Bourbon

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Bourbon. So it’s made out of corn. Barley can be included for its enzymatic activity, rye for spice and dimension. Most of this American whiskey is produced in Kentucky by only a handful of distillers. Why are there so many different brands? If Jim Beam offers a finer selection, for more money, doesn’t its absence just degrade the standard blend?

If Bourbon branding is like wine, the proliferation of labels is meant to segment the market and feed dollars into handlers’ pockets. But now, after decades of appreciation and an intensive three-week re-examination – both of the taste and the literature – it’s clear that this brand structure works in the consumer’s favor.

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California Wine

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One of my favorite restaurants has decided to sell wine only from California. I love lists that are focused! Pick a thing and do it well. Unfortunately, the California wines I like are like needles in a haystack, at least in our local market. None of them have made an appearance there, so I drink bourbon. Once, while I was drinking a bourbon, I wondered how I would write a short list of wines only from California.

To answer that requires a brief diagnosis of the problem. If you don’t like negativity mixed up with your wine appreciation, stop reading now!!

Problem #1 – industry consolidation. A critical number of the ingenious independent wineries have been absorbed by conglomerates. And unfortunately, conglomerates compete on values more tangible than quaint ideas such as natural quality. What is that anyway? No, the idea is to consolidate distribution channels and get big with labels upon labels of stuff made according to a standard formula. What’s wrong with the standard formula? It’s boring. It’s not compelling. And no it does not require any “experience” to realize this. See the histories of Calera, Cline, Ravenswood, Renwood, Sanford, etc. etc.

Problem #2 – value. Success in the market has supported prices – all the way to the grape ranch – that can seem unreasonable when compared to other wines. This is kind of a catch-22, because if I want my wine list to be intuitive and familiar to the greatest number of people, sure, I will have to expect that a significant part of the price paid can be counted toward the marketing forces that make it intuitive and familiar. (It beats trying to educate my customer!) Still, if there is money for ads, sales incentives and other manipulative practices, you can bet it is strictly at the expense of quality and value.

Problem #3 – spoof. With so much at stake, and with such favorable label rules, there is a strong incentive to reduce wine to its constituent chemical parts and reconfect it as a flawless, porn-inspired, sense-titillating and safe monster. I am not a prude. I get how that stuff can be cool, the first time, for one drink, especially for neophobes looking to appear sophisticated while getting a drink past an averse palate. But to everyone else – any regular drinker of wine, appreciator of coffee, or music or art enthusiast – it’s fake and unsatisfying, and it offers about as much pleasure as a new flavor of detergent or gummy bear. There are cheaper and sweeter ways to get drunk.

Problem #4 – the local trade. Michigan is a smaller market than some. The trade here is organized to not be particularly responsive to the consumer. Cool wines from the west coast sometimes appear and then they suffer from inept or powerless distribution. Sometimes they don’t appear at all. Why doesn’t this happen with European wine? It does! But Europe just has so much more wine that they can’t drink locally. And, and … geez, that’s another post for another day. See Ojai, Edmunds St. John (and in Oregon, Evesham Wood.)

What is for sale from California for $15 or $25 in a restaurant? Blends of simple, standard, sweet wines gussied up with corks and artificially contextualized. They should go into jugs and sell for half the price, as they once did. That would be awesome. What’s for sale for a bit more? Often it’s essentially the same juice, aroma-branded and otherwise cosmetically treated to taste important. The cheaper stuff actually tastes better, and the trade would have you falsely excuse your lowbrow taste. No. Your taste is fine.

Good news – there are exceptions!

Some really interesting wine is being made in California. Sometimes it is an independent winery, still guided by the founder, that somehow managed to resist the trend toward industry consolidation – Au Bon Climat, Ridge, Bonny Doon.

Sometimes it is a garage band, inspired by the European paleo-avant gardistes making orange wine and wild yeast fermented wine – Lioco, Scholium Project. These are not for sale in Michigan!

Sometimes it is a boutique, unconsolidated, with just enough wine to sell – Joseph Swan, Mayacamas, Dunn. These are not in a useful price range.

Click the link to see my top 5 California wine brands for sale in Michigan, quality x price = value:

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Tenuta di Gracciano della Setta

Its hard to quench a Sangiovese thirst for less than $20. I mean, they put wines made from that grape in a bottle for less, but they don’t satisfy. They taste like anywine.

This example is pure, bright rose colored, pretty, with proportional fine tannins, sweet tannins even. Obviously there are no sugars in the tannins. Rather, they trigger a Sensation of sweetness, which must be relative. Semiotic sweetness.

Arguments to Follow

Artificial selection – like dog breeding, or grape farming – is a subset of natural selection. Artificial selection is natural selection with a layer of rationalism. Rationalism is necessary to orient and fix the behavior of the humans.

So economy is a subset of ecology. I think it’s interesting that the word “economy” is older than the word “ecology.” Economy was discovered by the ancient Greeks. Ecology was discovered in the 19th century, along with … natural selection – and bottled beer. But geologically ecology existed long before economy did. Knowledge expands outward and inclusively as it accrues.

Symbiants can be arbitrarily divided into three classes based on their effect on the fitness of their host or co-species: Parasite. Comensal. Mutualist. Daniel Dennet expands this model to explore cultural symbiosis. Which memes are harmful, neutral or beneficial to the host? Religion. Agriculture. Baseball. Presidential elections. Twerking. The internet is consumed with situating these in a hierarchy of value – in order to favor one over another. Because of competition.

Wine culture sits at a tangled intersection of selection processes, natural and artificial.

Gallery curators, DJs, subscribers to dating websites, bloggers – how do their selection processes work? How direct or symbolic, how mutual or parasitic? What is the ecological impact?

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