Friday, June 24, 2011

A glimpse of Chardonnays past

California’s Cupcake Vineyards, which launched its wines in Canada this spring, is a big-selling brand with plenty of momentum. Chardonnay, one of two wines included in a sampler recently distributed to media, is a case in point. On the surface, the wine is easy-drinking – sweet butterscotch looms large with hints of vanilla-spiced fruit. The label doesn’t apologize for this; indeed, the name of the brand alone makes the character of what’s in the bottle no surprise. However, the wine also has a rustic elegance suited to patio parties like one I attended in Davis, California last spring. The gathering was my first encounter with Cupcake wines. Sipping the current release from the 2009 vintage recalled the evening perfectly, a patch of California in a glass.

Yet the butterscotch, the vanilla, the sheer sweet heft of the wine, recalls why Chardonnay fell out of favour as lighter styles attracted attention (my first encounter with an unwooded Chardonnay still sticks with me). Still, my palate was being shaped in the mid to late 1990s by cheaper wines influenced by malolactic fermentation and robust oak programs (a page of my tasting notes from 1997, however, qualifies the memory by noting that the Chardonnays I was tasting actually seemed quite light to my palate). Still, these were the entry-level wines for those of us who couldn’t yet afford the good stuff. Cupcake’s Chardonnay reminds me both why I persisted in exploring wine, but also why I began exploring wines made from other grape varieties. Chardonnay, I thought, had shown me what it could do. It was time to move on.

It’s not an unpleasant experience returning to a wine that reminds me of those days. Cupcake offers a Chardonnay that’s a decent wine for the patio or a rich meal of seafood (meaty scallops come to mind). It’s also a great chance to discover what the variety, and California generally, has to offer.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

On the seas of memory

The first Sunday in May is traditionally Battle of the Atlantic Sunday, the day when the conflict – and supreme sacrifice of more than 70,000 Allied sailors and merchant seamen – are commemorated. That was last week. And today, exactly a week later, is the anniversary of VE Day, the day the battle ended and the second great war of the 20th century came to a close in Western Europe.

My father served aboard a frigate, HMCS Dunver, during the latter half of the conflict. When he died five years ago, I followed in his steps and made an annual contribution to the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust, which works to maintain the HMCS Sackville in Halifax as a monument to those who served both in the Battle of the Atlantic and the navy as a whole. Today, by the trust’s estimate, there’s a million Canadians with a relative who saw active service in the navy between 1939 and 1945.

Canada’s navy doesn’t get a lot of respect, however. Sure, a dollar coin was minted last year to mark the navy’s centennial, and dark rum enjoyed a higher profile on account of its long association with the service (and vice versa). But here in Vancouver, concern over the fate of 43 West Hastings hinged on the building’s post-war history as Save-On Meats, a popular butcher in its day with a neon sign that’s become part of the city’s chic heritage; Jones Tent & Awning Ltd., the previous tenant, is mentioned only in passing with no recognition of its role as a supplier of flags and other goods to the navy during the war.

The loss of memories like that – with no disrespect meant to the importance of Save-On Meats to its neighbourhood – steadily erodes our understanding of the fundamental way the Battle of the Atlantic and the as a whole impacted cities on the home front, and influenced a generation. Indeed, I wouldn’t have known about Jones Tent & Awning if I hadn’t looked at the tag on a naval ensign my father kept from his ship, and taken the time to find out where the manufacturer was located during the 1940s, where the flag I held was made.

Word is 43 West Hastings is being renovated to host a deli and restaurant, likely with the kind of retro twist that’s become common in the area as gentrification has occurred and a new generation pays homage to the old. You'll probably find me down there someday for lunch, when the new incarnation opens this summer. I don’t know that I’ll take the flag that was made a few floors above, but I’ll definitely take my memories and offer a word of thanks for sacrifices made and peace enjoyed.

Sitting with the ensign from HMCS Dunver (1990).

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Going further

Have I been too far? Have I seen too much?
Working in the shadows of the big Ferris wheel ...

One of the songs that’s been percolating through my consciousness over the past two years is Tom Russell’s Don’t Look Down. I first remember hearing it at Joe’s Pub in New York back in August 2008, then again when I caught him a couple of months later in Vancouver. It talks about the challenges of living in the world, being grateful for the best while walking away from the worst (Russell provides his own take on the song here). The song includes nods to Vanity Fair (in a peculiarly American vein) and the escape from Sodom

Tasted lipstick and nylons, seen the mental asylum

Turned my back on the violence before I turned into salt.

Russell’s song comes back to me as I think of a prayer said over my father as he lay dying:

We humbly commend this thy servant, our dear brother, into thy hands, as into the hands of a faithful Creator, and most merciful Saviour. Wash him, we pray thee, in the blood of the immaculate Lamb, that was slain to take away the sin of the world; that whatsoever defilements he may have contracted in the midst of this wicked world, through the lusts of the flesh or the wiles of Satan, being purged and done away ... (Book of Common Prayer, 1962)

There it is again: the challenge of living in the world, the need for redemption of what was in hope of what will be. While it’s sometimes hard to know what our parents experienced, one of best lessons we can take, and give to our own children, is a due consciousness of our shortcomings, confidence to start anew. We’re not always the best we seem to our children, often walking a tight rope above the worst we know ourselves to be in pursuit of a better example.

I said don’t look down, the ground might be burning.

We’re all turning the corner now, we might run into God ...

While none of us gets out of this world alive, a steady focus on living as best we know how – and persisting at that best – is one of the better gifts we could give our kids. We could certainly do worse. It’s what I hope to show my kids, even as I try to honour the hopes my father cherished for me.

Thursday, May 06, 2010


Five years, from 1940 to 1945, the Netherlands were under German occupation. Five dozen years later, my uncle, my father and my mother travelled back to many of the places liberated by my uncle's unit, part of the 12th Manitoba Dragoons. Another five years and my mother has returned with my brother and his wife, bringing yet another generation into the circle of remembrance. My uncle and father, both veterans of a war whose legacy continues to resonate today, are no longer with us.

But the example they set is. The generation that suffered and rebuilt from the losses of those years found cause for gratefulness, joy in the good we have knowing how easily it could disappear. How easily it could all slip away, as those who liberated the once-occupied countries now slip away. Yet it's the joy that dominates, not the fear of loss; the fulfilment of the line from Joel on which the padre of my uncle's regiment preached at the close of the war: "I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten ... You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the LORD your God, who has worked wonders for you."

Five years, and all is not as it seems: Joy becomes sorrow, oppression gives way to liberation. My own five years: Its successes and disappointments, promises made and broken, my uncle and father lost, a new generation rising at the feet of my nieces and nephews. The victory the Netherlands celebrates this week is one we can all share; it speaks to our deepest hopes, for lost years to be repaid, for emptiness to be made full, for some cause for praise: That we have been given the opportunity, and are free to embrace it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Walla Walla

Given the number of favourite or at least oft-visited restaurants that have either burned down or shut in recent months (I think of Slickity Jim's, Koni and Annapurna Vegetarian Cuisine of India, as well as Kishu), I feel like my usual haunts are getting a shake-up. Which one will be next to go?

Well, there's always new places to discover: And not only in Vancouver, but elsewhere. With the Wine Bloggers Conference hitting Walla Walla, Washington in a couple of months, I don't mind mentioning some of the places that caught my attention when I was there in February (and it keeps my mind of the local losses).

Those include the Walla Walla Bread Co., where I not only picked up a couple of decent pastries, but enjoyed a good conversation with the owner. I had seen her in the window of the shop packing up bread on my first night in town, so it was nice to meet her in person. The shop is relatively new, but it takes pride in natural and local ingredients. The down-to-earth chat was one of the highlights of my visit to town this year.

The other stop was the Colville Street Patisserie, kitty-corner to the corner where I snapped the above photo (the less glamorous off-Main side of Walla Walla). Again, there were some good down-to-earth conversations taking place around me, but the place was definitely more upscale than your average coffee shop (say, the nearby Cookie Tree). Where else could I find a kouign amann?

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Holy Saturday

One of the enduring memories from the trip I made to Milan last November is that of the crypt beneath the altar in the Basilica di S. Ambrogio. The remains of Ambrose and the martyrs Ss. Gervasius and Protasius lie here resting, waiting till all shall be raised to new life. Above, at the altar, Mass is said regularly and the sacrifice that won the promise of the new life they’re awaiting, is re-enacted until their hope is fulfilled.

Reading today in John Terpstra, Skin Boat (Gaspereau, 2009), a reflection on the community life of those in contemporary Canada who wait in hope with Ss. Ambrose, Gervasius and Protasius, I am reminded that the enshrinement of these remains is no glossing over of death or a simple desire to affirm life. Rather, it’s a grappling with the human condition, a visceral acknowledgement of loss. Ambrose, Cuthbert (the English saint of whom Terpstra writes), the martyrs are individuals, irreplaceable to those who love them. “These people who were alive and walked among us once, are not entirely gone – no more than our love for them,” the community says by caring for their remains. “[What it] is not, is a denial of the body,” Terpstra writes, critiquing funeral services that celebrate lives lived without acknowledging the pain of loss.

The pain loss brings is something we know, whether discovered through death or discord. Our blood family, our spouse and in-laws, our friends: So far as they mean anything to us, we know they are irreplaceable. They are not mere commodities, items we can fetch at the grocer’s when they have run out. We may not enshrine or venerate what remains of those we knew or the relationships we had with them, but we cannot ignore the unique, irreplaceable contribution the individuals we love make to our lives. We feel pain, hurt at their departure. We await restoration to the life we knew with them.

It is this acute sense of waiting that characterizes the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, for those who mark these days. It is an acknowledgement of the pain of death, discord, separation from what is irreplaceable. And a moment to acknowledge that, in our sorrow, it is difficult sometimes even to hope.

Yet the world goes on.

“You have to trust the rhythm,” Terpstra writes of life in relationship, in the community that waits with Ambrose, Cuthbert and the martyrs. “You learn to trust that you will make landfall.”

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Mash-up generation

A couple of threads have come together over the past week that seem to indicate something of contemporary experience and attitudes.

Saturday's Globe and Mail brought us Elizabeth Renzetti's thoughts on plagiarism, in which she speaks of the "mash-up generation" that sees content as something to be borrowed and repurposed. Dr. John Stackhouse weighed in Monday with his own thoughts on plagiarism and a link to a quiz testing awareness of what constitutes unauthorized borrowing.

Somewhere in between I drafted an itinerary for my brother and his wife, who plan a cross-Canada road trip this spring. It was an opportunity to reflect on the highlights and lowlights of a country and countryside that has changed much since our parents married and started raising us back in the 1950s. What was upheld then has changed; what we see as the landmarks and icons of our country have changed. Niagara Falls remains, but the nearby wineries are where the action is; and how many visit Wawa for the goose (just to name one example)? It's far easier to fly across Northern Ontario, bypassing the hardscrabble towns and their attractions.

But there are deeper changes happening, equally easy to bypass, which stand to alter how the next generation thinks of the country. The landscape and rivers we took for granted are changing, as the Wall Street Journal reminds us. We engineered them for our purposes, but the changes ushered in an ecological mash-up that reflects the global culture that has both sidelined small towns and opened us to new perspectives in a smaller, more integrated world. Have we become richer, or forgotten who we are? Do we know the sources of the changes; who authorized the borrowing? Getting to know our own country, its sources and the influences acting upon it, is important; what we find might not be what we expected but it seems fundamental to knowing where we're headed, the legacy we've inherited and will eventually hand to the future. Tom Russell has something to say on the matter here, about his song "American Rivers." One could easily pen a similar song for Canada touching on the St. John and Skeena, the St. Lawrence and Red; the Saskatchewans and Fraser, the Ottawa, Deh Cho and Annapolis.

Without knowing the land, we'll have difficulty coming to terms with life on it; because, as a poet in Estonia told me as she stamped the ground: Culture (and not just agriculture) starts with the land, the country we know.