Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Magic of Texas Hill Country Wineries

Yesterday was one of the most pleasant days in my recent memory. I got to spend it with three of my favorite people: my wife Jill, my ten-month-old daughter Evelyn, and my visiting cousin Aleena, who was in Austin for a conference. Wanting to show my Yankee cousin a real slice of the Lone Star State (and dispel any images of oil rigs and cowboys), Jill and I decided to take her for an excursion along the Hill Country Wine Trail.

It certainly was a good day for it. After weeks of rotten weather, the skies had cleared and the temperature had risen into the seventies. Humidity was nonexistent; you could have spent the whole day outside without breaking a sweat. The air was so fresh it tasted delicious just to inhale. And the sky put on a fine show. Unless you've spent time in the Texas Hill Country, you can't know just how lovely the big blue sky is. Nothing's in the way out in the Hill Country- no trees, no mountains, no buildings. Just a great and majestic dome of perfect blueness.

We had planned to visit only two wineries but, as it happily turned out, we had time to squeeze a third in. Our first stop was at Becker Vineyards, founded in 1993 and now one of the pillars of the Texas wine industry. Becker Iconoclast is the best-selling wine in Texas; Jill and I make it a point to always have a bottle on hand. I was disappointed to find that they were out of Prairie Rotie, a Rhone-style blend I have always enjoyed. As it turned out, we tried seven wines: the Viognier, the White Wing (a Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend), the Reserve Cabernet Franc, the Reserve Cabernet-Syrah, the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, the Raven (a Malbec-Petit Verdot blend) and the Barbera-Merlot blend.

All of these were good wines, but the real standout for me was the White Wing. Americans don't drink too much Semillon, the primary white varietal produced in the Bordeaux region, and hardly any vineyards in America produce them. It's really too bad, because I love Semillon. Blended with sauvignon blanc in the style of classic Bordeaux white wines, it's a delight for the palate.

We spent about an hour lounging around on the ground outside the main building, sipping on glasses of Iconoclast, enjoying the wonderful weather, chatting with each other and random strangers, and watching Evelyn frolic about in the grass. It's impossible not to be in a good mood at such a lovely place, on such a lovely day, with a glass of such lovely wine in one's hand.

Our next stop was Grape Creek Vineyards, which prides itself on being "Tuscany in Texas". It's long been one of my favorites, for not only does it make wonderful wine, but the winery facility itself is quite lovely and a nice place to spend time. As usual, there was live music. The crowd seemed to be enjoying itself quite a bit.

We had six wines at Grape Creek: Rendezvous (a Rhone-style blend), Cabernet Trois (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Ruby Cabernet), Cabernet-Syrah, Bellissimo (one of those so-called "Super Tuscan" wines), Mosaic (a nice Bordeaux-style blend), and a Riesling. Of these, my favorite by far was the Rendezvous. I was told that it was won two gold medals at San Francisco Chronicle competitions and this surprised me not at all. It was an outstanding wine.

Then again, I'm a sucker for Rhone-style wines. I've always thought Rhone wines are the unappreciated middle child of French wines. Bordeaux and Burgundy get all the attention. Bordeaux is the eldest child, strong, well-behaved, always determined to live up to expectations. Burgundy is the youngest child, a bit wild and unpredictable but absolutely brilliant. The Rhone is the more quiet and unassuming middle child that often gets forgotten, even though it's just as good as the other two. Rhone wines are one of the great comforts of life.

Our third and final stop was the Messina Hof Winery. The original Messina Hof is out near College Station and the one in the Hill Country has only been open for a few years. Its wines are very good and the facility is very nice. It was getting on to the evening by the time we arrived; it would be dark before we left. I tried five wines: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine called Reflections of Love (a Bordeaux-style blend) and finished the tasting and the day with a glass of their tawny port. The Reflections of Love was very good and all of the wines were well worth drinking.

We were getting a bit tired by this point and it was time to head home. Evelyn, the little trooper, had gone for a long while without a good nap and was starting to get a bit cranky. She had done amazingly well all day, though, smiling at and flirting with everybody she saw, practicing her walking (she took her first steps just recently) and clearly having the time of her life. Once the car got back on the highway and turned towards home, though, she was out like a log.

All in all, the best wines of the day were the White Wing at Becker and the Rendezvous at Grape Creek. But everything we had was enjoyable. By the end of the day, I was reflecting on how far Texas wines have come in the last fifteen or so years. I've been coming out to the Hill Country wineries since the mid-1990s and the improvement has been nothing short of extraordinary. Give it another decade, and I think the wines of the Texas Hill Country will be competing with the best of California, France, and Italy.

God Bless Texas, and God Bless Texas Wine.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

How Spielberg's Lincoln Could Have Been So Much Better

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln was, without a doubt, a wonderful film. The acting of Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones was amazing, and the portrayal of Lincoln by Daniel Day-Lewis will certainly be remembered as perhaps the greatest cinematic portrayal of a historical figure by an actor (perhaps its only rival being George C. Scott's portrayal of Patton). The screenplay of Tony Kushner was great, the music of John Williams as epic as one would expect from him, and the whole production really did outstanding work.

Still, the movie could have been so much better.

I remember how excited I was upon learning that Spielberg, without question America's greatest director, was going to make a movie from the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. When I learned it was going to cover only the period of time involving the passage of the 13th Amendment, I became a bit skeptical. After I finally saw the film, as great as it was and as much as I enjoyed it, I felt that my skepticism had been justified.

For me, it would have been far better for Spielberg to have made a film about Lincoln during the late summer of 1862 rather than early 1865. This timeframe would certainly have allowed for much more dramatic intensity.  In mid-1862, unlike early 1865, the outcome of the war was still very much in doubt.  The Confederacy had beaten back Union efforts to capture Richmond and embarked on grand counter offensives in Maryland, Kentucky, and northern Mississippi. The possibility of Britain and France extending diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy was very real. Most importantly, it was during this time that Lincoln made the momentous decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

By early 1865, the outcome of the war was not in doubt. The fall of Atlanta and the reelection of Lincoln in the 1864 election had driven the final nail into the heart of the Confederacy. The knowledge that the war was virtually over deprived Lincoln from much of the dramatic tension it might otherwise have had. Had it been set in 1862, scenes of Lincoln in the telegraph room receiving news of Union defeats at the hands of the Confederacy would have given Daniel Day-Lewis much more to work with.

Similarly, the Emancipation Proclamation was much more touch-and-go in the summer of 1862 than was the 13th Amendment in early 1865. For all the drama depicted in the movie, it was obvious to all observers after the 1864 elections that the 13th Amendment was going to pass. This was certainly not the case with the Emancipation Proclamation. He knew it would be tremendously unpopular in many areas of the North, would cost him badly needed support in the critical border states, would help the Democrats in the 1862 mid-term elections, and might well solidify Confederate resistance to the Union. There were fears that it would trigger a anarchy and an out-and-out race war in the South. Simply put, the decision on whether or not to issue the Emancipation Proclamation tormented Lincoln, while the decision to push for the 13th Amendment was just a logical next step in the abolition of slavery, which by then had been underway for years.

Put all that together and I think a fair case can be made that Lincoln would have been a far better movie had it been set in the summer and fall of 1862 than in early 1865.

Of course, it's rather silly of me to complain about this. Lincoln is a fabulous film and we should be ever thankful to Steven Spielberg and his team for making it.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Save Burnside's Bridge!

Once historical artifacts, buildings and structures are gone, they are gone forever. Once land across which great battles were fought is bulldozed over ands covered with asphalt, it is lost to future generations. Unlike a broken cup, history can't be glued back together. It's imperative on all of us to protect these physical connections we have with the past, no matter how much it costs.

With that in mind, let us turn to the issue of Burnside's Bridge.

September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest day in American history. In western Maryland, just across the Potomac River from Virginia, the Battle of Sharpsburg (known in the North as the Battle of Antietam) was fought between the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee and the Army of the Potomac under George McClellan. All day, Union forces assaulted the Confederate positions, hoping to drive their opponents into the Potomac River. All day, the Southern forces managed to hold their ground, though at times they held on only by their fingernails. By mid-afternoon, the badly outnumbered Confederate forces finally cracked and the corps of Union General Ambrose Burnside began rolling up their right flank. At the last possible moment, however, Southern reinforcements under General A. P. Hill arrived and launched a counter attack, driving the Yankees back and saving the Confederate army.

The battle was one of the most important of the Civil War. Although a tactical Confederate victory, it also was a strategic Union triumph. The enormous losses Lee suffered in the battle persuaded him to retreat back into Virginia and marked an end to his invasion of Maryland. This perceived victory, in turn, gave President Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which not only deterred Britain and France from recognizing the Confederacy, but helped inspire Northern soldiers to see their war as a crusade to destroy the institution of slavery. Still, the battle was a missed opportunity for the Union cause, for had Confederate resistance on the battlefield been broken before Hill's reinforcements had time to arrive, Lee's army would have been completely destroyed. The war, in all likelihood, would have been over by Christmas.

The battlefield at Sharpsburg is one of the best preserved in the nation. The landmarks and fields are in almost pristine shape. On the left, the infamous Cornfield. In the center, the sunken road that became known simply as Bloody Lane.

And on the right, Burnside's Bridge.

The bridge was the scene of one of the most dramatic and consequential defensive stands in American military history. It was defended by only a few hundred men from the 2nd and 20th Georgia Infantry Regiments. They faced an onslaught of thousands of Union troops under Burnside's command. Like by the crotchety and frequently drunk General Robert Toombs, a prewar politician from Georgia, the Southerners repulsed attack after attack throughout the day.  Only after being swamped by vastly superior numbers did the Confederate troops give way, but they had successfully held up Burnside's attack long enough for Hill's reinforcements to arrive.

The bridge has stood ever since as a reminder of the bloody and historic events of that day. It is one of the most photographed sites on any Civil War battlefield and has become one of the iconic symbols for the war as a whole.

Last month, a large chunk of the stonework of Burnside's Bridge broke off and fell into the creek. It seems that the wet and freezing weather weakened the stone structure sufficiently to cause a partial collapse. The National Park Service has been assessing the extent of the damage (which may include portions of the interior of the bridge not visible from the outside) and have closed the bridge to foot traffic.

Civil War enthusiasts around the country have expressed alarm and dismay at the news of the damage to the bridge. As we all know, in this age of budgetary pressure, extra funds for the National Park Service are not exactly easy to come by. Indeed, it often seems that the federal government lacks money to cover the basic operating costs of the national parks, much less unexpected expenses such as repairs to Burnside's Bridge.

Some have expressed a desire to help finance the repairs to the bridge. I sent an email to the staff of Antietam National Battlefield and, a few days later, received the following response from Susan Trail, Superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield.

Hi Mr. Brooks:
Thank you very much for your offer of assistance with preserving this important bridge. You can make a donation directly to Antietam National Battlefield. Please send a check to the following address:
Antietam National Battlefield
P.O. Box 158
Sharpsburg, MD 21782
Please make a note that the donation is intended for Burnside Bridge repairs.
We will be making the repairs in the spring or early summer and will be documenting them on the park Facebook page, so I hope you follow our progress.
Thank you,
Susan Trail
So, anyone who wishes to help fund the repairs for this damaged but salvageable should follow Superintendent Trail's suggestion and send a check to the Antietam National Battlefield, noting that the money should be earmarked for repairs to Burnside's Bridge. This is a chance to help preserve a piece of American history. Step up and do your part!