Saturday, November 28, 2009

Wine Cycling?

You know, wine cycling just doesn't seem to be my thing. First, I don't even own a bike. Second, wine is fine, but only so much variety can be achieved with different grapes and growing conditions. Exploring the world of beer, whether brewed by devout monks or hippie homebrewers encompasses a wide spectrum of tastes, like peppery Saisons, sour Belgian Ales, bitter IPA's, and sweet stouts, just to name four of the dozens of beer styles. I try to explore this world every chance I get, so peddling around on a bike, sipping wine, was not necessary my idea of the best way to spend a day.

But since the best thing that ever happened to me was meeting a wine-loving cyclist, I've come to realize making certain compromises are in my best interest. So on one fine November day, my girlfriend Linda talked me into spending one of our days off to go wine cycling in the Livermore Wine Country.

Livermore's wine country has plenty of mixed use trails and roads with wide bike lanes, making it an ideal wine region for cycling around in. Linda and I have been to both the Livermore and Napa Valley wine regions a few times, and have come to realize the biggest difference between the wine regions is comparable wines from Livermore are about twenty dollars less per bottle.

I might also add that Napa Valley resembles a foodie amusement park, complete the big crowds and waiting lines, but without the fun, simple foods like funnel cakes or cotton candy. Well, there is cotton candy, but it's actually a bite-sized appetizer of a mousse of salmon, lamb liver, and sea urchin made to look like miniature cotton candy, which the chef hopes will evoke a pleasant childhood memory to distract you from how much he's charging for it. Just give us the wide open, unpretentious spaces of the Livermore Valley, where one can tool around on its many scenic bike trails, sample some great wine, purchase some of it, and still have some beer money left in your pocket.

Our trip covered 15-20 miles and included stops at Wente Vineyards, Retzlaff Vineyards, Steven Kent Winery, and Tamas Estates, and they all served up some excellent wines to taste. We also rolled through Sycamore Groves/Veterans and Holdener Parks, and it was easy to plan for the trip using this handy map the helpful folks at Livermore Cyclery provided, where I rented my bike to ride with Linda.

The highlight was at Retzlaff, which uses organically grown grapes grown on its estate for virtually all of their wines. On a slow weekday, we spent plenty of time with Gary and Connie, the married couple running Ratzlaff's informal and rustic tasting room. After chatting away about the wine and various past and present happenings around Livermore's wine country for close to an hour, and with it getting near their 2pm closing time, Connie took us back into the storage barn full of barrels of various vintages aging away to give us some samples straight from the barrels. She removed the plug from their 2008 Merlot, and gave us a taste of this full bodied merlot. Then she extracted some of Retzlaff's 2008 light fruity Cabernet. Both wines were a little young, but worked pretty well on their own. Once we had sipped about half of the Cabernet, she took our glasses back and added some of the 2008 Merlot back into them, put her hand on top of the glass, and vigorously shook the wine with her hand to mix and aerate it, grimacing like a gleeful mad scientist as she did this. The resulting blend's arousing depth and complexity surpassed what either the Merlot grapes or the Cabernet grapes could possibly muster on their own. I suppose this shouldn't be surprising, but it's a bit dramatic to see the taste of the final wine blend being far greater than the sum of its parts. And Connie seeming to enjoy this a little too much added to the drama.

So if you must drink wine, and can get to a wine growing region of the country with bike friendly trails, I grudgingly recommend wine cycling. Even if I really enjoyed it, you don't think I would admit it, do you?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Find balance and lost years at the SCORE Clinic

I walked into the SCORE Clinic knowing something was terribly wrong, but not quite sure what it was. My training regimen had degenerated into a cycle of a hard track workouts ending in injury, a two week recovery period, only to injure something else in the next hard workout. This is not training that leads to success in racing, and it was showing. The soles of my running shoes looked like someone whittled outside edges with a pocket-knife, a sure sign of supination. My left hip was noticeably at least an inch higher than my right one. For at least the least nine months, I'd been trying to push through chronic soreness in my upper left knee and soreness on the ball of my right foot, and was now starting to battle left hip strains on top of that.

With things get totally screwed up in an important area of life, and you don't have the foggiest idea what to do about, it's always good to consult a professional. And there's a certain irony to the fact that the SCORE Clinic is just a couple blocks away from my divorce lawyer. And once Dr. Omura of the SCORE Clinic simply watched me try to do a single squat, and he pretty much figured out what the problem was. I basically couldn't do even a single squat, and was rotating my left foot outward due to a weak left hip, and shifting most of my weight to my right foot to protect my weakened left knee and hip. Needless to say, a one-legged runner is at a considerable disadvantage, so Dr. O developed a plan to increase flexibility, get rid of the pain and soreness, and find balance in my running stride.

That all sounds wonderful, but Dr. O accomplished this with techniques a casual observer might think come from a CIA torture manual. A typical session started with electrodes attached to my ailing left knee, producing pulsing electrical current into the knee muscles, causing them to twitch and contract uncontrollably. Then, Dr. O scraped my knee with something like that looked like an enlarged butter knife to break down the adhesions and scar tissue. Then, he performed something called Active Release Therapy where he would apply strong pressure with his bare hands directly on the sore knee or hip with the muscle contracted, and would maintain this pressure as I extended the muscle, literally squeezing out the swelling and damage. The session concluded with a vertebrae popping chiropractic hip and back adjustment, allowing the hips and back to find their natural, optimal alignment.

But Dr. O did more than subject me to a number of teeth gritting situations. He patiently demonstrated some simple stretches and exercises to do at home to flush out soreness, increase flexibiliy, and build up weaknesses. I've seen physical therapists treat their patient's living tissue as if it were some inanimate car chassis, but Dr. O gave me the insight and understanding to know what my problems were, how to fix it myself, and how to prevent it from happening again. These sessions were quite possibly the best investments I've made in running. I've faced many injuries and set backs in my thirty years of running, but dealing with these lingering pains and frustrations over the months with no apparent progress at the advanced running age of 42, I was contemplating hanging up the racing flats for good.

Back when I was young, immature, and naive, I told myself the day I stopped running and racing was the day I died. Life has changed tremendously since then, but one thing that hasn't is the drive to keep running, and train for the next race. Like a lot of runners, running has been my rock. There simply must be some challenge to overcome or a goal to meet to keep me driven, and without this, I become very directionless. The lessons of discipline, persistence, and dealing with success and failure learned from running have guided me well in real life, where success and failure in things like family, career, personal fiances, and social relationships have consequences far more significant than whether or not you take home some cheap, plastic trophy. Running's gotten me through some hard times, when I could briefly escape life's turmoil and burn off frustrations just to get through the day. I simply wouldn't know how to give it up even if I wanted to. Thanks to the SCORE Clinic, I no longer have to make that difficult choice.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Boulevard Brewing's Smokestack Series

Over the past few weeks, I've been fortunate to sample a few of Kansas City's Boulevard Brewing Smokestack series, since my girlfriend Linda and I visited my sister Leigh and her husband Keith in Kansas City last month. I have to really thank Keith for that, as every evening, even if we'd had plenty of Boulevard's regular beers, he would pull out a bottle or two of one of the Smokestack Series bottles from stored in his fridge and pour everyone a glass. And before getting on the plane and flying home, he directed us to stop at some liquor store called Gomer's, which from the outside, appeared to be a good place to get a 40 oncers of malt liquor to consume on a nearby street corner. But Gomer's had a great selection inside, so I picked up a few Smokestack Series bottles to take home to San Jose. I would characterize the worst beer in the bunch as pretty good, so they're worth hunting down. Here's a quick run-down.

Two Jokers Double Wit
Quite frankly, I think their are way too many "Double Somethings" out there, and the Witbier style doesn't seem to be one to lend itself to "doubling". Then again, Boulevard's ZON Witbier won a gold medal in this years Great American Beer Festival, so if I bite the bullet and try a Double Wit, this would be the one to try. And it is. There's a hefty amount of cracker like malt, and lots of spiciness, with noticeable coriander and cardamon. Some peppery flavors as well, and of course, some bitter orange peel.

A Whole Bunch of Different Saisons
Really, I just couldn't keep all the different Saisons in the series straight. At the Boulevard Brewery tour, they were pouring Tank7 Saison, a dry hopped Saison with a strong lemongrass aroma and plenty of herbal flavors, grassy hop bitterness, and a little lemon in there. Later on, Keith poured us something simply labelled Saison which was more yeasty, peppery, a little grassy and had this tingly carbonation to it. Finally, I took home a bottle of dry hopped Saison - Brett which seemed to have a lot of complex yeast flavors I couldn't quite define, some resin-like character and a musty aroma to go with all that. I'm not a big Saison fan, but they all worked really well. If you have the chance to have a Boulevard beer with the word "Saison" in the title, I say go for it.

Double Wide Double IPA
Lots of grapefruitiness going on here to go with the stiff malt backbone. I liked the bitterness level of this one, as it was very noticeable, but not really aggressive. A little astringent, but got noticeably creamy as it warmed up.

Seeyoulater Dopplebock
It's aged in cedar barrels, and the cedar is the dominant flavor, but it blends well with the caramel and banana-like fruit esters. It's got a complex flavor to it, but still seems crisp and uncluttered.

So glad Leigh and Keith could show us the way around Kansas City.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Session #33: Framed by 33

This month's Session, by Andrew Couch, of I'll Have a Beer is on framing beers, with the topic loosely summed up as "write about how the context the beer is presented affects the drinking experience".

Psychologists have long known that our choices are biased by the way each choice is framed. To illustrate this, suppose you are the head of a disease control agency, and are presented with two options to combat a disease which is expected to kill six hundred people unless something is done to stop it. A team of doctors have determined the outcomes of two possible options.

Option A: 200 people will be saved.

Option B: There is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved, and a two-thirds probability that no one will be saved.

What do you do?

In a psychological experiment where subjects were presented with these options, 72% choose Option A. In the same experiment, subjects were also presented with the same options, simply worded differently.

Option C: 400 people will die.

Option D: There is a one-third probability that nobody will die, and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die.

When presented with the same options framed differently, the same participants who picked Option A 72% of the time, instead choose Option D 78% of the time. Of course, we would rather save people than let them die, and so the options framed positively are favored over those framed negatively, known as positive frame bias. (1)

Psychologists have found numerous other framing effects, which I won't go into here. But clearly, the beer we chose and our experience drinking it is framed by things like the beer label, word of mouth, the advertising, the reputation of the brewer, and numerous other sensory inputs that are quite difficult to separate from the actual liquid in the glass. Beer judges have known this for years as most beer competitions are judged blind, where beer is presented to judges in unmarked glasses, and judges are not allowed to influence each other.

I find myself struggling with framing effects explaining craft beer to family and friends who are not craft beer drinkers. Often, they actually would like to drink something from their local brewer, but their perception of craft beer is that it is "too strong", overly bitter, hops run amok, and simply not enjoyable to them to drink. Beer names like "Arrogant Bastard", "Damnation" or "Hop Stoopid" tend to reinforce this notion. I've responded telling them that many craft brewers release lighter styles they might find more enjoyable. More than once, I been told, "Well, I really enjoy Blue Moon, from some small brewery in Colorado". They are usually pretty disappointed to learn that Blue Moon is actually made by Coors, a massive industrial brewery. Coors sells Blue Moon by framing it as a product of some quaint Colorado brewery, and the fact that once people get past the deception, they often lose interest in the beer seems to validate this strategy.

One brewery it took a while to warm up to was Flying Dog Brewery. So many times in a bottle shop, gazing at a wide array of beers in from of me, I simply moved past the frenzied, graffiti-style art Flying Dog uses on their label, and picked up something from a different brewery. In this Session, we've been asked to try beers we wouldn't normally drink, so I decided to try a couple Flying Dog brews, just to see what the beer is like.

As is often the case, stretching my beer horizons was rewarded, as I found the beer to be excellent. The Flying Dog Kerberos Triple had a light toasty yeast flavors with a little apricot, and a clean, clear character to it. Flying Dog's Double Dog Imperial Pale hooked with a great creamy mouth feel, toffee-like malty flavors coupled with a little tangerine and an orange peel bitterness. I can't help wondering why was the beer label art, designed to attract me to the beer, was actually pushing me away.

I think the answer to this question originates in the way beer was initially framed to me. I spent my childhood during the 70's in the small Midwestern college town of Bowling Green, OH, located about 15 miles south of Toledo. My dad exclusively drank "33", Rolling Rock, and would carefully allow me a sip of his Saturday afternoon beer. My father later told me he did this to prevent me from abusing alcohol, to demystify beer at an early age. These were also early lessons to respect beer, that it wasn't a beverage to be carelessly guzzled, but to be savored and enjoyed at special times. I also remember Dad proudly informing me Rolling Rock was brewed "in the glass-lined tanks of Old Latrobe" in Western Pennsylvania. Latrobe is about 300 miles from Bowling Green, but in those days, drinking exclusively Rolling Rock was supporting your local brewer, and from this I learned the place the beer was brewed was just as important as the beer itself. These experiences, burned into the neurons of my young brain, still guide me today.

I find it sad and ironic that InBev bought Rolling Rock, shut down the Latrobe brewery, and moved production to Newark, NJ in a cost cutting move, priming the pump of their plans for world wide beer domination. Yet, InBev still has the audacity to market Rolling Rock with the grammatically deficient slogan "Born Small Town", trying to sell the beer by framing it as from a tradition bound, small town brewery. I guess the corporate folks at InBev figured out a more accurate grammatically deficient slogan like "Born small town, multi-national corporation bought brewery, laid off workers, bean-counters rule day" would not be a good way to frame Rolling Rock if they wanted to sell lots of it.

But going back to my earliest framing of beer, I believe my earliest experiences of beer explains my initial aversion to Flying Dog beers, framed in chaotic, modern artwork. I've come to realize my favorite breweries like Anderson Valley, El Toro, and Deschutes are favorites of mine in part because these breweries evoke their unique local geography into their marketing, and are relatively close to where I live. This new understanding about how my beer preferences are shaped will allow me to make more informed decisions on the beer I choose to drink. There's nothing wrong with psychological warm fuzziness guiding what we drink. But of course, craft beer drinking is a lot about exploration and expanding beyond your comfort zone. And if you're going to expand beyond your comfort zone, it's helpful to know where the discomfort is coming from.

(1) Positive framing example from The Mind of the Market, Micheal Shermer, Henry Holt and Company, copyright 2008, pages 84-85.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Looking for it in the wrong place

At night on a sales trip, I fly into Dulles Airport from Boston and check into my hotel in Fairfax, VA. It's almost ten o'clock, and everything else around the hotel is closed, except for the Hooter's across the street. It's been over twenty years since I set foot into a Hooter's, but it in a flash of twisted logic, I figure they might have some local beer on tap or in bottles. Not ready to crash in my room, I mosey across the street to see what's on tap.

Of course, you're probably thinking I'm really going for something else besides the beer. But I've found good craft beer selections in unlikely places like dingy airport bars, squeaky-clean suburban convenience stores, and dilapidated liquor stores that one would otherwise assume specialize in 40 oncers of malt liquor to be consumed immediately outside from a paper bag. So maybe craft beer has arrived at Hooter's. Then again, Hooter's is not exactly one of the more progressive organization in the world, so if you're snickering at me for claiming I'm going to Hooter's for the beer, well you have a point.

The best they could muster was Sam Adam's Boston Lager. They were sold out of Sam Adam's Octoberfest. The closest thing they had to a local brewery was Yuengling on tap, even though my waitress couldn't pronounce it right. Sorry, while "Jung-ling" sounds like an psychologically fascinating beer, it's pronounced "ying-ling". Yuengling is a toasty lager I enjoy, and they don't distribute into California, so it wasn't a complete waste on the beer hunting front. Oh, you really don't think I was there for something else, do you?

Firm female cleavage is something I've totally been in favor of for since I was twelve. My eyes work pretty well, and I've got plenty of male hormones, so like any red-blooded heterosexual male with the evolutionary drive to implant his DNA into a healthy, fit female, I enjoy looking at women's breasts. Linda, my girlfriend of nearly four years, understands that, and as long as I don't look at other women's breasts for too long, she's OK with that. Or at least that's what she tells me.

But believe it or not, all the slender 20-25 year old Hooter girls, quietly gliding around the place, looking eager for the night to just end so they could leave and change into something less ridiculous, just didn't interest me in the slightest. Maybe being twice the age of the eye candy had something to with this. I've recently suspected that I've officially become an old fart, and perhaps this is God's way of confirming that for me. Then again with Linda in my life, who is demonstably good for me and my kids, when you're lucky enough to be in that situation, things like Hooter's girls become a pointless distraction.