Tuesday, December 10, 2013

André Lurton, vignoble

Autour d'une bouteille avec André Lurton
by André Lurton with Gilles Berdin
ISBN 978-2-35639-039-4
Bordeaux : Elytis, c2010.

ANDRÉ LURTON, born 1924, is a French winemaker and winery owner,” states the English-language Wikipedia. Curiously there seems to be no page for him at French-language Wikipedia, and this little book, nicely edited from seven conversations between Lurton and the French wine journalist Gilles Berdin (b. 1962), indicates that there certainly should be.

Before turning to Lurton himself, a few words on Berdin’s intentions are in order. This is one of a series of eleven such books introducing significant personalities in the world of French winemaking to their audience. (So far only one has appeared in English: Conversations Over a Bottle With Denis Dubourdieu.) Berdin describes his intent:
“These conversations, which are not biographies, result from the observation that there are extraordinary people in our landscape of French wine; a most diverse, amazing, exciting group: the owners, winemakers, cellar masters, and tasters. It seemed urgent to collect their words, especially if, as some fear, the vignoble is increasingly passing into the hands of what we call “les institutionnels: " banks, insurance companies, multinationals, investment companies.
I want all these enthusiasts to share their passion and experience, and transmit some of their memory to future generations: their knowledge, their skills, their emotions ...
As the charm of conversation lies in its imperfections, digressions, repetitions, silences, contradictions, onomatopoeia, paradoxes, laughter ... I'll open their words as is, without settling, aeration or dressing them up in a decanter. ”

(My translation.)

So the book, while short, is charmingly discursive. It does have a logical structure, though, basically chronological; and it begins, notwithstanding Berdin’s apology, with a bit of biography.

Lurton’s mother, née Denise Recapet, died in 1934 when Lurton was only nine years old. His father, who worked for a British commercial group, never remarried, and it was his mother’s parents who were apparently most influential in the boy’s upbringing. The grandfather, Léonce Recapet (1858-1943), must have been an imposing presence in the boy’s life. Léonce took up his own father’s distilling business after his four years of military service — he must have seen the Franco-Prussian War — and built it into a considerable success; then went on into the wine industry, buying his own Château Bonnet in 1897, later adding other properties.

Lurton saw service himself, of course, during World War II and the German occupation; some of the most moving pages in this book describe the difficulty of those days, and then of the actual battle he saw after the return of the Free French, when he fought the retreating Germans in eastern France.

The first fifty pages bring us from these biographical accounts — scanty but suggestive of the influences that molded the man — to the years after demobilization, lean years of returning to normal. The grandfather was gone, and he worked alongside his father until an uncle helped him take own his place in the vignoble, at Château Bonnet. He learned to be not only a vineyardist but a farmer as well, raising corn and potatoes, providing for a young family, as he’d married shortly after the war.

Succeeding conversations provide insight into the Bordeaux vinification methods as they slowly evolved in the years after the war, from relatively haphazard production to much more carefully calculated techniques. There are marvelous pages on the complex regulations concerning real estate, appellations controllées acreages, and financing: French readers will follow these pages more closely, but we Americans find here hints at the baroque intricacies of the French bureaucratic mind, which trains the French to master subtlety and patience.

Lurton discusses degustation, the tasting of wine; its vocabulary; its variability from one expert to the next. He discusses screw-caps, which he favors for white wines. He discusses the problems of press reviews. There are a couple of delicious pages on the subject of Robert Parker, the American writer whose ratings have so greatly influenced the production and marketing of wine in its international market. Berdin asks if Lurton thinks Parker has truly influenced methods of wine-production:

Lurton: Oh yes! Everybody wanted to make Parker’s wine. Where it had the most influence, though, was on the techniques of sampling. (He laughs.) … Each time he comes [to the vignoble], a couple of weeks or a month before there’s a tripotage in the cellars to prepare the samples. There’s a visit to this cave, that barrique… he knows about it, but there’s nothing he can do.

Lurton has things to say about regulation: he has little patience for the labeling laws, or for the current concern for safety and security in general. “The media are partly responsible for this propensity to fear everything.” And then there are his observations of journalists: “I’ve rarely met an informed or an objective journalist… it’s extraordinary how inept they can be, what stupidities and errors they can write… there are many who know nothing at all about a probem and who want to try to discuss it.”

Lurton emerges as an opinionated, hands-on veteran of the long and fascinating transition from the last decades of traditional winemaking, through the interruption of World War II, through the emergence of scholarly and theoretical approaches to the art, through the political and corporate domination of its industrialization, always with a pragmatic and, it must be said, often surprisingly patient long view of his metier.

He’s unhappy with the world as he finds it now, globalized and regulated by bureaucrats; but then what reasonable man over sixty is not. “France is a unique country which can do fantastic things,” he summarizes, on the closing page, “but which always criticizes itself, destroying itself. That’s what worries me for my children and grandchildren. But I hope they’ve had a minimum of training not to go too far wrong and to dare to act, to have some dynamism…

"A rich laborer, feeling his death coming on, gathered his children together, and said to them…”
[He laughs…] “Work; take pains; that’s the approach that misses least!” (Travaillez, prenez de la peine: c'est le fonds qui manque le moins! )

Ultimately these conversations over a bottle with André Lurton suggest the possibility there will always be a few wise old men (and women too), who have known hunger and hard work, who aren't fooled by fashion; and that that's enough to get humanity through a rough patch and back to basics. I'll lift a glass to that!

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Einstein, Poincaré, and the drift toward Relativity

Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's Maps: Empires of Time. By Peter Galison. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003.

MOM ALWAYS LISTENED to a radio program on weekday mornings — some kind of news commentary, I think it was. It came on at nine o'clock sharp, and always began with the stentorious announcement that "It's High Noon In New York." Hearing that, I'd always look at our clock, which would read something between 8:45 and a few minutes past nine. It always fascinated me, this difference in times. I knew that anything said on the radio must be true, especially if it came from far away, yet my brain told me that it was nine o'clock, though our clock was rarely so sure.

Local time, Daylight Savings Time, Standard Time. Growing up in the country even a kid was aware of all these things, with that dim awareness kids have of such things. Except for school days, time was measured by sun and stomach: but school required promptness, and you wouldn't want to get there too early but you couldn't be late, and it was, oh, a good forty-minute walk.

These uncertainties prevailed even among urban adults until well into the 19th century. In spite of its title, chosen I think more for merchandising than for accuracy, Peter Galison's book is about the history of the synchonization of clocks in the Western World — as that history affected the gradual emergence of Einstein's theory of relativity, it is true. A photograph in this sometimes maddening book shows the Tower of the Island, in Geneva, which about 1880 had three prominent  clocks indicating the time(s): 10:13 here in Geneva, 9:58 in Paris; 10:18 in Bern. Six years later two of the clocks had been taken down, as time was now sychornized all the way from Paris to Bern, and beyond.

The problem, of course, is that the earth rotates on its axis (which is on the whole a very good thing). I look up at noon: the sun's as high as it will climb today, though probably in the southern sky. In New York, though, that happened three hours ago. 

There were a number of reasons the 19th century wanted to standardize time and synchronize clocks. It was a logical concomitant of the Industrial Revolution, of the Enlightenment. And therefore its history is grounded in that of England and France. Galison's hero, in this book, is certainly Henri Poincaré (1854-1912), the French polymath, graduate of the École Polytechnique, that quintessentially French institution born of the Revolution.

One forgets the essentially Rational nature of the Revolution, which replaced the superstition- and religion-obsessed Monarchy (which was positioned on  the Great Chain of Being, leading between the lowest worm and God,  just below God Himself) with a Republic grounded in the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. One of the major points was to replace arbitrary verities emanating from divine revelation or regal whim with equally arbitrary verities determined by groups of scientist-philosophers. The Metric System, for example, was developed by the Polytechnique, for the practtical reason of facilitating trade throughout the nation through standared weights and measures: a bolt of cloth woven in Nîmes should be measured the same as one woven in, say, Paris. 

(Another factor: the importance of bringing every corner of the nation under the administration of a central authority in Paris. The history of local-versus-capital tension is long, complex, and fascinating.)

Galison's story is significant and absorbing, but his editors and publisher have not done him many favors. There are odd lapses in grammar and even odd errors — in one case, for example, a confusion of starting and ending positions in an account of signaling between positions. The book is rich with detail, ranging from Poincaré's forensic investigation of a coal-mine explosion to the survey of meridians in Africa and the Andes. The poltics of scientific research would be a rich enough subject for a history all its own, and Galison valiantly brings it in, as well as the comic-opera argument between England and France over the decimalization of time measurement (France lost) and their joint research into the precise distance between the Greenwich meridian and that of Paris (England seems to have yielded). 

Galison's study is a chapter in the history of ideas, and a measure of the difficulty of writing such a chapter is itself a central aspect of his book. Early on, he describes the nature of this complexity, calling it "critical opalescence." He is so fond of the metaphor, and the reader needs so much to keep it in mind, that it's worth a long quote to show his method:

Imagine an ocean covered by a confined atmosphere of water vapor. When this world is hot enough, the water evaporates; when the vapor cools, it condenses and rains down into the ocean. But if the pressure and heat are such that, as the water expands, the vapor is compressed, eventually the liquid and gas approach the same density. As that critical point nears, something quite extraordinary occurs. Water and vapor no longer remain stable; instead, all through this world, pockets of liquid and vapor begin to flash back and forth between the two phases, from vapor to liquid, from liquid to vapor—from tiny clusters of molecules to volumes nearly the size of the planet. At this critical point, light of different wavelengths begins reflecting off drops of different sizes—purple off smaller drops, red off larger ones. Soon, light is bouncing off at every possible wavelength. Every color of the visible spectrum is reflected as if from mother-of-pearl. Such wildly fluctuating phase changes reflect light with what is known as critical opalescence. 
This is the metaphor we need for coordinated time. Once in a great while a scientific-technological shift occurs that cannot be understood in the cleanly separated domains of technology, science, or philosophy. The coordination of time in the half-century following 1860 simply does not sublime in a slow, even-paced process from the technological field upward into the more rarified realms of science and philosophy. Nor did ideas of time synchronization originate in a pure realm of thought and then condense into the objects and actions of machines and factories. In its fluctuations back and forth between the abstract and the concrete, in its variegated scales, time coordination emerges in the volatile phase changes of critical opalescence.
(Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's Maps, pp. 39-40)

Galison's discussion traces the development of time standardization and coordination through a fascinating period, the century-plus leading from the French Revolution (1789) to the publication of Einstein's first papers on time and space — in the history of ideas, from the disastrous triumph of Rationalism to the cubist fragmentation of Relativity; from the displacement of divine and regal authority by that of republican committees to the eventual triumph (or disaster) of unbridled democratic individualism and the provisional, negotiable structures that follow.

The only hope for truth or certainty, given the "critical opalescence" of the philosophical, political, and even scientific landmarks along this historical path, lies in some kind of reasoned abstraction defining an intellectual framework within which to negotiate the numbers assignable to the objects we contemplate: time, distance, justice, value, administration. It's too much to hope for a clear presentation of this problem, let alone a clear discussion of the concepts and illuminations brought to the party by such minds as Poincaré and Einstein — and a number of others mentioned in passing in Galison's book. 

I wish he'd had better copy editing. I wish someone had asked him to resolve repetitions, to clarify arguments, to provide timelines. I wish the index were more detailed. But I thank him for giving us a book worth setting next to Ken Alder's The Measure of All Things, and for including copious notes and drawings and photos and an extensive bibliography. Written toward a popular audience, it's a book worth keeping and ruminating over. 

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Remembering Judy Rodgers

WE HAVE LOST another major presence — in our extended family, in our profession, in our community. Judy Rodgers, who was always so focussed, intelligent, committed, and fine in every way, died yesterday, only 57 years old, after a particularly nasty year dealing with a late-discovered cancer.

Judy was the age of our oldest daughter, and she lived a couple of years with her; she came young to "our" restaurant; she lived in our house one summer while we were away; she traveled a few weeks with us another summer, when we took lodgings together for a couple of hot weeks in Firenze.

I have always loved her, though we saw little of her after our move to the country. I've always thought of her as a honorary daughter and a friend. Now of course I regret the missed opportunities to spend more time with her: but like most restaurateurs who happen to have families she was either at work or at home, and we didn't like to distract her at work, or intrude on precious time with her family.

Judy somehow managed to merge or mediate France and Missouri, Stanford and Berkeley. Here's what I mean: she was born in St. Louis Missouri into a family not particularly interested in food. She spent a year as an exchange student in Roanne where she happened to be placed in the home of Jean Troisgros, one of the great three-star chefs in France, co-proprietor of Les Frères Troisgros in Roanne.

She majored in art history at Stanford, but hung out at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Alice Waters recognized her gifts and her skills quickly and put her in charge of lunches there.

She spent a few weeks in our house on Curtis Street, while we were in France and Italy; there she read virtually all our cookbooks, cover to cover.

In my mind's eye I see a photo Lindsey took in Chiomonte, the Italian Alpine village her father was born in: she's standing in the road, gesturing exuberantly to Lindsey's distant cousin Ernesto and Rosa.

I see her on the staircase in our Pensione Orchidea in Firenze, flaming red hair, very short miniskirt, color everywhere. She and Lindsey had been spending another day in museums and galleries. (I'd been at my desk.)

I see her in the house she and Peter shared with Thérèse and Eric: one or two of our overflow prints or posters are on the walls, but the most striking decor is the dozens of pairs of shoes, hanging by their high heels from the picture molding around the tops of the walls in the living and dining rooms.

She was tall and lanky, lanternjawed, beautiful in a Katherine Hepburny way. She introduced us to Dan McCleary, whose huge painting of a menacing wolf hung for years in her Zuni Café. She knew books, paintings, cooks and cooking.

I remember the Crawfish Dinner she put on at the Union Hotel in Benicia: as we pulled up to park I saw an escapee scuttling down the sidewalk toward the bay. Let him go, Judy said, He's earned a reprieve.

I remember the street dinner she arranged outside Zuni. We ate at temporary tables on the alley on a balmy night, and a soprano sang opera arias from a window in the second story.

I remember the duck dinners at Zuni, repeating things she'd learned from her mentor Pepette Arbulo in her restaurant in the Landes. She used all of the duck, and duck went into all of the meal, which ended with merveilles, pastries fried in duck fat. (On the last day of the duck marathon, when nearly everything had been eaten, we feasted on roasted duck bones. Delicious.)

Judy was what we used to call, in days more innocent of correctness, a man's woman: a woman who was anyone's equal, who knew that her place in the world was precisely wherever the hell she wanted it to be. I think of her and Catherine Brandel and Marion Cunningham and Barbara Tropp, gone all of them now; it would be nice to think they're at a case of Champagne in a very special Elysian Fields.

There are a lot of touching tributes to Judy online at the moment: here and here and very usefully here, where I found the photo I've used here, and where another shows her in front of the oven Eric built for her at Zuni.

I particularly like David Lebovitz's tribute here. He mentions celery and anchovies as an example of the specificity of her work; and he recalls her clogs and her cotton skirt billowing out as she turns quickly to face her kitchen. She was always both deft and certain, her hair and skirts always seemed airy and light-hearted yet her address to work or conversation or friendship seemed always direct and crisp and right on target. She was graceful though lanky. She was demanding and perfectionist and suffered no fools, but loyal and generous with her friendship.

She was a magnificent woman, dedicated to la nourriture, scholarly and practical, zesty and forthright.

Her best memorial will probably always be her superb book, The Zuni Café Cookbook (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002). When we brought our copy home I immediately made her Caesar salad from it, and the result tasted exactly like a Caesar salad at Zuni. Her writing is engaging, clear, enthusiastic, and persuasive. The book was given the James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year in 2003; Zuni was named Outstanding Restaurant in the country; and the following year she was named Outstanding Chef of the year.

And now she's gone, and there's nothing to be done but be thankful for having known her, and for the generosity of her work. Next time we're in town we'll have a Martini at the bar at Zuni, and maybe some anchovies and celery, or dates and Parmesan. She'll be there, of course; but it won't be quite the same.