Archive for the 'culture' Category

Some more politics

With the trend starting on yesterday’s post, I want to shill a little more for progressive politics.

Our (very cool) coworking space is hosting an Obama Call Party this Sunday:

Wondering what you can do to help in what might be the most important election of our lives? Come to the PariSoMa coworking space Sunday for a few hours to make sure Barack has enough volunteers to counter the smears, and get voters to the polls in the critical swing states.
NOTE: We’re sorry, but this space is not handicap accessible; it’s one story up with no elevator.

All you need to bring is your cell phone; we’ll provide scripts and lists of voters to call. For extra kharma points, bring a snack or drinks to share with your fellow volunteers. Better yet, bring a few friends. But at least bring yourself!

Don’t think we need help in the swing states?  Check out the the struggle on the ground in next upcoming This American Life episode.

Obama has a posse.  And it’s US!


Robert Mondavi: 1913-2008

Big news in the wine world – Robert Mondavi died today at 94. Say waht you want about Mondavi wines, he helped put Napa on the map. And helped slowly (ever so slowly) turn wine drinking in the US from elite and expensive activity to simple populist pleasure. From the Wine Spectator:

“To promote the marriage of food and wine, Mondavi and his wife,
Margrit Biever Mondavi, created the “Great Chefs” programs at their
Oakville winery in the 1970s. Each year, they hosted influential
culinary masters, such as Julia Child and Paul Bocuse, to cook and
experiment with different food and wine pairings.

But rather than limit wine to fine dining, Mondavi championed making
it a part of everyday life and of a healthy lifestyle. When wine came
under attack in the 1980s, Mondavi was a vocal critic of anti-alcohol
campaigns and advocated research into the benefits of moderate
consumption of wine.”

Good stuff from Vinography

I’ve not always agreed with Alder at Vinography, particularly around his views on wine as a product vs. wine as a cultural tradition (the latter being a very European- and grower-centric view).  That doesn’t mean I don’t read and enjoy his very popular and in-depth blog.  I just wanted to give a quick nod on two posts I read recently that had me giving the thumbs-up:

  • Wine and food pairing – It’s a sham.  Yes, I happen to agree.  Some wine work better than others, for sure, but the current fear of mis-matching wines is way overboard….
  • Wine and the recession – Something I’ve been thinking about as I see my favorite daily drinking wines go up several dollars in price over two years (and when some of my favorites started at $10 from Kermit Lynch, that’s a big percentage increase….)

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Wine Stories

I’m far more interested in wine stories than wine reviews, and I wonder how many people share this feeling. (Wine blogger Pim apparently does, and points to a couple of good wine storytellers.) In fact, I’m pretty terrible at identifying and describing particular elements in the aroma and flavor of a particular wine, which is probably why I so much prefer to tell a long and involved story about a particular wine than try to review it out of context. 

Don’t get me wrong – I can pick out differences between wines, and can appreciate excellent wines that are not within my preferred “taste”; but accurately describing them in wine taster terms is beyond me (and completely frustrating for my friends).  I usually end up with some bizarre colorful comparison, such as recently “This one feels like a sword – light, thin but strong; and this one a bat – heavy and … heavy, big, hits you over the head…”

This touches on what Jancis Robinson describes as the difference between wine reviewers and wine writers.  (Given my scant record, I don’t put myself in either category).  Of course, most wine bloggers are a mix of the two:  they admit that their preferred memories of wine are very contextual – there’s a story that went along with the act of drinking that wine; but they still write tons of reviews, which seems to be the de-facto activity of wine bloggers.  I personally skip over almost all of the reviews and head for the stories.  I mean, I usually don’t buy a bottle of wine without some sort of personal connection to it, however tenuous. 

I’ve ruminated on this for a while, somehow feeling a little less assured in my wine experience since I not only was disinterested in reading wine reviews, but personally had a harder time defining all the tiny elements of a wine’s “nose and mouth”.

I ruminate still, but what brought this whole thing to a head to me was the sheer joy I had while reading a Port story that says nothing about the objective qualities of the port, but everything about the experience.  From a yoga teacher who doesn’t usually write about wine (and nod to Amanda for pointing this my way.)

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Keeping an open mind (and open taste buds)

One of the things about working on a wine project that focuses on the actual land and people who grow the wine is that – as part of the U.S. team for this – I’ll be checking out a lot more American wines than ever before.  That’ll be a return to my first wine experiences where I “got” it – driving around the gorgeous Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys, soaking in the sun and the wines.

It was on a couple of those trips through Sonoma wine country that I began to understand how different wines could be, even if made from the same grape; and I began to develop my own particular tastes.  For example, disliking Zinfandel and Chardonnay.  My thoughts on Zin perhaps later (it’s an amazing grape, pushed to high-alcohol over-intensity too often), but it’s no surprise that the butter-slathered-on-an-oak-slab over-alcoholic-paint-thinner trend of Chardonnays that was popular just 5-odd years ago turned me off.

Over the years, I’ve given Chardonnay the benefit of the doubt – particularly when it’s not an American Chardonnay, or when the Americans have eased up on the butter and oak (and alcohol).  Still, if given the choice in US wines, I would always grab a Sauvignon Blanc, or even a Viognier, first.

Which is exactly what I did for PariSoMa’s co-hopping event.  I ordered a case of Kalinda Sauvingon Blanc.  Kalinda is K&L Wines’ “white label” – they pick up extra grapes from high-end growers who need to reduce their inventory, in return for not mentioning who they are….  Not only do you and I get a deal, these are single-source grapes, which follows the basic premise of Mapovino.

Except that K&L messed up the order, and I ended up with a case of Anderson Valley Chardonnay, which in my mind immediately rhymed with dismay.

Turns out, though, that  (I’m guessing) the cooler weather and vinifictation of this chardonnay took it miles in another direction.  It’s a great white that can be drunk cool, not cold in order to temper the alcohol and butter wafting off of other chardonnays.  It even handily beat out a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc Amanda and I tried the other day – a U.S. Chard beating a non-US (albeit New World) Sauv-Blac. Wow – that was a new one for us.

I’m interested in exploring wines in the US (and everywhere) that are classic examples of what the land – and wine making tradition – produces.  My only nagging thought, though, is this:  Is the hot, buttery chardonnay a more classic example of the Californian Chardonnay tradition than this new, northern county style?

Credit Agricole – c’est nulle, nulle, nulle

Credit Agricole would have to go out of their way to try to suck worse than they do.  And maybe they do, on purpose, because boy, do they suck.  Add to that the nightmare of French bureaucracy, and you’ve got a clear winner in the loser department.

Two years ago, I discovered that if I was planning on visiting France with any regularity, I needed a French debit card.  There is a whole swath of transactions that can only be accomplished with French cards – specifically, French bank cards with the implanted chip.  Attempting to purchase gas without a human teller on a holiday is just one example, but the one that forced my hand.

Since my father already had a French bank account, we figured it would be easiest to avoid the red tape and open a joint account under his account, with the French credit union Credit Agricole.  I believe this is where things began to go wrong.  In the interest of time and space – and for maximum amusing readability – let me cut to the (goose) chase:

  • My Dad lives in Africa (long story).  I live in San Francisco.  The bank, based in Normandy, sent all my documents to Africa – even after I explained (at the outset) that I needed my documents sent to me in the U.S.  I eventually did start receiving some documents (but never statements) in the U.S.  Notably, a questionnaire asking me about their customer service….
  • I tried logging in to the online system, and I had my online password wrong.  Yes, this was my fault.  After three tries, the bank locks you out completely until you contact them and ask for a password reset.  Ah – they only send the new passwords by mail.  It went to Africa.  I had to contact my parents to get the code.
  • I visited France this last June and I brought my bank card with me.  I used my card for the first time and was given the keypad for my code….. I had forgotten my French card’s PIN (as opposed to the online login password).  No sweat, I thought – I’ll ask them to process the purchase as a credit card.  No deal.  Even though the card says “Visa” on it, I cannot use the card as a credit card (with signature) – at least, if I supposed to be able to, I’ve been refused by stores so far.
  • For the life of me, I could not remember ever even having received a PIN number – which is why I never thought of it in the first place.  (I discovered later that I never did – my parents brought me a bunch of bank mail, which included the PIN).  I went to the nearest Credit Agricole (I was in southern France by then) with my bank card, hoping to reset my code in person.  They looked at me as I had brought them a nose-trimmer.  “We can’t help you with that.  You don’t have an account here.  You have to call your local agency.”
  • I call my actual bank in Normandy.  They could resend my PIN number – by mail.  Hmmm – you can probably guess how excited I was about that prospect.  I asked them to send it instead to my mother’s address, in the south of France, where I would be for the next week.  I should have guessed it would have sounded too fishy – even though I passed all the security tests on the phone, etc, they never sent it.
  • This time around, on our trip in November, I go straight to the bank in Normandy.  First, what’s this new $20 “bank card” fee I’m being charged?  “It’s for the use of your bank card”.  I’ve had this card for over a year now, never a fee.  The assistant manager looks at the screen a moment, then says, “Don’t worry about it.”  I ask if he’ll remove it.  “Don’t worry about it.”  That’s not how we confirm someone will remove a bank charge in the U.S.  It’s “Yes, I will remove the fee.”  I’m suspicious.
  • I wanted to confirm my card would work with my code.  The assistant manager stands beside me as I put the card into the ATM, enter my PIN.  Ah, the code is accepted.  I am able to take out money – or at least, I should say, get to the money screen, after which we cancelled the operation (mistake).  So it works…..
  • C’est vrai?  Non…..  I try to buy gas with the card the next day, on our way down to Lyon, 600 kilometers away from my bank.  No luck – the card accepts the PIN, but then says the transaction is invalid.  The woman looks at the card, and says “Oh, your card is expired.  As of last month.”  I have not received a replacement card (I’m sure it’s in Africa – they were *still* tryng to make my U.S. address stick in their system when I visited them this time).  No one at the bank in Normandy noticed.
  • I go to the Credit Agricole in Lyon.  I have my passport, and I have my check book.  Surely I can get money out that way….  You can guess where this is going, right?  The woman is all accommodating until she sees my checkbook.  On the cover, my dad’s name is printed, first initial and last name.  She says it’s not my name.  I show here an actual check with “G Beuthin” printed on it.  She pauses.  “But that’s not your full name. I can’t confirm this is you.”  Apparently, since “Gregory” is not printed on my checks, she refuses to let he have access to cash.
  • My only solution is to call my bank, and have them wire transfer it to another branch.  But that will take 24 hours, and will cost me $20.  I go through a run-around of calling another branch further south where I will be the next day; making sure it will be open on Saturday morning so I can  actually get the money at that agency; then calling my agency again and requesting the wire transfer.  This all takes over 30 minutes.  What I can’t understand is why, if I can call my bank and have them wire transfer money to someone (anyone, apparently, as long as that person has a passport or formal ID) at another location, can’t I get money out for myself by calling my bank?!!!
  • Finally, just to show that Credit Agricole is not the only bank that is giving me the French red-tape special (but certainly the worst so far), I visited BNP Paribas to finish setting up an account I had opened on my last trip.  The manager was apologetic as he told me the account was refused – he had submitted the request as a resident account (even though I was not a resident) and it had been refused because I did not provide any resident papers.  Yet when I was there over the summer, we had discussed all the supporting paper s I would need form my American banks since I was opening a non-resident account.   The manager even suggested I open an account with a resident family member (like my Dad, perhaps) and surreptitiously use the card with their name on it.  Are you kidding?  I can’t even use a card with my name on it!!!

So the saga is not over.  It’s just less painful when I’m not in France, not dealing with it.

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Restaurant Iberia – uh, Newark?

My wife and I went on a short trip to France this month.  It’s a mix of a much needed vacation for my wife, and a family plus business trip for me.  And yes, it isn’t a great combination since the vacation part gets short shrift, but this was our only time and opportunity.  On our way out, we had a 24 layover in Newark, New Jersey (long story) and we decided we should eat something that we wouldn’t find readily in France.  Being Californian, we figured we’d pick up some sushi – until we realized that Newark isn’t known for sushi, at all.  (Yes, that was obvious in retrospect, but we were tired and jet-lagged).  Instead, Newark is known for Portuguese food.  That didn’t fit our original criteria too well, but we opted for a reframing – we’d be eating a Newark “terroir” meal.

We ended up at Iberia Peninsula Restaurant, mainly because it was still open by the time we got there.  We balked at first because almost every dish hovered at around $20, and being from San Francisco, it’s tough (for us) to justify $19.95 for a plate of cod unless it’s sustainably caught, with a seasonal preparation featuring ingredients from farms we recognize, slow food blah blah.  But we were hungry, and this was the only place open.

And by the end of the meal, we were ecstatic, full, and not really that much out of pocket.  We had really had an amazing, and Newark “terroir” meal.  We started with deep fried calamari, which were fresh and soft, with a softer breaded covering than the usual pub-fare crisp. We originally figured we would split the house-special parrilhada (seafood platter) for two, but then saw one delivered to another table, and realized we didn’t have 4 more Newark constructions workers there to help us eat it, so we shared a paella marinera.

Sure, it’s technically Spanish, not Portuguese, but we were in an “Iberian” restaurant….  The thing came in a metal bucket 2/3 the size of a champagne bucket, the top overflowing with lobster.  There was so much lobster, it was as if we had ordered lobster for two, and paella for four.  Oh, and the paella was full of mussels, clams, scallops and calamari too.  Oh, and it was delicious.  We tried packing it down with a bottle of Portuguese white wine, but there was no way we could not eat it all – we couldn’t even finish the lobster!

The waiter was just as much part of the experience as the food.  Age indeterminate, he had salt and pepper hair and a perfectly understated way about him, the politeness and efficacy of Jeeves with the life-long-waiter appeal of a Parisian brasserie server.  Every choice of ours was a perfect choice, but recommendations were made if asked.  Affirmative was a slight nod and closing the eyes, all with a hint of a smile that indicated we were the smartest patrons in the room – or whoever he happened to be talking to at that moment.

I finished with a cappucino just to see the crusty guy behind the counter make one on the enormous espresso machine.  We grabbed a cab to return to our hotel, with our tub of remaining paella in hand (really, a metal tub so we could reheat it at home if need be).  We asked the cabbie on a whim if there was somewhere we could find some homeless people to give the food to.  He didn’t blink – he knew that they were usually around the train station, and yes, Iberia always gives you too much food.  We found a guy in a wheelchair, and I hefted the remaining meal into his hands, and then returned to our hotel, amazed at the experience we never expected to find in Newark, New Jersey.

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