Sacred places

Like many, I’m not sure how to process the events of this week. I returned to Oregon from a trip away to learn about the mass shooting in Roseburg. A classroom full of beautiful people. A writing class, no less. Everyone has their sacred places. Ranking high among mine are elementary schools, churches, movie theaters and college classrooms. I can’t quite grasp why they are the sorts of places that become settings for so many of these mass shootings. There is a new term in emergency planning for such locations. They are, more and more frequently, referred to as “target-rich environments.” This is the world we have made.

For me me, among the most special of such “target-rich” venues are classrooms like the one in Roseburg, full of people learning how to do one of the most essential human activities that defines us as a species: how to write. I had the chance to visit my old college in Chicago this past week. I met with students in writing classes. In many of them I could see what I felt twenty years ago, brimming with hope, wonder and fear for what the rest of our lives might bring us. It was an amazing experience. But now, when I hear about Roseburg, it is their faces that I see.

Some suggest the answer to all of this lies in combat training and weapons for everyone from elementary school teachers and adjunct English professors to preachers and theater ushers. Some say pumping more guns into the hands of citizens in the crowds is the answer, essentially treating every conceivable gathering, from a writing class to a prayer meeting, like a potential OK Corral. Those don’t sound like solutions to me.

More sensible options on a societal level might include an investment in more armed guards at schools, a greatly expanded system to address public mental health and some licensing and safety training for weapons designed for mass slaughter that is not much different from what we need to go through to drive a car. All of these things would cost money. Only money. But they’re so very do-able. Maybe they’d work. Maybe not. But what’s the excuse not to try?

Violence in entertainment could also be treated with much greater cultural aversion than we show about the largely harmless (and often quite wonderful) phenomenon of full frontal nudity. How can violence in entertainment be less offensive, regulated and censored than a ‘wardrobe malfunction’? It’s baffling.

So politicians do nothing. “Stuff happens,” they say. Better licensing and safety around the issuing of weapons would somehow would harm us more than hurt us. Armed guards or widespread public mental health programs are expensive, and we must keep taxes low. Somehow regulation of guns and violence in the media is an affront to freedom (but the freedom to not carry a weapon or live in constant fear is apparently no kind of right at all). The massive lobbying organization designed to fetishize weapons specifically to expand their manufacture and sale is powerful and relentless. Good folks do nothing. Evil triumphs. We offer prayers. We offer sorrow and despair. None of these things requires taxation or political capital. Our prayers and sorrow are cheap to the politicians. Though there is an unimaginable cost to us, and to those communities like Roseburg who bear the brunt of the unimaginable pain.

But while politicians do nothing, we’ll continue. On our campus, students are developing a self-initiatied education campaign on how to react in active shooter situations. It’s part of college life now, like camping our for football tickets, caffeinating for a last-minute studying session or ordering pizza at midnight. Maybe someday lessons will include how to handle your standard-issue personal firearm, and how to discern a fellow student or faculty member from a homicidal combatant. In Roseburg on Thursday, there were many acts of heroism and bravery by similar students during the course of the shootings. Perhaps lives were saved because of a better understanding of how to react in such situations. But think again…this is the world we have made for them. All of us. The politicians we choose do nothing. We offer merely prayers and sorrow. We shake our heads. Maybe we send a check. And a few ordinary folks and kids do what they can, they train one another to be prepared, they rush the door when the moment arrives, they fight back. They mostly fail. We mourn. And somehow everyone must learn to move on.

The Roseburg community continues to struggle with this. The local bank has set up a fund so that we can offer, at the very least, something more than our sorrow.

Umpqua Community College will cancel classes for a week. Maybe longer. But eventually classes will resume. The writing class will meet with a new instructor and maybe some of the same students whose world was dismantled in their last class. Assignments will be given. Words will be read. And there is, at least, hope in that.

Creating a life in wine

It’s rare when you find someone who has figured out exactly what he wants to be when he grows up and then take that extra step to actually make it happen. But Scott Wright is one of those people. He fell in love at an early age with a small cluster of villages that just so happen to produce the world’s greatest wines. After successful careers in the radio and music industry and a stint running a renowned Oregon winery, he’s now an importer of those same wines that first floored him. He runs Caveau Selections, a company that brings on small production Burgundies and Champagnes to American consumers.

But Scott does more than import and sell wine. He builds relationships between customers and the producers whose wines they discover by sharing stories and even leading his clients on tours of Burgundy and Champagne.

Now Scott is serving as host for the September 24th launch of my novel Vintage at Powell’s in Portland. It’s a great fit: one of the reviewers of Vintage called it, “an evocative look at the strength it takes to create the life we want.” That comment might even be better applied to Scott’s own journey.

I recently asked Scott a few questions about the importance of stories in the work that he does:


Tell us about Caveau Selections. What’s the elevator pitch, and how does it work?

We’re your direct connection to the best of Burgundy and Champagne. I’ve been drinking, studying, and collecting the wines for over 30 years, and I spend months every year tasting my way through the cellars and hand-selecting the most exciting wines to bring into the U.S. for our customers. We sell exclusively direct to consumer, and the wines come directly to us from the producers. No middlemen, no extraneous markups, no BS. We offer wines on a pre-arrival basis, and we have popular Burgundy and Champagne clubs that include two 6-bottle shipments per year, with 20-30 pages of educational info, maps and photos to accompany the wines.

Scott and Thierry joking and tasting wine in cellar
Scott and Thierry Violot-Guillemard in Thierry’s cellar in Pommard, Burgundy.


You’re drawn to the smallest producers? Why focus on the little guys? What’s so special about what they produce?

The best wines always convey a “Sense of Place” – a distinct signature of the terroir from whence they came. Larger producers generally are blending grapes from many different growers or sub-regions. While their wines can be delicious, they often lack a sense of character or personality. The small producers’ wines are made from individual vineyard parcels that have likely been in the same family for several generations. These are wines that are made by somebody, rather than wines made by a corporation or a factory. These are artisanal rather than industrial wines.


Storytelling is a big part of what you do, whether it’s the descriptions of the wines and winemakers you provide with each shipment, or via your blog as you document your travels to Burgundy. Why do you spend so much time on the stories?

Because wines ARE stories – the stories of the families and the individual characters that grow them and make the wines, the stories the individual pieces of land have to tell, the story of that individual year…


You’ve been working on a book about La Paulée, the signature Burgundian wine festival. What’s the status of that project and why do you feel compelled to document it?

I’ve decided to expand the scope of the book to include the legendary Hospices de Beaune auction – the world’s oldest charity wine auction, and the Chevaliers du Tastevin celebratory dinner at the Chateau de Vougeot – which together with La Paulée de Meursault make up what is known as “Les Trois Glorieuses” – the Three Days of Glory that happen every year on the third weekend of November – the high-point of the year for the Burgundy wine world (and wine lovers everywhere!)

The Paulée – the concept of coming together to celebrate the harvest, is one of the oldest traditions known to man, and spans all agricultural arenas, not just wine. The Burgundians have raised it to an art form, and it has become one of the most sought-after events on the planet. As someone who has the great fortune to attend on a regular basis, I wanted to share that spirit of camaraderie, generosity and bacchanalian celebration with everyone who has always wanted a “peek inside.” With luck the book will see the light of day in late 2017…maybe?


Do you recall your first trip to Burgundy? What was it like? What do you remember the most?

My first trip to Burgundy in the 1970s was mind-blowing. Just seeing Romanée-Conti and Musigny and Montrachet in the flesh, walking the vineyard roads – it’s something one has to see to truly grasp. I just remember being in a semi-trance-bliss state the whole time.


What about your most recent trip to Burgundy and Champagne…did anything strike you or are there highlights from that experience?

I’m there 3-4 times per year now. The most striking thing from my most recent visit in June was the tension and sadness in the air among producers in the Côte de Beaune, where five very small vintages in a row have given them very little wine to sell, and have nearly crippled a number of small producers. Their determination never flags, but you get a sense they feel quite beaten-down.


You lead groups of Caveau Selections customers on tours of Burgundy and Champagne. Have you taken any true aficionados for the first time? What is it like when the light bulb goes on for the first time?

Yes, most of the people that have come on the tours are first-timers. Seeing that light bulb go off is the most rewarding thing of all. It takes me back to my early visits and early infatuation with the regions. It truly warms my heart and makes all of the work and planning worthwhile. I love to turn people on to what I love about Burgundy and Champagne, and then see them develop their own paths.

Three empty bottles of wine on table
Some of the wines Scott sampled on a recent trip to Burgundy.


Many wine lovers move from region to region. They’re always looking for something new to try. But you keep digging deeper into the same territories. Why is this? Is it something about you, the regions you love or both?

I’m definitely a “diver” rather than a “skimmer.” Whatever I get into I tend to go all the way, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Couple that with the extraordinary complexity of Burgundy and Champagne – which one could study for a lifetime and only know a fraction of it all – and I’ve never felt the need or desire to get into anything else. My cellar is entirely Burgundy and Champagne as well – that’s what I like to drink!


At Caveau Selections, you play the role of a wine educator. Why is education an important part of the equation?

Because wine, especially European wine, is unnecessarily complex and confusing to most people. I’m here to give folks a few keys that will help them unlock the doors and let them get in to what can seem impenetrable. Once you have those keys, you have tools that will serve you for your wine-drinking life. An educated consumer is a better consumer, pure and simple. I want to help people find out for themselves what they like, and I really love showing them how to get there.


What does the future hold for Caveau Selections?

This fall we’re releasing our first Champagne under the Caveau label – the Caveau Extra-Brut we produced with Sophie Cossy, a great young producer we’ve been working with for a few years. Hopefully there will be more Champagnes and perhaps some Burgundies that we work on together with our producer partners. Having been a winemaker for the last 16 years, there’s always an itch to keep my hands in the production process in some small way. There may also be a few more producers we add to our portfolio over time, and likely more Champagne and Burgundy tours too – there seems to be a lot of demand!

Three books to read in celebration of Véraison

This is the time of year for summer reading suggestions. And for me, the heart of summer is best represented by véraison. That’s a French term for the moment when grapes first begin their pivot toward fall and harvest. It’s that exact point in the season when the grapes stop growing and begin the ripening process. For anyone who loves wine and vineyards, it’s a thrilling sight when you spot that first blush of maroon in a tight cluster of green Pinot Noir berries. Every time you look at them, the grapes seem to change and darken. It’s like slow-motion fireworks under the heat of a summer sky.

It strikes me that this point in the season is ripe (intentional pun) for metaphor. So instead of the usual summer suggestions, I’ve scanned my shelf and come up with three books to read in symbolic celebration of véraison.

Here they are:

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

From This Hill, My Hand, Cynthiana’s Wine by Paul Roberts

Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland, by Nina Mukerjee Furstenau

Read here to learn why I picked these books. And let me know what your summer véraison reads are.

Beautiful Ruins

This is the perfect véraison read because it just feels like mid-summer. It takes place largely in the Cinque Terre, a cluster of towns on the Italian Riviera…the ultimate summer vacation destination.

But the story’s far from idyllic or light summertime fare. It’s a tale of loss, loneliness, self-destruction and redeeming grace. It’s a complex story that traces the transformation of a whole cluster of characters over generations. Like véraison, where the individual berries ripen at different intervals until the entire cluster reaches a rich burgundy hue, the characters and story threads don’t transform at once but evolve over a period of time. The book is a slow and miraculous revelation. Walter’s storytelling somehow comes together with the same sort of mysterious magic that ripens fruit.

What, am I ladling it on a little thick? Don’t buy my metaphor? Read it anyway. It’s just a damn good novel.

From This Hill, My Hand, Cynthiana’s Wine

This memoir by winemaker Paul Roberts traces his growing fascination with and journey into wine, from the first spark through his obsession with planting a commercial vineyard of Cythiana/Norton in Missouri following, one of the few indigenous American grapes to make a serious dry red wine. While the title might seem overwrought, it’s a brisk and engaging read filled with philosophical meanderings, amusing anecdotes and a healthy, heartfelt obsession with making natural wine in the Midwest.

It’s tales like these that inspired my documentary, American Wine Story. And the véraison metaphor is pretty straightforward: Roberts’ obsession with planting a vineyard was a transformative experience that shaped his future. By the end of the book he reached a deeper understand that allowed him to reconcile his beliefs with his love of wine. It’s hard to find, but work a look if you’re seeking a unique and little known story about wine.

Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland

Nina Mukherjee Furstenau’s food memoir is a graceful miracle. Like grapes that reach véraison, it’s a tale of transformation. The author’s growing relationship with her heritage in Bengal, her deepening understanding of what it means to be a Midwesterner, and her gradual recognition that she is something in between and entirely unique is a thought provoking exploration of self and culture.

The structure of the book reminds me of a cluster of grapes: each chapter is a perfectly constructed object in and of itself, but as a whole it makes a delicious and recognizable shape.

And the recipes. The recipes are amazing, each of them given more weight by the stories that she weaves around them. A wonderful book and well deserving of the MFK Fisher Award for Culinary Writing that it earned from Les Dames d’ Escoffier International.

So there you have it…three book choices inspired by the season. If you have any books that fit the small miracle that is that midsummer miracle known as véraison, I’d love to hear it.

Stewed Rabbits, Guinea Pigs and the Eye of Mordor

The incredible power of a simple meal.

I’m reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy with my daughter. It’s probably my favorite part of the day, the evening meal and a glass of wine coming a close second. Our M.O. is to settle in her room for the evening and read a chapter or two. She’ll usually extract one of her guinea pigs to play with while she listens. She’s trying to get them used to being handled for when she shows them in the upcoming county fair. Incidentally, one of the guinea pigs is named Frodo, and he’ll be showing in the ‘senior’ guinea pig category, which is an indication of how long we’ve been at these books. Reading The Lord of the Rings out loud is not a short-term undertaking.

We’re into The Two Towers now. And it’s some fairly heavy stuff. We’ve read books like The Hunger Games and My Antonia, our tastes ranging from our current cultural fascination with post-apocalyptic teen angst to classics that carry more moral weight than an eleven-year-old typically needs to process. But she likes stories that make her think and cry. We all tend to love things that break our hearts.

With their diminutive stature, hairy feet and penchant for good food, second breakfasts, beer and “pipe weed,” you’d think these tales would be a bit less weighty, but now as Frodo and Sam trudge toward the dark swamps toward Mordor and their expected doom, I’m realizing the absurdity and irony in the fact that I’m reading a book about self-sacrifice and the end of civilization to a child as she hums to herself and plays with rodents. That’s some heavy shit to hand a kid on any given weeknight. And we wonder why they can’t get to sleep.

So our tiny, peaceful hobbit friends are marching on their sacrificial journey to save races of people who, if they don’t look down on hobbits they don’t even know or care that they exist, and the enemy troops are massing, the dark tower is smoldering, the ring wraiths are riding giant evil bird creatures through the sky scanning the wastelands for Frodo’s ring and their only companion is a duplicitous, slimy, hairless little Gollum, who eats slugs and raw fish and hisses and crawls on the ground and wants desperately to either have what poor Frodo is carrying or throttle him in his sleep.

So in the midst of this endless, bleak parade of drudgery, there’s a brief moment of reprieve that, being a foodish person, I especially appreciated. They make it through the wastelands eating only old bread and Frodo finally gets some sleep in a thicket of ferns, and Sam, who, like most of us, is typically thinking about what he’s going to eat next, convinces Gollum to catch a pair of “coneys” or rabbits. Frodo’s strength is waning, and their spirits are low, and Sam, who is a good cook “even by hobbit reckoning,” is certain that a bit of cooking will help them forge ahead. Fortunately he’s prepared:

“He still hopefully carried some of his gear in his pack: a small tinder-box, two small shallow pans, the smaller fitting into the larger; inside them a wooden spoon, a short two-pronged fork and some skewers were stowed; and hidden at the bottom of the pack in a flat wooden box a dwindling treasure, some salt.”

What a great bit of optimism, to “hopefully” carry the tools of cookery across a barren wasteland on the odd chance that they’ll find something to cook up along the way. Sam is my hero for this small but bold act of optimism.

When Gollum agrees and drops the two limp rabbit bodies on the ground at Sam’s feet, he decides to take out his pans and stew them. Sure, a fire could alert the enemy to their location. And the distraction of cooking a meal could also make them less alert for prowling orcs.

It’s a dangerous time to cook, but oh, is it worth it. As Sam brings the water to a boil with some foraged herbs, you can feel the weighty funerary pall of their desperate journey lifting. You can feel the simmering, smell the herbed broth and taste the stew and, for a moment, there is a reprieve. It’s lovely little moments like these that show how deft Tolkien is as a storyteller. And lingering on these quiet interludes that don’t make it into the movie version of the story are what make novels so wonderful. When Frodo awakes to the smell of stewed rabbit, Sam apologizes for not having onions and potatoes. But still it’s a miraculous meal:

“Sam and his master sat just within the fern-break and ate their stew from the pans, sharing the old fork and spoon. They allowed themselves half a piece of the Elvish waybread each. It seemed a feast.”

Their respite doesn’t last long. In any good tale, you don’t want your reader to have too much of a break. And Sam’s little cooking adventure does have repercussions when a patrol of heavily armed men spot the smoke. But it’s oh so worth it, that relief from the burden of being a small creature in such a vast, dark world.

And I think it’s a lovely little metaphor for what a good meal can accomplish on any given day. We all have our bad days. We all feel like hobbits, trapped and shaped by forces far beyond our control. Whether it’s the medical test results or the crazy boss or the latest mortgage statement or the endless flood of emails that need answering or the new testing regime at the elementary school or the melting glaciers and droughts that are being ignored by half of the shitheels in Washington or the angst of the nightly news and the trolling parade of irony and negativism of the Internet—there are so many forces that pile up to make our personal Dark Towers of Mordor, that blazing eye that’s always scanning, seeking us.

But every time we settle down together for a meal as a little family, or with friends, or slink into the refuge of a restaurant, or maybe it’s only a quick, personal omelet with shallots on a buttered, toasted bagel with Gruyere, a tiny oasis of flavor before the day’s march across the wastelands–wherever, whatever it is, a meal can solve or at least be a reprieve from so many worries. What a wonderful magic is food.

Hobbits understand this. They are “little fellows in a great big world, after all,” or so Gandalf tells them. But then aren’t we all? So why not embrace our stature and look to the hobbits for guidance. Let’s take a little more pleasure in each meal. Let’s break from the madness and savor something simple and delicious. Let’s anticipate it, imagine it and talk about it while we slog along across the broken volcanic rock amid vaporous swamps, and when the opportunity arises to break our fasts, we should light a fire and stew a little rabbit and cook something for our fellow travelers on this often bleak but sometimes miraculous journey we’re all making.

Hope is carrying two pans, a wooden spoon and a box of salt in your pack on your way to the dark tower in the odd chance you’ll get to use them. Let’s have a little hope. Time to light a fire.

Saadeddin: Saudi Pastries

You can travel halfway round the world to a country that doesn’t even issue tourist visas to Americans, but it’s hard to hide from American cultural institutions. McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King are not hard to find. And for the sweeter side of things, Baskin Robbins seems to be the dessert import chain of choice.

That’s why Saadeddin was a refreshing change. It’s a Saudi chain that’s found throughout the Gulf states, and while it’s as antiseptic and polished as any franchise, it certainly has a sense of otherness about it. We had one only a few blocks away from our student apartment at KAUST, where we stayed for a couple of weeks while shooting for a documentary about coral reefs. And it quickly became a late night sugar fix destination, being open until 11 p.m.


Saadeddin’s kneffa, which is a cheese/cream filled dessert we sampled all throughout the trip, featured a sweeter, less savory filling that was closer to a thick whipped cream than the other variations of this dish that we had elsewhere. It was topped with jam and the crust reminded me of an entire layer of Mini-Wheats. Other favorite pastries at the shop included the sugary pistachio trays and also pine fingers and baclawa, which had flaky crusts wrapping a nut/sugar filling.


They also offered desserts you’d more commonly find in the west, including stacks of neatly wrapped chocolates, pudding and pies. But the most interesting items were those that are most unlike what I can find at home. Little nests of wheat threads curled around cashews and peanuts in a sticky sugar paste were also suitably decadent. I asked for a mixed plate of pastries, and it looked like dessert sushi with its precision and visual appeal, and I expect that the next time I’m in need of a late night sugar fix, I’ll regret the fact that this shop is half a world away.


When you think of Saudi Arabia, political intrigue, oil, geopolitics and conservative religious laws probably come to mind first. Pastries probably don’t even make the list. But wouldn’t the world be a sweeter place if they did?

Arabian Food Adventures

I’m currently in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia working on a documentary about coral reefs. The Saudi side of Red Sea has one of the longest stretches of reefs in the world, and they’re comparatively pristine and among the best preserved examples of these vanishing habitats. The corals on these reefs are both diverse and isolated geologically, which makes them fascinating to study. And to film. Given the higher temperatures in the region, they could be a good predictor of what species of corals may survive climate change.

But enough science, this post is about food.


Coral reefs are diverse habitats. And they’re beautiful. They attract lots of fish. We can eat many of those fish. And they are delicious.

Our first excellent meal was at a fish restaurant in the town of Thuwal, where we were able to partake of some reef fish. Once a remote backwater ninety kilometers north of cosmopolitan Jeddah, Thuwal benefitted from the construction of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, just to its north on the shores of the Red Sea. Thuwal has a shiny new mosque and harbor, gifts to keep them from being envious of their well-off new neighbors. They also have gained some good restaurants.

KAUST is an audacious experiment. A full-fledged, western-style research university created by king’s decree that it be constructed in a thousand days. It’s a sprawling campus that’s attracted thousands of scientists from around the world despite the fact that it’s barely five years old. Many of these scientists study the sea.

And here’s a tip…if you want to eat fish, hang out with people who study them.

The dinner was a sendoff for a marine researcher named Camille, heading back her hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, where they also understand a thing or two about fish. This makes her a double threat, so naturally she had the honor of selecting the species for our party of twenty or so scientists (plus a pair of fine arts majors). So the first step in the process was to head to the back of the restaurant where the fish are lined up on stainless steel tables. Camille checked their eyes and gills for health and freshness, fish chunky enough that four of them fed the entire table (with plenty to spare for the cats).

We selected parrot fish (a declining species that is no less tasty for becoming more rare) and grouper. Both were served on beds of two-tone rice. The dark rice was flavored with tamarind, a preferred spice of Saudis. We ate the grilled fish with flatbread and a tamarind sauce, plus fresh hummus and baba ganoush perfect for dragging torn bits of the chewy bread through. Plates of fried shrimp and grilled prawns were also passed along the length of the table. They also served french fries, which remained untouched.


We sat outside on rugs on the ground around the low table in the “family” section of the restaurant; all of the women in our group wore long black gowns over their street clothes, though no headscarves or veils were required. The group included Americans, Germans, a Kenyan and a Saudi student named Mohammed who helped us with translation.

Saudi coffee is another experience in deliciousness. They steep it in un-roasted or partially roasted beans, so it has a hint of green bell pepper bitterness on the palate. It’s great with a touch of milk and sugar. It’s main attraction is its otherness, and it works well to kick off the meal.

In the end, the meal, epic in its scale, range and good conversation, cost us 100 SR apiece, or twenty five bucks.


Our next local dining experience came a few days latter at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant near the Al Balad historic district of Jeddah. We took the evening KAUST bus (free for university guests!) across ninety kilometers of bleak desert, the Red Sea shimmering elusively on the horizon. We headed straight to the old “souq” or market where you can buy everything from head scarves to abayas and knock-off Beats headphones. We hit town just as the evening prayer was beginning so we sat on the steps of a museum to wait it out while restaurants rolled down their shutters and the crowds thinned as people disappeared into the doors of the mosques that seem to inhabit every block, the haunting and gorgeous prayers echoing through the narrow, twisting, medieval streets.

The district’s coral stone buildings loomed over us. The stones seem to be warping, twisting the ancient wooden balconies and window frames with their latticework shutters.

After the prayer, the shops and restaurants opened again. We found a Yemeni cook who was just firing up a wok at a tiny storefront closet of a restaurant fronted by a pair of plastic tables set on the street. Our guide for the evening, an inquisitive German PhD student named Sebastian, asked for shawarma, which was depicted on the inscrutable sign. But evidently they were out, and fortunately so because what we were given instead was more unique and wonderful.

It was a stir-fried blend of ground meat (lamb, beef or both) with onions and an assortment of hot peppers. There was also black pepper and a touch of the ubiquitous tamarind. It was served with slices of red onion and tomato, and instead of the expected rice, we received a stack of baguettes to tear apart for use in shoveling the mixture into our mouths.


The meal set us back a whopping 100 SR ($5 apiece) total for our party of five. We were bolstered for the market, ready to do some haggling over headscarves while Jeddah’s seediest characters gathered around our table scraps: the numerous underfed cats who slink out alleys and calmly watch you eat, too proud to beg. The cats are tolerated if not adored like pets back home in Corvallis, and locals will even leave their leftovers hanging from scales on palm tree bark for the cats to claw open and feast upon.

So far our pair of more authentic dining experiences have been a smash. Food is the great reward of travel. I’ve lamented the absence of wine on the table a few times, but then there’s also something to be said for coffee, tea and even-keeled conversation under the echoes of prayers.

We left our new Yemeni friend for the piles of spices at the souq’s vendors and the interesting aromas wafting through the market encouraged more culinary exploration. We wandered the dark alleys, careful not to film people with our cameras to avoid the ire of the religious police, hard-eyed vigilantes who enforce the strict codes that frown upon making images of people.

But the other people we met were open and friendly, and we felt oddly safe and even comfortable wading into the hot throngs again on our way back to the last bus out of town.


A Cook’s Tour of Phoenix

I’m working on a story about goat cheese producers around the country, and I had the fantastic opportunity to ride along with Wendell Crow of Crow’s Dairy (Buckeye, AZ) as he made deliveries to Phoenix restaurants. He supplies some of the top chefs in the valley with fresh chèvre, feta and goat milk.

Wendell comes from a dairy family, but he switched from cows to goats in 2006 in a bold move. Most in the business don’t consider goats to be proper “dairying” (yes, they use ‘dairy’ as a verb). So Wendell’s hoping the skeptics will have to “eat crow,” as his license plate indicates. Now, after farming his whole life, he’s getting a glimpse of the good life with kitchen access to fantastic restaurants and resorts in the Phoenix area. He’s on a first name basis with some of the most noted chefs in the business. But despite producing a gourmet product prized by the culinary elite, he still considers himself a farmer. “I guess I’m just a desert rat,” he says in assessment of his life’s work farming on the outskirts of Phoenix.


I’m be weaving Wendell’s story into a larger article, tentatively titled “American Chèvre.” I’ll be talking with several small-scale cheese producers around the country, plus area chefs and winemakers about the prospects for and benefits of locally produced chèvre and how best to enjoy it.

I’m no expert on chèvre, but I had a chance to try some fresh samples before they’d even been cooled. Crow’s base chèvre was clean and tart, with some bright acidity and a lush texture. He attributes its richness and complete lack of gamey or goaty character to his Nubian herd and careful handling and feeding of “the girls.” Their butter pecan chèvre was decadent, like eating ice cream at room temperature.

Tagging along with Wendall also afforded me a glimpse behind the scenes in kitchens like Pizzeria Bianco, Lon’s and the Phoenix Art Museum. He’s definitely earned their respect through his commitment to quality and hands-on approach to customer service.

More to come.


An Afternoon on Jenny Creek

Filmmaker Darryl Lai and I recently spent the afternoon in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument along the river bottoms of Jenny Creek with Jack Williams, Trout Unlimited’s chief scientist. Jack has fished this stretch since his boys were young. Now they’ve both got graduate degrees, with one of them going into fisheries science like his father, and the other tackling environmental issues with a law degree.Continue reading “An Afternoon on Jenny Creek”

Lila & Dobby make clam fritters

dobby3People express hospitality through food. When someone prepares a meal for a stranger, it’s a form of social grace. It’s what separates us from the animals and thus makes us human. Some might call it a spiritual act.

When someone feeds you four times in two days and gently prods you to continue eating until you’re stuffed to the gills…then the person is something more than merely human. It’s likely that the person is a grandparent.

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A legacy


Jimi Brooks died ten years ago today. I never met him. He passed away, at the age of 38, long before I’d ever heard of him. He was an Oregon winemaker. He was an upstart and rebel. And if he were alive today, he’d be one of the most influential people in the business. His story is the anchor of our documentary American Wine Story.

Now, a decade after he left us, despite never once speaking with him, I feel like I know him well. I sometimes can even sense his voice…which I’ve heard only once on a compressed video recording…in my head.

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Sunset Beers

I spent a few days on Lizard Island working on a series of stories and videos for Oregon State, as well as shooting a trailer for our next documentary: the very sad and sobering story of the decline of our coral reefs around the world.

There are only a few moments when you can step back and say, “I’m pretty damn lucky.” Being sent to a remote island seventy miles off the eastern coast of tropical Australia could be defined as one of those. Despite the dark undercurrent of the subject matter, plus the long days of solo shooting, interviewing and late nights backing up data, it’s pretty thrilling to visit places few others get a chance to see, and to gain a glimpse of lifestyles and occupations so different from your own.

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Bounty under the sun

“The temperature is hovering around 100 degrees right now in Phoenix,” the pilot announced. Then, dryly, “We expect it to climb steadily to two or three hundred by the time we land.”

I have to admit to a little bit of dread over my trip to the Valley of the Sun. The temperate nature of the Willamette Valley has made me weak and intolerant of extremes. I hail from Chicago and Missouri, where conditions range from blistering to arctic with the occasional tornado thrown in. But I’m afraid I’ve lost my Midwestern heartiness.

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The home stretch

After four years, seven states, seventy interviews, three name changes and what seems like an endless process, we’re finally nearing the home stretch. Now we’ve got a rough edit of the film and we’re raising some finishing funds to help us launch the film in 2014. Check out our campaign on Kickstarter, and look for American Wine Story to be screening in the fall and available through digital download.

A tale of American vino


This past Friday we screened our documentary, American Wine Story, for some of the film’s subjects. It was bit of a nail biter as you always wonder how folks are going to react, especially to a film that’s largely about them. The reception was very enthusiastic. This is an inspirational flick about the American Dream in a bottle, not a hatchet job, so the folks involved were bound to enjoy the fact as they’re being positioned in a somewhat favorable light. Now the question remains: how will outside audiences respond? If we take it beyond wine people will the audience find something to pull them into the story?

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Telling stories for fun and profit

I’ve made up stories since I was a kid. I started my own version of The Hobbit at least eleven different times. Then later on I tried making up stories that were more original. A few were. Many weren’t. Some were good. Others lousy. Ultimately, stories are aggregations of a thousand overheard conversations, films, books, poems, tall tales, barstool monologues, lies and nursery rhymes heard, read seen and watched over the years.

Stories are interesting. People like them. And they’re willing to pay money for them. At least that’s our hope when I co-founded the company Slipstream Cinema, which focuses on aerial cinematography but is ultimately about assisting people in the telling of their own stories and using technology to help them do so.

Storytelling can be a profession, and I’ve been working pretty hard to make it so. Sure we shoot high definition digital video from RC helicopters that have onboard electronics that would make the guys in The Right Stuff jealous. But what we do is no different than what people have done since before the dawn of history. Everyone has stories. It’s what makes us human.

What I’ve learned from documentary projects is that even though you can make up a story, it’s often more effective when other people, who aren’t MFA-trained, pedigreed, published or otherwise blessed-by-the-literary-establishement storytellers tell their own stories in their own words and you’re merely there to capture it and help bring it into the world. Your role is sort of a narrative midwifery. There aren’t good or bad storytellers. Anyone can do it. You just need to ask them the right questions.

Your role as a documentary or brand storyteller is a sort of narrative midwifery

Trying to monetize storytelling gives me mixed feelings. Even if I have a full-time job and a new startup business that do exactly that, there’s still a purity to telling stories just for the hell of it.

A tradition in our family is for me to gather all the kids around the holidays and bring them into an empty bedroom (no, I’m not the creeper uncle, I promise) and tell them a frightening story with the lights out. These are rarely original tales, but more often embellishments or approximations of common folklore. One of my favorites is the story of Resurrection Mary, one of the many spirits haunting the paved-over prairielands of my South Chicago childhood homeland. The best lore is often rooted in the geography of our youth. During these tales, we usually lose one or two kids along the way as they slip through the door, spilling a ray of the warmth and safety of the hallway light. They always return for the next story, though.

They still want to trade on stories in the dark like our Pleistocene precursors.

It amazes me that kids growing up with digital cameras and the Internet, 3D and animation still want to trade on stories in the dark like our Pleistocene precursors. It’s part of who we are, this tribe of gangly, unpredictable bipeds. Each of us bears the soul of a poet and balladeer. It’s a product of our evolution and genetics, a result, perhaps, of our uselessly outsized brains.

Kids in cemetery
Kids in the extend Baker clan hang out where one famous Chicago legend was born. Resurrection Mary can be seen in the background.

Whether it’s an independent project, a screenplay or an interview for the day job or a client project, I’m struck by how often I’m moved to tears or inspired or awed by a story that someone is telling me or even some that I conjure up from the stew of experiences rattling in my own head.

Can storytelling across a number of different media become my one and only full-time profession? Is there a formula that will allow me to reproduce my labors in this way, like any good Marxist-Leninist desires? Can capturing, weaving and reproducing stories for remuneration that would also make any objectivist or capitalist proud be a tenable existance? Time will eventually share the story of that answer.

The Wind Kept: a music video

Scene from The Wind Kept
How does a writer who is used to hacking away on a coffee-stained keyboard in some dark corner while mumbling incomprehensibly to no one in particular suddenly find himself part of a team premiering a music video in a historic theatre with a group of collaborators from around the country?

Well, like most things it starts with a conversation during lunch or in some hallway in a crumbling university building. “Let’s make a music video.” I’m not sure if I said it first or if it was Santiago, but one of us uttered that fateful phrase. It seemed like an innocent, wistful thing to say at the time. It reminded me of an earlier conversation with Truen Pence over fried chicken tendons at Corvallis’s best greasy spoon Chinese place where one of us broached the question that has come to dominate our existence for more than three years: “Hey, we should make a documentary about wine.” This music video project started much the same way.

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“Nostalgic” is a short story I wrote as background when brainstorming ideas for a music video collaboration  for the song The Wind Kept by Brave Julius, which we produced in 2012-2013 and premiered at the Whiteside Theatre on March 16, 2013. Santiago Uceda directed the video and more artfully and imaginatively executed the concept in a way that only  he can.

HE SAW HER ONLY ONCE in church when he was nine, and he never forgot her summer dress, her freckled, peeling shoulders, the scent of lavender and sunburned skin. She glanced at him once, over her shoulder, from where she sat in the pew with the McIntyres, and he felt his back straighten and the hairs rise on his neck. She smiled and he stared, frozen, the only time in his life he’d ever mustered the courage to look at someone so directly for so long.

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Kickstarting the Whiteside

Here’s a project we’re wrapping up. It’s a music video for acoustic guitarist Brave Julius and director/illustrator/animator Santiago Uceda. We’re raising funds to put on a concert and premiere the video in a classic theater in our hometown of Corvallis, Oregon. It’s a fun project: part filmmaking, part concert and part community art project. Strange how water cooler conversations and a simple email inquiry can turn into something so much bigger. Suddenly we’re trying to find a way to fill an 800-seat theater. No small feat for an artist, writer and musician who are all essentially introverts (I can, admittedly, have a big mouth on occasion).

Fortunately Jaime Williams of the Whiteside Theatre Foundation has quite a bit of event experience and is driving the planning. She’s a passionate advocate of bringing live music to Corvallis, and doing it with class and style via a glorious old venue that was rescued from the brink of demolition. Architecture is community art, and it’s something we often overlook in this culture of the rugged individual. Great wealth, fame or achievement is celebrated, but who still builds beautiful things that truly last these days? That’s why I like filmmaking: it’s a collaborative effort…and to ultimately be successful, you need the community on board in the form of an audience.

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The Power of Great Storytelling

I just took my daughter to the premier of Justin Smith’s documentary, Relentless, about a team of student engineers who build and race formula cars. I’ve never been a car guy. To emphasize that point, I drive a moss-covered Pontiac Vibe mini wagon, which is noted for two things: it has a standard electric outlet in the dashboard and it’s the least stolen car in the US. My daughter isn’t really a gearhead either. She arrived at the premier in multicolored tights, a pink skirt and red glitter shoes. She’s something of  a girly-girl.

But a solid documentary is one that pulls in an audience and makes them passionate about a subject in which they had little interest or knowledge before the lights go down. Justin pulled that off in Relentless, carrying the audience through an emotional arc of a championship bid in a very intense competition. It’s a moving and inspirational experience.

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