Thursday, July 29, 2010

Appreciating a pleasant glass of wine

One of the simple pleasures of living in California ~ and, believe me, there are many ~ is being able to purchase good, affordable wine at a grocery store.  After all, it's the 21st century, and why should I have to make an extra trip to a liquor store when picking up a bottle or two at Trader Joe's or Whole Foods with the rest of my groceries is much more convenient?

During a recent trip to Minnesota, which by state law doesn't allow the sale of wine and alcohol in grocery stores, I was quickly reminded that I wasn't in California.  It seemed liquor stores dotted neighborhood streets and lined city boulevards everywhere we drove throughout the Twin Cities.  Even Trader Joe's, which opened to much fanfare in St. Paul last year, has a separate, partitioned area for wine and alcohol sales ~ which means having to swipe your debit card twice.  At least, you only have to park once.

But I digress ...

Green Fin (2009):
made from organic grapes
On Sunday, shopping at the Trader Joe's market in Oakland's Rockridge neighborhood, I discovered a 2009 bottle of Green Fin, a California white table wine. The colorful, hand-drawn label depicting a classic, wood-paneled station wagon toting a surfboard on its roof, grabbed my attention ~ and a helpful Trader Joe's crew member nudged me, too. So did the wine's price, a very inexpensive $3.99 per bottle.  And, because I enjoy drinking chilled whites on warm, summer evenings, it seemed like a good choice and worth trying.

However, the deal-clincher ~ and what picked my curiosity ~ was this: Green Fin uses organically only grown grapes, blending sultana, colombard and muscat varieties from the Central Valley town of Madera. Each year, we enjoy several dozen bottles of wine at home with dinner.  However, I can't recall ever having a bottle of wine made exclusively from organic grapes.  Out here on the Left Coast, foodies take their organic products seriously.

The vintner's notes on the bottle tells the Green Fin story:  "The Green Fin White Table Wine is made entirely from organically grown grapes.  This pale straw colored wine has very intense orange blossom and honey aromatics, while delivering a full, rich body with a core of pear and nectarine flavors followed by a smooth aftertaste that's long and focused.  Savor the flavor of this organically grown white table wine with your favorite meal or by itself.  Enjoy!"

Refreshingly subtle, I savored the flavor of Green Fin over the past three evenings. From its first pour to to its last,  it was easy on the taste buds ~ not too dry, not too sweet ~ and, not to be forgotten, its affordable price!  It's great for sipping on the patio after work, or served with a simple meal like Peko-Peko Heritage Pork pan-fried gyoza with white rice, butter lettuce salad, and fresh-cut strawberries and raspberries.

Decent but not too fancy, Green Fin won't break the budget. On a nice summer evening, it's easy to appreciate a pleasant glass of wine.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Summer, the Symphony and the Maestro

Critics who say that classical music is suffering a decline in interest ~ that it can look predictable to the outside world ~ never met conductor Alondra de la Parra.  This charming, 29-year-old Mexican conductor is gaining widespread attention for her vibrant performances, and she is fast becoming one of the most compelling conductors of her generation.

Maestro Alondra de la Parra
If San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas ever decides to hang up his baton, I would love to see Maestro de la Parra return to the City on a permanent basis. San Franciscans appreciate conductors who love pushing the boundaries of classical music and, like MTT, the charismatic de la Parra knows how to connect with classical music lovers of all ages.

I had never heard of Maestro de la Parra, or seen her conduct, until last Saturday, when she led the San Francisco Symphony in what was billed as "a cool evening of hot American classics" by American composers such as Adams, Copland, Ives and Gershwin.  Now, I can't wait for the Symphony to invite her back to the podium.

On Saturday evening, fashionably hip in casual black attire, Maestro de la Parra spoke passionately from the podium throughout the concert as she introduced each piece.  She seemed to be just a little awestruck in welcoming Sex and the City co-star Chris Noth ("Mr. Big"), who was special guest narrator of the evening's featured piece, Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," as was her audience to see him come on stage and orate the somber, 13-minute work for speaker and orchestra. But who wouldn't be awestruck? Noth handled the dramatic reading with a simplicity that expressed Lincoln's sense of patriotism and humanity.

Summer & the Symphony
at Davies Symphony Hall
While it may have been Noth's box office appeal that helped fill the hall for the Grand Finale of the 2010 Summer & the Symphony series, it was Maestro de la Parra's elan and passion for her craft that sparkled throughout the nearly-sold out Davies Symphony Hall.

Immediately, from the concert's first piece, "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" by the American composer John Adams, Maestro de la Parra immediately took command of this joyfully exuberant piece and exuded a steady sense of motion ~ displaying an extra bounce in her step and playful emphasis in each flick of her baton.  Her spellbinding charm and delightful smile could be felt and appreciated not only from the front row of the main floor, but also all the way up to the second tier balcony.

"Seventy-six Trombones" and a
few balloons, too
Maestro de la Parra's incisive gestures throughout the program, such as the percussive snapping of her fingers during the Danza de Jalisco movement of Copland's "Three Latin-American Sketches," and the orchestra's responsiveness to her nuances, added up to a very enjoyable evening of classical music. The program, which included Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," culminated in a delightful performance of Meredith Willson's "Seventy-Six Trombones" from The Music Man.  The piece included guest performers from the University of California Marching Band, who marched down the aisles of the main floor.  Also, it featured a free fall drop of red, white and blue balloons from the rafters that added to the celebratory mood of the evening's performance.

One critic previously described Maestro de la Parra as being "all music, from top to bottom and from inside out."  After the performance, my wife and I decided to find out for ourselves, and we had a chance to meet the maestro in person while she enthusiastically signed advance copies of her new CD "Mi Alma Mexicana" ("My Mexican Soul"), posed for photos, and talked about her passion for music with concertgoers.

"I strongly believe that Mexican orchestral music deserves a place in every orchestra's core repertoire," Maestro de la Parra writes in the album's liner notes. "This release truly represents what Mexican culture is; not only the well-known picture of folklore, cuisine, colors and breathtaking landscapes that amaze visitors, but the modern Mexico, eclectic and baroque in every sense of the word: a rich spectrum of possibilities and exquisite taste."

Maestro de la Parra, who began playing the piano at age seven and the cello at 13, decided early that she wanted to be a conductor.  She studied music in both England and Mexico and, at age 19, moved to New York City and studied piano and conducting at the Manhattan School of Music, earning a B.A. in piano performance and an M.M. in conducting.

Signing copies of
"Mi Alma Mexicana"
after the concert
and greeting fans
As the founder and artistic director of the New York-based Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas, which promotes the work of young soloists and composers from the American continent, Maestro de la Parra has a busy summer ahead promoting the POA's new release, "Mi Alma Mexicana" for Sony Classical (which will be released nationally on Aug. 3). She is also cultural ambassador for Mexican Tourism, and since 2005 she has been the musical director for the Music Festival of the Americas in Stowe, Vermont.

In addition to conducting the San Francisco Symphony, Maestro de la Parra has conducted the orchestras of Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and San Antonio as well as Miami's New World Symphony, Brazil's Sao Paulo Symphony and Uruguay's Montevideo Philharmonic.  Next week, she travels to Germany to conduct in the Moritzburg Festival in Dresden, Germany before returning to Stowe for the remainder of the month.  She and the POA will tour Mexico in September.

However, on this summer evening, I discovered why classical music still matters, and how the right combination of imagination, creativity and discipline add up to one amazing conductor, Alondra de la Parra.

Gracias, maestro.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The pleasure of our gardens, part 9

Over the past several months, I've blogged regularly about our many colorful rose bushes in our backyard garden.  However, I haven't waxed much about what's happening in our front yard garden. With summer nearing its midpoint, I thought it's time to introduce you to one of our front-of-the-house perennials that's not only added a welcome splash to a small garden bed, but also has become a nice companion to our Japanese maple tree.

Starting as delicate, airy globes ...
Say hello to our allium flowers.  Perhaps, you've seen an allium before.  After all, they're native to most countries in the northern hemisphere and can also be found in Brazil and Africa.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines the allium as "any of numerous, usually bulbous plants of the genus Allium in the lily family, having long stalks bearing clusters of various colored flowers."  And, according to the website livetogarden.com, allium flowers typically grow to a height of about 48 inches tall and spread to about a foot.  So, they're quite easy to pick out of a crowd of garden flowers.

A few years ago, our next-door neighbor gave us a couple of their "extra" alliums in exchange for a couple of our "extra" iris bulbs, which we happened to be splitting and replanting at the time.  After planting our alliums in a small, mixed-use garden spot near our front door, we didn't really know what to expect ~ and I seem to recall nothing really happened for a long time. Just a lot of green leaves at the base of the stem taking up space and harboring a few pesky snails.

A couple of summers ago, several of our alliums opened up quite nicely ~ without any prompting ~ and became welcome acquaintances in our front yard garden.  They share space with a Japanese maple tree and a few calla lilies.  One thing I enjoy about our alliums is they are very low maintenance and thrive on the afternoon sunshine facing north.

... blooming into star-like flowers.
The allium's maturing process is as intriguing as it is interesting to observe.  First, the main bulb sprouts up at the end of a long, light green stem;  then, it splits open like a pea pod, producing a cluster of small pods.  Finally, these pods open up into individual flowers.

While all of our allium blooms are blueish purple, alliums also bloom in white ~ even red.  During evening walks through our neighborhood, I've begun noticing many gardens sprouting alliums.  I've also observed alliums growing in median strip gardens while driving around Oakland.  A popular flower or a just a populist?

Alliums are everywhere you want them to be ~ and some places you don't expect them to be.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Great Day for South Africa

Across the pond early Sunday evening, Louis Oosthuizen celebrated his coming out party.  The affable, 27-year-old South African with a gap-toothed smile, convincingly shattered the rest of the field on the Old Course at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews, Scotland, to win the 2010 Open Championship, golf's biggest prize.  Oosthuizen (pronounced WUHST-hay-zen) shot a final-round 71 for a four-round total of 272, and won by eight strokes over his nearest competitor, Lee Westwood of England.

Oosthuizen, from Mosul Bay, South Africa, became the fourth South African to win the Open.  His wife, Nel-Mare, and daughter, Jana, joined the celebration on the 18th green of the Old Course afterward.  Oosthuizen hoisted the Claret Jug trophy and walked around the perimeter of the 18th hole posing for the gallery, occasionally kissing it for good effect, with the same confidence and enthusiasm that earned him his first major championship of his career.

Indeed, Sunday was a great day for South Africa, coming a week after Johannesburg successfully hosted the World Cup soccer final between Spain and Holland that capped a month of brilliant sport and served as a wonderful platform for broadening the nation's cultural awareness. Sunday also marked the 92nd birthday of Nelson Mandela, the first South African president to be elected in a fully representative democratic election.  Finally, South Africa has been in the news a lot lately for all of the right reasons.

What makes Oosthuizen's story all the more remarkable is that he grew up the son of a sheep farmer, received help from the Ernie Els Foundation just to be able to afford golf clubs, and has spent the past several years knocking around the European PGA Tour with modest success.  So, while American audiences were expecting a great result from Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, the unfamiliar Oosthuizen put together a wonderful charge over four days, including a 40-foot eagle putt on the 352-yard ninth hole during the final round, to seal his victory. He finished the tournament 16 strokes under par.

The soft-spoken Oosthuizen, who is white, leaned on his caddy, Zack Rasego, who is black, for sound advice.  Like Oostenhuizen, Rasego grew up poor in South Africa, too, the oldest of six kids.  He began caddying as a kid in the resort town of Sun City to escape poverty and help support his family. Oosthuizen and Rasego not only speak a common language, Afrikaans, they have been a "rainbow team" on the links for seven years, putting the color of their skin aside and looking at each other as human beings. 

After Oosthuizen drained the final putt of the Open Championship, he and Rasego shared a warm, congratulatory hug that was beamed on television for all of the world to enjoy. Winning the Open Championship was a coronation for both, and the Old Course at the Royal and Ancient resembled a regal walk in the park.

ESPN's Rick Reilly noted afterward that the days in which a white golfer and a black caddy together feeling uncomfortable have passed.  No more raising eyebrows or causing discontent. Oosthuizen and Rasego can thank Mandela for helping to foster reconciliation and racial harmony in their home country.  "They were two men with one goal, achieving a dream," commented Reilly.

In accepting his prize, Oosthuizen thanked Mandela and wished him a happy birthday.  "What he's done for our country is unbelievable," said Oosthuizen. "So happy birthday to him once again."

For South Africa, Sunday was a day to celebrate the good health of an old hero, the good fortune of a new hero, and the caddy who helped this new hero achieve glory.  For the rest of us, we're just happy to have been a witness to it all.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The pleasure of nature and family gardens

I recently returned from my annual summer trip to Minnesota, which offered a chance to relax away from the Bay Area, enjoy some new dining experiences, and, importantly, spend lots of quality time with my wife's family, both in the Twin Cities and Albert Lea.  I'm happy to report that the Upper Midwest summer rains have kept everything green and beautiful, and the temperatures, while warm (upper 70s to mid 80s), weren't too hot or humid to prevent enjoying the nature that surrounded me and the pleasure of family gardens.

During a family picnic my in-laws hosted in their backyard, I became fascinated by the sight of a small group of butterflies hovering over a bed of asters in their garden. I excused myself from the conversation for a few minutes, grabbed my camera, and stepped outside from the comfort of the enclosed patio to be an observer of nature.  Arriving at my destination about 10 yards away, I stood still and quiet and let the butterflies entertain and amuse me.  Fortunately, the shutter fly of my camera didn't disrupt the butterflies at play (or were they are work?), and, I'm happy to report, my reward for my time and patience was some amazing photographs.

In doing some simple research afterward, I learned the butterflies I observed last weekend are known as Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui).  They are also called the Thistle Butterfly and can be found throughout much of North America. Their wings are covered with orange and brown blotches and the tops of their fore wings are tipped in black and white spots. Their orange and black colors reminded me of the familiar colors worn by the San Francisco Giants, my favorite baseball team.

Throughout my Minnesota vacation, there were many opportunities for photographing nature at work and play, including: a mid-evening rainbow observed from the side of a southern Minnesota highway; a delightful sunset over Lake Minnetonka's Excelsior Bay following a wonderful dinner out; robins and cardinals visiting a backyard bird bath; and, finally, the aftermath of recent tornado damage that was as beautiful to see as it was heartbreaking to comprehend. Understand, the lifting from the earth, the upsetting of root systems, and the twisting and shattering of mature oak trees is no easy feat.

Often, we take nature for granted.  Sometimes, however, it's important to make time for nature.  Just take time ~ whether in moments, minutes or hours ~ and observe nature in all of its forms that is all around us. Simple pleasures are often the ones that leave us truly amazed, and ~ if we're lucky ~ rewarded for our time.

A Postscript:  Regular followers of "A Tuesday Night Memo" know that I enjoy blogging regularly about our backyard garden at home.  I am happy to report that all of our rose bushes are enjoying the moderate, Bay Area summer weather.  We came home from our summer vacation earlier this week to a warm welcome of several dozen blooms.  Although the Oranje of the Netherlands lost an exciting World Cup soccer final to Spain, our orange roses were still looking very festive as well as our Queen Elizabeth and Mr. Lincoln roses.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Enjoying a bit of vacation

I've decided to take a week off from regular blogging to enjoy a bit of vacation ~ watching the climatic final week of the World Cup of soccer on TV (go Netherlands!), trying some new dining experiences and working in the garden.  It's adding up to a fun week and I'll share some new experiences with you soon.

Happy summer ~ cheers!