Saturday, January 31, 2015

Wine Tasting: The Blonde Bombshell California White Wine

Contained in a bottle that is distinguished on the outside by some fun and hip label art, the Blonde Bombshell California white wine within it is notable for full-bodied flavor that is fruity but not sweet and which has floral hints of melon and honey. On an intellectual level I was a little put off by not being able to find a year or grape type listed anywhere on the bottle but, admittedly, this did not affect my actual enjoyment of this wine at all. 

"Give in to her allure and enjoy her with Asian Curry or any other spicy infused offerings," serving guidance on the back label from vintner Total Beverage Solution of Rutherford, California, reads. "You may even be tempted to bask in her charming glow alone, chilled, but not too cold." 

We enjoyed Blonde Bombshell first with our dinner of broiled steelhead trout, horseradish mashed potatoes, and peas with mushrooms, and then again for desert with some dried pineapple (which, if you have never tried it with white wine before, I highly recommend). 

An Exercise in Resolve

New Year's Resolutions tend to get a bad rap these days and be dismissed as somewhat anachronistic and not having much value. Suffice it to say, however, that I think there is something to be said for using them as a device for getting on track with habits we know or have decided are a good idea. 
     In 2013 I compiled a list of more than a dozen resolutions and, relative to that number, enjoyed only moderate success with them overall. In 2014 I did not write down any at all, but did implement at least one positive behavior pattern. This year I mentally resolved to a short list of less than a half-dozen items, to include taking more steps toward becoming a semi-vegetarian, striving to quickly remove myself from toxic situations, imposing more organization and structure on my work routine, learning Greek, and exercising outside every day. While I have thus far not given up on any of these and achieved some success with a couple of them, it is the one related to physical activity with which I have been most diligent. 
     Hiking and adventure travel are things I have always enjoyed and want to continue for the foreseeable future. I was in OK shape at the beginning of the year but spend a lot of time sitting on my butt, including all the time that I am working, and sometimes several days or even a week or two will slip by without me getting out, exercising, and getting some fresh air and sunshine (or whatever the weather has to offer). So, resolving to start and stick with a hiking regimen, and not make excuses because of things like inclement weather that are factors when in the field, is especially important to me. 
     Following is what I have accomplished in the first month of 2015, to include distances covered and increasing amounts of weight carried. In about half the cases where I say "at least 0.6 miles roundtrip to mailbox" I actually went 1.2 miles instead but did not record a distance for that day and, being unsure which route I took, prefer to understate rather than overstate what I accomplished. 

January 1 (Thursday): Walked 1.2 miles (i.e., to end of the Mystic Shores Parkway cul-de-sac and back). 
January 2 (Friday): Walked 1.2 miles. 
January 3 (Saturday)Walked (at least 0.6 miles roundtrip to mailbox). 
January 4 (Sunday)Walked 2.5 miles w. 15.2-pound load (i.e., Macaw Lane cul-de-sac, Mystic Shores Parkway cul-de-sac, mailbox, and back, w. 1.6-pound walking stick, 6.4-pound shoulder pouch, 7.2-pound backpack). 
January 5 (Monday)Walked 2.5 miles w. 17.8-pound load (i.e., 9.8-pound backpack). 
January 6 (Tuesday)Walked 2.5 miles w. 18-pound load (i.e., 10-pound backpack). Wore Limner hiking boots and got a blister on instep of left foot. 
January 7 (Wednesday)Walked w. 18-pound load (at least 0.6 miles roundtrip to mailbox). 
January 8 (Thursday): Walked 1.2 miles w. 18-pound load; freezing and darkening by the time I got home and made it out. 
January 9 (Friday): Walked 2.5 miles w. 18-pound load; below freezing and windy. 
January 10 (Saturday)Walked w. 18-pound load (at least 0.6 miles roundtrip to mailbox).  
January 11 (Sunday)Walked 1.2 miles w. 18-pound load
January 12 (Monday)Walked w. 18-pound load (at least 0.6 miles roundtrip to mailbox).  
January 13 (Tuesday)Walked 2.5 miles w. 20.2-pound load (i.e., 12.2-pound backpack). 
January 14 (Wednesday)Walked 1.2 miles w. 18-pound load (i.e., to Macaw Lane cul-de-sac and mailbox)
January 15 (Thursday): NO WALK (due to exigent circumstances; i.e., two visits to a pet hospital and ones to two emergency rooms). 
January 16 (Friday): Walked 1.2 miles, 20.2 pounds. 
January 17 (Saturday): Walked 2.5 miles, 20.2 pounds. 
January 18 (Sunday): Walked c. 2.5 miles, 8 pounds (i.e., observed a "day of rest" and carried only my pouch and walking stick and left the backpack behind). 
January 19 (Monday): Walked 3.25 miles, 20.2 pounds (i.e., 0.75 miles south on Mystic Parkway and back, down to Mystic Shores Parkway cul-de-sac and back, and up to the mailbox and back). Got a cramp in my left calf (and both were tight and achy next day). 
January 20 (Tuesday): Walked 2.5 miles with 8 pounds; left backpack behind because of cramping in both calves, which loosened up toward end. Bright, sunny, breezy, and very warm for January (i.e., c. 80 degrees). 
January 21 (Wednesday): Walked 1.8 miles (first 2/3 w. 8 pounds and last 1/3 w/out stick and just 6.4 pounds). 
January 22 (Thursday): Walked 1.8 miles (first 2/3 w. 20.2 pounds and last 1/3 w/out stick and just 18.6 pounds). Cold and rainy and also wore Gore-Tex jacket. 
January 23 (Friday): Walked 2.5 miles with 20.2 pounds. Cold and windy to start but warmed up toward end. Not feeling weight in the pack and ready to increase incrementally. 
January 24 (Saturday): Walked 2.5 miles with 20.2 pounds. Cool but sunny. Getting no resistance from the pack and need to increase load. 
January 25 (Sunday): Increased both weight and distance and walked 3.1 miles with 25.5-pound load! Perfect conditions for walking and did regular route plus an extra walk down to the Macaw Lane cul-de-sac at the end. 
January 26 (Monday): Walked 2.5 miles with 23.5 pounds. Beautiful 70 degree day.  
January 27 (Tuesday): Walked 2.5 miles with 23.5 pounds. Beautiful, cloudless day but at 86 degrees unseasonably warm even for south Texas in January. 
January 28 (Wednesday): Walked 2.5 miles with about 9 pounds; feeling a little achy from yesterday and decided to leave the backpack behind, ironically in that Diane started carrying one today. Another beautiful day and we went out around 12:45 and before it got too hot. 
January 29 (Thursday): Walked 2.5 miles with c. 23 pounds. 
January 30 (Friday): Walked 2.5 miles with 22.7 pounds. Reweighed gear and found that, for whatever reasons, the weight was not exactly what I thought it had been, indicating that I probably need to verify this every few days. 
January 31 (Saturday): Cold and raining steadily and I have been achy but broke out the Gore-Tex and walked 0.6 miles up to the mailbox and back. Did not want to end the first month of the year without at least getting in a token walk! 

My goal is to eventually add longer walks as much as once a week and at least once a month, and to gradually increase my load to a regular training weight of 30 pounds and a periodic weight of as much as 50 or 60 pounds. There are certainly people who do a lot more than this, and it is a shadow of what I regularly did when I was an Army infantryman, but I am not competing with anyone but myself and if I can stick with this regimen it will help me to accomplish a number of planned expeditions — to include a 10-day hike up the Northumberland coast of England this summer and a c. 45-day hike along the Camino de Santiago in spring 2016. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Wine Tasting: Principe Strozzi 2010 Chianti

Found this Principe Strozzi 2010 Chianti to be somewhat more complex than other red wines of its ilk and suspect this was a product of it being a five-year-old moderately-aged vintage. It has a light body and is tartly dry with a slightly bitter finish that features hints of sour apple. I was surprised to discover that it has a relatively high alcohol content of 13.5%, as it is not at all hot on the tongue. 

"Our family has left its mark not only on the history of Tuscany, but also on that of Italy and Europe," writes Prince Girolamo Strozzi in what is an especially interesting history of his vineyard's pedigree. "The Strozzi were powerful bankers, statesmen, business leaders, and great rivals of the Medici family. The great politician and philosopher Nicolo Machiavelli began his career as private secretary to our family, but our most famous ancestor is Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, also known as 'Mona Lisa.' Our estate boasts over 1,000 years of history (it was established in 994) and has been owned by my family since the 15th century. It is now managed by my wife, our two daughters, and me." 

We enjoyed this wine with homemade pasta topped with tomato and sausage sauce and, suffice it to say, they paired perfectly, as one might well expect for a good chianti and an Italian dish. It would also pair nicely with any sort of appropriate cheese, particularly a parmesan or gorgonzola. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Wine Tasting: MSH Cellars 2013 Sauvignon Blanc

MSH Cellars 2013 Sauvignon Blanc is a pleasant, light-bodied white wine with a straw coloration and slightly tangy flavor that features hints of pear. 

Initially, this wine presented to me as a decent accompaniment for appropriate food items but to not have enough character to stand on it own, and I adequately enjoyed my first glass of it with my dinner. While I do not generally recommend allowing white wines to breath, however, I ended up leaving this one uncorked after opening it and was quite pleased with how much flavor had emerged by the time I had a second glass. (We probably also did not properly chill this wine to start with and our subsequent glasses of it were notably cooler, and perhaps this helped to achieve its optimum taste). 

"Napa farmers have joined together to provide wine lovers a great value from Napa Valley," the label states, indicating this wine is the product of a regional collaboration and implying that it might be a blend. "Grapes are reserved from the same vineyards that supply many of Napa Valley's most respected wineries." 

MSH Cellars does not provide any pairing guidance or much background about its wines on their bottles and, if they have a website, it is remarkably difficult to find. I can say, however, that its 2013 Sauvignon Blanc was an ideal accompaniment to the broiled salmon, garlicky rice with pine nuts, and broccoli that we enjoyed it with. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Wine Tasting: Raymond Vineyards 'R Collection' Cabernet Sauvignon

Was pleased to discover and enjoyed getting to know this 2013 "Inaugural" Cabernet Sauvignon from Lot No. 3 of Raymond Vineyards' R Collection. This medium-body wine has a rich, deep, almost opaquely dark coloration and a fruit-filled palate highlighted by flavors of cherries and plums with a spicy hint of pepper (when I read the the winery's description after sampling the wine myself I noted that they specify "white pepper" and also mention the taste of rhubarb, which I am indifferent to and presumably chose not to notice). 

According to Raymond Vineyards, its R Collection is a "California appellation offering from an iconic Napa Valley producer that reflects the winery’s deep roots and pioneering spirit in California winemaking" and "offers a diverse selection of wines that showcase California’s vineyard bounty." 

My wife and I initially enjoyed this wine with pork chops and cheesy mashed potatoes and it paired nicely with both, especially the meat. I finished the bottle the following night with our dinner of spinach-and-cheese ravioli and noted that the flavors had mellowed and somewhat consolidated. I would recommend this wine in general, either on its own or as an accompaniment with food, and believe it would pair nicely either red meats or ones of any sort topped with somewhat sweet or fruity sauces. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Wine Tasting: Diseño Torrontes 2011

Enjoyed a glass of 2011 Torrontes white wine from the Diseño winery in Salta, Argentina, with my dinner tonight. This is a tangy, slightly oaky, light-medium body wine with a pale straw coloration, interesting minerality, and notable but not overbearing fruity bouquet. 
According to Diseño, this wine "comes from established vineyards [that] thrive at high elevation, growing in fertile soil rich with old mineral deposits" and which are "irrigated by winter snow melt from the Andes." 
Diseño recommends pairing this vintage with chicken, fish, salads, sushi, and light appetizers. I had it with spaghetti topped with clams, olive oil, garlic, and red pepper and found that they went together nicely, but think this wine would have been an even better fit with a grilled fish (e.g., something like a Chilean sea bass or mahi-mahi with a fruit relish would probably be ideal). Will have to experiment a little more with it when the opportunity presents! 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Re-Reading Dante's 'Divine Comedy' (Inferno)

As noted in my earlier post on Reading and Re-Reading Great Works, one of the books I am committed to periodically re-reading throughout my life, both to improve my understanding of it, the world, and my place in it, is Italian poet Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. I am only doing so at this time because my friend Brendan Cass has decided to read it for the first time and we agreed that it would be fun and productive for us to study and discuss it together, and I will be posting my comments on it here. 
I think that many people's inclination is to read only Inferno, the first third of the Divine Comedy, for any number of reasons. It is, admittedly, the only one that I have ever read multiple times, although I am fortunate to have devoted a semester to the study of the entire book while at the American University of Paris in 1989-90, and I plan on re-reading it in its entirely now. Much of our understanding of Heaven and Hell, not to mention Purgatory, comes not from the Bible, as many would erroneously assume, but from acanonical books like this one. The Divine Comedy can thus help provide us with a much better sense of where our understanding of these concepts originates. 

There are many translations available and the one a former AUP professor of mine, Dr. Petermichael Von Bawey, recommended was the translation completed by Dorothy L. Sayers between 1949 and 1962. We had to balance that guidance with a number of other factors, an important one for us being something that was available online so that we could more easily discuss and compare notes on it. With those considerations in mind, we decided to go with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1867 translation, which is available through the Project Gutenberg website. Regardless of which version someone opts to read, this is a very complex text with innumerable historical, religious, and cultural references, and it will be almost impossible for most people to get the as much out of it as possible without availing themselves of companion materials (e.g., Wikipedia's "List of Cultural Reference in Divine Comedy"). 

Difficult as it is in some cases, I have also selected one stanza from each canto as a representative favorite, and explained my choice thereafter. 

Canto I
"Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost."
(These are the opening lines of the book and set the tone for a spiritual crisis that might resonate with almost anyone.)

Canto II
"I entered on the deep and savage way."
(This brief line of the canto is also its last and, I think, most evocative.)

This is perhaps the least interesting of all the cantos in Inferno, as it is simply an explanation for why Virgil will be accompanying Dante on his journey -- crucial, perhaps, but a bit contrived and certainly dry in light of what is to follow. 

"Inferno Canto 1, Departure for the Great Journey" 
and "Inferno Canto 2, Virgil Comforts Dante"

Canto III
"There sighs, complaints, and ululations loud
Resounded through the air without a star,
Whence I, at the beginning, wept thereat."
(I think the passage containing the line "All hope abandon, ye who enter in!" would be the more conventional favorite for this canto, but this appeals to me because of the subtle way it points out that this starless place is an utterly alien environment.)

Canto IV
"And more of honour still, much more, they did me,
In that they made me one of their own band;
So that the sixth was I, 'mid so much wit." 
(Here Dante is pleased to be accepted as the companion of Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, much as any of us would love to be recognized by the exemplars of whatever it is we do.

In this canto, in which Dante descends into the First Circle of Hell, I could almost sense the poet struggling with the statutory nature of Christianity and the idea that the unbaptized must be condemned to a state of Limbo (not to be confused with Purgatory, as these terms are sometimes used interchangeably.)

"Inferno Canto 3, Charon and the Crossing of the Acheron" 
and "Inferno Canto 4, the Limbos"

Canto V
"Paris I saw, Tristan; and more than a thousand
Shades did he name and point out with his finger,
Whom Love had separated from our life." 
(I enjoyed this line because it suggests that Dante and Virgil were not in any particular hurry and that their journey through Hell took longer that one might have expected. It also points to Virgil's vast knowledge of the historical figures damned for their carnality.)

This canto covers the Second Circle of Hell and makes mention of numerous historical lovers. But is Achilles there because of his affections for Briseis or Patroclus? Considering the contemporary attitude toward "sodomites" and the special place for them somewhat deeper down, one must assume the former ...

Canto VI
"In the third circle am I of the rain
Eternal, maledict, and cold, and heavy;
Its law and quality are never new." 
(This line appealed to me as poignantly summing up the fixed nature, monotony, and gloom of the netherworld.
This Canto describes Dante and Virgil's descent into the Third Circle of Hell, where the gluttonous are torn to pieces by the monstrous Cerberus. While Cerberus is portrayed in Classical myth as a terrible three-headed hound, I was struck to note that Dante gives the beast anthropomorphic qualities here, referring to a black, unctuous beard and clawed hands! One can almost envision a looming, demonic, three-headed werewolf ... It was also interesting to note that Virgil pacifies the beast by throwing handfuls of damp earth into its mouths, which seemed to me as it it were a magical incantation of some sort, as feeding a hungry carnivore mud is not likely to satisfy it or, for that matter, even dissuade it from attacking. 
"Inferno Canto 5, Minos" 
and "Inferno Canto 6, Cerberus"

Canto VII
"'Pape Satan, Pape Satan, Aleppe!'
Thus Plutus with his clucking voice began;
And that benignant Sage, who all things knew ... "

(These opening words to Canto VII seem especially menacing and suffused with evil, invoking as they do the name of Satan, and are all the more ominous in that their precise meaning is unclear.)

In this canto Dante and Virgil pass the infernal being Plutus in their continued descent into the netherworld and, once again, the ancient Roman sage appears to employ divine magic in response to a threat of being impeded, rebuking the dark personage with words that knock it to the ground. They then go on to watch the miserly and the profligate duel each other with great weights, presumably reminiscent of ones that would have been used to measure commodities of various sorts. Virgil gives here a speech about the role of Fortune in the rise and fall of nations (words that ring as true now as when Dante penned them seven centuries ago). 

Canto VIII

"My Guide descended down into the boat,
And then he made me enter after him,
And only when I entered seemed it laden.

Soon as the Guide and I were in the boat,
The antique prow goes on its way, dividing
More of the water than 'tis wont with others."

(I have included two consecutive stanzas here, as they both appear to reflect a rudimentary interests in physics on the part of the author and speak to the physical characteristics of Hell.)

In this canto the two companions pass over the body-filled swamp of the Styx, ferried in a small vessel by infernal boatman Phlegyas. One interesting thing this chapter of the book confirms is that Dante really is in physical peril while in Hell and that Virgil is not just his guide but also his bodyguard. 

"Inferno Canto 7, the Avaricious and the Prodigal" 
and "Inferno Canto 8, the Angry Ones"

Canto IX
Was conjured by that pitiless Erictho, 
"True is it, once before I here below
Who summoned back the shades unto their bodies."

(This revelation by Virgil points to a number of interesting things, including the possibilities of human interaction with spirits and how they might be summoned and constrained to perform various tasks, as well as the way that knowledge of the infernal and celestial planes might be obtained and used by the living.)

This canto picks up at the gates of Dis, entrance to which the companions have been denied and where they are menaced by the three snake-and-cerastes-haired Furies/Erinnys, Megaera, Alecto, and Tisiphone. Virgil summons divine aid at this point and the celestial being that answers his call displays all the alacrity, professionalism, and detachment of a fighter pilot being called in for an airstrike, forcing open the gates and then departing immediately without any extraneous interaction. 

Canto X
"Whence I to him: 'The slaughter and great carnage
Which have with crimson stained the Arbia, cause
Such orisons in our temple to be made.'" 
(This appealed to me as an especially poetic reference to the Battle of Montaperti and the subsequent Guelph vindictiveness toward the Ghibelline party.)

In this canto Dante speaks with the shade of Farinata degli Uberti, a leader of the Ghibelline party, which was opposed to his own Guelph party and brutal in its interactions with it. Here we learn that the damned can obtain glimpses of the future, even though they do not know what is happening at the present time on Earth (although it took reference to a number of secondary sources for me to sort out this revelation and understand it). Farinata also says "But fifty times shall not rekindled be the countenance of the Lady who reigns here, ere thou shalt know how heavy is that art," but I am somewhat confused as to who he is referring to and by "here" whether he means the Inferno or Florence. One fun detail beyond all this is the purpose of the tombs in which the heretics are confined; as these were Epicureans who denied the existence of an afterlife, even in the otherworld they are presented as being especially dead. 

"Inferno Canto 9, the Furies (aka Erinyes)" 
and "Inferno Canto 10, the Heretics"

Canto XI
In this canto the companions rest before descending further into the depths of Hell and Virgil takes the opportunity to describe to Dante the geography and inhabitants of the next three levels they will enter, the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Circles. 


"Inferno Canto 11, On the Edge of the Seventh Circle" 
and "Inferno Canto 12, the Minotaur"

A Note On Art
I have decided to illustrate this piece with the series of watercolors that Salvadore Dali began as a commission from the government of Italy in the early 1950s and completed around 1960, and I have identified each of the pieces accordingly. While a series of etchings by Gustave Dore for the Divine Comedy is much more conventional and accessible, I think surrealism lends itself well to the subject of other places of existence. I also own lithographs of six of the Dali images, two from each section of the book, and am thus somewhat partial to them.