THE PRESTIGE FACTOR
Archive for the ‘Living’ Category
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In Piedmont, Seasons of Truffles and Barolo
By ERIC PFANNER
Published: October 28, 2011
The interest in food grows especially intense in the fall, harvest season for the Alba white truffle. For a few weeks in October and November, these pungent-smelling tubers, unearthed from the forests around Alba by wizened hunters with specially trained dogs, are sold in a market in the old city center. There, the truffles are prodded, sniffed and haggled over before changing hands at breathtaking prices.
The fall is also the season of Barolo, the great wine produced in hillside vineyards from a cluster of villages southwest of Alba: La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba and Barolo itself. As truffle season arrives, so do the autumn mists that are said to have given the late-harvested Barolo grape variety, nebbiolo, its name. (“Nebbia” means fog in Italian.)
Like food, wine arouses passions here. For more than two decades, the so-called Barolo wars raged, pitting traditional producers of the wine against modernizing winemakers in what each side saw as a struggle for the soul of Barolo. Fortunately, a cease-fire finally seems to be taking hold.
What was there to fight over? Barolo is one of the most complex, aromatic and delicious red wines in the world. At its best, it has the delicate fruit of Burgundy, the age-worthiness of Bordeaux and a broad register of flavors, from cherries to dried flowers to eucalyptus to Darjeeling tea, that is entirely its own.
Yet Barolo is also one of the hardest wines to handle, for winemakers and consumers alike.
Traditionally, Barolos were made in a way that emphasized the tannins, the astringent, mouth-puckering substances that give serious red wines their structure, but that also make them difficult to enjoy before they have spent many years in a cellar. The problem with some old-school Barolos was that by the time the tannins softened, the fruit and the color had faded, robbing the drinker of any pleasure.
“People talk about all these great old Barolos from the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s,” said Fabio Fantino, the winemaker at the Conterno Fantino estate, which was founded by his father and a partner. “But in any of those decades there are only two or three vintages that you can still drink. We have only one life to drink wine.”
To try to make their wines more approachable, the so-called modernists imported new methods from France. They shortened the period of maceration, in which the skins from crushed grapes soak in the juice, as well as the fermentation. They encouraged the wines to undergo a second fermentation, which converts harsh malic acid to gentler lactic acid. And they started aging their wines in small oak barrels, known as barriques, bucking the local tradition that favored giant casks.
These and other changes produced wines that are softer, rounder and deeper in flavor and color. But some winemakers overdid things, producing wines that were virtually indistinguishable from other plush, oaky reds, like California cabernet sauvignon. A number of winemakers added grapes like cabernet or merlot to their nebbiolo; under Italian wine regulations, this cost them the right to call the resulting wines Barolo.
Barreling Through Barolo (October 29, 2011)
Eric Pfannner/International Herald Tribune
The new style impressed some wine critics, but didn’t always fare well with consumers. Barolo is a food wine, rather than one made for easy drinking, but traditional producers say modern methods sometimes compromised its ability to accompany fine cuisine.
“Restaurants tell me that when you have one bottle of traditional Barolo on the table, and one bottle of modern, the traditional bottle is empty first,” said Paola Rinaldi, who runs Francesco Rinaldi & Figli, a producer that stuck with older methods as others veered off in new directions. “Fifteen years ago it was harder to sell these wines, but at the moment, people are looking for something that is distinctive and different.”
She added, with a note of triumph, that many producers who embraced modern techniques are now backtracking a bit — for example, trading in their barriques for larger barrels, which impart less oak influence on the wine as it ages. At the same time, Ms. Rinaldi’s wines seem to reflect a bit of modernity in their richness and approachability — at least those of the newly released 2007 vintage, which produced unusually ripe nebbiolo grapes.
Indeed, across the region, a convergence of styles seems to be under way, which is good news for anyone who loves Barolo. A majority of the wines tasted on an autumn visit to the region defied easy categorization. They were full of fruit and energy, yet elegant and refined, with only subtle oak influences. Are these wines traditional or modern? Does it matter?
Some of my favorite producers of the wine, like Vietti in Castiglione Falletto, have long employed methods that blend the best of old and new. Vietti, for example, puts some of its Barolos into barriques for a few months, where the malolactic fermentation takes place, then transfers them into larger casks to age.
Chiara Boschis, who was considered a modernist when she took over the E. Pira & Figli winery in Barolo a little more than two decades ago, said labels like traditional and modern were never entirely accurate.
“A lot of people just didn’t understand these things,” she said. “They were calling us modernists. No! We were just a group of friends who wanted to make the best wine in the world.”
At the time, Ms. Boschis was one of only a handful of female vintners in Barolo. Some of the locals viewed her with suspicion, especially when she introduced progressive winemaking techniques like “green harvesting” — clipping unripe bunches from the vines early in the growing season in order to concentrate flavors in the remaining grapes.
“People were saying to my father, ‘What happened? Did she hit her head on the wall?’ ” said Ms. Boschis. “He was doing the calculations and saying, ‘This is how much money you are losing.’ The grapes that I cut off — I felt like I had to eat them off the floor.”
These days, Ms. Boschis is content to leave the discarded grapes where they fall. Her wines attract critical acclaim, and commensurate prices. Barolo is not cheap. (We’ll be looking at some less expensive alternatives from Piedmont in my next column, in two weeks.)
While producers like Ms. Boschis say the Barolo Wars are passé, the question of traditional versus modern production has not been resolved everywhere. One such place is the home of Virna Borgogno.
Ms. Borgogno is a proudly traditionalist winemaker, but she is married to a modern-style producer, Giovanni Abrigo, who makes Barbaresco, Barolo’s main rival for fame in Piedmont.
Ms. Borgogno’s winery, called Virna, and her husband’s estate, named Orlando Abrigo, share the same cellars.
“We taste together, we discuss the problems of vinification,” Ms. Borgogno said. “But the choice of style remains our own.”
GOD bless America!
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Why Airline Stewardesses Aren’t Hot Anymore
Glen Whitman asks why there are fewer startlingly beautiful flight attendants any more:
For an economist, the most fascinating aspect of Pan Am is the highly attractive flight attendants — or rather, stewardesses, since the show is set in the early 1960s. If you’re young enough, you might think that’s just TV. But I’m just old enough to remember flying in the 1970s, and I recall stewardesses who really were, in fact, hot. Okay, I was too young to understand the concept of “hot” — but I was definitely aware that I was being attended by some very pretty young women.
Not so anymore. Flight attendants aren’t necessarily unattractive now, but they’re no more fetching than people in any other service profession that doesn’t get tips. And what’s changed? In a word, deregulation.
Prior to airline deregulation, which was passed in 1978 and completed over the next few years, airfares had been set by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). For many routes, those airfares were simply too high. As predicted by a simple supply-and-demand model, airlines were willing to offer more flights at these high prices than customers were willing to buy. Under normal market conditions, that would lead to falling prices. But since the airlines legally could not compete on price, they competed on quality instead. They offered better service, better food, and… wait for it… more attractive stewardesses.
When deregulation came along, however, it became apparent that as much as male customers might have enjoyed the eye candy, they weren’t willing to pay for it. Higher quality might seem like a good thing, but it’s really only good if the benefits exceeds the cost. More attractive staff can command higher wages. The airlines could have continued to pay them, if the higher quality had attracted more customers. But as it turns out, most people just wanted to get where they were going, fast and cheap. Deregulation fueled a democratization of air travel, making what once was a luxury item available to nearly everyone. The number of people who fly at least once a year has more than doubled since 1978, while the population has grown by about 40%. These new customers have flocked to the airlines with no-frills or low-frills service, a trend that continues to this day (JetBlue, anyone?).
As a libertarianish economics blogger, I would love if this story were true. But I’m skeptical. Stewardesses used to be subject to all sorts of extremely strict rules: they couldn’t be married, couldn’t gain weight, couldn’t get pregnant, couldn’t be much over 30. If you fire everyone who violates those rules, then yes, you will select for a much “hotter” group of women than the current crop.
You could probably still get a large group of young, hot women to take a job that involves free flights all around the world. But those jobs are no longer open, because airlines stopped firing all the old, fat parents. Thanks to a combination of feminist shaming, union demands, and anti-discrimination laws. Moreover, once they no longer fired people over a certain age, union seniority rules immediately started selecting for older workers, in two ways: layoffs are usually last hired first fired, and older people have a lot of sunk costs in terms of pension accrual and seniority, so they’re less likely to leave. If you fly a major airline, you’ll notice very few stewardesses in their twenties.
In the 1970s, these trends would have been playing out; most stewardesses were still young. Now they’re lifers. Any new airline can create a better looking workforce by hiring good-looking workers. But it can’t guarantee that they’ll stay hot. When the workforce is unionized and in it for the . . . pardon the pun . . . long haul, eventually you end up with what we’ve got: a workforce composed mostly of older and not particularly attractive people. Mirroring the larger American workforce.
You can argue that deregulation hastened this by making price discrimination fiercer, so that there were more layoffs, and airlines were less able to offer a wage premium that would attract better looking workers. But I suspect this played a minor role–less important than other trends, like the mass movement of women into the workforce. Fewer women were looking for a job that would let them travel for a few years before they got married, and there were better alternatives for a long-term career. Moreover, the changing workplace meant there were more female business travelers on expensive tickets–and they usually don’t care whether the stewardess has a nice rack.
If you look at the national airlines in countries where anti-discrimination rules and/or unions are less powerful, like Qatar or Asia, you’ll notice that they spend a lot of time here advertising . . . their hot stewardesses. (Also their lay-flat seats. But don’t forget the super-hot stewardesses). That’s not because they’re in an oligopoly. It’s because the domestic labor market lets them get away with it, and ours doesn’t.
Where would you rather be?
Tyler Brule FT.com
A couple of days in Rio or São Paulo can work wonders for anyone feeling they’re about to lose their groove
I f you reside in the northern hemisphere and feel you’re about to come down with a terrible case of the autumn blues mixed with an attack of the economic shakes then there’s a very simple, effective prescription – book a ticket to Brazil. Sunny personalities, fine hospitality and booming economyaside, a couple of days in Rio or São Paulo can work wonders for anyone feeling they’re about to lose their groove.
If you live in Perm or Chennai or Chengdu and are about to start rattling out an e-mail in defence of your motherland, save your energy. First, you’ll be waging an argument with a fierce Brazil fan and not a big booster of Russia, India, or China. Second, you’ll have to ask yourself – who is the strongest soft superpower? Third, you’ll have to be very honest with yourself and recognise that you may be embarking on a futile debate.
Without even trying I can list at least 20 brands, personalities, establishments and forces I love about Brazil. From the ground up I like the Made in Brazil pride of Havaianas flip-flops (they’ve now done Japanese-style socks so you can wear them like a good German or Kyotoite), neighbourhood street-markets on a Sunday, the kiosks along Ipanema, the simplicity of the sunga (the Brazilian version of a pair of Speedos), the functional style of the VW Brasilia, the architecture of modern talents Isay Weinfeld and Marcio Kogan, the restaurants and hotels of Rogerio Fasano, Livraria la Vila bookstores, Piaui magazine, the cool sounds of Barbara Mendes, Bebel Gilberto, Taryn Szpilman, Marcela Mangabeira, Marcelo Rezende and Liz Menezes, the D Dock News magazine store in São Paulo, the furniture of Sergio Rodrigues, Rio’s jolly mayor Eduardo Paes and the aircraft of Embraer.
With Russia, India and China combined I’m struggling to come up with three. I like Air India’s iconic maharajah mascot but I don’t want to fly the airline. I like Russian pickles but I have a suspicion that they probably all come from Georgia.
As for China? It’s tough, in part because I still haven’t been. While I keep trying to get there for business reasons, it’s yet to happen. Part of the problem is that I’m always alarmed by meetings (these take place in Hong Kong) and conference calls that suggest I’ll need to do things the “Chinese way”. When I ask what exactly a potential client means by the “Chinese way” I’m lectured about having to be sensitive to Chinese culture and that any work I might undertake in China has to have a serious appreciation of Chinese history and tradition. As these discussions frequently involve issues about design and architecture I’m often left wondering why I’ve even been contacted in the first place when the people sitting in Dalian know I’m in London, that Brûlé isn’t a name from Sichuan province and I’m not big on red lacquer, jade or snorting dragons.
Several months ago I decided it was time to make amends and open a Monocle shop in Beijing. I was quite excited about the concept until I was informed that we wouldn’t be able to sell our magazine in Beijing as it required a special licence. We still opened the shop, but visitors are only allowed to buy our other merchandise and are only permitted to browse through the magazine. Need I say more?
While I was in São Paulo last week, our magazine was selling briskly – for £22 ($35) a copy and no one was asking us to pay for a licence. When I asked a kiosk owner if we shouldn’t work on lowering the price he said Brazilian consumers didn’t really care about the price. “If they like it, they buy it. People are hungry to find out about opportunities around the world,” he explained. “That’s why we sell out of the FT, Monocle and The Economist. We’re on a shopping spree.”
While much is made of the Chinese shopping boom and high spending Russians, it’s the Brazilians that get hotel managers and managers of airline revenue excited. “I don’t really know where the rich Chinese stay as they don’t stay with us,” a hotel general manager in Milan recently told me. “The Brazilians are a whole other story. They check-in, they spend and they’re fun. They’re now the highest spenders per night across our entire group.”
While Brazilians are on a spending spree abroad, they’d be wise to invest a little more at home. Social issues and the associated security problems need to be tackled, creaking infrastructures in São Paulo and Rio need to be addressed urgently and then there are the logistical challenges that come with airports and public transport networks that are well past their sell-by dates. As Beijing breaks ground on a nine-runway airport, the federal and state governments in Brazil are still dithering about how to tackle the country’s growing aviation sector and what shape it should take.
Security and transport issues aside, if I was going to pack up and head for greener pastures it would most definitely involve a boarding pass with the airport designation GRU or GIG printed in bold.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
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