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.


Some notes on style drift

15 December 2017

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

A consequence of this taking so long, aside from a certain loss of momentum around the holidays, is a perceptible shift in style that I’ve been thinking about recently.

The original literal wine list was supposed to be shorter, in general, and snappier; more along Thunder Mountain Chardonnay lines. In my head I’d always pictured an imaginary audience of my Midwestern countrymen (& relatives), who look for something on a wine list that reads like Frog’s Leap Merlot—varietally labelled, an eye-catching cute brand name (and by the way I’m throwing no shade at Frog’s Leap, it’s a pioneer of organics in Napa, I’m just saying)rather than, say, Vieux Château Certan Pomerol, which, what even is the grape? how do I pronounce this? fancy foreign things are suspicious they have the ring of the gilded and meretricious to them

(By the way, I say ‘Midwest’ not to indulge in regional stereotyping but because a) I’m from there, and I’ve see this play out, and b) in a market like New York, people have been cultivating east-facing Francophilia in their fine dining for decades and there’s a lot more aspirational ‘I know what Pomerol is’ going on.)

So initially some rules in my head that I’ve since thrown out were: don’t literalize international grape varieties (keep it chardonnay, riesling, cabernet franc); Americanize all first names (Cathy & Peter “Cabernet Franc” for Catherine et Pierre Breton); be happy with cool-sounding nonsense (Jurassic Cream, which does sound awesome, mostly because dinosaurs).

Against that would be what I’ll call the Atlas of True Names tendency, baroque sonorous Tolkeinisms (Pearls of the White Mountain, Valley of the Moon) that reach their peak with chenin rendered as the Plant of the Place of the People of the Place. Which still delights me.

As it got longer, though, and especially after I started writing little notes to keep track of all of the snap decisions I was making & the sources I was using (notes that may interest most people more than the ostensible project itself), things…changed. One thing I noticed myself doing was editorializing a little bit more. The last name Lafarge, literally “The Forge”, is a metonymic surname for blacksmith, so I rendered it Man from the Forge. For some reason I decided in the moment to render the Meursault vineyard Les Perrières, literally “The Quarry”, into the more explanatory So Much Limestone It’s Like A Quarry. Rather than call pinot noir “Black Pinecone”, it gets the longer notation, Cone-Shaped Clusters, Black.

I’m pretty sure at the outset of all of this I said specifically this wasn’t supposed to be an educational gloss. And it probably still isn’t! But I think I just got bored with the idea of stringing a bunch of nonsense words together. When it works, it works, but when it doesn’t… Barley Field Great Renown “Pinecone” Moon Valley is nobody’s idea of a good time.

If you had asked me when I started doing this whether I was planning to basically reenact the entire discourse in translation around the benefits and limits of literalism I would not have said yes, but here we are, learning the lesson the hard way.