Musical interlude: My 10 best SXSW moments

The South by Southwest music and media conference ended Sunday, and it made the Negress a tiny bit nostalgic. She had also just heard Joe Boyd and Robyn Hitchcock at the Old Town School of Folk Music so old stories and sweet reminiscence seemed like the thing to do. Also, she’s afraid she will forget some of this stuff if she’s not careful.

My first SXSW was in 1989. I shared a room with two women from a club in Houston that has a namesake in Berwyn, IL. (note foreshadowing) and couldn’t have been there otherwise. The Negress slept little, walked  and cabbed around, heard mainly Austin bands and met a lot of people she hasn’t seen since. The Negress quit it in 1999 after some medical mayhem and the sense that staying too long at this fair would be dangerous and unrewarding. But there some moments that are worth calling out of memory. Here are the 10 I can remember best:

1. Dragging Chris Morris then of Billboard to see Townes Van Zandt at the Hyatt Ballroom back when the whole festival fit into the Hyatt. I think it was 1989.

2. Seeing Gail Davies, a Nashville veteran, at the Hole in the Wall, strutting her stuff. She’s a book waiting to happen as far as being female, writing, producing and performing in Nashville when they had almost gotten over the “gal singer” syndrome.

3. The first time I saw Alejandro Escovedo and his orchestra there. The Negress got over Escovedo’s toxic charisma after a few more encounters (anyone who ever made it through a Buick McKane show might have some idea what the Negress means), but the musical was moving and special that night.

4. Playing tambourine onstage with the late Molly Ivins while shouting out “Wild Thing.”

5. Seeing a young mess of a band from Houston, Dive, making its way through a loud, furious showcase from which nothing came forth.

6. Having the courage to realize that “supergroup” Little Village was awful. Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder, John Hiatt and Jim Keltner were not good together.

7. Being by the fireplace at the Four Seasons while Huey Lewis stomped out a blues rhythm with his cowboy boots and tried to explain a song idea to Nick Lowe. Once this hysterical outtake was over, the Negress went up to Lowe and thanked him for saving her life.

8. Meeting and befriending Rosie Flores, Jo Rae DiMenno and the rest of her family and others too numerous to mention. Some of our lights have faded but the Negress still loves them all.

9. Confirming that Will T. Massey was awesome and remains so in spite on one overproduced, muddled major label album, but a body of work before and since that’s dazzling.


10. Deciding one year that enough ground had been broken and heading off to see Jeff Beck with fellow rock goddess Jaan Uhelszki and not being sorry for a moment of that set.

The Negress will get back to other delights shortly.

Jack Stuart of Benessere Vineyards and the Napa Vintage Perspective tasting

The Negress finished up her time in Napa by avoiding some of the usual pitfalls of the pre-Premiere Napa Valley events. She could have gone to all the AVA tastings, greeting the sheep at Spring Mountain, straining to hear over the throngs tasting auction lots. But this year, it was time for a change. She did start off by doing the Pinot Noir division of the Napa Vintage Perspective tasting at the Rudd Center for Wine Studies at the CIA. Then she ended up chatting with Jack Stuart over at Benessere Vineyards. Stuart had been the winemaker at Silverado until 2004. In short, more perspective. Some of the Pinot vintages were oaky fruit bombs. One producer, I just wrote “indifferent across the board.” Life is too short to drink indifferent wine. The Negress brought up her disappointment with the tasting to Stuart, and he offered the following: “I think some of the young wine makers haven’t been around long enough to know what a traditional Pinot Noir tastes like. American new oak is too much for Pinot. It’s a more delicate wine.”

Wine writers tasting Pinot Noir at the Napa Perspective tasting

All work and no play makes for a dull wine life

At Benessere, which took over the old Charles F. Shaw winery (yeah Chuck’s old haunt before his name was sold and slapped on oceans of plonk), they made 124 cases of 2008 Pinot Nero. But the majority of their 4,000 to 5,000 case production is Sangiovese, Zinfandel and Pinot Grigio. The half bottle of 2006 Sangiovese the Negress took with her back to Meadowood paired nicely with a venison entrée. She’s waiting to try the Zins, regular and the Black Glass, on a suitable occasion. She tasted the regular Zin at the winery, but only remembers that it was light on its feet.

We also sampled the 2010 Pinot Grigio, which is the first vintage that is Stuart’s from start to finish. Most people’s gateway Pinot Grigio is Santa Margherita, and that’s deeply unfortunate. The wine is crazy out of balance and almost syrupy. When Stuart arrived at Benessere, his goal was to make the Pinot Grigio less sweet. He has succeeded and maintained the varietal’s distinct minerality.

Stuart took his cue from the climate of the Alto Adige in Italy, where the weather is cool. His Pinot Grigio is on 42 acres in Carneros, which is also a cool growing area thanks to the moderating influence of San Pablo Bay. The juice is cold temperature fermented in stainless steel, and then spends some time in old barrels.

One thing Stuart was conscious of when he came to Benessere was that he was coming to a place where he admired the wines they were making, but he knew that he couldn’t make any sudden changes. He did ended up toning down the sweetness of the Pinot Grigio, but it was, “a controlled evolution.”

During his days at Silverado, Stuart supervised some replanting of the vineyards, especially after a 1986 phylloxera outbreak. Current Silverado general manager Russ Weis said the wider spacing of the vines was a leftover from the old days, but Stuart said they used 4×6 and 6×8 spacing and it was relatively recent. “They’re not as narrow as some, and we did change to headtrained, cane-pruned vines from the cordon and spur training.”

The Negress threw out an analogy to winemaking and Oscar fashions. In the days of Bjork and her swan and Kim Basinger and her mermaid tail, errors in judgment shone out like shook foil. Now, with everyone being guided by stylists, the jaw dropping miscues are gone, but blandness has seized the day. Isn’t this as true of wine where “meh” has replaced “Ewwww” as the watchword?

Stuart  stopped judging wine competitions because of the “Ewwww” factor.

“When I did judge, out of tasting a dozen wines, the most powerful, odd wine made the strongest impression and they would usually get acknowledged,” Stuart said.

But Stuart also acknowledges the difference between tasting professionally and drinking.

“I had a nice spatlese Riesling when I was out for dinner the other night and it went well with the chicken and couscous. But I was also with good friends and it was a lovely night. When I was working on the Pinot Grigio, I shut the door of my office and tasted without any distractions. I was looking for flaws and ways the wine was off-kilter. But you have to separate work from play.”

Wine Writers Symposium 2011: the wine part

OK. Most of us were at this year’s Symposium for Professional Wine Writers to polish our writing, search for a niche (there’s one blogger who does nothing but rate the wines at Trader Joe’s. Bless his heart, as they say down South), and find an audience for that niche. But, of course, there was wine provided by the Napa Valley Vintners. The Negress always enjoys the night when they break out the ports and the dessert wines. However, this year she was more cautious than usual. Instead of tasting through everything, she merely drank three wines and stopped. She also took no notes really, figuring that the really memorable wines didn’t need notes. Of the 15 wines served at the fellowship dinner, the Negress remembers one that was a spiky mess, out of balance and just plain funky (and not in the George Clinton sense). Alder Yarrow of Vinography is a more diligent taster than herself, so check out his blog if you crave details.

Benessere winery

a little powerhouse winery tucked away

So, that didn’t tell you much, did it? Well, there’s a reason for that. After the fellowship dinner on Thursday, she and several top tier wine bloggers (the Negress was most definitely the ringer here) broke out a stash of Unauthorized Wine in a series of Undisclosed Locations. There was Vouvray, a cheeky Australian shiraz minus the usual bombast from Down Under and a pleasant late harvest Gewurztraminer. The wine of that night was without a doubt a 6 puttonyo Royal Tokaji supplied by Ben Weinberg of the Unfiltered Unfined blog. The Negress loves tokajis, but had only ever had a 5 puttonyo before this one. Well, she shall never forget this particular honeyed nectar. Dessert wines can be an acquired taste, and the Negress thinks they should replace dessert in the way that sparkling wine should be an everyday wine and break free from the shackles of Champagne marketing. The Tokaji slid down her throat elegantly with honey and some pear flavors. She thanks Ben profusely for sharing it with the gang.

The runup to Premiere Napa Valley also features gang AVA tastings. The Negress skipped those too. She headed over to see Jack Stuart, former Silverado winemaker and current winemaker at Benessere, which is housed in the former Charles F. Shaw winery. If that Shaw name sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the official name assigned to various “buck Chucks.” When Shaw got out of the wine business, the name got licensed. The winery, however, is being put to better use methinks.

Wine Writers Symposium 2011: the audience part

As you may have figured out from the most recent post, the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers was about writing. But what’s writing without readers except a solitary exercise in frustration? The Negress prefers solitary exercises that relieve frustration preferably without involving a Sawzall (All right, she digresses. But that happened close to home.)  Alder Yarrow of Vinography, Doug Cook, formerly of Twitter and currently overseeing AbleGrape, a wine search engine and Joe Roberts of 1winedude, did a panel on using search engines. You may have noticed the

Doug Cook, founder of Able Grape search engine

Doug Cook of Able Grape

somewhat orderly titles here in Negressland of late. They are due in part to what this trio told us about how people search for information online. There are 131 billion searches performed online annually and that figure is increasingly by 46 percent every year. All of our panelists suggested when writing blog posts to put yourself in the searcher’s shoes. Search engines already do that and Google and its ilk have tons of people tweaking search algorithms so they behave more like humans. Of course, repeating “Lady Gaga” or “Justin Bieber” over and over in posts seems like a strategy, but guess what? The search engines are onto you and will banish you from search results for such obvious gaming of the system. One myth for web presences is that more traffic is better. What your goal should be is to connect with people who are interested in what you have to say and nobody else. You want

Joe Roberts of  the 1winedude blog

Joe Roberts of 1winedude (pic courtesy of NY Cork Report)

to maximize meaningful interactions. Tag your posts (the Negress does that). Encourage comments (please feel free but no spam. She has an app for that.) Also, limit your blogroll. Yarrow related that he was kicked out of search results because he had a page of links to other wine bloggers. Most search engines see this as a shameless ploy for traffic and will ban you very quickly. Vinography got reinstated to searches but it took some work.

Also, while search engines like repetition, remember readers are drawn to good writing. You may move up in the ranks by repeating “Trimbach Alsace Riesling” 12 times in a 500-word post, but your readers will flee clutching their heads. The Negress admits she knew a bit more about this than some of the Symposium attendees, but she was grateful to the trio for pulling it all together in a coherent fashion. You might have been over your head if to you a computer is just a typewriter with annoyances and think MS-DOS and xywrite are still viable, but let’s hope that’s a decreasing minority in the wine blogging world, Cook has posted the Power Point. Take look for yourself.