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GP 9 May 2007: Better Than Best—Second: Terroir

Alignment of the Stars.  While sipping the tail end of a Pommard, a 2000 from Les Pezerolles, we mused where to set down two new additions to the garden.  The Aichi-no-kagayaki, or Aching Tongue Iris, is a Japanese culivar, an interesting cross of two other irises whose resulting yellow is delicate enough that it does not jar the senses wherever it is put.  It may well find its way to a sandy spot.  Somehow the Yellow Pitcher Plant, or Sarracenia fava, seems to belong front and center, where its coiled shape may lend interest and where it may gobble up insects as is its wont.  We are wondering whether it will compel us to join the International Carnivorous Plant Society, from which one can learn about the aggressive personality of pitfall, flypaper, and snap traps.

It’s so important to get context right in working with a new specimen.  It’s no wonder that the larger-than-life detective Nero Wolfe could spend so many hours upstairs amidst orchids and such, affording his flowers contemplation and care.  Without careful placement, the beauty of each flower gets lost, and the garden takes on that clumped, sterile look that landscaping services do so well.  They always prove themselves clever purveyors of banality.

Then too, in the wrong location, the flowers will simply not grow well.  In the same way, you cannot grow a Pommard away from Pommard, and Hubert de Montille’s wines would be nothing but for the estate he inherited in 1951, and the additions he made to it in the immediate region.  Everything—earth, sun, climate—must come together to make for perfection.  An alignment of the stars.  We see that as well in the better-than-bests we cite this week.  This is our second installment of these ultra bests, many of which you can find in our Best of Class section:

  1. Dawn Redwoods at the Coker Arboretum.  As we have made clear in “Chapel Hill, 1795-1975,” by far the best spot on the campus of the University of North Carolina—in fact, in Chapel Hill and perhaps Orange County—is the Coker Arboretum.  It resonates with beauty and interest, much more so than the Botanical Garden, by which it is now administered.  First off, it was created by Professor William Chambers Coker in 1903 at a time when the university had a better sense of its communal and esthetic responsibilities. Back then learning, contemplation, and a sense of order were thought to be commingled.  In fact, the Coker illustrates that time as well as place is part of the context in which something pleasing unfolds.  Since the middle of the last century, the university and the town have been eroding the attractiveness of their neighborhoods, as each randomly adds to the jumble.  A Coker would simply never happen today.

    Moreover, as one moves about North Carolina, one finds that most of the buildings and other structures are humdrum; that its treasure lies in its natural wonders—on farms, through the mountains, along certain parts of the shore.  There are other towns and cities, such as Asheville, where the gardens far outshine the buildings and cottages they adjoin. Coker, UNC’s first professor of botany, loved Asian species of trees—a special feature of the Arboretum.  They alone lend majesty to the campus.  Nature, in fact, is Carolina’s principal resource, along with small towns, but Carolinians have turned their backs on it, victims of feckless development.
  1. Offbeat Briefings.  Britain’s Economist, with half its readership in America, is a tale of two countries.  Now that the Empire is dead, it remains for this magazine to cast a vicarious eye on all sorts of ports of call throughout the world, with strong coverage of the United States and Britannia—and marginal useful hits about other parts of the world.  In all probability it should be doing a stronger job in Asia.  For sure it has put to shame the American newsweeklies such as Time and Newsweek, which are in terminal decline.  The writing’s a whole lot better, and, generally, the coverage does not lean towards random navel-gazing.  It is planted in an imperial point of view watered down with free-trade liberalism and appropriate snatches of the politically correct.  Its long reports and opinion pages are not really authoritative, and one should not wallow in their conclusions.  The reports have a lot of filler, and the staff is incapable of doing meaty long pieces.  But the short briefings—say 4 pages—on oblique topics are first rate, often having a significance that reaches beyond the immediate article.  They are slightly eccentric, but they tell a lot. For instance, “The Big Dry,” a write up of Australia’s water shortage, April 28, 2007, pp. 81-84, foreshadows the water crisis that will afflict a host of countries throughout the world, including the U.S.  There, as in the U.S., that means better regional handling and distribution of water supplies.
  1. The Promise of the West.  Wags have long said, “Dallas is where the East peters out, and Fort Worth is where the West begins.”  Curiously, Foat Wuth, taken to be a cowtown that is small potatoes besides all the doings in Dallas, has a whole lot more to offer.  While the collections are spotty, Fort Worth has a number of elegant museums, including Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Museum, an eminently restful place to spend an afternoon—when escaping from Dallas.  The contrast is even starker between the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden.  The Botanic may have a more modest name, but it makes Dallas look like a piker.  It takes special pride in its roses and the Japanese Garden.  The koi are plentiful, and often the Garden is under-used, making it especially peaceful.  Somehow the monied folk of Fort Worth have come to think that grandiosity is not the sign of civic virtue.  Amon G. Carter, newspaperman, civic leader, and businessman of many interests—was the catalyst who set 20th-century Fort Worth in motion.  His Fort Worth Star-Telegram, for a long while the most powerful newspaper in Texas, was an energetic voice for growth and greatness.  Fittingly, his name lives on at the Amon Carter Museum, which itself symbolizes the different kind of leadership he brought to the area.
  1. Bears Feasting.  Even before we went to the Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory, we had the scene set for us, at a rogue Starbucks no less.  There a barista named Steve had done crayon drawings on a blackboard (actually a whiteboard) of bears in the wild feasting on salmon.  He and the blackboard are long gone.  We have given an account of our own summer visit in “Best Bear Viewing in Alaska’s Inside Passage.”  When we worked our way inland from our boat, we tingled a bit—along the boarded trail—wondering if the bears would be looking for a lunch of tourist flesh.  We needn’t have worried.  When we reached the bear viewing pavilion, we discovered the bears scooping the water, rich in salmon, then eating just the roe out of the fish, throwing the rest of the carcass back down on the bank.  Clearly they did not have to bother with anything quite as mundane as visitors from the Lower 48.  Perhaps a day later, we ate onboard, sushi style, a handsome salmon that had been caught by a young lad in our party.  For sure, then, we knew why the bears only had eyes for morsels offered up in the clear icy waters of Alaska.
  1. Hearty, Caffeine Laden, Big Cup Coffee from the Right Pot.  When times were simpler, Corning was a glass company that made cookware in which you hatched substantial meals and designed fine objects (Steuben) that you gave at weddings and diplomatic exchanges.  Now it’s a telecommunications company, and glass, as we knew it, is history.  So you have to rummage around in the junk stores for its 9-Cup Flameware Pyrex Coffee Maker, which is about the only way you should prepare boiled country coffee or hi-test Try Me chicory from New Orleans.  It hails from an era where form and function came together in rugged but handsome design objects, some of which have been memorialized by the Industrial Designers of America.  Not only has this Flameware line been discontinued (1979), but get-you-going coffee seems headed towards extinction.
  1. The Yale Cellos.  Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and other major universities have in the last few years largely turned into banks (i.e, endowments) with some academic window dressing.  But each harbors some extraordinary sanctuaries where the life of the mind still flourishes, and the funds can be said to have been put to good use.  Such is the Yale School of Music: some extraordinary musicians have passed through its portals.  In such a setting, cellists have come to flourish.  It is altogether fitting that the towering Mstislav Rostoprovich should have performed there, since he was an extraordinary cellist and conductor.  Indeed, if you want cello, you have to visit Yale.  The Brazilian Aldo Parisot makes his home there, a teacher at the School since 1958.  The Yale Cellos, an ensemble formed from Parisot’s students, has played widely about the world to universal acclaim.

Terroir Terroir, a favorite term of wine fanciers, is often much too narrowly understood.  It implies a sense of place, most often referring to the soil and natural elements that impart distinct flavor to local vintages.  For some it may include local influences—such as the distilling methods peculiar to one region.  But, as we can see above, perfection and distinction come not just from a few chemical oddities of an area, but from its history, from folks such as Amon Carter who create better rounded cities than Dallas, from a global outlook that even today distinguishes Great Britain from both Europe and the United States, and from small Burgundy growers who pass on their vines to the next generation who also feel a special devotion to the hallowed ground.  Hubert de Montille now manages his parcels in Volnay and Pommard with the aid of son Etienne and daughter Alix.  Surely his children will inherit the vines.  Terroir, then, is a combination of the good earth with the cultural capital knowing people bring to it.  It is a refutation of architecture’s International Style and any other tendency that obliterates our sense of place and time.

P.S.  The Economist, founded in 1843, has been led on occasion by men of affairs, rather than mere bystanders.  Famed Walter Bagehot was an editor as well as a constitutional expert.  An interesting colonial, Rupert Pennant-Lea, after his stint as editor, became vice chairman of the Bank of England, where he stayed until an extramarital affair upset his applecart.  This magazine likes to call itself a “newspaper,” which accounts perhaps for the fact that its short articles work out much better than its over-long essays.  Great publications have to have people around like Richard Harding Davis, journalists who are a little bit larger than life.

P.P.S.   The breadth of museums in Fort Worth is startling for a city that numbered 625,000 or so in 2005.  And there are many other attractions: a substantial zoo, for instance, and the Fort Worth Water Garden, done by Philip Johnson who also designed the Amon Carter.  We wonder if Fort Worth has more museums per capita than any other large town in the U.S.  There’s a raft of building going on now, bringing in more architectural superstars such as Renzo Piano.  Our Fort Worth correspondents remind us that the town was put together by cowpunchers and ranchers, quite a different crowd than the Dallas wheeler dealers.  There has been a lot of intermarriage of its leading families, creating a communal fabric that is more tightly woven than in other parts of the compass.

P.P.P.S.  For years it was worth skipping French wines, since so many nations offered superior bargains that made the prices of Bordeauxs and Burgundies look horrendous. But now California and many other locales have vastly inflated their prices, so one might as well poke around Burgundy.

P.P.P.P.S.  Try Me Coffee is still around.  The flooding from Katrina was pretty bad, and it took quite a while to get back in business.  But the old-fashioned roasters are still working, and it is still a family enterprise. You can read a bit more about it at “Fire and Darkness.”

P.P.P.P.P.S.  Near as we can tell, Fort Worth even has a more active poetry scene than Dallas, though a number of Dallas business leaders are closet poets.  On “Mike Guinn and the Fort Worth Slams,” one uncovers a whole lot of versifying.  Here, it claims the Dallas Poetry Slams are “on hiatus,” though we find readings are still afoot there as well. 

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