Monday, April 30, 2012

Lewsi's wine that tastes sweet but isn't

Winemakers often stake out positions on craft based on principles that are difficult for bystanders to understand. I have heard vintners say they will make only red wines, or they will never use oak to age wines. Ken Lewis of Lewsi Winery west of Branson says he refuses to sweeten his wines before or after completion of fermentation.

As an amateur winemaker, I have learned that the addition of 1 percent sugar will soften and balance the acid in the wine I make form St. Vincent grapes that grow in the back yard. So, I don't understand why Ken insists on refraining from all sweetening measures.

In any case, Ken says his goal is to rely on the resources of the grapes to achieve appealing results, and he has succeeded on his own terms. Last weekend, I had a chance to reacquaint myself with one of his wines that I now understand is a standout example of his approach.

Lewsi's Virgin Bluff Red, a blend of Chambourcin and catawba, may suggest a semisweet wine, but it's not at all sweet in terms of added sugar. Instead, the assertive fruit of the catawba, probably left on the skins an extra day or two, creates the sweet effect.

I usually don't go for sweet wines, but I like Virgin Bluff Red. And no wonder — it's not sweet.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Appreciating Mingus, then and now

The Mingus Big Band embraces the legacy of the great bass player and composer by playing his work with fully realized orchestration.

It's one of a very few instances where I enjoy the updated work as much as the original material. While Mingus worked with small and mid-sized groups and often facing various distractions, the Mingus Big Band projects a giant sound — suitable to convey the man's enormous appetites and vision — within the nurturing confines of an association dedicated to his work.

Mingus's wife, Sue Mingus, has dedicated her life to preserving and furthering his music. Her memoir, Tonight at Noon, portrays the stormy, loving marriage of two conflicting personalities.

I don't mean to minimize Mingus's original work. I heard the 1970s quintet with Danny Richmond, Don Pullen, Jack Walrath and George Adams. I also have heard the big band, which has been performing weekly in New York for two decades. For Jazz Appreciation Month, I want to express my appreciation for all things Mingus.

If I had an opportunity to have brain surgery, and the surgeon offered to poke my brain in one spot that would enable me to relive one of these performances, I would choose Mingus himself without hesitation. It would be worthwhile just to witness once again George Adams' eyeballs disappear into the recesses of his head during his saxophone frenzies (0:25 in the video below).

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Going overboard over Norton

After enjoying the uncompromising qualities of Lindwedel's Norton a few weeks ago, I tasted some 2008 Stone Hill Norton. The astonishingly deep inky color and viscosity blew me away. The flavors were balanced and smoothed into a velvety richness that you wouldn't expect from a California Cab from the same year. Really a worthy accomplishment.

However, I think Stone Hill missed the whole point of Norton. The Lindwedel Norton's massive spice is the birthright of the grape that a Virginia landowner named Norton developed the early 1800s, inspired by Thomas Jefferson's repeat failed attempts to propagate a native North American grape that could rival the wines of Europe. When the spice of Lindwedel's Norton hits your tongue, you are transported nearly two centuries into the past.

By the way, Lindwedel is not the only winery that achieves this transmutation. Native Stone and Baltimore Bend also achieve these results.

In any case, I really enjoyed the Stone Hill Norton, and I discovered that Norton can be paired with many different kinds of food due to the spice. A Cab will go with steak or lamb, but a Norton can also pair with chicken or tofu with spinach and red kidney beans seasoned with cardamom and hot peppers. 

By the way, the references to the 19th century come from my reading of The Wild Vine by Todd Kliman, an experiential history of the Norton grape.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Appreciating Corey Wilkes

Recently I've been acquiring albums by the trumpet player Corey Wilkes. His dedication to the legacy and sound of Miles Davis first attracted me to his music. Then I came to appreciate his willingness to try different substyles of jazz and be comfortable among them.

"Cries from Tha Ghetto" is a mix of "in" and "out," mostly acoustic tracks. "Drop It" creates backdrops of street ambience but Wilkes' playing remains nuanced, especially when he plays long tones softly. "Kinda Miles" revisits Davis' 70s and 80s electric periods with long jams recorded live at the Velvet Lounge in Chicago.

Wilkes' versatility may come from the environment of Chicago jazz, where players of all stripes often come together.

During Jazz Appreciation Month, I want to show my appreciation for Wilkes' simple, direct approach that often leads to exciting results.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Grape vines go crazy

More buds, more foliage this year.
After all the 100-degree days last summer, I expected our St. Vincent vines to show stress this year. Instead, nearly all plants are producing more buds than ever, and the foliage that shot out in the late-winter warmth is making the vines shaggier this year in mid-April than they were last year in mid-May.

Even one of the two sad vines on the east end of the row has come up with a couple of buds. If a good portion of the buds turn into grape clusters, I'd say we'll have a harvest of twice the quantity this year.

Last year, I followed the advice of a pal who recommended thinning the number of clusters to about 10 per vine to avoid stress that would reduce the yield in the next year. I thinned all but one plant. This year, that undisturbed vine has more buds than than the others that were thinned, so I'm doubting the value of the practice.

This year, I may go for maximum yield, come what may.

This year's foliage in mid-April is bushier than last year's in mid-May.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Appreciating Benny Maupin

Reed player Benny Maupin has made a lot of music since he played on Herbie Hancock''s "Thrust" album nearly 40 years ago, but I excavated that CD and cued up the song and realized how much I love his work on this tune.

His great solo on "Butterfly" is with the nasal-toned saxello, but you can also hear him overdubbed on bass clarinet in various spots. He takes the first solo, building gently, and turns from sweet to saucy on a single note at 3:10. This is one of my favorite moments of all my listening memory. 

Here's a live version of "Butterfly" from 1974, with actual video — but Maupin's solo is not as dynamic as on "Thrust" (above).

Maupin has another fine solo on the last tune of the album, "Spank-A-Lee," where he delivers a measure of skronchy freakout at the end.

Because this is Jazz Appreciation Month, I want to appreciate the full span of Maupin's work. It's interesting to hear how he sounds now (below) — classic, with a bit of a rowdy edge. Like many people who have survived the '70s, Maupin clearly has worked through the wretched excess of that decade. However, his contributions to "Thrust" are glorious, not wretched. Hancock's Headhunters group and Weather Report are the two fusion groups whose music stands up over time.