Sometimes public wine tastings are all about the wine. Sometimes it’s the event itself that takes center stage. This past month, Your West Coast Oenophile has attended two tastings put on by the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association (SCMWA); both gatherings proved to be impeccable.
I waxed rather eloquently in a previous posting about their trade tasting at Trevese in Los Gatos. My most recent encounter was for their annual Wine with Heart benefit, held for the second time at Roaring Camp in Felton. The afternoon could not have been more pleasant.
I suspect I am not alone in having climbed Highway 17 from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz innumerable times since the late 1970s without ever veering off near the summit and discovering a vibrant community nestled in the hills. Perhaps this semi-clandestine location is what has allowed Felton to retain its quaint charm. In any case, Roaring Camp features a recreation of a turn-of-the-century whistle stop and still operates a Southern Pacific rail line that runs to the boardwalk far below.
Many wineries gave both time and tastings quite generously to this event; their contribution to the medical research this event helps sustain is quite laudable. But, like a good Lothario, I compulsively seek out that which I have yet to conquer. Ahlgren Vineyards started me off with a stark contrast the understated 2005 Ahlgren Sémillon and a boisterous 2004 Ahlgren Cabernet Franc. From Campbell, Pinder Winery(not to be confused with Pindar, a meretricious Boeotian lyricist from the 5th century BCE, as well as a modern-day Long Island winery) displayed their Rhône-style virtuosity with their 2006 Viognier and 2004 Mourvèdre Contra Costa. Aptos Creek Vineyard, a decidedly boutique affair, offered a 2004 Pinot Noir Santa Cruz County that made one wish it were not such a rarity. The same could be said for the 2007 Chardonnay from Bruzzone Family Vineyards. A third micro-producer, formerly known as Dragonfly Cellars but transitioning to their taxonomic equivalent, Odonata Wines, sampled the remainder of their 65-case special 2006 Durif.
Keeping things local, Hunter Hill Vineyards resonated with a 2005 Estate Syrah Santa Cruz Mountains and a 2005 Estate Merlot Santa Cruz Mountains. Fernwood this afternoon (not to be confused with Fernwood 2Night(nonetheless made mirth with their 2006 Central Coast Petite Sirah and 2006 Il Cane Sangiovese. Not to be outdone in the pun department, Burrell School brought a wide selection of their academically-themed wines, the standout being their aptly-named “Spring Break,” the 2005 Syrah Estate Pichon Vineyard. Handcrafted Pinot Nor from Clos Títa included their eminent 2005 Pinot Noir Cuvée, Santa Cruz Mountains. In keeping with the Santa Cruz aura, two organic wineries were showcased: Silver Mountain Vineyards with their 2003 Alloy (a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot) and Zayante Vineyards, whose 2007 Santa Cruz Mountain Estate Clos du Z combines Grenache, Petite Sirah, and Syrah.
. This highly-coveted designation has to be resuscitated for the amazing 1997 Blanc de Blanc Méthode Champenoise Sparkling Chardonnay from Equinox. A one-man sparkling operation, this 100 percent Chardonnay spent nine years en triage, and was bottled with no dosage. If only he had brought his 2006 Bartolo Fiano as well!
But regrets were not to be had on this gloriously sunny afternoon. After the tasting portion had closed down, guests were treated to a ride on Roaring Camp’s Santa Cruz, Big Trees & Pacific Railway halfway down the mountain toward Santa Cruz. It reminded me of the train ride Dr. Zhivago and his family took from Moscow to Yuriatin. Only it was warm here. And the train cars were open-air. And these were not the Urals. And I don’t recall wine freely flowing in the movie. Several of the wineries brought their leftover bottles along, and generous glasses from Naumann Vineyards, Byington , Cooper-Garrod Estate and Bonny Doon kept everyone well-oiled for the ensuing 1½-hour trek.
Of course, all good things must come to an end. Back at the camp, the Ginkgo Girl and I took in the lingering rays of sunshine before heading back to San Francisco. Even she had to agree, it had been a most splendid afternoon.
Whether other nations make better wine than we do is debatable, although readers of this blog know that Your West Coast Oenophile has intoned mightily on this subject many times over the past several months. One thing that is inarguable is that they do know how to say certain things better, like the title to this installment.
I am not hesitant to concede the rather pedestrian perspective that shaped my introduction to wine. Wine selections at most of the suburban establishments where I dined consisted of an unidentified red or white and sometimes rosé, which was often a house-made blend of the other two offerings.
On the next level were the myriad imports. Italian wines consisted of Verdicchio or Soave, Valpolicella or Montepulciano from such august houses as Bolla or Cella; Chiantis, in their straw cradles, were mostly distinguished by competing lengths of their bottle necks. French wines meant a cheap Louis Jadot négotiant blend or one of Stiller & Meara’s totems to kitsch and tastelessness(the other being the films of their unctuous offspring, Ben). From Portugal came the tangy twins, Mateus and Lancers, whose ceramic bottles formed candle holders at nearly every red-checkered tablecloth spot I can remember.
The aforementioned generic white and red wines, frequently labeled Chablis and Burgundy, heralded from a quintet of California jug producers and their New York compatriot, Taylor (later on, Coca Cola bought up Taylor and launched Taylor California, which subsequently purchased both Almaden and Paul Masson en route to becoming the behemoth we now know as Constellation). All six brands produced an inventory of red, white and rosé in a variety of bottle sizes; Almaden, if memory serves correct, complicated the equation by offering a choice in whites: Chablis or Rhine. The backbone of all these wines were cheap, plentiful table grapes like Thompson seedless and Tokay, grown in abundance throughout the Central Valley. Of the six brands, Gallo was then, as it is now, predominant. In turn, Paul Masson distinguished itself with the overdramatic promotions of their pompous pitchman, Orson Welles, and atypical bottling in a glass carafe that usually found itself recycled next to the Lancers candlesticks.
The breakthough to this monotonous ensemble came with Robert Mondavi’s Woodbridge Winery and their ever-popular 1.5 liter blends, affectionately known as Bob White and Bob Red. These may not have been GREAT wines, but, at least, here were California jug wines that were PRETTY DAMN GOOD. Though not labeled as such, these wines had varietal character (Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon) and easily held their own as everyday table wine or as a thoughtful contribution to a BYOB party. Besides providing Mondavi with the funds he needed to establish his Oakville labels, these wines compelled the folks in Modesto to launch an aggressive advertising campaign** to assert their wine’s quality.
Focus groups automatically eliminate anyone in the advertising filed from participating on their panels. Advertising is an astoundingly cutthroat profession, curiously so in that one would think people ought to be able to rise to the top based on talent and the quality of their work, as opposed to certain industries where the hyper-aggressive accrual of money is the only barometer of success. But it is not so much a disdain for this sordid occupation as a belief that people who work in advertising might skew the results that causes marketing researchers to preclude them.
In its struggle for self-preservation, the hierarchy in advertising strives to maintain mediocrity and marginalizes individuals who might upend this equilibrium. Having been deemed too talented for my own good, I spent years outside the inner sanctum, churning out a modicum of subsistence as an indentured freelancer. As such, I never felt any compunction at not disqualifying myself when offered the opportunity to participate in a focus group. My responses have always been honest and unbiased by my professional activities. However, on topics of which I have a strong familiarity, like Apple-related products, I have not been at all reticent in displaying my acumen.
Such has been the case a number of times that I have participated in wine marketing reviews. It’s sad, of course, when a great label is acquired by one of the major conglomerates, who then systematically the brand. Twice I’ve asked to new launches from the once-esteemed Beaulieu Vineyards, first their BV Coastal label, then their subsequent BV Century Cellars, which, to my highly-vocal dismay, did not supplant the former sideline but was placed alongside it as part of Diageo’s reckless pursuit of market saturation. More recently, I was asked to preview the design for Solaire, a Central Coast designation apocryphally attributed to Robert Mondavi. Here was everything true wine lovers had long feared when Constellation bought up Mondavi’s portfolio; rather than restore the label to the prominence it had once enjoyed (over the several years preceding this acquisition, certain scions within Mondavi Generation II had eviscerated the brand, with a watered-down Coastal appellation and a fantasy of planting grapes on Mars), the astute folks from Canandaigua, NY continued the erosion with this blasphemous derivative.
Of course, it is highly improbable that California wine will return to its inglorious past and produce the markedly inferior jug wines of a generation ago. And, despite my continuing trepidation, I suspect its giant corporate parent will still manage to preserve the quality of Robert Mondavi Reserve and, of course, Opus One. But the devolution of this brand in particular, which has done so much to elevate the quality of wine grown here, as well as others like BV, into massive, almost generic factories under the guise of industry conglomerates is an atrocity, with little sign of mitigation portending.
Fast-forward to last Saturday’s Uncorked! Wine Festival at Ghirardelli Square, a placed for which I had once designed a commercial with liquid chocolate bubbling forth from its court fountain (naturally, the myopic principals at the ad agency quashed the idea). Billed as a festival with 53 participating wineries, there were quite a number of corporate-held satellites among the booths. Given the proximity of this event to Cellar 360, it didn’t come as much of a surprise that nearly all of Foster’s Wine Estates’ California portfolio was present, and, in all fairness, the majority of these labels (Cellar No. 8, Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Sbragia, Etude, Meridian, Souverain, Taz, Stag’s Leap Winery, St. Clement and Wattle Creek) have maintained a remarkable degree of autonomy. Jackson Family Wines was ably represented by Arrowood Vineyards, which, like all of the wineries in this portfolio has been allowed to stay true to its origins. Constellation, on the other hand, has shown itself to be far more intrusive with its acquisitions (as noted above), but I cannot attest to how much control Clos du Bois, their sole holding at this event, has relinquished.
The last heavyweight pouring at Ghirardelli Square was, of course, Gallo, which has battled Constellation for several years now for bragging rights to the megalomanic epithet World’s Largest Wine Company. Their attendees included a couple of labels Gallo Generation 3 has cultivated out of their Sonoma vineyard acquisitions: Frei Brothers and MacMurray Ranch, along with 1.5 liter titan Barefoot Winery(originally Barefoot Bynum), and their premium Napa acquisition, William Hill Estate and Louis M. Martini. Changes to these latter two brands may appear subtle to the consumer, but changes are indeed underfoot, despite previous declarations of a hands-off approach. What will come, now that William Hill’s winemaker has been “transfered” to Martini remains to be seen, but the alarming development has been the launch of a second label from Martini, the Napa-Sonoma hybrid known as Ghost Pines. Some may celebrate this development of reasonably-priced Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon from these leading AVAs, but I found them rather underwhelming. Worse, I fear, they will be harbingers of more diminution of the brand along the lines of what Robert Mondavi and BV has endured at the hands of their corporate parent, if not worse. Years ago, Louis P. Martini invited me to lunch at his winery, where I enjoyed an animated conversation and a 1984 Barbera that still brings tears to my eyes. “Louie,” I told the girl pouring for William Hill, ”is most assuredly rolling in his grave.”
But let me close on a more optimistic note, for indeed, there were many delightful discoveries among the hitherto unfamiliar labels I encountered at the Uncorked! event, be it a subtle Tempranillo from Berryessa Gap Vineyards or the splendid array of Italian varietals from Rosa d’Oro. I promised the pourer for Deerfield Ranch that if the Ginkgo Girl and I decide to solemnize our relationship, we would serve his Super T-Rex***, an artful blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a touch of Dolcetto. Fellow Hotchkiss internee Zelock Chow showed off a noteworthy Cabernet from his family’s Howell Mountain Vineyards, as did Charlie Dollbaum from Carica Wines. Another Howell Mountain venture, White Cottage Ranch, pleased with their 2006 Merlot, while Hall Wines showed exactly how organically-grown Cabernet shines. The 2006 Seven Artisans from RDJ Artisan Wine Company proved a more-than-competent Pomerol-style Meritage, while a chilled 2007 Roussanne from Truchard Vineyards offered a welcome antidote to the rather stifling afternoon heat. Yorkville Cellars, a Mendocino organic winery, boasts of being the only house in California to grow and produce each of the eight Bordeaux grapes as single varietals, and while they neglected to bring their much-anticipated Carménère, the five wines they poured did not disappoint. Another Mendocino operation, Zina Hyde Cunningham, managed to satisfy my Barbera craving, while DL Carinalli Vineyards made good with their 2007 Chardonnay and 2007 Pinot Noir.
Speaking of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, I do owe acknowledgment to my new acquaintance from Suacci Carciere, who enabled me to obtain tickets to this event; thankfully, the 2.5 mile pedal from Pacific Heights to this event was a whole lot easier than the 35-mile roundtrip I made the previous week to their Sideways tasting in Larkspur. And despite my long-winded perorations the Uncorked Wine Festival was a welcome urban escape for a Saturday afternoon, supporting a highly worthwhile cause (Le Cocina) in these economically-challenging times and giving voice to a number of promising, independent wine ventures, as well as their house brands.
**Despite the late Hal Riney’s gravel-voiced recitation, the slew of gold and silver medals were mostly awarded to The Wine Cellars of Ernest and Julio Gallo, one of the myriad labels they offered in the 1980s, which accounted for significantly less than 1% of their total production.
***There’s a subtle, inside joke that only people who know us would understand.
10. His beat-up Saab convertible is far less eco-friendly than the car I drive (41 MPG highway).
9. I have a full beard, not the sculpted scraggle he wears.
8. I have NEVER used the word soupçon in describing a wine.
7. Prep school portrayals like A Separate Peace are so unflattering.
6. Friends don’t let friends marry Armenians.
5. My mother’s hordes her secret cash stash in a 2,000 lb. vault.
4. The plays I write are filled with sardonic humor.
3. San Diego State???
2. Anyone who knows me knows I’d have gone for the Asian babe. Then
again, it was Sandra Oh, named by Maxim as the #3 Unsexiest Woman
in the World, behind Sarah Jessica Parker and Amy Winehouse.
1. Robbe-Grillet? Château Cheval Blanc? Richebourg? This guy is a closet
The folks who produce Pinot Days invited me up to a mini-preview tasting, along with a special showing of Sideways at the Lark Theater last night. I hadn’t seen my friend Sasha Verhage of Eno in ages, not since he and his fellow wineries at 805 Camelia had generously donated $1,000 in wines to the fundraiser for my playwrights’ group, Play Café in Berkeley.
Being that yesterday was Bike to Work Day, I decided to be extra-diligent in my sustainable transportation practices and brave the 16 mile jaunt from my humble abode in Pac Heights to Larkspur on my 14-speed Trek. Somehow, I managed to veer off the path I had carefully mapped out after crossing East Blithedale, but the ever-reliable Maps application on my iPhone quickly routed me back to Camino Alto, alongside Masada, Bill Graham’s former hilltop estate. (note to self: it will be a very long time before I cycle 16 miles to a wine tasting again).
I still managed to arrive 35 minutes before the curtain, plenty of time to compose myself and sample the Pinot Noir selections from the three participating winers: Eno, Ketcham Estate, and Suacci Carciere. Each winery brought their 2006 bottling and their current 2007. While the earlier vintage showed quite nicely for each, clearly the 2007s were more lush and textured, a well-balanced, nuance wine with subtle wafts of—good God, I am becoming Miles!
The movie was still quite entertaining after several years, and several of the locations were quite familiar to me this time. Unlike Miles, I was able to leave the venue quite clear headed and wound my way down to the base of Marin County. There are few experiences quite as serene as pedaling across the Golden Gate Bridge in the moonlight, but, alas, a most unwelcome fog was barreling through; with little scenery to distract me, I raced across the span in a valiant effort to stay warm. Back in San Francisco, the fog was heavy enough that it actually condensed in several spots through the Presidio, further delaying my arrival.
Back at home, the Ginkgo Girl was already under the covers. “What took you so long?” she asked. It was a moment Miles could onl
y have dreamed about. I quickly took a hot shower, but by the time I came back to bed, she was already sound asleep.
οἶνοψ πόντος(the wine-dark sea) is perhaps the most quote phrase from Homer (Odyssey 1.183). Your West Coast Oenophile derives his nom de plume from φιλεῖν (to love) and οἶνος(wine).
These citations are merely a contrivance to allow me to slip in the seventh language (ancient Greek) that I’ve employed, to date, in this blog. Since I began maintaining this electronic diary in January, I’ve cranked out approximately 21,669 words, including today‘s entry.
More germane, however, is that I’ve sampled well over 50 distinct varietals and blends from California, Oregon and Washington throughout the past 4⅓ months. Don’t even ask how many wines that constitutes (although my liver takes comfort that it’s sufficiently under 1,000) nor how many wineries I’ve covered (at best, 5% of the labels currently produced on the West Coast). Obviously, I have a lot more painstaking work still ahead!
The point is that I say to all those import-centric contrarians, particularly among the self-proclaimed locavore establishments: we have an abundance of excellent wine right here in our midst to create a consistently intriguing wine list at Sostevinobile.
I have a friend—I mention this with a rather detached sense of bemusement—who is vying for the title of Most Dourest Man on the Planet (if you knew him, this would not seem a redundancy). Fortunately, he has a histaminic reaction to wine and almost never drinks it; otherwise, I might have titled this entry “Sour Grapes.”
One of the pillars of his “campaign,” so it seems, is to become the living embodiment of the truism “Misery Loves Company.” Although Your West Coast Oenophile is demonstrably younger and vastly more well-preserved than such a palpably decrepit fatalist, this dour fellow incessantly strives to cajole a kind of pathetic empathy, commencing his pronouncements with such leveling phrases as “when you get to be our age” or “guys like us.” Perish the thought!
Recently, he sought my concurrence with his conjecture that, having reached that point in life known as the “declining years,” “we” no longer have the tolerance to wait on line an hour or so to get into this new hot spot or that fancy nightclub. “On the contrary,” I protested. “I never had the patience for that!”
To this day, I cannot fathom the rationale in lining up for a place which will be packed to the rafters and as deafening as a crowded subway station. Why endure the indignity of being herded like cattle just to endure the further indignity of a venue where you cannot move more than an inch at a time or hear what the person beside you is saying? Is this really how people connect with each other?
Which brings me to the phenomenon known as the overcrowded wine-tasting event. Last Monday, I obliged myself to attend both the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association tasting in Los Gatos and the California Cabernet Society’s Spring Barrel tasting in San Francisco. How I managed the two, I am still trying to fathom. Don’t get me wrong—these were marvelous events, with opportunities to sample some incredible wines. It’s just that the pleasure I used to derive from such gatherings is diminishing as I find myself becoming more and more overwhelmed by the crush—not of grapes, but of attendees.
There is an æsthetic to wine tasting, perhaps even a need for a touch of solipsism, in order to enjoy fully the aromas, flavors and texture of a well-executed vintage. The more tranquil the setting, the more conducive to the pleasure of the indulgence (as we deliberate the design for Sostevinobile, this attribute will remain a paramount consideration). Granted, I am trading a large degree of serenity at these tastings for the convenience of meeting with 40 or 60 or 100 wineries, all in a convenient, centralized location, but with wine cradle slung about my neck, a pen clasped in one hand and a program guide steadied by the other, the task presented me—taking copious notes, exchanging pleasantries and business cards, and remaining focused through four hours of standing and sipping—becomes rather daunting, if not onerous. Especially amid a throng of several hundred with the same agenda as mine.
But enough with my lamentations. To paraphrase a familiar saying, “there’s no crying over spilt (spit?) wine.” And certainly, I have to offer tremendous plaudits to the good folks from the Santa Cruz Mountain Winegrowers for their selection of a setting for their wine expo. Those familiar with Los Gatos know it as an oasis of charm amidst the monolith sprawl of light industrial campuses that dominates Silicon Valley. Largely overshadowed by the culinary meccas of San Francisco, Berkeley and the Napa/Sonoma axis, Los Gatos (along with its neighboring Saratoga) now boast three of the 28 Bay Area restaurants to garner stars in the prestigious Michelin guide. Ensconced in the former Coggeshall mansion, a picturesque Queen Anne Victorian located along the major downtown thoroughfare, Michael Miller’s Italian gem, Trevese, readily reveals why it warrants this coveted accolade.
In between delectable canapés of mushroom mousse and smoked sturgeon, I fended my way through my fellow trade attendees and managed to sample pourings from each of the 29 wineries present. New discoveries included the 2006 San Andreas Red, an estate-grown Bordeaux blend from the boutique Black Ridge Vineyards. Its companion winery, Heart O’ The Mountain, the former Alfred Hitchcock estate in Scotts Valley excelled with its 2006 Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains. Winemaker Frank Ashton of the whimsically named Downhill Winery introduced me to his 2008 Torrontés, a white wine that usually heralds from Argentina and a perfect counterpart to his 2007 Chardonnay Sleepy Hollow. Echoing Downhill’s Iberian-style affinity, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards offered an array of Spanish and Portuguese varietals, including their 2008 Verdelho Alta Mesa, their Douro-style 2005 Concertina, and a 2006 Touriga Pierce Ranch; of course, I’d be remiss not to cite their 2006 Durif McDowell Valley, a wine that tripped me up in a recent blind tasting at Vino Locale.
Saratoga’s Cinnabar Winery most impressed me with a trio of their wines, a 2004 Petit Verdot from Lodi, their Bordeaux-style 2006 Mercury Rising blend, and an intriguing interpretation of their 2004 Teroldego. Similarly striking was the 2007 Viognier Santa Cruz Mountains from Cooper-Garrod Estate Vineyards, and both the 2008 J. D. Hurley Sauvignon Blanc and the 2006 J. D. Hurley Merlot from Gilroy’s Martin Ranch Winery. Tiny Sones Cellars offered a striking 2006 Petite Sirah, and an excellent array of Pinot Noirs were displayed by both Muccigrosso Vineyards and Sonnet Wine Cellars.
Formidable could not even begin to describe the task that await me later that afternoon at San Francisco’s Bently Reserve. My trek to Los Gatos had left me with barely an hour to wind my way through 93 purveyors of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Bordeaux-style Meritage blends. And each was presenting not only their current releases, but their 2008 barrel samples. Throw in a crowd of 400 or more, and you begin to realize what a Herculean task confronted me. Even with a number of old familiars, like Jordan, Beaulieu Vineyards and Arrowood; recent acquaintances like Adelaida Cellars, Justin, and Ty Caton; and a slew of participants from April’s Napa Valley with Altitude and the Acme Atelier tastings, I was barely able to make a dent.
When I was in graduate school, the Women’s Locker Room attendant also maintained the sign-up list for the squash courts at the Smith Swim Center. Looking up from the registry one evening, I found myself gazing at four naked coeds, pristinely bathed and eagerly awaiting their towels from the dispensary. To put it bluntly, it is nigh impossible for any 19-year-old, all pink and fragrant from a fresh shower to look bad; similarly, it is quite a feat for any Cabernet at the level presented last Monday not to be good. I will make individual amends with all the wineries not mentioned here as I meticulously make my way through the roster in the California Cabernet Society program guide. For the time being, however, let me offer kudos to those I did manage to savor: Kenefick Ranch, Arns, Sequum, Garden Creek, Corison, Roberts + Rogers, Ascentia, Atlas Peak, Martin Estate, Delectus, Steven Kent, and, as a most appropriate finial to the apex of this event, the wondrously-named…Allora!
Back when the term “California wine” connoted jugs of indistinguishable blends from Gallo, Almaden, Paul Masson, Sebastiani and Inglenook, Your West Coast Oenophile contemplated a career in Comparative Literature. That meant acquiring command of six separate languages, so, at various junctures throughout the course of my academic history, I studied French, Latin, ancient Greek, Russian, Italian, and, of course, English. I didn’t quite make it to the PhD, having hied back to California in time to plop myself on Red Rock Beach the day I was supposed to attend the MA ceremonies at a place to which I sometimes allude in my fictional passages as Coprochrome University, nor did I ever return to the hallowed halls of Holy Child to inquire of my eighth grade instructress Sister Frances (“I am a rara avis”) Heron just what certain expurgated passages in Juvenal really meant.
One might note the absence of Spanish in my hexalingual curriculum. I offer no apologies for never having studied this language, something I may expound in a subsequent entry. Nor did I ever take a course in the “beautiful science,” as some proponents describe Economics. As conservative columnist Jeffrey Hart once told me, “I believe whatever economist I happen to be speaking to;” uncharacteristically, I find myself in complete agreement with his wry assertion.
Back when I ran off to London to craft my creative undergraduate thesis, The Love Story of Big Daddy’s Пошлость,I had the good fortune to convert my savings over to pounds sterling just days before Jimmy Carter made a particularly dismal pronouncement—even for him. Overnight, the value of the dollar plummeted 30%. The foreign exchange professors I had accompanied howled how their meager academic stipend, paid in US currency, how now dwindled past the point of subsistence, but I regaled in the unexpected increment in my personal fortune.
Still, it struck me as utterly absurd that I should suddenly become quantifiably wealthier simply because of something the President of the United States said on television. It made absolutely no sense, unless one ascribed to a particular school of economics. Or maybe to its antithesis. All in all, it just seemed to me to be utter contrivance, and had the economic pundits decided to have been glowing in their assessment of Carter, instead of disparaging, I would probably have found myself proportionately bereft.
In 1998, Random House published two polls of the 100 Best Novels. One list came from members of the Modern Library Board; the other was compiled from a year-long poll of 217,520 readers. Seven of the Top Ten novels on the Readers Poll were written by either of those towering luminaries of 20th century intellectualism, L. Ron Hubbard or Ayn Rand. Now both deceased, their respective philosophies are extolled today by that Scientology’s most prominent proselytizer, John Travolta, and the principal acolyte of Rand’s Objectivism, AlanGreenspan. Greenspan’s laissez-faire approach to governance virtually gave license to the abuses of Enron and WorldCom and enabled the sub-prime mortgage scandal that has fueled our current economic nadir; still, his principal hubris stemmed from his sheer delight in crafting pronouncements that could catalyze baseless volatility in the stock exchanges (recall how his exultant epithet “irrational exuberance” precipitated the collapse of the dot.com boom).
Ad hominem attacks aside, the root of my disdain for the former Fed Chairman is not the well-warranted disparagement of the individual but the notion that economic prediction is anything but social alchemy. I have long maintained that the economic climate can be easily be understood by a most empirical methodology (in other words, my guess is just as good as your guess). Every year I assay the state of the economy by a simple methodology: on what date do I first receive a new coin from that year’s mintage?
It’s not quite reductio ad absurdum, but the underlying logic of my economic theory is profoundly simple. Deftly pour a small splash of wine (we can use Taylor Lake Country Red to mitigate any pain over wasting a fine vintage) into a tub of cold water and the red pollutant will remain relatively static; agitate the water and the coloring will soon diffuse across the entire bath. Similarly, in a vibrant economy, newly-minted coins will radiate rapidly from the Denver (or Philadelphia) nexus; in stagnant times, circulation moves at an excruciatingly lethargic pace.
So far, my results have varied widely, but, in retrospect, have proved precisely accurate harbingers of what lay ahead financially in every year that I have conducted this survey. if memory serves true, the earliest appearance of a new coin was around January 30, somewhere in the 1990s (perhaps 1999?). Median time frame is around February 25- March 10. Last year, I did not see a single 2008 coin until May 16, and I believe most people know what happened to the economy thereafter.
2009? It was starting to seem bleak enough that I had set my sights on the Fourth of July, until the Ginkgo Girl presented me with a brand-new District of Columbia quarter this morning. Featuring Duke Ellington and the motto “Justice for All,” this pristine ducat actually wound its way into her purse last Thursday, so the official date this year is April 30. That still bodes rather ill for the economy, but compared to 2008, perhaps things are rebounding after all.