Monday, December 20, 2010

2010 grapes show no wrath

Fresh snow is swirling smartly, the holidays are beckoning family and friends, and the gas log in the fireplace is doing its very best imitation of a real fire.

There's no better time to roll out The Top Six Wines that teased my palate during 2010. Just as last year, this is a very subjective exercise in personal taste and perception that can generate vigorous debate. A $100 wine can be exhilarating; but 10 $10 wines sipped with 10 friends always beat a $100 wine that you drink by yourself.

The envelope please:

#1 - Tamarack Cellars Firehouse Red 2007 Columbia Valley, Washington. A blind selection off a restaurant wine list brought unexpected excitement through food friendliness combined with rich fruit. The winemaker combines at least seven red varietals from numerous vineyards in a package most wineries could only pray for. Subsequently served to two different dinner groups at home with cries for more. About $20 retail.

#2 - Kenneth Volk Vineyards Pinot Noir Santa Maria Cuvee 2006. Hats off to My Brother The Elder for unearthing this rich yet elegant red from the Santa Barbara region. Silky tannins with the right amount of bracing acidity made this a stunner with mushroom and asparagus risotto. Makes you stand up and salute. $28 retail from the winery.

#3 - Steele Writer's Block Roussanne 2008, California. Looking for a little something different, I enjoyed this gem in a local wine bar. Fresh yet rich and fragrant flavors from a secondary label offering from California legend Jed Steele. This Rhone varietal rocks the left coast. Suggested retail around $15.

#4 - Umathum Wachau Red 2007 - Significant other RA pulled this Austrian gem from a very honest and knowledgeable wine store proprietor in Innsbruck during a visit this summer. Zweigelt, blaufrankish, and cabernet sauvignon combine in a beautiful melange of subtle yet powerful flavors that brings out the yodel in all of us. About $40 plus airfare, land costs, tips and optional tours.

#5 - Chapoutier Bila Haut Cotes-du-Roussillon 2008. A Rhone blend that was a cut-above the usual suspects from this hot region. Fruit forward with a splash of acidity that made it a go-to for lighter summer fare that called for a red wine. Just plain delightful and easy to drink. About $13 retail.

#6 - Chateau d'Oupia Minervois 2007 - Funky blend of syrah, carignan and granache explodes on the palate with ripe yet peppery fruit and an unexpectedly long finish. A juicy wine that could go with Provencal type fare and roast chicken. Bonus: Easy on the budget for a group. About $13 retail.

Make your own list and check it twice during Santa Season!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The audacity of heat

Investment opportunities reward in strange ways.

Last month presented two major options in one week: Participation in an initial public stock offering by a major corporation versus purchase and installation of a new, two-stage furnace for the homestead.

Could the lure of making a quick buck with cocktail-party bragging rights overtake the mother of all home maintenance expenses? Fortunately, pragmatism triumphed in a way Wall Street probably couldn't calculate.

The 100 shares of the IPO and the furnace would cost roughly the same amount. I chose an immediate home infrastructure upgrade over uncertain potential gain.

After roughly a month, the shares are worth about a dollar more each. The new beast in the basement, however, is looking more like a neighborhood tribute to J.P. Morgan.

I'm keeping my feet warm and comfy. I'm using natural gas and electricity more efficiently, paying a dividend in my bills every month. And did I mention a federal tax credit that would put capital gains on a similar investment to shame?

Long-term investments can look just as great under the floor as they can in a portfolio.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The party's over for new age candidates

Not only are the gloves off, so are the labels.

As citizens prepare for voting in the mid-term elections, they are walking through a maze of candidates for every office from governor to congressman to judge to drain commissioner. In a simpler time, the names would be tied to a political party that would give some insight into political, fiscal or social philosophy.

In 2010, however, labels such as "Democrat," "Republican," or "Green" are missing from ads and signs more often than batteries for a toy battleship on Christmas. Unless you've installed them in advance, you're never going to find them.

Most political advertising in this election cycle serves up only a candidate's name. There seems to be no appetite to broadcast affiliation with a political party. I assume that the polling shows people are fed up with all parties...not that politicos pay attention to polls, of course...and candidates are taking the hint.

That leaves only the candidate, his or her positions on issues, and his or her character for consideration. That would be great, but the advertising out there doesn't dwell on the strengths of the candidate. It focuses on the negative aspects of the opponent. Don't get me started on the fact that many candidates routinely dodge debate opportunities and news interviews to better enrich their personal "brand" and cultivate a single message.

Just label it "Pablum."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Knocked out of the park

Economic recession and advancing technology has doomed an American institution, the parking lot attendant.

It's not just the poor soul who worked at 3 a.m. in a dark lot on the edge of downtown who's been sent to the unemployment line.

It's the guy who stood front and center in a cramped booth at the best joint in town, waving hello, taking tickets, making change, offering jumper cables, giving directions, and generally serving as a goodwill ambassador for his employer and his city.

On a recent visit to my local downtown major-league hotel on a lively Saturday night, I found the attendant booth abandoned.

Replacing the formerly employed contributor to our nation's tax rolls was a do-it-yourself payment albatross that had more slots and buttons than a Las Vegas slot machine.

Slide cash in the slot? Rejected because of folds in the bill. Slide a credit card in the other slot? Not reading at all. Did I mention the half-dozen handwritten, paper directions taped every which-way on the mechanical beast offering helpful instructions to speed the transaction that contradicted the manufacturer's directions stamped on It?

In better times, ol' Fred would have poked his head out of the booth, took some cash, opened the gate and sent me on my way with a heartfelt "have a good day."

That good day for both of us has long passed.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Little repairs, big effort

It's the culmination of a long year of tomorrow, when I feel like it, it'll last a little longer and it's too complicated.

Coming face-to-face with a list of home maintenance projects that have been delayed, ignored or dropped is a humbling homeowner experience. There's nothing like cracking garage drywall, a rusty electrical junction box, loose basement tile or yellowed bathtub caulk to bring out the inner Tim Allen in all of us.

But unlike the former Home Improvement TV star, I get little satisfaction out of admiring the inherent speed of a power drill or the smoothing qualities of high-pigment white enamel.

It's not the actual work, you understand. It's the trip to Hardware Heaven, picking from selections as numerous as a galaxy, getting them home, prepping the work area, getting frustrated with the process, and finally, the clean-up that is as much fun as a root canal.

I'm walking around the house and property today, making a punch list of priority projects that might actually get done before the snow flies. I know I'll swell with homeowner pride when all of these little jobs get done. As Mick Jagger might croon, "And I try, and I try, and I try, and I try."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Musical keys unlock election advertising

At least the piano players are working in America.

The latest season of televised political attack ads feature the usual array of out-of-context charges, unflattering photos, loose attribution of facts, and general mudslinging.

I've noticed, however, that the palette of poppycock is often presented to voters over a soundtrack that features tidy work on the eighty-eights.

It's clear that political consultants have determined that tickling the ivories can help create an aura of authority and intellectualism for their candidates. Or dark, sinister Darth Vader-like notes for the opposition.

Major stars such as Elton John, Diana Krall, David Benoit and Billy Joel can still perform their piano magic as great entertainers. But anonymous players now toil in ads for everyone from county commissioner to U.S. Senator.

If their candidate doesn't get elected or if the newly minted office holder bungles the public trust, it may be time to drag out the old adage, "Don't shoot me, I'm only the piano player!"

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Fantasy cooks use fantasy gear

There is no grit, grease, grime or gunk on cable TV's Food Network. It's clear its producers, directors and celebrity chefs like it that way.

Any close up of a LeCreuset full of braised chuck roast sliding into a 325-degree oven reveals a shining, flawless rack that looks like it just came from the foundry.

An overhead shot of olive oil basted, rosemary chicken slapped on a barbecue grill shows gleaming stainless-steel grates that have never before seen a Delmonico, cheeseburger, St. Louis ribs or any other brother fowl.

Check most any kitchen oven or outdoor grill in America and I'm sure you'll see the grease and grime ghosts of Thanksgiving dinners, exploding birthday cakes and dried-out sirloin tips of gatherings and parties past.

Even the most fastidious cook is more concerned with how the ham casserole looks to guests than whether the oven door is ready for its photo close-up.

Food Network hosts such as Ina Garten and Bobby Flay entertain us with their cooking skills. But I'm sure that without the technicians and helpers that are part of the production staff, they'd be stuck in the sink with Brillo pads at the ready just like the rest of us.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Oh, Canada, my Canada

Jumped into the car, cruised the freeway, crossed the bridge and cleared the border.

It's really that simple in these parts to go international at a moment's notice. A quick trip to Canada always provides a cultural paradigm shift that goes beyond stereotyping of fresh donuts, hockey sticks and health care happiness.

The two-lane backroads, and even the 401 and 402 freeways outside the major cities, offer an idyllic view of farms and rolling hills unobstructed by advertising billboards.

Mental gymnastics go into high gear as the American mind converts posted kilometers-per-hour into more familiar miles-per-hour. Look out, too, because the Ontario Provincial Police are always ready to give costly lessons for people with faulty math skills.

Even with the American economy in the tank, a U.S. greenback still yields anywhere from five to 10 percent premium over the Canadian dollar. And, as much as Americans complain about the price of gas at $2.75 a gallon, the prevailing rate across Ontario racked up at 90 cents a liter.

What a country, eh!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Baseball icon sews American cultural fabric

It was only a short wait, maybe 20 minutes or so.

People of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds patiently sauntered on the sun-kissed sidewalk. They chatted lovingly about a man who defined the fabric of baseball in American culture affected their lives, families and interests.

We were all there to pay respects to Ernie Harwell, a gentleman who described the nuances, skills and emotion of a wonderful game on radio for at least three generations of Michiganders, who died this week at age 92.

The sight of a great man in a wooden casket underneath a statue of himself inside a major-league baseball stadium was quite unusual and incongruous. But, in a wonderful way, it was as normal as grilled red hots, fragrant popcorn and crushed peanut shells on a lazy July afternoon.

We live our lives in the context of our interests and passions. Ernie lived his life in two stadiums during his career in Michigan to relay excitement, details and information to an audience he didn't see.

Yesterday his fans, friends and colleagues returned the favor.

Monday, April 26, 2010

There's an "app," even for kids' jobs

Years ago a young man could walk into the local pizza joint, look the crusty owner in the eye, flash a smile, and get a part-time job flipping pies.

No application. No human resources department. No experience.

Not any more.

My pizza order was late so I cooled my heels in the restaurant vestibule ready to read last year's Outdoor Life and last week's yellowed Free Press spread on a table. Seated next to me was the fuzzy-cheeked store manager interviewing an equally youthful would-be job applicant.

Apprently the new kid had made the cut. But the manager handed him a copy of the pizza company's employee handbook. The duo proceeded to read aloud every point in the dozen-page tome covering everything from punching in to food safety expectations. And, of course, the new hire had to sign a form than he and the manager had read and discussed the contents. Equal opportunity meets child labor law meets work relationships.

One side of me acknowledged it's good to have rules and expectations spelled out so thoroughly. But the other side thought that, only a decade ago, such a grilling would have been reserved for the executive director of a nuclear plant.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Centennial marks celebration of life

My father turned 100 on Sunday.

Well, at least I could celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth above the sod.

Ben C. died 13 years ago after an outstanding career as father, post office worker, draftsman, and hardware salesman.

No, he didn't pedal monitors, component towers, keyboards or those pesky external drives.

He dealt with real hardware, stuff such as carriage bolts, hammers, light switches, drill bits, and allen wrenches, that real people used to keep their homes and businesses humming in top repair.

There was no one better at puttying a new glass window into a wooden sash or repairing an alumnium screen door -- services that are nearly impossible to find in a throw-it-away-and-just-buy-it-new culture.

Picasso had nothing on a guy who could free-hand paint a sign (Trash Cans: $2.98) that could stop traffic cold on Davison East. And, of course, he served customers cordially and faithfully with knowledgable advice while asking "Was there anything else today?"

Ben C. probably would have been an outstanding aeronautical engineer if only he could have finished his second two years of college instead of having to survive the First Great Depression of the early 1930s. But he chose to pilot a better course for all of us as Dad.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Long-term love affair continues unbridled

She's still wears a smart, designer, coffee-cream coat, likes a good party, maintains a great wine cellar, and welcomes family and friends with warmth and love.

She's my house. I celebrate my silver anniversary with her this week.

It does seem like only yesterday that my dear departed and I trampled in the cold to a savings-and-loan in a north Detroit suburb to sign the mortgage papers and close the deal. This imporant real estate transaction really felt good, underscored by the prospect of a recovering economy and a new job for me at the-company-formerly-known-as-The-General at world headquarters.

So, 25 years later, how has it turned out?

The high-curb-appeal beige ranch on the commons is still standing tall, continuing to earn raves from first-time visitors. It has provided an anchor for life and career ups-and-downs, celebrations of birthdays, anniversaries, Belgian visitors, and Stanley Cups, and barbequed burgers. The company, on the other hand, has died stone-cold through bankruptcy.

While the real estate market has tanked, my personal palace delivers peace and comfort that some folks in newer mini-mansions can't hope to enjoy...especially hampered by underwater, interest-fueled mortgages. I'll be looking for brand-new digs some day but, in the current environment, there's nothing like living with the one you love.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Who's on first, other players second

While the Super Bowl football game has come and gone, chatter is still fast and furious about The Who's halftime musical performance.

Opinions range from baby boomer excitement over the energy, talent and excitement of the two remaining fixtures of the legendary four-man rock band to quizzical millennials asking why a couple of old geezers never profiled on TMZ or reality TV are headlining arguably the highest-viewed show in recent memory.

An entire generation seemed to ask, rhetorically, "Who Are You?"

I say go for it, Pete and Roger! If they're gonna pay you, 65,000 people are jamming to you live and half the U.S. population is looking up from its guacamole, hot wings and pizza, you still have it. There's no guarantee that someone like Lady Gaga or Beyonce could have done any better -- though their time on such a grand stage is ahead.

I still remember July 5, 1970. I got an unexpected ticket and ride downtown to watch Pete, Roger, John and Keith live for the first time.

Wow. Pete even smashed his guitar at the end of the show. Glad he didn't try it Super Bowl Sunday. I hate to see a guy with a bad hat over a balding head rushed to the emergency room with a slipped disk.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Tortilla offers simple Sunday supper

There are culinary triumphs and there are dishes that look just good enough to eat. On a leisurely Sunday afternoon, success was enjoyed on both counts.

The recipe was a simple one, right out of the local paper. The potato and chorizo tortilla would be easy to make and magically transport the diners out of the southeast Michigan winter freezer into a Barcelona tapas bar.

With the lubricating help of a Spanish Rioja, it did just that. Layers of Yukon gold potatoes, flavored by spicy chorizo sausage, onion and manchego cheese, baked together magnificently. The comforting warmth of oven and spice enveloped the house tighter than a wool blanket.

It's been said you first eat with your eyes. With this dish, I preferred running to the second step.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Auto brilliance can tarnish in a flash

Toyota's recall and production stoppage over stuck accelerators has backed the venerable automaker into a corner of product quality and customer satisfaction issues. As horrible as it is, the immediate crisis will pass.

The incident has brought fond memories of a business cycle game played here in the Motor City that I will call Genius, Idiot and Dunce.

The players in this game are the local auto companies that used to be known as The Big Three: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. In the 2010 version of this game, Ford is the Genius, GM is the Idiot, and Chrysler is the Dunce.

Ford, it seems, cannot do any wrong. It didn't accept any government bailout money. Its CEO, Alan Mulally, is a bona fide rock star among industry pundits. Products are hitting the mark with consumers.

GM has gone bankrupt. It has accepted federal money to salve a generation of management and economic missteps. But it has a solid product portfolio with more to come in the pipeline, a better labor agreement and a positive future vision.

Chrysler is GM on steroids, except for product. It is now controlled by Italian automaker Fiat that is probably more interested it Chrysler's distribution network in the U.S. rather than company resuscitation.

But history reveals a change of roles is always ahead. Chrysler was the Genius of the 1990s. GM carried the mail in the late 1970s and 1980s while Ford toiled in GM's shadow and Chrysler successfully shook off the shame of an earlier federal bailout.

The lesson: Like the weather around here, wait for the business cycle to change in an instant. Don't ever count anyone down and out in a fickle, dynamic and rapidly changing auto industry.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Hockey player sticks to tradition

Finding a Sher-Wood 5030SC Feather Light wood hockey stick here in the middle of Hockeytown has been as challenging as watching the Detroit Lions -- painful and aggravating.

I admit it. I'm old school when it comes to hockey equipment, especially my stick. Wood has a special, tactile feel that's as comfortable as a pair of well-worn bedroom slippers. For me, composite models offer a snappier shot but make taking a pass an adventure like a football fumble.

Local sport shops, however, have learned that selling a $150 composite stick is much more profitable than selling five $30 ones. Incredibly, kids are willing to fork over their allowance cash for a composite endorsed by Pavel Datsyuk or Sidney Crosby. (Goals, no doubt, optional at extra cost). The wood stick has become as uncommon as Conan O'Brien at NBC headquarters.

After burning petrol all over town, I finally found a Sher-Wood source. Of course, it was on- line. Of course, I'll have to wait. But I am amazed that, in Michigan, I have to import these Canadian-made hockey sticks from California.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Big brother joins the family

I always thought my family knew me the best. But, in reality, it's really

My family has no idea how many contemporary jazz CDs, Napa Valley wine books, single-cup coffee makers and non-fiction business tomes I've bought and enjoyed over the last seven years. And they have no idea about the musicians, titles, and brands selected, and prices paid for each and every item. But the plucky Internet seller certainly does.

The Amazon folks keep shooting me a regular stream of emails to tell me that, because I ordered this-or-that, I might be interested in purchasing a similar this-or-that. To satisfy my own curiosity, I can even punch up my complete order history...a nostalgic stroll down the memory lane of Internet commerce.

I can't even remember what I bought for my brother's birthday or for my sister's Christmas present -- for 2009. The warmth of family and friends falls into the fog of commercial dementia. But my electronic department store is always open and ready with too much information. Maybe I'll invite them over for a byte to eat.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

New year, new cars, new seller

As painful as it sometimes seems, the marketplace still is the great equalizer for providing quality goods and services at competitive prices.

I frequently drive past a new-car dealership that sold Pontiacs for decades. The shiny Grand Prixs, Grand Ams, and Bonnevilles wrapped around the building for blocks. Customers scurried around the desks in the sales area, listening to product pitches. I had an old Pontiac Phoenix repaired there after getting rear-ended in northern Michigan.

But here it is 2010. General Motors has slipped through the eye of the needle in bankruptcy. As part of that process, it jettisoned Pontiac to the scrap-heap of automotive brands such as Hudson and Studebaker.

So it was with some sadness, yet thorough understanding, that I noticed the other day that Toyota logos now dominate the building. Sharp Camrys, Prius and Corollas filled the lots and the showroom. People were still there shopping for automotive transportation.

The marketplace continues to provide what people need at a price they are willing to pay. It's a function of good management, sharp economics, public policy, innovative manufacturing and product quality. Sometimes you get it wrong and pay dearly. Others will get it right and succeed.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Three friends make ultimate transition

I bid farewell to Jim, Eugene and Bob in December. In a month otherwise filled with holiday joy, celebration, and sugar cookies creamed with pounds of butter, I found myself honoring their memories at their funerals.

The trio, to my knowledge, never met. But their deaths provided another reminder that we all end up in the same place no matter what we did, how much money we made or how we chose to live.

Jim moved a lot of metal as a automotive public relations director but was claimed by heart failure. Eugene saw the worst of society as a prison guard and was felled by a stroke. Bob changed kids lives for the better as a speech therapist for special students but who got blindsided by ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

Jim and Eugene got to enjoy more than a decade of relatively happy retired life; Bob struggled with ALS for about three years after getting his diagnosis literally weeks after retiring after 40-plus years of educational service.

The greatness of these three men remains their contribution to their families, their professions and their communities...most of which most people will never fully understand or appreciate. Those people closest to them, however, remember and cherish every laugh, every dinner shared, and every event celebrated.

In the end, you don't need a obituary in The New York Times to become one of the greats. You just need someone who cares.