Burton Anderson: Beyond Vino

Burton Anderson: Beyond Vino
Life is a fiasco


Note to Readers:

Ten months have passed since I told readers that I’m redoing the Beyond Vino blog. I'm still stalled, though I hope to have news soon about fresh blog posts and a permanent website that will include selections from a couple of books I'm working on. Please bear with me.
Thanks for your patience,

P.S. In the meantime, please take a look at www.tuscanydreamhome.com, the website I created to promote the sale of my villa in Tuscany. The place is exceptional--as new aerial photos make clear--and it's selling for what is truly a bargain price.


Pssst. Wanna buy a house?

“Will the world’s worst salesman please stand up.” I glance around the crowded planet at the seven-billion-plus people seated smugly pretending not to be looking my way. Must mean me, I murmur, and, mortified, stand up.

Nightmares have a sneaky way of revealing uncomfortable truths. I used to josh with friends that I considered myself the world’s worst salesman, but lately I’ve come to believe it. I mean, only the King of Klutzes could have put a splendid home in Tuscany on the market four years ago and failed to sell it. I’m talking about a 16th-century stone villa in the historic hills southeast of Florence with views to take your breath away. Check out: www.tuscanydreamhome.com

We’re selling because the place is more than an aging couple needs. I figured the sale would cover the cost of building a smaller house elsewhere in Tuscany, with enough left over to live comfortably in the golden years.

We’d bought the house in 1982, after succumbing, as dreamers did in those days, to love at first sight. I was sure the same would happen this time around, that it would be grabbed up the minute it hit the market. A typical miscalculation that I’ve blamed on the economic crisis, starting in 2008, which ravaged real estate markets everywhere. Yet I’m certain that anyone with a modicum of savvy would have sold the place long ago.

The house has been advertised on international sites and posted by local agents. But visits have been few as realtors repeat that “nobody’s buying anymore” as an excuse for not trying. I’ve lowered the asking price from over a million euro to 795,000. Recent queries have come from dubious types. One (a diamond dealer?) offered cash if I’d fly to Brussels the next day. Another (a Saudi financier?) suggested the same if I’d meet him in San Marino for a coffee.

After discretion flushed those deals down the drain, we’ve weathered the winter watching bank balances approach the brink of poverty, while hoping to point dreamers’ desires at tuscanydreamhome.com. That site, created by the ingenious Jack Kelly, seems to have the requisites for promoting a love-at-first-sight deal—unless, that is, it’s been jinxed by you-know-who.

It’s hard to explain my chronic inability to sell things—not only tangible goods but above all myself. Having an inbred aversion to business, I guess selling isn’t in my nature. I recall a radio ad of way over a half century ago with a door-to-door salesman ringing doorbells and muttering, “Nobody home, I hope I hope I hope.” Others sniggered; I empathized. 

Whether it was home-made lemonade or an outgrown bike or used books or, later on, an almost new Volkswagen Beatle or the kids’ abandoned Vespa or a nifty old 36-foot sailboat, I ended up getting the short end of the stick.

Some have the knack, some don’t. I’ve noticed that in Mediterranean lands—from all the variegated shores of the sea—shrewd vendors proliferate. Maybe that’s because in climates where much commerce is carried out at open markets, bartering and bargaining are a spirited way of life. Face it, any four-year-old huckster in an Arab souk knows the tricks of the trade as thoroughly as a Harvard Business grad. Not only that, the kid’s intuitively equipped to spot a sucker—picture me on safari—from half way across the Sahara.

Italians excel at hawking most anything from shaved ice to bottled water to what they call aria fritta (fried air). Jewish merchants were the acknowledged masters of the mercantile arts. It isn’t certain, though I suspect that mercenaries from Mediterranean lands performed the miracle of convincing generations of Americans that 99 cents is less than a dollar.

Up north, in my ancestral homelands, Scandinavians often lack the knack, maybe because in ice-packed, sunless spots, folks stocked up on goods for the winter, freezing trade. Salesmanship doesn’t seem to figure in the Norwegian DNA, so perhaps heritage is at the root of my problem.

As for publishing, my books never got close to a bestseller list. The Pocket Guide to Italian Wines—which ran through uncountable editions and titles over twenty-some years—sold a grand total of 350,000 copies. Sound impressive? Well, royalties from all that netted me about enough to buy the Land Rover I’ve been driving for a decade. My latest triumph is the self-published novel Boccadoro, running at 4,714,889th in the Amazon book hit list. In Kindle sales it ranks 493,773rd.

But maybe there’s hope for me yet. The world of arts and letters abounds in self-aggrandizing folks who made it big even if they didn’t seem to have that much to start with. Am I alone in my conviction that more than a few bestselling authors write like stressed out PR persons or that a good many big name artists paint and draw or splatter like hyperactive preschoolers? The main talent behind their megabucks seems to be a flair for selling themselves.

The same could be said for protagonists in other fields, politics for example. Remember that 1960 poster of Richard Nixon with the caption, “Would you buy a used car from this man?” Well, Tricky Dick must have sold himself to somebody—nobody I know, I hope—if they elected him president eight years later.

I suppose I could take some comfort in knowing that the slickest of salesmen often turn out to be the slimiest of sleazeballs. A widely held view is that to get ahead it helps to be a con artist. Well, in my life I can’t deny generating my fair share of tall tales, fibs, white lies, and out-and-out bullshit. But none of the BS ever got me anywhere. Come to think of it, being honest never got me anywhere either.

Take that tuscanydreamhome website. The content there must be somewhere in the neighborhood of 99 percent true (allow a 1 percent margin of error). I have a sneaking suspicion that some who have seen the site thought it was too good to be true and didn’t bother to follow up.

I suppose it’s kind of gauche for a writer to use a blog to promote real estate. But, really, I can’t think of many other places to turn. Someone out there is bound to ask: So, okay, what’s the difference between the 795,000 euro asking price and 800,000? Well, let me tell you, for 5,000 euro you could buy yourself a pretty nice used car. 


Amanda’s Fort Knox

American student Amanda Knox, who was first convicted of the murder of her English housemate in Perugia, Italy, and then freed when the verdict was overturned on appeal, has signed a book deal with Harper Collins for $4 million.

That outsize reward for a richly undeserving celebrity got me to thinking about the strange workings of justice in Italy and America. It made me wonder how Knox might have fared as a student in a U.S. college town like, say, Waco, Texas, if she’d found herself in circumstances similar to those of Perugia four years ago. My guess is not so well, even if she is white and becoming enough to be called “Angel Face.”

My disgust at the Knox news was conditioned by an article I’d just read in The New Yorker: “The Caging of America” by Adam Gopnik. It noted that the more than six million persons in U.S. prisons surpass the peak totals held in Stalin’s gulags. Huge numbers of Americans are serving sentences “much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the civilized world,” wrote Gopnik, adding that, “Texas alone has sentenced more than four hundred teenagers to life imprisonment.”

Amanda Knox enjoyed star status long before her release last October. A campaign to free her, mounted by family and friends in her hometown of Seattle, swept up press, politicians, lawyers, and influential personages as high up the ladder as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Support spread to Italy, where it’s rumored that even President Giorgio Napolitano put in a good word for her.

Yet, as the drama unfolded, opinions split rather keenly on whether “Angel Face” was innocent or guilty—or somewhere in between. Knox’s overexposure on Italian TV left me, and many Italians, undecided. Was she “Foxy Knoxy,” the she-devil or strega (witch) that some Perugians screeched at her and family when they came within earshot, or the blonde, blue-eyed, plumply pretty picture of virtue as the U.S. media depicted her? The line from Knox’s legions of friends seemed to be: how could those cruel Italian judges and their hopelessly medieval legal system treat an all-American girl that way? Obviously she’s innocent. Just look at her.

Knox and her then boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were convicted for their alleged roles in the sexual assault and murder of Meredith Kercher, and of covering up the evidence by simulating a burglary. The victim’s throat was slit during what prosecutors described as a drug-fueled sex game. An African-born man, Rudy Guede, was also convicted of the murder and is serving a sentence of sixteen years.

“Friends of Amanda,” buoyed by Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington and New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, claimed that evidence against Knox was inadequate, that she had been subjected to harsh treatment after arrest, and that there had been negligence in the handling of the evidence. Those allegations were based in part on Knox’s version of the truth—or versions rather, since her recollections tended to waver. Backers quietly overlooked the fact that Knox served three years—discounted in her four years of preventive detention—for falsely accusing the African-born owner of a bar where she once worked of the murder.

I, too, cringed when I heard that Knox had been sentenced to twenty-six years. My view is that most young people, however grave their mistakes, have qualities better redeemed in correctional institutions than in cages. Still, in Italy, with its antiquated legal system and overcrowded jails, convicts rarely serve a full term. The death penalty, as in most of Europe, was abolished as hopelessly medieval. Chances are that even if Knox had been confirmed guilty, she’d have been able to live most of the rest of her life free.

Not likely in America, where the penal system is aggressively punitive, even for young people—especially if they fall into the categories of black and Hispanic, which dominate the prison population. According to Human Rights Watch, the United States is the only country in the world with youth offenders (below 18) serving life without parole in adult prisons. There were about 2,590 at last count. The Supreme Court will consider arguments about the constitutionality of the practice in March.

Even if the court decides that the practice constitutes cruel and inhuman punishment (which reality renders a euphemism), I wouldn’t expect much progress on penal reform in a country where a gun-toting governor wins applause for touting his state’s record number of death sentences, boasting that he’d have no qualms if some of the executed had been innocent.

Life in prison without parole is extreme torture because it never ceases until the victim dies, a fate surely more cruel and inhuman than the death penalty. As Gopnik suggests in The New Yorker: “Lock yourself in your bathroom and imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.” Or imagine perpetuating that Kafkaesque incubus for sixty or seventy years.

Among the 2,590 hope-deprived kids there must be some who—with a little love, understanding, and learning—could lead useful lives outside. A responsible society would guarantee all of them at least a chance at rehabilitation. Locking them up and throwing away the keys is as demented a solution as herding them into gas chambers. Medieval? In terms of cruelty, I'd say somewhere between fascistic and barbarian.

The Italian court found evidence against Knox and Sollecito flawed and inadequate in overturning the verdict. It’s hard to say how much influence her influential friends might have had. But after their heavy assault on Italian justice, a meek round of bravos greeted the somewhat surprising verdict that left their heroine scot-free. It might be hoped that they turn some of that zeal to weeding out injustice in their own backyards. Even Knox’s home state of Washington seems to have twenty-eight kids condemned to life without parole.

As for Angel Face’s credibility, well, I’d trust her about as far as I could throw her. And in my currently decrepit state, that distance would be considerably less than an inch. I truly hope her book flops—unless she summons her angelic nature and devotes profits to a worthy cause. For instance, movements dedicated to reforming the American penal system and its policies toward youth—a system under which, if she’d been tried, instead of being a literary luminary worth four million bucks, she might have ended up as just another loser locked away for life.


Tuscany’s Olives—Another Fatal Freeze?

Tuscany is under siege from the coldest weather since 1985, when a major share of the region’s olive trees froze and had to be cut to the ground. Northerly winds of more than 60 kilometers an hour have heaped snow into drifts, leaving me stranded in my half-built house in the Maremma with no running water (the pipes froze overnight) and a compact woodstove the lone source of heat. The current wind chill is -18°C (-4°F). Tomorrow, hot damn, it’s supposed to be windier and colder.

Maybe I should worry more about my own health and safety than the well-being of those 85 olive trees out there bowed forlornly under icy snow. But I don’t. I could always phone someone to plow clear the road so I could escape with my car. Nobody I know of could intervene on behalf of my poor, dear olives, whose Mediterranean dispositions prepare them for almost any exigency short of Siberian blizzards.

Damage seems certain, though there’s hope that it won’t be as drastic as 27 years ago. Back then, in early January soon after the harvest, trees retained sap that froze at the core and destroyed the trunks above ground. The millennial resilience of olives permits roots to put out shoots that can be nurtured into new trees, though it takes a decade or more for a grove to return to normal.

This time, after a long drought, trees were dry and dormant so freezing might not be so severe. At best we might get by amputating some branches. Whatever the case, production—always iffy from olives picked by hand—seems certain to suffer.

So, once again it turns out that sunny Italy isn’t Florida. Popular images of Tuscany focus on the summery aspects of a region that in truth endures flip-flops between cold, rainy, and blustery through much of the year. I find myself grumbling more about the weather here than I did as a boy on the ice-packed lakes of Minnesota, where the foremost gauges of the wind-chill factor were flash-frozen fingers and toes. A sign of getting old, I suppose, aggravated by built-in Scandinavian melancholy.

Extremes of weather have a way of bringing out a defiant nature that I trace to my Viking heritage. I knew damned well what was coming when on Monday I stocked up at the market on the makings of a monumental minestrone, which, thickened with wood-oven bread late in the week, transmogrified into a resplendent ribollita. Throw in some salame, cheese, fruit, lots of good red wine, and enough milk for my morning cappuccino, and what’s to worry? As for water, nothing's finer than boiled snow. Like those guys who go out into the wilderness with nothing but a sharp knife and a stout constitution, just another challenge to overcome. No big deal.

Well, okay, it’s pretty damned cold here at Sassofortino, even inside my mini-fortress with the woodstove blasting. Tomorrow I have to decide whether to trudge a half-mile uphill through packed snow to stock up on groceries for another day or two or call in a plow and get the hell out of here. My olive trees, like my little red robin buddy who pecks away at the crumbs I throw out into the snow, seem to be telling me to stick it out. I guess they mean friends who freeze together, squeeze together, or something like that. How could I say no?


Burton Anderson
Beyond Vino

My first book, Vino, published in 1980, was lauded by critics as a landmark in the literature of wine. Over the years as a free-lance writer based in Tuscany, my books and articles brought me recognition as “the world’s leading expert on Italian wines.”

That’s no longer true, if it ever was, because I’ve pointed my literary career in new directions. Recent works include a novel, Boccadoro, self-published in 2007. But my main efforts have been dedicated to two volumes of nonfiction, neither yet finished.

One, entitled Boso’s Tuscany, is the story of my quest for clues to the life and times of an ancestor named Boso, who in the tenth century was the margrave (head man) of Tuscia, the state in the Holy Roman Empire’s Kingdom of Italy that became Tuscany. This spirited tale of sleuthing in the shadows of the Dark Ages has won praise from friends, agents, and even publishers, one of whom feared that it might be too wonderfully wacky to become a bestseller.

The other still-untitled book is the account of my late-in-life venture of building a new home as a replica of a traditional stone farmhouse in Tuscany’s Maremma. The house, like the book, is in limbo, each roughly half done, because I need to sell my old house near Florence to finance remaining work on the new. The latest chapter is Halfway House.

I hope to finish both books, but considering the vagaries of mainstream publishing, I can’t be sure they’ll appear in print. They contain a major share of my best writing. That may sound like the vainglorious raving of an aging hack, but I’m determined to find an audience for them. After years of hesitation, I decided to establish a blog and call it Beyond Vino.

My reasons for moving beyond the world of wine are described in the first feature of the blog entitled: My Life in Wine: The Good, the Bad, and the Bubbly. There will be more—much more, I hope—including chapters and excerpts and bits and pieces of my writing over the years.

Beyond Vino will also take up current topics, such as gastronomy, travel, sports, history, and even a bit of art and culture, spiced with observations on the weird and wondrous ways of life in post-Berlusconi Italy. My aim is to open up the blog as a forum of sorts for an exchange of ideas with readers, whose stimulating comments and reasoned criticism will always be welcome.

My views have been shaped over half a century in Italy, living mainly in rustic paradises of Tuscany, where I’ve persevered as a skeptic with liberal leanings on social, political, and philosophical issues. Though I’ve been suspected or accused of being an angry old misanthrope, anarchist, infidel, rebel, cynic, and hedonist, the one label I readily accept is epicurean, in the classical sense. That is, as a follower of the Greek Epicurus, who, in the fourth century BC, espoused a philosophy based on the pursuit of pleasure—comprising fine dining and drinking, of course—while conceptualizing with astounding acumen the nature of the universe and how to live in it.


Wizards of Winespeak

My views on modern wine critics may have seemed less than gracious up till now. See the post, My Life in Wine: the Good, the Bad, and the Bubbly (9 January 2011). So I’d like to take a closer, more insightful look at the work of taster-raters.

Devotees of wine have devised lexicons to describe colors, aromas, flavors, textures, and more. Such terms analogize sensations in ways that supposedly give professionals a frame of reference and aspirants a guide to character traits. I’ll admit to having borrowed some of the clichés myself before limiting my imagination to the drearily prosaic confines of fermented grapes.

Wine criticism is a competitive field in which taster-raters pack columns, newsletters, and—these days especially—blogs with points and notes. In their quests for fans and fame, some have shown extraordinary creative flair in describing wines. I’ve surfed the net for original, poetic, bizarre, and outrageous examples of the cutting-edge lingo created by these wizards of winespeak.

To tell the truth, some of the terminology baffles me. But what do I know? Mr. Slow Learner was the last to grasp the genius of the likes of Andy Warhol, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dan Brown, Lady Gaga. It might even be that behind the bodacious bylines of the blogosphere lurks winedom’s new Emperor or Big Brother.

Here’s a sampling of winespeak descriptive terms in no particular order: prickly pear juice; witch hazel; earthy mushrooms; creosote; tamarillo; animal gaminess; pomegranate; Christmas cake; mulch; showy nose; medicinal nose; brooding nose; nutty nose; damp fur; minerally accented red plum; pungent minty plums, balsamic marzipan; beefy-textured chestnut; cream soda; fried flowers; butcher shop smells; beef blood; pigeon blood; grilled bacon; blood sausage; incense; India ink; squid ink; linseed oil; hairspray; cherry Jell-O; cracked green peppercorns; Acapulco sunsets; graphite shavings; pink panty punch; orange zest; crystallized ginger; musk; jammy bramble fruit; coal dust; cheesy; cherry-berry; spice box; diesel; smoky plum; shoe polish; huckleberry; weedy; leafy; lead pencil; truffly underbrush; camphor; cotton candy; smoky meat; oriental spices; quince; tree bark; gooseberry; warm suet pudding; the Elephant & Castle tube station.

But perhaps I’ve done our gurus a disservice by listing these terms out of context. Let me try to right this wrong by composing a hypothetical description of a wine employing some of the above terminology in a style that I can only hope to be worthy of a tried-and-true taster-rater. When it comes to describing wines, I’ll admit to being a bit rusty. But, what the hell, here goes:

Color: Deep ruby tamarillo and pigeon blood hues underscore cherry Jell-O tones melding with ripe red gooseberry and chokecherries over a swirly shadow of squid ink. On the rim, hints of pink panty punch, pomegranate, Acapulco sunsets.

Bouquet: Knockout, in-your-face nose opens onto a potpourri of fruity-leathery-tobacco-spicebox scents with undertones of creosote, butcher shop smells, mulch, shoe polish and diesel. A second swirl and sniff reveals deep, brooding qualities, vaguely medicinal, with hints of shaved graphite, earthy mushrooms, smoky meat, tree bark, and (a real surprise) warm suet pudding.

Palate: Supercharged upfront zing zaps the tongue with ripe cherry-berry sensations of minerally accented red plum, beef blood, jammy bramble fruit, huckleberry, and beefy-textured chestnut before gliding into the mid-mouth with a cream soda-like lift accented by orange zest, fried flowers, grilled bacon, incense, and cotton candy. I can’t emphasize enough the nearly interminable finish of this wine with its subtle undertones of truffly underbrush, musk, mulch, and camphor.

Conclusion: This wine from a somewhat offbeat vintage seems too green to hang a posterity tag on. Tentative score: 73 ++. Considerations: could surprise with age: 20-150 years.

Note to skeptical possessors of this €220 bottle. If you have the patience to let it slumber in the cellar for a couple of decades—and the fortune to live a long and happy life—you might find it taking on the persimmony-dried apricoty plushness of the grandiose 1850 D’Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho. Or, though this is a real long shot, the singularity of the Opimian vintage of the Roman Falernium (121 BC, would you believe?). I’ve never had the privilege of tasting that classic, but to judge by accolades showered upon it by much more than highly reliable sources—Pliny the Elder, Cicero, Julius Caesar himself!—it was to die for.


Italy on the Rocks

It’s hard to resist likening the wreck of the Costa Concordia to the fate of Italy in recent times. The Concordia and the ship of state were commanded, respectively, by the reckless Francesco Schettino and the feckless Silvio Berlusconi, who left them derelict and foundering on the rocks. Both skippers tried to cover their follies with lies so ludicrous that if their deeds hadn’t been so dastardly they might be redeemed as clowns. Instead, they seem destined to go down in history alongside such tragicomic rogues as Nero, Cesare Borgia, and Benito Mussolini.
There’s some doubt that either the Concordia or the ship of state can be salvaged. Yet experts harbor a glimmer of hope that the giant liner could be righted, towed, and patched back together rather than cut up for scrap. Mario Monti’s emergency government, faced with more than runaway debts, falling credit ratings, and a shaky euro, is struggling to refloat the economy and bring Italy back to safe harbor. Wish him luck.
Come to think of it, my analogy might be a little lame. It took Schettino less than an hour to scrape a reef and leave the Concordia, with more than 4,200 persons aboard, capsized on a ledge of granite after telling potential rescuers that he had nothing more than a minor problem. Berlusconi spent the better part of 17 years denying that the ship of state leaked, while, in his cavalierly despotic way, blaming Italy’s plunging fortunes on everybody but himself. 
The commander is widely despised as Capitan Codardo (Captain Coward). The ex-premier is scorned by a sizable segment of the public and press, who know him as il Cavaliere, the il suggesting singular status among Italy’s hundreds of thousands who won or wangled honorary knighthoods. Then again, if you own three of the seven main TV channels and manipulate three others of the state-run RAI (as Berlusconi did when he was Italy’s richest man and still in power), and if you use your own newspapers to insult adversaries as communists or coglioni (a term for testicles that also signifies putzes or jerks), you probably are unique among knights.
Schettino, 52, is at home in Sorrento awaiting trial on charges of multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship, which could bring him up to fifteen years in the cooler. There’s some chance that he might actually serve a few of them, though he’s basing his defense on the line that Costa Crociere cruises required captains to swing past ports as publicity stunts. Costa denies this.
Berlusconi, 75, ensconced at his Arcore mansion notorious for bunga-bunga parties, faces more criminal charges than even his legions of lawyers can keep track of. Yet everybody knows he’ll emerge from courtrooms, where “The law is equal for all,” without serving a minute behind bars.
His exit from power may have given Italians a sigh of relief, but it will take years to get Berlusconismo out of their systems. During his reign, much legislation was aimed at protecting the premier from pinko prosecutors out to get him. Among Europe’s highest paid parliamentarians, 85 have either been convicted or charged with crimes. Of these, 57 are in Berlusconi’s party, Popolo della Libertà.
It figures that the Cavaliere’s kissing cronies in the political sphere were George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. Berlusca, as some call him, once described Barack Obama as a bright young man with a nice tan who had a lot to learn from old warriors like himself, George, and Vladimir.  There might have been a hint of envy in that, since B’s own permatan seems to have been spread over the surface of an oft remodeled visage topped by a slick of transplanted hair of indelible ruddy brown. He’s adored by cartoonists, thanks to his double-breasted suits and elevator shoes, and the looks of a figure in a wax museum with an expression transfixed between a grimace and a shit-eating grin.
But there I go again, venting my disdain for what a cover of The Economist hailed as “The man who screwed an entire country.” Not to worry. I’m not about to turn Beyond Vino into a political forum. This time that lame ship analogy was hard to resist. But there are a whole lot of topics I’d rather discuss than the sordid world of politics.
To tell the truth, after a long voyage as a free-lance navigator my good ship Lolipop is also on the rocks. I too, like our two captains, have a way of blaming my sinking on others, starting with Wall Street bankers whose greed sparked the worldwide economic crisis that in turn ruined Italy’s real estate market. But deep down I know that I have nobody to blame but myself for believing that I could sell a gorgeous old house in the heart of Tuscany for enough profit to build a gorgeous new (but  smaller) house in the coastal Maremma with a nice surplus as a nest egg for the golden years.
If you happen to know somebody who’s looking for a gorgeous old house in the heart of Tuscany, please steer them toward www.tuscanydreamhome.com. If this sound like a plea for sympathy, it’s not. It’s an SOS.