Throughout most of Bruce Springsteen's show at Shea Stadium on Wednesday night, I found myself believing the event represented the best of America. On stage, the Boss's commitment, stamina, enthusiasm, compassion, relentless energy, and the legendary E Street Band's own remarkable ability to keep up with him, demonstrated how being Born In The USA need not be a global handicap. That Bruce's songs deal with both the rights and wrongs of his homeland, as seen through the triumphs and tribulations of its everyday people, confirmed my sense of him as the nation's perfect musical Ambassador.
But the audience itself seemed equally, if simplistically, noble and note-worthy. Bruce's following has always been predominantly what Americans call white(skin), blue-collar: cocktail waitresses and housewives, police officers and fire men, factory workers and office clerks, army vets and the unemployed. Sure, there were a few people who'd come to Shea Stadium in their work pinstripes, but the majority was in jeans and sweatshirts and loaded up on beer. They've grown up with Bruce, they've matured with him, taken on financial and parental responsibilities with him, yet they know they still rely on him to bring them back to the carefree days of their youth with just the opening chords of, to name his fourth song of the show, 'The Night'. Being part of this Bruce Springsteen audience, out in center field at Shea Stadium, in New York City, on a balmy October night, everything felt right with the world.
It's not Shea Stadium, that's for sure, and it's not the view any of US would have, but it's Bruce onstage and it's a beauty.
That was until Bruce played 'American Skin (41 Shots)' his song about the police shooting of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo in New York back in 1999. When he unveiled 'American Skin' on tour three years ago, it provoked a storm of protest from his life-long followers: those aforementioned police and fire men who felt the wealthy rock star had lost touch with his constituency, had sided against them, had no understanding or sympathy for how they put their own lives on the line every day.
Cynics and I'm not one of them might suggest that last year's album The Rising was a carefully crafted response to that song's negative reaction. While part of The Rising's genius is that it never mentions New York City, terrorism, September 11, Al-Qaeda or even the word 'firemen' or 'police', its thirteen songs glorify the heroes and victims of that awful day in a subtle manner that no one else has been able to equal in song and verse. With The Rising, Bruce was surely redeemed in the eyes of even his angriest supporters.
And so the reaction at Shea Stadium Wednesday night to 'American Skin' at least half the crowd promptly sitting down, many of them booing and raising the middle finger at the stage - was as surprising as it was upsetting. Two rows in front of me, one man went so far as to untie his chair from those alongside, bring it into the aisle, face it away from the stage, and sit scowling, his finger raised to Bruce as I remained standing, trying but failing to simply appreciate the music. Bruce must have anticipated some sort of negative response, especially given that this was the first concert at Shea Stadium in a decade and, as far as I can ascertain, the Boss's first ever outdoor show in the city. Pointedly, he followed 'American Skin', which subconsciously questions police tactics and institutionalized racism, with The Rising's 'Into the Fire', which far more overtly praises New York's police and firemen via arguably the most wrenching lyrics of his career. ("I heard you calling me, then you disappeared into dust, up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher.")
You would think the two songs would cancel each other out; I certainly hope the many firemen who sported their Engine numbers and wore September 11 memorials on their jackets felt vindicated. But a considerable portion of the crowd continued to harbor resentment as if they'd assumed that in post 9/11 New York, Bruce would admit to 'American Skin' as a mistake, not keep playing it to cops and firemen some three years later. The man in front of me seemed unable to contain his anger; he continued giving Bruce the finger, as did his companions, and they actually left a few songs later, just before Bruce played 'Born To Run.'
It was of course, their loss, and their narrow-mindedness didn't ruin my experience. But, like attending a wedding where the groom gets in a drunken fight with the bride's former beau, the damage was done. The communal celebration had been forced to endure a temporary confrontation.
Nonetheless, that performance of, and reaction to, 'American Skin' confirmed my base instincts about the event. Bruce exercised his right to sing a particular song; part of his paying audience exercised its right to disapprove. It's called free speech, it's at the core of every legitimate democracy, and the reason I've gone on so much about is because a politically reinvigorated Bruce Springsteen seemed determined to promote those values throughout his performance. He of all people would surely defend the right of his audience to boo him.
...And this is not a Bruce Springsteen show, but it's Shea Stadium for sure. Sadly, it's the view some people would have of the stage - perched between the towers to the left of the Bud sign.
The two-and-three quarter hour show started, unusually for Bruce, with taped speeches of President Bush warning about "rogue nations" and "weapons of mass destruction" before giving way to a pointed performance of Lucky Town's 'Souls of the Departed'. A rendition of 'No Surrender' from Born In The USA sang of how "there's a war outside still raging." Later, with Bruce playing the preacher during the extended call-and-response part of 'Mary's Place,' he appeared to call on President Bush to be impeached. Finally, towards the very end of the concert, he delivered an impassioned speech in which, according to my hastily scribbled notes, he welcomed "all political persuasions" to his concerts, then noted that "playing with truth in wartime" has been a habit of both the "Republicans and Democrats", insisted that "demanding accountability from politicians is part of living in a democracy" and confirmed "questioning why we went to war in Iraq is not a liberal or conservative issue," especially when we're "putting our sons and daughters on the front line to protect democracy." At which he launched the band into a phenomenally powerful performance of 'Born In The USA' that took on added poignancy for its renewed relevance these two decades later.
Bruce's refusal to shirk what he sees as his responsibilities, and his insistence that war, like love, is a human issue rather than a party political one, renders him unique among rock stars. It's easy to be Billy Bragg and preach to the converted; it's a lot harder to be the idol of the conservative working class and demand of your audience that they question their values and their leaders. As such, I sensed that Bruce didn't like having to deliver his speech, but that he just feels we're at too crucial a juncture in history for him not to exercise his opinion.
Certainly, Bruce was more comfortable during the first half of the night, during which he barely addressed the crowd other than through the music. (The full set-list is posted on Bruce's web site.) He inverted his last album by placing its optimistic near-finale 'The Rising' ahead of its depressing opener 'Lonesome Day'. He played 'Empty Sky' as an acoustic ballad with wife Patti Scialfa before bringing 'Little' Stevie van Zandt on for the last verse and delivering harmonies you don't hear on The Rising's recorded version. He addressed the romantics (including himself of course) with 'Tunnel of Love,' 'Brilliant Disguise' and 'Man's Job'. And he delved way back into the catalogue with 'Badlands,' 'Johnny 99' and 'Because The Night,' which he co-wrote with and for Patti Smith back in the 70s.
Most notably during this first half of the set, he turned 'Waiting On A Sunny Day' into a carnival, donning an oversized sunflower, running the catwalk, hanging upside from the mike stand and generally playing the goofball as is a vital part of his performing personality. Throughout, his voice seemed as resonant and powerful as I've ever heard it in concert, the E Street Band performed their roles with their usual combination of skill and subtlelty, and the mix was crystal clear. (Then again, I was one seat over from the soundman, so it should have been. I heard later from people sat further back and Shea Stadium does put most of the audience far too far from the stage that the mix was badly muffled and the audience staid.) It truly seemed, until he performed 'American Skin', that he could do wrong.
In my mind, he still didn't. I haven't followed every step of Bruce's recording career our lives have been out of synch at times but I'm unstinting in my admiration for him as a performer. Not least because he seems to stay several steps ahead of his audience. It occurs to me now, for example, in writing this review, that when Bruce sings the line "guy gets killed just for living in an American skin," he could as easily be referring to the victims of September 11 as to the immigrant Amadou Diallo. And consider that the forecast for this night had been a damp one we shouldn't really be attending stadium shows in October but that a brief pre-gig drizzle aside, it remained dry; and then wonder about the choice of closing song, Creedence Clearwater Revival 'Who'll Stop The Rain?' Or take his encore rendition of 'My City Of Ruins,' ostensibly about Asbury Park but which, sung alone at the piano until the chorus of "rise up", was preceded with a brief pitch for Coalition for the Homeless and a reminder that 35,000 people would be sleeping in New York shelters this very night.
Ultimately, the night ended appropriately for an outdoor Bruce Springsteen autumn show: with an exuberant 'Dancing In The Dark.' That song has a special place in my heart, the anthem for my first skiing holiday back in January 1985, just as Born In The USA went from being 'another Bruce Springsteen album' to the mega-selling anthemic classic that would eventually bring both the two of us (and 80,000 others) together at Wembley Stadium that summer. I am proud to say I relived that part of my youth by dancing in the aisles to 'Dancing In The Dark'. It should have been the very last word it was almost 11.30pm and many of us had long rides home - but Bruce seemed sad to say goodbye. Lining up the E Street Band for a well-deserved front-stage bow, he could only look ahead to this weekend's Shea shows, the final two nights in a 14-month, 120-date global tour that has reconfirmed his status as America's greatest living rock artist. "Bring on Friday night, baby," he beamed. Bring it on indeed.
This last weekend, I attended Hunter Mountain's 6th Annual Microbrew, Wine and Fine Food Festival. From a connoisseur's point of view, it was better to be a beer drinker than a wine lover or gourmet; there were 15 breweries represented and the few offerings I tasted were sensational. The gold medal winner Mother's Milk from new-comer Keegan Ales in Kingston, for example, was about as aptly named as you could expect from a pint of creamy stout. I also gravitated towards the Davidson Brothers stall, who just happened to be complete Anglophiles: every piece of their brewing equipment was custom made in England, their barley hails from Munton's in Stowmarket, England, and their yeast was patented at Ringwood Brewery in England. Their Golden Ale and Smoked Porter could hold up against any of the local British brewies and were certainly preferable to the continental European lager my countrymen inexplicably prefer to drink.
The Wine aspect of the Festival appears to be a work in progress. Just five wineries showed, all but one hailing from the Hudson Valley itself, and three of those were staffed by small family wineries still learning their chops. (The region's one respected producer, Millbrook, was notable by its absence.) Still, I approached the event all with an open mind and an eager palate; I didnt expect to taste world class wines, just wanted to see that local producers were growing the right grapes for the climate and making wines that were true to the region.
I started with the white wines from Brotherhood Winery; which I'd seen listed in my Hugh Johnson Wine Atlas the previous night: with commercial transactions dating back to 1839, it is America's oldest continuously active winery. Brotherhood survived prohibition by producing sacramental wine, and since 1987, has been in the hands of Chilean Cesar Baeza, who buys in from outside growers rather than raise his own grapes.
This makes for a strange combination of serious wines and tourist attractions, and I had to ignore such offerings as a Blush Chablis, a non-alcohol May, a Rosario, a White Zinfandel and a Ginseng red (!) to get to anything I thought would whet my palate. Unfortunately the 2002 Chardonnay wasn't a good start. Barrel-fermented that means OAK! - it had butter aromas but no fruit. Actually, it was nasty. The 2002 Johannisberg Riesling was much more attractive, with bright acidity, enticing pear flavors and a rounded palate. Less sweet than its semi-dry label would suggest, it offered a deceptively beefy 12% alcohol and though it was lacking depth, I found it exuberant and friendly, a cute puppy of a wine. I ended up buying a bottle.
Vowing to come back for Brotherhood's reds, I gravitated to Wagner, the one Finger Lakes winery on hand. Wagner is also a micro-brewery, so it makes perfect sense for them to represent at this Festival, but they hadn't accurately anticipated consumer demand and had more off-dry wines than dry ones. All the same, I enjoyed talking with Laura Wagner as she generously poured everything on offer. (The $15 tasting fee bought six tickets for 6-ounce beer pours, but the wine pours came unlimited with the accompanying wristband. My kind of event!) Wagner produce four Chardonnays, but the one they brought with them happened to be the one with some Residual Sugar, i.e. a touch of sweetness. The Non-Vintage Estate Bottled Vintner's Chardonnay (with just 1.0% RS) was better than Brotherhood's, but that's not saying much. I was more than happy to try the 1999 Estate Bottled Cabernet Franc, which had seen a year's aging in wood, and smelled like it too though it emitted some trademark tobacco/pencil shaving flavors too. There were still some tannins present which indicate Wagner's intention to make wines for the long haul; I found it somewhat light in fruit and overly wooded, given how well Cabernet Franc can perform in New York State, but come the end of the day, I was gasping for more. By which point they'd sold out. Make of that what you will.
The 1999 Meritage (45% Cab Franc, 39% Cab Sauvignon, 16% Merlot) was ripe and well-balanced, with plenty of plum, cherry and black-currant, and sufficient smoke and cedar spice to also indicate its oak ageing. I haven't been blown away by Finger Lakes Bordeaux blends, and this is merely a B to B+ wine, but I was pleasantly surprised. Then again, it didn't have much competition on the day.
Ice wines come in tall, thin half bottles. They don't tend to come cheap.
Like Brotherhood, Wagner appears to make more wines than makes sense their product sheet listed 34 of them! but at least they're all drawn from just a dozen or so appropriate grapes. A 2002 semi-dry Gewürtztraminer (1.7% RS) had a soft entry, some orange spice on the palate and just a touch of sweetness. The 2002 semi-dry Riesling appeared very very light on the palate, but opened up with true pear/melon flavors and finished with a mere touch of sweetness (2.4% RS). Very easy and uncomplicated, I was surprised to see it still packed 11.5% alcohol. As for the 2002 semi-dry Johannisberg Riesling, this one offered low acidity but pronounced fruit, including apricots and citrus flavors. With the sweetness level now up to 3.5%, I ear-marked it as a good accompaniment to some spicy foods.
If Wagner has a real reputation, it's for its late harvest/ice wines, and we gratefully tasted one of each. The 1999 Late Harvest Vignoles offered gorgeous aromas of apricots, lychees and pears, an addictively creamy palate and a lingering finish. Relatively high in RS (at 11.0%) the Vingnoles was nonetheless bludgeoned by the 1999 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine's 15.4% RS, which predictably made for more of a sticky sensation (as the Aussies would put it), and more pronounced pineapple flavors too. This Vidal (which purists may want to note is made grapes picked fresh and then frozen, as opposed to being actually picked during a mid-winter freeze) seemed better suited as a food a ccompaniment; the Vignoles, being comparatively more subdued, seems it could do better on its own. But both were excellent wines deserving of their reputations, not least because they're fairly priced at $18 and $20 a 375 ml bottle respectively. (Ice wines from Ontario can run five times that price!) We took one of each home with us.
Unfortunately, that was it for Wagner. Laura promised to return next year with a more even supply. I hope so; given the winery's focus on climate-friendly grapes, and its willingness to drop a vintage when nature doesn't co-operate, I would have happily tasted its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir, as well as its productions from the hybrid grapes Seyval Blanc and de Chaunac.
Traditionally, areas like the mid-Hudson Valley were planted with (mainly French) "hybrid" grapes that withstand damp, cool and otherwise difficult climates. Though not considered "noble" grapes and therefore relegated to second-tier status, they have their fans. Brimstone Hill makes an acceptable Vin Rouge blend.
Brimstone Hill Vineyard was represented by the winemaker's daughter and son-in-law, neither of whom seemed desperately excited to be there. When I returned to their table at the end of the day to pick up a bottle of their 2001 Vin Rouge, they'd already packed up and gone home. A shame, because this blend of 'Bach Noir, Chancellor, Foch, Chambourcin etc.' all of them hybrid grapes that grow well in New York was warm and spicy, yet with a bitter attack that was rather Italian in substance, and with a surprisingly dark chocolate finish. At $11 (and 12% alcohol), it seemed a perfectly good representation of popular local hybrids and I'd have been happy to open it at home with a rustic pasta. Oh well. Brimstone's 2002 Chardonnay was quite impressive for the day, its heavily oaked butter taste augmented by a nutty finish and good balance. The 2001 Pinot Noir was passable, with a light cherry nose and a spicy finish, but I didn't observe enough fruit or overall complexity. I may stop in at Brimstone one day to try their Cabernet Franc, Vidal, Seyval Blanc and Riesling; I got the impression that dad is trying hard and warrants more support than he's getting from his offspring!
Baldwin Wines offered a Mist di Greco, a 50-50 Chardonnay-Seyval Blanc blend that was very light, bright and simple, an inoffensive picnic wine. The 2000 Merlot was masked in wood; hard to define as anything other than an oaky red. Baldwin seemed most popular for its Strawberry Wine, which has received rave reviews from those who critique such things. I didn't taste it. But there you have the Hudson Balley conundrum in a nut shell presuming conundrums fit in nut shells. And if they don't, well that's my point: some wineries do well with vinifera, some with hybrids, and some with sweet fruit wines. But beware the winery that makes them all.
Seyval Blanc makes a clean, fruity wine; it's suited to cooler climates like New York - and England.
Finally, I enjoyed the four offerings from Cascade Mountain, which resides on the east of the Hudson not far from Millbrook. Their 2002 Seyval Blanc (with 20% Chardonnay), aged in stainless steel (hoorah!) was bright, clean and attractive, with a touch of citrus and a note of the green apple and pear that typifies Hudson Valley Orchards. At 11.5% alcohol, it suggested itself as a perfectly pleasant, subtly addictive aperitif and food wine, and I was happy to pick up a bottle. Cascade's Summertide is a semi-dry blend of Seyval Blanc and Vidal Blanc, with what was rightly called a "snap" on the palate. The definition of a picnic wine, fortunately, that's all Cascade promotes it as.
Cascade's Couer de Lion 2001 is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Foch in there; made in what they call 'a Beaujolais style', it's lean and light, and would appear to confirm why Cabernet Sauvignon shouldn't be grown in the Hudson. But then I tried the Vintage Private Reserve Red 2000, about 80% Cab Sauvignon with 20% Foch, and I was impressed: there was some stuffing to this wine, solid berry fruit that showed itself beyond the evident oak ageing, and enough tannin to suggest it won't die in infancy. I bought a bottle for $16 in the absence of Baldwin's Vin Rouge. Time will demonstrate the wisdom of my decision.
I ended the day back where I started, at Brotherhood's table, this time trying through their reds. The Pinot Noir was tough and tannic; the Cabernet Sauvignon had more fruit and some tannins, better than I'd anticipated; it probably warranted another taste. The Winery seemed particularly proud of Mariage, an unusual Non Vintage combination of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Chardonnay. Apparently, when winemaker Cesar Baeza took over Brotherhood, he discovered some unbottled chardonnay which he thought was good enough to use for this blend - though presumably either not good enough to bottle on its own or not labeled accurately enough to be allowed into a vintage wine. I was told that he's since had to buy back a bottle of his first lot for $800 from Sotheby's which, if nothing else, suggests that Brotherhood is turning a profit. The Mariage is certainly an interesting wine, with curious flavors of strawberry, black berries and creamy chocolate, and I'd like to have a glass of it some time for a better analysis. But for all the salesmanship, and Sotheby's interest notwithstanding, I simply wasn't going to spend $25 on a NV Cabernet Sauvignon from the Hudson Valley.
And that was it for the day. Though standards were poor on an international scale, there were some keen efforts fighting their way out of the typical chardonnay/merlot/fruit wine malaise. Wagner proved again the Finger Lakes' amenable climate, especially with its dessert wines; Cascade offered interesting blends of vinifera and hybrids; and Brimstone had at least one instantly interesting hybrid blend. Even Brotherhood had good wine if you could just find it amongst the distractions. I hope in future years more wineries attend and that the organizers allow the smaller producers to pour more than four wines. In the meantime, I had a good time. And isn't that the point of a festival?
Slowly and surely updating parts of the site to ease your navigation. What started out as a small site with occasional updates has grown to a project of around 300 archived pages and I know how hard it can be to find your way around them. Last week I sorted out the Music home page; the Musing and Jamming! Magazine home pages also now serve as reliable indexes for those particular sections. Thanks to those who've written and asked about the forum; that's the next fix. Stay tuned.
I just heard on the radio, from what should have been a reliable source, that a full half of the members of the U.S. Congress don't hold passports, which means they have never traveled outside the States. Please tell me that's not so...
Bill Drummond has long been a hero of mine, for his creative management of Echo & The Bunnymen during their crystal days; his pioneering experiments with wholesale sampling in the JAMMs; his shameless bid for commercial appeal with The Timelords and his subsequent printed justification of it, The Manual: How To Have A No. 1 Hit The Easy Way; his bridging of hip-hop, techno, ambient and industrial music with the KLF and its unexpected storming of the American charts; and his subsequent actual burning, with musical partner Jimmy Cauty, of a million pounds in KLF profits. That's not to forget the protests against the Turner Prize, his own visual art projects, the solo album on Creation, the small matter of Zoo Records and his involvement with the Teardrop Explodes, and a novel called Bad Wisdom that was unreadable enough to be the exception that proves the rule: Drummond's a genius.
Maybe it was my boredom with Bad Wisdom, but I've taken time to buying and reading Drummond's mid-life autobiography, 45, which first saw UK print in 2000. Then again, as with music, I believe anything that's worth its original weight in paper will hold on to that value, and when I finally tucked into 45 this last weekend my hopes were confirmed. The 'contemporary' ramblings, full of references to the Spice Girls, Prodigy and Oasis, merged easily with the memoir sections, helping give the tome even greater authority. I'm but a quarter of the way through but already I'm convinced of this: everything you ever really needed to know about Echo & The Bunnymen is confined to the 35-page chapter entitled From The Shores of Lake Placid. You might find some of Bill's comments facetious though he'd surely insist he's serious throughout - but even at his most irreverent, Drummond sums up the Bunnymen's beauty, glory and ultimate fallibility with genuine love.
"My job was to trick Echo and the Bunnymen into being the greatest band in the world. I knew there was no chance that they could ever make the greatest single or even one great single (they later proved me wrong on that point), but they could be a band that people would die for. A band to follow to the ends of the earth. The trouble was, they still just had a drum box with four settings, a guitarist who thought changing chords was selling out, a bass player whose riffs were metronomically monotonous and a singer whose idea of melody was to jump the octave."
Over subsequent pages, Drummond implies both that the Bunnymen felt frequently frustrated for failing to realize their full potential, and that they also settled for second best. He's loathe to admit that they were ever as brilliant as he wanted them to be. Drummond got out after advertising the fourth album, Ocean Rain (which in the book he calls merely "a pretty good record,") as The Greatest LP Ever Made. Drummond understood the power of self-belief. He knew that perception often becomes reality. But he also knew that playing games with other peoples' lives was wrong and that it was important to get out while the going was still good. "They had mortgages to pay, mouths to feed and a chosen career to follow. They didn't need me weighing them down with my hidden agendas based on my highly personalized vision a vision flawed by the secrets and lies that riddled my personal life." Echo & The Bunnymen (read a longer overview here) made one studio album without Bill at the controls before, as Drummond succinctly puts it, "crumbling into bitter acrimony and death as bands are wont to do."
The Greatest LP Ever Made? Bill Drummond thought he was joking. I don't think he was.
I was compelled to play Ocean Rain again after reading Bill's chapter on the Zoo era. He was wrong when he wrote that it was "merely pretty good." It still is The Greatest LP Ever Made. And Drummond knows in his heart that he was involved in something magical. "For me," he writes near the end of the chapter, compensating for his 30 previous pages of put-downs, "they will always be the greatest rock band in the world."
It's for that reason I can't go see The Bunnymen on their 25th Anniversary Tour this coming month. There have been too many disappointments in recent years, from Pete de Freitas's awful death through Electrafixion and on to Mac's latest solo tour, and I've decided that I'm perfectly happy with the memories from those crystal days. But if I ever want to be reminded by something other than the music as to what rendered the Bunnymen so brilliant, I won't need to look up my own book on the band: those 35 pages by Bill Drummond do the job perfectly.
The Greatest LP of 2002? No question.
It is perhaps unfair to expect our erstwhile musical heroes to stay relevant through the decades. But some of them manage it. Bruce Springsteen, for one. And last night, round the same time as I was playing Ocean Rain, I realized that his shows this week at nearby (for me) Shea Stadium not only conclude a year-plus tour on which I've yet to see a date, but that they may very well be his last ever gigs with the E Street Band. After all, he'd been separated from the group for a full decade prior to recording The Rising (my album of 2002) and if he opts for a similarly lengthy return to solo status, they'll all be in their mid-sixties before they get round to reuniting again. That's assuming they'll all be alive.
Given the E. Street Band's eternal popularity in the States it feels like they played New Jersey's Giants Stadium all summer long I assumed these final shows were completely sold out. But a quick search through the dreaded Ticketmaster web site proved otherwise, and though there were only a handful of nosebleed bleacher seats remaining for the shows this Friday and Saturday, I rolled the internet dice several times for the show tomorrow, October 1, and was delighted to come up with field seats right alongside the mixing board. I'm not sure when I last bought tickets for a stadium show - though I do remember paying to see Bruce at Wembley Stadium in 1985, at the peak of his Born In The USA popularity, and he succeeded in making the football field feel like a concert hall. (And several times I've seen him turn arenas into clubs.) I've now got some childlike excitement about tomorrow's show. It's great to know the feeling still lingers.
(Yes, starting the week with a wine post. That's partly the point of this site.)
When my English friends came to visit the other week, I wanted to show them that New York can make great wine. 'Can' proved to be the operative word.
Riesling excels in the Finger Lakes' cool climate. The Wiemer Johannisberg Dry 2001 is exemplary - and great value too
A REFRESHING RIESLING
Fortunately, the first taste was the sweetest. On a wet Saturday night in the Catskills, after their flight over and a long drive in the rain, we celebrated their arrival with a Hermann J. Wiemer Johannisberg Riesling Dry Finger Lakes 2001. I started to explain how Riesling is well suited to the Finger Lakes' cool climate, blah blah blah, but the wine quickly sold itself. A light yellow green in the class, it had a crisply aromatic nose of green apple and pear, which continued in the palate accompanied by exuberant acidity and some bright lemon and lime flavors, before heading into a pronounced, bright finish with mineral, wet stone overtones. Refreshing, mouthwatering, packed with friendly flavors, it was the perfect pick-up and seemed to echo, in its own unpretentious manner, the summer rain pounding outside. I've noticed that Finger Lakes Rieslings are beginning to receive serious attention from the international wine critics, and rightly so. In the meantime, prices remain good: $14 for this exemplary offering. If we're in the mood to give grades and I am the Wiemer gets an A-.
AN ITALIAN IMITATION
I was tempted to open a German Riesling sitting chilled in the fridge, to compare the Wiemer to the 'real thing,' but our guests, following the old 'when in Rome' adage, preferred to stay local, so we moved closer to the Catskills with a Millbrook Tocai Friulano 2002 from the Hudson Valley. Of course, to some degree, we were indeed heading off to the land of the Romans with this unusual choice of grape for the east coast. In fact, I'd felt slightly guilty picking this wine up the previous day, given that my local store (more of which later) was pouring a perfectly fine Friuli from its Italian homeland while I was there. But I looked at this way: after a free taste of the Italian Friuli, I knew roughly what the Italian-minded Millbrook (who also produces Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay) should be aiming for. And they've done a good job. The nose seemed to continue the crisp citrus, apple and pear flavors of the upstate Riesling, but with some of that delicate perfumed honeysuckle I associate with my favorite white, Viognier. In the mouth, there was more of that Viognier flavor peaches and apricots but an acidity you'd never get from the Rhône grape. I also noted a hint of orange such as I sometimes get from Marsanne, and maybe even some tropical kiwi/pineapple. All in all, an attractive wine, and given the generally hefty New York prices, well worth its $12.50 tag. I'm not sure it was the right wine to accompany the grilled vegetables that hit our plate around the same time, and it couldn't hold a candle to the Wiemer Riesling, but I'll go back to it another day maybe with an Italian Friuli alongside. B-.
AN AVERAGE CHARDONNAY
By now, thanks especially to the Riesling, our friends were revived from their flight and keen to keep going. We opened a Warwick Valley Chardonnay 2001, a Hudson Valley winery whose grapes for this particular wine hail from back up in the Finger Lakes; I'd bought this wine alongside the Millbrook based on its $11 tag and a verbal assurance it wasn't buried in oak. (This despite the label advertising "a long ageing process in oak barrels.") Buried might be too strong a word, but the fruit was still struggling to show itself beyond the oak's golden color and the telltale nose of butter and vanilla. Lurking somewhere underneath was a good, solid, ripe Chardonnay, unpretentious and unspectacular. Fine for the price, but I won't rush back for more. C+.
The New York wine regions: most wine of note comes from the Finger Lakes in the north-west, Long Island in the south-east, and the Hudson Valley in the middle. For a full report on some of the State's best red wines - Cabernet Franc - click here.
A SAVAGELY BAD SAUVIGNON BLANC
A couple of days later, with the sudden, belated appearance of summer weather in mid-September, we decided on a Brooklyn backyard barbeque, which understandably enough also afforded me the opportunity to open some New York reds. (The Millbrook New York State Cabernet Franc 2002 of which I'm already on record as loving; a Lenz Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 which was typical of the North Fork's 'high-end' style, very smoky and oaky, with lots of blackcurrant and mint and a long, lingering, chewy finish; and the basic Cline Zinfandel to show off 'America's grape.') But because the guest who lives in Sydney had been expressing her own enthusiasm for New Zealand Marlborough Valley Sauvignon Blancs, and because I share her passion for the grape, I had returned to the same Brooklyn store from which I'd bought the Millbrook and Warwick and shelled out $15 for an Osprey's Dominion Fumé Blanc 2001 from Long Island's North Fork. I'd previously passed over this wine based on that word Fumé and these words on the label: "fermented in oak barrels, 15% of which are new French oak". Oak and Chardonnay? Mais bien sur. But oak and Sauvignon Blanc? Only if you know what you're doing and I've seen few American wine-makers that do.
But, and here I'm going on a mini-rant, the wine store owner, a former sommelier who takes great pride in his inventory, posting elaborate, highly detailed notes all over the shop and its front window, assured me that the oak was minimal and that the fruit shone through. (He'd said the same of the Warwick, so I should have been suspicious.) He also told me it was the best Sauvignon Blanc from Long Island, to which I retorted that, Macari's well-reviewed offering aside, that wasn't saying much. But still. You want to trust someone who professes to know what he talks about. And if Long Island has the climate for the Loire's premier red grape Cabernet Franc, it should also be able to raise the Loire's premier white grape, Sauvignon Blanc. Right?
Wrong! The color was the first giveaway. Golden. Chardonnay golden, as opposed to that lemony-green of a good SB. The nose continued along this path, giving up buttery melon and apple aromas. If it looks like a Chardonnay and smells like a Chardonnay, then chances are it will taste like a Chardonnay. And to our collective disappointment, there was none of that vibrant Sauvignon Blanc acidity, let alone (depending on hemisphere) those grassy, gooseberry, flint, tropical or even plain old citrus flavors. Just some very fat fruit obscured by dollops of oak. My wife, offering more succinct notes than yours truly, described it as "heavy and staid" and opened a bottle of Cider instead. My two visitors both insisted it was a mis-labeled Chardonnay and a not very good one at that. I was embarrassed. I've yet to go back to the store and question the owner's taste, though I certainly will do in time. But before my guests departed, I visited, instead, the Korean-owned five-and-dime liquor store I used to frequent before the sommelier came to the Avenue, and picked up a Henri Bourgeois Pouilly-Fume 2002 for the same price, just to show that I do know decent Sauvignon Blanc from dreadful. Consider the Osprey's Dominion a D for Dud and avoid it like the plague. (Read a review of a better Long Island white wine here.)
More finger-licking Finger Lakes wine: Dr. Frank's Salmon Run Chardonnay is a winner.
A CHARMING CHARDONNAY
I've subsequently tucked into a bottle of Salmon Run Fingers Lakes Chardonnay 2001, the everyday label for the region's original vinifera champion, Dr. Konstantin Frank. (Read a review of Frank's excellent Gewurtztraminer here.) A yellow-green in the glass, it exudes apple, pear and melon flavors with just a hint of butterscotch. It's somewhat lean and grassy but after the Warwick and Osprey's Dominion experiences, I consider that a bonus: it just means the wine is displaying natural fruit. In fact, the more I taste it, the more the flavors open up; in its own simplistic manner, it's truer to an everyday Chablis than an over-oaked Cali. And that's also a good thing. The Salmon Run back labels are a little hokey, but these are seriously well-priced wines: at just $11, this Chardonnay again shows that the east coast can do it right, as long as the producers stick with the right grapes for the climate, and give them a simple enough treatment to let the fruit burst forth. All's well that ends well. B-.
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