Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ken Burns' Prohibition: Good television, careful politics

This is what law enforcement was up to in 1922. Courtesy New York Daily News.
Ken Burns' "Prohibition," which starts next week on PBS, is a nice piece of filmmaking; well worth investing three nights for a view of American history.

It's also more political than his previous work, which is unavoidable because prohibition was all about politics. But Burns is cautious in his conclusion, harping on the idea that government can't legislate morality.

This just isn't true. The age of sexual consent was 10 in much of America in the 1800s; in Delaware, it was 7 as late as 1895. We've come a long way in deciding that it's both illegal and immoral to have sex with 10 year olds, and for all the talk of sexualized teenagers today, there doesn't seem to be a great backlash to revert to prior standards.

I could give other examples -- polygamy, gay marriage, drunk driving, even progressive income tax -- but the point is, governments can and do legislate morality all the time.

So at the end of the day, though Burns teaches us some interesting history, "Prohibition" is disappointing for failing to draw some more obvious parallels to today's society.
Example: How can we not look at revenuers busting up stills in the 1920s and not think of the war on drugs today? I see mobsters killing each other in Chicago and think of the current frightening state of affairs just south of our border (not to mention "Breaking Bad.") We could totally legislate morality by legalizing marijuana, which would remove the attraction of harder, still-illegal drugs.

Another example: Suppose there is a national political organization driven by people who care only about one issue. They gather enough influence to decide elections, and are able to defeat any politician in either party who opposes them. Soon they control the political agenda.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

My "Breaking Bad" pilgrimage to Los Pollos Hermanos

I had the good fortune to visit New Mexico recently, ostensibly to taste my way through the impressive portfolio of Gruet, the state's leading winery. I wrote this column about it for Wine Review Online. (Sorry, the tasting notes and scores are behind WRO's pay wall.)

I had some time to kill on a Sunday afternoon after absolutely stuffing my face at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center: blue corn atole, blue corn pancakes with piƱon butter, spicy carne adovada, wow. Go out of your way to visit if you're near Albuquerque; they do a great job of using local ingredients, traditional techniques and modern culinary touches.

Anyway, I was too full to eat more, but nonetheless I had to find a certain restaurant: the fictional Los Pollos Hermanos chicken place that, in "Breaking Bad" -- my favorite TV show -- is the center of meth druglord Gus Fring's empire.

The scene of a lot of good "Breaking Bad" scenes
"Breaking Bad" is a conundrum for Albuquerque's tourist board. The show has devotees like me who appreciate the way it uses the beauty of the New Mexico desert -- for meth cooking, grisly murders and cartel conferences. Not exactly the way to draw folks to your town.

It's not like Santa Barbara County, which proudly produces "Sideways" maps and answers questions about which scenes were shot where (even admitting that Fess Parker Winery is the vapid Frass Canyon Winery on screen.) There are no "Breaking Bad" tourism maps, and the tourist board wouldn't even tell me which fast-food restaurant doubles as Los Pollos Hermanos. Yet this is the one location on the show that fans most want to see, both because it has been used fairly often since season 2, and the action there is significant.

I was too full to eat -- but would of course have had a chicken burrito
Fortunately, there's the Internet. I learned from this set of photos that an outlet of a local chain called Twisters, in the rougher south end of Albuqerque, is the on-screen Los Pollos Hermanos. So I had to go there.

The parking lot looks familiar, but it isn't until you get inside that you see the Los Pollos Hermanos logo. The staff didn't seem at all surprised to see somebody taking photos there. "You're not the first," the guy behind the counter told me.

Now if I can just find a good place to score some blue meth ...

By the way, a nod to my favorite TV writer, Alan Sepinwall of HitFX, who provides analysis of every episode of "Breaking Bad" as well as many other shows. To Alan and everyone else: the best pairing for "Breaking Bad" is the excellent Gruet Blanc de Noirs NV, which is less than $15. That's the really addictive drug coming out of Albuquerque.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Biodynamic and natural wine producers: What's up with French oak?

Biodynamics and "natural" wine share some philosophy. Adherents of both believe, essentially, that a wine should represent the land from which it's made.

Biodynamics takes it to a level of religious practice. One tenet is that nothing should come from outside the farm. The current natural wine movement, as depicted in the new documentary "Wine From Here," generally agrees with that idea.

So the most provocative question from the audience at the Q&A after the film's first public showing was this:
If you believe in making a local, low-environmental-impact product, why use French oak?
I wish I recognized the Australian-sounding bloke who asked it, because it's a great question, and it left some of the winemakers on stage scrambling for an answer.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wine producers aren't allowed to use "100% grapes" on label

What's in your wine?

Producers aren't required to list everything that's in it, which is why so many people wrongly fixate on sulfites when they get headaches. Sulfites are just a few of the 59 approved additives in the EU, but they're the only one required to be listed on US labels.

Although wine is food, wine gets a pass on ingredient labeling from the US government, as it does in most of the world. You can add diammonium phosphate and copper sulfate and a bunch of other chemicals, but you don't have to tell anyone. I'm not going to bitch about that here; chemists have told me that the alcoholic fermentation process is a big dividing line and you might not ingest what was added beforehand. OK, stipulated.

However, if a company makes its wines from 100% grapes, without even adding commercial yeast, it should be able to brag about it, right?

Not in the USA, not anymore.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"Wine From Here" documentary proves terroir doesn't matter

Terroir is exalted by the natural wine movement. Everyone who prefers native yeast and eschews excess ripeness and new oak says they do so to reveal the terroir of their vineyard sites.

Yet what is the point of revealing terroir if even experts on the wines can't recognize it?

I'm still chewing on this concept more than a week after seeing "Wine From Here," a 60-minute documentary about the natural wine movement.

It's a good film, one of the most balanced I've seen on wine, and that's what makes the terroir observation so provocative.

In my day job, I interviewed director Martin Carel to preview the film and, honestly, wasn't expecting his work to be so good. He had no directing experience and had only been aware of the topic for a short time. And his only outside-the-industry perspective on California wine came from Alice Feiring, who tells everyone who will listen how much she hates it. At the after-party Feiring told Courtney Cochran, “I never dreamed two years ago that I would spend an entire night drinking California wine.” Such a sacrifice! But I digress.

I expected a polemic, but instead Carel delivered a thought-provoking piece that both explored most of the important issues in natural wine (with the lamentable exception of costs) and subversively undermined the concept.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Does quality matter in the wine industry?

Hollywood and those who cover it don't think quality matters in film. Whenever you read stories about the movie business, like this one, they attribute rising or falling ticket sales to star power, the weather, franchises getting old, new technology, and basically anything other than whether or not the movies are good.

I'm not here to slam Hollywood; it drives me crazy when Congressmen do so. The entertainment industry is America's most important; not only do we make a fortune exporting films, TV shows and music; we also simultaneously export the desire for the products shown within.

In fact, rather than disagree with the fact that Hollywood executives don't think film quality has much to do with success, I'm going to take the obvious position: this is their job. They have a lot of money riding in the industry and they know more about it than I do. Most likely they're right.

And that thought leads me to the question in the headline: Does quality matter in the wine industry?