Monday, July 22, 2013

Domo Gecko

Mondo Gecko? Too flamboyant. Geico Gecko? Too commercial. Gordon Gekko? Too greedy. Lounge Gecko? Too sleazy. Meet modest, stay-at-home domo gecko – gecko doméstico, the house lizard.

As I was walking down my west Texas front hall the other night, which is empty now that we’ve moved out, I noticed a minuscule form on the wall. It looked slender yet angular,  the way sculptor Alberto Giacometti might have imagined a cockroach. So at first glance I mistook it for some sort of matchstick insect.  On closer inspection, though, it proved to be a juvenile house gecko about an inch long.  He was poised motionless, resembling a small jewel or a dangle for a charm bracelet rendered in cloisonné – for eyes, two miniature black beads of sevruga caviar.

How do such tiny creatures survive? What kind of world do they inhabit? As it was, this little lizard would soon take refuge in a narrow cleft beneath my right shoe! You have to be careful where you tread.

My first thought was to relocate the little guy outside where I imagined he might fare better than in a house emptied of nearly everything except him and me. But how to move him? He seemed so small and fragile that an attempt to pick him up might have crushed him. So instead I conjured the idea of using the flap of a standard business envelope to scoop him up.

It seemed to work and into the envelope he dropped. But in an flash he’d pronked straight up and out like a springbok, falling miles and miles to the floor below unharmed. I tried to scoop him again, but he sprinted off at startling speed – about eighteen inches per second, I reckoned – which in proportion to body length would be like a six-foot man running nearly 75 miles per hour.

And with that he seemed to have vanished. Suspecting he might be too close for comfort, I stood stock still, then carefully lifted my right foot. Yup, he’d taken shelter under my shoe.

“Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer,” advises Marlin Brando in The Godfather – though I doubt the lizard had this in mind when he slithered under my foot. How often do we seek refuge or pleasure in the very places that could sink us?

Hideout exposed, the little gecko zipped off to a new crevice beneath a nearby cardboard packing box. I decided to leave him to fate trammeled no further by me.

Still, on account of his vast tininess – and despite the prospect that we’d likely never meet again – I decided to name him Minikin Gecko, or Mike for short. For now that we were acquainted, Mike surly deserved proper salutation -- the same as you'd accord any self-respecting Mediterranean house gecko.

The "med gecko," or Mediterranean house gecko, is one of the most successful of its kind. Herpetologists have come to believe these creatures fare best around human habitation since they’re found most commonly in urban areas. Nocturnal foragers, they can often be seen praying on insects near porch lights or other forms of  outdoor lighting on warm nights. Several species take up residence indoors where they’re usually welcomed by the human occupants as predators of insects, including mosquitoes and small cockroaches.

But what’s unique about geckos are the specialized toe pads that enable them to climb smooth and vertical surfaces and even cross indoor ceilings. The most popular explanation for this, without going into anatomic detail, is an intermolecular attraction known as van der Waals forces, between elements of the toe pad and the underlying surface.

Van der Waals interaction is expressed by the formula:

where U, z, R, and A are letters of the alphabet and the rest, numbers, leading you to wonder whether the gecko that lands in your soup might simply be bad at math, or worse, a bad speller. Yet geckos are said to be able to hang from a glass surface using only one toe, so maybe it all adds up.

As it turned out, Mike and I were to meet up again only a few days later. And, my, how he’d grown – by at least half an inch! I found him in the kitchen sink, apparently marooned on the porcelain yet having avoided the drain. Why van der Waals forces hadn't helped him escape, I have no idea. The sink is old but surly not in isotopic decay, and it was also completely dry.

Or maybe Mike hadn't actually wished to escape. Maybe he relished the pale, starkly surreal expanse of white porcelain punctuated by the dark abyss of the drain. Perhaps things look to a gecko the way they once did to, say, Salvador Dalí, the sticking power of whose work as an artist may likewise be due to some unseen molecular force.

In any case, I again scooped Mike up with the envelope. But he pronked to the floor just as before and scurried under the wooden overhang of the kitchen island. Against the Saltillo tile, he was almost perfectly camouflaged and perhaps not by accident – some geckos can change complexion like a chameleon.

Of a sudden, it occurred to me that Mike and I are pretty much alike. More often than not, we're stuck to the ceiling, climbing the walls, or otherwise just trying to make a living. And sometimes we find ourselves circling the drain.

I’m going to advise the house’s new owner that geckos are fine little lodgers, to mind where he steps, and to leave the light on for Mike.

Mike's older brother  Magno Gecko 
outside hunting under a front porch 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

LilthyEtta - A Roman á Cleft

Chapter 1: A Creature of Impulse

Why did LilthyEtta Saqueth Klatchbustle release fifty Guernsey cows of particular genetic heritage into a hundred acres of Reynolds American prime Virginia Brightleaf tobacco in Chatham county? What on earth made her do it?

The herd was the property of gentleman farmer Mathias Caracas-Schmid, a man of Afro-German, Amerindian, and Eurasian origin (his mother was from Guinea-Bissau) who, with a little help from eugenics,  had built up his livestock from nothing and who, although not a smoker, was known to chaw the occasional quid of Red Man tobacco. His association with LilthyEtta was one of decorous demur though he bore her no grudge. LilthyEtta had an aura of strange energy about her that Mathias found unsettling, reminiscent of certain tribal sacraments peculiar to his mother’s native land and was also, he reckoned, bad for dairying. Mathias’ father, a Belizean mestizo, had been eaten by a spectacled caiman when he was six, whereupon his mother, Lusóphona, had packed up Mathias and moved to Chatham county – an act, as best one could tell, of shear random itinerancy.

LilthyEtta was born a native of New York city but, owing to personal anomie unusual even for New York, had fetched up in Chatham county by the age of fifteen. As a child she’d been fearful of things that went bump in the night, in particular her parents – the primal audition so to say. Her mother and father, against their better judgment but mindful of abandonment, had accompanied her to Chatham county. That they might have come to regret the decision was a matter of enduring suspicion. For them, too, little LilthyEtta had been an unsettling presence, a source of discomfiture right from the start. A séance, anticipated as vatic but instigated as much out of trepidation as interest by the midwife who’d birthed LilthyEtta, had ended in disarray, yielding nothing but the ravings of a deceased great uncle disgruntled with conditions in the afterlife.

Oddly, despite – or perhaps because of – her unsettling karma, no one could quite recall what LilthyEtta looked like once out of sight of her. Even her photographs seemed as though of another, of persons unknown. She was like a ghost with human dimensions or no dimensions at all.

Besides her parents, LilthyEtta had brought along to Chatham a flare for the theatrical. For two years and five months after seeing Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet the movie, she’d wanted to play Branagh in that film. That the actor might have had a life of his own seemed lost upon her. Her desire to play him playing Hamlet was but another of her off-kilter impulses, like acquainting someone else’s dairy herd with tobacco leaf.

Chapter 2: Nicotine Dreams

Erdmuthe Krauseleiter – biochemist, geneticist, and blowzy farmhand of Mathias Caracas-Schmid – was the first to notice: the flies in the milking barn had suddenly gone missing. Indeed, the barn seemed insect-free altogether. Erdmuthe knew all to well about LilthyEtta’s tobacco escapade, having retrieved the Guernseys from the Reynolds tobacco stand himself and dealt with the repercussions. He telephoned Mathias at once; Mathias arrived at the milking barn posthaste.

“Holy little boy blue!” Mathias exclaimed, spitting tobacco juice at a feed bin. “Could the cows be excreting neonicotinoids in their breath or through their hides? Is this how they process tobacco?”

Nicotine and its congeners, the neonicotinoids, are potent insecticides.

During four generations of fastidious cattle husbandry by Krauseleiter, Caracas-Schmid had practiced the grotesque habit of spitting tobacco juice into the oats-and-molasses feed bins of the dairy barn as though they were spittoons for his Red Man.  Ingesting this quid-infested feed, the cows had adapted accordingly, eventually converting the nicotine to a Bhopal for house flies. Now after two days of foraging on Brightleaf, they had reached peak toxin production – four-legged fumigators, scourge of the arthropoda were they.

For Mathias and Krauseleiter the possibilities were intriguing. Barnyards without flies! “Got milk?” perhaps instead of “Got a light?”

Mathias wasted no time calling Monsanto and his patent attorney, Filiberto Swarthmidden Klatchbustle, father of LilthyEtta.

“My daughter already told me, “ rasped Filiberto, “I’ve patented the process myself.”

“I’m cancelling your retainer – and that might not be all,” Mathias replied with repressed rage.

Chapter 3: The End of Tobacco Road

The End

Sir John Rolfe and unidentified 
young woman

[This is why I don’t write novels]

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Also Sprach der Drei Grazien

Flee, my friend, into thy solitude—and thither, where a rough strong breeze bloweth. It is not thy lot to be a fly-flap.—
Thus spake Zarathustra.
                                                                      Also sprach Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche, 1883 

It was a breezy afternoon in Lotusland, and I was lollygagging on the patio. A curious Pacific-slope flycatcher, olive brown with buffed yellow breast, flitted from garden wall to rose bushes, keeping a watchful eye on me. From a tabletop Bose in the kitchen boomed the strains of Also sprach Zarathustra, the 1896 Richard Strauss orchestral tone poem inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's eponymous philosophical treatise and later featured in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It got me thinking about the German philosopher.

And also about Zarathustra. His name has a certain augustness like, say, Ozymandias and for me creates – as perhaps it did for Strauss – a strong impression.

Who was Zarathustra, and why was he so taken with solitude – so taken he'd advise you to "flee" into it?

The story begins in the distant past. Hailing from around 500-700 BC, Zarathustra or Zoroaster as he is also known, was a Persian prophet – the founder of Zoroastrianism. In post-Classical Western culture, his name was associated with lost ancient wisdom, although precious little else is know about him. The Roman author Pliny attributed "two million lines" of writing to him, yet no one really knows what he said. Thus, shrouded in myth, Zoroaster came to be seen as a sage, magician, and even miracle-worker.

Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire promoted research into Zoroastrianism in the belief that it was a form of rational Deism, preferable to Christianity.

But German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche went even further. He co-opted Zarathustra outright, putting words in his mouth such as the quote above, typically appended with “Thus spake…” so as to leave no doubt about who was doing the talking.

If you’re trying to gussy up ideas of your own, why not attribute them to an esteemed mythical figure from the impossibly distant past about whom little is known except that he’s, well, esteemed? Nietzsche might have been nuts but he was also inventively devious, getting Zarathustra to front for him like this on all sorts of notions.

Yet Nietzsche is still worth considering. He’s like one of those  gene knock-out experiments where you can potentially learn about the conventional by studying the aberrant.

Fountain of the Three Graces
By now the afternoon sun had begun to slant over the patio wall. As I relaxed beside the Fountain of the Three Graces (Aglaea, Euphrosyne, and Thalia, the daughters of Zeus) listening to Strauss and sipping a long-stemmed glass of Cakebread Chardonnay, these notions resonated in my head like the sound of the ocean in a conch shell.

Or perhaps it was the ocean. The Pacific was but a few blocks away, and if you listened carefully you could hear the surf between motorcycles, especially as a strong breeze was blowing up the canyon from the shore.

 A sudden gust sent sycamore leaves scuttling over the flagstones.  Could my idyllic abode by the sea be something like the “thither” of  Nietzsche, I wondered.  Could the Three Graces fountain with its carved stone deities and mesmeric tumbling water be ein Nietzschian brunnen of solitude?

By now the Cakebread was kicking in, and it was getting hard to tell sagacity from soused. My mind wondered from the sublime to the...

“Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail!,” I thought suddenly, leering at the voluptuous, carved, adamantine yet somehow compliant figures of the fountain’s three stone goddesses.  Were the Three Graces like neoclassical Playboy bunnies, Las Vegas show girls? What did you do if you were a daughter of Zeus, anyway? Run a temple? Sacrifice oxen? Join the Junior League ‘til you turned forty?

No, more likely you were a lady per dolce far niente, a woman of louche classical sensibilities, a woman who…

“Well, honestly..!” exclaimed Euphrosyne, as though out of nowhere but sounding disgusted. “What a chuff! I wonder if you’d know Pandora from Pangloss or an oracle from an oriole. Playboy bunnies, indeed!”

Fontaine des Trois Grâces, Place de la Bourse, 

Speechless, I started violently in my chair. Had the sisters of stone taken umbrage at my brash ruminations? As I stared incredulous, the very travertine appeared to come alive, the three goddesses drawing the fountain’s sculpted communal drapery more snuggly about them.

The aspect of water cascading over lavish feminine forms, together with the Chardonnay, had taken such a mesmerizing toll that only with considerable difficulty did I dismiss Euphrosyne’s indignant remonstrance as merely the Cakebread talking and turn once again to Zarathustra.

I go into solitude so as not to drink out of everybody's cistern. When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not think I really think. After a time it always seems as if they want to banish my self from myself and rob me of my soul.

                                Nietzsche cum Zarathustra

Well, sure, we all need “me” time but is the self really that fragile, that susceptible to dispossession?  This side of saneness, don’t we all pretty much drink from one cistern? Does not society, our associations one with another, restore the soul to the self, rather than rob it blind?

Ironically it was Nietzsche who regarded his friendship with composer Richard Wagner as his “greatest achievement” (die größte Errungenschaft). Where did that leave his solitude?

Luckily for me, the Graces weren’t out for revenge that afternoon – by changing me into a creosote bush, say, or a "born, sworn, jealous friend of solitude" à la  F. Nietzsche – despite having caught me in flagrante delicto, juiced up on Cakebread and woozy over a waterfall.

The Three Graces by Antonio Canova
Fortunate, indeed, for now Thalia, eldest of the Three Graces, spoke -- more with equanimity than outrage.

“Didn't Friedrich Nietzsche write the following?” she asked rhetorically:

‘Thou goest to women? Do not forget thy whip!—
Thus spake Zarathustra’

"Zarathustra does the talking but its Nietzsche doing the coaching, right?" she continued. "Some über-dominatrix makes him bring the whip, so he takes it to heart – naïvely, too, I'd say – then exhorts everyone else to follow suite.  But shouldn't an Übermensch like Nietzsche naturally expect – yea, deserve – complete service that includes the whip? And shouldn't he have the cojones to just say so?"

“Well, I…I.. suppose…maybe!” I stammered, casting a baleful glance at my wine glass. “I’m open to discussion here. But I don’t, don’t actually own a whip!”

Thalia merely looked askance – I sensed she wasn't taking me seriously.

 Finally it was the youngest's, Aglaea’s, turn.

“Don’t go with Friedrich or that Zorro guy,” she purred seductively, "You'd be better off with us…with me."

By now I’d recovered a modicum of composure, a little presence of mind.  “See here!” I admonished her, trying to sound stern. “Don’t push your luck or I might pay you a visit as a shower of rhetoric – just ask your old man! Anyway,  you’ve convinced me – I’m staying with the Classics and you hedonist Greeks.”

So saying I gulped down what was left of the Cakebread. Then I fled the patio with its talking fountain and fake solitude for a flagon of Starbucks and the latest issue of Macworld. Sometimes you’re better off with the purely technical – Edith Hamilton could wait.

I for one don’t actually mind being a fly flap and figure I’ve caught more with honey than vinegar. Besides, who doesn’t enjoy party lights? And what a shame Nietzsche never had Google Hangout or Facebook.

Or would he have found only solitude on the internet, too?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Kopi Kats

Have you ever puzzled over the Biblical story of  Jonah, how he was swallowed by a whale, then spat out on dry land three days later? Wouldn’t it make more sense if he’d been pooped out?

Sound strange? Wait 'til you hear about kopi luwak!

Recently, a few of my family were guests for Sunday brunch at the Santa Barbara home of some friends. Having served a delicious concoction of  flour tortillas topped with huevos rancheros, our hostess Maria announced a special after-brunch treat – kopi luwak, “the most expensive coffee in the world!”

So saying she paused and relaxed in her chair, a leisurely air of intrigue and perhaps satisfaction spreading over her face.

Finishing the last few bites of rancheros, we all waited expectantly for the other shoe to drop – the explanation of just why kopi luwak costs so much.

Commodity prices always have something to do with supply and demand, but no coffee I knew of had ever remained super scarce for that long.  Had one of those American war-on-terror Reaper drones strayed off course over Yemen and blown up a plantation of ubergourmet Mocha, putting a dent in world supply? Recall that Mocha coffee is a Yemeni original. Yemen’s Sufi shrines, which date from the 15th century, are considered to be the birthplace of coffee drinking.

Or had Starbucks with its 16,600 stores finally cornered the market on some specialty grind?

And what the heck was kopi luwak, anyway?

Resuming her disquisition, Maria hauled out an issue of the National Geographic featuring an article on the Asian palm civet – the drama was building!

Coffee drinking, which has been prevalent for the last six centuries, probably began in southern Arabia (Yemen) where coffee plants were first cultivated.

Like tobacco and alcohol, the use of coffee has long been the subject of controversy. In 1600, despite appeals to ban coffee as a “Muslim drink,” Pope Clement VIII deemed it to be Christian, just as 400 years later Rabbi Igal Ben Ezra would endorse Israeli cigarettes as kosher. On the other hand, Muslims eschew alcohol (and pork), some Christians condemn coffee and alcohol (and pork), and orthodox Jews avoid anything that isn't kosher.

But let’s face it! In today’s world, religion tossed with comestibles doth not a tasty salad make. There may be good reasons for consuming some substances and avoiding others, but none of those reasons is ecclesiastical. On balance, the evidence suggests that in moderation coffee and alcohol are not harmful, indeed, somewhat beneficial, whereas no one should be using tobacco. Of course, you shouldn't be a pig about anything.

Just a few more coffee factoids. Of the two main species, Arabica (Coffea arabica) is considered better than Robusta (C. canephora), the latter being bitter and less flavorful.  Robusta, however, contains more caffeine, so its often used in commercial blends and for traditional Italian espresso to add body and a better head of foam (“la crema”).

The process of getting coffee from bush to cup is a lengthy one. After the berries are picked, the skin and pulp must be separated from the seeds (beans). One method of doing this involves bacterial fermentation that yields milder coffee but also copious volumes of foul smelling waste – not unlike an ersatz gastrointestinal tract!

Once coffee beans are liberated from the pulp, they’re usually roasted, the duration of the roast effecting flavor. Very dark Italian roast, for example, yields a thin-bodied beverage with little acidity as compared to, say, the shorter cinnamon roast.

Asian palm civet feeding on coffee berries
Which brings me back to kopi luwak. “Kopi” is the Indonesian word for coffee, and “luwak,” the Sumatran name for a furry little creature related to the cat and mongoose, the Asian palm civet (also known as the toddy cat). The connection between cat and coffee is this: civets feed on coffee berries, their gastrointestinal tracks fermenting and digesting skin and pulp from the beans. The pulp provides them nutrition; they excrete the seeds or beans.

Kopi luwak, or civet coffee, is scarce, in other words, because it has to be harvested from civet poop –  the other shoe more plopped than dropped!

It seems that during the era of Cultuurstelsel (1830—1870) when the Dutch were colonizing Indonesia, they prohibited the natives from picking coffee for their own use. But the natives, recognizing that palm civets fed on coffee berries, recovered the beans from their droppings; cleaned, roasted, and ground them; and made coffee in spite of the Dutch.

Coffee, of course, wasn’t the only commodity the Dutch sought to monopolize. The list included nutmeg (the Dutch massacred 2,500 natives to secure this trade), pepper, cinnamon, jewels, and even elephants. Still, the economic woes of colonialism pale in comparison to the geopolitical consequences, many of which persist in infamy to this day.

I believe the little palm civet, now being exploited nearly to extinction by Indonesian coffee producers, deserves to be regarded as a belated victim of all this as well as an endangered species. Kopi luwak has become such a fade that wild civets are being captured and force fed coffee berries in order to meet (and no doubt expand) demand – and its threatening the civets’ survival.

What’s more, kopi luwak turns out to be mainly a commercial gimmick, not even a delicacy. According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, “it… just tastes bad.” Some coffee experts (“cuppers”),  though, would say that it doesn’t necessarily taste bad, but is less acidic, has less body, and tastes "thin” compared to other coffees. In others words, it might be more or less comparable to a standard Italian roast.

Opined Massimo Marcone, who’s done extensive chemical testing on civet-derived beans, "It's not that people are after that distinct flavor. They are after the rarity of the coffee." So its hardly surprising that nearly all kopi luwak is counterfeit – fifty times more being sold than produced.

But for die-hard java gourmets, good news! Here’s a suggestion that spares the poor little palm civet while preserving that visceral coffee experience – Black Ivory coffee!

Black Ivory is a novelty brand produced by some twenty rescue elephants at northern Thailand’s Golden Triangle Asian Elephant refuge. The elephants are fed Arabica berries (it does them no harm), and the beans are recovered from their poop. The resulting beverage is said to be "very smooth without the bitterness of regular coffee.” Given the pachyderm processing, no doubt its also big-bodied. Costing upwards of $1,100 per kilogram, its certainly big-priced.  A few luxury hotels offer Black Ivory for $50 a cup.

Perhaps you could enjoy a cup or two of this elephant joe whilst smoking Krong Thip Thai tobacco rolled up in hundred dollar bills. Better yet, quite smoking and donate the money to the elephants – they’re endangered, too. Proceeds from Black Ivory, by the way, do support the Golden Triangle refuge.

Maria’s husband, Frank, who brewed our kopi luwak turned out to be a coffee magician, someone who might well make an excellent Cappuccino from no more than a spoonful of Postum. He’s also an accomplished latte artist. So the kopi luwak he served us had both great presentation and fine taste without even a hint of E. coli.

For my part, I’m considering a Red Rhino Blend®, Robusta Enterica, that I’d market through, say, EarthPals, Inc. of Nepal. There’re still plenty of Indian rhinoceroses in the Chitwan National Park and other nature preserves. They’re trencherman eaters, make lots of poop, and would probably revel in a pipeline of free coffee fruits.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Call me Ismael (or call me Maelish)

I’d gone for a stroll on the beach.

The Pacific tide was still rising, waves lapping at sand pebbles strewn along an irregular dull green line of flotsam near the high water mark. The sky was a chalky blue and the air suffused with a thin halide haze, attars of iodine from kelp undulating languorously in the currents just off shore.

Shore birds, Hendry's beach, Santa Barbara, California
Here and there, willets and godwits minced about on stilt-like legs probing the sand with quick little  thrusts of their long, slender bills, searching for marine worms, sand crabs, and sea slaters.

On a cluster of tide-scoured rocks sat a gaggle of gulls, squawking, squabbling, and thieving from one another -- intruding upon the calm.

Overhead, meanwhile, whined a small, low-flying Bombardier passenger jet, its tail feathers provocatively deployed as it descended toward final approach, the pitch of its engines -- on account of the Doppler shift -- dropping as it zoomed by.

It was a late morning, like any other, along the quotidian coast.

All of a sudden, from the sands just in front of me sprang curls of steam, wisps of sea smoke, swirling swiftly upward and congealing into a small private cloud that seemed to have momentarily lost its way.

Sea smoke, Douglas Family Preserve, Santa Barbara, 
Startled, I quickened my pace to avoid being engulfed by the cloud – such  preternatural maritime miasmata being the typical hangout of saltwater undines and the bedraggled shades of drowned sailors.

Pretty soon, though, curiosity got the better of me, and  I turned back to see how the neophyte fog was faring.

The eruption of vapor had been so precipitous and of such an intensity that I half expected to observe a roasted shoat, clad in steaming banana leaves, bursting out of a luau pit munching a cinnamon apple. Or perhaps an unctuous walrus lugubriously chatting up oysters. Or line dancing lobsters of the spiny variety.

Such is life by the miraculous sea.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"to talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and.."
"Get on with it, please," the Carpenter plead,
"and stop your dither-ing!"

In the event there were no cabbages or kings, only the  little pillar of cloud – magic enough for me, by the by – which had drifted away from the water’s edge and up the cliff face where it now enveloped a small tree.

“Not exactly a burning bush,” I mused. “More of a beclouded or mystified one.”

As mixed metaphors go, though, this was divine.

By now it was almost lunch time and I could have done with a pillar of fire and some hot dogs, but alas, there were no snacks and no revelations, only the raucous chatter of four young collegians in beach plumage – vying with the seagulls for rumbustiousness –  the indolent splosh of the waves, and the little tree cloaked in its personal fog.

I took pictures with my digital Minox. Its not every day you’re confronted with a phenomenon of nature, and in this case there’d be no meteorite bits for forensics.

But what of the college students? Hadn’t they been privy to this magic as well? Might I have recruited them as collaborators, say, stalwarts as to the veracity of my observations?

Not a chance -- they seemed completely oblivious. No doubt they were sophomores.

Still, photos don’t lie, even photos of clouds. Call me Maelish if you must – it’s a whale of a tale, after all, not the other way around – but don’t call me crazy.

Now I haven’t the foggiest notion as to the import of things such as these, but here’s what probably transpired.

A nucleus of condensation is a particle upon which water vapor can condense to form droplets – water droplets, of course, being what mist, fog, and clouds are made of. Various particles, such as dust, ice, and salt (e.g., salt spray from breaking waves), are know to act as condensation nuclei, and recently its been found that iodine released by seaweed can do the same thing.

Off-shore kelp beds, Douglas Family Preserve, Santa Barbara,
In a 2008 report, researchers at the University of Manchester described how coastal seaweed – brown kelp – releases large amounts of inorganic iodine into the atmosphere where it may contribute to coastal cloud formation. This is particularly apt to occur under conditions of intense sunlight or drying during low tides, presumably to help create a protective layer of moisture for the kelp.

Then there’s hill fog that forms when wind blows up a slope causing the air to cool as it rises and the moisture in it to condense.

The pillar of cloud that emerged so abruptly during my turn on the beach may have resulted from all of these – salt spray from the waves, iodine from the kelp, and upslope air cooling.

So you see, this was neither miracle nor magic, simply science, and there’s no need to mythologize it.

Still, I do wish that garrulous walrus would’ve just shut up and served the damned oysters. I had carpentry work to finish, and his dithering brought me to tears.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Oenophobia: The Dread of Fake Wine

Wine display at Trader Joe’s, Santa Barbara, California

Hardy Rodenstock!  Rudy Kurniawan!

These are names that strike terror into the heart of any would-be oenosophe.

Just when I was about to start palate research on Franzia wines and Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw brand (“Two-Buck-Chuck”), with a view to becoming the world’s only anosmic wine connois-seur, I find out the wine market is rife with fakes!

We spend big bucks for authenticity these days, but everything from Gucci shoes to President Obama’s birth certificate turns out to be suspect.

Wine, of course, is no exception. Global demand for the stuff is on the rise, with China fueling the boom. By many accounts, up to five percent of vintage wines sold at auction or on the secondary market are fake. The older and rarer the bottle, the greater the risk, especially for wines from the 18th century or in large formats (big bottles) from before World War II.

But who in the world is Hardy Rodenstock?

He’s a flamboyant German music promoter turned wine collector who gained notoriety back in the 1980s for his “discovery” of a cache of 1787 Château Lafite (Rodenstock won’t say how many bottles he found) that supposedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson, walled up in a Paris basement.

Bottle of "1787 Château Lafite" – courtesy, Thomas 
Jefferson (?)
At a 1985 Christie’s auction, publisher Christopher Forbes paid $156,450 for one of the Jefferson bottles, a record price at the time for a single bottle of wine.

About three years later, billionaire William Koch bought four Jefferson bottles for a total of $500,000 – and then determined that the etching on them, "Th. J.," had been done with a modern power tool.  As a result, Rodenstock’s (seemingly bottomless) trove of antique Lafite was widely dismissed as bogus.

In the wake of the Lafite scandal, Mr. Rodenstock, who’d been involved in the pro-motion and sale of other counterfeit wines, became embroiled in image-tarnishing lawsuits and so fell from grace (though he may still be doing business in China via his wine merchant godson).

Benjamin Wallace, in Billionaire’s Vinegar, recounts Rodenstock’s antics and their aftermath in fascinating detail.

Yet just when wine geeks thought the Rodenstock affair had put them wise to oeno-fakery, along came Rudy Kurniawan. In March, 2012, the celebrated Los Angeles-area entrepreneur and expert on fraudulent wines was arrested for, yup, wine fraud – the illicit sale of California Cabernet and Pinot Noir re-labeled as more expensive wines such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Kurniawan had also consigned for auction several lots of Clos St. Denis from Domaine Ponsot that purportedly came from vintages predating any actual production of Clos St. Denis.

Reprehensible as it all seems, its not hard to imagine worse.

What if Châteaux Pétrus, say, were shown to be fermented of faux fruit – sultana seedless table grapes sucrose-fortified and re-complected with gentian violet? What if Domaine de la Romanée-Conti were concocted from outdated Welch’s grape concentrate infused with neutral grain spirits and teinture de Pinot Noir? Or if Château d Yquem Ygrec were nothing more than Wild Harvest organic white grape juice pollinated with Fleischmann’s RapidRise yeast and left in the woodshed for a week or two?

Worst of all might be the substitution of bogus wine for the Eucharist. Could you count on another Miracle at Cana? Or would the soul sour and shrivel, like Cabernet Franc for eiswein (ice wine) forsaken on wintry vine – a kind of spiritual transfusion reaction?

Think this sounds outlandish? Think again. It turns out illegal production and sale of artificial wine based solely on additives and water is well-known.  During the 17th and 18th centuries, "wine doctors" made wines from obscure substances and various chemicals. Joseph Addison wrote of a "fraternity of chymical operators (sic)" who used apples to make Champagne and sloe to make Bordeaux and then sold these wines fraudulently.

And its not just a few bad apples. Wine fraud perpetrated by well-established vintners has been a problem since Roman times.

Last year, French prosecutors announced that from 2006 to 2008, Maison Laboure-Roi may have blended half a million bottles of premium Burgundy wine worth $3.4 million with wines from lesser appellations (beyond the 15 percent allowed by law) to produce 1.5 million bottles of ostensibly high end beverage. Another 1.1 million bottles were allegedly labeled with false vintages.

In 2010, a dozen French wine producers and traders were found guilty of having supplied E & J Gallo with 18 million bottles of mislabeled Pinot Noir (mostly Merlot and Syrah) that Gallo had bought for its Red Bicyclette Pinot Noir brand. Gallo subsequently closed out the Red Bicyclette label.

Of late, fraudulent re-labeling of wine bottles has become virtually epidemic, especially in Asia. So has plonkauftanken, the refilling of empty expensive old wine bottles with cheap new wine (plonk) to be sold illicitly under the original label. Thus, there’s presently more Château Lafite-Rothschild 1982 in China than was ever produced in France! One Chinese dealer offers the equivalent of over $400 for empty vintage Lafite bottles in top condition. His firm collects empties from bars and restaurants around Shanghai and Beijing.

“The bottles need to be in the best condition possible. It is very important. And I only want genuine bottles, no fakes,” declared Shanghai dealer, Mr. Ye, in a candid – if not tongue-in-cheek – display of backhanded integrity.

There's nothing like the genuine article to fool the customer!

So what’s a jackleg dilettante like myself to do in the face of such chicanery? How many a smirking La Gioconda could be lurking out there, and how would you tell real ones from the fakes?

One idea might be to obtain training at a web-based institute like Wine Campus ™ (talk about your party schools!), a private wine college where you can earn Brevets, Higher Brevets, and Honors Brevets in wine education. Perhaps in the process you’d discover the virtues of  packaging wine in Tetra-Paks instead of bottles. Or maybe you’d master iWine eTasting with the electronic tongue invented by scientists at the Barcelona Institute of Microelectronics that can 'taste' grape varieties and wine vintages.

What you likely wouldn’t learn, though, is how to distinguish amongst wines using your own taste buds.

Frédéric Brochet, a researcher from Bordeaux, has shown why. He asked 54 “experts” to evaluate two glasses of wine. The glasses were actually the same white wine, but one glass had been tinted red with food coloring. Interestingly, the experts described the tinted wine in language typically reserved for reds. One expert praised its “jamminess,” while another enjoyed its “crushed red fruit.” Not a single evaluator recognized it as a cross-dressed white.

“The truth is that you cannot define taste objectively,” said Brochet.  “[Only] about two or three percent of people detect the white wine flavor, but invariably they have little experience of wine culture. Connoisseurs tend to fail to do so. The more training they have, the more mistakes they make because they are influenced by the color of the wine.”

Brochet also pointed out that the molecule that gives red wine the taste of blackcurrants, red currants or raspberries is the same one that gives white wine “notes” of apricot or peach. Again, connoisseurs may change their description of taste or smell based solely on color.

In another experiment, Brochet asked 57 experts to sample the same average bottle of Bordeaux wine on two separate occasions. On the first occasion, the wine was labeled as a high-prestige grand cru; on the second, as a cheap vin de table. When the experts thought they were drinking the grand cru, they described it as agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded. When they thought it was a vin de table, they said it was weak, short, light, flat, faulty and with a sting. Seventy percent said the wine was good when they thought it was expensive, but only 21 percent when they believed it was cheap.

“This is why wine frauds are virtually never detected on taste alone, but because someone tips off the police who [then] look at the paperwork,” Brochet concludes.

Another way of looking at these results, as pointed out by Antonio Rangel who does wine research at the California Institute of Technology, is that “We can change how wine tastes without changing the wine….!”

Snake Bite Medicine, circa 2013
Apparently so, but hasn’t Madison Avenue recognized this all along – been aware that when it comes to intoxicating beverages, enjoyment is about more than just drinking them?

"Guys made millions and billions and they lose their heads [over] wine," says Kasey Carpenter who writes the investment column, the Wine Mogul (investing in wine and wine futures is big business now).

New York sommeliers wryly refer to big-spending oenophiles like Kasey Carpenter’s as whales, players, ballers, a deep ocean, or a live one.  A point grabber, point or label chaser, Parker guy, or vintage chart holder is a diner who selects wine based on scores from wine magazines, experts or charts. An iParker is someone who checks critics’ scores on his smart phone.

I must confess that I am not now, nor have I ever been, one of  the afore-mentioned types. Mostly I stick to my jug of Snake Bite Medicine ‘cause I know what’s in there, and I don’t have to bother with tasting flights (except after half the jug), harmonious fusion, expressiveness, complexity, connectedness, or terroir – features of wine that so engross les experts.

Besides, Snake Bite is “aged in the woods,” not some musty old cellar.

Just the same, pass the Franzia – maybe I'll still go for “expert” and start out with box wine.  Some stuff’s so basic no one could fake it. Even if it were bogus, I might be too busy drinking the evidence to care.