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Nov 19, 2017

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Elliott Smith; Yo Miles!; Mississippi John Hurt…
by S. Duda
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 3.2
There was a party. There was small talk. A few bottles of good expensive stuff. Many bottles of good cheap stuff. The question caught me off guard: "So, what do you think of today's wine industry? What's it like?"

I felt the warm stain of pure dumbness creep across me. Stumped. And at high-brow sip and chat no less. Once again I felt like a goof, a gate crasher, a wine fake. I answered as truthfully as possible. What do I think of the wine industry? I try not to think of “the wine industry" for it causes me too much discomfort and embarrassment. Sorry.

Well, what's the wine industry like?

Remember the last family wedding you attended? Remember when you had to choose between a drunken convo with Uncle Whatshisname or listening to a rah-rah dissertation on how to close a real estate deal from your dumbass cousin? That's the wine industry. Dumb, dumber and with the added brain-sucking bonus of lotsa free booze.

Not that the wine industry is without merit. After all, winemakers are producing some of the greatest wine of all time right at this very moment. The industry that supports, markets and promotes the industry, however, is lacking all but the most obvious humor, and is pretty dry when it comes to any post-mod appreciation of irony. And, if you couldn't already guess, it ain’t all that hep.

My latest run-in with industry geeks came at the World Vinifra Conference held in July up here in Seattle. Thanks to some grandstanding and identity-shielding, I found myself at an honest-to-God industry "gathering." Far from the homey, inviting atmosphere of the vineyard tasting room, the industry backslap/handshake ordeal has more to do with the hard sell, the wholesale case price and the unending line of advertising lingo than it does the swirl, sniff and gulp.

Though I've only been to a few of these things, I never fail to get absolutely, 100 percent shit-faced drunk. I mean, hammered. Sure, there are silver buckets set up on every table. But are you really going to spit a free mouthful of single-vineyard whatever just because there's a silver bucket sitting on the table? Hell no! And while you're at it pour me another, will ya bro?

The point of the story is, I met a famous wine critic. Now, if this guy worked for the Spectator, I wouldn't bother you with the tale. But he didn't. In fact, this guy actually had a personality. A regular guy who was able to make chatski on topics ranging from pro football to feng shui. For once, I didn't have to listen to a monologue about cigars, Napa vs. Sonoma or, worst of all, American vs. French freaking oak. Most impressive about my moments with Mr. Critic was his passion for music. When the man uttered the phrase "Belle and Sebastian" in response to my question, "Whatcha listening to, anyway?" I was a close to falling into my grilled lamb. I didn't. Not then, anyway. Instead, I unloaded a bunch of crappy music industry promo CDs on my new pal. In retrospect, I'm sure there were a few things worth listening to more than once. However, a point was made: the music industry has more than its share of sucky moments too. The grass isn't really greener over here. Try not to be too shocked.

Belle and Sebastian
The Boy With the Arab Strap

But back to Belle and Sebastian. This Scottish outfit has just gifted the world with its third full-length LP, The Boy With the Arab Strap (Matador). A band with a soft, enveloping lilt leaned against lush and delicate atmospheres and literate wordplay, Belle and Sebastian immerse their songs in tubs of warm, soapy melody and rinse them with instantly knowable references --early 60s folk rock strumming, wobbly Velvet Underground references, sad-boy Nick Drake/Syd Barrett wonderings. Sure, Belle and Sebastian (a seven-piece band, by the way) come off as a bit precious and perhaps even more than a little pretentious, but when songs stick in the brain so quickly and a band is able to communicate emotion so effectively, we can forgive a touch of pretension. And seeing that this is a "wine lifestyle mag" and we are all into "the wine scene" we should all have pretty effective pretension filters by now. A minor masterpiece of pure organic pop.

A wine that is pink cannot possibly be pretentious. And even though pink wines are sort of trendy right now, that shouldn't stop you from actually going out and picking up a bottle. And while we may agree that white zin is a wine for people who don't actually like wine, don't hold that against Bonny Doon's Vin Gris De Cigare (literally: a grey wine of cigar). Here's a Rhone-style blend composed of some pretty serious grapes kicking off some pretty serious flavors (and thus avoiding the bogus pink wine buzz words: "fun!", "lively!" that really mean "wine cooler"). Made by ever-so-lightly cajoling the juice from the likes of syrah, grenache, mouvedre, cinsault and sangiovese grapes, this pink wine is barrel aged and quite dry. Quick over the tongue (cause you oughtta serve it nice and chilly), the Cigare gives off hints of oak, more tannin than you'd think and finishes with the taste of rose backed up by a slight citrus pop. The Cigare certainly will not bowl one over with fruit, oak or terroir, but its subtle combination of the three, each eked out in small, surprising, gratifying dribbles is enough to make this worthy of an evening's ruminations. Or at least a grilled piece of salmon.

Clifford Gilberto
I Was Young and Needed the Money

With it's high-speed skittering blur of electro-rhythms and bass-to-the-front design ethic, the genre known as drum and bass would seem more suited to the dance floor than the listening room. Not so fast. Instead of locking into an unchanging monotony of big beats and boring grooves, innovators are pushing drum and bass up and over stylistic boundaries. While LTJ Bukem proved that d&b had serious listening potential on his landmark Logical Progression LP a few years ago, new faces like Amon Tobin and Roni Size have added devastating jazz elements (punctuating horns charts, virtuoso standup bass foundations, emphatic snare snaps, elevating organ and piano runs) that mean business. On Clifford Gilberto's new LP, I Was Young and Needed the Money, his role seems more the composer than the musician. Orchestrating the shower of samples that compose his music, Gilberto opts for a soul jazz flavor that recalls elements of 70s fusion, 50s be bop and 90s acid jazz all fermented into a sometimes frenetic, sometimes graceful mix. I Was Young and Needed the Money is adventurous listening and should jump start any home entertainment center.

A good bottle of wine is, of course, a delicious home entertainment/social lubricant. And few wines will entertain and lube with the charm and good humor of Robert Pepi's 1996 Two-Heart Canopy Sangiovese. While non-sangiovese drinkers may be intimidated by the grape's burley rep, the Pepi seems, well, downright... um... peppy. Opening with a good splash of cherry fruit and not overly oaked, this wine is easy to drink on it's own -- there is none of that yucky hot tannic mouthfeel -- and can also stand up to a pepperoni/mushroom/onion deep-dish pie. What's most appealing about the Pepi is its openness. Here's a wine made in a friendly, drinkable style with few pretensions. It's just good stuff, simply made.

Elliott Smith

You may recall Elliott Smith from last year's Emmy Awards. He was the pale, nervous looking guy who sang right before Celine Dion's Titanic... thing. Of course, Elliott didn't win the Emmy, but his song, "Miss Misery," from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, did pry open a few hearts. Now, after a handful of indie label solo LPs, Mr. Smith offers his major label debut, XO (Dreamworks). Smith is best known for tender downcast street songs populated by gingerly plucked guitars, whisper-soft head-shakers and characters who are, in turns, desperate, cynical, depressed, in love or suffering from a combination plate of all of the above. XO is a more rounded affair, filled with richer accompaniment and more fleshed-out song structures, but in the end, it’s Smith's voice and the figures he draws that remain constant. This is a beautiful, poignant LP that reads more like a collection of Raymond Carver short stories than mere pop music clichés. As a writer, Smith is more than capable of whipping off a line that can stop a heart dead in its tracks. A worthy trait, indeed.

The Edmeades 1996 Mendocino Zinfandel, like Smith, is deceptively simple and down to earth. Here's a wine that hits only a few notes, but in that simple statement are profound truths. What the Edmeades is getting at is fruit and spice. The fruit is a purple handful of mixed and wild bramble berries. An untamed collection -- some of it sweet, some bursting with sun and soil, some smelling of earth and rain. The other note so prominent in the wine is spice -- a warm and utterly inviting taste of vanilla and tingle-shiver of cinnamon. We should be thankful for the simple things that speak volumes. Try to find a bottle before suits snatch it all up.

Yo Miles!
Double CD Release

Among the spate of Miles Davis tribute LPs recently (including worthy efforts by the World Saxophone Quartet, Shirley Horn and Bill Laswell) the best is undoubtedly Yo Miles! (Shanachie) a 2-CD joint effort between globe-hopping guitarist Henry Kaiser and composer/improvisor trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. Recalling Miles' ever-changing kaleidoscope of styles (fusion, funk, jazz, rock) during his "electric period" of the early 1970s, Yo Miles! is an absolutely blistering set of music that careens, swings, swoops and dives across genres with dizzying intensity. Both spot-on players, Smith and Kaiser play with inspired feeling and accuracy. During some passages, it's impossible to tell where Kaiser's guitar lets off and Smith's trumpet begins. Bolstered by an all-star backup band including guitarist Nels Cline (Nels Cline Trio, Geraldine Fibbers) guitarist Elliott Sharp, pianist Paul Plimley and the Rova Sax Quartet, this is one disc capable of melting a CD player. Use with caution!

No caution needed when pondering a purchase of the ever-affordable Cain Cuvee 1995. Dive right in. You can't go wrong seeing as this stuff is very close in quality (and maybe a bit more approachable) to the much more expensive Cain 5. A lovely and compelling blend of cab, malbec, merlot and cab franc, the over-riding characteristic of this wine of deep, dark chocolate. Toss in generous washes of tobacco, leather and raspberry and you've got the makings of something to wrap a tongue around. If you're scared by the notions of all those tannin heavy flavors, rest easy. The Cain is remarkably well balanced for such a bottom heavy wine. You may think that -- like the territory covered by Yo Miles! -- this wine is too heavy to actually enjoy without a lot of effort. Not so! Both Yo Miles! and the Cain Cuvee, though they carry rather bulky pedigrees, are both a damn good time and quite easy for "cats" to "dig".
The Basement
Mississippi John Hurt

I will be the first to admit that both my music library and my wine closet have a few holes. In my music library I'm a tad light on the blues, with one notable exception -- Mississippi John Hurt. On the just-issued collection Mississippi John Hurt Rediscovered (Vanguard) we are offered a pretty complete portrait of one of the most naturally skilled musicians to ever pick up an acoustic guitar. Hurt's finger pickings roll from his strings like water sliding down a stream. He effortlessly bounces melody off of melody and places them between dancing bass parts that seem simply heaven-sent. Blessed with a sweet and sincere voice, Hurt often plays the devoted lover or the good friend in his buoyant tunes. When he rounds the corner on classics the likes of "I'm Satisfied," "Ain't Nobody's Business," or "Salty Dog Blues" you know there'll always be a place in your heart for him.

As for the holes in my wine closet, well, you could start with the entire continent of Europe -- especially Italy. However, I have a few bottles of this and that, but I'm never without a couple stashes of Brachetto D'Acqui (mentioned a few months ago in space) and its cousin Moscato D'Asti. A breezy bottle of pure sunshine, the moscato is made from muscat grapes in the frizzante style -- meaning that it's kinda fizzy! While it lacks the in-your-face bubbles of sparkling wine, the moscato more than makes up for it in effervescent flavors: sweet, honey-dipped peach and vanilla and tangerine all dance a happy little dance before waltzing across the tongue and down the gullet. Ah bliss! Even better: the moscato only registers about 7 percent alcohol, which means drinking an entire bottle through a straw is a very real option. Run (don't walk) to your friendly wine merchant and demand he hand over a bottle (I've had pleasing experiences with Saracco, Cascinetta, and De Bartoli. This juice is best fresh, so don't pay for a bottle more than 2 years old. Be prepared to happily fork over between ten and fifteen clams. Do it happily. For this much fun, they could charge double.

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