Local passport: Astoria

Memorial Day

THE RECENT ONLINE CAMPAIGN conducted by Partners in Preservation raised some interesting issues about haves and have-nots. Backed by a $3 million corporate donation, the organization invited people to vote for one of 40 restoration projects throughout the five boroughs. The sites ranged from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Brooklyn Public Library to an obscure statue in Queens (the Rocket Thrower) and an A.M.E. church in Staten Island.

I faithfully voted for sites in Queens, my borough of residence nearly every day of the month-long campaign. In the end, four of the five sites in Queens finished in in the lower one quarter of the rankings. My favored site never hovered about rank No. 27 (1% of the vote).  The Louis Armstrong House Museum performed best, finishing at No. 13 (2.66%). Was it voter apathy in Queens? An unawareness of the campaign or the sites? Or, did the voting reflect the acumen of people with large online networks who could spread the word and the votes?

Because of where I live and what I report on, I hear plenty of complaints about Queens not getting its share of the attention: Our landmarks are ignored, our cultural institutions are under the radar … Here was a chance to make a difference and few stepped up to do that.

I was intrigued with the Astoria Dive Pool, which landed in the latter half of the overall popular vote. I grew up swimming in fresh-water lakes in northern Vermont, so pools have always been a luxurious novelty to me. My mother, a New York City kid, spent her summers in these large pools, where she remembers having to rent her bathing suit.

The dive pool sits near the larger pool where my mother may have learned to swim. It’s one of 11 New Deal swimming holes constructed under Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, himself an avid swimmer. It’s said that Moses had a particular affinity towards this complex, and equipped it with state-of-the-art amenities and sanitation systems. It’s no small irony that the safe haven overlooks the treacherous Hell Gate strait. A long-abandoned relic, now the pool collects stagnant water and attracts mosquitoes and askance looks.

It’s also attracted the attention of city and community officials who want to restore the Art Modern diving tower—the only one of its kind in the city—and transform the pool into a performance space. It’s already set up for spectaculars: the 1936 and 1964 Olympic diving trials were held here, and in the 1940s, the Aquazines, a swim and stunt team performed here. The online fundraising campaign asked for $250,000 to restore the graceful tower, which cantilevers over the pool. You can read my story for the Wall Street Journal here if you’re a subscriber or here for the PDF.

Beyond the Olympics, the pool is a crumbling reminder of Queens’ diving history: Johnny Weismuller, Eleanor Holm, Esther Williams and Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, all performed at the Aquacade at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. They all made stops in Astoria.

With a westward view of the Manhattan skyline framed by the Hell Gate and Robert F. Kennedy bridges, the site is unlike any other along the waterfront. An amphitheater here could not only restore cachet to the historic spot, it could also give Astoria a distinction outside the narrow view that the neighborhood is all “Greek to me.” (Yes, that joke, along with “do I need my passport?” gets real old. Maybe the numerous comedians who live here can come up with a new line.)

Though lots of people know about Astoria’s siren charms, they keep them to themselves like a secret handshake among the initiated. And so Astoria sustains its reputation as destination for Souvlaki or its Slovak beer garden, lodged in a space that isn’t quite like Archie Bunker’s Queens and definitely not Truman Capote’s Brooklyn.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the old-worldliness of the neighborhood, but I experience occasional twinges of Brooklyn envy. That borough proved that Manhattan no longer has a presumptive status when it comes to culture, gastronomy or quality of life. Here’s a chance for Astoria to have its own come-uppance. We are a neighborhood of great potential, derelict landmarks (the World’s Fair pavilion, the rapidly disappearing antebellum mansions, the nearby Steinway Mansion), and a muffled desire to somehow combine the two.

The performance space will happen, but the tower will by only stabilized, not restored. In a couple of years, people will watch Shakespeare against a dramatic backdrop and maybe wonder why the tower is “not quite” or “definitely not.”

Vintage photos: Queens Historical Society, The Bowery Boys

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Local passport: NYC

IF I WEREN’T FORCED into the modern age by my profession, which requires spending time with all things digital, I might chose, instead, to roam the world (or the world that is New York City) with an analog camera.

I did that for a long time, until the photo darkroom where I printed for nearly eight years recently closed its T.A. program. During that time, I and about 35 other film fanatics, shared a community darkroom at Pratt Institute, and a love for the black & white print. It sounds precious, yes, but anyone who has ever made a print feels a small heart tug recalling the dreamy, slow sliding of an image onto blank paper.

The darkroom, a place where all you did is count the time—nine-second exposures at the enlarger, two minutes in developer and fixer—also created a time warp. A day in the photo lab was a snug asylum away from the pressures of the bright modern world, and whenever I emerged with a blotter book full of damp prints, I was calm and neutral as if, in those hours, an even exchange between creating art and purging anxiety had passed through me.

So, today, I write about two recently published stories about photos and love. Last month, I did a roundup for The Wall Street Journal of film-based photo shows around town, finding that film is alive in all sorts of curious ways and places. I interviewed people who see analog as a relic and people who combine it with digital technologies. All fine. That story posted the night before Eastman Kodak declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Strange timing. [WSJ story here]

One show I purposely did not mention is the current exhibition at the International Center of Photography, “The Loving Story: Photographs by Grey Villet.” The small exhibition, as everyone now knows, features 23 prints of Mildred and Richard Loving, the interracial couple who sued the Commonwealth of Virginia for the right to live in their home state as husband and wife. LIFE magazine assigned Villet to the story in 1965.

Even though it had a good track record covering civil rights, LIFE held the story and when it published it the next year, used only a few images.  At that point, the Lovings were making news—on their way to the U.S. Supreme Court,  but it was also a time when only 4 percent of the population approved of interracial relationships. LIFE played it safe holding the essay until it was a news story, and then, showing a loving (no pun) family waiting in limbo.

What didn’t run are images Villet shot in his characteristic invisible style, capturing a determined couple in love, yes, but a couple also in pain, in negotiation and in fear. The images are intensely personal, shot as though Villet were flitting about—not as a fly on the wall, but as a darting and dipping bird who could get incredibly close to its targets without making them duck. [more images]

Villet died in 2002 without ever obtaining the fame his LIFE colleagues did. Though he shared a masthead and roamed the halls with the most renown shooters of his day, he stayed the fly on the wall.

By all accounts that was as he wanted it. I contacted his former colleagues from 40 or 30 years ago and without exception they all said “great photographer, terrible self-promoter.”

Now that posthumous task is up to his widow, Barbara, who still lives in the house they bought in 1961. She’s made it her life’s work to ensure her husband gets the acclaim he deserved. She invited me and WSJ photographer Daniella Zalcman to her home 200 miles north of New York City to see his photo archive.

Barbara Villet’s 19th-century house is a tumble of rooms filled with photos and her husband’s sculptures (Grey was a talented wood carver and bronze caster), so it seems that he’s never far. Her bed, awkwardly positioned in the middle of the bedroom, takes advantage of the wide river view through a wall of windows out back. There is a stone marker in her backyard with her husband’s name on it.

GREY VILLET LIKED ANGELS. A stylized wood-carved angel bearing a long trumpet hangs above the desk in Barbara’s studio. You can make the symbolic connection. He was also a furniture-maker. In her studio, there’s an rough-hewn old-fashioned flip-top student desk upon which he carved, “Where do the winds blow your words?” It’s where she stores his assignment sheets from LIFE—oversized pages typed out in uneven courier, some stained with cat pee.

Mugs, a highly protective rescue dog, trots around after his mistress, planting himself at her feet when she sits and throwing low, throaty grumbles our way when we get too close. He shares the premises with two cats—one chosen and the other an insistent stray that strangely won her over. She had tried to rid herself of him several times, but recalled that her husband once told her he wanted to come back in another life as a cat. The two have since settled into each other.

And that’s how Barbara describes her relationship with her husband. They met on assignment and knew within three days they would marry (he knew on day 1, but it took her two more to come around to the idea). “We were joined at the hip,” she said more than once in the several conversations I had with her.

More than husband and wife, they were a journalistic team that worked in sync to produce some of LIFE’s memorable stories: “The Lash of Success” (in an anthology of LIFE’s greatest essays), a 50-page essay covering three generations of a Vermont family, and many other deep and humanistic examinations of American society.

“Working with him was magic! My job was to listen and to get the words. We both favored what people were doing and saying, and not ourselves. So I was big on getting as many verbatim quotes and listening, listening, listening to what people said while he was watching, watching, watching what they said with their hearts. It was really very easy to work with Grey. I never had any strain at all with him. For some reason, it was like sensibilities and we both knew it.

“Grey used to say a photographer must feel what is happening before he hits the shutter.”

Then the shutter stopped clicking. When LIFE ended, so did a significant part of their charmed career.

“He was very ill at first after LIFE folded because it was like standing on a pinnacle and then the whole thing collapsed under him, you know. But we weathered it. And then we got the Airstream and that was a godsend for both of us. We packed it up and went to Mexico. We were a pair of gypsies. He didn’t shoot anything. He did carvings on the way. I don’t think I did anything but read. We just lazed around.

“If you were to meet him for the first time, he would be so self-effacing and quiet. You would have no idea of the level of talent. He always put everybody else at ease. He put what they had to tell him first. And whether it was visually or in fact what they had to say. He was just really interested in everybody else. In fact, really interested in life.  And so this made him very special because that generosity of spirit is why he could disappear.”

PDF story here [WSJ] // Daniella Zalcman’s slideshow here // Multimedia essay here

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Local passport: NY signs of the times

LAST MONTH I WROTE about two projects by New Yorkers that chronicle disappearing signs of the city. Frank Jump, a Facebook friend via preservation circles, recently published a book on the city’s fading painted signs—those giant advertising banners on the sides of buildings for tonics, elixers, food stuffs and whatever else was the currency of that particular neighborhood, such as needles and zippers in the fashion district.  Franks’ project, interestingly, also parallels his own observation of a life disappearing: He is a cancer survivor and living with AIDS, which he says is now stabilized. Frank’s vital signs are OK, but those he’s documented on the outside will eventually slip from our notice through neglect or the crush of the ever-developing city.

I can’t remember how I heard about Project Neon, but Kirsten Lively’s documentation of all that glows aptly suits her name. She shows us a New York at night that many of us just walk by, taking for granted these glowing treasures. Grimy and dull by day, neon owns the night and, in turn, harkens others who want to do their business or pleasure when the sun goes down.

Living in a lighted city, I had forgotten what I love about old neon: the lazy and unpredictable glide of gasses through the tubing, the irreplicable colors (there’s no “neon pink” in the Crayola box), and the unique type styling.

But I love it most as the quintessential beacon to night’s pleasures—an illumination into places that are otherwise dark, a promise of excitement, the chance to create your own giddy film noir moment. You can read it at wsjonline.com or download the PDF here.

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Annie sez

I KNEW THE IMAGES before I knew the photographer—the iconic pictures of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Demi Moore and my favorite, a sassy Ella Fitzgerald with a leopard skin tucked under her arm.

 And then sometime in the 90s,  anyone following pop culture or photography or seeing Vanity Fair on the newsstand, saw Annie Leibovitz become as celebrated as the people she shot.

I met her last week at Pace Gallery—me jet-lagged from travel in Italy and she doubly distracted by the hanging of her show (in town only three days, a sort of pop-up show), and her daughter’s dental surgery. We sat on the floor of the gallery and talked about her new work, which, while about famous people, doesn’t include any.

Her new book, “Pilgrimage” peeks inside the spaces of people she admires, and documents the things they left behind. The images set up narratives that seemed as though someone just left the frame. In some scenarios it looked like the owners of these goods were coming back in some kind of time-travel fantasy—Georgia O’Keefe might pick up her pastels, Annie Oakley might step into her riding boots and stride off or Emily Dickinson would slip her prim, embroidered dress over her head. Other stories you couldn’t imagine a life re-activated: the top hat and blood-stained gloves Abraham Lincoln wore on this last night to the theater.

The book also includes landscapes, but I think these intimate looks into the lives of others are more curious.

You can read the story from The Wall Street Journal two ways: PDF of the online story or PDF of the print version (recommended for the visuals alone).

Photo of Annie Leibowitz: Julie Glassberg for The Wall Street Journal

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Local passport: Iran in SoHo

THIS WEEK I had the anxiety-turned-into-pleasure of interviewing Shirin Neshat, an internationally acclaimed multimedia artist. Anxiety because I admire her work and knew she was knowledgeable and articulate about so many worldly things I was not: religion, feminism, gender politics, geo-politics. In my usual line of work, I talk with community leaders, preservationists and winemakers more often than art stars.

Ms. Neshat’s latest work includes a performance piece and upcoming photography exhibition inspired by both the 2009 Green Revolution during the Iranian election and the Arab Spring uprisings this year. These were events that I could place a map pin to, but little else.

Ramin Talaie, the photographer assigned to this story is, by coincidence, also Iranian and a long-time admirer of Ms. Neshat. I was glad to have him along to break the ice and be available to fill in if the conversation halted. (His first act of service was to correct my pronunciation as we waited to be buzzed into her SoHo studio. Whew.)

I didn’t have to worry about the conversation limping along. After fussing a little bit with her jewelry and fretting over a bad night’s sleep, Ms. Neshat was eager to discuss a multitude of issues—and with a surprising freshness, as if she hadn’t already been asked these questions by 100 other reporters. Perhaps that’s because she sees herself as a chameleon, changing forms instead of colors, so the questions and the issues are never exactly the same.

Here are a few Q and As from our conversation. More appears in my interview with Ms. Neshat in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal.

 Do you considering yourself a change agent?

That’s a very interesting idea because I’m so restless, I keep turning a new page in myself as if there’s something in me that can’t stand being the same. but look at me, I wear the same makeup, there are certain things that don’t change in me, but I keep being afraid of being repetitive. Maybe you’re right. There’s an anxiety in me that keeps making me want to turn a new page.

It’s interesting you brought up anxiety. I expected curiosity.

I have a lot of anxiety—literally. And I have a lot of curiosity. I think that this curiosity and anxiety is what is at the heart of my art. Its what drives me to … Shoja [my husband] often tells me if you try to neutralize this anxiety, probably neutralize your imagination.

But I am immensely curious and I’m an immensely hard worker, meaning it’s not just work that is intuitively based but work that is hard-earned. I do a lot of research, I do my homework. I’m very conscious of the fact that there’s me as a person then there’s this world and all that it comes with …  and we meet somewhere in the middle.

 You have sharper edge and definition of who you’re representing and why? Is that a woman, an artist, an Iranian or an exile?

It’s all of them, I think. I have a strong affinity with Iranian women’s plight today. I think they continue to remain heroic in the context of what is happening. They constantly inspired me as really amazing beings as young women from older women in terms of artistically, in terms of intellectually, the activism point of view. As an artist, yes, I think I am part of the art, the cultural … the activist you would say. I am part of that community where our work has become a great threat to the country of Iran, to the government.

It gives me a great pleasure that art is a form of resistance, even though it puts me at risk. I just love the idea that my work could be that thread and that …. the people who are working with me—they’re all in the same shape. They’re amazing artists from Iran who are forced to live in exile—all wanted by Iranian government. And it’s fantastic that we create this imaginary court and we ourselves are on trial and we speak back to our own government. Yes, I’m working as an artist, and I’m working as a woman and I’m taking responsibility as an Iranian who lives in change.

 Here’s a triangle: what three things about yourself would you put on each point?

I think its really interesting because I see that I’m super, super strong—I can be at any moment of crisis and you will never see anyone stronger than me and unafraid and yet so extremely fragile that I’m always on the edge. These are the two things I know that are actually opposite, so it’s me as a tough woman, me as the most fragile. And three, as someone who … I think the other thing is my need of a community. I have such an absence of a community because I’ve never been around my family and the way I live is so tribal. I was always an outcast even with Iranian people or western people. So there’s a part of me that wants to feel like I belong to a community but it never really happens. So that’s the anxiety, the strength and the outcast.

 If I were to put artist here, what would I put on the other two points?

I think Iranian, activist … woman

 That’s actually 4 points. What would you put in the middle?

Woman. I have a very feminine approach to even activism or even making art or being an Iranian. That’s more at the center because my emotionality is definitely very female.

Photo of Shirin Neshat: Ramin Talaie for The Wall Street Journal

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Veterans Day

I’M EMBARRASSED TO SAY I’ve never given Veterans Day much thought. Aside from my stepfather, who never talked about it, I don’t know anyone who served, and my only military recollections were the deaths in Vietnam reported on the nightly news and the teeny parade in my hometown of Craftsbury, Vt., where  each year our WWII vets scuffled (albeit proudly) along the single paved road in town. (I was miserably attached to a bass drum in the school band, and more occupied with trying to look cool in front of the snare drummers. )

In fact, the only time I’ve thought about veterans was on a trip to Sicily a few years ago. I spent the afternoon in a Palermo bar with a couple of photographer friends and a couple of the local elders who befriended us, despite our near-lack of the language. (Such instant kinship is one of my favorite things about Italy, as is the penchant for old men here to talk to just about anyone.)

They were interested in our fancy digital cameras, which took up half the space on the rickety table.  And after showing them a few images on the back of the LCD, they each took out their wallets and showed us their pictures.

One man, a widow, carried a picture of his wife as a young, dark-haired beauty. The others all had pictures of themselves as young soldiers in WWII.  Some 60 years later, this identification—pride and honor—was still strong for these men. When others in the bar saw the photos, they clapped the old men on the back and sent over a couple of rounds of beers.

I thought about that odd afternoon as I spent the last week interviewing veterans for a story about hunger issues. I was shocked to find from a Food Bank For New York City  survey that nearly 30 percent of veteran households in the NYC area are worried about food. I spoke with a number of vets who say they can’t figure out how they got to this place. No one I spoke with was looking for a handout, but all of them felt like the hand of government hadn’t extended far enough. You can read more here.

No one should be hungry. Period. But it’s hard to swallow the idea that men and women who put their lives on the line are now standing in a bread line. They don’t have a community of folks buying them a beer in recognition and thanks.

Today, thank a vet, and ask them how they’re really doing.

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A singular anniversary

THE 10th ANNIVERSARY of Sept. 11, 2001 is almost here. That’s obvious. What’s also obvious: the city will have a ton of events commemorating the day. Politicians will seize the day for speech-making, which we hope will not be too opportunistic. Even though it doesn’t open to the public until Sept. 12, people will make a mass pilgrimage to the World Trade Center site, just to be near the heartbeat. The terrorism alerts have already kicked as has the speculation of when/if/how anything will happen. New Yorkers will worry—or not. Sept. 12 will arrive.
It’s hard to add much to the canon of writings or emotions about that day. Like most, I remember it was a clear fall day. I was standing at the bus stop enroute to work at a downtown book publisher. I forgot something and went back home to retrieve it. It was lucky timing because in those few moments I was inside my apartment, the first tower was struck. I’m grateful I don’t have that sight in my memory bank. By the time I left my apartment for the second time, the doormen were huddled around the TV in the lobby: I had no idea of the outside. I did know, however, I didn’t want to witness whatever was happening with a group of people with whom I had only a passing acquaintance. Whatever it was, it already felt  too intimate for that.  And I was too scared to go out on the street.

Back in my apartment, I watched the frantic coverage on TV. And when I heard that the Pentagon had been hit, the full force of the event—whatever it was—registered. We really were attacked. Up until that moment, most of me still believed it was pilot error, an air-traffic control gone wrong. Like most New Yorkers, I couldn’t believe there could be an attack on our invincible city. At that moment, I knew I didn’t want to be alone. I went to work in the West Village, where in the basement office of my employer, I watched the horrors of the day multiply with my three co-workers.

Our office was about 10 blocks from the WTC. If we wanted to, we could have gone out. We did intermittently, but the debris and the smell and the exposure to something so raw and immediate kept us inside and glued to the TV. We ordered food in—a miracle that anyone was working that day (and testament to New Yorkers’ practicality). Someone knocked on the door and wanted to use the phone: she was on her way to her gym at the WTC and, like me, had forgotten something at home. That made all the difference in her life. But she had to find her husband and let him know she was OK. Her cell phone wasn’t working. She broke down in our office. She was so not OK. None of us were.

We had another knock—a young woman and college friend of my employer’s daughter. Her office was across the street from the towers and she watched the hit in shock, then stood paralyzed as  conflicting instructions fired around her office: “Stay where you are. Leave the building. Don’t use the elevators. The firemen are coming.” She ran out and then walked in a trance state away from the hot smoke until she was on Leroy Street and realized she knew someone there. She knocked on the door. My boss opened it and recognized her daughter’s friend through her ash cover. She had no idea she was covered in gray silt. She came in, sat on the couch and stared at the TV. We didn’t know if it should stay on or not: our visitor just stared at the screen as the jumble of words came out. Suddenly she looked straight at us and asked for a beer. She drank it in two swigs and left.

My memory of the rest of that day was the collective “are you OK?” all over the city. I heard from former employers and schoolmates and every ex-boyfriend I’d had since college—speaking more to the hugeness of this to the outside than to my propensity for keeping old relationships. Inside that envelope of smoke and ash, we couldn’t know its larger context. It was not only just down the street, it was already a part of us.

The phone checks weren’t enough: I wanted to be with people on that day and for the next few. I remember for a week after that bars doing a remarkable business … everyone literally drinking down their sorrows. I joined them because no one wanted to feel alone and we all had a need to participate in some kind of conversation about it. Some time before, the publisher for whom I worked had reissued “Here is New York,” E.B. White’s love letter to the city that had an eerily prescient message. We sold out of it—people looking for a way to understand what had happened or a reason to keep loving New York.

If you’re looking for a conversation on this singular anniversary, many cultural organizations will offer ways to engage—and on your own terms. My story in the Wall Street Journal [download PDF here] selects just a few of the many commemorations throughout the city—events that will allow you to be alone in your thoughts, yet share the forever-bonding intimacy of that day with others.

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Local passport: Flatbush

I FIRST DISCOVERED the Flatbush neighborhood a couple of years ago while on an assignment for amNewYork. I walked a grid around Flatbush Avenue, wondering how to describe a neighborhood that on one side is small town USA—generous lawns wreathing gracious Victorian houses—and on the other a patchwork of roti diners, wig shops, dollar stores and storefront churches.

Where Flatbush and Church avenues intersect, I first saw Erasmus High School, one of the famed Snyder schools, renown for its gothic, landmarked campus and its roster of impressive alumni. And known, too, for its long-abandoned clapboard academy in the green center, a building waiting for either redemption or demise.

Farther down the avenue, I came across this marvelous relic: The Loew’s Kings Theater. It rose in the middle of an otherwise undistinguished block, a limestone chunk with carved and crumbling ornament. You couldn’t tell if its final day of business was last week or in the last decade. No passers-by on the sidewalk knew what it was. It was just another piece of derelict junk on the street. I was dying to know what was on the other side of the metal gate that closed it off to the street.

It was three years before I found out. Last week, I toured the inside of the building, built by Rapp and Rapp, the theater starchitects of their time (1929). Closed in 1977, the theater is in partial but not desperate ruin inside. Framed by tattered curtains, the stage is a jumble of broken props and frames. The orchestra is rows upon rows of faded velvet maroon (in its hey day, there were 3,600 seats, including 900 in the balcony). But so much elegance remains while so much has crumbled: a marble water fountain engraved “Drink and be refreshed,” dangling chandeliers, painted murals, working fireplaces in the men’s lounge.

amNewYork featured the theater on a cover story I wrote on the city’s crumbling past, and last week, I finally got to write about the impending restoration, a joint partnership between the city and ACE Theatrical Group, which has similarly restored theaters in the country. Loew’s Kings Theater won’t open to the public until 2014. But the doors are open on the $70 million restoration, which recently started and about which you can read in The Wall Street Journal [story PDF here] [slideshow here].

When curiosity doesn’t kill the cat, it rewards it. In February, I wrote about the beleaguered Erasmus Academy building for the Journal. After years of neglect by the city, the board of education gave its blessing to New York Landmarks Conservancy to pursue funding for restoration. An initial grant has jump-started fundraising and raised the spirits for alumni who have watched their alma mater fall into decay [WSJ slideshow here].

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European passport: Savennières

PETITE AND SOFTSPOKEN, winemaker Evelyne de Pontbriand seems unassuming, but she is a mighty voice behind the modest appellation of Savennières, a 156-hectare AOC in the Loire Valley. Like so many European estates, hers has a historical quirk: It once belonged to the Marquis de Las Cases, a descendent of Napolean’s official biographer. Originally known as Château des Vaults, it has produced wine since 1495. de Pontbriand is the third generation of women to run the estate.  Full story in the September issue of Sommelier News [PDF here].

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European passport: Loire Valley

"MiniCat" rules the roost at Chateau de l'Oiseliniere in the Loire Valley, France

Muscadet Reboots

WINEMAKER LIONEL METAIREAU spends a lot of time alone at Caves de la Nantaise, the Famille Bougrier winery in Pays Nantais. It could be the time of year—just before bud break when the winery is still shak­ing off its winter cobwebs. And it could be the isolation that comes naturally when you’re at the edge of a sprawling wine region such as the Loire Valley, the third largest in France.

And sometimes, Metaireau thinks it’s because his far-flung kingdom has only one subject: the peculiarly light-bodied and in­tensely mineral Melon de Bourgogne vari­ety, better known as Muscadet.

“Muscadet is complicated right now; it is going through a difficult period,” he told us on our visit this spring, “There is a lot of quantity right now, and the quality is not always up to par.”

Muscadet feels the pain that a number of other easily dismissed wine regions do. Even a recent directive from the European Union has the feeling of a rebuke: It paid growers to grub their vines—a requirement to regulate production that some other re­gions have also seen. It resulted in about 3,000 hectares of lost vines. Producers like Georges Verdier of Chateau de l’Oiseliniere recognizes that such a setback will ulti­mately elevate the quality of the vineyard, but still notes, “The crisis of the Muscadet vineyard is not finished and is at its peak.”

But these, both men believe, are sim­ply transitioning pains that will pass with the help of winemakers who, undaunted, see great potential in their appellation. Full story in July issue of Sommelier News.[PDF download here]

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