A Personal Philosophy of Drinking

Keith Richards, who is about to publish a book of his sayings that’ll make him the Yogi Berra of Bohemia, once named his personal hobby band the X-pensive Winos. This handle is an appellation I can subscribe to because for the last…maybe ten years…it’s hard to say exactly, because of the wine, I have more or less limited my consumption of alcohol to wine. It’s not that I’ve taken a modified pledge or anything. I have at least one margarita annually and the occasional beer (probably a Guinness), but after considerable years of trial and error imbibing I came to the conclusion that I was better off sticking with the wine.


One reason I came to this conclusion is that humans have been drinking wine since prehistory, whereas we’ve been drinking distilled spirits for less than a thousand years. From this I speculate that the human liver has had thousands of years more time to adapt to the wine habit. As a believer in evolution I know that we may not have developed the antibodies to deal with flavored vodka, but somehow I’m confident that my body is equipped to handle a liter of Barolo. I also know from experience that spirits present more danger. It’s easier to go too far with them, particularly if you tend to confuse thirst with Thirst. Do shots? That’s okay, darling, I’ll drive.

Another thing about spirits; I know that the sophisticated palette is supposed to like Scotch and cognac and so on. It’s an acquired taste, they say. Whereas I remember my grandma giving me a sip of her beer as a toddler and liking it. Mmm, beer good! I also remember thinking wine wasn’t so good. I later realized that it was probably from a vineyard in Lake Erie. Wine tastes good. But anything you have to put fruit juice in or is “an acquired taste,” I think it’s quite possible that you are fooling yourself. I did go through a period of drinking Scotch about twelve years ago, but that was because I realized I would never have more than one. I know that sounds terribly unsophisticated but it’s the truth. My grandfather, whatever heavenly bar he may be frequenting now, could be disappointed that I have grown gray without ever finishing a martini, but he’d probably give me credit for sticking to my tastes. He did give me my first sips of Château Haut-Brion, the Bordeaux that bears my surname, and Château d’Yquem, so maybe he spoiled me.


When I first embarked on the wino lifestyle I even attempted to drink the fruit of the as the Romans did, diluted with water. I only did this with white wine—I think it would spoil a good red—but most of us have enjoyed a spritzer, and really a spritzer is how the Romans drank—without the ice, of course. (Although if they had snow they would spritz with that.)


In some of the classic literature, drinking wine full-strength is referred to as drinking “Scythian style.” The Scythians, of course, were equestrian, trouser-wearing nomads considered relatively uncivilized, and so this was not a chic practice (nor, we may assume, was the Scythian practice of throwing hemp flowers on their campfires until they giggled.)


There is much to be said for the dilution of wine, particularly when one is making a long evening, or day-and-evening, of it, and I still enjoy spritzing my wine when I have a night during which a clear head is important, and I also still like spritzers in summer before dinner. But I have resorted to Scythian style imbibing, which is really the only way to go when one is dealing with serious vintages.

Serious vintages are also a good way of keeping oneself from overindulging, at least if money is an object for you. I don’t know about Keith Richards, who might be able to drink Petrus out of the bottle like it was Jack Daniels, but I find that if I’m drinking a bottle of Château L’Angélus or Ducru-Beaucaillou, I’m less likely to open that second bottle and then cork a leftover half, and if I do I’ll feel a little guilty. (But I’ll probably have less of a headache than if it was a ten dollar Chianti.)

In monitoring my wine intake I have also observed that if I drink a nice full-bodied red that I will drink less. I love white wine, especially in spritzing season, but it seems that there’s something about white that makes you keep drinking it. I used to think it was a blood sugar thing, but it may just be that there’s something in red that makes one mellow. White is more high-energy hilarity. At least that’s the way it seems with the ladies who lunch. I myself have on numerous occasions regretted that second bottle which seemed to go down so easily. But I never have much problem getting that first glass to go down. Maybe it’s a demon in me, but maybe it’s a healthful impulse. I genuinely believe that a good vintage is one of the finest forms of health food.

The distillation of alcohol, a great scientific breakthrough ironically attributed to the Arabs, and prized by the alchemists and physicians, of course led to the creation of cognac, whiskey, vodka, tequila, all of the drinks we know as spirits, as well as a wide variety of liquors and liqueurs whose origins are in herbal medicine—such as Fernet-Branca, which was discussed here some months ago. (And which we have a sip of now and then for medicinal purposes.) But in some way I can’t help but think that the cultural enthusiasm for liquor as a daily source of alcohol, which probably peaked in the 1950s or 1960s, before the wine revival, is related to what I consider one of the greatest of Western fallacies: the active ingredient.


Today it’s crack not the coca leaf, heroin not opium, and overproof not vino verde. Scientists are always looking for that one thing in the ancient potion that does the trick, but there’s the trick. I remember a kindler, gentler herb before scientifically inclined growers began to believe scientists that THC was the “active ingredient” in cannabis and to disregard other ingredients such as CBD, giving rise to the sensimilla industry and making the naturally benevolent plant into something resembling what its enemies claimed it was.

Today we are finding more and more health claims for wine’s healthy properties, such as its antioxidant effect. Maybe it’s time we start believing that old Bacchus knew a thing or two.

My house wine? I almost hesitate to say, but we seem to be running toward Château Brillette, a nice, well-balanced Cru Bourgeois Haut-Médoc that rated a “90” from Wine Spectator for the 2005 vintage and costs under $30. That’s enough to keep me from swilling it like water. When it comes to white we’re pouring: Kratos by Luigi Maffini, which, despite its Greek name, is a Fiano that comes from Campania, and costs about $20. I’m also keen on a white Torrontes called Crios from Argentina, made by the talented winemaker Susana Balbo. It’s about $16 and unbelievably heady and complex in a floral way. The cats who make Sassacaia turned me on to it.

I wonder what Keith is pouring tonight.

Auguries of the Inauguration


Inaugurate comes from augury, and it means to take auguries or auspices from the flight of birds, and to install after making such observations of the creatures of the air. Once upon a time the installation of a leader would have involved getting the priests together and watching how the birds flew around the buildings. Today, of course, we ignore the birds unless they shit all over the architecture or bring down an Airbus, but I do think that the arrival of a new leader should be accompanied by some form of augury. I am completely untrained in analyzing the flight of birds, but I have gotten interested in the subject. When I was involved in throwing a big party at the Miami Museum of Art around Art Basel I got completely distracted by the turkey buzzards perched on the tall building shaped like a Mexican pyramid overlooking the plaza, and the loopy flights of the big birds who seemed to be watching the inflation of a sixty-foot Jeff Koons balloon there.

Of course, with the new urban landscape it's not so easy to observe the birds, but I still get a thrill out of watching a big cloud of them move as a single organism, and I can see how there seems to be some manifestation of a higher power in their actions—it is a fine model of how a group of seeming individuals can move in unison as a single entity. And that, of course, is what res publica is all about, no?

So for lack of birds and actually being present at the inauguration in Washington, which with its neo-classical buildings so closely resembles an ancient capital like Rome or Athens where augury was routinely practiced: The only birds I was able to observe were the whirlybirds, particularly "Marine One," the presidential helicopter that took President George W. Bush away from the scene of his crimes. Over the sound of the rotors you could hear a chant go up in the crowd, "Nananana nananana hey hey goodbye." It sounded marvelous. And I also took augury from what is generally considered to be "for the birds"—fashion.


The Obamas looked marvelous at the inauguration. They departed from what would have strictly traditional garb, dispensing with morning clothes for men in favor of simple business suits. And for the inaugural balls Mr. Obama improvised his own formal ensemble, combining a white tie with a tuxedo, a notched-lapel tuxedo with flap pockets at that.


He is a man of his times, not traditional but traditionalesque. He cuts a very dashing figure, but I would have preferred peak lapels, no flaps, and less of a spread collar on his formal shirt.


For all the Lincoln symbolism that Mr. Obama invoked I would have liked to see him sport a topper at his inauguration. John Kennedy actually wore one to his, as you can see here, and then dispensed with it, no doubt wishing to avoid the dreaded "hat hair" look afflicting his famous locks, and ushering in a half-century of male hatlessness. There weren't that many hats in evidence on the dais, thought some in the crowd made concessions to the cold by covering up, including President George H.W. Bush. Poppy wore a a turtleneck and a trooper hat with earflaps (fox?). Teresa Heinz Kerry wore a fur hat big enough for a Cossack. The most bizarre look was the baseball cap sported by Senator Joseph Lieberman. I couldn’t read what it said on it. I don't think it said "Tuskeegee Airman." Maybe, "What, me worry?"


Mr. Cheney, who arrived in a wheelchair, wore a rather sinister black fedora with its brim turned down, evoking Darth Vader comments.


Senator Kennedy looked well, although he suffered a seizure at lunch, arriving in a beautiful fedora with its brim turned up optimistically and a sky-blue muffler. Justice Scalia looked bizarre in a beret and earmuffs, as if he were imitating Erasmus. His attire was, dare I say it, impeachable, while Justice Kennedy also looked bizarre in a black English driving cap with earflaps. Justice Stevens also seemed to be wearing an exotic black hat; and Jimmy Carter sported what appeared to be a driving or golf cap, in brown. I guess Presidents deserve some sort of fashion pardon, but Carter, Bush 41, and Clinton, in a bright yellow scarf, all looked like they were dressed for the Army-Navy game. Or was it Harvard-Yale?


Mrs. Obama was unimpeachable in a beautiful gold ensemble of satin-backed, wool guipure lace designed by the wonderful Isabel Toledo. She looked regal but unpretentious, and her daughters looked immaculate in their bright colored coats, apparently from J.Crew, a nice populist touch.



Later, at the balls, Mrs. Obama wore a sparkling off-white long dress with one shoulder strap designed by the 26-year-old Jason Wu. Robert Verdi, a so called style expert commentator who wore blue sunglasses on top of his bald head while he prated on television, complained that she was wearing a silhouette that had been worn before (by Nancy Reagan who wore a one-shouldered Galanos gown), and suggested that she should have been wearing a halter top. She looked divine especially when the POTUS gave her a spin as they danced at each of the ten balls they attended. It seems that Mrs. Obama will be a most unpredictably fashionable first lady who's not afraid to go with new and underdog designers.


The Vice President looked sharp, as usual; in fact he looked better than usual because his hair wasn't doing that flip in back like it did at some of the debates, and his Chesterfield overcoat and black silk scarf were a nice elegant touch. All in all the new administration looked very sharp. I would advise Rahm Emanuel to wear a white shirt in 2013, but he still looked cute. This group has the potential to be the greatest administration of them all, or at least during the memories of the living. It was an auspicious start. The birds seem to be singing today.

And Mr. President, if you need a Chief of Protocol, the Style Guy is available.

Recession and White-Collar Crime

As we embark on a new administration in Washington, I think that we should also look back—back to the beginnings of Democracy. Transitioning from a presidency that aspired to imperial powers, and that transgressed constitutional limits, it is perhaps instructive to study how the first Democrats dealt with the opponents of Democracy.

As I reflect on the turbulence of those early days when freedom for the masses arose, I keep fixing on a single symbolic image. The guillotine.


This dramatic device, which neatly separated heads from bodies, was adopted by the French National Assembly at the suggestion of one of its members, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who believed that the legitimate purpose of execution was the ending of a life, not torturing the designated decedent. Under the king aristocrats had been executed by the axe, while common folk were subject to long, cruel procedures—being hanged, broken on the wheel, or burned at the stake.

Obviously we do not wish to return to such barbarous practices, but when dealing with the systematic abuse of one class by another, it might be worth considering the elimination of a determined, deeply entrenched conspiracy of criminals. We haven’t had such an action since the Nuremburg Trials, in which the Nazis were tried for crimes against humanity and many went to the gallows; but now, confronted with an illegal government which may prove to have resulted from a bureaucratic coup d’etat, a cabal which systematically ignored and perverted the most basic tenets of our system and which used the machinery of government to favor and enrich a certain class at the expense of all others, perhaps it is an opportune time to reintroduce capital punishment for crimes of capital.


How does one prevent a recurrence of the events which lead to the economic collapse of our country, an event which threatens global economic collapse and misery for billions? One must create an indelible impression that such behavior will not be tolerated. And how better to do this than to reintroduce the guillotine as a reminder that one class must never exploit another? Imagine the “Irish Maiden” set up on the steps of the Federal Reserve Bank down on Wall Street as the worst offenders in the recent history of white-collar crime are dealt with. Would Mr. Madoff’s head on a pike serve as a warning to investment bankers that we do not take Ponzi schemes lightly?


We live in a society where ghetto residents, unable to find legitimate work, are routinely handed jail sentences of decades for selling people drugs that they want. Meanwhile, executives whose crimes have repercussions for millions of people are routinely fined in amounts that are miniscule compared to the sums they have stolen or caused to vanish. I don’t think that we need to go as far as the French did in the late eighteenth century. After all, we have television, which will efficiently amplify the educational effect of such removals of criminal financiers and politicians. The Reign of Terror, which saw the execution of many thousands in France between 1793 and 1794, would hardly be necessary today. A few neo-Cons and a few top Wall Street criminals going under the blade would probably serve as adequate warning that we will never again tolerate this sort of looting on a mass scale.


Two or three guillotines would probably be enough. Perhaps one on Wall Street, one on the Mall in the District of Columbia, and another at Mount Rushmore would be enough. I quite like this guillotine bearing the Chanel logo designed by my friend, the artist Tom Sachs. Not only could we sell the advertising rights to a luxury company, but it would serve as a reminder to the greedy and unscrupulous that the path to luxury is fraught with peril if one wanders off the righteous path, and infringes on the paths of others—and that society has the right and power to curtail and correct such a course.