park, only about 20 minutes south of where I live. I'm used to seeing the San Francisco performers at their home base, Davies Symphony Hall, in San Francisco, a much longer drive. Naturally, I was most curious about how the main hall sounds--and I was looking forward to better sound than at Davies, which seems to have some unfortunate dead spots, but I was also curious to see how people moved in the new space, to test the seats for comfort, to check out the sight lines, to get a feel for how the audiences and performers felt there.

On the program were Richard Strauss's tone poem Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, the world premiere of Mark Volkert's Pandora, and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, Yefim Bronfman soloist.  Michael Tilson Thomas led the orchestra. Mark Volkert is the San Francisco Symphony's Assistant Concertmaster--and a composer, which was news to me.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas appeared very pleased to be at the new venue. Following the opening piece, the Strauss tone poem, he addressed the audience briefly. He spoke mostly about the Mark Volkert composition, but also suggested that the San Francisco Symphony was excited to be performing at the Green Music Center. He referred to it as an historic night at "your new concert hall" and then corrected himself, calling it "our new concert hall."

I found the seats comfortable enough, although the arm rests are rather narrow and I wouldn't call the seating inviting, beautiful as it is to look at. The seats aren't ones you sink into a little for a feeling of pampered support. They are merely solid. I sat dead center in Row O, which has no seats immediately in front of it, so it was hard for me to get an idea of leg room or of the sight lines from the center portion of the main hall (I was wondering how easy it is to see over people's heads, as the pitch of the floor seems quite gradual), but a perfect location for attempting to judge the sound quality. During intermission, the central gathering area outside the performance hall proper felt decidedly cramped. Patrons lined up to get a glass of wine or coffee and a cookie filled the entire center of the room in two rows, making it difficult to walk across the space--or anywhere at all. There was no room to stroll about or watch people come and go (intermission's greatest pleasure), although on warm evenings it will be possible to enjoy the presumably less crowded entrance area outside the building, which is lined with rather impressive old olive trees.

I wish I were an acoustician. I can't make a professional judgment of the sound quality, but I noticed a few things of interest. In a word or two, the hall sounds immediate and clean with very little reverberation (to my ears, anyway). The result is that the sound has real presence but feels a trifle cold. The reflections are mostly lateral (with very little seeming to come from the very high ceiling) and very quick, which gives the sound great clarity and quite an amazing sense of dimensional precision--if that's the right phrase. What I mean is that you can very clearly hear where the sound of each instrument is coming from. Its position to the left or right side of the stage is quite apparent. For the most part, these seem to be good things.

However, the spatial clarity created a slightly disconcerting effect I've never experienced in a concert hall before. There was a disjunct between the actual and apparent sources of the sound of Bronfman's piano, for example. The actual origin of sound radiating from a piano, I suspect, lies in a small, somewhat diffuse range defined by the midpoints of the strings being struck by the piano's hammers at a given moment. I may be wrong. I'm not a physicist. It may be a range defined by the points of contact between the hammers and the piano strings. At any rate, it's inside the "box" of the piano, not at the pianist's fingers on the keyboard, which is where I think we expect it to be--however wrongly. In other words,  the actual sound source is about two and a half feet behind the keyboard, or, from the perspective of a listener with the piano placed at right angles to the seats in a concert hall, about two and a half feet to the right. Sitting in the fifteenth row (plus the aisle in front of me), I was perhaps 50 feet from the piano. The time difference between sound arriving at my ears from the apparent point of its origin (the keyboard) and its actual point of origin (to the right, somewhere inside the box) must be very small indeed. Ordinarily in such situations the brain easily tricks us into hearing the sound coming from where we expect it, which is at the point of the activity we see (fingers at the keyboard). The result of the very precise sound of the new hall was that Bronfman's playing was unambiguously radiating from inside the piano box, to the right, while his fingers seemed to be doing something entirely unrelated off to the left. That is, the acoustics are so precise that the brain has trouble connecting the dots. The effect was particularly remarkable when the pianist's left hand (further away and often not visible on the lower keys) was running up the keyboard in quick scales while the more visible right hand was playing a different line on the higher keys. The scales seemed like the singing voices of creatures alive inside the black piano case, quite independent of what Bronfman was doing at the keyboard. I regret I was unable to attend the pre-concert tour yesterday led by one of the men that designed the hall.

I imagine my position exactly at the center of the space had something to do with the effect. By pointing it out, I don't mean to criticize, necessarily. I mean it rather as a comment on the qualities of the new concert hall, which, generally speaking, I liked. It's certainly a huge improvement over the sound at the old Luther Burbank Center for the Performing Arts. It will require more visits to our new concert hall to get a real sense of the place, but, so far, I'm encouraged to think the experience there will be good. I deeply resent, however, being asked to pay $10 to park in one of the ample, immediately adjacent Sonoma State University parking lots that normally cost $2 to park in. Parking was free at The Luther Burbank Center. I believe it bad policy to do anything that supports the notion that the arts are for rich people only. Charging for parking helps make live music less accessible to people of ordinary means. It's bad enough having the name of Sanford Weill on the new hall.  

As for the performance, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas led the orchestra in what seemed a clean, correct reading of Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks (the French horns stood out for their warmth and their fine unison playing), and Bronfman handled the Beethoven concerto with seemingly effortless aplomb. I wouldn't call Mr. Bronfman portly, but he's not a small man. Words like "nimble" are not the first that come to mind as he walks on stage, yet his playing is wonderfully quick and agile. I very much enjoyed his interpretation of the concerto.

The highlight of the evening, however, was Volkert's Pandora. Pandora is written for strings only and Volkert takes full advantage of the aural possibilities stringed instruments offer, using a range of extended techniques. The piece reminded me of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra--not because of any melodic resemblance, but because of the way soloists and small ensembles within the larger group are momentarily given a leading role before the flow of the piece is handed back or passed to another group or soloist. Although this is "program music" based on the story of Pandora unleashing myriad woes upon the human race, it can be enjoyed without any thought about the narrative content--like any good program music. All in all, an enjoyable evening.

Photo of Yefim Bronfman by Dario Acosta, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Tidbits: RIP--Dave Brubeck (December 5, 2012)

I see that jazz great Dave Brubeck died today, a day shy of his 92nd birthday. A long and full life. He performed into his late 80s, I understand. He's best remembered for his album Time Out (1959) famous for its use of odd time signatures (for jazz at least) and for the track "Take Five," in particular. "Take Five" is in 5/4 time, "Blue Rondo a la Turk" in 9/8 time. He's also often remembered as being the first modern jazz musician to be on the cover of TIME Magazine. I was always impressed by his humility when chosen for the cover. He rightly believed there were more deserving musicians who were black (like Duke Ellington). He was, in fact, deeply embarrassed to have been the first modern jazz musician on the cover of TIME (I base this on an interview of him I once saw in which he said as much).

Monday, December 3, 2012

Miscellaneous: Storms Fill Spring Lake to Overflowing (December 3, 2012)

I popped over to Spring Lake briefly yesterday to try to photograph an unusual bird reported there (which turned out to be a hybrid Red-naped Sapsucker x Red-breasted Sapsucker). Storms recently have dumped many inches of rain on us and Spring Lake suddenly filled to overflowing. The park was officially closed, but I walked in to look around a little. I wasn't the only one. The bird I was looking for had been made inaccessible by the flooding. Many of the trails were under several feet of water. A couple of guys on mountain bikes tried to stay on the trails, just for the fun of it. They somehow managed to stay upright (photo below). It was impossible to make a circuit of the lake, though. I contented myself with taking in the novel aspect of this familiar place. Before leaving, I spent a while watching and photographing Nuttall's and Downy Woodpeckers eating Chinese pistachio berries, which is somewhat unusual behavior for these birds. The storm added 2.45 inches of precipitation to our 2012/2013 total, which now stands at 12.65 inches (at my house anyway) as of December 3, which is well ahead of normal for this date (7.43 inches).

[Update: Subsequent rain added another 1.1 inches. The total was 13.75 inches as of 10:00PM on December 5.]

[Update: Since last reporting, we have had another 0.2 inches, bringing the total to 13.95 inches as of December 14, 2012.]

Friday, November 30, 2012

Wines I'm Making : 2012 Sangiovese Rosé Bottled (November 30, 2012)

Didn't quite make it for Thanksgiving, as we sometimes do, but the 2012 rosé from our little backyard vineyard will be ready for Christmas this year--actually, well before; I bottled the wine today.

It appears to be excellent. Good color--a deep magenta pink--with a soft, fruity nose, crispness on the palate and with a solid core of fruit behind the acidity. Delicious. Made only 15 bottles, which is typical, as we have only nine Sangiovese vines, but that allows us to drink a bottle every few weeks, and it's very satisfying to drink wine from grapes you've grown yourself, crushed and fermented yourself, and bottled yourself. Now it's time to design a new label.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Books I'm Reading: The Hinge of Fate (November 29, 2012)

The Hinge of Fate is the fourth volume in Winston Churchill's six-volume history of WWII The Second World War. It is much the fattest of the six volumes, at over 900 pages including the detailed appendices. This volume covers Japan's early victories, and, in the Mediterranean, the long string of defeats the allies suffered in North Africa. As in the preceding volumes, Churchill speaks in the first person and, naturally, from the perspective of the British experience. He again relies heavily on "directives, telegrams, and minutes upon the daily conduct of the war and of British affairs"--documents written by Churchill himself during the conflict, and on replies and responses to the many telegrams and reports he authored during the conflict. These are supplemented by the author's retrospective analysis. He again writes in minute detail and neglects no sphere of activity, even including a chapter on the situation in Madagascar. Madagascar is not a country I'd ever thought of as being involved in WWII, but I was wrong. A considerable amount of the writing involves political developments in England and there is a great deal of material that illuminates the personal characters of President Roosevelt and Stalin through Churchill's dealings with these men. It is particularly interesting to watch the development of Churchill's impatience with what he sees as Roosevelt's exaggerated opinion of the importance of the Chinese and with Roosevelt's somewhat naive approach to dealing with Stalin.

It's only at the very end of this long book that much hopeful news emerges. The allies finally stop the German advance in the deserts of North Africa at Alamein, and the US begins to have some success against the Japanese in the Pacific. Churchill says about the victory at Alamein that it will survive as "a glorious page in British military annals" because of the long odds against success the allied armies faced, but also because "it marked the turning of 'the hinge of fate.'" "It may almost be said," Churchill writes, "Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat." Hence the title.

Books about war often dwell on details of clashes of arms, creating the false impression that wars are won exclusively on the battlefield. Churchill sketches battles only broadly, while focusing as much or more on the decision-making behind strategy, on politics behind the scenes, and on such mundane issues as supply and logistics and how they affected planning and the outcomes of the physical struggles we normally think of as the activity of war. I felt a little overwhelmed by the end of The Hinge of Fate. In places it even felt a little tedious. However, while Churchill's insistence on covering all of his activity during the war can be challenging, it ultimately has the positive effect of bringing home very clearly just how important the details are, particularly getting supply and logistics right, and in Volume V, there will much more of this leading up to the invasion of Normandy, a project of unprecedented scale and one that involved a great deal of delicate diplomacy.

Rain: Stormy Weather (November 29, 2012)

A series of storms has been moving through Northern California in the past couple of days. We've had 1.4 inches of rain so far yesterday and today. The wind has been sporadically fierce. The new precipitation brings our total for the 2012/2013 rainy season to 6.95 inches, which is a little above normal for this time of year (6.76 inches by November 29). Average annual rainfall in Santa Rosa is 36.28 inches. The "rain year" goes from July 1 to June 30 of the following year.

[Update: Still raining and pouring rather spectacularly at times. So far, as of noon on November 30, we've had another 3.3 inches of rain. The total--for the time being--stands at 10.25 inches, which is above normal for this date.]

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Found art: Museum Shadows (November 24, 2012)

The black feet of a statue and its shadow in the De Young Museum, in San Francisco, made this abstract composition. Found art.

For more found art, see my blog Serendipitous Art.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Wines I'm Drinking: Old Burgundy (November 22, 2012)

Well, in the end*, I opened a 1980 Hospice de Beaune Cuvée Madelieine-Collginon Mazis-Chambertin and a 1989 Chambolle-Musigny "Les Charmes" from Bernard Amiot. I was worried about the condition of both wines, and so had the Échézeaux in the picture ready as a back-up, but, happily, both wines were delicious--quite mature, and therefore very soft and silky, but with real presence, too. The younger wine was predictably a little brighter and fresher, but the consensus was that the Mazis-Chambertin was much the better (equally predictably). I'm just glad both wines were in good shape. Makes one long for Paris and Beaune.

*This post follows on from yesterday's pre-Thanksgiving post.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Wines I'm Drinking: Coq au Vin and Pinot Noir (November 21, 2012)

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. I plan to make coq au vin--that venerable French chicken stew that always puts me immediately in mind of a Hugh Johnson remark about the dish. In the 1997 edition of his Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine, he said "Coq au vin: In an ideal world, one bottle of Chambertin in the dish, two on the table." This is not quite an ideal world. While I do have at least one bottle of old Gevrey Chambertin to serve tomorrow night (if not Chambertin proper), I don't think I have two--and, frankly, the mature wines I have tucked away would do less well in a coq au vin, I suspect, than something younger and more vibrant. I picked up two bottles for use in the pot tomorrow. I went looking for inexpensive Pinot Noir (relatively speaking) that would still be good enough to add some worthwhile flavor to the cooking. I sampled them this evening--not one to miss a chance to taste a couple of new wines. Brief tasting notes follow.

2011 McManis Family Vineyards California Pinot Noir
A fairly deep carmine hue. Light raspberry scent on the nose. Fairly simple, clean fruit scents but with a suggestion of vanilla. Doesn't jump out of the glass. Later develops some citrus hints. Quite tart. Has an underlying core of fruit tending toward cherries, but the fruit is masked by the rather bright acidity--at least at first. Not especially long, but has some interesting, lingering bitter almond flavors on the finish that mingle with the tartness. I decided to leave this open for while to see if it might evolve into something a little softer and more approachable. Coming back to the wine after an hour or so, the mid-palate cherries seemed laced with vanilla, but the wine still seemed mostly distinguished by its tartness. Not in any way unpleasant, but seems in no way special either. Suitable for everyday drinking, but there are other wines I'd rather spend $11 on. I'll cook with this tomorrow, but I'm not likely to buy it again for drinking. Still, this is a decent wine given the price. $10.99 at Santa Rosa Whole Foods.

2010 A to Z Oregon Pinot Noir
A medium-pale garnet color. Oak and smoky scents on the nose rather than fruit. Hints of something tropical that put me momentarily in mind of gardenia--not a scent I usually associate with Pinot Noir. Orange rind in the background and also something bitter--like Campari. Musky hints too, but not classic Burgundy barnyard either. A moderately complex, if unorthodox nose. First impression on the palate is one of tartness and little else, but quite fruity and momentarily sweet on the mid-palate before developing slightly woody, herbal flavors on the finish, which is of moderate length. The finish is marked also by a fairly strong dose of oaky vanillin. Like the McManis wine, solid but not exciting. I probably won't buy more of this one either, although it was ultimately the more interesting of the two wines. I will mostly use it in tomorrow's coq au vin. $19.99 at Santa Rosa Whole Foods.

For the record: Yes, I know it's NOT true that cooking wine can be any old wine. As many have pointed out before me, when you cook with wine, you boil off the water and the alcohol for the most part, and what you're left with is precisely what makes the difference between a good wine and an ordinary one. Thus, it makes sense to cook with the best wine you can afford to use. That said, I can't bring myself to pour an entire bottle of Gevrey Chambertin into the pot. We'll be opening old Burgundy tomorrow to drink.

(I have no financial connection with any producer or retailer of wine.) 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Rain: Storm Drops 2.1 Inches (November 18, 2012)

The recent storm dropped a healthy 2.1 inches of rain at my house. It was mostly dry today (Sunday), but more rain is predicted for tomorrow. That's likely to require an update, but so far our 2012/2013 rainy season precipitation total as of Sunday night is 4.55 inches. A little over 4.9 inches is normal for November 18, so we are slightly behind average, a gap that we may close tomorrow.

[Update: Subsequent rain has added another inch of precipitation since writing the above. As of November 23, our total for the current rainy season is 5.55 inches, which is about a quarter of an inch below normal for this day.]

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Wines I'm Making: 2012 Cabernet--Malolactic Fermentation (Maybe)

I inoculated our 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc with malolactic starter on November 8, so today is day five. The problem with malolactic fermentation is that it's often hard to detect or to know when it's finished. There are sometimes outward signs (usually tiny, slowly rising bubbles, but just as often there isn't much to see). You can test its progress. The paper chromatography test that gives a definitive answer as to whether the bacteria have converted malic acid in the wine to lactic acid is not difficult or expensive, but I don't like the smelly chemicals involved. Recently I've been inclined to do my best to create the right conditions and then take things on faith. The right conditions means even, moderate temperatures. The malolactic bacteria thrive at around 70-75 degrees F, but that's not a condition common in my house at this time of year. As a result, I'm forced to wrap the carboys of wine in blankets with a small electric blanket between them in the hope of keeping the wine somewhat warmer than the ambient temperature in our house, which in November tends to be around 64-68 degrees during the day and as low as the high 50s at night when we turn off the heat. I generally give the wine about a month before testing (if I do test). I always tell people who ask that most of the work of making wine isn't work at all. It's waiting. And, here I am again, waiting.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Wines I'm Making: 2012 Cabernet Pressed

I pressed the Cabernet grapes yesterday, on November 5, after a four-day cold soak and a 14-day fermentation. We ended up with just under eight gallons of new wine. After racking off the lees, I suspect we'll have about seven gallons of finished wine, or 35 bottles. So far, everything looks good. However, I was planning to start the malolactic fermentation yesterday and there are no local supplies of malolactic starter. Apparently supplies were disrupted by the recent hurricane on the East Coast. I hope it becomes available soon, as the wine can't be sulfited until after the malolactic fermentation is complete and the wine remains vulnerable to oxidation until it is sulfited and the containers are topped up, but I'm hoping for the best. The photo above shows the fermented grapes ready for the press. The photo below is new wine before transfer to the glass carboys that it will mature in.

[Update: Apparently the malolactic starter will arrive tomorrow (November 8), so the malolactic fermentation will get under way tomorrow.]

[Update 2: Picked up the malolactic starter this morning (November 8). In a new development, a brand called Wyeast is offering pre-hydrated starter suitable for small batches of wine (five gallons) for only about $8. In the past, I've always had to buy a powdered starter that's intended for much larger batches of wine that cost about $30 a dose. So, that's a big improvement: the Wyeast product is easier (no need to get distilled water to hydrate the powder) and it's cheaper.]

Friday, November 2, 2012

Music I'm Listening to: The San Francisco Symphony with Asher Fisch and David Fray

I attended the October 26 performance of the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall. On the program were Wagner's Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22, and Brahms's Symphony No. 4. Jaap Van Zweden was to have been the guest conductor, but he cancelled for some reason. Asher Fisch conducted in his place. David Fray was the soloist in the Mozart concerto. Both Asher Fisch and David Fray were new names to me. Fisch appears to have conducted a lot of opera. He is Principal Guest Conductor of the Seattle Opera, but he will take over as Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the West Australia Symphony in September 2013. Fray studied at the National Superior Conservatory of Music, in Paris. He made his professional debut with the Cleveland Orchestra, in 2009. He records for Virgin Classics.

I didn't know what to expect from conductor Fisch, but I must say I enjoyed the entire concert--even the Wagner, and Wagner is not usually to my taste. I thought the scintillating, overlapping opening section especially well done. The Mozart was enjoyable--perhaps a bit too "correct"--but fun nonetheless. My main complaint about Mr. Fray's playing (besides a hint of muddiness here and there in some of the faster, more intricate passages, mostly in the first movement) was a certain disconnectedness. It seemed as if he were analyzing the music rather than playing it--if that makes sense. He was, in fact, playing, of course, and the second movement was handled very well, I thought.

I find it hard not to comment of Mr. Fray's overall demeanor. He plays rather slouched at the piano and he likes to throw his hands off to the side of the keyboard at the end of a loud passage as if to say "take that!" Although he looked mild-mannered relative to some pianists (Melvyn Tan comes to mind), his exaggerated gestures were a bit much. Most of the time, his brow was furrowed and he appeared to be scowling. He gave me the impression of being angry at the keyboard for some reason--as if the keys had just insulted his mother and he wasn't going to stand for it. It all got a bit annoying. I listened to much of the performance with my eyes closed because to watch him play was distracting.

Having said all that, I think Fray is a good pianist. He has a strong left hand and seems to like to emphasize the rhythms of the harmonies behind the main melodic lines of the music. I immediately thought to myself that he's probably an excellent interpreter of Schubert and I imagined he'd play the Impromptus and the Moments Musicaux well, in particular. I was delighted to see at intermission that he has recently recorded these and that he'd be signing CDs after the performance. At home the following day, I listened to the Schubert recording I purchased for an autograph, and I wasn't disappointed. There are idiosyncratic passages--a few fleeting descents into bombast--but otherwise very enjoyable. Mr. Fray is, indeed, an interesting interpreter of Schubert and one that I hope will grow. I look forward to following this young man's career. Perhaps he will begin recording the Schubert sonatas before too long. I hope he'll be back in San Francisco soon.

I thought Fisch's interpretation of the Brahms symphony excellent and the playing mostly perfect. I had a few nits to pick, lined up in my head as I listened, but at this remove I can't remember what they were--which is to say they were probably trivial. I do remember thinking that the conductor rushed the fourth movement just a little, but otherwise, the piece was very nicely done--lush, emotionally invested, but not overdone. The horn section was a standout and the long pizzicato passages were handled by the strings with conviction. I was a little apprehensive at first about the change in conductors, but I'd be very happy to see Asher Fisch leading in San Francisco again. I hope he returns sooner rather than later.

The highlight of a quick meal after the concert at Absinthe (besides the lovely Kimberly at reception making quite a statement in a bright red shirt set off by a wide back belt) was encountering a new wine grape called Pellaverga Bianco, which had a wonderfully smokey character to it (at least in the wine I enjoyed). This is a grape to explore further. It appears to be confined to the Piedmont region of Italy.

Photo of David Fray courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Rain: More Rain, but Sunshine on the Way (November 2, 2012)

We've had more rain in the past few days, but it was dry today (if overcast) and sunshine is in the forecast. We've had 1.05 inches of rain since last reporting, bringing our total so far to 2.45 inches, which is about normal for this time of year.

[Update: Additional sporadic rain has added another 0.10 inches to the total as of November 10. The total is now 2.55 inches.]

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Wines I'm Drinking: 2010 Montebaldo Garganega/Pinot Grigio

Tonight I tasted the 2010 Montebaldo Garganega/Pinot Grigio, an inexpensive wine I picked up at my local Grocery Outlet. It turned out to be light but tasty--just the sort of thing to go with pasta and pesto sauce. This wine, from the area around Venice,  is 70% Garganega, 30% Pinot Grigio, the latter emphasized on the label, probably on the assumption that fewer people are familiar with Garganega than Pinot Grigio, but Garganega is the grape that makes really good Soave good, and this wine had many of the characteristics of a well made Soave. Brief tasting notes follow.

Medium straw color. Simple grapey scents, but also with a suggestion of something nutty. Perhaps scents of candied citrus rind as well. Overall, a bit distant. Light on the palate as well, but not at all without interest. Nice balance between a ripe but delicate fruitiness and a lingering crisp acidity. Moderate to good length with the finish marked by nutty flavors and a very slight bitterness. In no way profound, but tasty wine nevertheless. Very attractively priced at $4.99 a bottle at Santa Rosa Grocery Outlet. Recommended for everyday drinking. I went back to buy a case of this. Perfect with pesto (as noted above). I bet it'd be good with other pasta dishes not using a tomato sauce (white clam sauce, perhaps?), with herbed fish, or with a simply flavored pork dish.

(I have no financial connection with any producer or retailer of wine.) 

Books I'm Reading: The Grand Alliance by Winston Churchill (October 28, 2012)

I've now finished the third volume of Winston Churchill's six-volume history of WWII The Second World War, this one entitled The Grand Alliance. The scope of this third volume is fairly breathtaking, following the escalation and expansion of the war as Germany and Italy move east through the Mediterranean, threatening Egypt, as Hitler turns on the Soviet Union, and as Japan attacks the United States in Hawaii and British and Dutch possessions in Asia, bringing Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union into a grand alliance of nations united by the goal of defeating the Axis powers.

As in the previous volumes, Churchill tells the story in the first person and mainly from the perspective of British activities. It again relies heavily on "directives, telegrams, and minutes upon the daily conduct of the war and of British affairs"--documents mostly written by Churchill himself during the conflict. These are supplemented by the author's retrospective analysis of events. At the end of the volume, I was left with a much better understanding of the relationship that developed between Churchill and President Roosevelt and of Stalin's character as revealed by communications between Churchill and Stalin. Churchill's calmness and confidence are remarkable throughout. While recognizing that winning the war will be painful and time-consuming, from a very early date he understands in broad outline how events are likely to unfold and he is unshakeable in his conviction that the Allies will win. This is not bluster. His view is based on rational analysis. In particular, Churchill understands the immense importance of now having the wealth of the United States behind Britain, which remains mostly in retreat through the period covered by this volume (1941).

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Rain: First Rain of the 2012-2013 Rainy Season (October 22-24, 2012)

A storm blew in on the evening of the 22nd and gave us 1.15 inches of precipitation, the first rain we've had in the current rain year (the rain year begins on July 1 and ends on the following June 30). It rained again on the evening of the 23rd, adding another 0.05 inches, and then we got an additional 0.20 inches on the 24th. for a total of 1.4 inches so far. Normal annual rainfall in Santa Rosa is 36.28 inches.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Wines I'm Drinking: 2008 Congress Springs Lodi Viognier

One of a group of wines I recently picked up at my local Grocery Outlet looking for bargains. This is a Viognier from Lodi made by a winery I've never heard of, but Lodi can be good, so I gave it a try. Brief tasting notes follow.

Rather pale for a Viognier. A pale straw color. Not especially forthcoming on the nose, which immediately seemed suspicious given that Viognier is usually a very expressive grape. Most Vioginer wines are distinctively scented and even a small addition of Viognier to a blend often makes it smell like Viognier. This wine didn't really smell like much of anything at all. Sweet on the palate and with some presence--suggesting substantial alcohol--but not a lot of flavor. Some hints of honey, perhaps, or even honeysuckle (or is it beeswax?), but not a lot more. Fairly long finish, but not very distinctively flavored. Not faulty or in any way unpleasant, but seems rather one-dimensional. Oddly bland while at the same time being rather easy to drink. Hmmm..... I let the wine warm up quite a lot and tasted it again and it seemed to have gained some apple pie flavors, but still not compelling. Not a bad deal at only $5.99 at Grocery Outlet, but I don't think I'd buy this again.

(I have no financial connection with any producer or retailer of wine.) 

Wines I'm Making: 2012 Cabernet Harvest

The 2012 Cabernet grapes are crushed and destemmed and resting in the garage. We picked the grapes on the morning of Thursday, the 18th, a fairly typical date. We harvested 90lbs of grapes, having lost none to raccoons or any other critters this year. Early application of two layers of nets and the electric fence worked. Netting early seems to be the key, and it's worth it to have all the grapes at the end of the season--although the nets make tending the plants a hassle. For example, this year I would liked to have removed some of the leaves covering the grapes in the most luxuriant plants to have given them extra air and sun against the formation of mold, but it was hard to do because of the nets. Thankfully, this year was cool and dry, and mold was a minor problem.

The crushed, de-stemmed grapes yielded 11 gallons of must. I lightly sulfited the must to 53ppm (nine Campden tablets in the 11 gallons of must) and will let it sit for a few days before inoculating with yeast to start fermentation. The must tested at 25.0 Brix and a pH of 3.54. pH squared times Brix was 313. The specific gravity measured 1.108 by hydrometer at about 70 degrees F.

Meanwhile, the rosé from our Sangiovese grapes is ready to be racked off the gross lees. Today is the 15th day of fermentation, and the activity has slowed greatly. I will test with the hydrometer. If it looks completely dry, I will very lightly sulfite the new wine. In about two or three weeks it will be ready for another racking and should by then be mostly clear. Usually the rosé is ready by Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Wines I'm Drinking: 2009 J&J Cellars Paso Robles Estate Zinfandel

Tonight I tasted the 2009 J&J Cellars Paso Robles Estate Zinfandel, one of a group of about ten wines I picked up this afternoon at my local Grocery Outlet, looking for bargains. Although comparatively inexpensive at only $5.99 a bottle, I don't think this wine is a very good value, and it's not a wine I'll buy again, but every bottle is interesting. Brief tasting notes follow. 

Medium-deep garnet red. Although only three years old, this estate Zinfandel doesn't have the look of a young wine. Scents of tea, plums, and something floral at first, but later mostly suggestive of stewed fruit. Seems a bit hot on the palate right from the start--with the alcohol too prominent--and thus a little out of balance. The heady alcoholic component was accompanied by a rather dark, ripe, fruity sweetness and suggestions of caramel. Light acidity. Very little tannin to speak of. Seems heavy and lacking in finesse, if not entirely uninteresting. Sweet vanilla flavors on the finish. Lingering stewed fruit sweetness on a fairly long finish. Tastes like raisins more than anything, perhaps. The sort of wine that has some immediate appeal but that quickly tires the palate. I suspect this might be popular with wine drinkers that mistake the punch of ripe fruit and alcohol for quality in wine, but unlikely to please anyone with more refined tastes. After tasting the wine, I checked the label and was not surprised to see that it's nearly 15% alcohol (14.8%). Perhaps the grapes would have been better used to make a Port-style wine? In fairness to the winery, I'd be interested to taste a fresh bottle that has definitely been stored properly. There's a chance that the stewed quality of the wine I tried was caused or enhanced by poor storage, and that that's why this particular selection showed up at Grocery Outlet. Grocery Outlet is always an interesting adventure. From a little Internet sleuthing, I see that the 2009 J&J Cellars Paso Robles Estate Zinfandel normally sells for about $16 a bottle at the winery.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Found Art: Paper Cup Stack (October 15, 2012)

I recently noticed the pattern created by the seams on a stack of cone-shaped paper cups sitting beside a water cooler. Looked like art to me. Found art.

For more found art, see my blog Serendipitous Art.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Wines I'm Making: Sangiovese Rosé Fermenting, Cabernet Soon to Be Picked (October 9, 2012)

The Sangiovese rosé is fermenting in the living room (I've brought it in from the garage as it was a bit too cool and the activity seemed to have slowed). Today is day three and everything seems to be going well so far. I took a sample of the Cabernet grapes again today. The numbers look good, but I think they will need a little more time. The sample measured 24.2 degrees Brix at a pH of 3.38. That's already quite acceptable in theory, but a fair number of the seeds in the crushed grapes I sampled still looked immature. The rule is to pick when the grapes are physiologically mature (and at their most flavorful) rather than going strictly by the sugar and acid levels. a pH of 3.38 is still on the low side for a California Cab and 24.2 degrees Brix is not excessively high. I'll probably wait another week and test again. If rain threatens--serious rain, that is--I'll probably pick to avoid it, but, otherwise, I think the wine will benefit from more time on the vines.

[Update: Tested again on October 15. There wasn't a lot of change. The sample tested at 24.4 degrees Brix and a pH of 3.37-3.38. So the sugars were up slightly and the pH was virtually unchanged--which is not a bad thing. I'd say more of the seeds looked mature than last week, but there are still a few green seeds. Same conclusion: It's probably safe to pick any time now, but there's no hurry either. The weather is supposed to be very hot in the next few days, though. Decisions, decisions. The Sangiovese rosé is now in its ninth day of fermentation.]

Cars: The 2012 Alameda All-Italian Car and Motorcycle Show

On Sunday I drove my 1978 Alfa Romeo Spider down to Alameda to participate in the 2012 Alameda All-Italian Car and Motorcycle Show, which takes place every year at Lincoln Middle School, on Fernside Blvd. in Alameda. There were about 70 cars in the show and I'd guess about 500 people showed up to look at them. There's always quite a selection--anything goes, as long as it's Italian--but usually about half the cars are Alfa Romeos. What I like about this show is that it's very low-key. The exhibitors are not at all snooty. People show everything from well-used Fiat wagons to brand new cars.  There were Fiats, Lamborghinis, Lancias, de Tomasos, Maseratis, Ferraris, and more. The car next to mine was an old Fiat X1/9 converted to electric power--a car that got a lot of attention. Fun, as usual.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Wines I'm Making: 2012 Sangiovese Harvest (October 5, 2012)

I decided to harvest our Sangiovese grapes yesterday (October 5), with the sugars looking good (at 22 degrees Brix) and the pH about right, at 3.47. We harvested 50.6lbs of grapes, which is a little more than last season. I'm happy to say that we lost none to animals this year and there was virtually no mold. Mostly good, healthy-looking grapes went in to the hopper for crushing. The Cabernet will require a little more time.

We got about 5.5 gallons of must and 3.5 gallons of pressed juice for fermentation (I always make a rosé from the Sangiovese). The must tested a little differently from the sample that prompted me to pick, but the numbers were still decent--21.5 degrees Brix and a pH of 3.66. The hydrometer read 1.090.  
I very lightly sulfated the must (three Campden tablets) and left it overnight. As it was crushed at about 1:00PM on the 5th and pressed at about 11:00AM today, on the 6th, the juice spent 22 hours on the skins. I usually aim for about 18 hours, but a few extra hours won't make a big difference. I inoculated the juice with Epernay II yeast at around noon. Once the dry yeast on the surface is well hydrated, I'll mix it into the juice and it will be on its way to becoming wine. Fermentation usually takes anywhere from about six days to about 14 days.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Book I'm Reading: Winston Churchill's Their Finest Hour (September 26, 2012)

I've just finished Their Finest Hour, the second volume of Winston Churchill's six-volume history of WWII. Much of what I said about the first volume, The Gathering Storm, applies here. This, the next installment in Churchill's detailed chronicle of the war from the position of an insider, is again delivered in crisp, efficient prose and draws heavily on contemporary documents. In Their Finest Hour, Churchill takes us from his taking over as Prime Minister in May 1940 through January 1941. The main events in the period were the capitulation of France (which left Britain standing virtually alone against Hitler and Mussolini), the Battle of Britain, and the beginning of the Blitz--the mass bombing of London. The war in North Africa was just beginning to heat up as well. Once again, Churchill's epigraph sums up the book nicely: "How the British people held the fort alone till those who hitherto had been half blind were half ready." It's fascinating to read Churchill's many memos to President Roosevelt during this period, repeatedly urging a reluctant president to help. I'm now deep in Volume III, The Grand Alliance.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Wines I'm making: Grapes Coming Along Nicely (September 23, 2012)

Today I took a decent sample of both the Sangiovese and Cabernet grapes in the garden. The Sangiovese is at 19.6 degrees Brix and a pH of 3.22. Some say the best indicator of ripeness for picking is given by taking the square of the pH and multiplying that by degrees Brix. For the Sangiovese grapes I tested today, that yields a number of 203. A value of 200 is supposed to be ideal for white wines, a value of 260 ideal for red wines. As I'll be making a rosé from the Sangiovese, that doesn't really help, but these are just general guides. From experience I know that the Sangiovese grapes aren't really ripe yet. The seeds are brown and fairly crunchy, but not really mature-looking. I'll be aiming for about 22 degrees Brix (or a little more) and a pH of around 3.4 or so. In that case, pH squared times Brix would be 254, a good number for red wine by the rule of thumb--which is to say that my experience has been that it's best to treat the Sangiovese grapes for rosé as grapes for red wine when it comes to deciding when to pick.

The Cabernet grapes tested at 22.0 degrees Brix. PH was 3.04. PH squared times degrees Brix yields 203 (coincidentally, the same as the Sangiovese). Too early to pick. With the Cabernet, I like to pick at about 24 degrees Brix with the pH at about 3.5. That gives a number of 294 using the rule of thumb, which is nominally on the high side, but most of the books I use for reference in winemaking were written for an East Coast audience and a colder climate--a climate where pH rarely gets as high as it routinely does here, so the number doesn't concern me much. Again, it's just a rule of thumb. This year will be our ninth harvest. I've made the wine enough times by now that I have a feel for what's right. The Cabernet seeds, like the Sangiovese seeds, were brown and moderately crunchy, but, again, not entirely mature. I'm guessing we'll be harvesting in the second week of October, which has been fairly typical. So far, zero losses to raccoons or other critters. The fruit looks great.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Birds I'm Watching: Warblers, Vireos, and Turkeys (September 18, 2012)

It's September. Migrants are passing through our area, heading south for the winter. The stream of migrants brings us many small and colorful birds, warblers among them, that delight local bird watchers--and with good reason; these are delicate, pretty birds we rarely get to see, except at this time of year. This week the local birding community has been abuzz in particular because of the discovery at Spring Lake of a Yellow-throated Vireo, a bird never before recorded in Sonoma County (photo above). I saw the bird on Sunday. I went to look for it again today, but missed it in the late afternoon. Others saw it this morning. I'll try again tomorrow. On the way home, I came across a group of Wild Turkeys. What a contrast. Splendid in their own way--but certainly not delicate.

For information about bird watching in Sonoma County, see my Website Sonoma County Bird Watching Spots.


Friday, September 14, 2012

Books I'm Reading: The Donkeys by Alan Clark (September 14, 2012)

I've been reading a lot of military history lately, a consequence of my father's death in February and the stacks of his books now sitting in my house as a result. My brother and I have been going through them, keeping those that look interesting, disposing of others, but it's been much easier to do the keeping than the disposing. My father left behind an awful lot of good reading material. There is a substantial military history section (ranging from ancient times to WWII, but heavy on Napoleon, the Crimean War, WWI and WWII). Although I'm still in the middle of reading Churchill's six-volume history of WWII, I found myself flipping through this short book about WWI not long ago and I ended up reading it in one sitting.

I was ignorant of the fact that Clark's The Donkeys is a rather well known and controversial book. Originally published in 1961, by Hutchinson, I read the 1991 Pimlico paperback edition. Clark, son of the well known art critic Sir Kenneth Clark, looks at only one year of the war--1915--surveying the main battles of that year and coming to the conclusion that obstinate pride and a failure to admit and learn from failure among the leading WWI generals  resulted in the needless slaughter of tens of thousands of men--essentially the destruction of Britain's professional army which then had to be replaced by largely untrained recruits. This is a familiar story, but it's probably worth at least a little scrutiny. What got me thinking was not so much the book (which appears to have been influential in supporting the persistence of the idea of lions led by donkeys) but criticism of the book I read subsequently--criticism that accuses Clark of a rather lopsided view of things and some embellishment.

The title, for example, is drawn from a conversation reported in the memoirs of one Erich von Falkenhayn, purportedly between German generals Erich Ludendorf and Max Hoffman. Ludendorf is reported to have said "The English soldiers fight like lions." To which Hoffman is supposed to have replied "True. But don't we know they are lions led by donkeys?" Clark uses these lines also as an epigraph at the start of the book. Falkenhayn was chief of Germany's General Staff during WWI (from September 14, 1914--coincidentally, exactly 98 years ago today) having been Prussian Minister of War from 1913. He later became a writer. Apparently, however, the provenance of the quote and even the existence of the memoirs are in doubt, and it has been suggested that Clark made up the exchange. The lines neatly summarize a core idea of the book, but a little Internet research suggests this meme--lions led by donkeys--was widely applied during WWI in reference to the leaders and men on both sides of the conflict and it may have been current as far back as the Crimean War (Wikipedia even has a page headed "Lions led by donkeys," which gives details).

Whether Clark was exercising poetic license or not, his book clearly supports the notion that the generals were highly blameworthy, that the fighting men accepted assignments that meant almost certain death with remarkable fortitude, and that they endured hellish conditions. Recent scholarship seems to take the view that serious leadership mistakes were, in fact, made but that condemnation of the wartime leaders has probably been lacking in nuance.Whatever the case, the horrifying statistics don't really need the support of Clark's prose. They're horrible enough baldly presented.

Clark relates that he got the idea for the book when unrelated research caused him to stumble upon a diary by one Captain F. Hitchcock of the Leinster Regiment that describes trench conditions near Ypres in 1915 (an extract is among the appendices). That genesis is probably responsible for the book's very narrow focus. It's an interesting slice of history, but I must admit that my overall grasp of the events of WWI is a bit sketchy. This is probably a book to approach after a refresher. Perhaps it's time to read Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August again--although that's probably been superseded as the go-to book for an overview of the causes and campaigns of WWI. Maybe not.

Music I'm Listening to: Semyon Bychkov Conducting the San Francisco Symphony, Pinchas Zuckerman Soloist (September 6, 2012)

I belatedly note that I attended the September 6 performance of the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall. Guest conductor Semyon Bychkov led the Symphony in a performance of Wagner's Overture to Tannhäuser followed by Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, with Pinchas Zuckerman on the violin. After intermission, we heard Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5.  As usual, the Wagner left me cold. I don't have anything to say about it except that it seemed competently played. I'm no judge of Wagner.

I was mostly looking forward to hearing the Bruch. Zuckerman tossed it off with apparent ease despite being in pain. I learned after the performance that he had hurt his back recently and was not feeling in top form. With the exception of a little roughness at the outset, it didn't show much. I liked the sound of Zuckerman's violin (from what I can gather, a 1742 Guarnerius)--throaty in the low register. He had been scheduled to sign autographs but bowed out--a disappointment as I had brought with me my autographed copy of Kyung-wha Chung's debut vinyl disc and had hoped to get him to add his signature to it; Chung and Zuckerman were co-winners of the Leaventritt Competition in 1967, and both studied at Julliard under Ivan Galamian.

The highlight of the evening, however, turned out to be the Tchaikovsky. Bychkov gave it a slightly idiosyncratic reading with some unusual emphases here and there, but it worked. I thought his use of rubato masterly. The whole gave a simultaneous impression of precision and flow. Very persuasive. As usual, the orchestra was in excellent form, with the horns and woodwinds standing out in the Tchaikovsky. Had a quick bite and a glass of wine at Absinthe afterwards. The friendly staff said it was nice to have the concertgoers back with the start of the 2012-2013 season, likening us to migratory birds.

Photo of Semyon Bychkov by Thomas Brill. Photo of Pinchas Zuckerman by Paul Labelle. Photos courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Food I'm Eating: Blackberry Season (September 12, 2012)

Went blackberry picking today at Place to Play Park, in Santa Rosa. I had been there a couple of days ago looking for birds and noticed many unpicked berries along one side of the park. Went back today with a ladder and plenty of containers. Now, what to make of them?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Wines I'm Making: 2012 Grapes Still Unmolested (September 10, 2012)

It's been about 10 days since I last reported on the grapes. I'm pleased to be able to say that there have been no losses so far. The nets have held. The electric fence is pulsing away. I'm hoping that the critters don't even know the grapes are there. It's still early, but I've been sampling a random grape here and there. The Cabernet seems to be already at about 19 brix, the Sangiovese at about 20 brix--both higher than I would have thought. I usually aim to harvest at around 24 brix. The rule of thumb is that one degree of brix takes about a week to develop, which would suggest we'll be harvesting a month from now, at about this time in October, but, we'll see. Ongoing vigilance is in order.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Wines I'm Drinking: 2008 Vinorum Calle Brandsen Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Today I tasted the 2008 Vinorum Calle Brandsen Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, from Mendoza, in Argentina. I know nothing about Vinorum Winery, but it appears to be situated in Mendoza, at the foot of the Andes. The grapes for this wine are from the Lujan de Cuyo region, which is just south of the city of Mendoza. According to the label, the Calle Brandsen line is the premium line (Calle Brandsen is the name of the street the winery is on). This wine sees 10 months in French oak before bottling. It looked like it might be worth a try. It turned out to be quite solid and likely very good for everyday use in the coming year or two. Brief tasting notes follow.

Medium to deep, plummy red. Distant at first on the nose. Floral hints. Lightly toasted oak. Hints of tobacco. Later, a suggestion of cherries. Oak and the cherries were apparent on the palate as well. Still a bit tight. Delicate but obvious tannins. Silky and smooth, if not very forthcoming at first, but has poise and immediately suggests it will improve with a little time in the glass (and in the bottle, no doubt, even if it never becomes profound). Later develops some cola flavors. Easy, everyday wine, but a cut above the ordinary. This wine normally sells for about $17 a bottle. At $5.99 a bottle at my local Grocery Outlet, it was worth buying half a case.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Birds I'm Watching: Spring Lake, Santa Rosa (September 2, 2012)

A couple of days ago I took a quick walk around Spring Lake, in Santa Rosa, hoping to see warblers, as the migration is now under way. I did see Yellow Warblers, Orange-crowned Warblers, and a Black-throated Grey Warbler, but nothing exotic (although the Black-throated Grey is one of my favorites). The highlight was a Pileated Woodpecker that rather obligingly landed on an exposed tree trunk with good light after a frustrating few minutes of trying to photograph the bird hanging upside down in dense foliage (the bird, not me). Sometimes you get lucky.

For information about bird watching in Sonoma County, see my Website Sonoma County Bird Watching Spots.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Grapes So Far Unmolested (August 30, 2012)

It's almost September. We haven't lost a single grape yet. So far my strategy has worked. In past years I've usually protected the grapes in the back yard in response to the first depredations of the season, when the grapes have taken on color but are still far from ripe. This year, I determined to net the grapes and turn on the electric fence that surrounds them before the grapes started to turn purple, and the idea seems to have worked. My aim was to make the grapes inaccessible before they became attractive to raccoons etc. Still about six weeks to harvest, if we harvest on a typical date (usually around the second week of October). The summer has been so cool, though, that harvest may be later than usual. We'll see.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Tidbits: RIP--Neil Armstrong (August 25, 2012)

I note the death yesterday of Neil Armstrong. I imagine his passing will inspire many to think back to what they were doing on July 20, 1969, when he became the first human being to walk on the moon. I remember watching the event on TV. The feeling of anticipation among the adults watching left a stronger impression on me than the event itself, but I'm glad to have seen it. By all accounts, Armstrong was a brilliant yet modest man. RIP.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Wines I'm Drinking: 2008 Brutocao Mendocino County Bliss Vineyard Merlot (August 22, 2012)

Moderately deep red with a hint of garnet in it. Showing a little age. Plummy on the nose at first. A little wood. Something subtly floral as well, but not identifiable. Nice acidity, giving a bright first impression. Has a fairly formidable tannic bite and the tannins linger, although they aren't harsh. Some musky, earthy undertones. Fruity on the mid-palate but the fruit falls away fairly quickly to leave the tannins exposed, giving the middle to end of the flavor profile a somewhat austere quality, but a little fruity sweetness comes back on a moderately long finish. I think this will improve with age. Still seems a bit rough around the edges, but, on the whole, nicely balanced and interesting, and with a little time in the glass, the flavors evolved. The tannins softened (allowing the fruit to emerge a bit more), the floral component became more pronounced, and the fruit began to seem more like black cherries than plums. Very attractively priced at my local Grocery Outlet for $6.99 a bottle. Regularly sells for around $24 a bottle.

Birds I'm Watching: Lake Ralphine, Santa Rosa (August 21, 2012)

I shouldn't complain about work, but I've had rather a lot in the past week, which has kept me mostly stuck at my computer. Yesterday I managed to take a quick break for a walk around Lake Ralphine, at Howarth Park. It was the middle of the day, and not much was going on--almost no birds at all, until I stopped at a secluded spot on the far side of the lake to look for the bird making what at first I thought was a Spotted Towhee's cranky call. It turned out to be a Bewick's Wren (photo) making similar sounds. Flitting over my head was a mix of small woodland birds--a Titmouse, a Hutton's Vireo, a couple of Chickadees. And then back home and back to work.

For information about bird watching in Sonoma County, see my Website Sonoma County Bird Watching Spots.
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