Sunday, January 27, 2008

Today's Shoes

Gravati unlined three-eyelet plain-toe blucher boots in snuff suede with a light-weight microcellular rubber soles (16899, 697 last). One of the major differences between these desert boots and the traditional desert boots with a crepe rubber soles is that these are much lighter. The microcellular rubber soles on these boots are made by Vibram; and they are exceptionally lightweight, largely because they are mostly air. Crepe rubber soles, on the other hand, are dense and heavy. The large quantity of air in the microcellular soles doesn't make them significantly less durable, either -- they're not exactly long-wearing; but crepe rubber is not known for its long life, either.

Last Night's Tipple

Another dram of Tomintoul 16 year old Scotch. When I originally sampled this at Spec's before buying it, I didn't notice any peat at all, just sweet Sherried goodness, and my first full dram a few days ago was much the same. This time, however, I got a big shot of smoke on the nose when I first smelled it, and this smoke persisted for quite some time. It faded out about halfway through the glass. One of the reasons that I find spirits (or, at least, good spirits) endlessly interesting is that every sip can bring a different experience. The spirit evolves in the glass, and it evolves between drams. Undoubtedly, to a large extent, this is not the spirit evolving and changing but rather the taster doing so; but even if my tastes are evolving instead of the spirit, it's still stimulating to experience it happening.

It's not very common to see a bottling of 16 year old Scotch. There are many 15 year old Scotches, and many more 18 year old Scotches; but I can't think of more than a couple 16 year olds. The question with Tomintoul 16 is why the distiller decided to bottle it. Did he decide that 16 years was the perfect age to exhibit a particular set of characteristics that he wanted to exhibit? Well, maybe, but I figure that it was more of a marketing decision. Tomintoul is relatively unknown, so a 15 year old Tomintoul would lose out when competing with a 15 year old from a more well-known distillery. A 16 year old, however, would have an advantage among age-conscious consumers; and the evaporation loss between 15 and 16 years wouldn't be very much. A 16 year old Tomintoul is more likely to be economically viable than a 15 year old, in other words.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

World Nutella Day

Blogger bleeding espresso comments on my second Nutella cookie post from late December:
Fellow Nutella lover here wondering if you would be interested in celebrating World Nutella Day on February 5th?

Why, yes, yes I would. Here's bleeding espresso's post about it. She writes:

Nutella is more than just a “chocolaty hazelnut spread,” it is a way of life. From childhood memories to oozing hot crepes, from breakfasts on vacation to free-spooning sessions on the couch, Nutella is prominent in the memories of many children and grown-up children in the world.

My first exposure to Nutella is much more recent than hers -- I was fully grown before I had ever heard of the stuff -- but my attachment is none diminished for all that. And so I will do my part to make World Nutella Day a success. See that you do the same.

Today's Shoes

Alden wingtip bal in dark brown suede with single leather soles (model 904, Hampton last). Alden has two different kinds of suede: one with a long nap, and one with a short nap. The long nap version is more attractive, and it feels better, too. These shoes are made from the one with a short nap. Tom Park at LeatherSoul in Hawaii has a version on Plaza last made from the long nap version, and these are a constant source of temptation for me.

Last Night's Tipple

The label of my bottle of Bowmore Darkest single malt Islay Scotch (one of the old bottles containing 14-year old whisky, instead of the current -- and more expensive -- 15 year old version) has a little medallion in the center that says "From the No. 1 Vaults of Black Bowmore." The No. 1 Vaults are Bowmore's premier aging cellars, and Black Bowmore is a legendary special bottling released in 1964. It had been distilled in the 1920s and aged for 20 years in a first-fill Oloroso Sherry hogshead. That hogshead then began to leak, and the whisky in it was racked into Bourbon barrels to age for another 20 years. The 40 years of aging (20 of which in a hogshead which had contained the darkest of all the Sherry varieties) produced a Scotch that was opaque and dark as night. Supposedly, bottles of Black Bowmore come up for auction every now and then; and they typically go for astronomical sums.

This Darkest doesn't have quite the degree of color that Black Bowmore did, but it is plenty dark. It was aged for 12 years in ex-Bourbon barrels and then finished for an additional two years in ex-Sherry casks. I don't know what kind of Sherry those casks were, but I would bet that it wasn't fino -- the casks impart a great deal of color, sweetness, and flavor to the whisky; and a delicate Sherry like fino could not have had that kind of an impact. Bowmore's stills are relatively squat, and their charges are relatively heavy, both of which tend to reduce the copper contact during distillation. This makes the spirit heavy and pungent, and it takes a heavy and pungent Sherry like Oloroso to compete with it. And it does compete. The idea of a Sherry-finished Islay struck me as more than a bit odd when I first heard of it, but I think that it works with this whisky. The sweetness of the Sherry softens the smokiness and brininess of the Scotch, and it gives the whisky another dimension. The problem I have with most peaty Islay whiskies that I've had is that my enjoyment of them is mostly intellectual. Bowmore Darkest offers a good deal of sensual enjoyment, too.

Friday, January 25, 2008


The Wall Street Journal reports that one of France's largest financial institutions has suffered staggering trading losses.
In one of the banking world's most unsettling recent disclosures, France's Société Générale SA said Mr. [Jérôme] Kerviel had cost the bank €4.9 billion, equal to $7.2 billion, by making huge unauthorized trades that he hid for months by hacking into computers. The combined trading positions he built up over recent months, say people close to the situation, totaled some €50 billion, or $73 billion. ("French Bank Rocked by Rogue Trader" by David Gauthier-Villars, Carrick Mollenkamp, and Alistair MacDonald, January 25, 2008, p. A1)

Apparently, Kerviel essentially bet huge sums of Société Générale's money that major European stock indexes would rise. These bets were hugely in the money during 2007, but the market began to turn at the beginning of this year and Kerviel's positions turned negative. He apparently evaded the bank's risk controls by creating fictitious trades that appeared to offset the actual trades that he made. In addition,

According to Mr. Bouton, the Société Générale chairman, Mr. Kerviel began conducting fraudulent trades sometime in 2007. People familiar with Mr. Kerviel's behavior believe he worked late into the night, essentially burrowing into Société Générale's computers, as he allegedly built a multilayered way to hide his trades by hacking into the computer systems.

Société Générale's computer systems are considered some of the most complex in banking for handling equity derivatives, that is, investment contracts whose value moves with the value of other assets. Officials of the bank believe Mr. Kerviel spent many hours of hacking to eliminate controls that would have blocked his super-sized bets. Changes he is said to have made enabled him to eliminate credit and trade-size controls, so the bank's risk managers couldn't see his giant trades on the direction of indexes.

Mr. Citerne said the bank didn't notice the unauthorized trading until last week because the trader had "intimate and malicious" knowledge of its procedures and knew at what dates checks were conducted. "Each time he took a position one way, he would enter a fictitious trade in the opposite direction to mask the real one," Mr. Citerne said. According to one person familiar with the situation, Mr. Kerviel used the computer log-in and passwords of colleagues both in the trading unit and the technology section.

It's difficult to tell from this description exactly what Kerviel did, but it sounds to me that from his work in Société Générale's back office before his transfer to the trading desk, he formed an intimate understanding of their risk control computer applications and developed strategies for evading. Specifically, it appears that he used passwords of his colleagues to log into the risk control system and either approve his own trades or alter the configuration of the system so that his trades weren't flagged as risky. The keystone of this evasion strategy was him getting his colleagues' passwords. It's possible, of course, that he installed a password cracker or used keystroke loggers to intercept the passwords. I doubt it, though. If Société Générale is like every other corporation in the world, Kerviel would have had little trouble getting the passwords from Post-It notes on the sides of his coworkers' monitors or even from just asking them for them. If that's what he did, it can hardly be called hacking. Unauthorized access, certainly; but hacking implies a level of technical sophistication that copying passwords off Post-It notes doesn't require.

Today's Shoes

JM Weston split-toe bluchers in dark tan calfskin with a fudge welt and double leather soles (Ref. 598 demi-chasse). My shoes aren't blue suede like the 598s in the picture above, but I wish they were. Those blue suede shoes are sweet.

Last Night's Tipple

Liquor Claus gave me two bottles of whisk(e)y for Christmas: a Glenfarclas 12 year old, which I wrote about back in December; and a bottle of Eagle Rare Single Barrel 10 year old Bourbon. I hadn't felt like drinking Bourbon until last night, so I hadn't opened the Eagle Rare. Last night I did, though.

Eagle Rare began life in the 1970s as a Wild Turkey knockoff. It was bottled at 101 proof, just like WT; and I suppose that the eagle was supposed to evoke memories about the debate over what the American national bird was to be. Ben Franklin thought it should have been the turkey; but the other founding fathers, in their infinite wisdom, realized that the eagle was a nobler and much more appropriate alternative. Similarly (I conjecture), Bourbon consumers would conclude that Eagle Rare was a nobler alternative to Wild Turkey. Originally a brand owned by Seagram's and distilled at what is now the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg (the Wild Turkey Distillery is located in the same town). Sazerac acquired the brand in 1989, and it's currently distilled at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort.

A few years ago, Sazerac decided to take Eagle Rare up-market. They lowered the proof from 101 to 90, put it in a fancy heavy-bottomed bottle, and made it a single barrel bottling. Oh, yeah -- they raised the price, too. All of these changes were calculated to appeal to the yuppie boutique Bourbon drinker, and they have. Sazerac believes that Eagle Rare will be one of the engines of growth for their Bourbon business in the years to come. Buffalo Trace has three Bourbon mashbills: a wheated one used for WL Weller; a high-rye one used for Ancient Age, Elmer T. Lee, Blanton's, and others; and a low-rye one used for Buffalo Trace, Old Charter, and Eagle Rare. I didn't know that Eagle Rare came from the low-rye mashbill until I looked it up just now, but it's hardly a surprise. The Bourbon was corny. There was very little bite. Instead, it was sweet and smooth. Despite the age, I didn't get a whole lot of overt wood flavor, although it did have a decent amount of vanilla that must have come from the toasting on the barrel staves. My reaction to it is a lot like my reaction to Old Charter: a nice, tasty Bourbon, but not one (like Bulleit or 1792 Ridgemont Reserve) that I could get really enthusiastic about.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Airport Security

Bruce Schneier calls attention to a post by Clark Kent Ervin on the New York Times's Jetlagged blog. Ervin doesn't think that security at airports is rigorous enough. Specifically, he says, there's a problem because terrorists can get into airport terminals, even if they can't get to the gates.
Like many people, I spend a lot of time in airport terminals, and I often think that they must be an awfully appealing target to terrorists. The largest airports have huge terminals teeming with thousands of passengers on any given day. They serve as conspicuous symbols of American consumerism, with McDonald’s restaurants, Starbucks coffee shops and Disney toy stores. While airport screeners do only a so-so job of checking for guns, knives and bombs at checkpoints, there’s no checking for weapons before checkpoints. So if the intention isn’t to carry out an attack once on board a plane, but instead to carry out an attack on the airport itself by killing people inside it, there’s nothing to stop a terrorist from doing so...

To prevent [attacks similar to the 2002 attack at the El Al ticket counter at LAX and the 2007 attempted car bombing at the Glasgow airport] — and larger ones that could be catastrophic — what if we moved the screening checkpoints from the interior of airports to the entrance? The sooner we screen passengers’ and visitors’ persons and baggage (both checked and carry-on) for guns, knives and explosives, the sooner we can detect those weapons and prevent them from being used to sow destruction.

The problem with this reasoning is that airport terminals aren't especially attractive targets for terrorists, incidents of terminal attacks notwithstanding. Airplanes are attractive targets, for a number of reasons. Airport terminals just form another class of places where large numbers of people congregate. They're no more attractive than shopping malls or sports stadiums or movie theaters. Why would you have onerous security for airport terminals but not the other places? Would the security actually deter or prevent any attacks, or would it simply make some people like Ervin feel better? As Schneier writes,

This is a silly argument, one that any regular reader of this newsletter should be able to counter. If you're worried about explosions on the ground, any place you put security checkpoints is arbitrary. The point of airport security is to prevent terrorism *on the airplanes*, because airplane terrorism is a more serious problem than conventional bombs blowing up in crowded buildings. (Four reasons. First, airlines are often national symbols. Second, airplanes often fly to dangerous countries. Third, for whatever reason, airplanes are a preferred terrorist target. And fourth, the particular failure mode of airplanes means that even a small bomb can kill everyone on board. That same bomb in an airport means that a few people die and many more get injured.) And most airport security measures aren't effective.

Today's Shoes


Gravati cap-toe bals in medium brown grained calfskin (Lama, color Larice) with single leather soles (16592, 500 last).


Gravati wingtip bals in walnut brown waterproof suede with thick combination leather/rubber soles (15902, 640 last).

Last Night's Tipple

Last night, I finished off the rest of the bottle of Louis Bouillot Perle de Nuit Blanc de Noirs Crémant de Bourgogne. Similar with other experiences I've had with sparkling wine, it was better the second night than it was the first night. I think, although I'm not sure, that this is because it's lost some of its carbonation after being open for twenty four hours, making the wine less acidic and sour and allowing its fruit to show through more readily. This makes me think that I should move on to Italian Prosecco next. Produced from eponymous Prosecco grapes in the Veneto region of northern Italy, it is typically less carbonated than Champagne and Champagne-style sparkling wines.

The Louis Bouillot was around $18 a bottle. Was it worth it? Well, that's a hard question to answer. It wasn't as enjoyable as either the Gruet Blanc de Noirs or the Gruet Rosé, and each of those was $5 cheaper a bottle. But compared to the California and Champagne sparklers, each of which has cost more, it more than holds its own. Plus it includes Gamay, which makes for a unique experience. I don't regret the purchase price, but I doubt that I'll be a regular purchaser.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

There's Not Enough Legroom, But At Least You Can Surf

The Wall Street Journal reports that AMR, the parent company of American Airlines, plans on beginning a pilot program that will make wi-fi available in the cabins of some of their planes:
By this summer, the world's biggest airline, measured by passenger traffic, expects to provide Internet service on its Boeing 767-200 aircraft, used for longer flights, and gradually to add service across all of its fleet.

The service works on passengers' own wireless devices, like laptops and Apple iPhones. Travelers can access the Internet, including a company's intranet site, and send email. For flights of more than three hours, wireless service will cost $12.95, with a charge of $10 planned for shorter flights. American will generate some revenue from the service, Mr. Backelin said, but "our main goal is to improve our customers' experience." ("AMR to Test Wi-Fi Service For 767 Planes" by Ann Keeton, January 23, 2008, p. D3)

The FAA has to approve this, and I certainly hope that they do and that the other airlines feel compelled to offer something similar to compete with American. Reading books and watching DVDs on long flights are both well and good, but sometimes you just want to surf. Or blog.

Today's Shoes


Grenson Masterpieces three-eyelet blucher ankle austerity brogue boots in antiqued chestnut calfskin with single leather soles.


Santoni three-eyelet plain-toe blucher ankle boots in dark brown suede reverse welted with a thick rubber lug sole. These shoes were originally purchased to be Manhattan walking shoes. I've bought a lot of these. Walking in Manhattan can be brutal, both because there's so much of it and because the concrete sidewalks provide no cushioning at all. Shoes that don't fit well will cause blisters; and even if they do fit well, they can leave your feet feeling like they've been pounded with hammers. These ankle boots have a thick, cushy, latex rubber sole, and I thought that they would do well in Manhattan. They did okay, I suppose, but the fit in the heel wasn't as good as it needed to be to avoid discomfort after a long day of walking.

Last Night's Tipple

Champagne is the king of French sparking wines, but there are many other regions in France that produce sparkling wine. Sparkling wine from an appellation d’origine contrôlée is generally called crémant. The ones that I have seen most frequently in the United States (not that I have been paying that much attention) are from Limoux (in the Languedoc), Alsace, and Bourgogne. Crémant de Bourgogne, it seemed to me when I was browsing the sparkling wine section at Central Market, should be the most like Champagne of all the French crémants since Bourgogne uses mostly the same grapes as Champagne does (namely, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) and since it's relatively far north in France and would consequently be able to produce grapes high in acidity, as it should be with sparkling wine. Central Market had both a Blanc de Noirs and a Blanc de Blancs from Louis Bouillot, a Crémant de Bourgogne producer about which I knew nothing; but the price was decent and I thought what the heck. Given the fact that I typically like Blanc de Noirs better than Blanc de Blancs, I bought the Blanc de Noirs.

I don't know much more about Louis Bouillot than I did when I bought the bottle a couple of days ago. Their importer's website says that they began producing sparkling wine since 1877. The bottle says that they're based in Nuits-St-Georges in the heart of Burgundy, although that's not necessarily where the grapes they use for the wine are grown. Louis Bouillot Perle de Nuit Blanc de Noirs Crémant de Bourgogne is made from Pinot Noir from around Yonne and Gamay(!) from the Mâconnais. Well, this is a little bit different. Gamay isn't used in Champagne, and it's the grape of Beaujolais. I like (good) Beaujolais because it's fresh, fruity, and exuberant, so this is very promising. The wine is a deep straw color with just a tinge of salmon. The nose is, as one would expect, fresh, fruity, and exuberant. It is more immediately pleasing than any sparkling wine that I have tried on this latest binge. In the mouth, it's round and berry-like with plenty of body. I like this very much.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Big Old Expensive Phone Company

Time Warner, the company then responsible for management of the Time Warner-Comcast joint venture that was and is the dominant player in the Texas cable market, tried and failed to manipulate Texas law to stop AT&T (then SBC) from rolling out a television package back in 2005. Now AT&T's U-verse is a reality, and Comcast (which now manages the Time Warner-Comcast joint venture) has to convince the consumer not to give it a try.

Don't get me wrong: I think the commercial is funny, but am I the only one wondering why Comcast is calling the viewer's attention to AT&T's inexperience with television when Comcast's corporate health depends to a large extent on its ability to persuade consumers to purchase services from Comcast in spaces that Comcast has little experience in, like telephone and alarm service?

Today's Shoes


Gravati split-toe monkstrap in caramel-colored Radica 03 calfskin with a combination leather/rubber soles (17194, 697 last). The principal complaint that I have with Gravati is the way they do their sockliners. They're longer to hit the foot just behind the ball, and they're glued down with glue that's not perfectly suited for the task. The result is that the sockliner can sometimes peel back partially and ball up underneath the arch of the foot, making walking unpleasant. The only solution to this problem is to cut out the curled-up portion of the liner with an X-acto knife. This happened to these shoes, and it's the reason why I get all of my Gravati special orders with a full-length sockliner.


Gravati four-eyelet plain-toe bluchers in dark brown grained (Lama) calfskin with combination leather/rubber soles (16532, 640 last).

Last Night's Tipple

Given that my dram the day before yesterday was Cragganmore Distiller's Edition, which was finished in ex-Port barrels, it seems reasonable to have another drink of the regular distillery bottling, the 12 year old, and see how it compares to the other.

It's worth pointing out that although the 12 year old bottling isn't finished in Sherry, Port, Rum, Madeira, Burgundy, or Sauternes barrels, it is not unacquainted with Sherry. I couldn't find any reference to Cragganmore's wood policy in any of the places that I looked, but I would bet money that at least some of the constituents in the final Cragganmore blend were aged in ex-Sherry butts. There is a certain nutty sweetness to this whisky that indicates this. The sherry isn't as pronounced as it is in an honest-to-goodness Sherried malt like Macallan, but it's there. Malty graininess comes through loud and clear too, though. It's fresh and clean and about as refreshing as something that's 40% alcohol can possibly be. The Distiller's Edition, on the other hand, is thick, heavy, and very sweet. There's not much malt there; it's all chocolate and dark fruit. It's wonderful in its own way, but it's a very different product. It just demonstrates one more time that just knowing which distillery a particular whisky comes from is not sufficient to be able to predict what it will taste like. I'm sure that professional tasters would be able to tell that both of these were from the same distillery without seeing the label. If I hadn't known, I doubt that I would have been able to.

Monday, January 21, 2008

25 Skills Every Man Should Have...

...according to an October, 2007 article in Popular Mechanics magazine include bleeding brakes (#22), navigate with a map and compass (#9), and rescue a boater who has capsized (#3). It's not shocking to me that I have done or know how to do only a few of these, mostly those that are computer-related like backing up data (#16). But I have watched This Old House, so I am familiar with the principals of framing a wall (#4):

Hold the base and top plates together with their ends aligned, then measure 15 1/4 in. from the end farthest from the door opening. Draw a line across the edge of the plates and mark an X right of the line. From here, mark a series of lines—one for each stud—spaced 16 in. apart, with an X to the right of each. Mark the plates to indicate a door opening.

Separate the plates and nail studs to the right of each line. Use two common 16d nails driven through the plate at the top and bottom of each stud.

Single-frame door openings require four pieces of lumber. Measure your door; then make the opening 2 in. higher and wider. To remove the sill plate in the opening, use an eight-point crosscut saw to cut almost through. (Protect the floor with masking tape.) Knock out the piece with a hammer and clean it up with a chisel.

Of course, I've never actually done it. I don't own an eight-point crosscut saw, you see.

Today's Shoes


Gravati punch-cap high-lace bal boots in dark brown calfskin with single leather soles (10278, 683 last).


Gravati plain-toe monkstraps in dark brown peccary with combination leather/rubber soles (16371, 640 last).

Last Night's Tipple

The great divide in Scotch aging is between ex-Bourbon barrels and ex-Sherry casks. Up until 1946, most aging was done in ex-Sherry casks because British shippers imported Sherry into the country in cask and would sell the used casks to Scotch distillers dirt cheap once they had bottled the contents. But in 1946, US law began to require that Bourbon be aged in new, charred oak barrels. This meant that Bourbon distillers could only use their barrels once and were more than willing to sell them cheap to anyone who would take them. That, combined with Britain's steadily shrinking Sherry consumption, caused most distilleries to change their aging from virtually all ex-Sherry casks to virtually all ex-Bourbon casks. Most distilleries had some of both, of course, and the finished product would have been composed of whisky from both sources. But until Glenmorangie decided to try it, no distillery considered racking aging whisky from Bourbon barrels into Sherry casks or vice versa. It was a fantastic success, and so now just about every distillery copies them. And not just with Sherry. Distilleries have used Burgundy, Madeira, Sauternes, rum, and many other kinds of casks and barrels to "finish" their Scotch. Including Port. Port makes a lot of sense. Back in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, Britons probably drank as much port as they did Sherry, so lots of ex-Port pipes must have been used to age Scotch. So, given where Scotch had come from and the innovation that Glenmorangie made, it is perfectly reasonable that Diageo would have chosen to finish their Cragganmore Distiller's Edition malt in ex-Port pipes.

Port offers many of the same characteristics that Sherry does to Scotch, especially color and sweetness. Where Sherry adds nuttiness, Port adds fruitiness. I've never tried Glenmorangie's Port-finished malt, but I have a hard time believing that it's any better than this. This wood-finishing business seems gimmicky and largely marketing-driven to me, but it sure makes for delectable whisky.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

For Big E

Mamacita's six year old son, Big E, likes my Art Fawcett pork pie hat. The first time he saw it, he immediately put it on and hopped around the living room shouting "Yee haw!" He thought that it was a cowboy hat, you see. "No, Big E," I told him, "it's not a cowboy hat. It's a pork pie hat." "A pork pie hat?" he asked. "Yes, a pork pie hat." He has dutifully called it a pork pie hat ever since, but I can tell that he's just humoring me. "Uncle Soletrain," he said the other day, "it really looks like a cowboy hat," and he proceeded to explain to me why. Reasoning with him did no good: he's convinced that it's really a cowboy had and that his stupid Uncle Soletrain just doesn't know what he's talking about.

Well, Big E, here's an explanation of the difference between a cowboy hat and a pork pie hat, complete with pictures. The hat above is Will's pork pie, which is the model that my pork pie was based on. Notice how the sides of the crown of the hat is perpendicular to the brim, how the top of the hat is perpendicular to the sides of the crown (there actually is an oval dent on top of the hat, but it looks like it's perpendicular to the sides of the crown), how there are no dents in the sides of the crown, and how the brim is flipped up (slightly) at the back and flipped down (slightly) in the front. Now consider an honest-to-goodness cowboy hat:
This picture is of a Resistol. It does have dents in the side of the crown, and they run all the way from the front to the back of the crown. The band is very narrow, too. But the biggest difference is the brim. It's much wider than the brim of my pork pie, and it's turned up on the sides, not at the front or back. Completely different effect, don't you think, Big E?

(Not that I mind being heckled by a six year old, you understand.)

Today's Shoes

Gravati split-toe double monkstraps with twin-needle-stiched apron and toe seams in medium brown tumbled (Rodeo) calfskin with double leathers soles (16617, 671 last). Twin-needle stitching doesn't really require two needles; rather, it requires two boar's bristles (actually, I think in modern times, it requires two nylon approximations of a boar's bristles). The key to doing it well is that it must be shallow. That is, it should be possible to see the outlines of the twine going through the central "molehill." It gives the finished shoe more visual interest, both because of the inherent texture of the molehill and because polishing the molehill leads to more variegation in color. It's easier to obtain this kind of effect with supple leathers, so Rodeo calfskin, which is one of the softest calfskins that I have ever seen, is an excellent candidate for this type of construction.

Last Night's Tipple

The Aberfeldy distillery is owned by Dewar's, one of the great Scotch blenders which is in turn owned by Bacardi. Dewar's owns several other distilleries (Aultmore, Craigellachie, Macduff, and Royal Brackla), but Aberfeldy was the first of Dewar's distilleries and remains the heart of Dewar's blended whiskies. Dewar's White Label is Dewar's flagship product and is the sixth-best selling blended Scotch whisky in the world, but its popularity varies greatly from country to country. If you go to the Dewar's website, you'll have to enter your date of birth and country of residence before you're allowed to see the content; and the countries listed at the top of the dropdown list are the UK, the US, Greece, Lebanon, Spain, Venezuela, and China. It's a good bet that Dewar's sells more Scotch in those seven countries than anywhere else. The UK and the US make a lot of sense -- both have been huge consumers of Scotch for over a hundred years. But what do the other five have in common? As far as I can tell, not much. I have no idea why Dewar's would have taken off in those five countries to the exclusion of the many others whose residents have plenty of surplus income to spend on luxury spirits.

Blended Scotches, particularly entry-level blended Scotches like Johnnie Walker Red Label and Dewar's White Label, are generally smooth and gentle; and it's entirely appropriate that Aberfeldy would form the heart of blend. It's sweet, inoffensive, and unaggressive. There's a place for that, I think, and I enjoy drinking it. It just wouldn't make my list of the the best Scotches I've tried.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


I don't write very many checks. Credit and debit cards and cash are much more convenient at the point of sale, and most bills can be paid over the interweb. But not all can be, and I still write a few checks a year. Earlier this month, I ran out of checks for the first time in maybe four years; and so I was forced to pony up $17 to get a new box. The problem with ordering checks, of course, is that they have to be mailed to you; and nothing comes through the mail in a box the size and shape of a check box except checks. It's an open invitation for thieves. Only it's not anymore. The checks didn't come in a package that looked like a box of checks. They came in a flat pack like the one in the picture above, the result of the books of checks being packed side by side instead of one on top of the other. The package could have contained a magazine or a book or any number of things other than checks. Apparently, Deluxe has recently revamped their packaging to get better postal rates and to increase security. Well, congratulations. It's an excellent idea.

Today's Shoes

Alden long-wing bluchers in dark tan alpine grain calfskin with reverse welting and double leather soles (Barrie last).

Last Night's Tipple

As day follows night, when I have a dram of Compass Box Eleuthera, I'll have a dram of Clynelish shortly thereafter. Clynelish is, of course, one of the two principal constituent malts in Eleuthera (the other being Caol Ila). Clynelish, you may recall, is a Diageo-owned distillery in the eastern coastal Highlands of Scotland. Every tasting note for Clynelish that I read mentions its waxy texture; but to be perfectly honest, I never have really gotten that. Chalk it up to my leaden palate. I don't dislike this malt, but it doesn't do much for me. There are many other lightly-peated malts that I'd rather drink than this, and most of them are cheaper, too.

Over the past couple of years, Diageo has dramatically expanded their Classic Malts series. It originally started out with Lagavulin, Talisker, Cragganmore, Oban, Glenkinchie, and Dalwhinnie. Now, it seems that just about every malt whiskey in Diageo's portfolio seems to be one of the Classic Malts. There's Royal Lochnagar (which I really, really wish were imported into the United States in its 12 year old form), Cardhu (the one that Spanish kids like to mix with Coca-Cola), Knockando, Glen Elgin, Caol Ila, and something called the Singleton of Glendullan. I gather from this that the Classic Malts have been a tremendously successful marketing device and that Diageo wants to milk it for all that it's worth. The justification for including Clynelish among the rest is that the distillery is located in the coastal east of the Scottish highlands, and there are very few distilleries close by. Diageo, and most other marketers of Scotch, like to subdivide Scotland into regions in an attempt to make the myriad distilleries more comprehensible. Clynelish is in the Highlands region, but the Highlands cover a lot of area. The lay of the land around Clynelish doesn't share a whole lot of similarities with, say, Oban or Edradour, which are also in the Highlands region. Diageo has responded to this obvious problem by subdividing Scotland still more; and with the subdivision comes the justification for adding new Classic Malts to represent those subdivisions. But I don't think that there is any real eastern coastal Highlands style of whisky. Yes, Clynelish is very different from Oban, but those differences don't have their origin in geography or geographic tradition. There's nothing wrong with Diageo trying to sell whisky, but consumers really shouldn't take the Classic Malts marketing propaganda too seriously.

Friday, January 18, 2008


I grew up in suburbia. There were many good things about it, but the availability of books wasn't one of them. There were two bookstores in my hometown: Crown and Waldenbooks. Neither one of them was very good. You could find the best sellers and maybe even past titles from the authors of the best sellers, but anything else was hit and miss. They would have Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn but never Life on the Mississippi or The Prince and the Pauper, A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol but never The Pickwick Papers. By the time I got to high school, Crown had begun to carry Wilkie Collins's two most famous novels, The Woman in White and The Moonstone. One day when I was in the ninth grade, I found No Name at a B. Dalton in the mall ten miles away, and went back obsessively after that in the hopes that they might get Armadale or Basil or anything else by Collins. The summer after my ninth grade year, we dropped my older brother off for his freshman year at a major state university, and I thought that I had died and gone to heaven when I stepped foot into the campus Follett's bookstore because they had not only the textbooks for every course at the university but also the best history section that I had ever seen.

The world of bookselling has changed dramatically since I was a kid. The biggest driver of that change is Amazon, of course. Because of Amazon, it's not possible to buy any book in print from any number of sources and have it in your hot little hands in a few days. It's not a challenge anymore to assemble the complete works of Wilkie Collins, and I can even be picky about the translation of War and Peace I want to read. But not far behind Amazon in influence on bookselling in the United States are superstore chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble. They don't have the breadth of selection that Amazon does, of course, but the selection is still vast. And they have overstuffed chairs and in-store coffee shops so that you can browse the merchandise, sit down, and sample possible selections while sipping on the caffeinated beverage of your choice. It's a great way to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon, for me at least. More than that, it's brought a level of service to formerly bookstore-poor locales that's an order of magnitude or more better than what was common 20 years ago. My hometown now has both a Borders and a Barnes & Noble, and I would wager that I could find six or seven of Wilkie Collins's works in either one of them and could come to a conclusion about the one I might find the most enjoyable in comfort before buying any of them. Even in major cities like Houston, the presence of multiple locations of the major chain superstores has dramatically increased the availability of books of all sorts. Barnes & Noble and Borders are motivated by profit, not altruism, of course, but both of them have improved the quality of my life significantly.

None of my thoughts or observations or arguments about this is particularly original. The reason that I bring them up now is that The Atlantic Monthly has recently made their archives available free of charge for non-subscribers, which means that it's possible again to read my favorite essay of all time published in the magazine. Originally in the July/August 2001 edition, "Two -- Make That Three -- Cheers for the Chain Bookstores" by Brooke Allen makes my case better than I ever could.
What if fifteen years ago someone had suggested a nationwide network of gigantic bookshops, carrying about 150,000 titles each, staying open until 11:00 P.M. or midnight, and offering cafés, comfortable chairs, and public restrooms? And what if these sumptuous emporia were to be found not only in the great urban centers but also in small cities and suburbs all across the country—places like Plano, Texas; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Mesa, Arizona? Wouldn't we have thought that sounded like pure, if unattainable, heaven? Well, that is what the superstore chains—Barnes & Noble; Borders; and Books-A-Million, based in Birmingham, Alabama—have brought us. Why, then, the chorus of disapproval from the cultural elite? Why the characterization, spread by a vocal group of critics, of the chain bookstores as a sort of intellectual McDonald's, a symbol of the dumbing-down and standardization of American life?

She ascribes the opposition to the superstores as being born in snobbery and ignorance, and I think that she makes a good case. To be honest, I don't know how deep the opposition was in 2001; that is, I'm not sure if she created a strawman out of the movie You've Got Mail and a few angry comments in industry publications. Regardless, she effectively makes the case that the book superstores have been a force for good in the United States. The superstores don't just promote bestsellers -- most of the shelf space, including most of the displays, goes to the midlist titles that form the backbone of "serious" books offered for sale. The selection at an average book superstore is as good or better than even the best independent bookstores. The employees, on average, are no more likely to be "you want fries with that?" drones than they are in independent stores. And they exist in places less sophisticated than Manhattan and San Francisco.

What has changed in the six and a half years since this article was published? Well, there are more superstores now than there were then, and the older superstores have begun to show their age. I suspect that Amazon and its online competitors have made life increasingly difficult for Barnes & Noble and Borders -- the discounts mentioned in the article have been gone for years. But the ones that I go to are still packed at all hours of the day, and not just with college students studying in the coffee shop (although that wouldn't be terrible, given the margins on coffee drinks). They have been and are a godsend to me, and I believe that they have been a positive force in American society.

Today's Shoes

Borgioli split-toe bluchers with twin-needle-stitched apron and toe seams in dark tan calfskin with Norwegian construction and double leather soles. The shoes pictured above are made by Sutor Mantellassi, but they're a pretty accurate representation of why my Borgioli shoes look like. The only significant difference is where Mantellassi uses a single row of stitching for the Norwegian stitch around the base of the upper, Borgioli uses two rows of stitching braided together. More attractive and flashier, I think. I wear these less than I would like because the last they are made on, like so many lasts made for the European market instead of the American one, is too wide in the heel for my feet. My heels slip when walking, causing discomfort after wearing them for a while. Today, though, because it was cold and rainy, I wore these with thick wool boot socks, and that made the slippage go away completely. Hooray for thick wool boot socks!

Last Night's Tipple

It's hard to survive as a relatively small independent producer of Scotch whisky. Whisky distillation is a capital-intensive business -- stills and barrels aren't cheap, and neither are the excise taxes that have to be paid when the whisky is distilled (rather than years later when it's actually sold). Distillate can't legally be labeled as Scotch until it has aged for three years, it has to age for a significantly longer period of time before it's a viable single malt. What distilleries have traditionally done is to generate cash flow by selling young whisky to the blenders, but that's becoming more and more problematic as the industry consolidates. Diageo has all the young malt whisky that it needs for its blends, thank you very much, and the same can be said for all the other major spirits companies that produce blended Scotch. The commercial realities of the whisky business explain why there are so few independent distilleries left in Scotland and why so few distilleries have started up recently, despite the current Scotch boom.

Tomintoul, located near Ballindalloch on the river Spey, is therefore an anomaly. It was founded in the mid 1960s, much later than just about every malt distillery in Scotland and just before the Scotch bust era in the 1970s and 1980s. Somehow, it managed to survive that experience and is today owned by Angus Dundee Distillers, a small company based in London and Glasgow with a stable of two malt distilleries (the other being Glencadam, in the Highlands). Sure enough, they have their own line of blended Scotch, too. Whether that's because the big boys don't need Tomintoul and Glencadam or because Angus Dundee found that there's more margin to be had from selling your own blended whisky than there is from selling malt whisky in bulk to the blenders, I couldn't say. I can say that I have never seen any of the blends that Angus Dundee makes or markets, and I wonder if they're simply too small to have made it over here.

I had seen a Tomintoul 10 year old before, but it had never really registered with me. Yesterday, though, a representative of the US importer of Tomintoul, Medek Wines & Spirits, was at the Spec's warehouse downtown handing out samples of both the 10 year old and the 16 year old versions. What the heck, I thought, and so I tried both. The 10 year old is malty and fresh. The rep said that the target audience for it were those who were new to Scotch, and I can see that. It was tasty and uncomplicated. The 16 year old was better. There's a bit of peat, a lot of sherried sweetness, and a nice dose of malt. I liked it very much, so I ended up buying a bottle. I liked the full glass that I had last night, too. Tomintoul's slogan is "The Gentle Dram," and that accurately describes it. There's nothing aggressive about it, just what you would expect a good middle-of-the-road Scotch to taste like.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Dress Like a CEO

It is a fact that appearance matters. On average, more attractive people make more money and rise faster in the corporate world than less attractive people. Better-dressed salesmen sell more than ones who are more poorly dressed. And a well-dressed applicant for a job is more likely to get that job than his more poorly-dressed competitors. We can argue that this is absurdly unjust and that what's inside matters much more than outward appearance, but this is just so much tilting at windmills. The fact of the matter is that in deciding whom to buy a product from or whom to offer the job to, a person has very limited and fragmentary information. In the absence of information, the mind seizes on what information is available and tries to use it to make educated guesses about the information that's not. It's not a perfect system, but it's not an irrational one, either. Just as I will buy the bottle of wine or whiskey with the more attractive label, all other things being equal, so too would I opt for the better-dressed choice, all other things being equal. And I suspect that I am like most people in this respect, even people who profess to disdain outward appearance.

One of the principal problems in today's world is defining the phrase "better-dressed." As a recent Wall Street Journal article about dressing for job interviews puts it:
To complicate matters, things aren't as cut-and-dried as they were in the days of strict blue-collar and white-collar work uniforms. Following the old dress-for-success rules, with ties and starched white shirts, would create suspicion and awkwardness at Google's dressed-down headquarters today. Executive job seekers have to study more than the balance sheet these days -- they have to suss out a company's fashion ethos. ("Want to Be CEO? You Have to Dress the Part" by Christina Binkley, January 10, 2008, p. D1)

There are certain universals in defining what well-dressed means -- clothes should be clean and stain-free, for example -- but mostly, it's a matter of context. If you went to a job interview at IBM in the 1960s, well-dressed would have meant a clean, starched button-down oxford cloth shirt with a well-tied burgundy tie, a single-breasted charcoal wool suit, and black wingtips. Wear that to an interview with a software development shop today, and your interviewers will probably think you hopelessly stuffy and out-of-touch. It is useless raging about the decline of standards and how that outfit makes you better dressed than your interviewers wearing polo shirts and jeans. They'll still think it, and you will have gone in to your interview with a self-made handicap. And really, your raging would be wrong in any event. Those who own and run that tech company have just as much right to decide on the style of dress that's appropriate for their employees that IBM had back in the '60s. So be smart: ask the person setting up the interview what appropriate dress is for the company or person you're interviewing with, and wear it. If you can't bear the thought of dressing like that, then find another company to interview with.

And it's worth writing that there are almost no contexts where dressing for an interview like the guy in the picture above is appropriate. He's Lapo Elkann, heir to the Fiat fortune. Nobody is going to tell him that he's dressed inappropriately, even if he is.

Today's Shoes


John Lobb Paris three-eyelet plain-toe V-front bluchers in tobacco suede with single leather soles (Perrier model, 8896 last). The first really expensive shoes that I ever lusted after were from John Lobb Paris -- three-eyelet plain-toe ankle boots in tobacco suede with low-profile rubber soles. I saw them at Neiman Marcus in 1997 or 1998, and I thought that they were about as perfect as a pair of shoes could be. The model name was Giono, and it turned out that it had been developed as an ankle boot variant of Perrier. Well, I saw pictures of Perrier, and I thought that it was pretty perfect, too, although Lobb had this inexplicable habit of making it up in black. These shoes were a special order inspired by those Giono boots. It's a pity that the 8896 last doesn't fit me better (like most Lobb Paris lasts, it's too wide in the heel for me), but Perrier is one beautiful shoe. The picture above doesn't really do it justice, both because it's crappy and the color of leather selected doesn't really do much for the pattern; but I have to work with what I can find on the interweb.


Gravati ghillie tie split-toe bluchers with twin-needle stitching on the apron and toe (13555, 500 last).

Last Night's Tipple

It appears from their website that Compass Box has gotten rid of their Eleuthera bottling from their range. You may recall that Eleuthera was their original peaty offering, consisting mainly of a vatting of Caol Ila and Clynelish. It makes sense that they've discontinued this for a couple of reasons. First, it is possible that their sources of Caol Ila or Clynelish dried up. For reasons that I discuss below, I think it unlikely that it was Caol Ila that disappeared, but it certainly is possible that Clynelish did. Clynelish is owned by Diageo, and Diageo recently "promoted" it into its Classic Malts series where previously it had not been extensively marketed as a single malt. It's possible that Diageo no longer had surplus whisky from Clynelish to sell, and Compass Box was unable to find a replacement that would have kept the style of the finished vatting consistent. Second, there's the matter of marketing. Who in the heck knows what to expect from a bottle of whisky named Eleuthera? If I had just seen it on the shelf and had not read about it beforehand, I certainly would not have. The replacement for Eleuthera in Compass Box's portfolio is called Peat Monster. The idea is the same: vat an Islay whisky with a non-Islay whisky to get the characteristics of both Islay and the Highlands. Where Eleuthera used Clynelish, Peat Monster uses Ardmore. Ardmore is an old-style peated whisky where Clynelish is unpeated, so Peat Monster should have a higher phenol content than Eleuthera did; but still the idea is the same. The name, though, is much more marketable, especially in the United States. In recent times, extreme levels of hops have been a big selling point for American microbrewed beer; and the same is true for peat content and Scotch. Peaty whiskies are very popular here, and both distilleries and vatters have taken advantage of this in a big way. Any idiot can tell that a bottle labeled Peat Monster will be peaty, so it's a much easier sell for Compass Box than Eleuthera was. Oh, one more bit of trivia: Compass Box says that the Islay for Peat Monster comes from "the village of Port Askaig, as well as some south shore whisky (as of late 2007)." Port Askaig is on the east coast of Islay very close to Caol Ila. It's also relatively close to Bunnahabhain, but Bunnahabhain rarely produces peaty whisky. I'd be willing to bet that the Port Askaig whisky is Caol Ila. There are three distilleries on the south shore of Islay: Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg. Lagavulin is in extremely short supply, and there isn't much aged Ardbeg available due to its underproduction and neglect for most of the 1990s. I'd bet that the "south shore whisky" is Laphroaig. In any event, it's interesting that Compass Box doesn't explicitly reveal its sources here since they are usually not shy about doing so. I can only guess that their reticence is due to agreements that they made with the distilleries they bought the whisky from.

I haven't had Compass Box Eleuthera in quite some time, and I can't come up with a good explanation for that. The addition of Clynelish makes it less overpoweringly peaty than peated Islay malts are by themselves, and I think that that's a good thing. Peat, at least to my palate, tends to dominate everything else. It's enjoyable enough, I suppose, but I like to taste the malt and the wood influence on the whisky, too. Having Clynelish in the blend allows me to do that. Alas, the bottle is almost gone, and I won't be able to replace it. Of course, even if Compass Box still produced it, I wouldn't be able to replace it since they don't distribute in Texas apparently.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


One of the problems with living in Houston is that we don't really have winters here. Well, that's not that much of a problem, of course. Not having real winters means that we don't have to deal with snow, high winter heating bills, or frozen pipes; and that is a good thing. However, the fact that the temperature in Houston might get below freezing three or four times a year certainly does put a damper on wearing winter clothes; and winter clothes usually have more style than summer clothes. Winter has tweed and flannel and loden. What does summer have? Linen? I like linen just fine, but it really can't compete with tweed for character. And winter has sweaters, too. I love sweaters. They're useful, and there are so many characterful sweaters available, from chunky hand-knit Aran sweaters to colorful Fair Isle ones to cashmere in every conceivable configuration. I have an Aran sweater, and I like it very much. The problem is that in the two years I've owned it, it's gotten cold enough to wear it exactly twice.

So what's a sweater-loving Houstonian to do? Well, fine-gauge merino sweaters have provided the best answer that I know of. They come in a wide array of colors, and they're just the right weight for Houston winters. And, since the good ones are knitted from high-grade merino wool, they're also decidedly unscratchy. Best of all, they're ubiquitous. Here are some sources:
  1. Brooks Brothers -- Brooks will typically sell these in about 5 or 7 different colors in four different styles: polo, V-neck, crew neck, and sweater vest. List price is around $90, but they're forever running sales. Right now, all of their winter sweaters are 50% off. These are made in Hong Kong, and they're not bad. But the wool isn't as fine as I would like, and they have trouble holding their shape after repeated wearings. They also have a tendency to pill.
  2. Four in Hand -- Four in Hand is based in Brooklyn, New York, and it is run by Jonathan Fischer. Jonathan's merino sweaters are made in Italy by Sartori, which does private-label work for several big-name designer labels. He has crew necks, polos, mock turtlenecks, and cardigans in three or four colors per style with prices ranging from $80 to $130, depending on style. In my favored style, the crew neck, the sweaters are less expensive than the ones from Brooks Brothers, and they're much better. The wool is not scratchy at all. They hold their shape, They don't pill appreciably, even after a lot of wearings. They're great sweaters, and they ought to cost more than they do. And, of course, Jonathan is a fantastic merchant all the way around.
  3. Zimmerli -- Zimmerli is known for its fantastically expensive underwear, but they make other knitwear, too, including fine-gauge merino sweaters in many, many colors and just about every style imaginable. They're the best that I've seen. The merino is extremely fine, and the knit is thin and hard-finished. They're durable, and I have never seen them pill AT ALL. They're also the most expensive of the three that I've mentioned, ranging in price from $144 for a sweater vest to $195 for a polo sweater. And they've recently discontinued the turtleneck (who cares?) and the crew neck (what are they thinking?).
There are other makers out there, of course, ranging from Gran Sasso (which makes private-label sweaters for just about every independent men's store in the United States) to LL Bean (made in China), but I don't have a whole lot of experience with them. Given the options that I have and the number of these sweaters that I need, I probably won't try them, either. For my money, Zimmerli offers the best quality and Four in Hand the best value.

Today's Shoes


Gravati side-zip plain-toe ankle boots in dark brown kangaroo with single leather soles (16821, 683 last).


Gravati high-vamp penny loafers with twin-needle-stitched apron seam in medium red-brown grained calfskin (Tibet #39) with single leather soles (15477, 701 last).

Last Night's Tipple

I have come to the conclusion that I should probably buy mostly blanc de noirs and rosé sparkling wine from now on. Perhaps it's evidence that I am a complete Philistine, but the lesson that I have learned from this sparkling wine binge over the past two or three weeks is that I like the berry aromas and the fuller body that is typically found in pinot noir-heavy sparkling wines (ie, in blanc de noirs and rosé) better than the flavors and character imparted by a large proportion of chardonnay. Chardonnay-heavy sparkling wine, at least the versions that I have tried (and, to be honest, I don't have much breadth of experience here) is much more likely to be sour and bland.

In any event, I finished the bottle of Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs last night, and it was probably better the second night than the first. Perhaps this is because it lost some of its carbonation and was consequently a bit less acidic. I don't know. But I do know that I don't feel cheated at all by spending $30 on a bottle of sparkling wine, and that's saying a lot by itself. I will have to try the rosé next, even though it is $37 a bottle. If I don't feel ripped off by that price, I should just stop drinking sparkling wine altogether because it would likely lead me to bankruptcy.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"Tell him to get f--ked"

If the article in the May, 2006 issue of Inc. magazine that Mamacita sent me a link to is any indication, that phrase is a favorite of Fred Franzia's, particularly when he's upset or irritated ("The Scourge of Napa Valley" by Kermit Pattison). And it appears that Franzia is upset or irritated a lot. He's the chairman and CEO of Bronco Wine, one of the largest and fastest-growing wine companies in California and one that you're probably never heard of. But you probably have heard of some of the brands that they make, bottle, and market, including Napa Ridge, Forest Glen, and Charles Shaw. That last one is usually referred to by its nickname, though -- it's Two Buck Chuck. Bronco produces it for Trader Joe's, and although it's not two dollars a bottle outside of California anymore, it's still unbelievably cheap for something that isn't box wine or Night Train. It actually holds its own in blind tastings against much more expensive wine. Two Buck Chuck is an extreme example of what Bronco does with all of its wines: they own some of the most extensive winegrowing acreage in the world, they have huge wine storage and aging facilities, and they have the financial resources to buy up excess wine from whomever is in distress whenever they want to. That means that they have a tremendous stock of wine to choose from to blend the wines for their various brands to different (and good) flavor profiles, and they have the scale to be able to do it cheaply. Read the whole article -- Franzia is an interesting character, and the story of his business is a good one.

What I find the most interesting about the article, though, are Franzia's comments about the wine industry. Consider this, for example:
He believes that the wine industry has become intoxicated by elitism, inflated prices, and its own PR about terroir--the idea that a wine is uniquely a product of the place it comes from, and by extension that some places are better than others. "Why complicate it?" asks Franzia, voice rising. "Does anybody complicate Cheerios by saying the wheat has to be grown on the side of a mountain and the terroir in North Dakota is better than Kansas and all this horse s---? You put something in your mouth and enjoy it. If you spend $100 to buy a bottle of wine, how the hell are you going to enjoy it? It's a joke. There's no wine worth that kind of money."

And this:
There's nothing unusual in this [Bronco's production techniques], but it's bold to insist that these blended wines are every bit as good as Napa wines that cost several times as much, which of course Franzia does. "I defy anyone that charges more money to let me conduct a blind tasting," he says. "He'll look like a fool with his own wine."

And this:
"California wine shouldn't be divided up into these little oligopoly appellations," he says. "They try to create a myth to keep the consumer from buying other people's wine."

A big part of me sympathizes with Franzia's argument. The fact of the matter is that the wine industry actively encourages snobbery, elitism, and consumer confusion. To a very large extent, it markets wine as a luxury item to label-obsessed yuppies. Wine shouldn't be mystifying. It is a food item, and it should be like any other food item: enjoyed for the quality of its flavors, aromas, and other properties, not for the prestige it brings the buyer. But at the same time, it's just ridiculous to say, as Franzia does, that a grape is a grape is a grape, no matter where it is grown. I'm more than willing to believe that it is possible to grow decent grapes outside of the "prestige" areas in California and that the prestige of Napa County and other big-name AVAs allows growers of crappy grapes to get paid premium prices. But grapes (and indeed, all living things) taste different depending on th environment they were raised in and the kinds of nutrients they ingested. Grass-fed beef tastes different from corn-fed beef, doesn't it? Why shouldn't grapes grown on the side of a hill in gravelly, limestone-rich soil taste different from grapes grown in a river bottom? Rejection of snobbery doesn't have to entail abandoning one's common sense.

Today's Shoes


Edward Green bespoke Adelaide bals with hand-stitching forming the diamond cap, the U throat, and the heel counter. Tony Gaziano, who made the lasts for these shoes, is a chisel-toe specialist; and these shoes have the chiseliest of chisel toes. That was intentional: I wanted something extremely aggressive, and that's what he made for me. I imagine that I will have Tony make more shoes for me at some point, but I think that the next pair will have a smart round toe.


Brooks Brothers Peal & Co. unlined three-eyelet plain-toe blucher boots in sand suede with heavy crepe rubber soles.

Last Night's Tipple

Schramsberg is the oldest producers of sparkling wine in the United States. The winery dates to 1862, when German immigrant Jacob Schram gave up barbering in San Francisco and places north to buy land in Napa County and grow grapes. As far as I can tell, though, production was entirely still wines until 1940, when John Gargano and the California Champagne Company bought the winery. Douglas Pringle acquired the winery and the California Champagne Company in 1951, and he continued to produce wine until his death in 1960. The winery remained shuttered until 1965, when Jack and Jamie Davies bought the property and resumed production. The winery is currently run by the Davies' son, Hugh Davies.

Today, Schramsberg has three lines of sparkling wine. Wines in the Mirabelle line are multi-vintage and retail around $20 a bottle. The main line is composed of vintage wines, and the various bottlings retail for between $30 and $50 a bottle. At the top end, there is the reserve range, composed of the Pinot Noir-heavy Reserve, the Chardonnay-heavy J. Schram, and the J. Schram Rosé. These are typically more than double the price of the main line wines, and they feature extensive sur lie aging. The mainline Blanc de Noirs has the reputation of being one of the best sparklers (from California or elsewhere) available for the price (which isn't insignificant). I had gone looking for it a few days ago and couldn't find it. I was luckier when I tried again the day before yesterday.

Despite the name, this wine isn't just made from black grapes: it has about 15% Chardonnay. I don't know if it would be permissible in France to label a sparkling wine with 15% Chardonnay as Blanc de Noirs; but Schramsberg isn't in France, and it's obviously okay in the United States. Some Blanc de Noirs sparklers will have a slight pink tinge. Not this one: it's a deep gold, but there's not a hint of orange or red in it. But it does have a lot of the berry flavors and aromas that one typically associates with a Rosé wine, and a good deal of the body, too. I think that I enjoy this more than any of the other sparkling wines that I've tried recently. It's excellent.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Oh, For Crying Out Loud

The Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer (MLS) have won the last two league championships, and they figure that that means that they deserve a new stadium. Or, more accurately, Oliver Luck, their president, thinks that a new stadium built with a hefty subsidy from the City of Houston could make the team more profitable and that the back-to-back championships and a threat by the team to leave Houston will get them that subsidy. And surprise, surprise: it looks like important members of the city government have fallen for it. Carolyn Feibel reports in the Houston Chronicle that the City is considering purchasing a six-block piece of land downtown east of US 59 for the team to build the stadium on:

The city could spend up to $20 million to buy six downtown blocks for a Dynamo soccer stadium, and it remains unclear if the team would reimburse the costs.

The blocks that officials are eyeing — just east of U.S. 59 in the warehouse district — have a total appraised value of about $5.1 million, according to the Harris County Appraisal District, or HCAD.

But local property owners who want to sell have been asking for triple or even quadruple the appraised values, as the area is seen as "hot" for development. ("Land considered for soccer venue in a 'hot' locale", Jan. 14, 2008)

Okay, okay. To be fair, the story says that it's unclear whether the city would be reimbursed for the cost of the land; but it doesn't really sound like it from the quotes from city officials in the story. Mayor Bill White says that "he doesn't want public funds used for the actual stadium construction;" and I think it's a reasonable presumption that he intentionally mentioned stadium construction specifically and did not rule out city funds being spent on other aspects of the stadium project. And Councilman Peter Brown says that the city can't take the risk that the Dynamo will go elsewhere: "It's important for us economically to have the Dynamo here because if we don't have a stadium for them, they're going to go somewhere else."

Frankly, Brown's statement is a complete non sequitur. I don't doubt that the Dynamo will go elsewhere if they can't get a stadium here and they think that some other municipality will pony up for one, but it doesn't follow that the Dynamo leaving would be an economic blow to Houston. In fact, it wouldn't. Even major sports franchises bring little new money into the metropolitan area that they call home -- they just redistribute the spending of entertainment dollars within that metropolitan area. But the Dynamo are hardly a major sports franchise. Despite the name of the league, MLS is hardly the major leagues of soccer. That distinction is held by the English Premier League, La Liga in Spain, and Serie A in Italy. MLS is probably the equivalent of the AA minor league teams in baseball, if that. And the residents of the Houston metropolitan area treat the Dynamo like they were a minor league team: the fact that they only want a 22,000-seat stadium indicates quite clearly what they think is the maximum number of fans that they can hope to attract on a regular basis.

If a new stadium for the Dynamo were truly an economically viable proposition, they would find private investors and build it themselves. The fact that they have to lobby for city subsidies illustrates that private investors wouldn't want to touch it with a ten foot pole. Frankly, I don't see what's wrong with them playing at Robertson Stadium on the University of Houston campus or at Reliant Stadium. If that's not good enough for them, then they should leave. I don't want them to, but I don't approve of government subsidies for a private business, especially one as economically unproductive as a professional sports team.

Today's Shoes

Alden high-lace wingtip blucher boots in Cigar shell cordovan with double leather soles (Plaza last). Reportedly, Cigar shell cordovan is becoming more and more difficult to come by. It's not quite like lighter colors like Whiskey and Ravello, which can have back orders of years, but the price for shoes and boots in Cigar is rising, even relative to more standard colors like Color #8 and black.

These boots were specified by Tom Park at LeatherSoul Hawaii.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Nutella Redux Redux Redux

With Nutella cookies conquered, the time has come to move on to other Nutella-based goodies. Ice cream sounded both good and easy, so I decided to try that. There apparently are two different principal variations in Nutella ice cream: one with the Nutella thoroughly integrated with the ice cream base, and one with the Nutella swirled in. The integrated version sounded more idiot-proof, and so that's the one that I went with. A quick Google search revealed a not-too-threatening recipe by Giada De Laurentis from the Food Network. It's rated as easy, users give it 5 out of 5 stars, and it supposedly only takes 15 minutes of actual work. What can possibly go wrong?

Well, if you're an incompetent cook, a lot. Well, maybe not a lot, but enough. It's a custard ice cream, meaning that it contains eggs. And that the eggs have to be tempered. And I apparently couldn't temper eggs if my life. So after curdling the eggs, I decided to call it a day.

The next day, having regained my courage, I decided to try again, only without the eggs. I quickly found another recipe from a food-centric blog called Hungry in Hogtown, this time a non-custard with the Nutella swirled in. This looked even more idiot-proof than Giada De Laurentis's. Here are the details:
250 ml (1 cup) 35% heavy cream
250 ml (1 cup) 3.25% milk
1 vanilla bean or substitute vanilla extract
110 g (1/2 cup) sugar
120 g (1/3 cup) Nutella
10 ml (2 tsp) canola oil

Combine cream, milk, sugar, and scraped vanilla seeds and pod and heat to 175F/79C.


One hour before churning the ice cream, heat the Nutella in the top of a double boiler over barely simmering water. Stir in the oil, then remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Freeze ice cream as per maker's instructions. At the last moment, add the room temperature Nutella mixture to the ice cream. Do not overchurn after this point or the Nutella will incorporate into the ice cream, rather than forming a stripe.

I followed the recipe pretty closely, except I added probably a third more Nutella than it called for. If a little is good, a lot is better, right? I don't know what went wrong, but the Nutella-canola oil mixture never did form much of a swirl. Instead, it immediately broke up into tiny little grains of Nutella. Not particularly visually appealing, but still pretty tasty. I don't know if it was a function of the ice cream maker (I used a Cuisinart) or of the recipe, but it was exceptionally smooth and creamy. The whole vanilla bean also made for an intense vanilla flavor, with little bursts of Nutella. I thought that it was very tasty, although it would have been better if we could have waited long enough for it to freeze solid. I like it, but I owe it to Nutella to try, try again. Letitia thinks that it wouldn't be the best ice cream to use for making Nutella cookie ice cream sandwiches because the ice cream would overshadow the cookies. She's probably right.

(Incidentally, if you're looking for Nutella, you should look at Costco. They have a two pack of the 26.5 ounce bottles for a little over $8. The cheapest I have seen the 26.5 ounce bottle elsewhere is around $6. )

Today's Shoes

Alden long wing bluchers with reverse welting in Color #8 shell cordovan with double leather soles (model 975, Barrie last). One of the not-so-wonderful aspects of shell cordovan shoes is that they will develop a milky white film on the surface of the leather if they haven't been worn for a week or two. It's composed of fat used in the tanning process that seeps to the surface of the leather, and it can just be wiped off with a soft cloth. The problem, though, is when this film develops along the stitching around the throat and eyelet facings of the shoe -- it's hard to get rid of when it develops there.

Last Night's Tipple

It's been quite some time since I last tasted my Glenrothes Special Reserve. I bought the bottle shortly before I started in on American whiskey, followed by wine; and I'm just now getting back to Scotch. You will recall that Glenrothes is one of the malt distilleries owned by the Edrington Group, which also owns such other properties as Highland Park, Macallan, and Tamdhu; and that its recent claim to fame lies in their primary bottlings being vintage. Vintage spirits are rarities, and they're practically unheard-of in the world of Scotch. The rarity and novelty of vintage Scotches and the quality of their bottlings allow Glenrothes to sell their vintage Scotches for a pretty penny, and it's also what allows them to sell their non-vintage, non-age-designated Special Reserve bottling for more than most 12 year old Scotches on the market.

Well, I can't honestly claim to feel ripped off by the price. What matters is the quality of the spirit in the bottle, not the age on the bottle; and the quality of the spirit in the bottle is high. Speyside malts are known for their elegance and finesse. This Scotch doesn't have a whole lot of either. It's BIG and significantly more peaty than most Speyside whiskies. I get a lot of apple on the palate, but that's not the dominant impression. Rather, it's in the background as the body and the smoke pound my senses. I like it, although I probably wouldn't want to drink it every day.

Oh, and the last time I was in Spec's, I noticed that the 1992 vintage of Glenrothes is available now, and for "only" $55 a bottle. That's not inexpensive, but it's cheaper than the '91. It's also not unreasonable for a 15 year old Scotch.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

What Do I Do With This Thing, Anyway?

Bum Phillips, the coach of the Houston Oilers in the late '70s and early '80s (Luv ya Blue!) famously wore his silverbelly cowboy hat everywhere except while coaching the Oilers in the Astrodome. Why didn't he wear his hat in the Astrodome? Why, because his momma taught him that a gentleman didn't wear his hat indoors, of course!

With all due respect to Mrs. Phillips, that's not quite right. There are two reasons why a gentleman must take off his hat: if he's indoors in a private space or if respect obligates him to do so. It's perfectly appropriate for him to wear his hat indoors if he is in a public space. Thus, he can keep it on while in the lobby or corridors of an office building or walking around a mall. It comes off once he enters a private space, like his office or a house or a table at a restaurant. It also comes off when he wishes to pay respect to someone or something, meaning that going hatless at funerals or during the playing of the national anthem or when talking to a lady.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Rules of etiquette need not be followed when doing so would result in a manifest absurdity or violations of other rules of etiquette or decorum. Consider, for example, the rule that a gentleman takes off his hat when talking to a lady. What if it's raining or a gale is blowing? Etiquette does not require that he freeze to death, and so he may put his hat back on after taking it off to pay his respect. How about a diner lunch counter? If he takes off his hat, he has to put it somewhere; and given the layout of a lunch counter, that somewhere would be a place where someone else could have sat. What's more discourteous? Keeping the hat on, or taking up a space with a hat that another customer might want to use to sit and eat? And so he keeps his hat on. Normally, he would take his hat off in an elevator if a lady is present, but what if the elevator is crowded? Taking his hat off and holding it makes the elevator more crowded, and so he need not and should not do so. The point is that etiquette is supposed to be a set of rules based on common sense and common decency. It is not an excuse to inconvenience those that one comes in contact with.

Today's Shoes

Gravati unlined three-eyelet plain-toe blucher boots in snuff suede with microcellular rubber soles. Jim Pierce has received an answer back from the Gravati rep in the United States about the pattern actually used on these boots. You will recall that I originally specified them as the five-eyelet 15950 but that these came in with three eyelets and with other pattern elements that were completely different from the 15950. Well, it turns out that the factory changed the pattern to 16899 because 15950 apparently isn't adaptable to an unlined construction (called sfoderato in Italian) while the 16899 is. I do wish that Gravati had told us about the pattern change before actually making the boots up, but I have to admit that these turned out much better than they ever could have had they been made up in the 15950 pattern.

Last Night's Tipple

If it sounded like I was sorely disappointed with the Iron Horse Classic Brut that I opened last night, it's because I was. It could not possibly have been better calculated to appeal to me on the shelf. It's an all-American sparkling wine when most American sparkling wine is made by French companies. The packaging is strictly first-rate. The labeling, while not as technically geeky as those on the wines made by the likes of Ravenswood and Ridge, still is as straight-forward and information-filled as I could ask for. It tells me, for example, exactly how much Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are in the wine and how long it speds en tirage. In fact, it was what the label said about the time en tirage that really sold me on this bottle. Vintage Champagne only has to be aged en tirage for three years. This Iron Horse was aged for four years. Yes, I am perfectly well aware that longer doesn't necessarily equal better when it comes to alcohol or anything else; but late disgorged sparkling wine, which ages en tirage for several years longer than normal, is a rarity and is regarded as a delicacy. So I had very high hopes.

I can't say that this is an awful wine because it assuredly is not. It's just that the differential between what I hoped for and what I got was as great as it was for any non-corked wine that I've had in a long time. The chalkiness that I complained about yesterday was still present last night, and it is very distracting. But it does improve with temperature. I like most sparkling wine cold; but if I ever have this wine again (probably not on my own nickel), I'll let it warm up for a while before drinking it.