Saturday, December 10, 2005

Can't we all just get along?

Let's see, here. "Community leaders" in L.A. urge peace if Schwarzenegger refuses to grant clemency to Tookie Williams. So Los Angeles may again go up in flames if the state fails to legally execute a man who not only killed four people -- and has neither expressed remorse nor taken responsibility for his actions -- but also founded a homicidal gang which has terrorized hundreds of thousands of innocents? Some community you got, folks.

SOP ought to be you don't negotiate with or lend succor to terrorists -- no matter how many useful idiots Hollywood lines up in their support. Get me outta here.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Free the grapes

From the 1880s until the 1960s, the Inland Empire -- the Southern California area spanning roughly from East L.A. to the deserts surrounding Palm Springs -- was the backbone of the California wine industry. The emergence of Napa, and the demand for housing in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, nudged land owners to plow the vineyards and plop down subdivisions. But a sliver of winemaking areas remain in SoCal, and the two dozen or so vintners in the Temecula region near San Diego County want to use the force of law to protect their little slice of heaven from competition.

The Riverside County supervisors today will vote on a set of new restrictions that would block outsiders from building new wineries in Temecula unless they abide by rules that might well make their operations unprofitable. The big impediments: Wineries with tasting rooms would have to grow 75 percent of their grapes in Riverside County; and tight limits would be imposed on the number of "commercial buildings" -- tasting rooms, gift shops, restaurants, banquet halls -- that could be erected on the premises. Not surprisingly, existing wineries wouldn't face these barriers unless they expanded their facilities. The Press-Enterprise story outlining the rules is here; links to the paper's reportage is here. (Reg may be required.)

IMHO, Temecula wines are overpriced and uninspiring, with the exception of a few whites (which I rarely drink) and some zinfandels. (Why? It's too hot in Temecula in the summer to grow anything but the heartiest grapes. Forget Pinot Noir and decent Syrahs. Even the best zins in the IE come from the Cucamonga Valley ... which is in San Bernardino County. 40 miles north of Temecula.)

That said, Temecula is the only winemaking region that's a reasonable day trip from the southern Los Angeles basin, Orange County and San Diego; that's what -- 20 million upscale consumers? So there's gold in them thar grapes. Today's winemakers stand to make a mint if they can shut out competitors who would increase output and, who knows, might produce better wines.

What's this protectionism worth? This report chronicles production by grape variety county-by-county in California. Riverside County hosted only 177 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2004; contrast that with nearly 16,000 acres of Cab Sauv in Napa, 11,000 in Sonoma, and even 8,000 in San Luis Obispo, which includes my favorite winemaking region, Paso Robles. Keeping production low and limiting competition will surely inflate wine prices in the region -- and, as Press-Enterprise editorials have noted, is surely an abuse of power by county government.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Shake off the Winter blues

I'll be a thousand miles away, but if you're a blues lover and are on or near the West Coast in January, you've got to check out Mark Hummel's Blues Harmonica Blowout. The Bay Area harp man has put together these January tours annually since 1991, and he's brought in the old lions and the young turks. We caught the show in Riverside this year, which featured Superharp himself, the legendary James Cotton (from the Muddy Waters bands of the 1950s and '60s), along with Charlie Musselwhite and Fabulous T-Bird founder Kim Wilson. Hummel's rockin' band The Blues Survivors backs up all the players, and it's three-plus hours of fun.

This year, Hummel's pushing the envelope. Along with Jerry Portnoy, another Muddy Waters alum, the tour features Lee Oskar of War and Magic Dick of the J. Geils Band. (Wilson will join in a few gigs, and don't be surprised if Hummel's longtime buddy Huey Lewis doesn't pop up at a show or two.) The dates and players are here.

Magic Dick and J. Geils put together an outfit called Bluestime in the mid-90s that played nothing but vintage goodies from the '50s and before -- music that was more retro than what the original J. Geils Band played in Boston bars nearly 40 years ago. I caught Bluestime at a club in D.C. and was astounded by their chops.

The shows are great, and Hummel's a terrific player and seems like a good guy. Seeing James Cotton jam onstage with Musselwhite and Hummel while Kim Wilson worked the crowd was a treat. Check it out.

UPDATE: I would be remiss to not mention the opening act at this year's blowout: Nathan James and Ben Hernandez. We first saw Nathan picking guitar with the James Harman Band in 1998, when he was too young to consume alcohol at the bars where he played; he was the guitarist with Harman when the band played our wedding reception in 1999. Nathan's still with That Dangerous Gentleman and doing the duo stuff with young Ben, performing country blues with songs that date to the 19th century. They're talented fellows and nice guys who deserve a wider audience. Check out Nathan's Web site for more info and gigs -- they're primarily in Riverside, Orange and San Diego counties. He and Ben often play Saturday shows at the Mira Monte winery in Temecula. The cover's criminally reasonable, the food and wine are fine and the setting is downright delightful.