Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Outsidering At Vinisud '12 And Elsewhere

Two years ago, I was excitedly looking forward to Vinisud, the Mediterranean wine trade show which happens every two years here, and which, the "Mediterranean" notwithstanding, is largely a showplace for Languedoc, Provence and Rhône Valley wine. Unfortunately, in the weeks leading up to Vinisud '10, sinus polyps caused me to lose my sense of smell and taste, as documented elsewhere on this blog. So this year, with the faculties working much better (I still don't think I'm 100% healed, but this will do), I was really looking forward to it. Not only is it a great opportunity to see all the local wineries under one roof without having to drive hither and yon (and then miss them), but this year, the Outsiders were doing a tasting -- one that was as out of the ordinary as it could be. And, with the weather warming up, it was sort of a harbinger of spring, even though, as I keep having to remind myself, it's still February here.

So bright and early Monday, I headed down to the Mercure Central hotel in the deserted section behind the old city hall, and joined a bunch of other folks waiting for the shuttle out to the Parc des Expositions. I'd gotten an invitation from someone through Les Vins de Charlotte, the new little wine shop near me which I wrote about earlier, and a friend from New York who was in town got me a second one, which I handed off to E, so he could continue his education on local wines -- and red wine in general. We agreed to meet at 2, and a third party, Michael, a young guy who distributes wine in Germany, was going to join us, thanks to his knowing a couple of my friends in Berlin. A merry time was in the offing.

Meanwhile, though, I figured I should wander around and get the lay of the land, which isn't easy: the Parc des Expositions, like most trade-fair facilities, is made up of several freestanding halls, linked together by pathways, and each containing a theme: Provence, for instance, takes up all of hall 10, while hall 5, right next to it, is the Spain/Italy/Portugal ghetto, along with "other countries." That connects to Hall 1, Hall 6, and Hall 11. Halls 2 through 4 don't seem to exist. So you can see how this gets confusing, especially once you've begun tasting. I held off on that until our crew assembled in the early afternoon and still spent most of my time trying to figure out how to get from one place to another. Square mats on the floor used their corners to point in the general direction of the other halls, but after being walked on for most of a day, they became askew and, thus, generally unrealiable.

I was trying to get to the AOC Languedoc halls, 7, 8, and 9, so that I could chase down some wines that interested me and find some old favorites to see how they've fared. Somehow, I always managed to get back to Hall 6, which was dominated by Corsica's huge banner hanging in the air with its scary slogan:

That gets filed under "Please use a native speaker when making these sorts of decisions," although I have to admit, it's the same in French. Maybe in Corsican dialect it sounds less threatening.

One thing I'd kept hearing, especially from Jean-Michel at Les Vins de Charlotte, is that in the past couple of years, Pic St. Loup has been discovered as a major source of fine wines, and it's driven the price up. Certainly, the display at Vinisud bears this out:

It was hard to photograph this: there was a door inbetween, leading to the enclosed area where a couple dozen winemakers offered their wares and in the center, a chef gave three hour-long demonstration-lectures on "Fusion Food and the Wines of Pic St. Loup." Yup, sounds like Pic St. Loup has arrived, all right. Meanwhile, I like the silhouettes of the Pic and its faithful limestone companion l'Hortus on the enclosure.

At 2, we assembled at O'Vineyards' stand, as planned, and Joe O'Connell gave us a generous tour of his wines. He's an American, with a French-Vietnamese wife, and a son, Ryan, who is a dynamo for both proselytizing for Languedoc Wines (he has a blog, Love That Languedoc Wine, which I started reading early on to educate myself about this region) and for using social media and the Internet to promote your winery. For all his contagious enthusiasm, though, very few have taken his advice, at least given the overall numbers. Meanwhile, the reason he proselytizes like this continues to exist: nearly all small winemakers skate on the edge of poverty, no matter that some of their wines sell for (relatively) big money. Maximizing the potential, you have to do several things simultaneously. The O'Connells manage it with Joe making the wine, his wife Liz running a B&B on the property, and Ryan making his own wines, giving tours, and doing the cyber-wine thing. (It's actually not that simple, because everyone does everything, but the point is that there's a lot more you have to do to keep your winery's head above water, and the old joke about how to make a million dollars farming -- start out with five million -- applies).

One thing O'Vineyards is good at is branding, with everything featuring that O', and everything with a characteristic sturdiness which then finishes in a firm blaze of flavor. Their efforts have been rewarded by the Hotel de la Cité, Carcassonne's noted luxury hotel, putting their Proprietor's Reserve on the menu. It's a remarkable, complex but friendly wine -- and it's not cheap. Still, they've made it to the point where now Ryan has been able to buy some outside grapes to fashion his new wine:

This has to sit a while, but as a wine for a non-special occasion, as something to drink with some down-home cooking, it's going to be excellent.

There's a problem, though, and it is one which hangs over all of the halls at the Parc d'Exposition: you can't get O'Vineyards wine anywhere in Montpellier. I remember a couple of years ago, Ryan filled the car with bottles and came down here, hitting store after store, and being told, yeah, good wine, but it's from too far away. How far? You can drive the 150 km to Carcassonne in an hour and a half, or so says Google. And while it's true that the geology of this region is pretty tumultuous and that terroir changes every mile or so, these micro-distinctions don't do anyone any favors. I'm all in favor of supporting our local winegrowers, of course, but it sure would be nice if a few wine shops in the bigger towns here would take the risk of stocking a little broader selection from this huge Languedoc-Roussillon area.

We thanked Joe for his superb tour and E and I pushed on to a couple of winemakers I wanted him to check out. Or, rather, that he'd already checked out. Regular readers will remember that it was E's birthday last year that wound up in our getting in the car and driving to St. Chinian, having been inspired by the bottle of Les Eminades we'd enjoyed that evening. It turned out that, of course, Les Eminades had a stand in the St. Chinian area of Vinisud, and since we hadn't met the young couple who run it last year, it was easy enough to do that now. Patricia and Luc Bettoni turned out to be both enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable, as well as in possession of some very old plants -- their Carignan vines are 110 years old, the Grenache between 30 and 60 years old, and the Syrah and Cinsault 40. That explained part of the great complexity they achieve with their wines, and another part, Patricia explained as she guided us through their four reds, has to do with sunshine management.

While we were tasting, all hell broke loose as a large number of people in robes carrying signs started parading through the hall. I only managed to get a couple of blurry shots, including this one with an embarrassed woman looking to empty her spittoon only to be blocked by the parade:

I'm still not sure exactly what was going on here, but it appears that these are members of organizations dedicated to the winemaking efforts of various Languedoc AOCs, chevaliers devoted to celebrating the area's food and wine.

Our next stop was my old favorite, Mas de la Serrane, whose wines I've enjoyed for years, thanks to their distinctive complexity, wide variety, and comparative affordability. I was already very familiar with all but the highest-end wine they make, Antonin & Louis, which I'd had but not particularly enjoyed. "It's broken; it just doesn't work," a wine expert told me a few years back, but I'm happy to report that whatever it was that was the problem seems to have been fixed.

"I get it," said E, as we hightailed it to the Outsiders' tasting, "it's like a family. All the wines have something in common, something which unites them, but they're all different." Exactly, and we'd just been afforded three excellent demonstrations of that fact.

The Outsiders tasting was definitely going to be something different. Ryan had been talking it up for weeks on Facebook, and so had the indefatigable Louise Hurren, publicist for a number of Languedoc wineries and another proselytizer for the area's top wines. In the short speech he gave before we got going, Ryan gave a hilarious presentation of word-clouds used by the tasters in the Wine Spectator's notes for its top-rated wines -- all of which were bland but enthusiastic. He then crunched some comments on his own wines into machine-generated reviews and machine-generated words. The point was simple: there are more ways of communicating ideas about wine than the standard, and exhausted, vocabulary of today's wine journalism allows. To this end, they had assembled 24 pictures -- a bunch of kittens, a Swiss Army knife, a bunch of ice-cream cones, a Lego guy, a firebomber, an ancient Citroën truck -- and asked us to taste the wines and, instead of making a comment, match each one with a picture, or a couple of pictures. Michael, the German guy, had joined us, and we were sitting next to each other. I was curious about what he'd do, as a professional, against me, who's only not been allergic to wine for 20 years and missed over a year's education to taste failure. We got pours of a Domaine de Cébène 2009 Felgaria from Faugères. We tasted. We spit. We tasted some more. We scribbled numbers in the tasting book. We compared notes.

We had picked the exact same picture: the multicolored ice cream cones. "Okay," said Michael, "this is interesting." What was also interesting is how utterly different from the mainstream virtually all of these wines were. Not just Jonathan Hesford's odd "mistake" MO2 wine, which was sort of orange and got matched to an odd face-shot which was half female, half male, but things like Château d'Anglès' Grand Vin Red (can't get more ordinary than a name like that), which got matched to the Swiss Army knife, Château de Combebelle AOC St. Chinian Rouge (old books), and my favorite, Domaine Jones' Fitou Rouge 2010 (four Renaissance portraits).

Everything was on the same high level, and I was approaching taste-bud fatigue. Also, no matter how much you spit, alcohol does get into your bloodstream through your tongue and mouth lining, so now that it was 5pm, I was about tasted out. Yesterday, I begged off because I had my other blog to write, and briefly considered going in today when I realized that I still had enough residual sensory information to process that it probably wouldn't increase any of it very much. But I'm very happy that it worked out that way: too much tasting beats not being able to taste hands down.

* * * 

There was a larger issue, too, which began coalescing as I sat at home after Vinisud and thought about all that had happened. The Outsider issue stuck in my mind: as the webiste says, the members of the group come from all over -- the UK, New Zealand, Sweden, the U.S., other parts of France -- and predominantly not from winemaking backgrounds. They came down here and got to work, and many of them discovered that they were "outsiders" in another way: the French can be cold and clannish, particularly, it appears, when a sacred part of their culture is being threatened by "outsiders." Not, it should be emphasized, the other small winemakers: lots of these people belong to organizations which purchase farm equipment in common and share it out, and lots of them exchange tips (and bottles) with their winemaking neighbors. No, it's others who seem they'd rather you weren't there.

And I felt relieved hearing these stories, because after three years here, I've felt the same thing. It's different from the experience I had when I first moved to Germany: the Germans, many of them, were friendly towards Americans for obvious reasons. But not in France. My solution has been simple: ignore it. I know it's not all French people who feel this way, so I'm not offended. And I know another thing: the day E and J and I went to Ambrussum, we were walking along and J said "You know, of all the places I've lived, I've never felt so much at home as I do here." Which is a pretty odd statement for someone living under these conditions -- and yet I knew exactly what she meant, even if it's supremely difficult to articulate it myself.

I like it here, and I'm going to stay if I can. I'll be an outsider the whole time and I don't care. There's enough of this place for us all to share and enjoy our own pleasures, and, I bet, enough friendly French people, hard as they are to find, to clue us in to some of the nuances. All of this takes on a greater meaning now that I'm readying my annual trip to the States. I'll be leaving Sunday to visit a friend in Paris, then flying to New York on Monday. I'll also hit Texas, California and, well, the end of the trip hasn't been figured out yet. The next few posts will be from the trip, and I'm happy to have the break.

But I'm really looking forward to coming back here in April. As an outsider. Go figure.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Miettes of Bleak Midwinter

I've been a bit remiss with the local news, both because there hasn't been much and because I've been busy launching my weekly arts and culture blog over at realeyz, which has been dogged with technical problems. I've also been getting ready for my annual trip to the States, and, like most everyone I know here, hunkering down inside, away from the arctic temperatures and the occasional windstorms which push the wind-chill factor down, down, down. Damage to the fruit, wine, and olive crops is being bruited around, but I don't have any solid facts to add to the rumor. There were, however, some hapless flamingoes down on the shore near Narbonne, which is about an hour southwest of here, who died when their legs froze in the water they were standing in and couldn't get away to eat or seek warmer places to hang out. I feel like I should be typing with gloves on, but instead I'm just watching the weather map, hoping the Ukraine doesn't have another gift of frigid air for us.

Not that there's a valid basis for complaining, of course: not long ago, all we could say was that it was chilly. One did feel sorry for the intrepid campers out by the Fountain of the Three Graces on the Comédie, a half-dozen or so hardy souls who comprised Occupy Montpellier. The sunshine was something of a compensation during the day, but they must've been cold at night. They'd first appeared in the bandstand over on the Esplanade, then camped out in neat tents in the nearby park, then been rousted over to the Com, where they set up by the fountain, competing with the Christmas tree.

And there they stayed. It was hard to figure out exactly who they were, let alone what, besides the spreading of the 99%/1% meme, they were doing. Some days they appeared to be idealistic youth, others they appeared to be the usual run of street people with dogs and beer. So it was only a slight surprise when, one day, I went to do some errands and ran into the final moments of Occupy Montpellier as the garbage trucks hoisted lawn chairs and signs into the maw of their compactors and one guy with a shopping cart, dreadlocks, and a can of beer that he was careful to keep sight of railed at the cops and sanitation workers. It looks like in the end, the 99% was undone by the 9% -- the quantity of alcohol in the nasty beer the street people favor.

*  *  *

I live on what is probably the most dangerous street in Montpellier. Oh, sure, there's the odd drug deal going down on the corner, or, late at night, the occasional raving drunk in the street, but that's not what I mean. It's mostly dangerous during broad daylight owing to two factors: 1) it's pedestrianized and 2) there are two driving schools around the corner from each other. During the day, people walking down the middle of the street, which is their right, are constantly menaced by terrified teens, gripping the steering-wheels of their cars, heading straight into a mass of humanity. I haven't heard of any disasters yet, but the potential is sure there. 

So imagine my surprise when, on my way to the supermarket a month ago, I walked into a nest of bristling automatic weapons. This wasn't in my neighborhood, but, rather, at one of the subterranean entrances to a shopping complex called Le Triangle, underneath the other shopping mall, the Polygone. This is a rather deserted area, adjacent to, but invisible from, a café which is, I believe, called Le Cappuccino, and it's a place where occasionally a mentally ill man hangs out, eating out of cans and playing with plastic bags, which he sometimes ties around his hands. Other times, teenagers congregate to smoke joints, breakdance, or make out. 

There's almost always someone there, so it wasn't a surprise to see people as I climbed the stairs, and, as always, I was probably miles away, thinking about something I was (or wasn't) writing, or what the hell I was going to make for dinner. It wasn't until I'd stepped into the tableau that I saw what was going on. Against the wall were two muscular young North African guys, feet spread, hands clasped tightly behind their heads. About a foot away from them, a soldier aimed an automatic rifle at their chest level. One policeman was in the process of conducting a very thorough body-search on one of them while another policeman watched, and behind the soldier stood four more soldiers, guns at the ready. 

My instincts, I think, were correct. I just walked behind the soldier, and carried on into the plaza. Once on the escalator up to ground level, I looked back, and things were much as they had been. I have no idea what was going on, what those two guys were suspected of (because after all, being Maghrebi in public isn't exactly headline news in a city with a higher concentration of Algerians than any other in France), or what the outcome was. I gotta say this, though: those two dudes weren't sweating, and they were perfectly cool with five machine guns pointed at them. I'm not sure I could pull that off. Not that I have any intention of trying. 

*  *  *

And thinking of the crazy guy with the plastic bag fetish who hangs out there reminds me that last year's sudden disappearance of pink plastic bags from Monoprix was apparently a trial run. The chain has announced that as of Feb. 15 -- yikes! That's Wednesday! -- there will be no more free plastic bags available. I've stashed a bunch of them to use as garbage bags, since they're strong and hold two or three days' kitchen refuse -- just enough time before it starts smelling bad in the summer -- and, like almost everyone else around here, that's what I reuse them for. Now, it appears, we'll all have to buy our garbage bags. Bad advertising for Monoprix, and another expense for us. Grrr. 

*  *  *

It's been a while, but the E&J Express is back on the road. J has been waylaid by dental issues (which I'll soon be confronting), and I've also been busy with some paying work (!) (not highly-paying, mind you, but paying), and when that hasn't been a problem the weather's been awful. But this weekend the Swiss Visitor was in town for a whole day, a friend of theirs from their previous residence, and J was itchy to go back to Sète to see new shows both at the Centre Régionale d'Art Contemporaine (CRAC) and the Musée International des Arts Modestes (MIAM). Plus, there would be lunch. Who could say no to that? 

Not me, so I blasted off on foot at 11:30, and we hit the road. The Swiss Visitor has been here before, but never out of town, and even though the scenery between here and Sète is pretty mundane -- for around here -- he was awed. And I had to admit, it was nice being out in the country again. We got lost looking for a restaurant E and J had eaten in, and then, after driving out of town and discovering that the long stretch of beach highway was closed, decided that that wasn't where the restaurant was anyway. We eventually found it and three of us had Rouille Sétoise, which is the little cuttlefish known as seiches and a sauce which is warm saffron-infused mayonnaise, alhtough this version also had a tomato sauce. J did something smart and ordered a whole dorade fish, grilled on a griddle, in the form known here as à la plancha. I wasn't awfully impressed with the Rouille, but the other guys liked it. 

Now it was museum time, so we headed back into town, parked under the canal, and fought the cold wind to MIAM. In keeping with their reputation as the most eccentric art museum in France, the current show is called My Winnipeg, and features 250 works by no fewer than 70 artists, all from this rather obscure provincial city on the plains of the Canadian midwest. If you think this is a mixed bag, you're right, but if you're inclined to sniff and dismiss it you're wrong. Winnipeg stands at the confluence of the Red River and the Assiniboine River, and has a considerable Native/Indian/First Peoples population as well as a number of strong immigrant presences driven by its importance as a railroad center and a place where the grain grown on the surrounding prairies was processed and shipped. All of this has its echoes in the art in this show. 

Which is not to say that all the art is good. Far from it: I began to wonder, as I looked around at the various displays, if there weren't some sort of center for outsider art or some art-therapy movement going on in Winnipeg. Nonetheless, there are some standouts. Diana Thorneycroft's photos of toy figures in strange circumstances from her series Group of Seven Awkward Moments are enjoyable, but are trumped by her sculpted tableau Early Snow with Bob and Doug, showing America's favorite Canadian stereotypes steated at a picnic table surrounded by snow-covered cases of beer  and wolves prowling through the landscape. Hauntings, an installation by Guy Maddin, purports to show lost bits of films by famous early directors, and makes for an interesting few minutes' viewing, since they're all on loops and running simultaneously, and, with their blurry black-and-white images, all look like they could well have been what Maddin says they are. I'm not sure whether the color film that purports that Bing Crosby and Bela Lugosi are buried next to each other and shows a woman with bright red lipstick cavorting with the corpse of a white wolf is by him, but it's borderline disturbing. So is Sarah Anne Johnson's House on Fire and its surrounding installation, a sort of dollhouse with stylized fire coming out of its roof, and rooms you can only slightly see into, with furniture knocked over, maybe a dead person, and fire damage, surrounded by treated photographs which were inspired by her grandmother's treatment for post-partum depression, in which she was hospitalized and used by CIA-funded LSD researchers. 

Much of the rest of what's on display is either silly or dull, but the silly pieces do provoke a chuckle, like Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Milian's exploration of lesbian stereotypes (that's them on the poster for the show, ready to show you around a Canadian national park somewhere), the Royal Art Lodge's long stretch of pairs of little square paintings which are compositionally identical, with wildly varying content, and Jon Pylypchuk's weird assembly of dolls relating to a comic strip character he's invented. Finally, there's Kent Monkman's eerie diorama The Collapsing of Time and Space in an Ever-expanding Universe, which plays on a lot of Canadian and gender stereotypes, as a transsexual Indian, seated in an overstuffed Victorian parlor equipped with a record player, a wolf, and a beaver (who is chomping away at the piano bench) stares out a window, tears streaking his/her mascara as s/he stares at a kitschy painting of a noble Indian on horseback surrounded by buffalo in a forest. (Buffalo? In a forest?)

But the show doesn't stop there: MIAM founder Bernard Belluc, whose obsessive collages of objects arranged around a theme were the highlight of our last visit there, has replaced most of the ones we saw last time with...more weird assemblages! Of course, as a co-founder of the museum, he has every right to have his own floor, but with work like this, he's earned it. 

Thus refreshed, we hiked to the other end of town, where CRAC was filled with two exhibits, one of the winners of some local art prize for young artists, the other a "dialogue" between Martine Aballéa and Patrick Sorin. The juried show was just unbelievably sterile and devoid of content, although I kind of liked a piece installed by the stairway in which digital drops of water dripped down the surface of a painting made up of colored stripes. I'd credit it, but I can't find it on the map they handed us. 

The dialogue was even stupider, since here we have two apparently established artists. Sorin is one of those irritating artists who thinks people want to watch him do silly stuff. He spits colored ink at a camera on a loop, cavorts around holographically in a fish tank in his underpants, has a multi-screen installation in one room called Une vie bien remplie (A really full life) which is a bunch of loops of him doing silly things on a bunch of different screens, and some documentation of a visit to an invitation art show in Tucson in 1994 with his lover, Pierrick et Jean-Loup, which will dispel any stereotypes about gay men having taste that might have lingered in your stereotypticon. 

Ms Aballéa's contribution was three entire gigantic rooms filled with windows and doors placed sparingly around with lights making them look dramatic. La maison sans fin (The endless house), it was called. People get support from the state to produce art like this. I suppose it's better than letting them starve. 

"Next time, we have to do this in the opposite order," J said after we got out. True: it's like eating your spinach before you can have dessert. There's definitely a feeling of empty calories around MIAM, but that's a guilty pleasure. Thin unseasoned broth like CRAC offers isn't even fun. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Birth Announcement

No, no, I'm not pregnant. But on Wednesday, I did give birth to a new blog, The Ward Report.

Every Wednesday for the forseeable future, I'll have a post relating to some aspect of arts and culture. In a way, this is a kind of rebirth of my old gig at the Wall St. Journal Europe, only without the subsidized travel. It also, as you'll see from the first one, gives me the chance to explore some of the issues in the current changing landscape of how arts and culture are presented and distributed. I think it's going to be fun.

I'd like to thank the good folks at for the chance to do this, and suggest you check out the other stuff they offer over there.
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