Liner notes from a Tasting Notes session at Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in New York on Monday, March 9. Listen along with a Spotify playlist full of surf rock and West Coast hip-hop here.

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Drinking a wine and saying it’s new-wave means….what, exactly? 

Maybe it’s that we had an idea about what California wine could be; there was a story we’d been told, and decided to believe. If there’s a new wave in West Coast wine, it’s in part because we’re finding, in the glass,  new stories to tell.

And the thing about stories, about the idea of California, is that we made it all up. California was never just high-octane cult cabernet, or boxed white zinfandel, or even the Santa Barbera pinot noir of Sideways. The state’s first vines were listán prieto cuttings that Franciscans put into the ground outside of San Diego in the 1700s; the heart of its first wine industry was settlers farming mission grapes on the banks of the Los Angeles River. The vines in Martha Stoumen’s carignan were planted in 1948; the ‘up-and-coming’ Sierra Foothills used to be the largest winegrowing region in California, during the 1850s Gold Rush.

We made up the idea of California in music, too. It’s hard to imagine, let’s be honest, two forms more formally different than surf rock’s reverb-soaked tremelo guitar riffs of the early 1960s and the West Coast G-funk that dominated the mid-90s pop charts. But both, to me, conjure an instant sense of place. The ambient temperature matches your skin temperature and walking outside feels like swimming; you’re looking up from a backseat at a cloudless blue sky, heads of palm trees rolling past; everything is washed in sunlight and possibility. I think this is true whether we’re talking Warren G’s “Regulate” or the Beach Boys’ “Catch a Wave.”

But because a playlist of wall-to-wall The Ventures alternating with Snoop Dogg would be strange and boring, I’ve also cut in acts that represent a ‘new-wave’ evolution in what California can be, whether it’s the reverb-y coastal haze that seemed to permeate late-aughts indie rock (Dum Dum Girls, Best Coast) or the hip-hop artists redefining what West Coast rap means (Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak).

As for the wines, they’re coming from vines and places outside of the mainstream (chenin and verdejo in the Sacramento Delta, a garage winery in the Sierra Foothills, a midcentury vineyard in Mendocino, Nate Ready in Oregon farming his field-plantings in Hood River, not Willamette), and from a new generation, as well. Craig started in 2008, Nate in 2010; Chris’ first vintage was 2016, and Martha’s first solo release was the year after. The new wave may be just an idea, a story we tell ourselves — but the stories we tell can drive change in the real world, too.

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Not pictured: Littorai’s “Haven Vineyard” and Haarmeyer’s pet-nat, both chenins.

New-Wave Wines By the Glass

Craig Haarmeyer, “St. Rey – Sutter Home Vineyard” – 15
Chenin pet-nat from vines in Clarksburg, made in Sacramento. Craig is a chenin obsessive, and this might be my favorite sparkling from the variety I’ve tasted in the new world.

Chris Walsh – The End of Nowhere, “Space Oddity” – 12
Fresh, salty verdejo (traditionally grown in northern Spain) with a little bit of foot-stomped skin contact. Vinified in the Sierra Foothills, in a small farm winery surrounded by forest. Named for the Bowie song.

Nate Ready – Hiyu Wine Farm, “Hypericum” – 20
Nate is reimagining viticulture at Hiyu. A half-acre plot in the shadow of Mount Hood, Oregon, field-planted to a sprawling family of varieties from the southern Mediterranean, including assyrtiko, fiano, falanghina, and verdicchio. 

Martha Stoumen, “Venturi Vineyard” – 15
Whole-cluster carignan planted in Mendocino in 1948. One of my favorite underdog varieties for its ability to hold on to freshness and elegance in warm places.  

 

Drink in Context With the Old School
There were always people tending vines and making wines outside of the dominant paradigm. Whatever ‘new-wave’ in wine is, it’s as much about reviving what was lost or forgotten, alternate histories and paths not taken, as it is inventing something new.

Ted Lemon – Littorai, “Haven” – 16 (3oz.)
At 25, Ted Lemon became the first American to run an estate in Burgundy: Domaine Guy Roulot. 18 years later, having become a legendary figure for Sonoma Coast pinot noir,  he acquired the shale, sandstone and green serpentine terroir that would become his biodynamic estate vineyard. He grafted over a small portion of the chardonnay vines to chenin in 2010. This is the third vintage of the chenin. 

Joel Peterson – Once and Future Wine, “Teldeschi Vineyard – Frank’s Block”  – 12 (3oz.)
Joel founded Ravenswood in 1976, and has spent a career crafting old-school wines out of the state’s ancient mixed vineyards. Teldeschi was planted in 1904 to zinfandel, rounded out with a bit of alicante and carignan. Fermented in old redwood tanks and aged in oak, it’s a powerful wine that comes by its dimensions honestly.

Liner notes from a Tasting Notes session at Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in New York on Monday, January 13. Listen along to the Spotify playlist.

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Without any intervention at all, grapevines would climb the nearest tree. Their fruit would fall to the ground, split open, and be eaten by birds. What would music without intervention be? Silence, or birdsong.

So the question that a producer (pun intentional) asks isn’t ‘do I intervene’? It’s how much, and when, to rack, where to put the microphone, what vessel to ferment in, what grape varieties to plant, which instrument to play, whether to train the vines and in which tuning, what tempo and what spacing. Do you use a tractor, or an amplifier? Do you filter your vocals or your juice? Is someone else writing your songs, and did you buy cultured yeast?

Go back far enough in time and certain interventions now standard in popular music or commercial wine become impossible, or extremely difficult. Just as everyone working in the vineyard before WWII was basically ‘organic,’ before the ‘40s every studio recording was a live performance captured by acoustic horns or electronic microphones and etched directly onto a soft wax master. You could overdub, but it was time-consuming, and if there was an error in the recording that was it: the wax was etched. You could use chemical fertilizer in your vines and chaptalize your fruit, but you didn’t have sterile filtration, temperature control, or reverse osmosis. Resources matter, too, even if you’re living in an age of pesticides and Pro Tools: manipulation can be expensive whether you’re making music or wine. When I was in Imereti in western Georgia, farmers told me they couldn’t afford not to farm organically. 

I don’t know what Tinariwen, the Tuareg music collective whose founder built his first guitar in an Algerian refugee camp, and who recorded their international CD debut in the only north Mali radio station that spoke their language, would say about playing to a click track or swapping in individual notes and phrases from different takes. Ted Hawkins, who spent most of his itinerant musical life playing distinctive open tunings on an overturned milk crate in Venice Beach, sat still enough to record twelve songs with a blues producer in the early 70s, but the release was delayed for a decade after he disappeared and ended up in prison. Sometimes songs get recorded in a single take because you can’t afford any more studio time.

Still, it must be said: there’s a difference between the manipulation of something you farm and consume and the manipulation of something you’re listening to. Digital recording techniques won’t pollute your watershed. If acidifying with tartaric is something like auto-tuning to tweak pitch, that still leaves a question of style, or play. Is anybody using bags of tartaric acid to make wine that’s the equivalent of Kanye vocals on 808 & Heartbreak

The history of popular music being litigated for purity—for being ‘real’—by certain fans is an ugly, cramped one, and one that tends to privilege a certain kind of voice: white, male, holding a guitar. 

And while I’ve put on some of my favorites in that vein—John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, who recorded dozens of songs into the microphone of a Panasonic boom box that take the form of Lydia Davis short stories; the activist folk of Si Kahn and Utah Philips; live recordings of the Velvet Underground over two nights in San Francisco in 1969, which yields among other things my personally definitive version of “Heroin”—I’ve also tried to interpret ‘low-intervention’ as widely and generously as possible, along as many different axes as I can think of. 

At its most elemental, there are improvisatory performances by a single musician playing a single instrument: Yo-Yo Ma recording, for the third and last time in his career, J.S. Bach’s cello suite no. 5 in C minor, whose mood he calls “a struggle for hope”; Brad Melhdau pulling Radiohead or Brahms apart live on a piano and then reassembling them in new shapes; New Orleans boogie legend James Booker doing the same, in service of a more ornate groove, to the blues and Chopin.

There are field recordings—Alan Lomax capturing the call-and-response of the olive pressing in Italy, Andrew Bird playing the violin in Utah’s Coyote Gulch canyon system, Brazilian guitarist Seu Jorge covering Bowie in Portuguese on the set of The Life Aquatic—and unconventional studios (the four women of La Luz recorded their sophomore album of sinister beach noir in the back of a surf shop; Robert Johnson did “Me and the Devil Blues” in a Dallas warehouse). 

There are studio recordings with full accompaniment that nonetheless have elements that are ragged, conversational, that feel like they’re being negotiated in real time: the apocalyptic dirtbag anthems of Lifter Puller; the guitar-drum interplay in Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods; the toy instruments and frantic changes of the Unicorns’ indie pop gem Who Will Cut Our Hair When We Die?

Minimalist instrumentation, or shaggy improvisational groups; lo-fi recording devices, or professionally captured live performances; traditional music sung by untrained voices, and a capella harmonies; ‘wrong’ notes, and tunings outside of the Western 12-note scale; tempos that are elastic rather than set in stone—and, in the end, zero-intervention music after all, in the form of a recorded performance of John Cage’s “4’33’’.” There’s a score! There’s a stage! There’s an audience—what more do you need?

I often say, when trying to describe the effect of minimal-intervention wine, that it’s like tasting ‘broadband’: the range of possible expression is wider, there’s more chance for dissonance or signals that are a little strange, but there’s also a richer space of play. I hope that the music tonight feels like the wines do—pure, expansive, a little wild—and that, if nothing else, they find something to say to one another.

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Lo-Fi Wines By the Glass

I am Didimi from Dimi and this is my Krakhuna, Imereti, Georgia 2018  — 14
For me, krakhuna is the chenin of Georgia, in the country’s west, where the wines are fresher & the climate more humid; vines are traditionally pergola-trained, and Didimi, now in his 70s and unable to see clearly, harvests them by feel.

Franz Strohmeier, weissburgunder, “Lysegron No. 5”, Steiermark, Austria 2017 — 20
Franz’s vines are farmed like a garden; he hasn’t even sprayed copper in years (he uses whey to combat mildew). Beautiful, pure, apparently some proportion of free-run juice. 

Julien Guillot – Clos de Vignes du Maynes, pinot noir / pinot fin / gamay noir / gamay à petits grains / chardonnay, “Cuvée 910”, Mâcon, France 2018 — 18
A tribute to 10th-century winemaking, from a mixed planting of old Burgundian varieties in a clos first documented in 910, brought to the winery in carts pulled by Charolais bulls, foot-pressed, hand-bottled without sulfur. 

Envínate, listán blanco y prieto, “Vidueño de Santiago del Teide”, Tenerife, Spain 2016 — 19
Own-rooted centenarian 0.15 hectare field planting of the red & white grapes that founded west coast viticulture in the Americas, foot-crushed in plastic bins, moved to three large barrels, the only wine they bottle with zero sulfur.

Sommakase — 90
Taste all four wines as well as a few extraordinary surprises

Wines of last year

11 January 2019

This is a list of seven bottles of wine, two big groups of wine, & two small tasting pours that I drank in 2018. I made all sorts of rules for this list—that they all be full bottles instead of tastes, that I paid for all of them, that I drank them with other people rather than alone, that they not be chenin, etc—and then I ended up breaking all of them, in one way or another. The main thing is that they’re wines that taught me something, drunk in a context that mattered, and I can’t stop thinking about them.

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Aligoté

15 March 2018

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

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“In the past, aligoté was planted at the top of Chambertin! Musigny blanc was half aligoté! It was half of Corton! After phylloxera, most replanted with easier-to-grow chardonnay and put aligoté on the other side of the road where no one ever planted anything but carrots and potatoes. This was the sad story of ruined aligoté.”
LAURENT PONSOT, to Alice Feiring *

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Alice et olivier de moor

17 February 2018

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

Before we leave the Yonne entirely, let’s abandon Chablis’ classified vineyards & go a little further afield, to a couple making wines close to my heart and worth special consideration: Alice and Olivier De Moor.

demoor

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Chablis, or deadwood

21 January 2018

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal. Previously: Hatzidakis. Huet. J.B. Becker & Eva Fricke. Prévost, and Chartogne-Taillet. Lelarge-Pugeot, Brochet, Agrapart, Ulysses Collin, and others. More general stuff about barbarians, sugar, and coats-of-arms. A now-outdated introduction. Revisions.]

chardonnay

Let’s talk chardonnay for a second. Still known occasionally in Chablis by one of its many aliases, beaunois (‘from Beaune’), the white grape of the region didn’t start going by its modern spelling until the beginning of the 20th century. By then the name (original 17th century spelling: chardonnet) had converged with the village of Chardonnay down in southern Burgundy, in the Mâconnais. It may or may not actually have originated around there, but soundalikes have their own power. The village’s name comes from the vegetation: thistles (Latin carduus, Old French chardon). Chardonnet is also Old French for goldfinch, “a bird that haunts the thistle,” known also in German literally as the “thistle-finch,” or distelfink.

So, chardonnay: vine from the thistle-covered place.

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[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

Taking another crack at Benoit Courault’s chenin in Anjou, since I was never really happy with it the first time. (The translating, not the drinking. Very happy with the drinking.) Courault, origin name for “from Courand,” in Allier, I couldn’t quite hack with  the resources at my disposal, so I resorted to shitty workarounds: “From the Land that Gives Us Kings,” for the Duchy of Bourbon’s roots in Allier, and then “From the Territory of the God of Hot Springs,” since that’s the root of Bourbon (Brovo, the Celtic deity, from *brovo, “froth, foam.” There’s a whole Celtic thing of fountains and divinity being synonymous, with the roots for springs & gushing forth & water from rock and the roots for gods & creation kind of becoming the same, and also, concurrently, deified rivers, sacred springs…)

This morning I made the mistake of coming across someone who knows what they’re doing, a French Ph.D candidate in cognitive semantics with a specialty, basically, in Celtic words relating to time and place and seasons. In the blog post above, part of his brother-in-law’s website about very, very long hiking trips, he casually works through a whole list of Loire Valley placenames that his brother-in-law is walking through, like so:

14/05/13 Aurec Auriaco en 1030. Idem Blanzac pour –(i)aco. Soit nom de personne Aurius, soit gaulois auaria (attesté dans Avaricum, Aveyron, Avière, Yèvre). La racine au-,av- (=> breton aven) désigne divers « courant d’eau ». Il n’est pas exclu que Avara ait été divinisée, comme de nombreux noms de rivières celtiques. Soit pour Aurec : simplement le « lieu où coule une rivière » ou « lieu dédié à la déesse des rivières Avara » ?

It’s in French, but still a neat read even machine-translated if you’d like (note: there’s a whole thing about deified Celtic rivers in that excerpt! I’m not making this shit up!), and a reminder that it’d be nice if I got my hands on references like Stéphane Gendron’s 2008 L’origine des noms de lieux en France, or Pierre-Henri Billy’s 2011 Dictionnaire des noms de lieux de la France. (He leaves a bibliography. I weep, weep for my shitty internet scholarship.)

Anyway it’s a good reminder to keep trying. So let’s take another look at Courand (currently spelled Courant, apparently). Up there, a toponymy for the (different place) Cours-sur-Loire: “de l’ancien français curtis, latin cortem qui ont donné « cour » de basse-cour. C’est un nom de la ferme, établissement agricole.” If I squint halfway this sounds a lot better for Ben’s family name of origin: from a village derived from the old French curtis, Latin cortem, so the heart (courtyard) of a barnyard or stable. Pretty fitting for a guy who lives in the middle of his vines. Courant / courand also has a bunch of senses along the lines of “little stream,” “canal,” and, in one of the toponymic dictionaries I have “canal connecting two ponds, or one pond to the sea.” Now, we’re not really close to the sea down here in Courant (which isn’t even where Ben lives or makes wine, that would be Faye d’Anjou, one of many tree-name towns, from Latin fagea, “beeches”— and here’s some great machine-translated French wikipedia for you, “Part of church property in Faye are insane at the time of religious wars”), and we’re not even that close to a river. But little stream or canal, sure. Maybe I should just go with what’s staring me in the face rather than reaching.

It’d sure be nice if I had literalizations for his cuvées, though. He makes a bunch of different wines.

“Petit Chemin,” his little entry-level chenin, that one’s easy: a pun, somewhere between “narrow path” and “little chenin.” One year it was sparkling. His top white, his only single plot, a half-hectare called “Guinechiens,” is a perplexing word. There’s…”dogs” in there? It kind of sounds like “guinea hen”? (It’s not, guinea hen in French is apparently pintade.)

His reds are “Tabeneaux” (no idea) and “Rouliers” (cart driver?). A delightful little grolleau, “La Coulée,” is a word that gets used for a lot of different geological formations in different francophone places. It carries in French the senses of molten metal being poured into a mold, and the molten metal itself; a corridor or path worn by game through the forest; a lava flow; a mudslide; any slippery, flowing mass. It can be declivities worn by the action of water.  In Louisiana it’s a dry gully that runs flush in a rainstorm, or a stream smaller than a bayou. It can refer to glacial morraines in eastern Washington, or small, steep-sided valleys in Wisconsin. It’s hard to tell here whether Ben’s bottling is a reference to the land or more fanciful allusion.

And I still don’t know what Gilbourg means, but it’s got to be something about either a hill or a town. Just have to keep trying. Does the NYPL have a reading room for this sort of thing?

Maybe I should go back to school.

 

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

A few words on how to translate the grades of sweetness, which can be the sweetness of grape juice sugars left unfermented in wine, fermentation having stopped naturally; or the sweetness of sugars unfermented that stay that way because of temperature control and a sterile filter; or the addition of sterile-filtered unfermented grape juice to reach a certain level of sweetness (called Süssreserve, sweet reserve, in Germany, where it is legal & practiced in a surprising amount of respectable rieslings); or (as in champagne) the mixture of cane sugar or grape juice concentrate and finished wine added to disgorged sparkling wine just before bottling, where this mixture is called the liqueur d’expeditionthe finishing liquid, and the practice dosage, dosing.

In many of these cases, style, traditional practice, and law dictate how you label the resulting level of sweetness, which depending on acidity and other things may not taste very sweet at all. In others, though, such as the sneaky few grams of sugar left in big, modernist, high-alcohol reds for mouthfeel, or basically any table white wine in Alsace, you won’t know until you drink it, and maybe not even then.

What is “dry” wine? Almost all of them. Sweet wines used to be rarities, prized, reserved for popes and emperors. Then refined sugar became widely available, temperature control & filtration made cheap sweet wine on an industrial scale possible, and somewhere along the way “dry” acquired its current cultural connotation of prestige, seriousness, etc, so that the first and most useless question inevitably asked of a list of (uniformly dry) red or white wines is “Which is the driest?”

By the time it says dry on the label, though, sugar is often in actually in play, whether French sec (Vouvray allows up to 8 grams, as long as your acid is high enough) or German trocken (usually up to nine). Sec champagne (which gave the Germans Sekt, their generic word for sparkling wine) is not very dry at all, although it does reflect the fashionable norm of a century or so ago. To go drier than the 17 to 35 added grams per liter of sugar that sec means for champagne a new category, bruthad to be conjured up, with its connotations of savage or brutish; gross, as opposed to net; and raw or unfashioned, as in raw ore or wool, unplaned timber, unpolished gemstones, and unvarnished opinions.

Brut, ironically, still means that sugar has been added, so the new generation of untouched sparkling wines from Champagne needed to go even further in labeling: extra-brut, brut nature, or brut zero (more than raw, naturally raw, and the awkward raw plus nothing). A bottle might say non-dosé, undosed.

Meanwhile, alongside your dry chenins from Vouvray you’ll find demi-sec, or half-dry, which has something in common with the synonymous German halbtrocken (now practically extinct), or the slightly more common and melancholic feinherb, bittersweet.*

*See Stephen Bauer on Lars Carlberg’s Mosel wine site for more on that from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, if you’d like.

Some of the sweetest wines in France will bear the designation moelleux, from the low Latin medullosus, filled with marrow, with its senses, per Larousse, soft and elastic, as for a carpet or a pillow; tender, as in meat, or tone of voice; sweet and velvety to the taste, ear, or sight, as for example a soft chocolate, a babbling brook, or a fine drapery; in literature, who is graceful, flexible, soft and round, curvy, sensual.

A lot of label designations that suggest sweetness, but don’t necessarily require it, refer to time of harvest, or its conditions, such as whether you’ve waited late in the season for the grapes to begin to raisinate on the vine, or for their water to be sucked from them by a fungal rot, or for a cold snap around the winter solstice to freeze them overnight. You might dry the grapes on wooden racks or straw mats to concentrate the sugars, as the ancients did in Roman Italy, Spain, and Greece, and name the wines, dry or sweet, raisined, straw, holy, or forced.

(The Italians have an intricate and incoherent regional profusion of sweet wines, all of which have names, and we’ll talk about them some other time.)

In Hungary, the sweetness levels of Tokaj, puttanyos, are an old measure of the number of 25-kilo baskets, puttony, of boytrytized grapes dumped into a wine barrel.

The Germans are obsessed with the specific gravity of grape juice as a measure of quality, with a tiered system they railroaded into law in 1971. The entry-level, confusingly, appropriates the word, kabinett, for what used to be the highest quality wines in the old days: wines saved for the cabinet. Afterwards: spätlese, late harvest, (the French literal equivalent, Vendages Tardiveswill be much sweeter), and auslese (selected harvest), refering to a process of selection which you also might see referenced in French as a trie, a sweep or pass through the vineyard. And with that we’re well into dessert wine territory. Spätlesen, even auslesen, may be either dry or sweet; the  guarantee do you have when a producer puts it on the bottle is that no cane sugar was added during fermentation to prolong it and raise the alcohol content (a process named, in France, after the chemist Chaptal who invented the procedure, and in German, Trockenzuckerung, dry sugaring). 

In the Austrian Wachau, they classify sugar ripeness along the same lines as the Germans, but in their own allusive code: the lighest Steinfeders, named for the Steinfeder-gras growing near the vines, scientific name Stipa pennata, common name feather-grass (and, in Hungarian, orphan maidenhair); Federspiel, a falconer’s glove, and the taming method in the falconry beloved by local nobility known as the feather-game; and the ripest Smaragdmeaning literally an emerald, and by extension the small, emerald-colored lizards basking in the sun of the Wachau’s terraced vineyards.

Venture deep enough into the American heartland and you’ll see a proliferation of back-label sweetness bars on table wines, dry to semi-dry to semi-sweet to sweet. Your sommelier’s earnest protestations to the contrary (“There’s no such thing as a red that isn’t dry!”), you’ll see $8 to $14 supermarket retail bottles, some of them regional wines, like the 12.5% alcohol “Grand Traverse Select,” a “sweet, 100% vinifera red wine grape blend” from northern Michigan. You’ll see reds from Yellowtail in Australia, which tend to end up at around 10 grams of sugar after grape concentrate has been added.  You’ll see, everywhere, Gallo’s immensely popular Apothic red blend, described by the UK wine critic and Master of Wine Tim Atkin as “undrinkable,” and by its own sales reps in the mid-aughts as a “Menage-Killer,” with its 16+ grams of sugar and total lack of transparency as to additives or sourcing, and your attempts to find out anything useful about this high-volume national brand will instead be met by pages upon pages of wine review blogs written by people subsisting on samples sent by PR flacks, all posted sometime around fall 2012, which must have been around the time Gallo started its charm offensive, most of them quoting or paraphrasing the same press release language and back label copy, which includes the comically arch claim that the brand is inspired by “a mysterious place where wine was blended in 13th century Europe.”

Nothing there fun to translate, though.

 

 

 

 

Even more champagne

1 January 2018

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

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It’s New Year’s Day and I’ve been awake since a decent hour of the morning looking up French village names, so sure! Let’s drink more champagne. It wasn’t so long ago I was too. (And I got to have a glass of Prévost last night. That was nice.)

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Alta allela (cava)

15 December 2017

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

This one’s going to be a quick note about a small victory: in this case, an organic cava producer called Alta Alella. Good wines, coming, as most cava does, from Catalunya. They’re close to Barcelona, between the towns of Tiana and Alella, hence the name: Above Alella.

But where does Allela’s name come from? Time for a trip to Catalán wikipedia!

Documented for the first time in 975 AD in a contract for the sale of land “marking the limits of the west”, a nice machine-translated turn of phrase, then two decades later there’s a saint named Feliu from there mentioned during a land swap, something something marriage something something monastary. Eventually purchased by the monarchy and a royal town (“royal” here meaning Kings of Aragon, who were also the Counts of Barcelona) for a long while thereafter.

Fine fine. Nothing terribly useful so far. But wait: here’s the coat of arms! And here I learned something I didn’t know, I don’t think, which is that coats of arms often sounded out the names of the places or people they represented, which makes sense in a preliterate society. These are called in French & Spanish armas parlantes, armes parlantes, speaking arms, and in English, canting arms, which is to say singing arms, from Anglo-Norman canteventually from Latin cantare), which I think is kind of lovely. Go back far enough and these are often thousand year-old clues in heraldry to shifts in dialect, pronunciation, accent.

The town of Alella is carried into battle (or, today, marked on taxis) by the sign of a—oh ok, I’ll let them say it:

«Escut caironat: d’atzur, mig vol abaixat contornat d’argent; la filiera d’argent. Per timbre una corona mural de poble.»

That’s the language from the most recent municipal ordinance in May 2001, but the important thing is the wing, ala, silver & lowered in midflight (medio vuelo bajado, mig vol abaixat), from whence Alella, more or less. The town of the silver wing lowered in midflight.

The Alta Alella bottling on the list, “Bruant”, is a general French (Catalán too?) word for any bird of the passerine family, the same way we’d say songbird.

Cava, by the way, is what happened when the Spanish were forced by the French in 1972 to give up calling their century-old tradition of champagne-method sparkling wines “Champañas.” Vino de cava, the newly-invented legal term of art, referred to the caves (cavas) in which the bottles slumber during secondary fermentation & aging.