A fool, a fool! I met a fool i' the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!
As I do live by food, I met a fool
Who laid him down and bask'd him in the sun,
And rail'd on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms and yet a motley fool.
As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7
L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.
Les Fleurs du Mal, “Correspondances”
What in the name of Dionysus is bugging Slate's Mike Steinberger, and why does he have it in for the wines of California? Let's review:
Back in July, in a column smacking around the popularity of the wines bottled under the Charles Shaw label, perhaps better known as Two-Buck Chuck, he suggested a number of affordable imported alternatives before concluding bleakly:
And inexpensive domestic wines? Sorry, none to recommend. This is a story in itself, but one that will have to wait for my next column.Consider that next column delivered, as Steinberger now asks: Why is there no such thing as a good, low-priced California wine?.
Forget Arnold and Arianna, the real farce is what's become of California wines. How does a place so conducive to cultivating wine grapes produce so much cheap swill and overpriced mediocrity? Why is the good stuff -- what there is of it -- so egregiously expensive? And why has California given rise to such an obnoxious wine culture? If Californians want to recall something, they might start with all those insipid chardonnays.Steinberger has a number of valid points to make, starting with that slap at California chardonnays: we've had no particular fondness for them chez Fool in many years, as they tend either to be hopelessly over-oaked or flabby and pointless. (New York Times wine writer Frank Prial mocked California winemakers almost two decades ago for their frame of mind that "I can out-Chardonnay any kid on the block." The situation has not improved noticeably in the interim.)
He is also largely right about the snobbery that pervades much of California wine culture, particularly that part of it centered around Cabernet-based wines from the Napa Valley. Napa wineries are the driving force behind the "cult wine" phenomenon. Like a black hole distorting time and space around itself, Napa cult wines have produced a wide ranging distortion in California wine pricing. Of course, the phenomenon has not been without its enablers, notably the high-profile wine critics such as Robert Parker and the staff of the Wine Spectator; winemakers know that a high ranking from those sources will drive sales, so many consciously work to produce wines that will appeal to the known preferences of those writers.
The oddities of California pricing look to be headed for a fall, for the simple reason that fewer consumers are willing to pay what the more self-important wineries want to charge. Some of that change is being driven by the very "cheap swill" Steinberger refers to. Here is the core of the latest installment (from Friday 9/26) in the Los Angeles Times' continuing coverage of the Charles Shaw phenomenon:
Although some vintners have complained that Chuck's immense popularity has undermined major brands and shaken up an already struggling industry, the picture is in fact much more complicated.The idea that there are no California wines worth drinking below the $15.00 range is simply false. It may be true for Steinberger, but that may simply be a consequence of his own personal tastes and style preferences. California wine regions outside of Napa -- Sonoma County and, particularly, Santa Barbara County and the Paso Robles region -- while not entirely immune to the temptation to overcharge, produce highly enjoyable wines at more rational prices, particularly from grape varieties other than Cabernet and Chardonnay -- sauvignon blanc on the white side, for example, zinfandel and syrah on the red. [I would also praise California pinot noir, particularly from the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills areas of Santa Barbara County, but it is genuinely hard to find them at that $15.00 mark. Many to be found in the $20.00 range, however, are well worth it.]
At [an upcoming] symposium, UC Davis wine-business researchers will present findings of a survey in which 6 of 10 wine executives believe that Charles Shaw has helped the industry by depleting excess wine and grape supplies and by creating buzz for California wine in general.
What's more, as Bronco [producer of the Shaw label] has lowered the bar on the price consumers are willing to pay for a bottle of wine, that has created an ever larger market for low-priced wines and spawned a number of similarly priced clones.
'One thing holding back wine consumption is that quality wine is too expensive in the U.S.,' said one survey respondent. 'I think in the future we will see the price pyramid change and become a lot fatter at the bottom.'
Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, the wine-writing duo for the Wall Street Journal -- whose Friday columns are unfortunately not to be had by non-subscribers online -- regularly track down and recommend good wines, including California wines, in the $15.00 and below bracket. At least once a year, they devote a column to particular wineries whose quality and pricing are sufficiently consistent that you can treat them as a trusted brand, one whose wines are unlikely to disappoint. One of their regular recommendations is the R.H. Phillips Winery -- either under that name or under their EXP label (for Rhone-style wines) -- almost all come in under the magic $15.00 figure and are consistently enjoyable. The Phillips winery is unusual for being located in the Dunnigan Hills of Yolo County, northwest of Sacramento.
For my part, I also recommend the wines of Sonoma County's Rodney Strong Vineyards . The winery's releases are reliably enjoyable across the board (even their chardonnays are less offensive than many). The Russian River Valley pinot noir is consistently good and has a stated retail price of $18.00 (it can probably be found for less); the reserve bottling at $30.00 is also worthwhile. At $12.00 suggested retail, the winery's Charlotte's Home Sauvignon Blanc is also worth finding. All of this producer's wines, in my experience, play well with others when combined with food.
All told, when Mike Steinberger claims there is not a worthwhile California wine to be had for under $15.00, he is either exaggerating or not trying very hard. Or perhaps there's just no pleasing some people.
You Know How to Whistle, Don't You?
The ongoing "Legislative Bill-A-Palooza" at The Southern California Law Blog is profiling dubious legislation being signed into law by Once But Not Necessarily Future Governor Gray Davis, as he awaits The People's verdict on his administration.
One bill probably not worthy of attention in that context is AB 377, described in this Press Release from the Governor's office as part of "a package of legislation that will improve motorist safety, enhance enforcement and safeguard consumer rights":
AB 377 by Assemblymember Chan (D-Alameda) would prohibit the modification of motor vehicle's exhaust system with a whistle-tip. A 'whistle-tip' is a device applied to a vehicle's tailpipe that creates a high-pitched or shrieking noise when the vehicle is in use. The devise serves no purpose other than to make noise. Under the legislation, violators will be fined $250 for operating a motor vehicle equipped with a whistle-tip and $1,000 for engaging in the business of installing a whistle tip on a tailpipe.Back in August, my chum the proprietor of Futurballa Blog sent along an e-mail with a link to this hard-hitting local news report on scourge of whistle tips, featuring some impressive demonstrations, some fine motoring skills and an interview with one Bubb Rubb. Having made his acquaintance, you will perhaps enjoy toying with The Official Bubb Rubb SoundBoard.
'Whistle tips serve no purpose other than to annoy people,' Assembly member Chan said. 'Seeing this bill signed into law will mean quieter neighborhoods and a better quality of life.'
Candidates of Easy Virtue
Say what you will about Arianna Huffington's run for Governor of California, her campaign is the undeniable leader in producing funny, less than entirely tasteful ads.
David Giacalone, from his non-blawging undisclosed location, forwarded along this New York Times opinion piece by Adam Cohen, which jumps off from a study reported in the journal Nature, much commented upon elsewhere, involving capuchin monkeys. Nature’s report gives the gist as follows:
[Sarah] Brosnan [of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia] and her colleague Frans de Waal taught brown capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella) to swap plastic tokens for food. Normally, monkeys were happy to exchange a token for some cucumber.The import of these findings would seem to be that capuchins (the females at least) are economic conservatives who object to the existence of “free riders” who receive greater rewards for the same work or investment. Or perhaps we’re dealing with simple envy: “How does that other monkey make her tokens go so much further than mine? Ooooh, I’m so put out I could just fling a cucumber!”
But the monkeys took offence if they saw a neighbour getting a grape for a token. In about half of such trials, the short-changed capuchin either refused to hand over its token, or rejected the reward. Some threw the token or cucumber clean out of their cage.
The animals' umbrage was even greater if another monkey got a grape for nothing. About 80% rebelled in some way in this situation.
In the Times, however, Adam Cohen is drawing other conclusions:
There is, certainly, a risk of reading too much into the feeding habits of 10 research monkeys. But in a week when fairness was so evidently on the ropes -- from the World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun, which poor nations walked out of in frustration, to the latest issue of Forbes, reporting that the richest 400 Americans are worth $955 billion -- the capuchin monkeys offered a glimmer of hope from the primate gene pool.While the poorer nations’ aggravations in Cancun [on which much more can be found at this blog] may be vaguely comparable to the monkeys’ situation, the extrapolation to the Forbes 400 is a bit much: Is Cohen objecting to the bare fact that those 400 fortunate souls possess substantial wealth, no matter how each may have earned or deserved it? The monkeys’ annoyance seems, rather more rationally, to be with the unequal return on investment: “What? She gets a grape for the same price I paid for this lousy cucumber? Outrageous!”
The study's implication that we are, to some extent, hard-wired for fairness speaks with special force to the legal system. American law has undergone a transformation in recent years, led by conservative Supreme Court justices and scholars, away from a focus on broad principles of fairness and toward a willingness to subject people to treatment that might be unjust, on the grounds that it is legal. The monkey study suggests, however, that fairness might be more than a currently unfashionable legal concept. It may be integral to who we are.
But Cohen is prepared to go further, leaping from distribution issues to unrelated platonic ideals of The Good and The Fair, which have been lost to us through the wicked machinations of the usual villains, Conservative Male Humans Who Are Republicans:
Today, in law's eternal battle between strictly applied rules and broader principles of fairness, the pendulum is rapidly swinging back toward strict rules. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court considered the case of Leandro Andrade, a father of three who, because of California's harsh ‘three strikes and you're out’ law, was sentenced to 50 years to life for stealing $153.54 worth of videotapes. The court's four liberals protested the unfairness of the sentence, arguing in dissent that if it was not ‘grossly disproportionate’ to the crime, and therefore a violation of the Eighth Amendment's bar on cruel and unusual punishment, ‘the principle has no meaning.’ But the court's five-justice conservative majority concluded, in effect, that rules are rules, and that the sentence ‘was not an unreasonable application of our clearly established law.’We have come a long way from our starting point and the path has been lost in the underbrush. Whatever the substantive merits of Cohen’s thoughts on crime and punishment (which are beyond the scope of this post), they seem to have little to do with the price of grapes in Atlanta.
In death penalty cases, criminal appeals, discrimination suits, the conservative majority regularly shows an indifference to the sort of fairness claims that would have prevailed in the 1960's. Lower federal court judges are also engaged in heated battles between rules and broader fairness principles, notably over the federal sentencing guidelines. The guidelines can pressure judges to impose sentences that, given the facts of a particular case, would result in unfairness. But the Justice Department, egged on by Republicans in Congress, is collecting data on judges who give lighter sentences than the guidelines recommend, which critics say could be used to create a blacklist.
In fact, the monkeys seem to be dealing in "strict rules" themselves -- 1 token = 1 cucumber -- and objecting when that rule isn't followed. Cohen, apparently, sees cucumber-tossing as a sort of noble hunger strike: "I'll starve myself rather than condone this inequity. No justice, no cucs!") But perhaps the entiry result can be explained by simple envy: "She gets a grape and all I get is this stupid cucumber? That grape should be mine, I tell you! Ooooh, I'm so mad, I could just throw a vegetable!" One sees what one wants to see, I suppose.
Elsewhere, Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber has a long and thoughtful look at the study (he leaves the Cohen article behind early) with particular emphasis on the evolutionary biology angles. The attendant reader comments are thought-provoking as well.
[An earlier version of this post was unceremoniously destroyed by some sort of Blogger server glitch. I have attempted to recreate it, with what success I leave you to judge. Ifyou don't like this version, I promise you the earlier one was better.]
Recall 2K+3: Rise of the Punchy Machines
[I know I’m a bit late to the dance with this one, but I had it almost ready to post much earlier today when the exigencies of the non-blogging life intervened. But I digress . . .]
It will surprise no one, I suspect, to learn that I believe the 11-member en banc panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal was correct in reversing the original 3-judge panel and in affirming the decision of the U.S. District Court that there is no good cause to prohibit the California gubernatorial recall election from proceeding on October 7, even if some counties are still utilizing punchcard voting systems. The en banc decision hangs its hat on the failure of the ACLU to meet its burden of proof: in order to obtain the injunction against the election proceeding with punchcard machines in place, the ACLU was obliged to show that the likely threat to constitutionally protected interests was so compelling in advance of the actual election (which we join already in progress) that it would trump the interest of the State of California in conducting that election on the schedule otherwise required by the recall statute. In order to meet that burden, the ACLU essentially had to establish (as it tried to do) that punchcard voting is always constitutionally unsound, which it was unable to do.
Here is the key difference between this case and the rationale of Bush v. Gore: when the U.S. Supreme Court became involved in the Florida recounts, the election itself had already taken place and the issue related to the proper method of counting the ballots, including ballots cast with punchcard equipment. All of the suggestions in the Supreme Court’s decision that punchcard equipment is problematic stemmed from the fact that the number of votes cast for candidates Bush and Gore were in fact so close to one another that the “ordinary” error rate of punchcard equipment, and the vagaries of counting unclearly executed punchcard ballots, were actually going to make a difference. In California, we will not know whether there is any doubt about the accuracy of punchcard results until we see how close the initial vote counts turn out to be. Why? Because even if some number x of voters are “disenfranchised” because their votes are recorded or counted incorrectly by punchcard equipment, that disenfranchisement is purely theoretical unless their correctly-tabulated votes (i.e., the votes that each of those voters intended to cast and took the necessary steps to cast correctly) would change the outcome. The original 3-judge panel estimated that "approximately 40,000 voters who travel to the polls and cast their ballot will not have their vote counted at all." If the initial count shows Gray Davis being recalled or retained by a margin of, say, 100,000 votes -- less than a third of the difference between Davis’ count and the count for Republican Bill Simon in the original gubernatorial election, considered to be a very close race -- it will not matter whether those 40,000 votes were accurately counted or not: even if every one of them had been cast in the opposite way from the way the count goes, they would not change the outcome.
It is right and proper to be concerned, as the ACLU was, that “every vote should count.” But that concern cannot blind us to the way that elections actually work. Elections are by definition a zero-sum game: for each candidate who prevails, every other candidate must lose. In the end, the only votes that individually “count” -- that actually affect the big-picture outcome -- are the votes equal to the number by which the winner’s total exceeds the totals of the losers. Every other vote ceases to count when it is cancelled by a countervailing vote for some other candidate. (And if you throw in the federal electoral college system, the losing candidate’s votes count for even less. No one who voted for George W. Bush in California had any say whatever in the selection of the President, because California’s electoral votes went 100% for Al Gore, as they would have done had Mr. Gore’s total in the popular vote exceeded Mr. Bush’s by even one.) So, each voter who voted in favor of the winning candidate can indulge in the fiction that his or her individual vote was one of those that actually produced his candidate’s victory; the losing candidate’s voters are all effectively nullified, like subatomic particles meeting their opposites, and “count” for nothing.
It is certainly possible that either the recall vote or, if the recall is sustained, the vote for Gray Davis’ successor will be sufficiently close that highly precise counts will be needed to determine the true outcome. I hope that is not the case, because it will only prolong and compound the rest of the nation’s misguided view that we Californians have all run away to join the circus. Even if the election is a close one, the real threat of punchcard equipment is hardly a certainty: after all, with all the publicity concerning the system’s potential problems, one would hope that most voters will actually take the time to look and see whether their punch card (a) has the correct number of holes in it and (b) in the right places [each voting option has a number, which should match on the punch machine and the card] before it is deposited in the box. As the 9th Circuit concluded, the mere possibility of problems is not the equivalent of actual problems, and it is best that Californians have the opportunity to show that they can pull this election off before a court jumps to the conclusion that we can’t.
Few things are more tedious than bloggers complaining about how Busy They Have Been With Other Things, so let's pretend that this sentence, and all that it implies, is not actually prefacing this post, shall we?
We've had no new posts here since Sunday evening -- except this one, which starts with this sentence rather than with the one you just agreed to ignore -- but that doesn't mean there's nothing in the pipeline. Here are some items that are Coming Soon, loosely defined as likely to appear in some form in the next 24 to 48 hours:
♣ Why the 9th Circuit is correct to allow the recall to proceed as originally scheduled, including some thoughts on why punchcard voting can only be constitutionally suspect after all the votes have been cast.
♣ Comment on the dangers of anthropomorphism and agenda-driven journalism, involving those lovable capuchin monkeys.
♣ More talk about poetry, with particular attention to lines and how to break them.
♣ Something else, I'm sure. It will come to me.
California Seen Through the Press Darkly
Historian and state librarian Kevin Starr complains at length in today's Los Angeles Times that we Californians have taken to Scorning Public Life:
For two decades, Californians have not been engaged — psychologically, intellectually, imaginatively — at the statewide level. In the era of Govs. Earl Warren, Goodwin Knight and Pat Brown, Sacramento was at the center of the California experience. In such public-minded visions as the freeway system, the statewide water plan and the master plan for higher education, Californians expressed their highest creativity.Starr overlooks an important contributor to the invisibility of California state government: a press that can't or won't provide the sort of ongoing coverage that would give the average citizen the first idea what is going on in Sacramento. Local television news operations maintain no presence in Sacramento and can go days or weeks at a time without mentioning the capital -- unless, perhaps, there was an interesting police pursuit there. The print media -- notably including the Times -- provides rudimentary coverage at best. Columnist Jill Stewart is all over the blindness of the press in this week's column:
Then things began to change. State government became the problem, not the solution. With the information revolution — realized and symbolized by the Internet — California began to devolve into a federation of local autonomies. State government didn't disappear, but it became increasingly invisible as local identities and values superseded Sacramento's. Part of the reason that state programs got so out of sync with sustainable revenues was this invisibility. Californians were too busy finding California locally to bother with finding it in Sacramento. Term limits finalized this devolution, for they brought state government a steady succession of local and locally oriented elected officials.
A wise man said democracy is guaranteed only by a vigilant press. The collapse of leadership in the statehouse, which led to the greatest state budget deficit in U.S. history and to the recall against Davis, is the direct result of an extended lack of journalistic vigilance.Stewart's column also provides a guide to some of the more shortsighted or self-serving items of legislation that have been sent to the Governor's desk while the public's back was turned, unreported by the press.
Had Davis believed the public was alert and questioning the overspending he willingly approved beginning years ago, the cowardly Davis might have feared the people more than the lobbyists. He might have vetoed mounting overspending.
Instead, the media handled the emerging crisis as a boring budget story, inadvertently protecting Davis and kissing off the public's need to know.
The Conventional Wisdom among bloggers, of course, is that blogs are The Answer, that they can provide the coverage that the more organized and edited media do not. And the Sacramento Bee took a step in that direction when it authorized public affairs columnist Daniel Weintraub to launch his blog, California Insider -- often cited here for its timely coverage of recall-related news. Today, however, we learn that Weintraub's wings are to be clipped: thanks to a complaint from the Latino caucus in the Legislature, the Bee's ombudsman has made it known that nothing will be allowed to be posted to the Insider blog unless it has first been cleared with another Bee editor. Mickey Kaus broke the story, and blogospheric heavyweights such as Glenn Reynolds and Matt Welch have leapt in to express their disapproval and dismay -- in which this Fool joins. A large collection of links and comment can be found at Robert Tagorda's Priorities & Frivolities.
Harrumph. How can the news be fit to print if no one's willing to print it?