Suffering for my craft

Dateline: Santa Maria. Insidiously hidden beneath the text of the last post was my extraordinary life and death battle with the grim reaper of pain and disfigurement…..Well, OK-not so much. But, I did tear some soft tissue, muscle and some ligaments, in my right hand.

A case of wine that I purchased from the aforementioned Mr. Volk was being shepherded to my car and it went one way–a way it shouldn’t have gone–and took my hand with it. Normally, this would be no problem, yes? But the way the box chose to go (thank you chaos theory!) was the way that hands were not meant to go–at least–not that far.

Well, by the time I hit the Los Olivos market, the forearm was a bit swollen and sore. I didn’t think too much about it, my mind fixed laser-like on that pastrami and cheese sam’ich and the chips with accompanying bev’rage. But by the time I got home, the pain she was hurting and the arm she was swelling.

So, I went through yesterday trying to ignore it, but it wasn’t willing to be ignored. My lovely and gracious wife did her level best with an efficacious ace bandage and that helped. The magical weaving of pressure and support were pretty good. It got even better when our football coach, Dennis, rewrapped it. Magic hands, that man–it was as if he was created, put here in my little corner of the world, to wrap ace bandages. His players say so, too.

Well–I’d had enough. Went to the doc–and he did what docs do–made it hurt worse. Diagnosis: Soft-tissue is not where it should be—blood, swelling, probably some torn ligaments–maybe a torn muscle. Solution: Ibuprofen, ice, pressure-wrap (which sounds like some nouveau Asian lunch thingy).

Oh, yeah—typing hurts. Goodnight.

Real Work Today

Ugh. Day started, inauspiciously, with the usual up at 6:ish and to work with the chilluns. We watched the end of the film The Day Reagan was Shot, which is a fantastic docudrama made by my friend Cy Nowrasteh. He’s also responsible for the film The Path to 9/11 which aired on ABC late last year and he’s a smart, strong, good writer and film-maker. His kids are also smart, strong and good writers–though, they’re not film-makers. Oh, I graded papers while the kids watched.

Then, it was to the library to deal with essay writing–and then the next issue of the student newspaper, which will also be the last issue of the student newspaper–and then the gloating of the Yearbook which just came out–and the discussion with administrators and the rest of it. But then….

Off to Santa Maria. This is the ugh part because I worked the full day and then got in the car and drove north on the 101 for over 100 miles and into the back country of Santa Maria where I interviewed Ken Volk of Kenneth Volk Winery. Great guy, wonderful wine–but I wasn’t prepared for the punishment of this day. I stayed up too late last night with visiting friends and I was up early this morning and so here I am doing the Central Coast bop on a Tuesday after a full day’s work.

Ken was a fine interview and his winery, formerly a Mondavi property and then Byron’s property, is really cool–and absolutely beautiful. It’s on Tupusquet Creek at the mouth of the canyon and it’s on some of the best wine-growing land in Santa Barbara County. It’s in Bien Nacido, Katherine’s Vineyard, Rancho Sisquoc country. Deeply impressive. I wielded my industry discount privileges and bought a case of wine, too–half Pinot Noir, half Chardonnay. I wasn’t about to make a 110 mile journey for an hour’s worth of talk–and then go back home. No sir–there must be wine on days like these. Ken makes beautiful wines and many of them are not of the Burgundian persuasion, but his Pinot is tops and his Chard is a summer-time must, in my humble opinion.

Back down the coast I raced, having left the winery a little later than I would have liked–just before 6:30. Down the 101, cutting across the 154 to save some time to Santa Barbara…but wait! No dinner. Hmmmm….Options limited, no fast food up in this neck o’ the woods-which is a good thing, I might add. But what’s that? Off to the right–the Los Olivos Market, bastion of foody-civilization and wonderful grubbery along the lonesome stretch of the 154 through cow and grape country (and a few deer, too). Homemade, pre-packaged sandwiches–pastrami and cheese, a bag of Kettle Crisp Salt and Vinegar chips and a big bottle of dad’s favorite-Squirt. Yessir, yessir, that’s a dinner I can live with. Back in the car, out to the windy road, the alluringly cool evening and the radio, munching as I drove.

Home a little after 8:00, enough time to read a Big Bird Sesame Street book to Peanut, tuck her in and say prayers. A long day—that ended well.

Memorial Day-A true reminder

I have written about Michael Diraimondo before. He was a student of mine when he was in 8th grade–some 14 or 15 years ago. His death in Iraq in 2004 hit me like a ton of bricks and I think of him often. Memorial day is the day I think of him most, of course, as it is appropriate to remember the fallen that have given their lives for our country.

I got a message from his father tonight after I’d written to him with simple Memorial day greetings in honor of his son. He wrote back with thanks–and with a reminder that I pass along to you…Memorial day should also be a time that we remember those who were wounded in the service of their country. Our government does not do enough for them–but they did enough for their government. There is no greater service one can give to their country than to don its military uniform. The wounded need our care, our help and they deserve better than they’re getting.

Want to make a difference on Memorial day? Visit Soldier’s Angels or other charity groups that offer back to our vets as much as they can. They deserve it–and you know well that they’ve earned it, while many of us haven’t.

Nothing at all

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.

I’m writing this out of naivete. You see, I teach English and American Studies and have read many of the great American classics. But I’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird. I will remedy that this summer. But for now, I know it not.

And so, when a student handed in an assignment to me today with this quote embedded at the top, it took me by surprise. I knew something about the book–the story and the theme. But I did not know this quote. Intuitively, though-it’s a quote we all want to take to heart. It’s powerful and simple. There’s no subtlety here, it’s divisive–courage is a thing, and it’s not the thing you thought it was.

Admittedly, though-sometimes courage is a man with a gun in his hand. Courage is a soldier prepared to fight and, if necessary, die for a cause–and with any luck, the cause is just. Courage is a police officer holding a gun he didn’t want to hold as he stops someone from doing any more damage. So, yeah-sometimes courage can look that way.

But-really, says Harper Lee, courage is a person who simply does what is right, regardless of the cost–and of what other people think. So, I read the quote and was simply taken aback. It surprised me and, as happens sometimes when I read something that is so profound, I had my breath rather taken away. I love that feeling–and love that it happens still.

I’m just hoping that in some way, I have that courage, too. I hope that this small lesson that’s become embedded in us too deeply–we hardly say these words anymore–can rise a little to the surface and take back some of its meaning.

It’s really just one more way of saying what so many American authors have said, even when they’ve said it backhandedly, that hope exists–there is always light even in the darkest night. And if we don’t find ourselves clinging to that hope, then we ultimately have nothing. Nothing at all.

Rambling on and on…

I promise no tightly woven prose and it breaks my heart. I’m just not there. It’s a ramble, to be honest. A medium length, bloggy, nasty ramble—the kind Richard Shickel would hate. That’s OK, though–because quite honestly after reading the piece by him linked here, I think he’s a pompous windbag (h/t Lileks).

My passions lie in W’s, it seems. Wine and words. I could be smug, stupid and chauvinistic and add “women” to that, but I won’t. Wouldn’t be true. I do indeed have a passion for a woman. She’s upstairs as I write this, actually. The two of us have produced a small one who will become a woman. I have a passion for her, too. But I digress.

Wine–and words. Not even necessarily in that order. Some days, I’m giddy in front of a screen and a keyboard. Other days, I’m giddy in front of a Riesling or a Pinot Noir, a Cabernet or a Sangiovese. Once in a while, those two things converge and I write words about wine. It’s a thrill, actually–perhaps my closest relationship to sheer creation. I’ve played music and I’ve taken photographs. I’ve done other things like that, but I’m not any good at them–at least, not good enough to keep wanting to do them consistently. Oy, this is coming close to self-aggrandizement….apologies. Let us move on.

Words about wine….ah hem. Drank another Frenchy today in the form of Trimbach Alsace Riesling. It was good—it wasn’t Ruhlman good, but it was pretty darned good. $15.99 at everyone’s favorite store, Trader Joe’s. I called Brian to ask him to come for a taste, which he did. We agreed it was worth buying again and I think he went and got some tonight.

We talk nearly 4 times a week, now, whether via e-mail or over the phone about what we’re making this year. We keep going back and forth and we have settled on at least two we are definitely making: Sangiovese and Barbera. Cal-Itals and we’re happy about that. But, we want to delve into whites, now–and not just any white. We’re looking for Riesling Grapes with the intention of making an Alsace-style or influenced Riesling. We don’t want to make the sugar-bombs that Americans produce with these grapes, but something a little more subtle, a little more nuanced. Thing is, Riesling grapes are hard to find and we were surprised by that. There are some up in Napa and that’s great, but transporting those down here (Napa is roughly 450 miles north of us) is a little tricky. They’d start making wine by themselves on the trip down. Can’t have that.

Brian is still looking–but we did find some viognier. That’s a possibility as we’re both fans of that grape…but then, it’s nothing either of us necessarily want to emulate. A great Riesling, though–that’s worth reproducing.

I write this only to begin the process. Our Two Dogs wine is underway, no question. And the thing that I think makes it–the one ingredient that’s going to make it work–is that both Brian and I (and Scott, should he join us–looks like he will) are thinking about this stuff all the time.

Like I said, words and wine–and not necessarily in that order…

Click the click, if you please

Alright, look. I’m a writer–aside from teaching high school, it’s what I do. And I’m not above getting into the new fangled world of new media publishing–which I’ve done. So, I’ve got a piece on the recent French wine tasting in Oakland and I humbly ask you to click here to go read it. Apparently, the more people who go to read the article, the more I’m liable to get published again–and make money, I suppose–and all that. So, I humbly beg you to read the article. I think it’s interesting anyway….

18 days of school left in this, my 16th year in the classroom. Hard to believe, actually. Things are going well and I am enjoying the work for the most part. This is always a tough time of year, though—and the seniors in particular (you know who you are) are already done. They don’t want to be in class any more. I understand, of course. I was a senior in high school once, as well. But–I’ll miss them, this group. They’re a good bunch of kids with solid heads on their shoulders for the most part and I like them. I’m in hopes that they think that way of me as well.

Well, Monday has wound down–the dog walked, the exercise done, I bbq’d a little tri-tip and we had an Eberle Cabernet Sauvignon which is just stellar. Lots of rich, dark red fruits, hints of cassis and just that hint of oak wrapped around the whole thing. Pretty darned good.

And so ends a fine Monday. Cheers.

Vive La France II-weekend edition

A very busy weekend has ended this evening with a tired family (yours truly included) and now a bit of downtime. My last post down there really left me with a lot of writing and I’ve produced over 2500 words on French wines, about 1000 of which are in the previous post here. The rest are floating out in the e-mail world awaiting various editors to turn on their laptops on Monday morning and, perhaps, elicit a response. I really feel like the event was worth far more than the press it has been given and I’m attempting to at least get some wine magazines interested. I’ve gotten rejection letters already from Wine Enthusiast and the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s understandable from both of them, but I still feel it’s a shame. These wines were tops–and they deserve some recognition.

At this point, I’ll await tomorrow’s crop of either rejection or acceptance and see what happens. I’m honestly hoping that, as my pal Marc Jannsen puts it when someone publishes his excellent poetry, lightning will strike. I write pretty well all the time for Wine Country This Week, but my entire focus there is Central Coast wines and the magazine’s focus is in California alone. They were kind enough to sponsor me for the trip, but alas, they don’t want a story on it. That too is a shame, I think. I can see it working in our magazine and I wish they would allow a piece on it.

Well, one thing I have definitely learned as a freelancer and that is–I’m not in charge. Perhaps blessedly so. But then again, there are a lot of things worth writing about out there–even if the editors don’t always agree.

Vive La France!

Yesterday was given over to travel for a unique and delightful experience. Brian (Two Dogs) and I got up before the sun and headed out to Burbank Airport to catch a flight on my favorite airline to Oakland. Incidentally, the flight up and back were two of the smoothest, nicest flights I have been on in over a year. Really great.

Anyway, north– up to Oakland to take part in Forum Vinum, a French wine tasting and trade show in which wine-makers from all over France came to pedal their wares and attempt to get back into the American market. It was an eye-opening and educational experience but at the end of the event yesterday, one thing remained clear: These wines and these people were wonderful, top notch and quality. I couldn’t believe the consistent quality of each of the wines from different regions and how completely different the French wines were from their American counterparts. As a certified sommelier, I have no real experience in French wines other than what I read and I still feel I need about 10 years to even begin knowing the wines.

The region that stood out most to me was the Alsace. Known for its white wines, light and delicate in nature, these common names in French hands were not at all like their American cousins. Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling and not a one of them sickly, syrupy sweet. They were light, almost fragile and with a nuanced focus on the fruit that allowed their natural sweetness to come through. It was the first region we tasted, too–and we tasted probably a total of around 40 wines. Still, the delicate flavors, floral and honey aromas and golden, straw and pale gold colors still stand out in my mind.

Burgundy was not widely represented, but there were three producers. Burgundy is the producer of the wines we Americans know as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The standout here was the red Burgundy or Pinot Noir. If you’ve not had a Burgundy, it is hard to compare it to American versions with the possible exception of the Oregon Pinots. As is the case for almost all of France’s distinct wines, the wine-makers concentrate on expressing terroir–or place. The soil and the ambient environment come through and so flavors of mineral, loam and smokiness peer through far more than they do in the fruit bombs of the new world wines. That was true here as well and the two Burgundies we drank were really subtle, beautifully crafted wines with finishes that lingered. As late as the drive home, upon landing back in Burbank, some 3 or 4 hours after the event ended, Brian and I could still taste the Burgundy–and remembered their charms.

France does wine differently from the U.S. The A.O.C. has very strict rules governing how wines are labeled and sold. Marketing is a relatively new practice for the French largely because of the rules imposed by the A.O.C. The fraud that took place in descriptions of wine contents during and after the Napoleonic era caused a very focused, very strict set of rules to be put in place. One gentleman, James–from Provence, is working through his wine company to update those rules and relax them a bit. He’s a marketing specialist and his challenge is not in providing quality wines (the rose’s from Provence are stellar–and were delicious), but in marketing them using names that the A.O.C. will allow. It was a powerful education in the complexities inherent in a wine region that is some 5000 years old.

One of the other factors facing the French is the sheer number of wine producers. For example, in Languedoc, an area smaller in size than Santa Barbara County, there are some 1500 wine producers. By comparison, Santa Barbara County boasts fewer than 200 such wine producers. Competition is a good thing, yes–but essentially, in a global market, it’s hard to make a lot of money selling wine when you produce about 1000 cases a year or less. For many years, the French simply grew wine for themselves and for the locals in their area. But in an era of global competition, that business model won’t survive. No tears, now–that’s not the point. It’s just a change in something that hasn’t changed in a very, very long time.

The people were good natured, funny and passionate about their wines. The last wine we drank was poured by a woman named Mary who, in fact, wasn’t French but Irish. Mary, a trained oenologist, fell in love with a Frenchman, married and moved to France. Now, she travels the world–and the country–helping him promote his wines. Of course, since she spoke English–and in that beautiful, lilting accent, she was easy to get to know. The wines she poured were typically delicate and truly unique. She had the only Tempranillo we tried that day and it was beautiful in its delicate and smoky cherry flavors. It was a real treat.

We headed over to hear Angelo Tavernaro speak, too. Angelo is a Master Sommelier who worked for 20 years at Ceasar’s Palace in Las Vegas as well as several other high profile jobs. He grew up in Italy where, as he says, “wine is simply a way of life.” He talked about the French A.O.C. but spent a great deal of time on the very real and very specific health benefits of a lifestyle that includes wine in the diet everyday. Of course, moderation is the key, there–as it is in so many things. And, as a teacher, he spoke near and dear to my heart in mentioning that “Americans make a big mistake when they make wine–and alcohol–a taboo. There are more incidences of teen binge drinking, teen alcoholism and improper behavior when it comes to drinking in America than anywhere in Europe.” I have to give the man his due. I think he’s right about this. I’ve seen it.

Finally, not one of the people we met fit the stereotype of a French person that Americans have come to adopt. Everyone was kind, gentle and friendly with not an air of “superiority” or unkindness anywhere. Yes, they were there to sell wine–but I never once got the feeling that they were putting on a brave face and saving their commentary for when all the Americans left. On the contrary, they seemed grateful and happy to be there. This would be the third time I’ve had occasion to be around French people and I did not find any of the stereotypes during any one of those times. This, combined with the fact that in France’s recent elections they put into a power a man who promised closer and better ties with the U.S. and the fact that Germany did the same thing in electing Angela Merkel, makes me wonder about the media-hype that says that Europe hates us. I simply don’t buy it–I don’t think it’s true. And my evidence is pretty clear.

Some pictures of the trip:

Angelo Taverarno, Master Sommelier, talks about the wine life–and the French A.O.C.


Brian pays rapt attention at the Master’s seminar. Even after being awake at 4:00–we wanted to sit and listen. Tired doesn’t count when you love what you’re doing.


Our Irish oenologist, Mary and me bonding over some Tempranillo.


Rose’s du Provence-a name which, until recently, was not allowed to exist by the A.O.C. Our new friend and wine marketing guru James De Roamy pushed through the changes that allowed these names to exist.


Oakland has a certain…well, a reputation. Still, there are some gems here in the East bay not the least of which is some really cool, older architecture.


Sue, Peanut and I were just here in Oakland–here at the Marriott Convention center, less than a month ago. The weather then was rainy, cloudy and cold. But the Tribune building caught my eye and I kept thinking it would make a great photograph on a sunny day. Little did I know I’d be here 3 weeks later–so, there’s the Tribune–more cool architecture.


It was too early to think about getting the camera out at 7:00 A.M. in Burbank. But, I’m a sucker for airplane and flying photos–so, on the way home, I got shutter happy with few stellar results. Still–our plane was just over half full going home which allowed us to taxi very quickly into position and take off from the midway point on the runway. We rolled out from the gate and less than a minute later, I snapped this pic going out over the East Bay.


On the ground at Burbank exactly 12 hours and 5 minutes after we took off that Wednesday morning. I love Southwest–they helped me learn to go flying and traveling again and I’m a loyal customer. Plus–I think their airplanes, in this case the Boeing 737-700 series (Southwest flies 737’s exclusively), look really, really cool.

The Play

We passed one of those milestones tonight–the kind that you probably don’t forget, at least for a long time. And since I had the digital SLR on duty and snapped about 65 photos, we won’t be likely to forget it for a long time.

Peanut’s kindergarten class put on their spring play, the 3 Piggy Opera and it was a delight. Peanut had three lines of which two actually got said. No worries–6 year olds tend to forget lines when facing down an audience of shutter happy and overly enthusiastic parents. She did a great job. It wouldn’t be complete, of course, without photos:

Here’s the whole cast on stage. Peanut is the red flower, rather hard to miss. She was a narrator. They were all perfect–and really hammed it up. No pun intended, of course.


Here, Peanut sings her little heart out on the opening of the play. She remembered the songs wonderfully and went through all of the lyrics.


Here in full regalia is Peanut and her moment in the spotlight. She explains how she likes performing, but when it’s over, she seems relieved. That’s probably just as well. No actresses in this family–that’s fine with me.

Up bright and early with Brian to fly up to Oakland and network among the French at the Forum Vinum at the convention center. Tasting, seminar and networking with some folks to talk about how the French are losing market-share in America. Evidently, Sarkozy is not the only change the French wanted. They want to sell more wine. That’s a good thing–and I can support that. The market’s happier with more competition.

Good night to all.

Happy Mother's Day.

Continuing the mend. Sue is weak and tired, though she had a better evening. She ate dinner and played with Peanut and took a shower–but that was it. It seemed to completely undo her and she went to bed right after Peanut did. Both are again asleep as I write this, have been for half an hour or more (in Peanut’s case) and it isn’t 9:00 P.M. yet.

When Sue piqued and zonked at the same time, she got rather sweaty and a little nauseated. I sat her down and waited, making sure she wasn’t dehydrated and I got her some water. I had her take her temperature and I was thinking to myself–not to say preparing myself–that if she was spiking a fever, I’d call the doc and probably take her to the hospital. For some reason, I set 100.8 or above in my mind as the point at which I would call. That number is probably too low for a problem, but it’s what I settled on.

Well, her temperature was somewhere around 99.3, I think. No problem in terms of there being anything to worry about. She told me she was weak and that she was tired–that she wanted to go to bed. And that is where she went.

Have I said “oy” yet? I should. Oy.

Sue loved mother’s day and the cards she got–and the collage of pictures I put together (well, I did–but my Editor for the school paper, Nat, turned it into photoshop genius. Thanks, Nat!–she loved it!) was a real hit, too. Peanut had fun giving her card to mom and mom loved getting the cards.

I think she’s getting better and the morning will tell me how that’s going. I think the sweating was her fever breaking (and she thinks so, too). We shall see. Keep a good thought, say a prayer if you’re a mind to–and have a good evening.