Slow Travel: An Amateur Drinks Wine

I am no expert on wine. In a blind taste test, I probably wouldn’t be able to distinguish one wine from another, one vintage from another, or one grape from another. Neither would I be able to tell you whether the wine I was drinking was expensive or cheap.

As for flavor notes? I have no idea what they’re talking about. Are they notes I can taste? When a reviewer says there are notes of tobacco, spice, almond, and vanilla, my mind wanders, my eyes glaze. Wine tastes like wine. It’s either good, really good, or not so good. In some unfortunate instances, it is terrible. Boxed wine: terrible. I don’t care what those drunk girls sitting on the fountain steps say. Terrible.

Here’s the thing, I’m not alone. Most people are like me. Even the ones who claim to be connoisseurs, possess the taste buds of a reptile. They may sound smart, but blindfold them so they can’t see the label and, most importantly, the price, and they will love that boxed wine.

I’ve had some great expensive wine. Bottles that sell for over a three hundred bucks (or more) expensive. But in most cases, I have not enjoyed these wines. Often, they are aged for too long in the bottle. They are too thin, too odd tasting. or have simply gone bad. They have sat in a temperature controlled cellar for years.

You know the scene. The proud owner pulls out a dusty bottle with a fading label as if it were a new born baby, and says something to the effect of, “This is from (name a year from a long time ago, a place, obscure, but fancy sounding.”) Everyone oohs and aahs.

The sacred bottle is passed around so the label can be inspected. You hold it in your hands, you nod. Yes, very nice label. Careful! Don’t drop it!

At last, it is opened. The cork goes from person to person so that we can admire the purple hue on its long enclosed end. When it gets to you, you sniff it like everyone else. It smells… like wine, you think.

Drams are poured. What do you do? Do your swirl it around? Hold it up to the light? Sniff it? What does it all mean? At last, you take a sip and taste…and taste… vinegar. Well, what do you do? Make face? Spit it out? You look around and see how everyone else is reacting. Your new friends can give you clues as to what to say and do.

Now, what follows depends on the host. He/she, having the taste buds of the aforementioned lizard, might think it a great wine. And perhaps the vinegary flavor, the acidic burn, might not be that strong. They say, “Now that is a great wine!”

Well, what usually follows a statement like this is quiet, embarrassed chatter.

Or, the owner of the sacred bottle owns up and says, “Shit, this wine sucks!” In which case, everyone laughs, and a cheap California Cabernet is opened and passed around. Everyone is happy.

Except you, because you are not exactly sure what just happened. You are confused. But you want to expand, drink more wine, join the world of the cultivates. Where to begin? What to look for? You can go to a book store (or more likely, go online) and read books on the subject matter. I used to own the Oxford Companion to Wine. I never read it. 

There are other highly regarded publications, such as the World Atlas of Wine, the Wine Bible, Wine Folly, etc. But who has time to read a book?

You can watch YouTube videos. These videos often employ a single person, sitting at a table, usually in their kitchen or dining room, with a bottle of wine, and a wine glass. (Note, there are different types of wine glasses for different types of wine.) They talk about the wine, the type of grape it is, the vineyard it comes from. At about ten minutes in, they pour. They sniff, they drink. They start mentioning the palate, the flavor notes, the spices. Your mind wanders, your eyes glaze…

Or, you can take a class. Astor Place wines (no longer on Astor Place) offers reasonably priced classes. The French Institute and the Cervantes institute have language and wine tasting nights. A nice way to work on your French or Spanish and learn a little bit about wines from those two countries. There are myriad options, especially if you live in New York.

Or, you can just wing it. Like me!

My taste, as mentioned before, is not very refined, or educated. But I know what I like. I shy away from white wine. I consider it awful, even in summer, except maybe in Italy, where everything–EVERYTHING is wonderful. Lets not even talk about Rosé. I don't like anything too sweet. But not too dry either. And, like Eli Zabar, I generally stay away from California wines.

Many would disagree. They will get all misty eyed as they talk about the vineyards of Napa Valley. Sure, Napa Valley is pretty, but if I have to drink another shitty California Merlot I’m going to…

I tend to prefer Spanish and French wines. And why not? Even the Romans drank Spanish wine. There are ancient wine amphora with the names of Spanish wine producers etched into them. We’re talking two thousand years ago here. And the French claim to have invented wine (along with everything else, including taste and culture,) and that’s just fine by me.

For one thing, if all you have to spend is, say, ten or twelve dollars, then head over to Mr. Wright Fine Wines and Spirits on third avenue and buy yourself a French or Spanish wine. Just as you enter, you will find a wonderful selection of wines from these countries in that price range. Nouvelle Beaujolais, easy Bordeaux, and tasteful Tempranillos will practically tumble onto your head as you squeeze into the store.   

Go towards the pillar on the left and you will find the Spanish wines. A nice selections of Ribera Del Dueros and Riojas reside here. Head towards the back, and there are more French Wines; Burgundy, Bordeaux, and aged Beaujolais. 

I’m going to return to the Europe versus the U.S. argument for a second. Many will say I am a snob. And perhaps they are right. But if all you have to spend is ten dollars, I challenge you to find an American wine that tastes as good as a European one. Good luck.

It’s like Whiskey. There are people who claim that Japanese whiskeys are as good as Scotch whiskeys. I disagree. If you have sixty or seventy or even eighty bucks, do you buy a blended Japanese Whiskey with no age statement? Or do you buy a single malt Balvenie, aged twelve years, an Ardberg aged ten, or a Lagavulin aged sixteen? It’s an easy question to answer. You go with the Scotch. You will get a better tasting product for the price.

I feel the same way about Spanish and French wines versus U.S. wines. I’m not saying American wines are bad, but at the same price point, European wines are better.

Now, like I said, I’m not an expert. I’ll pair wine with anything. Red meat, chicken, fish, cheese, or salad. I will drink the wines I like no matter what and with whatever food is on the plate in front of me. Red wine always. I'm a gourmand that way.

The wines I drink are Anciano Tempranillo from Valdepeñas, Oak Matured, aged for three years, 2012. Palene Bordeaux, currently from 2014, Marqués de Riscal Rioja, from 2009, Creta Roble, an excellent and affordable Ribera Del Duero, 2013, Convento San Francisco, another Ribera Del Duero, 2011. All of these wines can be found for twenty bucks or less.

My personal favorite is Condado De Haza, a Ribera Del Duero from Burgos. As you can tell, I am partial to Ribera Del Dueros. They can be dark and earthy and perhaps a little heavy. They are like the chocolate stouts of wine. I love this wine so much, I drink it with breakfast. Currently, my local wine shop is out. So I am saving it until their stock returns. You could say I am aging it. But not for too long. I might have to go up to PJ Wines to find some more.

What it comes down to is taste. As in: does it taste good or does it not. After the first couple of sips, it no longer matters. You'll be thinking of nothing else except the pure enjoyment of the wine. If you happen to be siting on a terrace in Paris, Logroño, or Rome, even better.


Elena Ferrante: The Story of a Name

What does Elena Ferrante have in common with Mark Twain? How about George Sand, George Eliot, C.S. Forester, Ford Maddox Ford? Who are these people? Aaron Wolfe, Anthony Burgess, Anne Perry, Ayn Rand, Guillaume Apollinaire? Sure, all writers and poets. That much we know. But what else? What other thing binds these people together.

If you are an avid lover of modern literature, than perhaps seeing Elena Ferrante's name on this list might give you a clue. You may have read Troubling Love, Days of Abandonment, the Neapolitan Novels. And even if you have not, if you are in any way aware of contemporary literature, you are going to be familiar with her name. And so based on this, you may have immediately figured out all of these names are nom de plumes. In some cases, we already know their narratives. We know the stories of Mary Ann Evans, Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki, and Amantine Lucile Dupin. How about Eric Arthur Blair?

Elena Ferrante's story? Not so much. At least not the person behind the name. So what do we know? Only what has been told to us; Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, that she is Italian, from Naples, perhaps middle-aged, probably a mother. And although there have been some wild stabs at her identity – a famous male author, a Neapolitan professor who lives in Pisa in the nineteen sixties, and, most recently, a Roman translator of German literature – the truth is we know nothing. And that is exactly how Elena Ferrante and her fans want it.

“The wish to remove oneself from all forms of social pressure or obligation. Not to feel tied down to what could become one’s public image. To concentrate exclusively and with complete freedom on writing and its strategies.” – The Guardian.

This quote, from Elena Ferrante, is the fundamental truth behind why she, or any artist for that matter, would choose a different name, an alternate personality. Could Bob Zimmerman have written all those great songs if he hadn't become Bob Dylan? Would Seasick Steve be the phenomenon he has become if he had remained a session musician named Steve Leach? How about John Anthony Gillis? Marshall Bruce Mathers III? Aubrey Drake Graham? All of these people are not who they claim to be. And in doing so, they have created characters for themselves and are able to transcend the limitations of their histories through their art. They are artists. But they are also people. People who hope their work will stand on its own. Speak for them. But its not enough, we want more.

We are in love with the cult of personality. Remember A Million Little Pieces? James Frey was a publishing phenomenon. His book was an Oprah Pick, a New York Times Best Seller, and considered one of the best nonfiction books of the year. Then, an article published on January 8th, 2006, in The Smoking Gun, revealed that not everything in the book may have been true. Soon after, it all came crashing down. James Fray claimed in interviews that A Million Little Pieces presented essential truths about his life, even if much of it was made up. But we as a society could not stand that it was not real. That James Frey was not as truly fucked up as he claimed to be. That essentially, the book was fiction.

Why is this? Why the need to find out as much as possible behind the work, the art? Shouldn't the art be enough? Is Gravity's Rainbow in any way diminished because Thomas Pynchon refuses to give interviews? Be photographed? How about Catcher in The Rye? To Kill A Mockingbird? An argument could be made that these works are elevated because we know so little about their creators. Know too much and the artist overwhelms the work.

Many people I know hate Ernest Hemingway, despite never reading him. Hemingway elicits many emotions. In some cases, hagiographic. In others, vitriolic. There are men who visit Pamplona every year during fiesta who do so simply because of the Sun Also Rises, a relatively slim novel written almost a hundred years ago. What drives those emotions, even more than the works themselves, is the man himself. The work no longer stands on its own. The man has risen above the work as an object. Is the impotent Jake Barnes a stand-in for Hemingway? Who is Lady Brett Ashley? How about the maligned Robert Cohn? We know the answers to these questions. The Sun Also Rises has been disseminated to such a point that the identity of all the characters in the book are known to us. Is the Sun Also Rises elevated because we know who they are? Or diminished because perhaps we know too much?

How about he phenomenon that is Karl Ove Knausgaard? Here, there is no pseudonym. Not only that, but all the "characters" in his My Struggle series are real people whose real names appear in the books unchanged. In real life, Uncle Gunnar is Gunnar Knausgaard. Brother Ingve is real life brother Ingve Knausgaard. Ex-wife Tonje is real life ex-wife Tonje Aursland. And the character Karl Ove Knausgaard is the author himself, completely unvarnished, in all his pale, masturbating, pre-ejaculating, self-immolating glory. So when we read about Karl Ove –his problems with alcohol abuse, fits of shame, teenaged lusts, and sexual mortifications – we know these are not the failures of a fictional character, but the failures of a real man, the author himself.

Are they great books? Are they even good? That is not the point. They are real. The person is real. Perhaps our desire to read about real people, no matter how banal their lives might actually be, is fueled by today’s obsession with reality television, tabloid magazines, prime-time television. This is old news. But it's important to know. To be aware. We no longer want fiction. We no longer want art. What we want is art to be the artist and the artist to be a train wreck.

This brings us back to Elena Ferrante. Recently, an Italian journalist has claimed to have discovered the identity of the person behind the name. Claudio Gatti has spent the last year digging through tax returns, real estate deals, and financial records, and has surmised, based on his findings, that Elena Ferrante is, in truth, Anita Raja. Why does this matter? Well, for one thing, although a work of fiction, many consider the novel's narrator, Lenù (short for Elena), to be a stand in for the author herself. Much of what is assumed about the background of Elena Ferrante has lent a certain amount of weight of truth behind the novels. The fact that Anita Raja is not from Naples, not a train wreck, not from a tumbledown neighborhood of peeling paint, old shoe shops, and plebes, strips away some of the all important street cred from the author and the work. Or worse, the sort of cultural appropriation lauded as necessary by authors like Lionel Shriver, but derided as insensitive and ignorant by critics who believe that writers should only "write what you know."

It is undeniable that Elenda Ferrante knows her subject matter. But part of the appeal of the Neapolitan novels is the assumption that like the My Struggle series, they were autobiographical. What Claudio Gatti may have revealed, is that they are not.