Monday, October 23, 2017

Of Deities and Denial

Back in the early 1970's when I began practicing in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Herbert Guenther's turgid translations and commentary were a hugely challenging - and welcome - alternative to the Theosophy-muddled murk of Evans-Wentz and Lama Govinda's flights of fancy, which were just about the only other English language books available. Some of Guenther's work has actually aged quite well, and if nothing else, he and his friend Agehananda Bharati set the bar so high for linguistic mastery and  scholarly depth that it has probably not been equaled since. 

For those like myself who came to this tradition through the gateway of scholarship and of looking for the "ultimate" in philosophical and psychological sophistication this was truly heady stuff. In my case it not only got me to meditate much more seriously, it also inspired me to study Tibetan while scrambling to catch up with Heidegger and Wittgenstein and the basics of depth psychology so I could make sense of Guenther's translations.

As I look back though, an equally compelling inspiration was the resonance of innumerable figures like the ones on the cover of this book (which was published in 1976, by the way), along with equally striking images of Tara, Machig Labdrön and others.  In contrast to the renunciate austerity of Theravada and the military masculinity of Rinzai Zen (my first Buddhist experience having been sitting rohatsu sesshin with Joshu Sasaki Roshi at age 15) Tibetan iconography and the description of advanced practices involving the subtle body's energy system suggested a Buddhist path where sexuality would be honored and transmuted. I was 17 years old and not about to dive into a Buddhist path that said all that was raging within me needed to be suppressed or excluded.

In retrospect wanting this to be so quite thoroughly clouded my ability to see the tradition in historical and anthropological context, let alone looking into its underlying power structures, politics and economics. Having grown up deeply wounded by a father who announced to his wife and family that he was gay when I was 15, while also being utterly lost socially due to having skipped 8th through 11th grades (thus missing all of the normal socialization about dating) it was all-too-easy to substitute fantasies of spiritualized sexuality for any fumbling forays into reality. Throw in the chaotic cultural environment of the late 60's and early 70's with all of the established role models male and female in flux and I supposed I ought to forgive myself a bit for being more than a little lost.

From 1974-1980 I was a dedicated student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Boulder, where I worked menial jobs but managed to do two month-long retreats and a three week one, sit a couple of hours a day, study diligently and acquire a very basic knowledge of Tibetan (long since forgotten). I was much more drawn to visiting teachers Dilgo Khyentse and Dudjom Rinpoches than I was to Trungpa himself but never had the money to run off and practice in Asia. The wildness of the scene around Trungpa - was always deeply unsettling to me, but the final straw was his appointment of Ösel Tendzin (aka Thomas Rich) as his regent - a guy I knew all-too-well as the sleazy guy who was always trying to pick me up in the checkout line at the supermarket where I worked. 

I stopped practicing entirely for the better part of a decade, putting that energy instead into athleticism (high-intensity cycling) and a career in coffee, but I'd done enough practice - and met amazing enough teachers - that I was always looking for a way back to the Dharma. When I began again it was, auspiciously, with a retreat at Tara Mandala taught by Tsultrim Allione, one of the great pioneers and role models for women in the Tibetan tradition, and the topic was the 4 Immeasurables (Brahmaviharas) - just the healing balm I needed.  In the course of sitting several retreats with her and teachers she brought to her center I met many women who shared their stories of abuse by the likes of Swami Muktananda and assorted Tibetan and Zen teachers for whom Tsultrim represented a desperately needed lifeline. And because of Lama Tsultrim the entire environment for practice was infused a nurturing quality I had not experienced before. Little things that weren't so little: practicing in a circle rather than facing the shrine; as much time devoted to sharing of experience as to absorbing didactic teaching. 

I never consciously sought out female teachers, but over the years I read books by and received teachings from many: Judith Simmer-Brown, who blew me away during the early days of Naropa Institute (now University); Lamas Tsultrim Everest and Chagdud Khadro under the auspices of the wonderful lama Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche; the superb translator Lama Sarah Harding. A bit later on, having long since been dazzled by her writing,  I had the good fortune to meet the great scholar-practitioner Anne Klein in the context of her translating for the phenomenal lama Adzom Rinpoche, and later still I was lucky to receive a few teachings from Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche, as fiery and eloquent a teacher as I have ever met. In retrospect my particular experience, inspiring as it was, lulled me into thinking that misogyny and teacher-student power dynamics had been addressed much more thoroughly in the broader Tibetan tradition than was actually the case. 

Needless to say, as a male student I was the beneficiary of the accomplishment of all of these teachers without having the capability to understand more than a fraction of the obstacles they had transcended to get there. Reading Rita Gross and Anne Klein helped a little, but my conditioning and gender blindness meant I really saw very little of what was going on behind the scenes. 

Fast-forward to 2017 and there has been what feels like a painful and hopefully cathartic release of long-simmering issues regarding the treatment of women in this tradition. This blog is the most comprehensive resource I know of for getting caught up on not just the deeply disturbing revelations regarding Sogyal Rinpoche but the equally disturbing reactions to it from the likes of Dzongsar Khyentse and Orgyan Topgyal Rinpoches and deafening silence of most lamas in the tradition in the face of what is clearly deeply-ingrained structural abuse.

One would think that a broad cross-section of senior Western Tibetan Buddhist practitioners would have long since been holding emergency meetings to come up with a universal code of conduct and serious proposals for structural reform, but instead what has surfaced this week is yet another screed by Dzongsar Khyentse - this one a "humorous" teacher-student sex contract offered with a humble-brag intro. 

About the only bright light in all of this dismal dreck has been this clear statement by Mingyur Rinpoche, who seems to be alone in the wilderness in suggesting that ahimsa and foundational "Hinayana" precept practice might be good things for anyone who represents themselves as a Dharma teacher to take to heart.

One thing's for sure, this is not a tradition that is going to reform itself from within. The Dalai Lama's response to the crisis has been lukewarm at best, other lineage heads are largely silent, and perhaps the most prominent of the globe-trotting teachers, Dzongsar Khyentse, is so thoroughly part of the problem that he can't possibly be part of any solution. 

The problem is of course that sexual abuse is just one very visible aspect of a tradition that is so deeply invested in patronage, patriarchy and feudal models of transmission.

Scholar-practitioner Ian Baker neatly summarizes the depth of the challenges and the history that's caused them in this recent Facebook post:

"Since its inception in pre-medieval India, Vajrayāna Buddhism has always been an alluring, multivalent, and highly commodified phenomenon. Its innermost practices among close-knit, often elite, communities represented radical and highly contested recastings of Buddhist thought that often sought transcendence of caste-determined societal norms. While deeply liberating – for those who were ready – the emancipatory social transgressions that once served proud and uptight Brahmans – such as Naropa – may have less relevance in a pluralistic 21st century world. Contemporary social values, egalitarian ethics, and human rights – at least in theory – surpass their 8th to 12th century equivalents in India and Tibet. Tantra will continue to offer a powerful loom on which the tapestry of non-dual awareness can be woven, or artfully spun. But by all accounts, Tantra is subtle. Vajrayāna was therefore, in its innermost circles, a secretive, initiatic tradition that was never designed for pod-casts, social media, or mass empowerments. Confusion and misappropriation of the teachings are all too easy. If enlightenment is arriving at a stranger's door in a G-string and with a live fish protruding from your mouth, as Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche amusingly implies, maybe we are better off with the 18th century Western 'Enlightenment' that overthrew the tyranny of religious institutions and opened a new era of intellectual inquiry and scientific discovery. The dazzling ritual, pageantry, and vested power of Vajrayāna reflects in many respects an unacknowledged nostalgia for everything that preceded the Enlightenment in Europe – a subjugation of the self to a 'higher', and often abusive, authority and subscription to self-serving institutional power. Letting go of outmoded tyrannies and traditions ushered in the modern age, both for better and worse. Although Vajrayāna, at its best, promotes a democratic mode of awakening that embraces, rather than rejects, the world as it is, many of its forms are transplanted anachronisms that, in absence of historical perspective, can instil existential confusion more readily than enlightenment. Vajrayāna in the 21st century is an ongoing experiment that challenges reified beliefs, but also inherently aligns its adherents with socio-cultural ideologies of pre-medieval India and feudal politics of China, Mongolia, and Tibet. The irony, however, is that Vajrayāna’s rituals developed as a means for transcending ancient caste-bound identity and consequent self-limiting modes of thought and behaviour. In its origins, Vajrayāna was a bold and creative vision of human nature and possibility that challenged early Buddhism’s more renunciatory disposition. The discomfiting question that all those who have been ‘brought up’ within the Vajrayāna world must now ask themselves is how Vajrayāna’s ritualized, and often reified, narratives of transmission, power, and practice can best be adapted to the contemporary world. These were the same questions that Vajrayāna’s famed progenitors – such as the Mahasiddha fisherman Tilopa – asked in their own time, leading to vital distillations of the Tantric Buddhist teachings that transcend time, place, tradition, and teacher. Beyond all such socio-cultural and historical formulations, however, there is always the breathing of the wind, the flowing seas and rivers, and the inescapable illuminations of our most intimate human and transhuman communions. It's in these ever-present, adamantine realms that we dwell in our truest nature as interconnected beings of infinite light – whether we have received an Amitabha empowerment or not. As the oral teachings of Vajrayāna make clear, empowerment doesn’t come through being bonked on the head with a gilded vase by a spiritual preceptor who may not even know our name, but by waking up to our essential nature and manifesting it in all our actions. Rather than perpetuating guru-disciple relationships based on outmoded models of students as empty and receptive vessels, Vajrayāna in the modern world might be better served by the Socratic method, in which the teacher is merely an enabling catalyst for bringing forth the disciple's indwelling wisdom."

A handful of leading Western scholars (Donald Lopez, especially) have offered this kind of informed iconoclastic perspective on the tradition, but what's more common these days are practitioner-translators so thoroughly invested in the Tibetan tradition that they are nearly as blind to its excesses as the lamas they serve.

The most insightful voices about these issues, in my experience anyway, are coming from practitioners who know the tradition well without being wedded to it. Matthew Remski, who blew the lid off of the notorious Geshe Michael Roach scandal, gets to the root of cult abuse better than anyone else I've read, while his equally brilliant friend Sean Feit Oakes, who practices in the Theravada tradition but is deeply knowledgeable about Tantric forms, articulates the way forward in such a beautiful and inspiring way:

"Part of what's heartbreaking about #MeToo is that anyone who's been even a little awake to patriarchy and power in this culture already knows that sexual harassment, abuse, and assault of women are so pervasive as to be the assumed norm. Does anyone actually think that every single woman couldn't post a "Me, too" if she chose to??

And yeah, the fact that is so endemic means that every single man could post an "I'm complicit" story as well. Sexism and misogyny are core ideologies, and no amount of good intentions saves a man from being steeped in harmful ideas about women, sex, and power for his whole life here. As I learn more about allyship and how to enact the egalitarianism I believe in, I become ever more aware of these forces in myself and in every facet of this culture, including the places where well-intentioned folks try to do otherwise.

Sexism, racism, and all the cultural shadows I was raised to reproduce operate in my psyche every day. I'm grateful to the activists and wise humans who have helped me to start seeing through the white-cis-het-passing-class-privileged blindness these forces gifted me and be able to say even this much. But this isn't a post about me personally: no matter how mature any one of us manages to be, it's important to keep the spotlight on the system. Systems create individuals, not the other way around.

Ultimately, if we want to talk systemic oppression, we need to call out not just sexist creeps and abusers (though it helps), but the system that poisons all of our lives and relationships. So here's the hashtag I want to see men posting: #Patriarchy.

I hope these high-profile outings advance our national conversation about sexism in the way that media and activist attention on the norm of police brutality against black people led to #BlackLivesMatter and opened up a new chapter in the national dialogue on racism. Changing this will continue to be a long, slow process, but Goddess willing, folks are starting to wake up."

The current scandals and deathly silence from the Tibetan establishment are deeply discouraging, but then I read Sean's post and think that Machig Labdrön is dancing and burning brighter than ever if we can find the eyes to see her. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Cross-country skiing on dry land

While I played a lot of tennis as a kid (and still dabble in that sport and pickleball [aka "geezer tennis"] hiking and bicycling have long been my aerobic activities of choice. I was a runner for a few years too and even completed a couple of 10Ks, but it always felt like drudgery.

A Canadian friend asked my wife and me if we'd ever tried nordic walking, and neither of us had ever heard of it. Is is pretty obscure, though at least 500,000 Scandinavians do it, but it really does deserve to be better known and I predict at least a minor uptick in its popularity once fellow aging Baby Boomers learn of its existence.

Nordic Walking was developed as a summer training tool for avid cross-country skiers. The poles used are very different from regular hiking poles, and the technique is also unique (though it will be very familiar to anyone who's done classic (as opposed to skate) cross-country skiing. Nordic walking poles have a strap that hugs the hand and wrist in a way that reminds me of a nice pair of clipless cycling shoes snapping into a pedal: once you're "in" there's no effort to hold the pole and the technique comes quite naturally. The arm is at almost a 90 degree angle at the top of the poling motion - elbow barely bent at all - and the pole strikes the ground behind you in a natural motion that gets your triceps and indeed most of your upper body very involved.

Here's a brief introductory video that shows the basics well. Studies show 40% more calories burned vs. regular hiking at the same pace as well as a significant increase in muscle mass (starting with the triceps). In my own very limited experience one of the joys of nordic walking is that it turns a brisk flat walk or hike on mostly level ground - which wouldn't ordinarily get my heart-rate up into serious training range - into an actual workout, while going briskly up moderate hills with some vigorous poling gets into a harder cardio range akin to cycling up a 6% grade at a brisk clip.

The poles (there are several brands but the best appears to be Leki) come with sport-specific angled hard rubber feet for use on pavement and that seems to be the best way to initially learn the technique. There are also plenty of instructional videos on Youtube. After a few pavement walks to fine tune pole length and technique we took off the rubber feet and used the carbide tips on flat to rolling hiking trails and that's turned out to be if anything even more enjoyable.

No doubt actual cross-country skiing is a lot more flowing and fun, and if we lived near water I'd just get myself a racing shell or high-tech kayak and get my full-body aerobic exercise fix that way but nordic walking is something you can truly do anywhere. It's certainly worth a try, and many cities have active clubs where you can borrow a set of poles and try before you buy.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Homeless, perhaps country-less, but not joyless

The 4 Great Bodhisattva Vows

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
The Buddhadharma is boundless; I vow to master it. 
The Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.

While I'm not a Zen practitioner, one of the sanghas Erin and I have benefitted from sitting with during these past two weeks of election madness and post-mortem is affiliated with Roshi Joan Halifax and the Upaya sangha in Santa Fe. 

Yesterday we sat with the well-known teacher David Loy, a lovely man who has long been at the epicenter of Buddhist engagement with climate change and social justice, as well as local Tucson teacher Sensei Al Kazniak, who while not as well-known as Loy seems to me to be equally accomplished. 

Both of these teachers have a default mode of deep listening and curiosity that's clearly anchored in compassion and a steely determination to not only be of benefit but to bring life's most difficult challenges onto the path of practice and liberation.  

I quoted the four great vows from this tradition because they embody so much of what seems called for at this time. They're all about intention and aspiration - about (one could say) aspiring to do the impossible because it's what's necessary. At a more subtle level, such vast altruistic aspiration also undercuts clinging to outcome - something that was made so much more poignant when listening to Loy (who turns 70 next year) talk about his intention to focus ever more clearly on altruistic activism in his own limited remaining time on earth despite being fully aware of how irreversible catastrophic climate change already is. 

Moving from the big picture to our own very small but still real challenges, we've been confronted lately with just how much clinging to security, stability and control of outcomes we're still invested in. We've really appreciated being back in the U.S. for the better part of three years now, but our ability to do so has been entirely contingent on Obamacare. And while there are far more unknowns than knowns about life under Trump and the Republicans over the next four years, repeal of the Medicaid expansion and slashed subsidies in the individual insurance market are pretty much guaranteed to be among the first things that occur. 

So...having only just recently put so much energy and emotional investment into the early stages of becoming part of the community here in Tucson we're faced with the very real, perhaps inevitable, possibility of resuming expat life in Mexico with no plan to return. The question then becomes how do we embrace that situation joyfully and fully, and how can we structure our lives so as to be of benefit? 

It's really interesting, albeit unpleasant, to walk through our cozy but comfortable 70's mobile home and see the clinging arise as we try to summon the energy for one more move after way, way too many previous ones (and to see how draining and unhelpful it is to hold onto that story/tape loop too!).

In the past we've always hedged our bets at least a little: renting a small storage locker "just in case," stashing a few boxes with relatives for future sorting and schlepping. We're beyond done with that, and are instead seeing what it looks like to give up our deep clinging to real physical books in favor of Kindle-able everything, let everything from home-roasted coffee to microbrews go, and make plans to get on a plane with a couple of checked bags and a carry-on apiece as our sole worldly goods. That's still a hell of a lot more stuff than a Thai forest monk with two sets of robes and an alms bowl, but we do try to keep in mind the liberating potential of the Buddhist definition of homelessness. 

Years ago we did a retreat in Albuquerque with the wonderful vipassana teacher Eric Kolvig, at the height of the '08 financial market meltdown and while there were grave doubts about whether Obama could win. Eric wisely shelved the planned retreat topic and instead made the whole time together about turning towards fear, panic, uncertainty and desire for control while culitivating the mindstates of equanimity, compassion, lovingkindness and empathy that are our true nature and refuge. Early on in the process he offered this teaching from his own teacher Sayadaw U. Pandita:

"Why do we do this practice? To develop a heart-mind that is ready for anything." 

May it be so. 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Mexico at Thailand prices

We're just a few weeks in to what we hope will become a regular annual cycle of 3-4 months in México with the rest of our time spent in Arizona. Given the insanity of U.S. politics and health care that plan has a lot of asterisks associated with it.

We'd just arrived here at Lake Chapala when the Brexit fiasco caused the largest one-day loss in the history of the stock market, and along with it a spike in the already-amazing U.S. dollar:Mexican peso exchange rate to almost 20 pesos to the dollar. Things have settled down a bit since, but we're currently at 18.50 pesos to the dollar.

During our 3+ years of full-time living down here we averaged 11 pesos to the dollar, and felt rich during occasional spikes above 14. Today's exchange rates are an amazing, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for savvy expats and tourists, while they add unwelcome and untimely hardship to the already tough circumstances of everyday Mexicans.

Yesterday one of the trucks that regularly circulates through the villages here offering fresh produce direct from the coast was offering peak-season Paraiso mangoes. They're the ones that look like this:

The price? 3 kilos for 20 pesos. That's US$1.08 for six point two pounds of perfectly ripe, headily aromatic fruit.

Tacos are still 9-10 pesos - not cheap at all for locals earning 40-50 pesos an hour, but with three of them making a full meal for one it's a $1.50 main meal of the day for us.

Seasoned expat friends report being able to buy new and used cars now for thousands less than U.S. prices, instead of paying a substantial premium as is usually the case, and many folks who planned to be renters for the duration of their stay in México are taking a hard look at buying modest places since rents remain high while peso-denominated properties are up to 40% cheaper than normal in dollar terms.

I don't expect this situation to persist long-term (and for México's sake hope it doesn't!) but for anyone who's contemplated a visit or long-term stay here there's never been a better time. Let's just hope Faux News and the rest of the U.S. fear media machine continue to portray México as a scary place to visit (unlike the firearm and violence free country up North) - otherwise we might be faced with the prospect of this amazing country building a wall to keep the gringo hordes at bay.

Monday, March 28, 2016

AriMex: Our Next Chapter

View of Tucson from the front porch of our mobile home

This July will mark two years since our return to the U.S. from Mexico. We've appreciated the easy pace and access to wilderness in our current small town of Cañon City, Colorado, but have also found ourselves spending more and more time away.

A good friend advised me to seriously check out Albuquerque and Santa Fe before we moved here since they have so much more going on in areas like Buddhist study and practise, the arts, local food and other areas of interest but what kept coming up for us instead were things in and near Tucson, Arizona. Arizona, given its politics alone, was never on our radar screen as a place to live, but a couple of Dharma teachers we love live in and around the city, and we've also found ourselves captivated by the subtle beauty and silence of hikes in the desert.

Daytime view from the covered patio

Environment aside, what's really sold us on Tucson is the vibrant, feisty and very welcoming progressive community, from local food and microbrew fanatics to a very diverse and socially-engaged subset of the Buddhist and Christian contemplative communities. Both Erin and I see many opportunities to serve and to make a difference, and after spending years in small towns the chance to be part of thriving, age-diverse communities in the real world (rather than relying mostly on the internet!) is very exciting.

I've written at some length about the financial aspects of what we're doing, in part in hopes of helping others avoid mistakes we've made and in part to give a bit of hope to other folks faced with semi- or full retirement on very modest incomes - knowing that such situations are all-too-common. While Tucson certainly isn't as cheap as Cañon City it's still very affordable by U.S. standards and a good 20% cheaper than Albuquerque (and probably more like 50% cheaper than Santa Fe, given the crazy housing costs there).

The key for us was finding a comfortable, well-maintained 2 bedroom, 2 bath older mobile home in a spectacularly-situated 55-and-over community on the West side of the city. We have miles of great hiking right from our door, yet are an easy (and lightly-trafficked) 8 minute drive (or pleasant 20 minute bike ride) to the heart of downtown. With $15,000 tied up in the home and the monthly lot rent of $455 including access to a year-round salt water pool, gym and clubhouse we'll be able to continue to live a decent lifestyle during the 8 months each year (October-May) we plan on being in town. Given the summer temperatures in Tucson we wouldn't have considered moving there without a viable way to escape, and we're fortunate both in having family in the Pacific Northwest and, decisively, in loving our "second home" of Lake Chapala, Mexico, where we plan on spending at least 3 months enjoying the very best time of year there, the rainy season.

Lake Chapala sunset

Given the crazy political situation in the U.S. and the fact that our ability to be here at all is entirely dependent on the continued existence of always-under-attack Obamacare we know we need to keep our footprint light and our options open. For now and for the foreseeable future spending two-thirds of each year in Arizona and a third in Mexico sounds just right.

Linda Vista trail living up to its name

Monday, February 15, 2016

Oil and vinegar salad basics for discriminating cheapskates

Over many years of entertaining friends and family one of the most consistent pieces of feedback I've received has been praise for salads and requests for dressing recipes. 

The privilege of time spent in France and Italy years ago hammered home the decisive importance of using only the very best ingredients and keeping things simple. Today knowledge of many of those ingredients seems to be almost lost, even among many who consider themselves "foodies." Much of the problem (and I'm writing entirely from a U.S.-centric perspective here) is that the best oils and vinegars are almost unavailable at retail in the U.S. - and will certainly not be found in the places you'd think (by virtue of prices charged) would have them, such as the major natural foods supermarket chains. 

Olive  & Walnut Oils

For the uninitiated, a thorough perusal of the Truth in Olive Oil site is well worth your time. If you want to spend the money to experience at least a few of the oils that set the standards there's no better place to find them than Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Michigan. You can buy the Romate vinegar (see below) and many other treats there as well. Giuliana Imports in Colorado, in addition to its excellent wines offers a carefully curated selection of organic olive oils that, while not inexpensive, are fresh and offer superb rapport quailty:price. A third option is Tuscan oils specialist The Rare Wine Company

For value and freshness, not to mention supreme affordability and value, the go-to choice is the authentic Tuscan vintage dated oil from Costco. At around $12 for a liter it's less than one-third the price of top small-producer oils, is 80-90% as good, and will certainly be far better and fresher than any famous oil you find at fancy grocery stores, in part because the latter oils are almost certain to be at least a year or two past date. So while it's good to taste the very best Italian and French oils, you can do a lot worse that to do what I do and just lay in a year's supply of the Costco Toscano  (not to be confused with the only-for-cooking generic Costco oil in the huge plastic bottles) when it comes out in the spring and use it for both salads and sauteing. 

The only other oil I recommend keeping on hand for salads is a rich, traditionally-made walnut oil, and here, too, you have a choice between the absolute best product, from French producer J. Leblanc, and a much cheaper oil that's 80-90% as good and requires no special search. 

The Leblanc oils (the walnut being his most famous product, but his hazelnut oil is also exquisite) can be found on Amazon and occasionally at good retailers. They are nothing short of sublime, and make other, more readily-available oils taste so bland by comparison that you quickly realize they're not worth the trouble. 

Second best is a phenomenal American-made oil from Black walnuts that can be found - of all places - at Wal Mart - and for about a third the price of the Leblanc. It's called Hammon's Black Walnut Oil, and the company has an excellent, informative web site. 


I owe Ari Weinzweig from Zingerman's so many debts for his pioneering work and brilliance that I wouldn't know where to start with thank-you's, but high on the list would be much gratitude for him pointing out that the single most useful and versatile vinegar to have on hand is a sherry vinegar - not a red wine one, and certainly not the industrial/commercial balsamics that in all honesty should never find their way past your front door for any purpose. 

There are a number of excellent Sherry vinegars available, but my favorite for consistency and value is the one from Sanchez Romate (who among other things are makers of one of the two best Spanish brandies, the legendary Cardenal Mendoza). It's a full 750 ml. wine bottle's worth, at a great price from Zingerman's, KL wines and a few others. Plus the bottle art is beyond cool!

Sherry vinegar in pantry, the next task is to obtain a truly great red wine vinegar, and here there is one product that towers above all others - the New Orléans method products from the legendary Martin PouretHere's an article on this amazing company from the New York Times. Fair warning though: once you taste the Pouret products you'll never be happy with other vinegars. You can find the full range (along with many other temptations, including hard-to-find Nyons olives, Tarbais beans and duck fat for the best roasted potatoes) at the estimable New York mail order firm French Feast

Balsamic Vinegar

At least once in your life you should splurge and spend $100 on a 100 milliliter bottle of (that's actually the least you can spend) of the real thing from Modena, along with reading the descriptions of how the product is made and the various grades in Lynne Rossetto Kasper's magnificent cookbook The Splendid Table, in which you'll learn that real balsamic vinegar was never intended to be a commercial product, and that the substitutes for the real thing we commonly find in the U.S. are unfit for just about any use.

Here again Zingerman's deserves lots of credit (and your patronage) for being the pioneer in educating us while bringing in the best of the best for decades (and if you live anywhere near Ann Arbor you should simply visit, taste as many oils and vinegars as you can, and spend).

For everyday use perhaps the best choice is the Vecchio Dispensa 8 year old, or for a bit more money you may be able to find the Villa Manodori at a local market or online. While far less concentrated than authentic traditizionale these "balsamic condiments" are the least you can spend for a product worthy of drizzling on (and transforming) a simple rotisserie chicken, local strawberries in season, or dressing a Blacksmith's Salad (raw radiccio dressed with a 2:1 olive oil/balsamico blend with slivers of Reggiano Parmigiano on top.

You'll never see a salad dressed with a "balsamic vinaigrette" in Italy. A few drops of one of the everyday-priced vinegars mentioned above, when added to great red wine vinegar like the Pouret, add a lovely sweet-sour note to dressings for bitter greens.

Ratios and Recipes

While Marcella Hazan and many other authorities on Italian cuisine like to dress their salads to taste in a bowl, I find French precision helpful in achieving consistency.

Insalata means "to salt," and without good salt it's not a salad. Any good fine-grain, non-iodized sea salt will do, though the Sel Guérande grey salt from French Feast is especially good (and very easy to order alongside your Pouret vinegars).

For a subsantial salad for two people, start with a generous 1/8th teaspoon of salt. Always dissolve the salt in the vinegar (it won't dissolve in oil) - and of course the same order applies when using lemon juice in lieu of vinegar. Somewhere between three-quarters of a teaspoon and a full one should be just about right for the vinegar, and the starting ratio for vinegar to oil is always 1:3. With experience it becomes second nature to back off on the vinegar for mild greens like Bibb lettuce, or to add an extra jolt for Spinach or Frisée avec lardons.

Perhaps more important than ratios is restraint. The goal is to just barely coat the salad, with no dressing whatsoever pooled in the bottom of the salad bowl. Mixing thoroughly is just as important: I make sure to toss at least 35 times before tasting for balance, thereby only correcting with more salt, vinegar or oil when absolutely necessary.

Probably 80% of the time I make the simplest of vinaigrettes - or what Marcella Hazan simply called "real Italian dressing:" olive oil, vinegar (or lemon juice), and salt. With a little (but not much) more effort one can make an equally classic French vinaigrette by adding half a clove of minced garlic and a quarter teaspoon each of dried tarragon and sharp Dijon mustard (Amora from French Feast is superb) to your vinegar and whisking these with the oil (olive or walnut work equally well).

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Everyday wines for cheapskates

One of the occupational hazards, if you will, of working full-time as a professional taster and buyer of coffee and tea for many years is that the impetus to taste, compare and evaluate carries right over into all other food and drink. I learned early on to harness that energy into finding wines and spirits offering the same outstanding value-for-money (what the French call "rapport: qualité-prix") I was looking for on the caffeinated side of things. I look for screaming value in both my stimulant and my back-brain depressants!

"Champagne tastes but a beer drinker's budget" is an old cliché that certainly describes me and many friends, but with good beer (thanks to rapidly escalating prices for hops and malt) now costing upwards of $1.50 a bottle it's actually possible to drink good wine for less per serving, provided you know where and how to shop. 

Reading Robert Parker and Steven Tanzer's wine journals was invaluable early on, and Parker's regular features on the world's greatest wine values in particular still make a subscription (or at least a one-time purchase of a used copy of his Wine Buyer's Guide) worthwhile for those unfamiliar with the regions and importers most likely to deliver the best values. Spain, by the way, is such an amazing source of high value wines - many made from grape varieties not found anywhere else - that it richly rewards special study, using the superb Peñin Guide

To cut to the chase, here are the basics as I see them:

1. "Food of the region with wine of the region" is eternally excellent advice. That automatically means European wines - in my case mostly rustic French and Italian reds to go with the foods I cook and cuisines I know best. California, Aussie and other New World wines are mostly excluded, for the following reasons:

a. The varieties planted, with few exceptions, are poorly correlated with soil and climate (Napa and Sonoma would be mostly planted with Rhone varietals rather than Chardonnay and Cabernet had terroir been considered, as Bonny Doon's Randall Graham points out in the excellent movie Mondo Vino). It takes centuries to figure this out and in California that process has just begun. 

As Kermit Lynch pointed out long ago, the most versatile red wine with food is bistro staple cru Beaujolais (made from Gamay), followed by a good Cotes du Rhone (grenache/syrah/mourvedre, mostly), while with whites you'd want either a dry Riesling or one of the crisp, perfumey wines from the Southern Rhone (typically a blend made of some combination of grenache blanc, viognier, rousanne, marsanne or clairette). 

b. Affordably excellent wine comes from countries where drinking wine with meals is an everyday occurrence, not a special occasion. The sweet spot for value for California wines, for example, is in the $100-300 a bottle range where they can and do compete with exponentially more expensive grand crus, but in the $10-12 range New World wines don't hold a candle to European offerings. 

c. Irrigation, which is forbidden in most of Europe but routine in the U.S., increases yield while decreasing concentration and terroir.  Excessive yields from the least food-friendly grape varieties combined with manipulation and additives mean that high-value, crisply acidic and concentrated wines from the New World are very hard to find in the sub-$15 a bottle price range. Cheaper domestic wines are usually dilute, almost invariably too sweet, often filtered to within an inch of their lives and frequently contain additives. 

Vin en vrac to vin en boite

When we first started visiting European vineyards we'd routinely see locals schlepping what looked like 5 gallon plastic gasoline carriers up to the counter, where the employee would fill them with wine with what looked like a gas hose. This is how everyday wine has been drunk for centuries, and of course even with a sizable family and daily consumption with lunch and dinner oxidation dramatically decreased the quality of such vin ordinaire over time. 

In recent decades the wine-in-a-box format has almost entirely replaced the old en vrac cans, improving quality enormously. There's a ton of good-to-great boxed wine in Europe, and in Australia it's over 50% of the total market, but in the U.S. the package is pretty much exclusively associated with rotgut swill. Of course the same is true of canned beer, but Oskar Blues and its many imitators have long since shown that the best way of packaging beer (cans beat bottles for freshness, ecological impact and durability) need not be associated with insipid lagers. 

The boxed wine format is ideal for wines that don't need aging (which is to say over 90% of worldwide production), provided that one understands its limitations. The opened shelf life of boxed wine is 4-6 weeks, but unopened great care must be taken, as the bladder the wine's packaged in in is much more permeable to air than a glass bottle. You only want boxed wine from the most recent vintage (I'd avoid anything older than a 2014 as I write this in mid-August, 2015) and the wine needs to be kept in a cool place. 

Bottles and corks are expensive in and of themselves and much more expensive to ship than 3 liters of liquid thinly covered by a plastic bladder and cardboard. Cost-wise what this all translates into is very good to excellent boxed wines at the high end of the market in the $24-36 per box range, which (since each box holds the equivalent of 4 750ml. bottles) translates to $6-9 per bottle for wine that in conventional bottled format sells for $10-17. 

I'll list some favorite boxed wines below, but bear in mind that there are any number of regional importers bringing in both boxed and bottled wines from small producers that the wine press doesn't rate. Ask around. 

The best importers

We were just out on the West coast and I was reminded again of how many excellent boutique importers there are bringing in awesome small producer wines at great prices. Grape Expectations in Berkeley, Kysela Pere et fils, Riservati in Seattle and so many others with specific specialties (only Alsatians, for example, or obscure high-value stuff from Portugal) are all worth learning about and each region (at least on the coasts) has many folks doing great work. 

On a national basis the standard by which all others ought to be measured is Eric Solomon's European Cellars, which brings in an amazing range of high-value wines from Spain and France. Some of the better-known offerings include Domaine Andezon, Cercius and La Garrigue from the Rhone valley, Evodia garnacha and Solanara monastrell and many others. More than any other importer I know of, Solomon's name on the back of the bottle is a guarantee of outstanding value. 

Robert Kacher is another longstanding superstar importer, as is Kermit Lynch (though the latter's distribution system means even his high-value stuff falls just outside true cheapskate territory). The same is true with the great Neal Rosenthal (memorably profiled in the aforementioned Mondo Vino film). Jorge Odonez is a Spain specialist who gives Solomon a run for his money in the high-value market with his superb Tres Picos Garnacha (Parker's value wine of the year) and the consistently excellent $6 a bottle (in boxed format - also in bottles for $9)Viño Borgia:

A newer entrant to the boxed wine category is large-scale Spanish producer Juan Gil, whose Shania wines (a deeply flavored monastrell/mourvedre and a crisp white made from indigenous varietals) can be found for around $20-22 per box. 

At the higher end of the artisanal boxed wine market From the Tank  wines from Jenny et Francois (around $36-39 per box) seem to be in a league of their own, with a red, white and rosé available that should all be in the 89-93 Parker point range. The red in particular is a show-stopper that's easily as good as a carefully chosen $15-20 bottle of Cotes du Rhone from Solomon or Lynch. 

On the mass-market side of things, Bota Box offers a more-than-decent Old Vines Zinfandel and a serviceable Chardonnay. Big House Wines, now independent but founded by the irrepressible innovator Randall Graham, offers a Big House Red that despite its California provenance offers Rhone-like zippy food-friendly flavors and a Big House White to match. All of the aforementioned wines can be had for $17-20 per box, and while they're not the equal of the boutique stuff they are easily found almost everywhere. 

Black Box Wines is the original American premium product in the category. It used to be 100% California fruit but explosive growth forced them to source in Chile for all but their Platinum reserve offerings. Quality is good but it's a Cabernet and Chardonnay universe, meaning that if your everyday fare is limited to burgers and steak or fish in cream sauce you're okay but otherwise better by far to cast your net towards Europe. 

Wines to avoid

Where to start? All of the truly cheap boxed wines, Yellow Tail and anything else with an animal name or icon on the bottle, anything with a numerical wine rating shelf talker on it from any source other than Parker or Tanzer (not that they're infallible but most other sources are either corrupt or clueless). The hard fact of the matter is that anything under $20 a bottle from California, Oregon, Washington or Australia is almost certainly going to be an industrial not an artisanal product. I suggest saving your dabbling in those areas for special occasion wines, where (as mentioned above) it's easily possible to buy a really great bottle for a fraction of the cost of its European qualitative equivalent.