Wine X Vol 3.1
sex, wine and
rock n’ rollWe are all, at heart, frugal. Not cheap mind you, but day in and day out we hunt the ever-elusive good deal. In the end, we’re after the genuine sense of value, the honest exchange of hard-earned dough for well-crafted goods and/or services rendered. Baseball mitts, pints of micro-brewed beer, stereo speakers and domesticated pets all seem good values. Plenty of enjoyment/use at a price that, depending on your taste, can be had for free (dog/cat), $3 (brew), $100 (baseball mitt) up to many thousands of dollars (speakers). A rather unpleasant notion — as far as “the wine community” is concerned — is this entire value-for-the-buck question. Face it, the wine store is not the place you go looking for a good deal.
Buying wine — and actually ending up with something you dig — is a speculative market, a fishing expedition. And while it may be generally true that you get what you pay for, you never really know what’s in the bottle till you pop the cork. Not that there’s a lot of help out there. Wine reviews are 99 percent hot-air and one percent bullshit, while wine marketing often seems a strange, left-over relic from the Cold-War era. We walk into the vino store armed only with hunches, mix-and-match bits of random knowledge and a vauge belief that somehow, some way, a cool label portends a groovy wine. We might as well be buyng scratch lottery tickets.
A sure thing, on the other hand, is a different story. How many wines can you think of that are sure things? Good value, always tasty, year in, year out? A handful? Do you consider them closely held secrets? Well come a little closer, here’s my new sure thing: Alice White 1996 South Eastern Australia Chardonnay. Conveniently located at the supermarket down the street, Alice White is trading on the open market for about $6 bucks. If they made the label a little uglier they could get — without blinking — four times that. The Alice White is a bottle that unloads a jumbo basket of tropical fruit. Easy to identify mango, coconut and banana ride in aboard a vanilla/butterscotch motor scooter that makes this thing way too smooth, way too juicy for the price. You’re not paying for expensive oak with the Alice. In fact, it tastes like they decided to skip the oak altogether and just mix up a pitcher of something exotic and mouthwatering. At this price there’s no reason why this shouldn’t become a regular part of your warm-weather diet.
How voracious is your appetite for truly ripping new jazz? Even if you have only mild craving once in a while, you’ll want to devour the new James Carter CD, In Carterian Fashion (Atlantic). Never mind the fact that the young Mr. C just signed a big-money modeling contract, it’s the man’s music that matters. And on Fashion, Carter and his sax are all business. He’s able to cool burn on slower numbers, recalling Ben Webster’s smoldering ballads, then turn on a dime to deliver blistering runs of honk and skronk that seem intent on exploding the entire boundaries of a song. Carter’s horn playing is all about power and forceful delivery, but he’s also about control. Carter is razor sharp and smokin’ hot. And on Fashion, he dukes it out with bigshot keyboardist Cyruss Chestnut, here driving a Hammond B3 organ like he was piloting a goddamn Zamboni. Great stuff!
At about four times the oh-so-kind price for the Alice White is the newest offering of chard from Miramar Torres. The 1995 Don Miguel Vineyard is an estate-grown (nice), estate bottled (even better) chardonnay that’s about as close to the fat and buttery land of plenty as 20 bucks is gonna take you. The Torres is a laid back, slippery glass that takes its good old time getting to where it’s going. And where it’s going is plush and strung with love beads, and it’s got old school funk blippin’ and blappin’ out of the speakers. The Torres, God love it, is another chard that seems shamelessly oak-free. Instead, the focus is on the mouth-pleasing splashes of key lime pie and lemon meringue. Coconut creme is hinted at but doesn’t take a bow. Regardless, it’s a jolly good show all around.Miramar Torres comes off as one of those “classy” wines. If you were judging by the label (as we all do for some reason or another) the austere packaging, the upper-crust, old world image, might lead you to believe that the reality of stuff wouldn’t be quite as down-home as it is. The fact is, however, that the Torres is rather funky. Sure it’s smooth and chilly cool, but beneath all the glitz is a body that knows how to root ’round in it. This bottle is loaded, and for the money, it oughtta be.
If you wanna talk funky then you wanna talk about Medeski, Martin and Wood and their new CD, Combustication (Blue Note). This rather plainly named trio has almost single-handedly returned a media spotlight to the more out-there fusion between bop jazz and on-the-one funky squak and chatter. Wheezing and huffing behind a bank of old-school keyboards, Medeski, Martin and Wood steer their ship into water both rocky and rolly. The drums of BILLY MARTIN push the band out and away rather than gathering them neat and tidy, while bassist CHRIS WOOD delivers the thud and bump that somehow manages to keep every little musical tidbit strapped to the deck. For his part, keyboardist Medeski slaps and whacks his keys with inspired malice all the while leaning heavy on the volume pedal. This band swings with relentless abandon and in the process covers everything from rock to psychedelia to sheer boogaloo. Did I mention this is jazz? Did I mention it’s an essential buy? Thought so.
By this time, everyone over 21 knows that for an essential, can’t-miss buy, there are few better options than a bottle or three of Rosemount Shiraz. For under ten bucks, Rosemount’s “Black Diamond” flows the rough and ready briar berry, ass-kicking body and lots of spice. The flagship Shiraz is so good that it’s often easy to overlook the rest of this Aussie winery’s catalog. That’s a mistake. The 1995 Rosemont GSM (Grenache Syrah Mourvedre) is a gutsy blend with enough raspberry and dark cherry fruit (thanks to the grenache) to temper the full body and tannins of the syrah and mourvedre. Add lots of spice (cinnamon — probably from the syrah) and more than a healthy backbone of oak, and you’ll know from the first sip that this wine is built for serious food. Scientifically tested against left-over mushroom risotto and grilled, bar-b-que salmon, the GSM showed both touch (not overpowering the delicate woodsy flavor of the mushroom) and power (enough zip to punch through Mama’s Homestyle BBQ sauce). It’s all we can ask of a humble (but kinda lovable) bottle of red.
Shirley Horn’s voice has never–ever–been described as humble, and on her new outing, I Remember Miles (Verve) the ageless crooner sounds better than ever. Composed of three of Miles’ signature standards, “I Fall In Love Too Easily, “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” and “Basin Street Blues,” three tunes from “Porgy and Bess” and a couple other well-known covers, I Remember Miles is a sweet and satisfying tribute. Backed by the likes of Roy Hargrove, Ron Carter and Toots Thielmans, the playing here is impeccable. For her part, Horn’s interpretation of these classics is cool, languid and stylish. This spare delivery leaves plenty of room for the gorgeous songs to strut their stuff. This is a disc that’s romantic but not lightweight; stripped down but certainly more than full. An absolute necessity for candlelit dinners.
Cabernet franc is not the first red that springs to mind when the topic is candlelit dinners. It’s not even the first wine to spring to mind when you’re thinking picnic dinners (or even fast food dinners for that matter). The usual rap about cab franc is that it’s too soft to stand up for itself at the dinner table. For the most part, I think that’s a pretty fair assessment. Fine, so you don’t drag out the franc with the fine china. Not a big deal. In fact, not a bad deal because cab franc can be so tasty by itself that it doesn’t need the help of food, thank you very much. A fine example is the Beaucanon 1995 Napa Valley Cabernet Franc.While detractors whine that cab franc can often be overly fruity (as if…), too sweet and too flowery (think of a Beaujolais with a hint of oak), fans realize that at its best, a good cab franc can be as soft and more fruit-forward than a similarly priced merlot. While cab franc may never stand toe-to-toe with merlot on a prestige basis, in the wack-ass world of wine, that doesn’t have anything to do with how it tastes. Taste, thankfully, is one thing that the Beaucanon has going for it. Led by a rather forceful charge of honest-to-God strawberry, and fortified by a decent shot of wood, the Beaucanon is a red that’s both easy to drink and easy to love — easy to drink because there are few things standing in the way of what this wines hopes to communicate (i.e., fruit is good); easy to love because, well, fruit is good.
For the last decade-and-a-half, it’s been pretty easy to love Billy Bragg. Not only is the Englishman one of the finest live performers on the planet, he’s also one of the best songwriters of our time. Blending the deeply personal with the deeply political, Bragg writes songs of love and labor, poetry and protest. Odd then, that on his latest release, Mermaid Avenue (Elektra.), he doesn’t write any of the songs. Instead, Bragg drafted Wilco (whose Jeff Tweedy is a future songwriting hall of famer himself) and put music to a batch of recently uncovered lyrics penned but never set to music by Woody Guthrie.
It sounds almost too good to be true: America’s premiere roots rock band fronted by the hardest working man in folk rock charging through a set of new Woody Guthrie music. Mermaid Ave., for all its cover appeal, is not the instant stunner you might expect. Instead, it’s a charming, low-key recording that makes a decent-enough initial impression and grows on you from there. Before too long, you realize how charming Bragg sounds singing a 40-year-old love song and how much conviction Wilco builds from simple cords and front-porch rock and roll. Mermaid Ave. isn’t the finest thing Billy Bragg or Wilco have ever done, but it’s an honest value and a decent effort worthy of a good home.
For my money, Thelonious Monk is one of the most important composers of this century. Not only did Monk help invent the music we now call be-bop, but he also introduced jazz music to the avant garde, setting the table for a tradition unmatched in American music. Monk’s legacy is massive and his melodies continue to echo through almost every genre of music to this day. Yet one thing Thelonious never got enough credit for is his piano playing. Monk developed a halting, stop-start style as unique and singular as his compositions. While melodies seemed to drop from Monk’s fingers, he also spiced his tunes with left-field plinks and plunks, blistering right-handed runs and thunderous left-handed slams. Monk’s solos, at first blush, sometimes just didn’t sound right. But after careful listening, the pieces of the Monk puzzle inevitably come together, revealing an advanced and creative musical thinker.
On Monk Alone (Sony), a two-CD collection of Monk solo piano work, it’s the playing you notice first. Monk can ache with what he called “ugly beauty,” fly off into pure abstraction and add sentimental touches to standards. While most of this material is previously available, this edition also includes alternate takes. There’s not much to say about this release other than it could be one of the cornerstones of your jazz collection.
Though chardonnay is making some important inroads, pinot noir is still the cornerstone of Oregon wine. With a good bottle of Oregon’s red, there’s an amazing grace afoot. A complex smoky, silky elegance that seems beyond mere wine is the hallmark of Oregon pinot, and Bethel Heights 1994 Estate Pinot Noir shows this mysterious, sensual character better than most. Try puzzling over the layers of flavor with a solo glass — no food — then try that same glass with a salmon filet or a grilled portobello mushroom and watch the flavors wrap around the food. It’s an amazing transformation and quite the trick for a humble glass of glorified grape juice. Taste, inhale, value!