Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Riesling Romance

The Mosel like so many rivers in Europe unmasks different personalities as it passes through many different regions of Germany. Beyond the bucolic landscapes dotted with fairy-tale castles, terraced vineyards and rust-covered maritime facilities, the Mosel provides a glimpse into its storied history of the region.

Mother Mosel (aka Moselle) River begins its journey in France and flows into Germany where it twists sharply for 150 miles and deposits itself into the Rhine on its way to the North Sea. Along this winding river gorge are found some of the most classic Riesling wines in the world.

Once the most efficient and fashionable means of travel throughout Europe, river cruising continues to be an ideal way to discover the culture, cuisine and unique characteristics of the many countries traveled through. Yet for all their similarities, our two main avenues of travel last summer, the Rhine and Mosel, wear two very different masks.

Father Rhine, as it is called by the locals, has long been Europe’s most important commercial waterway. Its scenic beauty has inspired countless myths and legends. By introducing vines to the region, the Romans paved the way for the excellent vintages that are a further source of the Rhine’s international reputation.

Mother Mosel, on the other hand, wears a very different moniker. Since the days of the first Romans, over 2000 years ago, the most exquisite asset of the Mosel countryside has remained its wine production. Its Riesling wines are known the world over for their quality and taste.

The Mosel is one of thirteen German wine regions known for quality wines. It is Germany’s third largest in terms of production but some consider it the leading region in terms of international prestige.

The area is known for its steep slopes of the region’s vineyards overlooking the river below. At a 65 degree incline, the steepest recorded vineyard in the world is the Calmont vineyard located on the Mosel and belonging to the village of Bremm.

Because of the northerly location of Mosel, the Riesling wines are often light, tending to lower alcohol, crisp and high in acidity, and often exhibit ‘flowery’ rather than ‘fruity’ aromas. It’s most common vineyard soil is derived in main from various kinds of slate deposits which tend to give the wines a transparent, mineralic aspect, that often exhibit great depth of flavor.

Generations upon generations of craftsmen have nurtured, embellished and refined a giant open-air amphitheater to the honor of Bacchus, the God of Wine. The towering slate cliffs store the day’s warmth for the cool evenings that follow while the grapes ripen at just the right angle to the sun.

In the middle ages, whole villages sprung up that were centered on the region’s wine industry. These ‘wine villages’ included paths from the town center up to the area’s vineyards. Nothing much has changed over the centuries except that now those footpaths have been widened and paved over for heavy transport to ascend the heights to harvest the grapes.

Dating back hundreds of years, castles dot the countryside and add to the beauty and charm of the region.

The castles are a throwback to the age of kings and queens, lowly peasants, feudal lords fighting for territory and knights in dented armor. There are huge castle walls looking down on empty moats and dining halls with their huge oak tables and tapestry on the walls. An age of chivalry and corruption and a rigid caste system. A variable plethora of images for a fertile imagination.

For me, the best part of the Mosel gorge were the periods of cruising its waterways. Ensconced in a lounge chair on top of our ship, I was surrounded by an IMAX presentation of surround sights and sounds and slowly moving images.

It became a place for me to get lost inside my head and let my imagination flourish. A time to reflect, appreciate, access and plan for the future. Different surroundings but same results. A near-silent pass through history as time slipped by and my thoughts turned toward the future.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Desert Modern on Parade

 The Coachella Valley and Palm Springs in particular, have a storied history behind it. Since the early 1920s, Hollywood’s elite and famous hangers-on have been coming to this desert playground for fun and mischief.

 Beginning in the mid-40s, architects originated a design movement specific to the greater Palm Springs area. It became known as Desert Modern or McM (Mid-Century Modern.) Their buildings featured ground-breaking techniques such as post-and-beam supports, floor-to-ceiling glass walls and a wide array of colors to match the surrounding mountains and desert. Now famous architects such as William Krisel, E. Stewart Williams, Albert Frey, William F. Cody, Richard Neutra, and Donald Wexler were among the masters of this design.

Although that Hollywood of old has long since passed away and new tinsel town residents tend to hide in their hideaways Down Valley, Palm Springs has found a way to continue its celebration of that colorful, artful, self-indulgent rite of passage. It’s called Modernism Week.

Modernism Week is a signature event held every February in Palm Springs. This year, it attracted over 120,000 modern architecture lovers from all over the country and the world. There were a host of events to showcase and highlight the very best of modernism designs and trends. There are art fairs, a modernism yard sale, vintage car show, lectures and films on historical Palm Springs architecture, as well as many events at the convention center. One of the highlights of the Week was the neighborhood home tours. Our Indian Canyon neighborhood was included in one of this year’s home tours.

In years past, Sharon and I have volunteered to be docents for these neighborhood visits.

It’s always a great opportunity to meet more of our neighbors and peek in on the lives of the design-conscious, artsy-types who created these one-of-a-kind homes. Those homes are as much a statement as anything else. They speak of great taste in design, opulence, class, and status.

A couple of years ago, we were docents at a home that was built around the allure of the Gabor Sisters.  Over time the tales of its past residents have only grown and become more embellished with each new owner. Famously known as the ‘Gabor House’ this house carries its own colorful banner of ‘Old Palm Springs’ and its connection to the golden era of old Hollywood.

Explaining the Gabor sisters to our younger visitors was like comparing them to the present-day celebrity sensations The Kardashians. No talent, no chemistry, no discernable reason why anyone would care but somehow fans do care about the Kardashians. The Gabor sisters had that same aura about them back then.

The house had been totally remodeled and was stunning in its d├ęcor. It’s a fitting tribute to the glitz and glamor that was old Hollywood. Older visitors seemed genuinely interested in the tales of its past occupants. The newer ones just liked the mid-century design. So it goes in the land of fact and fiction, rumor and innuendo but always a good story to tell.

We also had a chance to visit the West Elm house designed specifically for this year’s Modernism Week. West Elm (a branch of William-Sonoma) offered a home tour of a vacation rental property that had been entirely decorated with West Elm furniture and dressings. They called it The Seven Eighty and it was fun to explore.

It was fascinating to see what had been done to one of these retro houses and how the other half lives. Most of these homes were owned by interior designers…no surprise there. Each was a designer’s delight. Interesting is a safe word to describe some of those settings.

Fortunately, my taste doesn’t lean toward mid-century modern architecture or eclectic furnishings. I’m too old-fashioned for a $10,000 sofa designed by some ancient Italian or a chair made out of Plexiglas. Give me a comfortable chair, a cup of coffee and the mountains as my backdrop. That’s all I need.

But still, it’s fun to look.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Post-Apocalyptic Desert Party

The Coachella Valley is surrounded by two majestic mountain chains; the San Jacinto and San Bernardino sentinels of rock and fame. Within the confines of those surrounding arms lie the fertile fields of the famed desert communities. For decades, these destination spots have hosted seekers of hedonistic pleasures, provided a respite from the realities of ‘back home’ and found time to relax. It’s not a bad way of living if you can afford it.

Yet there are those who can’t afford the rent but still have found fertile grounds for self-examination and expression. Sprinkled liberally among the million dollar second homes and plush fields of plenty are scattered bands of eccentric mind explorers. Their daily ritual is to explore the unexplored jungles of mind and body.

The Valley has always attracted an eclectic assortment of artists, musicians, painters and other veterans of the school of hard knocks. Taken together it’s a mecca for the rich, the famous and the disenfranchised. A kind of sanctuary for soul-searchers seeking their ultimate creative elixir.

Some choose to express themselves in art galleries in the Valley or high desert. Others are off the radar and like it that way. It’s as if there is another world lurking just beneath the surface of shimmering pools, lush green golf courses and cloudless aqua skies. On the opposite end of this Hollywood painting is a massive dead sea, a dying town along its shores, painted mountains and a ‘Mad Max’ getaway. They’re all having a real post-apocalyptic party in the desert. It’s not quite ‘burning man’ but it comes darn close.

The first winds of whispers come from the wastelands surrounding the Salton Sea. Like the siren calls from the high desert, it kept drawing me back for more exploration. Like a resistant drug, fatal attraction, or sinful thought, it is a world that offers the opposite of the known and comfortable.

The high desert of the Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, and Joshua tree continue to attract musicians now as it has since the turn of the century. It’s a place where stillness thunders louder than the wind and God did some of his finest paintings. A vast virtual sound studio for the creative musician.

Joshua tree and its surrounding communities embrace another form of existence; all of which is surrounded by endless horizons. The area is a mecca for aging rock stars, artists and modern-day bohemians along with ordinary people all in search of a new beginning. It’s the place where people go to get lost and be creative.

The high desert of the Morongo Basin is like a modern day outback of more than 9.5 million acres of public land in the California desert. Its home to old walking trails first used by Native Americans between seasonal encampments then followed by Spanish explorers and finally 19th century gold seekers and pioneers. Reminders of past human lives are everywhere.

Abandoned mines litter the area with their relics of past hopes and dreams scattered about the ground. A restored railroad depot stands alone with its tracks still leading nowhere. Ramshackle old cabins planted amid miles of sage and scrub brush, sit isolated and lonely in the desert. The evidence is all here if you can look past the dust and dirt and castles made of boulders to imagine all the past lives that once pasted through this place on the way to a better life. From the vantage point of its surrounding mountains, one can see the sad patch of dirt that was once a vast inland ocean.

The footprint of the Salton Sea edges alongside nowhere, which is north of nothing. It is a briny morass of faded real estate dreams and dead fish scales underfoot. The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake measuring more than 35 miles long and 15 miles wide in spots. It has a surface area of over 380 square miles and sits at 332 feet below sea level.

Through the mid-fifties, the Salton Sea had become a major recreational water resort area for Southern California. But two hurricanes; Kathleen in 1976 and Doreen in 1977, caused such wide-spread damage to neighboring farm lands that the runoff caused a major increase in the salinity of the sea. That, in turn, caused major fish-kills and bird-kills and created such a major issue with noxious odors that residential development came to a stop.

Today the salinity level of the sea stands at 45 ppt. Only the tilapia fish is able to survive in such waters. While fishing is still good for the tilapia, fish kills continue to plague the area with their harsh smells.

I’ve always been intrigued by a dark cluster of trailer homes strewn alongside the Salton Sea half way to Slab City. Its name, ‘Bombay Beach, North Shore,’ always seemed like the perfect title for a play. It is an area replete with mummies at East Jesus, flying dune buggies and land grabbing in Slab City.

Bombay Beach is a dying town that is growing from within its skeleton shell of automobile hulks, fish carcasses littering the shoreline and abandoned structures decaying in the harsh sunlight.

Salvation Mountain is one of the premiere examples of folk art in the middle of nowhere America. The site has become a mecca for those influenced by and intrigued with this kaleidoscope of painted hills, crude cave dwellings, and religious scriptures.

Slab City otherwise known as ‘The Slabs’ is a snowbird campsite used by recreational vehicle owners alongside squatters from across North America. It takes its name from the concrete slabs that remain from an abandoned World War II Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap. Parts of the camp look like a ‘Mad Max’ playground.

It’s estimated that there are about one and fifty permanent residents (squatters) who live in the slabs year around. Some live on government checks, others just want to live ‘off the grid’ and a few come to stretch out their retirement income. The camp has no electricity, no running water, no sewers or toilets and no trash pickup service. Sounds like a dry run for the apocalypse.

Despite the free shoe tree on the way into town and the free library, most of the residents have sectioned off their trailers, tents, and sleeping bags with tires, pallets, or barbwire. Free is free unless it comes to their piece of the desert then even squatters want their personal space recognized.

The artists at East Jesus describe it as an experimental, sustainable art installation. East Jesus is a colloquialism for the middle of nowhere beyond the edge of services. Made from discarded material that has been reused, recycled or repurposed, East Jesus encourages visitors to imagine a world without waste in which every action is an opportunity for self-expression.

West Satan is a simply a suburb of East Jesus. The art gallery there is just as fascinating and mind-expanding. It was tripping out without the acid and a glimpse into the lives of those who don’t want to be a part of ‘any scene’ here in fantasyland or the rest of the world.

I’m not sure why I’m drawn back to this world of outsiders, outcasts and screwed up ones. For the writer in me, it’s fertile ground for story-telling. For the oldster in me, it’s a grim reminder of a road not taken verses the one that brought me here today.

They’re all clusters of inspiration amid the languid and serene beauty of my own nest of creativity.