Mar 18

Have We Reached Peak Chicken?


Natural Products Expo West is the world’s largest natural products show, with over 2,600 exhibiting companies.  For you food shindig watchers, that’s even larger than the massive New York Fancy Food Show, which clocks in at 2,400 exhibitors.  Of course, there are products at ExpoWest as well as nosh, but people make the comparison because there is quite a bit of crossover.

Now having finally been to both, what do I think the biggest difference is?  ExpoWest has a palpable boundary-pushing element.  It’s not just about great food, it’s food on the edge–whether that edge is packaging, increased environmental awareness, emerging diets, or social change.  If one has to dig to spot macro trends through the gourmet melee that is Fancy Foods, they positively leap out in Anaheim.

The Expo began in 1988, and growth has been exponential.  To put those 26 years of burgeoning natural products market in the United States in perspective, Amy of Amy’s Kitchen fame was an infant at the first show and now works the company’s booth.  In that time, the natural foods segment has grown into a $137 billion dollar industry.  In 2000, more natural foods began to be sold at conventional retailers than at alternative spots like coops.

What’s more, what was once an organic movement sideshow is now not only mainstream, but the growth segment in food sales overall.  There’s big money to be made, and with that comes big players jockeying to find the next thing.

What were some of the identifiable trends this year?   Coconut everything, including a bacon-flavored version that was delightful; gluten free everything, especially instant noodles; the Paleo Diet continues on, most notably delivering great all-natural, nitrate-free jerky; vegan everything; bottled waters with supposedly healthy additives; chips, or more generally, convenience-packaged snacks; yogurt everything—it’s big and getting bigger; turmeric in everything; and finally, a nebulous segment that producers are chasing, and which I’ll call ‘mindful moms’—the ladies that make the household decisions and want to get chemicals, meat or other industrialized nasty bits out of their children’s lives.  These busy mothers presumably buy things like natural detergent and recyclable toothbrush-head systems.

But there was another bigger, reality-confronting undercurrent this year.  Remember the hullabaloo over so-called ‘peak oil,’ the point at which the earth’s petroleum extraction reaches the maximum threshold and then goes into precipitous decline?  The recent shale oil and fracking boom has temporarily put it out of everyone’s mind, but it was news for a while.

Well, it seems to be happening with chicken.  As a planet we may have reached peak cluck.

Some of this feathery upheaval has to do with the fact that protein consumption itself is on the rise, and much of this growth will have to be non-animal.

But the forces conspiring against chickens are vast and compelling.  The main problem is that while a small number of consumers are purchasing organic free-range chicken eggs, the vast majority (99%) of chicken eggs and meat still come from giant confinement facilities.  And these factories have become vectors for diseases like Avian Flu.  Worse, the poultry industry’s reliance on antibiotics is beginning to threaten human survival—these confinement factories play a part in creating so-called Superbugs, diseases immune to antibiotics.

So smart money is on the prowl for a protein source that doesn’t involve the egg. 

One company with a laser-like focus on ‘peak chicken’ is Hampton Creek, a Silicon Valley startup that’s hunting for plant-based compounds that can replace the overused, ill-produced oeuf.  It’s founder, Josh Tetrick, delivered a fascinating keynote address at ExpoWest, and his reasons for leaving eggs behind seem obvious enough that he’s got the backing of Bill Gates and China’s most successful businessman, Li Ka-Shing.

This was an unexpected macro trend, if you can call it a trend, which gave ExpoWest attendees pause—and serious food for thought.

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Jan 08

A Year with Handsome

photo (17)

2013 was my year of coffee.  Before last year, I’d gotten my buzz on at good cafés and had a perfunctory setup at home: French press, Krups spice grinder, dark roasted whole beans I kept in the freezer.  Essentially the same setup as my parents’ in the 90s.

I knew this was all wrong, of course.  I’ve been drinking coffee from 3rd wave spots for years, the kind of places where bearded baristas work perfect extractions from seasonal beans.  I’ve developed a taste for the bright flavors of these fresh beans–and I’ve never scoffed at intense coffee folks the way the rest of the media likes to: good baristas are pushing palates forward.

Still, things were slow to advance on my kitchen countertop.

That changed when an espresso machine—a DeLonghi—came into my life.  At about the same time, I was working on an article about Madison’s burgeoning coffee scene, and was spending time with coffee guru Trevor Gruehn, now at Kickapoo Coffee Roasters.

I’ll be honest, the DeLonghi isn’t great for coffee 3.0 purposes: you can’t control the temperature, its weak pump isn’t good at getting water through finely ground beans, and the basket is a frustratingly odd size for a tamper.

But, with a little fussing I was getting good shots.  Better coffee than ever before, anyway.  And that was encouragement enough.

I’d learned the next step was to grind the beans with a burr grinder, not the spice grinder my generation grew up with.  The whirling blades of a spice grinder cut the beans, while a burr crushes them.  The blades make for an uneven grind, and can even singe the beans.  By contrast, you can set the grind size on a burr, and achieve consistency and balanced extraction.

My pro coffee friends suggested I look on Ebay for a conical grinder.  Instead, I wimped out and picked up a relatively inexpensive Capresso conical burr grinder at Bed, Bath, and Beyond for $85.

What a difference it made, truly.   Ditch your 80s spice grinder–it’s not good for spices either (which should be ground in a mortar and pestle).  Just chalk the machine up to pre-developed American food culture and down-cycle it.

By this time, I was biking regularly to the best coffee shop in Madison, Johnson Public House, on the prowl for seasonal beans which are shipped-in regularly from top roasters around the country: Heart, Handsome, Stumptown, Counter Culture, Intelligensia, Madcap, and Verve.  I’ve tried them all.

I started keeping notes on the 12 oz. bags I was picking-up for around $20 a pop.  I grabbed whatever was freshest or what the baristas recommended I try, reasoning that if it wasn’t my type of bean—how did I know my type of bean?–I’d learn to love it.

And I did learn to love it: the sheer variety, the aromas, the flavors, and the stories surrounding the origins.

In the early months of the year, I have to say I’d already discovered a memorable favorite in a Handsome Coffee Roasters blend called ‘Dandy.’  Maybe I liked it because I already had fond memories of visiting the Handsome shop in Los Angeles; maybe the beans simply worked best in my functionally challenged DeLonghi; maybe I unconsciously like the name and the packaging.  I think it’s just a great daily blend.  [However, Handsome considers Dandy an ‘Adventure’ choice, as opposed to a ‘Comfort’ one.]

Whatever the reason for my affinity for these beans, I ordered directly from Handsome before the holidays so I could share my newfound coffee obsession with incoming relatives.  The package never arrived.

Calling to check up, they explained there’d been a glitch in their ordering software.  They’d be happy to resend.

So what unexpectedly arrives?  A box with five 12 oz. bags: Dandy, Dapper, San Sebastián, San Vincente Late Harvest, and Cristobal Fernandez Late Harvest.   All roasted on December 23rd.


I’ve spent the past couple of weeks trying all of these coffees in rotation.  While I enjoy them all, based on remaining bag weight (assuming the lightest bags are the ones I’ve been reaching for most), the ‘Comfort’ roasts have lost out, and ‘Adventure’ roasts have won handily: Dandy and San Vicente Late Harvest are by far the preferred cups compared to Dapper and San Sebastián.

However, one bag is almost gone, and that is the Cristobal Fernandez Late Harvest from San Vincente Mill, Santa Bárbara, Honduras.  This special roasting positively sings– the aroma of the beans, the flavor of the espresso it makes–is stunning.  There’s a raspberry nose the intensity of which I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced before, followed by rich, caramel flavor.

After so much use, my DeLonghi is now barely limping along—there’s duct tape, don’t ask—but it still works well enough to extract this last (it’s sold out), best coffee of 2013.

Thank you, Handsome, for ending my year of home coffee exploration with fireworks.

Oh, and if you’re still stuck in bad home coffee habits, get your beans out of the freezer.  If they were supposed to be frozen, you’d be buying your coffee in the freezer aisle.  It wrecks the oils.

[A note: I’m in no way connected to Handsome Coffee Roasters.  They didn’t know they were sending the package to me or that I’d write about it.]

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Dec 30

Twenty-One Most Memorable Meals of 2013

I quit my day job to write full time this year.  It was a scary decision, and almost a year later I’m still at it.  I feel lucky.

My focus has shifted from food to wine– thus many of the best restaurant experiences this year involved a hunt for bottles not dishes.  That being said, a complete restaurant experience is still what I look for.   And having a handle on what’s happening nationally—and internationally—on food menus is as important as ever.

This list is shorter than last year for the sake of attention spans, not because there were fewer worthy meals. I’ve kept to more-or-less public meals in restaurants—i.e., a friend’s 50th birthday celebration was a truly memorable meal, but it was a private affair not to be duplicated.

A local story this year was that while my hometown of Madison seemed to grab the national media attention, Milwaukee was the big deal.  That long-smoldering city finally reached critical mass to become a major dining destination, and great press is sure to follow.

I had exceptional meals in Milwaukee at c.1880, Crazy Water, Blue Jacket, All Purpose, Eddie Martini, Odd Duck, Bavette, Braise, and more.  Early in the year, Odd Duck convinced me that its worldly-small-plate-frenzy format was breaking new ground nationally.  Later, the wine list at All Purpose convinced me that Milwaukee is finally shedding its staid past.

Other truly memorable meals around the country: Bristol, Vera, Au Cheval, Sepia and Spiaggia in Chicago; Farm:Table, Maki, Bar Tartine, Maven and Great Eastern in San Francisco; Goose & Gander in St. Helena; Ippolito’s, Ekta, and Sang Kee in Philadelphia; The Wisconsin Room at the American Club in Kohler; and Fugu, The Madison Club, and Nostrano in Madison.  Not to mention a number of unforgettable meals in Portugal and in Paris.  It’s been yet another great year of exploration.

Below, the most memorable meals of the year in more-or-less chronological order:

1) L’Etoile – MADISON

Dinner with a winemaker always brings a depth to a meal that reminds us what it’s all about: care, conservation, people, and the pursuit of perfection.  James Beard chef Tory Miller delivered a knockout pairing of pheasant and chili sauce with Gilles Robin’s St. Joseph Syrah that sent shivers down our spines.  I wrote about the dinner here.

2) Rich Table – SAN FRANCISO

Thoughtful, accomplished, and even a bit dazzling in an understated way.   All of the dishes were good, but a whole small sardine threaded through a potato chip was as inventive as what I’ve seen happening in Los Angeles.  The dish may have been inspired by Bouley, but it plays as smart and reborn.  Completely engaging restaurant–just what you always hope a dinner date will be.

3) The Grill at Meadowood – NAPA VALLEY

Meadowood was under construction and Chris Kostow had just had a baby.  The famed restaurant was closed, but I had a surprisingly satisfying lunch seated outside near the croquet green.  So maybe luxury can sometimes buy happiness.

4) Slanted Door – SAN FRANCISCO

The sun was streaming in from the bay, the oysters were cold, the Yellowtail appetizer was stunning, and there was a bottle of Wind Gap Pinot Gris.  Paradise.

5) Zuni Café – SAN FRANCISCO

I ate at Zuni one more time before Judy Rogers passed away.  I drank a glass of Sandhi Chardonnay, and had the perfect shaved celery and anchovy dish– among other dishes.  Still one of the best restaurants in the United States after all these years.  Rogers is sorely missed.

6) CIA Greystone – ST. HELENA

The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone is like Hogwarts for foodies.  After the Vintner Hall of Fame induction ceremony, guests strolled into the instruction kitchens where a bevy of students made dishes at their workstations.  I wandered, sampled, and watched the CIA in action.

7) Pig in a Fur Coat – MADISON

In take after take for America’s Best Bite, I bit into chef Dan Bonanno’s fantastic food–and then reacted on camera until it became a strange meta-meditation on the act of eating.  Bonanno’s restaurant has come into its own this year, and I had another knockout meal there with Sandy D’Amato, formerly of Sanford restaurant in Milwaukee, and his wife, Angie.

8) Pearl & Ash – NEW YORK

Pearl & Ash was the big wine-world opening of the year, and it delivered.  Sitting at the bar and running through the wine list is a glorious thing.


It’s been a big couple of years for New York chefs decamping to Philly.  Prodigal son Justin Bogle returned from Gilt to take over the former Le Bec Fin space and create Avance.  Eli Kulp left the Torrisi scene to take the helm at Fork.  Enter also Philly native Greg Vernick, who cooked at Jean Georges and worked in the Vongerichten empire before cooking at Talula’s Table, and now at his own place, Vernick.  This perfect gem didn’t get the national press nods it should have.  Everything from service to food was laser-perfect.

10) Morgan’s Pier – PHILADELPHIA

This meal might have been the year’s biggest surprise.  In an outdoor restaurant that seems like it could be the set of a bad bromance, chef George Sabatino is serving ingenuous, well-crafted dishes so good they require your complete attention.  Yet another restaurant in Philly more eyebrow-raising than anything I had in New York.  A trend.

Shrimp at Morgan's Pier

Shrimp at Morgan’s Pier

11) Avec – CHICAGO

A late night visit to Avec to partake of a whole fish preparation reminded me of what’s so great about Avec.  Chef Erlin Wu-Bower is on fire.

12) Forequarter – MADISON

My friend and forager Brett Laidlaw wrote the beautiful cookbook, Trout Caviar.   He came to Madison for a book signing, and Forequarter prepared a menu from his recipes.  The execution was stunning.

13) Wild Rice – BAYFIELD

Dinner with winemaker Ryan Zelpaltas was the occasion, and we had an excellent meal paired with his wonderful wines.  Sitting in the restaurant’s gorgeous space, you’d think you were in a metropolitan food mecca–if there wasn’t a forest outside.  I wrote about the dinner here.

14) Papavero – MADISON

The American Cheese Society conference came to Madison, and with it, my sister Madame Fromage.  We set up a cheese dinner with famed cheese shop DiBruno Bros from Philadelphia and local Madison favorite, Papavero.  Chef Francesco Mangano loves cheese, and created a cheese-a-thon menu for the ages.

15) Tempest – MADISON

From service to food to wine, Tempest was the site of a spot-on meal with New York Times Bestselling wine writer James Conaway and his family.

16) Flor de Sal – MIRANDELA

A five our hour lunch hosted by Joao Roseira of Quinta do Infantado.  Chef Manuel Goncalves cooked spectacular neo-Portuguese dishes to accompany the region’s best wines.  I wrote about the experience here.

17) Pedro dos Leitoes – MEALHADA

Mealhada, Portugal, is the suckling pig capital of the world.  An entire town—really, a whole region–is devoted to the culinary perfection that is crackly pork skin with velvety, tender meat.  The area consumes 3,000 suckling pigs a day.  It was a culinary pilgrimage of the first order.

Suckling Pig

Suckling Pig

18) Quinta do Barracao- VILA FLOR

This farm and guesthouse makes or grows its own olive oil, marmalades, cheeses, fruits, almonds, meats, and even wine.  “The cork in the bottle is harvested from the farm,” said the proprietor as he poured me a glass.  A total local dining experience.

19) La Mascotte – PARIS

Dinner with the legendary wine negociant Peter Vezan, and his lovely wife and child.  Multiple courses of classic French cuisine, piles of bottles, and a rousing French rendition of the Beatles song ‘Michelle’ at the bar—not to mention Vezan’s many colorful stories—are just a few of the things I will remember forever about this feast.


Langoustine & Leek at La Mascotte

20) Sardine –  MADISON

Winemaker David Autrey of Westrey, Sardine owners Phillip Hurley and John Gadau, Kitty Bennett and Jason Denham of Prima Wines made for great dining companions at this glorious repast.

21) Sanford – MILWAUKEE

Sandy D’Amato’s dinner and book signing dinner was a quintessential Wisconsin dining experience.  It was also a great reunion between Robert Whitlock of Import Wines and D’Amato.  Each was the other’s first major order.  Good Stock was my favorite culinary memoir of the year.  I reviewed it here.

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Dec 10

Flying 4,000 Miles for Lunch

I am seated in the elegant dining room of Flor de Sal, the award-winning restaurant in Mirandela, a city in Portugal’s remote Trás-os-Montes region.  Barefooted and in a T-shirt and shorts, Joao Roseira, proprietor of the port house Quinta do Infantado, is arranging bottles and gathering spittoons for our wine tasting.  Host and ringmaster, Roseira has brought together an entourage of Portuguese wine and food professionals for a private, four-course lunch by chef Manuel Gonçalves.

I am in Portugal to visit Roseira at Infantado, but also to meet Rita Ferriera Marques, the young winemaker named a “30 under 30” notable by Wine and Spirits Magazine in 2011.  I was on the way to her winery in the far-flung eastern end of Douro Superior when Roseira contacted me over Facebook Messenger to suggest that we should instead meet at the restaurant.  Marques was nearby scouting for grapes to purchase after hail damaged one of her vineyards.

Rita Marques’s vineyards sit in the cool climate Teja Valley, an area that can be 15 degrees cooler than the adjacent hills just minutes away.  Significant diurnal temperature variation also means slower grape maturation, and the soils are a mix of granite and schist.  It’s a recipe for fresh wines with good natural acidity.

Ironically, because of the valley’s higher elevation and cool microclimate, according the Port grape grading system (A is the top), the fruit here ranks a lowly C.  In the past the grapes were sold in bulk, but Marques began making wine from the family’s vineyards after completing her oenology degree in 2004.  What was poor for Port has proved exceptional for balanced table wine.


The excitement surrounding Marques is palpable as I begin to taste with Roseira and his friends.  Marques is characteristically late, giving us the opportunity to discuss her winemaking in context.  “Rita is what Dirk was in the 90s,” offers a wine writer from Oporto next to me.  “She combines similar intuition with solid science.”

It’s a big statement.  He means Dirk Niepoort, Portugal’s most famous winemaker, and the man who started a revolution in Douro with a bottling called Robustus in 1990.  It proved the region’s potential for table wine, and Michael Broadbent hailed it as ‘the ‘Latour of Portugal.’

Another notable point we discuss is Marques’s labels.  Her winery is named Conceito (pronounced kon-shee-too), meaning ‘concept,’ and all of her labels bear images with large black holes in the middle of them.  They’re striking, but have no meaning until someone explains: “She refuses to finish the labels until she is satisfied with her wine.”


Marques finally arrives in a grey American Eagle T-shirt and skinny jeans.  Her long, straight black hair accentuates her large eyes and gives her a look that could be described as punkrock or goth if those genres existed in Portugal.  She is quiet, well spoken and intense.

“I make gastronomic wines, not wines for competition,” she clarifies straightaway.  We are now tasting her Bastardo.


The grape is called Trousseau elsewhere, and has had a recent run of popularity in wines from the Jura as well as in a bottling by California producer Arnot-Roberts.  Originally, the high sugar, low acid grapes were used to bulk-up cheap Port.  In Marques’s hands it is pure, bright and surpassingly beautiful.

“The problem here has been that winemakers study in Bordeaux, which has not enough sun, and then mistranslate that to Portugal, which has too much sun,” Marques says.  She adds: “I do everything to keep acid and make the wine crisp.”  Luis Antunes, Marques’s husband, a wine critic and science professor, leans over and says, “Rita’s is some of the freshest wine in the entire country.”

Joao Roseira rarely sits down during the feast he has arranged, which extends over five hours.  He is busy pouring wine, jumping back to the kitchen, or joining in conversations around our huge table.  He leads our pairing tour, playing both Portuguese ambassador and pied piper.


Marques and I are seated next to each other, and discuss topics like batonnage, the French practice of stirring wine lees.  She uses the method on her Alvarinho, which she makes from 50-year-old vines and possesses striking clementine-like flavors.

It is during the fish course, an expertly prepared sardine fillet on a bit of bread that the hunt for food-friendly wine in the often over-ripe Douro region comes into focus for me.  Her white, the Conceito Branco, is minerally and flinty, a great expression of the granitic terroir from which it comes– and brilliant with the dish served.  A blend of the traditional grapes Rabigato, Codega do Larinho and Viosinho, it is lithe and long with a clear Burgundian influence.

Rita Marques’s elegant and fresh wine—the result of a gastronomy-first philosophy– makes perfect sense to an outsider but faces obstacles in the Douro.  For instance, her Bastardo is the wrong color according to the local wine board.  And her use of traditional pressing lagares along with temperature-controlled steel tanks is a daring blend of old and new.

It was Marques’s cool climate vineyards that led me to seek her out, but the shift to less ripe fruit is as hard to swallow for entrenched interests in Port country as it is in Napa Valley.

The casual yet grand lunch proved to be only the start of a weekend of wine and port feasts. Joao Roseira, Rita Ferierra Marques and her husband Luis Antunes, invited me to spend the next few days with them exploring the area’s culinary and vinous traditions.

They are consummate hosts.  Never once did Roseira wear shoes.




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Nov 02

What’s Swirling: The New California Wine by Jon Bonné



Jon Bonné arrived in California to take over the wine pages of the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006.  He originally hails from New York, grew up on Old World wine, and by admission harbored grave doubts about the state of California’s wine industry when he landed.

The fact that he wrote judiciously about the wines of the Pacific Northwest when he was at Seattle Magazine didn’t matter to entrenched California wine interests, which immediately considered him—and still do– a hostile outsider.

Since then, Bonné has gone on to established himself as a critic of national import.  Many in the wine industry follow his articles as closely, if not more closely, than the newspaper wine writer of record, Eric Asimov at the New York Times.

Much of the reason for this, I believe, is that Bonné is one of those rare critics who are the right voice in the right place at the right time.  There is a revolution in taste underway, as his forthcoming book The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste makes explicit.  And Bonné is on the ground in the primary battleground state of California, there to accurately tell the tale.

For the past thirty years the United States has been in the clutches of a baby boomer generation that has been convinced of the usefulness of the 100-point wine-rating system first espoused by Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate.  Parker had his flash moment during the big 1982 Bordeaux vintage, after which he transformed himself from an attorney into something of a one-man Consumer Reports of wine.

Parker’s palette is unabashedly tilted toward bold, pleasurable fruit-forward wine—hedonistic is the word the mega-critic likes to use.  It is a style that Bonné dubs Big Flavor, and its anti-intellectual, unbalanced slant has meant that over the years some winemakers have produced two types of wines–one for European taste, which they claim is more restrained and refined, and another for Americans.

In California, Bonné picks out the warm year of 1997 as the moment when Big Flavor reached a point of no return.  Parker rated many of the huge wines from that vintage highly, and the “more is more” mentality translated into an arms race between ever bigger-flavored bottles of expensive Cabernet.

This is, unsurprisingly, around same time the country became enamored of gas-guzzling SUVs.

What started as a benign attempt to create a ‘rational’ wine rating system, and thus assist consumers in their purchases, became over the decades a restrictive wine regime.

The Parker-points way has been a boon to producers and salesmen because the system creates stability, predictability, and a clear set of characteristics as goals.  It is the perfect fit for a technologically inclined American wine industry that approaches grape growing in terms of margins, efficiency and manipulation.

Parker’s once-admirable Nader-like advocacy for consumers in the wine marketplace has had the unfortunate side effect of reducing wine to a commodity product like toasters or vacuum cleaners.  It also has created an opportunity for winemakers to target Parker’s palate and aim specifically for high ratings, thereby reaping big financial rewards.

Big Points for Big Flavor are technologically achievable in the field and lab with Big Money.  Wineries fueled by the financial industry and dot-com cash depend on fail-safe techniques to achieve the ripeness of flavor demanded by Parker and other critics: irrigation, formulated yeasts, extensive use of the herbicide Roundup, and the addition of any number of the 200 additives allowable by US law (such as Mega Purple for color).

The vineyards themselves became chemical war zones as grapes are treated like any other cash crop, albeit one with an added rating system and a monster marketing apparatus.

But in quality restaurants, sommeliers long ago had had enough.  Despite commercial success in exclusive retail outlets, cult mail-order lists and steakhouses, Big Cabernets and the buttery, Big Chardonnays that accompanied them were difficult to find in smart wine programs in New York.

This is because golden-era, Parker-esque wines–despite all the hype–are wretched partners for food.  They lack the balance necessary to make any sense outside of the point system from which they spring.

A number of budding wine aficionados over the past few decades increasingly began exploring lively European wines, a journey of discovery made possible by a growing bevy of importers like Kermit Lynch, Louis/Dressner, and Neal Rosenthal.  After tasting Old World nuance, it was hard not to agree that Big Flavor was falsely sustained by a parochial American wine regime.

Even in Napa Valley itself, the epicenter of Big Flavor, bartenders and sommeliers would say of the area’s huge cabernets: “We sell them, but we don’t drink them.  They’re for tourists.”

The attention of sanity-based wine drinkers first moved to Sonoma from Napa, and then largely abandoned California altogether to focus on the wines of the Pacific Northwest.   When in 2010 Bruce Schoenfeld finally asked in his Travel+Leisure article “Is Walla Walla America’s New Wine Capital?” many readers had believed this to be true for almost a decade.

The Great Recession was a tipping point that not only sent a shudder through the Big Flavor wine regime, but also revealed a generational shift in wine taste that had been long fomenting.  Bonné claims the breakthrough year was 2011.  Already in 2010 he had written an article exploring the changes afoot in California in a Saveur article that would become the inspiration for The New California Wine.

With the advent of Instagram in 2010, I began seeing visible anecdotal evidence of an emerging set of trendy California bottles captured in sommelier-friend photos across the country.  Grapes and styles once alien to domestic wine appeared: Trousseau, Cinsault, as well as so-called orange wines like Wind Gap’s Pinot Gris. Abe Schoener, former St. John’s dean turned winemaker, had been making exploratory wine since 2000.

The general revolution in taste that had been already long underway as a generational and economic shift elsewhere finally had hit producers in the Golden State.

The impact of the sea change in taste became more evident to me when in a 3rd tier Midwestern city like Madison, Wisconsin, Andrea Hillsey, a former sommelier, opened Square Wine Company in 2012.  Her store is devoted entirely to wines with an Old World sensibility, and she carries domestic bottles that are in keeping with this aesthetic.

Much of the excitement at her shop centers around the new crop of Californian wine that Bonné and Asimov have mentioned in articles over the past couple of years: Arnot-Roberts, Scholium Project, Matthiasson, Litorrai, and others.  The excitement over these bottles among a young group of budding wine aficionados was, and still is, palpable.

Conversely, the Bordeaux-style blends that were, and largely still are, California’s benchmark—and comprised young consumers’ parents’ favored choice—are not discussed.  The Bordelaise, never ones to miss a trend, launched BurdiGala in New York last year to combat the growing problem: baby boomers are in fast decline, and their children are not consuming in the same way.

To call the big change afoot a revolution in taste is a bit of a misnomer.  What becomes clear in Bonné’s book is that it is also a revolution in philosophy and practice.  The book dives headlong into a discussion of the clashing practical approaches to winemaking, and this forms a substantial portion of the book’s well-written and über-informative pages.

As Bonné describes, the change from power to grace in the glass is also a change to minimal intervention rather than technological control, to indigenous yeast rather than predicable inoculation, to creativity rather than efficiency, to dry farming rather than irrigation, and to biodynamically farmed vineyards rather than ones that have been desertified with Roundup.

Bonné tells this story at ground level, sometimes vineyard by vineyard.  He zeros in on Tegan Passalacqua, a winemaker and vineyard scout who is re-discovering forgotten vines that have become interesting test sites for the new generation of creative winemakers.

Bonné explains the fact that these ‘new’ obscure grape varietals showing-up on hip restaurant wine lists are actually a rediscovery of grapes that pre-date Prohibition.  The vineyards were always there, but they languished in the era of Big Flavor.  Obscurity isn’t the point, diversity and creativity is.

There is the story, for instance, of the relatively obscure grape Trousseau, once used to plump-up American-made Port, but now used to make a stunningly beautiful, and justifiably famous, Jura-style wine by Arnot-Roberts.

The book is divided into three sections.  Bonné first lays the groundwork for understanding what’s at stake, what the differences are between the practitioners he highlights and those of Big Flavor.  This is followed by a section covering each of California’s major wine areas, with details on the important players in each area.  Then there is an in-depth guide to important new wines by varietal.  Finally, a series of helpful maps.

Bonné is taking the full story of the current wine renaissance public in a way that his articles could not.  The book is, for all practical purposes, the new generation’s winemaking philosophy IPO.

The fact that there is nothing directly manifesto-y about the book makes it all the stronger.  Bonné goes straight for Big Flavor’s jugular by telling an entirely new story.  And he tells it, I think, as well as it could be told: clearly, evenly, concisely.

It could be argued that not since Frank Schoonmaker advocated for quality by focusing industry attention on varietals has a critic been positioned so closely to a set of ideas and a group of winemakers whose time has come.  Certainly, I can’t remember the last time I read a book about wine with quite so great a sense of thrill—as if a lot of smaller stories I’d worked to gather on my own were bundling into one.

The last such book might have been Kermit Lynch’s Adventures On the Wine Route, which set the tone for an entire generation of importers that are now also getting their due.  It seems no accident that Lynch’s memoir from 1988 is being reissued alongside Bonné’s book this November.

A recent New York Times Magazine article on Lynch confirmed the zeitgeist in the form of a question: “For the longest time, the Robert Parker way of thinking about wine was ascendant. Now the Kermit Lynch way is in fashion.  Why do you think that happened?”

My fear is that the revolution in taste may be more of a moment than a movement.  As Bonné notes, just three companies produce 64% of California wines sold in the United States.  While we can rejoice that a small cadre of winemakers is beginning to produce wines of character in sustainable ways, this is not the story of the vast majority of grocery store bottles.

There is also a macro-economic picture to consider: the US has been priced out of the Bordeaux market that it has impacted since the 1950s.  Big Flavor’s marketing efforts have moved on definitively to China.  Robert Parker sold the Wine Advocate to Asian investors this year, which is also the regime’s new clientele.  The new California wine is appearing in the bloody aftermath of the US’s markedly decreased global relevance.

Worse, there are signs that some of the great producers (new and old) are following in the footsteps of their Big Flavor predecessors and selling-out.  The investment group of former Screaming Eagle co-owner Charles Banks has recently purchased Wind Gap, Qupé and Mayacamas.

But even if the revolution proves to be more of a moment, Bonné has written a book of remarkable depth that will be of interest to this new generation of wine consumers.  Let us hope it is the landmark it deserves to be, and an inspiration for other winemakers to listen to the land–and what the terroir has to say– rather than telling it with chemicals.

The wine book of the year– if not of a few more yet to come.

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Oct 04

Under the Mountains of Stars: Álvaro and Maria Castro


Vines on the hilltop at Quinta da Pallada

The Dao region of Portugal sits on a high plateau surrounded on three sides by ancient granite mountain ranges: the Serra do Caramulo, the Serra da Nave and the poetically named Serra da Estrela, the mountains of stars.

The highway into the mountains gouges through openings and runs along ridge tops with steep drop-offs. Eucalyptus grows in the high hills, its dark grey-green mixing with the colors of olive trees and conifers, its scent blending with the smell of cut pine.  The air becomes piercingly fresh and spa-like.

Soon the road narrows and traffic slows.  Lumber trucks crawl behind even slower tractors, which enter and exit the road with alarming frequency.  Drivers roll car windows down, happily stoned from inhaling the pungent air.

The town of Seia sits on the edge of the Serra da Estrela, once a natural boundary for ancient fiefdoms.  The land is sparse and dotted with small castle enclosures built on glacial boulders the size of large houses.

Vineyards in the Dao are protected from the Atlantic weather systems to the west.  They sit tucked-in at an elevation of 200-900 meters, and are planted in granitic soils with sand and clay.  The good soil drainage and the temperate weather means high acidity and wines of great elegance, subtlety and finesse–more balance than raw power.  It is for this reason that the region is sometimes compared to Burgundy.

Celebrated winemaker Álvaro Castro and his daughter, Maria, make some of the best wine of the region– and of all of Portugal.  Their vineyards are just north of Seia.  At Quinta de Sães they have a winery and house. A windswept hilltop holding, Quinta da Pellada, sits above.  They also own a block of Quinta de Passarela.

Maria Castro

Maria Castro

Álvaro was away and Maria met us.  More precisely, she had to collect us at an abandoned restaurant a mile away after we got lost.

Maria has a quiet, birdlike quality that makes her seem shy.  But as she talks about her vineyards, this is revealed to be a melancholic nervous tension, a surface effect of great attentiveness, passion and commitment.

The Castro’s 1980 Toyota Landcruiser would not start, and so we hopped into Maria’s Volvo station wagon and very slowly threaded our way up the hill to Pellada.


Grapes at Pellada two weeks before harvest

The hilltop is breathtaking, with a semi-circle view of the surrounding valley below and the mountain ranges beyond it.  The Romans grew grapes here, and Touriga Nacional, a grape that has broken out as a leading Portuguese varietal was born in the Dao.

When Maria was young she lived and went to school in Lisbon, coming to the vineyards on weekends.  Her father stayed with the vines.  Today, she also lives with the vines, and her children reside in Lisbon.  Because of the economic downturn, her husband is currently working in Brazil.


In the heat of the afternoon, we retired to a beautiful pool house that the Castros have built out of reclaimed granite blocks.  There are ancient, massive millstones set in the entryway floor.   The building is tasteful, elegant and unpretentious, with modern architecture blending organically with the area’s history.

“We can’t go on fashion,” Maria says.  “It’s important that the industry doesn’t try to be trendy.  We make quality and style.”

The proof is in her wine.

We started with a branco, Quinta de Sães Reserva 2011, a blend of Encruzado, Sercial and Bical, which I believe sees a little stirring on lees.  It is delicate with compound minerality and good acid.  It is reminiscent of white burgundy–say, a Montrachet.  It is lithe and elegant with a lingering finish.


Next, we sampled a Quinta de Sães Reserva Estagio Prolongagado 2009.  The majority of the grapes for this wine come from a field with over 50 varieties in it.  I loved the cherry fruit and pencil shavings.  This is also very burgundian in its bright, cheerful yet very complex characteristics.  It also has good acidity.


Finally, a Quinta da Pellada 2010.  Dark, anise notes with complex medium-berry fruit and layered tannins.  It is a bold, gracious wine begging for food.


Maria’s son was now biking precariously around the edge of the pool.

It is reported that only 5% of the land is under vine in the Dao.  This is surprising to me after tasting the Castro’s world-class wine.  The terroir seems suitable for greatness.

When I drink a Quinta da Sães back in the United States, it comforts me to know that an unassuming and experimental father-daughter team is making spirited, thoughtful wines on a windswept hilltop under the Mountains of Stars.


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Oct 03

A room with a view at Pensão Flor de Coimbra

photo (16)

The Portuguese American Journal did a beautiful job of finding pictures for my story intertwining EM Forster’s thoughts on character with a visit to Coimbra’s oldest boardinghouse.  It was published yesterday.  For a link to the story, please click below:

I will add this picture of a postcard from the pensao on which the brother’s wrote their names.

could have written about these two amazing characters in any number of ways, but EM Forster’s scene in A Room with a View kept leaping to mind.  

And Forster’s discussion of flat and round characters, along with James Wood’s criticism, is a topic relevant to an overnight encounter with many different people temporarily under one roof– much like they are thrown together in stories and novels.

A thanks to my editor Carolina Matos at the PAJ, and to Eduardo and Jorge.

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Sep 28

Mas Jullien

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I first encountered the wines of Mas Jullien in books.  Neal Rosenthal discusses the Julliens–father Jean-Pierre and son Olivier–in a chapter on succession in Reflections of a Wine Merchant.  The problem of succession, of who will take over the winemaking in the next generation, is a big issue everywhere but is especially so in France.

Napoleonic law divides parcels, children frequently don’t share their parent’s passion, and it is not at all clear that beloved wines will live on.  In the market these lost wines, whose maker has passed, whose parcels from which they were made have been divided, become ‘ghost’ bottles–wines that are no more and never will be again.

In the peculiar case of the Julliens, the son inspired the father.  When Jean-Pierre saw his son’s success he broke away from the cooperative to which he had been selling.  But Jean-Pierre’s wines, made for easy pleasure, didn’t approach what Olivier does.  Olivier is one of the earth’s maniacal perfectionists.

It is unfortunate, then, that Lawrence Osborne’s great book, The Accidental Connoisseur, like Rosenthal’s, focuses on Jean-Pierre.  In fact, when Osborne visits, Olivier is away and Osborne writes that he was glad: “It’s often said that wine is about fathers and sons, but within that equation the fathers are often more interesting than the sons.”   Based on the wines of the Julliens, however, these words are patently false.

Osborne does relate a wonderful encounter with Jean-Pierre, one of the book’s best moments, in fact, but I can’t help but feel it was a lost opportunity.

In a recent tasting of a number of significant bottles from the Neal Rosenthal portfolio, Olivier Jullien’s de l’Herault Blanc screamed, shrieked, kicked, pounded, cajoled, seduces and bewildered its way to the top.  Only a magnificent Bernard Levet Côte-Rôtie ultimately held its ground against it for my interest.

The Mas Jullien white to me tastes like, and apologies for the abstraction, pure Art Nouveau.  Not just the lithe, nude maiden forms of the advertisements we all know, drawn looking over their shoulder with whiplashed hair, but the museum sum of it–the decorative forms terminating into organic vines, the Fin de Siècle furniture, the music of Debussy, the poems of Mallarmé.

The book is a ‘spiritual instrument’ says Mallermé, and the bottle of wine can be too.

The de l’Herault Blanc is a blend of Grenache Blanc and Carignan Blanc, along with Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Clairette and Roussanne.

Jullien reportedly buys or trades parcels, replaces vines with trees to restore ecosystems; he does, in short, whatever is necessary to achieve greatness.

We live in an impossibly divided world in which a select few drink so much they are barely ever moved, and everyone else is barely given access.  The fact gives me pause often, especially tasting wines with such style and vision.  Who among us appreciates it, truly?  It’s a meteor shower viewed from Central Park.

Kieth Levenberg of Cellarbook wrote an article declaring the end of the tasting note.  The written note, he argues, has been replaced by snapshots of bottles on Instagram & Facebook.

If this is true, it may only mean that esoteric descriptions masquerading as information have been usurped by mute trophy pictures.

Sure, we’d like to know what’s in the bottle.  But so often that was just so much lifeless information, its own form of trophyism.  The picture provides even less to us, except as a notation of what was drunk by whom, and sometimes with whom and when and where.  The wine is stripped. Down gullets instead of into mouths.  Who isn’t guilty?

Faced with this reality, the real task of today’s taster, of today’s wine writer, of the critic, of the note, is to return bottles to the world.  Not to describe them in Wine-ese, or to mount their proverbial horns on the walls of social media for all to see, but to contextualize them, to provide details that make them interesting and restore their value.

The new note must restore the bottle to the world.  Against our reductivism.  Or, as Walter Benjamin puts it in his essay ‘The Task of the Translator,’ it should produce the echo of the original.  Not kill it with an ‘informative’ description or Instagram picture the way a lepidopterist pins butterflies, but dignify it, give it purpose, restore its sense of place, enliven it.

A bottle must breathe, and our approach to wine must too.

On his website Neal Rosenthal calls the wines of Mas Jullien “among the most important and compelling wines of our portfolio.”  It is unfortunate that Rosenthal and Osborne both skipped exploring Olivier Jullien’s work in their books.

The work stands as proof that our officious notes and trophy photos are not the right way to approach wine.

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Sep 09

The Questing Wines of Colares


“All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”– Spinoza, The Ethics


We weren’t more than five minutes outside of Lisbon when a car sped past us billowing thick, grey smoke.  A few miles later we caught up with it, the vehicle now alongside the road and bursting into flames, its owners frozen in the death-defying moment of decision between extinguishing the blaze and fleeing.

That morning we had picked-up our rental car, a tiny manual transmission Citroen with all the power of a large lawnmower.  When I pushed the pedal down to exit the Avis parking lot, it let out a reluctant and entertaining go-cart sound: “Meeeeeeeee.”

My partner and I were congratulating ourselves on surviving two of Lisbon’s congested roundabouts, having navigated them only slightly better than Clark Griswold in the classic European Vacation driving-in-London scene (we experienced aggressive honking, but no actual contact).

Portugal, our guidebook warned us, is the most dangerous country in Europe to drive a car.  This actually isn’t true anymore (and this was not the last time our ‘new’ guidebooks would have outdated information), but our close proximity to existential misfortune did start to register when we saw three major accidents our first morning on the road.  The two after the bonfire were worse and involved flashing lights, open doors and motionless bodies in crushed cars.

Driving in countries other than one’s own can be an absurdist video game, and I have happy rather than terrified memories from Mexico (Unmarked speed bumps! Iguanas!) as well as from India, where I foolishly rented a motorcycle and once rounded a corner into a sacred cow.

Driving in Portugal, on the other hand, sobered us to the core in the way that witnessing trauma does, and our only comfort was that we were on course toward the ocean– to look west across the Atlantic instead of east—in order to taste the exceedingly rare wines of Colares.

It was a day that would take us from Lisbon to Colares, to the citadel at Sintra, then on pilgrimage to sacred Fatima, and finally to rest at the oldest boarding house in the medieval city of Coimbra.

I had heard about the wines of Colares (pronounced Koh-lar-esh) from wine friends who mentioned them in passing with mystical reverence and awe.  There’s a story that in the 70s, David Lillie, co-founder of Chamber Street Wines in New York (a Mecca for those in search of the obscure), spent three months learning Portuguese in anticipation of a visit by legendary Colares winemaker Paolo Da Silva.  Da Silva’s wines from that decade are the stuff of legend.

Colares is one of the world’s smallest and most endangered wine regions, with some of the oldest vines in all of Europe.  It once comprised 8,000 hectares but today only about forty remain. The vines grow in sand behind a row of dunes at the westernmost point of continental Europe, in an area threatened by condo developments.  The royal families of Europe reportedly hid their crown princes and princesses around Colares during WWII, and there are high-walled luxury compounds dotting the beaches.

When phylloxera wiped out Europe’s vines in the 1800s, and the continent’s vineyards were replanted by painstakingly grafting old vines onto resistant American rootstock, Colares survived untouched.  The vines here are planted deep (1-5 meters) in trenches into a substrate of clay, and then covered methodically with sand as the plants grow upwards.  By all accounts it is an excruciatingly labor intensive process.

The same sand that makes the environment inhospitable to phylloxera also makes for torturous winemaking.  To prevent the grapes from getting too hot on the burning sand, the vines must be staked just above the ground.  Not too high, however, or the ocean winds will batter the fruit.

Colares became a cause célebre during the phylloxera crisis, and a British company built a cellar in the 1880s to produce the wines for export to England.  It was in this original cellar, still in use today, that we met the winemaker for the cooperative, Francisco Homem de Figueiredo.


The gorgeous and roomy old cellar has a distinctly church-like feel with high ceilings, dramatic candelabras and massive wooden barrels.  Because it was August during the summer holiday, and all the other staff was on vacation, Figueiredo was manning a front desk that also functions as a sales outlet.


The cooperative’s Colares is sold under the label Arenae (in 500ml bottles), and there is a white made from a local version of the grape malvasia as well as a red made from the ramisco grape.  Additionally, there are lesser bottlings of red and white wines (designated Chao Rijo, or ‘hard soil’) made from vineyards further inland.

The current release of the white Arenae is 2010, and appears in Olly Smith’s 2013 list of “50 Great Portuguese Wines.”  The wine is lithe and ethereal, with a smooth, unexpectedly sherry-like consistency.  Even with this textural vertebrae it remains fresh and salty.

Tasting it, I couldn’t help but imagine a time of ships and writing desks made for men half my size.  In fact, the desk upon which I write is a  library table from around the same time as the Colares cellar.  In my mind, I correlate the desk’s make to the liquid in the bottle.

The current release of red Arenae is 2005.  Red Colares’ reputation is of a rather aggressive wine that is tannic and astringent in its youth.   Although the area was called the “Bordeaux of Portugal,” the wine is more reminiscent of pinot noir or nebbiolo.  It is tannic but graceful, and is eminently drinkable even though it will clearly improve with age.

In a haunting article on Colares, writer David Lincoln Ross posits that there may be a connection between the ramisco grape and pinot noir via the arrival of Henry of Burgundy to Portugal in the 11th Century.  The ramisco grape physically resembles pinot noir.  The connection takes this already historically fascinating appellation straight into conspiratorial fiction territory with a plotline worthy of Umberto Eco or Dan Brown.

Unlikely to inherit either fortune or titles, Henry of Burgundy joined the Reconquista to push the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula.  As reward for his successes, in 1093 he was married to Theresa, Countess of Portugal, and received the County of Portugal as part of her dowry.  Their son, Afonso Henriques, became the first king of Portugal in 1139.

Did Henry bring cuttings from his native Burgundy in the 11th century?  Am I, when I taste Colares wine, tasting not only something of pre-phylloxera Europe, but wine from grapes propagated from a cutting brought to Portugal by Henry in the Middle Ages?

A bottle of the 2005 ramisco was the only wine to survive our return to the United States (heat, staircases), and I had the pleasure of opening it with winemaker David Autrey of Westrey.  A fellow philosophy major, we contemplated the possibility of the ramisco grape’s connection to Henry of Burgundy, and enjoyed this supremely intriguing wine that elicits thoughts of another age.


David Autrey–pictured–and I took the Colares sailing (boating opportunity courtesy of Prima Wines)

If we take Colares as a glimpse into the make of wines in late 19th Century, we have a profile of antique wine from a still extant appellation– of a time in which, in America, Emerson is slowing dying and Henry James has just finished Portrait of a Lady. Robert Louis Stevenson is preparing to charter the ship Casco from San Francisco, and sail into the Pacific.  Melville is old, writing poetry, and will soon die of a heart attack in obscurity.

It is even more enchanting to further conjecture that the wine may have a connection to Burgundy from the Middle Ages.

Alarmist articles on Colares focus on how badly the appellation is currently threatened by development.  However, when I asked Figueiredo about this, he said the area has largely stabilized.  He admits, however, that it will be difficult to return to the levels of production they were able to sustain up until the 1960s.

Today there are roughly fifty growers in Colares, and the ramisco grape has been cloned for preservation.  Sales of the wines are steady.  Last year, importer José Pastor began bringing these two Arenae Colares wines to the United States.


In memory of New Zealand winemaker Niki Dow, who died in a fatal car crash leaving Niepoort in Oporto, Portugal, on Sept 2nd.


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Sep 05

A Thousand and One Nights in Lisbon

*This article was published by the Portuguese American Journal on September 23rd, 2013*


Staircase tower up to our hotel in Lisbon. Our room was then up more flights once inside the hotel grounds.


When Candide and Pangloss arrive in Lisbon, the two just narrowly survive a shipwreck in the harbor.  Then the city is promptly destroyed by an earthquake.  During the mayhem Candide is injured, but instead of rushing to help him, Pangloss considers the finer points of their situation.  Such is the vicious humor of Voltaire’s satire.

In 1755 the Earthquake of Lisbon, and the tsunami that followed, leveled the majority of the city and killed an estimated 60,000 people.  The quake occurred during mass on All Saints Day, and church candles toppled by the vibrations set the city ablaze.  To escape the inferno and collapsing buildings, many of Lisbon’s denizens fled down to the water and into boats, only to be engulfed by a twenty-foot ocean swell.

Lisbon Earthquake of 1755

Lisbon Earthquake of 1755

The event was a seminal moment in European history.  At the time, the prevailing Enlightenment ideas were those of philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, whose attempts to reconcile reason with theology had famously led him to posit that “all is best in the best of all possible worlds.”

But in the face of the catastrophe in Lisbon, Voltaire was disillusioned.  He wrote a poem entitled “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, or: An Examination of that Axiom ‘All is Well.’  In it, he wondered aloud how such a horror could be the act of a free and good God.

Voltaire’s portrayal of miserable humanity in his poem rankled Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who responded with a nasty letter a few months later. Rousseau complained that Leibniz’s philosophy gave comfort, whereas the wealthy Voltaire couldn’t possibly sympathize with the common people’s need for hope in the face of life’s miseries.

The characters in Candide endure countless miseries—drowning, torture, rape, unrequited love, disease, eviction, slavery and the Inquisition.  Voltaire’s narrative is a compounding series of misfortunes that multiply and branch out, with the recipients of abuse always bouncing back for more.  Members of the book’s cast are killed off early on, and simply reappear with more stories of woe later.  There is such a dizzying accumulation of misfortune that Italo Calvino suggests that it is Candide’s lightness, its velocity and vitality, that still captivates us today.

That Voltaire’s breezy, forever proliferating narrative passes through Lisbon is not accidental.  Lisbon is, and has been for centuries, a city through which stories pulse.  This westernmost capital in Europe, and jumping-off point for the exploration of the world, has been influenced and stimulated by the Phoenicians, the Visigoths, the Romans and the Moors.  During the Age of Exploration, every ship departure was a message in a bottle, every return the importer of exotic tales.

The devastating 1755 earthquake spared Lisbon’s poor hilltop district of Alfama, a honeycomb of small squares and narrow streets near the river.  Steep staircases carved between houses have created a system of secretive vertical passages.  From the tight alleyways, Alfama’s lively little taverns emit their signature, melancholic music.  Husky-voiced Fado singers, accompanied by a guitarist or two, bemoan harsh reality and lost love.


Stumbling on Fado outside a tavern late at night

By full moonlight Lisbon’s labyrinthine cobbled ivory streets gleam like empty, tusk-tiled swimming pools. Ghostly figures appear along corridors and then quickly disappear as though they are characters from aborted film scenes.  The intriguing, dream-like nooks and crannies create at once concentration and profusion.

It is into this world that the great Portuguese writer and flaneur, Ferdinand Pessoa, arrived from South Africa in 1905.  Here he falls in love with the strangers he encounters on the streets, in love with the fragments of stories that occur around every bend and on every staircase.  The fragment, a deplored feature of modernity for so many, becomes for Pessoa something he cultivates.


Ferdinand Pessoa


The author himself fragmented and multiple, he composes his writings under seventy-two different pen names.  His passion for self-accretion and division was so great he even ghost-wrote a break-up letter to a lover.  These multitudes inside Pessoa created a multiple work, The Book of Disquiet, which fittingly has no definitive edition.  Assembled from pages found posthumously in a trunk, it opens out onto yet more pages, with at least four distinct translated versions in English alone.

Baudelaire could have been talking about Pessoa when he calls such a man a ‘kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness.” One thinks of Edgar Allen Poe’s Man of the Crowd, and in fact, Pessoa translated Poe– as well as O. Henry and Walt Whitman– into Portuguese.

In Poe’s short story, the narrator becomes obsessed with an old man he sees while sitting at a café, and proceeds to follow him through the streets of London, doggedly, overnight until the next day.    It is a story of pursuing uniqueness within a teeming and anonymous modern city.  But it is also the start of a Chinese box, or a Russian doll: the narrator of Poe’s story is, in effect, pursuing another story.

In The Thousand and One Nights, the Persian sultan Shahyrar is so disillusioned with the infidelity of women that he marries a virgin every day and then executes her in the morning.  But when he marries Scheherazade, the Grand Vizier’s daughter, she begins to tell a story every night so suspenseful that the Sultan desires to hear its completion.  Each night she begins a new story after telling the old one, such that every story always leads to yet more stories, with stories emerging from within one another, ad infinitum.


Illustration of The Thousand and One Nights

The collection that became The Thousand and One Nights was drawn together over centuries from multiple Asian and Middle Eastern sources.  The book’s impact on European letters after it was first published in France in 1704 has been enormous.  It was particularly pivotal for Marcel Proust, for instance, who mentions it as inspiration for the multiple intersecting stories found in his sprawling work, A Remembrance of Things Past.

But the book was also foundational for the Argentinian writer of accumulating and intertwining stories, Jorge Luis Borges.  Borges is a master of multiplication, of stories in which unreality threatens reality through a sheer blizzard of narratives–so many interlocking that the reader experiences vertigo.


Jorge Luis Borges

With a Portuguese great-grandfather on his paternal side, Borges played the part of a flaneur as a youth on the streets of the Italian-Portuguese neighborhoods in Buenos Aires.  Characters often speak Portuguese in his stories, and he has been honored with a monolith by Federico Brook in the Arco do Cego garden in Lisbon.

In 1977 the blind author, who committed entire passages of the world’s literature to memory, discussed The Thousand and One Nights in a lecture he delivered at the Teatro Coliseo.  In it, he recalls a note by the Orientalist Baron von Hammer-Purstall describing the confabulatores nocturni, men paid to tell stories during the night.  He relates that as late as 1850, such storytellers were still common in Cairo.  It was professional storytellers such as these that gathered the folktales and fables found in The Thousand and One Nights, and embellished them over the ages.

Curiously, it was in the district of Alfama in Lisbon where Fado first appeared as a full-fledged art form sometime in the 1820 and 30s.  Although its origins are a mystery, Fado is thought to have begun in this port area as a night dance among the laborers and sailors.  It has Moorish roots, and Alfama was once the Moorish quarter.  The name Alfama comes from the Arabic Al-hamma, meaning fountains, or baths.

Fado singers are Lisbon’s confabulatores nocturni, singing songs of fate, of longing, of what the Portuguese call saudade—the emotional result of irrecoverable loss.

Pessoa and Borges never met, although they were both in Lisbon at the same time twice during their lives.  Once, in 1914 when Borges’s family was passing through on their way to Geneva. Borges was fourteen and Pessoa would have been twenty-six.

It is difficult to accept that they did not meet the second time, in 1923, when Borges spent forty-five days in Lisbon and both men were by then authors and Anglophiles with many similarities.  There is even reason to believe that Borges drank coffee at Pessoa’s café, A Brasileira, which still exists.

But they did not meet, nor did they ever write.

After Lisbon, Voltaire’s picaresque tale continues on to the New World, to Borges’ home of Buenos Aires, and then returns from across the Atlantic to England, to come to rest finally on the Ottoman coast.  There, Candide receives the words of wisdom from an old Turk that free him from Leibniz’s optimism.  He has the epiphany that rather than philosophize, ‘we must cultivate our garden.”

With that pronouncement, Voltaire’s little book marked the end of a world of transcendental good and evil, and the birth of a far more earthly and practical one.  The disillusionment found in Candide signaled a profound shift in ethics and epistemology, making way for the storming of the Bastille thirty years later.

And that is how, for we moderns, the story of the earthquake in Lisbon, the city of stories, is, like a tale told by Scheherazade, the beginning of our own.

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