A Rosé By Any Other Name

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Last week I stumbled upon one fun conceit of a wine list—Italian and American wines only. The bartender of the popular restaurant jabbed, “You can get French wine anywhere, but where can you find interesting things from Italy?” (This is almost true, at least on the East Coast.) The list covered a great deal of Italian geography, with a sort of the Noah’s arc approach: about one red and one white for each region. The Californian side showcased a similar diversity of winemaking philosophies—big cult-of-Parker reds, Italian blends and trendy Oregon Pinots. Sadly, while the Golden State holds as many diverse winemaking pockets as Italy, these didn’t make an appearance. The Californian offerings remained Napa-Sonoma-Willamette centric, even as the Italian section wandered far from Langhe and Tuscany.

For better or for worse, this selection confirms the textbook drills on Italian and American wines. Italy is a motley collection of thousands of local varietals and styles, most of which deserve consideration, even if they defy memorization. And the USA? The relevant wines come from north of San Francisco. The list could have easily prioritized the diversity of both places. Instead, it trades on their reputations.

Accordingly, the Italian-American concept breaks down where it needs to. Italian and American sparkling wines are offered, but it would be a little reckless for a popular restaurant to leave off name-brand Champagne. More strikingly, the rosé list is limited to two wines from Provence in France.

Not for a lack of options. Italy is about as Mediterranean as a country gets, with every region producing fascinating, gutsy pink wines from a huge range of varietals. I’ve had a savoury Tuscan Sangiovese rosé that swelled from a featherweight to a pendulous mouthfeel in thirty seconds, a trick I’ve yet to see any red or white wine pull. In the American corner, many producers like to champion the underdog, and there’s no kind of style more maligned than rosé. Californian pink still dredges up associations with White Zinfandel, but producers make dry rosé from every process, varietal and appellation imaginable. The restaurant could have even featured something semi-local, like Wolffer from Long Island, which garners more good press each summer. But Wolffer is an exception, not a rule, and judging by the words of Francis Underwood, a Long Island rosé (or any wine) lacks an established reputation.

Rosé’s reputation has recovered slowly over the last few years. In fact, its barely been resuscitated. Its still acceptable, if not laudable, to outright dislike rosé wines. They are feminine, so little can be gained from being seen drinking one, unless someone wishes to appear European, (or, at a bar in a landlocked state, girlish.) If the drinker heroically doesn’t care how the wine appears, only what it tastes like, it’s still fashionable to be indifferent. Even a dry rosé still lives or dies by the quality of its fruit flavors, and while plenty of rosés carry mineral or underbrush undertones, complex, ‘high-brow’ aromas play second fiddle.  A good rosé is not unlike a bowl of fresh strawberries. Yet Americans don’t nostalgize rosé as a simple, seasonal pleasure. Unless they want to be French. And Provence rosé has more popular cache than Tavel and the Loire rosés combined.

At least, that’s my theory. It was partially formed by working in a New York City wine store during the spring and early summer of 2013, when we sold boatloads of Provence rosé, and struggled to keep it stocked. Meanwhile, I hand-sold every other kind of pink wine we had, (with the exception of Sofia cans and the residents of the budget bin.) It was a lot of fun, especially when men in backwards baseball caps would come in and meekly ask for “Whispering Angel.” And it was frustrating to see so many others dismissed because drinkers couldn’t tap into a pre-established fantasy by drinking them. Provence is a brand, making it a guarantee on one hand, and a luxury on the other. It holds much more power than the word ‘rosé’ itself.

 

It’s summer, drink

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Do you feel that your favorite butter-ball chardonnay no longer gets the attention it deserves? That good old fashioned Davis winemaking been’s overshadowed by natural yeast and moon charts?  That the young people drink dirty things to look cool, with no respect for the clean wines that built this industry?

You’re right. All the somms are hanging out at La Compagnie, they’re having more fun than you are, and they only drink natty.

If they could tap a concrete egg fermenter, they would.

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The Sights, The Smells

There can only be so many variations on the travel guide. Southwest Airline’s inflight magazine Spirit can be applauded for aiming at originality in any case: last month’s cover story recommends a list of destinations by smell. Broken up into the categories “Fresh,” “Sweet,” “Smoky” and “Aged,” writer Tim Neville selects places as diverse as a Mexico City Churro shop, a Tibetan temple in Indiana, and a Washington lavender farm. The article is worth reading simply for the claim that Bryce Canyon National Park smells “of sunshine and dinosaurs.” An accompanying article about the science of olfaction shores up the claim that aromas help visitors form stronger memories and a deeper connection with their surroundings.

Not to say there’s nothing to do at these places besides smell them. Visitors can see the aromatic arts at work in a Miami cigar shop, a coffee roasting company, a tea factory, a cheese cave, a hops farm, a chocolatier, and a perfumier to name a few. Yet there’s an elephant in the travel agency. No winery makes the cut, despite the fact that Southwest Airlines flies to four airports in Northern California, (not to mention Southern California, New York, and Austin,) and the fact that wine tourism popularized the smell-cation in the first place. thesightsthesmellssmall

This may be due to the persistent misunderstanding that wine is to be tasted, not smelled. Different wines are assumed to have different tastes, but identifying wine aromas is often considered pompous hogwash. The statement, “Can you really smell wet stones in this?” is about as beloved as America’s favorite modern art go-to, “my three year old could draw that.” Thrilling to the scent of a popped cork is culturally associated with alcoholism. There’s no iconic, desirable smell tied to the act of winemaking. Vineyards smell of the underbrush growing in them, and the winery’s heady, oxidative stench can be off-putting to the uninitiated.

Yet many drinkers never realize that the tongue picks up a fraction of a wine’s character. The nose detects much more. Straight quaffing reveals very little. A tasting room is an olfactory destination in and of itself—few other countertops afford so many diverse impressions of fruit, earth, vegetable, animal and chemical scents, all colliding together, in surprising, decadent and stirring ways. Yet this dimension is often sidelined in favor of panoramic vistas, party buses and inebriation.

The neighboring article in Spirit, written by Annie Monjar, addresses this: “ …our chief experience of food comes not from taste but from flavor: a combination of sensory stimuli, most prominently taste and the small puffs of aromatic molecules traveling from the back of our mouths up the nasal cavity.” Monjar describes a woman who lost her sense of smell after an infection, and while “she can pick up on very sweet or salty tastes… the feeling of food in her mouth mostly just serves to remind her of what it used to be like.” When drinkers forget to smell the wine, they suffer from a kind of voluntary anosmia—the wine will have little of the depth or emotional impact it could have had. As Monjar writes, smell is the only sense that heads directly to the limbic system, an emotional and memory center of the brain, without processing; “you could say that smell is the world at its most raw.“

Monjar does justice to the ineffable quality of smell. “While a car horn can be ‘beep’ and a flower ‘pink,’ a smell can only be described as its own shadow. Even perfumiers use words that just swipe at the perimeter of smell, detecting only subtle differences in their mixtures or comparing smells to other entities: ’Floral,’ ‘Freshly mowed grass,’ ‘Romantic’…” Then she proceeds to make the familiar mistake, according wine to the domain of taste, and not smell. “Our taxonomy for the taste of wine, the chords of classical music, and the colors of modernist painting is boundless. People make a living finding words to describe these.” Wine critics fish for words just like perfumers, and employ the identical vocabulary, including the words above. Art and music critic’s processes aren’t far off either. Their descriptors –orange blossom, wet pavement, enervating, sappy– are boundless, because the answers aren’t clear in the first place. A violent red or repulsive concerto are all desperate graspings at a phantom-like level of truth, nearly inarticulate but felt. Criticism isn’t supported by an art form’s ease of description. Rather, critics do the hard work of describing intangible things, partly as a service to consumers who can’t.

Monjar contradicts her earlier point about the inextricability of wine and smell, and feeds two misconceptions about wine: that wine is about taste, and that wine is fenced off and formalized. The latter may actually account for wine’s omission from the list of unexpected, underdog vacation spots. There may be plenty of unpretentious wineries to recommend, but suggesting people go there primarily to smell tar, roses and whatnot in the wines seems far-fetched to many, and the province of snobs.

Wine and Prejudice

On Monday, Newsweek published an article titled,  “Why ‘Natural’ Wine Tastes Worse than Putrid Cider.” This is a very misleading headline. Written by Bruce Palling, the article doesn’t touch on the question of ‘why’ natural wine tastes the way it does, (and I have had a few that fit that description.) It would have been better for the author to have ditched the wine-speak, and simply said, “Why ‘Natural’ Wine Sucks.” Palling’s piece is vitriolic, whiny, and circumstantial. Most damningly, Palling’s generalizations about the wine world, on both ends of the ‘natural’ spectrum, sweep the legs out from under the his few good ideas.

I have a soft spot for contrarions. I often play the devil’s advocate myself. While I admire the work of many natural wine advocates, still, somewhere inside me, I itch for an intelligent voice to take them on. When I worked at a wine store, I bristled at customers who requested ‘natural wine,’ assuming all the other wines to be chemically adulterated plonk. Sulphite-phobia makes shop-owners pull their hair out, especially when nobody minds the sulphites in their salad, or their beer. Yet I would never spite the sale of a natural wine. Natural wines already have so much not going for them. They don’t sell quickly, and yet expire faster than mass produced wine. They rarely fit that magic $15 price point, and often have cluelessly ugly labels, and chunks floating at the bottom of the bottle.

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Hirotake Ooka’s Le Canon Primeur has the design sensibility of fake Barbie packaging from a third-world country. Valli Unite’s ‘de-skilled’ Il Brut and The Beast possesses a little more credibility: it’s supposed to look raw, unfinished, brutish. But you know what? It’s ugly. It’s really ugly. Which is probably the point. These bottles did not fly off the shelf, even across the street from Pearl and Ash, and shouting distance from a dozen other natural wine bars.

Revealingly, Palling doesn’t attack natural wine advocates, or  winemakers. He targets natural wine bars. While he showcases the voice of a wine importer who claims “It would be a disaster if we sold it,” then pulls a 180 and leers down from Mount Crumpit, resenting that natural wine bars have become ‘the place to be.’

If the popularity of these bars is so deplorable, obviously natural wine isn’t that disastrous of a business proposition. The article even misses the opportunity to herald a doomsday, predicting some precipitous drop in wine sales when suddenly everyone realizes, “You know, wine tastes like putrid cider!” Palling is just scraping for whatever negative evidence he can get– he attacks natural wine both on the grounds that it can’t sell, and that it sells too well. Essentially, he argues that natural wine its not worth its own success.

Hype can drive a good critic crazy, and its tough to watch a segment of producers lionized while profiting from desperate, delusional buying behavior. People drink natural wine for fear of missing out, not unlike the way they drank highly manipulated, 100 pt monstrosities before. Like any cultural product, wine is subject to fashion. Both great and terrible wines can be fashionable. Palling makes a wise point when he says that wine is essentially the product of human intervention, and pretending otherwise is dishonest. Yet this does not invalidate the contemporary urge to minimize this intervention, and see what happens. Winemaking covers a large, largely unexplored terrain– sometimes people wander in one direction, only to track back and cover another.

I look forward to finding voices who will reconcile both sides of this argument, and if ‘the natural wine craze’  is happening on a meaningful scale, articulate what people learned from it, and which fallacies were capitalized upon. Until then, look around. What wines are being sold by the cargo-loads? What wines are available in every damn little pizza joint and grocery store on main street? Which companies are extinguishing small, risk-taking distributors, only to expand the reach of monolithic, board-room brands? If there’s an ethics to wine, Palling’s article is worse than misguided. It demonstrates a monstrous lack of perspective. Traditional wines are being prejudiced against by the natural wines? Hardly. Yet what does this echo of? Here, in a dismissible piece of wine-writing, simmers that poisonous insistence, that the top-dog always deserves top-billing, top-dollar, and the hero’s mantle to boot. Drink natural, and stick it to the case-stacking barons of the world.

Adjusting for Food

Even those who don’t know much about wine know they are supposed to pair it with food. Yet the key to correctly matching the two is not well understood. To capitalize on this, pairing suggestions appear on the back of commercial wine labels, and menus occasionally advise certain combinations. Rarely, experts can cite a concrete connection between the wine and meal.  Take Chablis and oysters—Chablis wines are named for a northern French region where chardonnay is almost exclusively grown, and the best vineyards send their roots deep into a bedrock of chalk, the calcified deposit of ancient seashells.  A handful of pairings are common knowledge: steak and cabernet, white wine with fish.

Still, how many of these pairings are complete fallacies? There are red wines that go well with fish, like Pinot Noir or Frappato, and white wines that don’t. Plus, a successful pairing would depend on the fish, and how it was prepared. Cheese and chocolate are consistently terrible with wine, as they cloak and numb the palate. Yet many wine drinkers continue to pair them together. Its possible that many haven’t heard that cheese and chocolate deaden wine flavors. More troubingly, most people probably haven’t noticed.

Is a cabernet sauvignon, or some other hefty red, always the best pairing with a steak? Or is this the result of grouping them into a similar category of indulgence: a masculine, heavy, luxury-wine with masculine, heavy, luxury-food? And why shouldn’t a sommelier consider the asparagus or creamy mashed potatoes most of all, when pairing food? Isn’t that medium-rare steak  the most accommodating thing on the plate already?

These are just a few of my hang-ups. I think wine-pairing encourages many drinkers to overthink things. It forments wine’s reputation as an unknowable, risky, high-maintenance ritual, which works to ensure the survival of the higher-end offerings, or alienate people to the point of sticking to cheap plonk.

A drinker’s experience of wine is already subjective. Why wouldn’t its compatiblilty with food be equally subjective? Successful pairings are subject to light shifts in acidity, salt and seasoning. They are also dependent on one’s emotional state during dinner. I don’t want to shore up the recent claims that wine can, and should, be paired with certain kinds of lighting and music ‘for maximum affect.’ Yet its hard to control for the experience of wine in the first place. And if it isn’t readily apparent that the semi-dark chocolate bar makes a Tempranillo taste really bitter, who’s to say that pairings aren’t primarily cultural in nature?

Still. Reflecting on this brings to mind the French word for wine-pairings, mariage, a cognate of the English marriage. Its a fitting term for that occasional, blissful experience when wine and food really become arresting together, feeding off and lengthening and deepening each other. They can work together almost symphonically. Its not common. I experience this so rarely, and yet I’m eating at wine-oriented restaurants, and cooking mindfully for myself all the time.

Food affects wine in all sorts of ways, often good. Yet at the end of the day, many of these changes are not significant. They are minor adjustments, like setting the force of the air conditioning in your car, or the height of a chair. They can make the experience more or less pleasurable, or just a little different. And sometimes, rarely, the pairing acts like true love, and it sticks with you for a long time. Which is high praise for anything taste-related. While aroma and flavor may be the most closely linked senses to human memory, they are mysteriously the most difficult to preserve, and to justify their importance later.

Shopgirl: What Were They Drinking

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This is the second part of a discussion on the contradictory portrayals of wine in the book and film formats of Shopgirl. You can read the first part here. 

Shopgirl-the-film displays wine much more often than the book—wine only seems to be absent from Mirabelle’s hand. In the film, director Steve Martin uses wine to illustrate, even incriminate, illustrate that Ray as a man of taste, and decidedly not a man of the people. Wine is only mentioned a scant four times in the novella, yet the references are structural, not simply descriptive.  Each mention supports the story arc like a column.

At the start, Mirabelle’s wearies of her lonely life, drinking “wine” at disappointing gallery openings. Her innocent confession that she is still learning wine enchants Ray, and they share a single glass of Barolo on their first date. In denial of their incompatibility, they get tipsy on a bottle Bordeaux the next time. This trend toward excess backfires when Ray gets stinkingly drunk on several bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon with an ex-flame, breaking Mirabelle’s heart.

The story starts with falsity, or better put, a mismatch. Whatever plonk they are serving at the gallery opening barely deserves to be called “wine.” Similarly, Mirabelle may be beautiful, but she goes unnoticed. She may dress fashionably and work at a department store, but she barely scrapes by. Then, in the book’s own words, she’s discovered. Ray introduces the glamour and connection that was missing from Mirabelle’s life. They mistakenly believe that this can be ritualized, or intensified, with even better results. Ray and Mirabelle lose touch with the other’s reality, almost to a point of nihilism, where wine becomes a generic sexual strategy, as opposed to a meeting point with Mirabelle. Ray takes this strategy to another woman, with terrible results. Just like in the film, wine does not feature in happy ending, or at least Mirabelle’s self-actualization. The finale is literally sobering.

With the exception of the first wine, the book’s wine-cameos represent three of the most prestigious and expensive kinds of wine available. Barolo, a red wine from North-east Italy, is made in very limited quantities, and aged for three years before release. It is almost always expensive. Bordeaux can be cheap, (and it can also be white,) but the name is often associated with the region’s exemplary reds, made from certain chateaus. “New world” wine regions propagated Bordeaux’s most heralded grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, so as to better their own reputations. Today a handful of ‘cult’ Cabs command astronomical prices. All three are stereotypically heady, heavy and tannic, with flavors ranging from black fruits to tar to tobacco to clove. They are often described as ‘masculine,’ especially in comparison to more ‘feminine’ wines from neighboring appellations, (Barolo versus Barbaresco, Left Bank versus Right Bank.) Ray spares no expense in communicating his virility to Mirabelle. By allowing her to tap into it, she becomes empowered by his desire for her.

Yet as the varietal name-dropping becomes more obvious, the connection fizzles. Distinction becomes prized over nuance, and fantasty replaces true connection. Barolo might be well known to wine drinkers, but it doesn’t have the same cachet as Bordeaux, which again is overshadowed by the name-brand recognition of Cabernet Sauvignon. Ray is surely getting drunk with another woman on a ‘New World,’ (aka, not Bordelais,) Cabernet, wines that are increasingly dismissed as showy, aggressive, and opportunistic– just like the philosophy of their planters.  According to some contemporary sommeliers, cult Cabernets are simply high-octane, break-the-bank cousins of whatever “wine” was being poured at the gallery opening.

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Ray’s gradual lapse from Barolo to Napa never happens in the movie, where he drinks cult Californians almost the entire time. (There is one Chateauneuf du Pape, although explaining why this is makes things worse would take another blog post.) The server pours Merryvale’s Profile on their first date. Ray drinks Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc and Stag’s Leap Diana with take-out, by himself. Even a bottle of Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon appears on the table of the tacky Mexican restaurant. These might be the product of product placement: Clos du Val can be found in quite a few movies.

That doesn’t change the story they tell about their drinkers. Infamously, New World cult wines don’t demand that their consumer know anything about wine, only that they can remember the words ‘Cabernet Sauvignon,’ ‘Napa,’ and be willing to pay for it. Gone are the intricacies of Bordeax geography and Chateau ranking, or small appellations tucked far away in Piemonte. Ray may be from Seattle, but Ray drinks Californian. And innocent, hardworking Mirabelle can barely be shown drinking at all.

Finger Lakin’ Grüner: Part 1

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I have long waited to try the Dr. Konstantin Frank Grüner Veltliner, and for personal reasons. There’s no use hiding it: while my family’s Darcie Kent Grüner Veltliner from Monterey, CA, took gold at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, Dr. Frank’s took Best of Class. I’m not here to tell you who’s is better– you would want someone a little less biased than myself. But I am here to report on the experience of trying it. Additionally, I went to the source.

Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars sits poised on a steep hill overlooking Keuka lake, in Upstate New York. Vinifera isn’t part of Frank’s name– it refers to Vitis Vinifera, the species of grapevine used to make most fine wines. Other species, like Vitis labrusca, can give jammy, oft described ‘foxy’ tasting wines. Yet many of these other species hail from North America, the so-called ‘Vineland’ of the Vikings, and can resist the chimerical weather up here. For a long time, vintners assumed Vinifera couldn’t survive winter upstate.

Konstantin Frank immigrated from the Ukraine in 1951, long after the first wave of winemaking had passed through the Finger Lakes. (I’m no Prohibition scholar, yet, but judging by the fact that the Seneca Falls Convention occurred just up the road, the area likely supported a good percentage of temperance activists.)  Frank knew that Vinifera could grow in the Ukraine, and began to experiment, grafting vines onto cold-hardy rootstock. It was already commonplace to graft American rootstocks to Vinifera worldwide, in order to survive the American-born phylloxera louse that had nearly driven the species extinct at the turn of the twentieth century. Adapting this philosophy to promote cold-resistance worked. Today, more and more Finger Lakes wineries use Vinifera, and many reject the other kinds altogether. However their poor reputation lingers on, warranting the advertisement of ‘Vinifera’ in large type.

Konstantin Frank makes about 600-800 cases of their Grüner a year, neither large nor small. I was first struck with the lack of brioche on the mid palate, which is thickly present on my family’s Grüner, as well as Illahe’s and Laika, from Washington and Michigan respectively. Frank’s Grüner is bone dry, and loaded with lime zest and chalk. The acidity is strong, but completely cloaked under a soft body, shared by most of their whites. Additionally, I got a strong note of tangy, unsweetened yoghurt. No one at the tasting room believed the wine had gone through malolactic fermentation, where ‘fruity’ acids are converted into ‘milky,’ acids, but I’m going to stick by my note here– it definitely had a yoghurt-y twinge to it. Perhaps the brioche quality can shift that way? It isn’t a note I’ve found on many Austrian Grüners either.

I’m glad to have made a trip up to Frank’s, and tasted a few other of their staples– the Rkatsiteli, as well as the Cuvee d’Amour are both comprised of Ukranian varietals that can be difficult to find elsewhere. If the Finger Lakes can withstand intensifying winters, they could be set to enter into a golden age, with more talent and innovation heading up north, supported by a growing appetite for high acid wines in America. Without Frank’s experimentation or success, the Finger Lakes could have gone undiscovered as great wine country for much longer, and I liked starting my wine tasting route there. My next Finger Lakes Grüner stop will be Fulkerson’s.

 

 

Cider Resists Becoming the Yogurt of Booze

 

Hard cider. For better or for worse, it has usurped the throne from which Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Smirnoff Ice once reigned. Can you imagine taking a knee and downing a cider, when spontaneously presented, (challenged, even,) with a bottle in a random situation? Probably not. But rustic authenticity has prevailed over sheer-party time, and hard cider is now the drink of choice. At least for women.

How cider became a go-to beverage of choice for women remains a mystery. I posit that it has something to do with Mumford and Sons, Anthropologie, the movie/musical Once, and the fact that cider is often sweet. ‘Women’ are not intrinsically motivated to like sweet things– humans like sweet things, period. Yet women have societally been given permission to like sweet things. More than that, women are encouraged to like sweet things, because it articulates their femininity, and possibly a kind of childishness. Meanwhile, men continue to sip their bourbon, outright denying about how honeyed it tastes, feeling themselves to be ‘bad-ass’ for drinking whiskey.

Sweeter ciders begin to appear at more supermarkets, and on more tap handles. Which presents a challenge to all the beer marketers out there, looking to angle in on the new trend. Historically, beer advertises to women by marketing to men. Beer advertisements set out a list of rules, with which women can simultaneously become ‘one of the boys,’ while remaining desirable, by rejecting feminine things. Including men who do feminine things.

 

Advertisements treat the 18- 34 year old male demographic as the Type O negative of advertising– reach them, and you can reach anyone! Whether most women would like to be 18 – 34 year old men is, as of yet, not established, yet advertisements that appeal to women are not considered as universal. Beer marketers can’t stand to ignore their key demographic, and wouldn’t want to be caught marketing explicitly to women. So we get Smith & Forge, Miller Coors’ new project, all bandied up with handlebar mustaches and strongmen. It’s self consciously silly, and charged with enough Americana to electrocute a circus elephant. At this point, you could call it a variation of the Old Spice approach. But does it work? Were men just looking for permission to drink cider too, softened by the appeal that its not “too sweet?” Or are sky-rocketing sales meaningless until you can get the boys in on it too?

 

Wine + Music: tUnE-yArDs’ Nikki Nack

tuneyards_bottle I’ve written this Wine + Music column for three months now, without ever pairing a female artist. I know, sad! Especially considering I often give my sister a hard time about only listening to male musicians. Why the chauvinism? I’ve been trying to cover fresh, releases– this year’s been full of a few albums I’ve been anticipating for years. (2 years, as the average runs.) Perhaps I’ll reach back for St. Vincent and Janelle Monae’s 2013 offerings, but lucky for me, tUnE-yArDs just dropped Nikki Nack, an album that pairs perfectly well with feta-watermelon salad, jerk chicken and  long drives down monotonous highway corridors.

If Nikki Nack was a wine, what wine would it be? Or, what wine would best harmonize with this album?

Nikki Nack is a high acid wine, with its feisty edge enveloped by a firm layer of bright cherries, super-red strawberries, and raspberries. Merrill Garbus hoots, snarls, scats, and do-wops, but her clear singing voice, taut, demanding, and mildly tannic, is much more arresting than the vocal tricks. Nikki Nack’s lyrics are pucker-worthy, upfront and refreshing, but not incredibly nuanced– a red wine that could be worth chilling, as the all elements are clearly pronounced enough to survive reduced. 

At the same time, this is a wine that could be aged. ‘Look-Around’ certainly dredges up a prick of minerality. Nikki Nack’s acidity will give it a spine to fall back on, even as its playful, present fruitiness shifts into meatier, fleshier aromas. Touching on race, class, poverty, sex and anxiety, this album gets in your face, and then backs off, laughing at itself. Yet I suspect it will only seem more serious, even grim, as the years pass.

What is it? A Cru Beaujolais. (No, not a Beaujolais Nouvea. That’s totally different.) This is a gutsy cherry-bomb from the south of Burgundy. Unfairly passed over for the drama (and mostly prestige,) of its Pinot Noir neighbors, Beaujolais exuberantly carries on to the beat of its own drum. Some can be gritty, earthy concoctions, while others feature pangs of ripe, summery fruit. Nikki Nack encompasses both extremes, and its odd-ball self-confidence makes it memorable.

 

Wine Looks Bad On Film: On Shopgirl

Most stories feature wine as a prop, and little more. A bottle of wine indicates that this is that kind of dinner party, that kind of restaurant, or that kind of aristocrat or bohemian. A film audience can distinguish whether its white or red, sparkling or still, but that’s about it. Less commonly, there are books and films and songs which concern wine, like Sideways.  A middle ground is rarer still, where wine becomes a nearly silent device with which the characters work out their desires and conflicts, without traveling to a vineyard, or making stirring monologues about Pinot Noir. Few book, screen and song-writers realize that a character’s glass of wine reveals as much about them as a dog-eared copy of The Sun Also Rises, or a Ramones poster.

Steve Martin seems to understand this. Wine threads through both the novella and film formats of Shopgirl. Wine drinking is also one of the few ways the two versions meaningfully depart from each other. Both tell the story of a Mirabelle, a shy, waifish art school graduate who works in the neglected glove department of a luxury department store. Mirabelle struggles to meaningfully connect with people, and is medicated for depression. When courted by a wealthy, well-meaning divorcee, she waylays her uncertainty for hopes of a lasting relationship. The divorcee turns out to be as emotionally limited as the mistress-like role he proscribes for Mirabelle, who leaves him, takes control of her life, and happily gets together with Jeremy, the lost-soul from the b-plot. Everyone “grows up” and self-actualizes. Claire Danes plays Mirabelle, Jason Schwartzman plays Jeremy, and the divorcee, Ray Porter, is played by author, screenwriter and director Steve Martin. In both versions, an omniscient voice, (again, Steve Martin,) narrates the characters’ internal dramas with tender, if patronizing, candor.

shopgirl_badwine_2©Touchstone Pictures, 2005

Mirabelle eagerly drinks wine in the book. She abstains in the film. In the book’s first date, Ray is attracted to Mirabelle’s desire to learn about wine, and audibly orders a Barolo. In the film, they crack a joke—“Red wine?” “What shade?” “Maroon.” “Bring me a maroon wine.” While unfinished glasses pile up on the film’s tables and bed-stands, Mirabelle never visibly puts a glass to her lips, and turns down all spoken offers of wine. Meanwhile, wine becomes inseparable from Ray. It codes him as a member of the cool, collected elite, sipping away on his private jet. (In fact, that shot zooms in on the glass, just to be clear.) He drinks wine alone, eating Chinese food, and while wistfully overlooking the Los Angeles skyline. He snubs the old wine Mirabelle offers him from her fridge. Even the close up as he pours water resembles the glamour shot on a box of Franzia. Yet the one instance where he gets sloppily drunk with another woman, and then tries to honorably correct the situation, is not included in the film. Film-Ray is always controlled and sophisticated, yet never quite gallant.

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shopgirl_waterwine©Touchstone Pictures, 2005

Along these lines, the film cuts Ray’s internal monologues. Fewer voice-overs make for better films, yet the baby is thrown out with bathwater, and the removal of Ray’s vulnerabilities reduces him to a sex driven automaton, only human when regretting the loss of Mirabelle ‘too late.’ Their closing dialogue might have been copied from the book, but the film’s melodrama is a new addition, where Ray appears as a lost and lonely man, watching Mirabelle and Jeremy triumphantly, (theatrically!) embrace under a shower of flower petals. In the book, Mirabelle and Ray’s intimacy remains intact, if dormant, and their parting appears less tragic for Ray.

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shopgirl_striptease Shopgirl_bedside_6©Touchstone Pictures, 2005

If a glass of wine paints Ray as a sophisticated aristocrat deserving of punishment, it plays into the Madonna-whore complex for women. Sipping wine, Mirabelle reveals that she is tempted to be worldly. Eagerly drinking it would signal that she succumbs. Refusing wine, she appears virtuous and innocent. Mirabelle obviously drinks wine through the story, but the audience only watches her resist it. Wine is something that brings Ray and Mirabelle together in the book, but separates them on film. Part of the problem is that a filmed glass of wine triggers the memory of all the glasses of wine poured in movies before it, and who tended to drink them—mostly wealthy villains.

By participating in the popular iconography of wine as a dangerous class luxury, a connotation developed over centuries in popular film, theatre and illustrated pulp literature, the film Shopgirl plays into the classic Hollywood dichotomies of good versus evil, rural versus urban, honesty versus sophistication, and alcohol versus temperance, which were largely absent in the book.

For example, Shopgirl’s storyline doesn’t seem so far from D W Griffith’s 1920 re-creation of a typical nineteenth century theatrical, “Way Down East,”  where lustful aristocrat Lennox lures country girl Anna into an out-of-wedlock arrangement, and destroys her honor. Cast out of society, she is nearly about to perish on an ice floe when the young, noble farmboy David comes to her rescue and marries her. Mirabelle’s reputation never suffers, (although, it would be interesting to see how Jeremy and her parents would react,) yet Way Down East’s surtitles eerily mirror Martin’s writing in a number of places. Mirabelle wants to be in a committed, monogamous relationship with Ray.  He fails her and leads her on, causing her much heart-ache, and contributing to a paralyzing depression. Way Down East begins,

“Today Woman brought up from childhood to expect ONE CONSTANT MATE possibly suffers more than at any point in the history of mankind, because not yet has the man-animal reached his high standards`– except perhaps in theory..”

Suddenly, Mirabelle and Jeremy’s almost nonsensical exchange toward the end of the film makes sense:

Mirabelle: “Jeremy—So what made you do all this?”

Jeremy: “All this what?”

M: “All this… success?”

 J: (beat) “Well, you did.”

M:  “I did? How?”

J: “Well you said, ‘Just do it.’ So I did it.”

M: “Well, that’s not very much.”

J:  “Yeah, but I’ll protect you.”

They embrace and Mirabelle begins to cry.

 On its own, “I’ll protect you” seems like a bizarre non-sequitur. But it flows from the heart of this relationship—Anna/Mirabelle inspires David/Jeremy, who offers his devotion and protection from the corrupted influences that seek her. This is the classic romantic model of centuries of British and American melodrama, a narrative mode that partly developed to address (and sensationalize) the changes and social ills that came with industrialization—poverty, urbanization, race, youth culture, women and child abuse, and alcoholism being prevalent themes. Temperance movies comprised an entire genre of early film, and politicians and activists drew on melodramatic tropes to convince voters to ban alcohol state by state. Melodramatic visuals, like families cowering beneath violent, drunk husbands, contributed greatly to the passing of prohibition. Temperance activists cast alcohol as an evil of the city—conveniently, immigrants concentrated in urban areas, and tended to defend balanced consumption as a part of daily life. Alcohol thus became enveloped in a race war, and the enemy of the honest, American, white male hero. These tropes did not die, but engendered the formulas, frameworks and narratives at the heart of current politics and film-making. It is not easy to imagine Superman drinking wine, (although he only insists “he doesn’t drink when he’s flying.”)  And between Betty and Veronica, the future wine drinker is an obvious choice. It doesn’t make Veronica evil, but it lines up with her frivolous, stuck up, aggressive nature.

shopgirl_ruralhomecoming©Touchstone Pictures, 2005

Wine drinking, portrayed in Shopgirl as an aristocratic tendency, seems to have no part in Mirabelle’s life after Ray. Mirabelle collects herself in her parent’s rural Vermont home, and drinks a beer after the break-up. Wine, constantly associated with Ray’s appetite, becomes conflated with exploitation. Judging by the wines mentioned and featured, Martin may be a connoisseur, but as a director, he failed to reverse the negative connotations carried by a glass of wine in a rich man’s hand. Combined with the physical bodies of the actors, ceaselessly articulating their age difference, largely understood to be inappropriate, the film sets a moral battle where there had been mutualism and humanity in the text.

You can find the second part of this post here. 

shopgirl_seconddate_2 ©Touchstone Pictures, 2005