Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Definitely Not A Fruit Loop

From the movie "The Gang's All Here"
When I hear the name Carmen Miranda, I picture a vivacious lass sashaying across the floor. She’s wearing a hat made of fruit and is singing with a Latin accent, wooing onlookers with a cheeky smile. Sure, it’s the image Carmen portrayed in Hollywood movies, but not one her fellow countrymen in Brazil were too happy about.

Born in 1909 to Portuguese parents, Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha immigrated to Brazil with her father when she was ten months old. Her father worked in the produce business, and her mother joined the family in Brazil the following year. Maria do Carmo earned the nickname of Carmen from her father, due to his love for the opera Carmen.

When Carmen was a teenager, her sister contracted tuberculosis, so Carmen worked in a hat shop to pay for her sister’s medical bills. Carmen dreamed of entering show business but her father disapproved and when she sung at festivals and parties, her father would beat her mother for allowing his daughter to perform. In 1929, Carmen made her first recording and became the first singer in Brazil to sign a contract for regular work on Brazilian radio. She acted in a few Brazilian movies then traveled to New York to perform on Broadway.

Hollywood found this spirited actress irresistible, starring her in an English speaking movie, Down Argentine Way. Not only did this movie introduce Carmen Miranda to an American audience, but it was the movie that made Betty Grable a household name. Carmen soon performed at the White House and sang for Franklin D. Roosevelt. And as a result, she became involved in the Good Neighbor Policy—a program designed to strengthen the ties between the U.S.A., Latin America, and Europe.

By 1946, Carmen Miranda was Hollywood’s highest-paid entertainer. Her image in Hollywood enraged many in Latin America though. People felt she blurred the differences between the people of Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, and Mexico, and that she mish-mashed samba, tango, and habanera music. With her wacky head dresses laden with fruit, Carmen earned the name as “the lady in the tutti-frutti hat.”

Upset that the Brazilians criticized her for selling out to the Americans, Carmen sang Disseram que Voltei Americanizada (They Say I’ve Become Americanized). She also released the song, Bananas is My Business, based on a line from one of her movies. The criticism from her countrymen upset her greatly though, and it took 14 years before she returned for a visit. 

From the movie "The Gang's All Here"
Unfortunately, by then, Carmen had turned to drugs, alcohol and heavy smoking as a way of coping with an abusive marriage she had endured for many years. In 1955, Carmen filmed a segment on The Jimmy Durante Show. After her dance number had finished, she collapsed and Durante ran to her side. She laughed it off, commented about being out of breath, but continued on with the show, only to suffer a heart attack later that evening in her Beverly Hills home. Carmen passed away that night.

The young lady with a penchant for wearing fruit hats is still remembered today. She has a special place on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and many documentaries and books have been devoted to Carmen Miranda’s life. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Marco de Canavese, Portugal, there are museums dedicated to this songstress.
Her fame spans decades. In 1982, a hot air balloon named “Chic-I-Boom,” flew at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and the bananas alone were 50 feet long. Velvet Underground released a song called, The Soul of Carmen Miranda and in Sydney, Australia, there’s a suburb called Miranda with a night club called Carmen’s. In 1998, Carmen Miranda Square opened in Hollywood and is only one of a dozen city squares in Los Angles dedicated to performers. The square is located on the intersection of Orange Drive and Hollywood Boulevard, near the spot where Carmen entertained a group of servicemen from the USO.

I’m still undecided about whether Carmen Miranda sold out. She certainly made people aware of Brazil and the rest of Latin America but many felt her image did a disservice to her people. She was in the entertainment business, and she performed that aspect of her job brilliantly. People loved her Latin flair and sense of humor, and even today, she is still widely remembered. So as a business woman, she achieved her goal but as an ambassador for Brazil, she upset a lot of people.

What do you think? Do you have examples of people who have portrayed their countrymen in a way that isn’t necessarily a true reflection of their culture?

And of course, this post wouldn’t be complete without some videos. I bet you can’t watch them without smiling. Close the door and sing until you’re hoarse!

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Actress Who Kicked the Cultural Barrier

Shohreh Aghdashloo at the 2008
Toronto International Film Festival
These days, I spend a lot of time thinking about cross-over artists—singers, actresses, and writers who start out in one culture or language and later make it big in another. Partly, this is because I’ve just started writing a new book about an Iranian rapper who has just released her first English-language hit in the United States and is poised to become a household name. Like many Iranian performers in the real world, my rapper grows tired of the restrictions imposed on her by the Islamic regime in her native country and she flees to California where the language barrier means that she initially performs only in front of Iranian audiences.

One real-life artist who followed a similar path is the Iranian-American actress, Shohreh Aghdashloo. She may not be a household name yet, but Aghdashloo has worked steadily in Hollywood and American TV for a couple of decades now. Her breakthrough role came in the 2003 film The House of Sand and Fog, where she played the English-challenged wife of a former colonel in the Iranian Air Force (Ben Kingsley) and earned an Oscar nomination for her nuanced performance. Before that, she’d already appeared in TV shows such as Matlock (1990) and Martin (1993) and later took guest roles in Will & Grace, ER, Gray’s Anatomy, Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit, House, M.D., and The Simpsons, among others. So even if you can’t pronounce her name, you may have seen her in one of these programs.

Shohreh Aghdashloo was born in Tehran in 1952 to a family of intellectuals. She built a successful acting career in the 1970s with roles in Iranian movies such as Gozaresh (The Report) and Sooteh Delan (Broken Hearts). During the 1979 Islamic Revolution, she moved to England to study international relations with the intention of working to improve the situation in her homeland. But a few years later, when a friend offered her a role in a play that became a big hit in the Iranian diaspora, Aghdashloo revived her acting career. Now a U.S. citizen, Aghdashloo lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the actor/playwright Houshang Touzie and their daughter Tara.

In 2005, Aghdashloo drew heavy criticism from the Iranian community for her role as the terrorist, Dina Araz, in the hit TV show 24. Prior to that time, the actress had avoided roles that reinforced negative stereotypes, and she even worked exclusively in theater for some years because the only film roles on offer were for terrorists or battered Middle Eastern women, portrayals she feels do not reflect reality.

At the time, I sided with the Iranian critics and wondered why this rising star would choose to reinforce such a disparaging view of her nationality by playing Dina Araz. But in an interview with Time Magazine, Aghdashloo defended her choice by saying, “[…] this role was a full-dimensional character. She’s a very strong woman, and she has many faces. And things may not be what they seem.”

I can’t fault her for making this kind of artistic choice. What performer can resist an intriguing role? And it raises the question of whether an actress must always see herself as an advocate for her culture and avoid stereotypes at all cost, or whether her primary responsibility is to her art and the opportunity to turn even a stereotype into a fully fleshed character. I think Aghdashloo has struggled with this question, and her choices have taken her to both sides of the issue.

Shohreh Aghdashloo has built a career as a character actress rather than a leading lady. But in the 2009 film, The Stoning of Soraya M., she again bucks tradition and plays the main character. This movie tells the chilling tale of Soraya, who is falsely accused of adultery, a crime punishable by stoning. Aghdashloo plays Soraya’s aunt, Zahra, who tells her niece’s story to a foreign journalist in an attempt to spread the word about the terrible injustice and cruelty of her niece’s fate. As Zahra puts it to the journalist: “Voices of women do not matter here. I want you to take my voice with you.”

That line sends chills up my spine every time I replay it in my head.

In an interview with Backstage, Aghdashloo discusses this movie and the choices she’s made over her career.

Offscreen, Shohreh Aghdashloo demonstrates the social consciousness that led her to England and her interrupted pursuit of a career in international relations. She is a tireless advocate of Iranian artists in the diaspora (and has been a strong critic of the iconic Iranian singer, Googoosh, for failing to do the same). Most recently, Aghdashloo has spoken out in support of the Baha’is, a religion that is severely persecuted in Iran. Her latest project is, Iranium, a documentary about Iranian politics, the West's collective Mideast policies, and nuclear proliferation. Released in February 2011, the film is already generating controversy within and outside Iran.

To learn more about this versatile actress and her bold artistic choices, check out her interview with Brad Balfour.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Crime Around the World

By day, Glenn Harper is the unassuming editor of Sculpture magazine, writes for numerous art magazines, journals, and books, and has edited several books about art and culture. But by night, Glenn has a dark side: he’s been reviewing international crime fiction since 2005 at internationalnoir.blogspot.com. Take a tour of the world of crime with him below or scroll through to find your favorite hot spot.

International crime novels offer much more than a portrait of crime around the world. The following novels (drawn from the last six months of my blog/reviews) are a window on the cultures of these diverse continents and countries, crime being a perfect vehicle for a portrait not of the high and mighty but the people on the streets (mean or otherwise).


Timothy Williams in the crime fiction world was recently included in a list of the top 10 European crime writers in The Guardian (yet he's surely the least well-known name on the list). His Commissario Trotti series is perhaps the best of the distinguished crop of non-Italian crime fiction writers whose work is set in Italy, a literary generation that includes Donna Leon, Magdalen Nabb, and Michael Dibdin.

All of these writers share a jaundiced yet appreciative view of Italy: dismayed by the politics and seduced by the culture. But Williams digs deeper into the real social and historical background, from the "years of lead" and the kidnapping of Moro through a series of scandals in government and church, as well as campaigns against corruption, leading to the "mani pulite" years of the '90s, which is the background of Big Italy, the fifth and latest of the Trotti novels. In all of his books, Williams filters the big, historical events through the lens of small, local events and people, accenting the impact of social patterns on the daily life of individuals.

That all sounds dry and stuffy, which the novels are anything but. As with all of Williams’ books, Big Italy progresses mostly through the often oblique dialogue of the Commissario, his associates, and the suspects. The effect is frequently both frustrating and comical, as well as reinforcing the overall sense that what is really going on remains resolutely below the surface of events.

Big Italy has, like the other Trotti novels and most crime fiction set in Italy, a less-than-conclusive ending, without the absolute resolution of much mystery writing. But there's a note of hope at the end: hope for the future of some of the individual characters and for the goals for which they had been striving, if not confidence in the future of the country as a whole.


The Big Mango, by Jake Needham (another émigré writer), is a confident thriller that builds up to its explosive conclusion rather than blowing people and things up from the beginning. The story is more in the line of author Eric Ambler than that of many recent thrillers, taking an ordinary guy and thrusting him, in frequently comic ways, into an unfamiliar and unfriendly situation. The writing is clear and evocative, whether in portraying San Francisco in the early chapters or Bangkok for the majority of the book, and the characters are lively and interesting. 

The story is set in the '90s (originally published in Asia in 1999, The Big Mango was reprinted in 2010 by Marshall Cavendish in Singapore; the only editions so far have been limited to Asian publishers and distributors). Eddie, a small-time lawyer and former Vietnam-era marine, starts getting threatening mail and visitors that refer to his time in Vietnam, when he worked in a squad involved in guarding the U.S. embassy in the waning days of the U.S. presence.

The maguffin is the stuff of legends, urban and otherwise: it seems the gold and currency from the Bank of Vietnam vanished during the chaos of the U.S. departure, and someone (several someones, as it turns out) thinks Eddie's former captain knows what happened to the money, and maybe Eddie does too. After a visit from the U.S. Secret Service, Eddie gets an offer from a mystery man offering him a lot of money to go to Bangkok to look for the captain and the money.

From there, Eddie becomes involved with a shady crew: his old Army buddy, a laid-back bookstore owner and Native American; an American in Bangkok who writes a column on the nightlife there; a DEA agent; and various other Americans, Thais, and Vietnamese. It's a story told from the point of view of outsiders, seduced by Thailand but not blind to the pollution, corruption, and violence of the capital city. 

The other book I've read by Needham, The Ambassador's Wife, is quite different, more of an insider's look at another Asian crossroads, Singapore (which Needham also views with a jaundiced eye). And The Ambassador's Wife is a police procedural whereas The Big Mango is more of a slowly building adventure story.


I liked the first Jade de Jong novel, Random Violence, by Jassy Mackenzie, and the second one, Stolen Lives, is even better. The first half of the novel dragged me along relentlessly. There's a plot line that in the second half seems a bit tacked on (though it leads to a twisty and cliff-hanger-y ending). It deals with a character who could be very interesting but isn't fully developed—but overall the novel (and especially that second half) are very good indeed.

Jade has returned (in the first novel, Random Violence) to her native Johannesburg to bring her private detective business there—as well as to a) inflict some revenge and b) reestablish contact with the object of her (mostly unrequited) passion, detective David Patel of the J-burg police. Patel refers a client to Jade, thinking that it's just a woman in need of straightforward bodyguarding after her husband has disappeared, but the case becomes complicated when Jade and the client are shot at and later the husband is discovered nearly dead from extreme torture and their daughter goes missing. Then David's son, who has been living with his estranged wife, is kidnapped...

There is a parallel case developing in England, concerning brothels and human trafficking, which ties into Jade's case and links to a deadly and mysterious character at the fringes of both: an African man whom we glimpse in a pawn shop and other locales in several chapters interspersed with the English plot and Jade's case. The threads come together in an unexpected way, forcing the reader to reassess his or her opinion about the characters. And Jade herself is very interesting: we follow not only her professional exploits but also her troubled relationship with David and a discovery about herself and her heritage that she makes in connection with her current case.

The novel offers once again a dynamic glimpse of post-Apartheid South Africa in all its grime and glory, as well as thematic consideration of violence and its roots in culture (and perhaps genetics), marriage, and desire: it's among the best of the substantial crop of South African crime fiction now becoming available.

Several recent crime novels published in the U.S. by African writers north of South Africa (from Ghana and Nigeria in particular) promise more crime fiction from the continent as a whole—not to mention one of the best books I’ve read this year, City of Veils, by Zoë Ferraris, which is set in Saudi Arabia (and is a novel that could probably only have been written by an outsider).

Wyatt, the latest Garry Disher novel to arrive in the U.S., is a continuation of his Wyatt series (about a dispassionate thief) rather than his police-procedural series (better known here in the States). Wyatt recalls the noir end of Donald Westlake's oeuvre. (For those not in the know, Westlake is one of the most prodigious and well-known U.S. writers of noir fiction). And in fact, Disher offers an homage to Westlake with two names that appear in Wyatt: Stark, one of Westlake's several pseudonyms, and Parker, one of his longest-running characters. Disher's Wyatt character has similarities with Parker, a master thief for whom things are always going wrong. But in the new novel, Wyatt is confronting problems that Parker didn't have to: money that moves electronically rather than physically, new security systems, and the constantly rising surveillance of our world today.

The characters in the Wyatt series are pretty much stock characters, interesting in their own way but reduced to their relevance to Wyatt (though the narrative does depart from the central character a good deal of the time). And Wyatt himself is always guarded, always careful, never emotional. He is a particular sort of sociopath: without empathy or even interest in his fellow humans; he's almost high-functioning autistic.

There's a telling passage in which he is attracted to the central woman character (who is one of the most interesting characters, as she veers from normal life into Wyatt's world and then into Wyatt's point of view). He feels the attraction but doesn't quite know what to do about it. Wyatt is super competent in other ways, and his inability to understand affection or to act on attraction keeps him human, in an odd way. He isn't vulnerable, but he's damaged.

The plotting is the outstanding characteristic of the Wyatt series. Through the twists and turns, Disher manages to manipulate the standard tropes of the noir-heist story in lively ways, much as Westlake did (though without the overt comedy that Westlake often employed). Disher's Wyatt (the novel and the character) are as dark as they come, but engaging and involving for the reader. Wyatt seems in some ways to be a posthumous tribute to Westlake, and is definitely both an excellent novel in its own right and the best "post-Westlake" take on that master's style that I've read.

South America:

Every Bitter Thing, Leighton Gage’s fourth “Chief Inspector Mario Silva Investigation” is his best book yet. The language is lucid, it’s informative about Brazilian life and culture (the reader even finds out how Rio de Janeiro got its name), the characters are well defined (and their interaction is natural and often comic), and the plot moves along inexorably and rapidly. It is a story that is closer to the kind of crime novel I’m most interested in as well: the first three Silva stories dealt with big issues (organ theft, human trafficking, disparities of social class and property ownership) and often with torture, organized crime, and extreme violence. Every Bitter Thing, on the other hand, deals with murder and revenge at a personal level, committed not by professional criminals but by more-or-less ordinary people under extreme pressure (which could also be said of the victims of the crimes). There are, I should say, some vividly mutilated corpses, though.

It’s also a police procedural in the best sense of the term: each member of Silva’s team is a three-dimensional character, and each has his or her separate role in the investigation. The investigation ranges across Brazil, but is focused more on Brasilia (where Silva’s federal police team is based) than the previous books as well. The nose-to-the-ground view of the investigators at work gives a quite different focus, in comparison with the first three Silva  books, which showed a lot more about the crime and the criminals: Every Bitter Thing, as a result, is far more than just a mystery or a procedural. Though a reader may figure out what’s going on before the end, the investigators are figuring it out at about the same time (and both readers and investigators will will have figured it out by the final couple of twists).

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wine's New Wave

In today’s eco-conscious world, even wines compete for their planet-friendly status and a pure taste unadulterated by pesticides, fertilizers, and sulfates. Just like all things organic, biodynamic wine production is a hot new trend.
Biodynamic farming is as different from organic as vegetarian cuisine is different from its vegan cousin.
In the 1920s, in response to German farmers’ concern about the future of food production, Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner developed a lecture series on an innovative way of looking at agriculture. He insisted that a farm or a vineyard should be seen as an organism, and therefore should be a self-nourishing system. According to Steiner, if certain crops were dying or attacked by a disease, it was a symptom of problems in the whole organism. It couldn’t be effectively treated by the use of outside materials, but had to be eliminated by using the farm’s own resources.
That may not sound utterly radical in today’s day and age. Yet, what truly sets biodynamics apart from organic or sustainable method is its belief that farming can be attuned to the spiritual forces of nature. According to Steiner’s theory, a vineyard’s health encompasses both the earth and the universe – that is plants, flowers, insects, sun, stars, and so on. Modern biodynamic vineyards take into account the cycles of the moon for planting and spraying vines, as well as strict preparations that include burying manure in a cow’s horn, mixing it to the right consistency by hand, and applying it on a specific date and time. They also follow the dynamizing approach, which is a process of stirring organic solutions for a specific time and in a certain direction before spraying it on the vines.
Sounds like a hard-to-believe voodoo system no one has time for in today’s rush, doesn’t it?
In the heart of Vienna, Austria, up in the hills yet still within the city ring, there lies Weinbau Hajszan, a biodynamic winery operated by Stephan Hajszan and his wife. The Hajszans went biodynamic in 2006 and believe their vinery’s mission is to re-establish the balance between man and nature. They use teas and other homeopathic preparations to strengthen the immunity of the wine and skip using auxiliaries and additives. They mix compost into the soil exactly when it is supposed to be deposited and follow the strict guidelines once laid out by their very own Rudolf Steiner. I didn’t see them utter any spells as they popped their bottles at the tasting, but I’m sure that if Steiner’s method called for it, they would do it too. They admit it takes a lot of work, but believe the results are well worth it.
The Hajszans specialize in whites and rosé, which is very popular in Vienna, and they produce 30,000 to 50,000 bottles of wine annually. In sampling some of their wines, I found their Rosé 2009 to be an intense bouquet of raspberry and strawberry, and their Gemischter Satz (a mix of different wines) had elements of apple and peach. As with traditional wineries, their classic whites ferment better in steel tanks while certain specialty wines known for their mineral flavor must mature inside large oak casks.
Do biodynamic wines taste any better? Critics are still arguing about it and probably will be for years – until some other new hot trend comes along. It’s hard to tell. To instigate a proper comparison, one would have to grow, harvest, and ferment the regular and biodynamic crops side by side in the same region. Perhaps one day, some eco-conscious wine connoisseur will set off to investigate.
As to the health and environmental value of biodynamic farming, I am sure it’s best for both, man and planet.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Indian Wine Country

Fifteen years ago, I ordered an expensive glass of wine in a trendy Mumbai restaurant. There were two choices, and the waiter looked slightly puzzled when I asked for a recommendation. I understood why when he brought out the pricier of the two. It tasted exactly like cough syrup. The concentrated kind. Probably cherry flavored. (Okay, I’m exaggerating, but you know that hideous taste!) I soon discovered, first hand, that the only wine worth drinking in the metropolis was port wine from the island state of Goa, though port is more of an aperitif.

It’s said that winemaking in India has a long history, dating back to the 4th century BC, when grapevines from Persia were introduced in the fertile soils of the Indus Valley. In Vedic times, the Aryans were known for indulging in intoxicating drinks, wine perhaps one of them. Winemaking may not have flourished much in India after that but it did continue for centuries to some degree, enjoyed by kings and poets. In more recent history, the British and Portuguese colonizers on the subcontinent encouraged winemaking before a pest outbreak and new social and religious mores virtually wiped it out in the late 19th century. No wonder I was drinking cough syrup.

But my, how things have changed. With the rapid growth in both population and affluence of the country’s middle class over the past decade, India is now one of the world’s fastest growing markets for wine, spirits, and many other luxury items. And exorbitant import duties and stringent regulations have given rise to dozens of domestic labels for beer, wine, whiskey, and other spirits. A number of these young products even receive high marks for quality, some winning international awards.

Whiskey is still king in this country (a remnant of its English colonial past), and India remains the largest whiskey market in the world. But wine is becoming the country’s new darling, with an industry valued at around $400 million and skyrocketing consumption (growing at a rate of 20% to 30% a year), particularly among women and young urban professionals. That I know of, there’s never been much social pressure on women not to drink alcohol, but it seemed that previous generations of Indian women weren't too wowed by the limited options of hard liquor or beer. That's obviously changing.

Riding on the wave of this new trend, the hospitality and culinary industries are also elevating the status of wine in India, perhaps for more than one reason. In the next few months, a friend of ours is launching an upscale seafood restaurant in the south, with plans to throw a wine party on opening night and offer wine pairings with different menu specialties going forward. Such trends are still relatively new to Indian restaurants, and while they are also nifty ideas, the original reason for this restaurateur’s decision stemmed from the exorbitant cost of getting a liquor license. Because the excise department in some metro areas have reached the upper limit of how many licenses they can give out, some business owners closing shop get away with charging up to 60 lakh rupees (roughly US$120,000) to sell them to new entrepreneurs. Since wine and beer licenses come much cheaper, my friend opted for the more affordable wine license.

Meanwhile, local vineyards are “cropping” up all across the country, the most successful ones concentrated in the hilly regions of western and southern states, where the more temperate climates and rich soils are most hospitable. (Farther north can be too arid, and farther east, too hot and humid.) Plus planting vineyards on slopes at higher altitudes keeps temperatures down and offers a measure of protection from the wind.

The great majority of Indian vineyards are concentrated in and around Nasik, in the southwestern state of Maharashtra (of which Mumbai is the capital), with the rest scattered across the southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. 

Sommelier D.N. Raju says about four major vineyards supply most of the wine market (most successful are Sula, based in Maharashtra, and Grover in Karnataka), plus about 20 small ones and 10 emerging ones, including his own, Soma Vineyards. Located just outside the Bangalore (Karnataka) metro area, Soma supplies mainly Shiraz, also known as Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc grapes to popular domestic labels such as Grover and is now working to produce grapes for its own boutique line. But Raju has also developed Soma as an exclusive, high-end travel destination, one to rival those found in France and California. It’s uniquely Indian, though, with coconut and teak trees surrounding its 90 acres of hilly vineyards nestled on the banks of a scenic lake. 

Soma Vineyards near Bangalore is fairly new but already attracting
enthusiastic visitors from Australia to Europe as a vacation spot.

Overall, it’s a wonder to watch the Indian wine renaissance, with its new boutique shops, magazines, clubs and “societies,” tasting classes, festivals, even an academy … all exciting offshoots piggybacking on this new booming industry.

Does this surprise you? It does me, since I rarely if ever hear about wines from any Asian country this side of the Atlantic. Have you? If so, any labels you can recommend the rest of us?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Something to Wine About

Vineyard in the Mendoza region. Photo by Mitsuhirato.
When people ask me what I liked most about living in Mendoza, Argentina, the words that tumble from my mouth are “wine, mountains, and food”. Of course, my second sentence contains “hot men” but that’s a whole other story.

My first introduction to red wine came in the form of a spritzer in a restaurant in Mendoza. The Argentines are quite fond of adding soda water and ice to red wine in the summer, and as a non-red wine drinker, this combo led to my appreciation of a fine red. No doubt the wine connoisseurs reading this will have fallen off their chairs by now, but I promise you I eventually dropped the soda water and now drink the pure stuff. 

For me to have survived in social circles in Mendoza, one of Argentina’s main wine-producing regions, I had to learn to drink red—and appreciate it. As part of my training, I had to put in many hours at the vineyards, sitting with friends, drinking vino and staring at the snow-capped peaks of the Andes. Oh, the things I’ve done to integrate within a culture.

Jesuit missionaries in Latin America officially planted the first vineyard in Latin America in 1557. The missionaries built irrigation dams and canals so they could capture water from the melting glaciers. The combination of fresh mountain water and arid climate proved a perfect combination and the crops flourished. French cuttings were imported and, as a result, the wine from Chile and Argentina still contain French ancestry. 

The Jesuits' original plan of producing wine for their Catholic masses changed as the population in Latin America expanded. The churches lost their monopoly on vineyard ownership, and the public had access to grape growing and put their own slant on wine production. Latin America exported wine to Spain, where it became so popular it threatened to crush the Spanish wine industry. The Spanish government ruled a lot of Latin America, so it ordered the vineyards there to be uprooted. For the handful of people who refused to bow down to the Spanish, they had to pay hefty taxes for the privilege. Luckily, they did so because those are the crops that escaped destruction and expanded once the Spanish lost their stronghold.

A lot of fuss is made about Chile and Argentina competing against each other in everything from football to wine. I can’t see the point, especially since their wines are quite different. In Chile, most vineyards are set in fertile valleys, and rely on the moist air from the Pacific Ocean to grow their crops. Varieties produced in Chile are Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Carmenére, Syrah, and Pinot Noir.

The arid, sunny climate of the Argentine Andes is better suited to producing red wine. Some of Argentina’s most important red varieties are Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Sangiovese, Syrah, and Tempranillo. But the wine isn’t limited to just red. Torrontes has gained popularity as a high-quality Argentine white. 

Vineyard, Mendoza region. Photo by Fainmans.
I’m not a wine expert by any means, but I can surely appreciate a good glass of vino when it comes along. I grew up in a country with a reputation for producing fine wine, so there’s no surprise I ended up living in a few countries where the grapes are not just for eating. What did surprise me when I first arrived in South America is that wine production isn’t limited to just Chile and Argentina. I’ve had some amazing wine from Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Brazil. And I certainly couldn’t write this post with authority if I hadn’t sampled some of the wines from those countries.

As with any burgeoning industry, things change. It’s hard to keep up with new labels and varieties being produced, so the only way to keep on top of it, as far as I’m concerned, is to drag myself back to South America and conduct my own wine-tour.

How about you? Have you sampled any South American wine, and if so, what did you think?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Grape Migrations

Prince Entertained on a Terrace
from "Divan" by Hafez
For years I’ve been telling friends this story (usually over a nice glass of red wine): Gaspard de Stérimberg was a thirteenth-century crusader who took a wrong turn on his way to the Holy Land. He ended up in Shiraz, the Persian city known for its blooming gardens and lyrical poets—and for its wine. Gaspard took such a liking to the local vintage that he slipped a few grapevine cuttings into his saddlebags before returning to his home in France. There, he planted the cuttings, turned the mature fruit into a full-bodied wine, and named his new vintage after the city of its origin. A few centuries later, the Shiraz grapes went wandering again and put down roots in Australia.

Nice story, right? Too bad it’s not true.

In 1998, Dr. Carol Meredith, a researcher with the University of California at Davis, tested the DNA of grapevines and determined that the Shiraz variety is native to France and did not originate in Persia at all. Other details of the story don’t hold up under scrutiny, either. Chevalier Gaspard was a real knight, but there’s no evidence that he ever left France, let alone traveled to Jerusalem or Shiraz (which was never the target of a crusade anyway). Our valiant knight had joined the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heretics in the French region of Languedoc.

In another version of the story, the Greeks brought the Shiraz grape to France in 600 BC and planted the vines in their colony of Massilia (present-day Marseilles). Centuries later, Gaspard de Stérimberg encountered the vintage in this region on his way home from the crusades and transplanted some cuttings to his Rhône vineyards. There, he recovered from terrible wounds sustained in the fighting and lived out his days as a hermit—and presumably a gentleman vintner.

This story is more believable, for although Marseilles isn’t in the Languedoc region, it’s not far from it and the grapes could have easily migrated over the course of nearly two millennia. And the city of Shiraz has been part of a major wine-growing region for thousands of years—until the Islamic Republic banned alcohol in the 1980s. But the stickler this time is this: the wine grapes grown in Shiraz were white, while the present-day Shiraz grapes of Australia and France (where they’re called Syrah) are red.

So what is the true story? I doubt anyone will ever sort out these wrinkles in history. But the Shiraz mystery aside, Persia is likely the place where wine originated. Archaeologists uncovered the earliest evidence of winemaking in the residue clinging to 7,000-year-old pottery shards at Hajji Firuz Tepe, an excavation site in the Zagros Mountains of northwestern Iran.

Photo by Sarah Stierch
Iranians have another story about the origins of wine: The legendary King Jamshid was fond of grapes. He filled his castle cellars with the fruit so that it could be brought to his table whenever he felt a craving coming on. One day, he sent two servants to fetch a basket of grapes, and when they failed to return, he went to see what was taking so long. He found the men collapsed on the floor, overcome by the fumes from a barrel of bruised and fermenting grapes. The king decided the grapes had turned poisonous and warned everyone to avoid them.

Later, one of Jamshid’s mistresses was feeling sad and neglected and decided to kill herself by drinking the liquid left by the poisoned grapes. But instead of dying, the woman soon felt elated and climbed the cellar steps singing and dancing. The king realized that this miraculous juice had the power to turn despair into joy. It’s probably a good thing he never asked her how she felt the next morning when the hangover hit, or perhaps we wouldn’t have wine today.

This story brings us back to Shiraz because Jamshid is believed to have lived in the site that later became Persepolis, the palace of the Achaemenid rulers, which lies just an hour’s drive from present-day Shiraz. Even today, Iranians refer to Persepolis as “Takht-e Jamshid,” which means the “Throne of Jamshid.”

Science may have proven that the Shiraz grape has a French accent rather than a Persian one and that winemaking originated in the Zagros Mountains and not in King Jamshid’s cellar, but I still prefer the legends. I’ll happily lift a glass to old Gaspard, the French hermit, as I picture him wandering among his vines, or to King Jamshid on his throne at Persepolis, sipping a white Shiraz.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Bhutan, The Happiest Kingdom On Earth

Lisa Napoli is a successful media journalist with reams of experience working with many well-regarded, cutting edge institutions, among them CNN, the New York Times, MSNBC, NPR, and even the cable shopping channel, QVC. In 2006, she made her first trip to Asia when she was invited, by chance, to Bhutan. A native of Brooklyn, NY, and a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., Napoli lives in downtown Los Angeles and hopes in the second half of her life to be a philanthropist. She’s working with friends to raise money to help build a library in Bhutan through READGlobal.
I didn't set out to write about my time living in Bhutan. I'm a journalist, but I never fancied myself a travel writer. In fact, when I went to Bhutan to help start a radio station, I was trying to figure out how to get out of the media business altogether. It absolutely wasn't my intention to write a book or document the experience in any way.
But months after my return, I couldn't stop thinking about the place. Now that I've published a book about my time in and around this Himalayan kingdom known as the last Shangri-La, I'm having the pleasure of hearing from people who've been, who had the same kind of reaction. There are two types of people who seem to show up at readings, in fact: the devout Bhutan-philes, and the people who relate to where I was when I got asked to go there...people who have reached some sort of critical crossroads in their lives. One guy showed up in Miami the other night with his photo album; he'd been to Bhutan twice and said, "No one understands."  It's true that it's hard to explain what it is that touches you about the stark beauty of the place. I hope I've managed to do that with my new book, just a tiny bit.
And since pictures sometimes speak louder than words, I've got a series of videos I made on my last visit there up at the "Shangri-La" channel. My favorite one is called "geography lesson," about a group of grade-school kids I met in the fall on my sixth visit there. I was in the far east of the country, staying with some friends, Bhutanese friends. One day, we went for a walk and visited a school. You can see in the eyes of those kids how amazed they were to meet someone from the States. What you can't see is how moved I was to be the first outsider they'd ever encountered.
RADIO SHANGRI-LA: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth is classified as a travel memoir, and I suppose that's an accurate way to shelve it. But it's not an overt travelogue, a blow by blow of what you can or should see when you go. My experiences there were very different than those of people who pay $200 a day to visit. (The tourist tariff just went up to $250.) See what you think. Here’s an excerpt and if you would like to read more, follow the link below.
The approach to the most sacred monastery in the Kingdom of Bhutan is steep and winding and, especially as you near the top, treacherous. You are sure with one false step you’ll plummet off the edge. Had I been here during certain times over the last few years, I might have hoped I would. It is a cold winter’s Saturday, dark and overcast. Misty gray clouds, pregnant with snow, hug the mountains.
My companions are several of the twenty-somethings who staff the new radio station in Bhutan’s capital city, where I’ve come to volunteer. Kuzoo FM 90: The voice of the youth. Pema is wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and fl at white dress shoes, the kind you might put on with a demure frock for a tea party. Ngawang’s wearing the same stuff on top, but she’s got sneakers on her feet. Each woman carries a satchel stuffed with herkira, the official national dress, requisite attire for Bhutanese who reach the summit. Kesang is already wearing hisgho, the male equivalent. Over it, he’s carrying a backpack filled with ten pounds of oil to fuel dozens of butter lamps, offerings to be left for the gods. Me, I’m twenty years older, and practicality reigns: I’ve got on my thick-soled boots, an ugly long black down coat with a hood, and six layers of clothing underneath.
So much for the strength I’ve gained from my daily swimming regime; I am huffing and puffing against the altitude and the intensity of the climb. My new friends modulate their sprints to let me keep up.
Bhutanese are hearty in many matters - they are used to living off the land, the hard lives of farmers - but they are particularly strong when it involves making the trek to this place called Takshang, built on a sheer cliff that soars ten thousand feet into the sky. The depth of their devotion becomes abundantly clear when, out of nowhere, a radiant twelve-year-old boy scurries down past us, stark naked, completely unaffected by the temperature and the incline. He’s trailed by a solemn entourage of grown men. Not one of them misses a step. Later, we learn this beatific adolescent is a reincarnated lama on pilgrimage from the remote eastern reaches of this tiny country.
A pilgrimage to Takshang is the highlight of a trip to Bhutan, but it is commonplace for the Bhutanese. They are carried here from babyhood. Slight, frail seniors navigate the twists and turns and inclines deftly from memory, in a fraction of the time it takes foreigners half their age. Tales are told of people with physical disabilities who labor for twelve hours so they might reach the top, where a cluster of temples awaits. The most sacred of the altar rooms there is open to the general public only once a year.
To find out more about Lisa, visit her at http://www.lisanapoli.com/ 

To hear Lisa Napoli talk about her book and watch videos about Bhutan, visit Lisa's videos page: http://www.lisanapoli.com/photos-and-videos/videos.htm