Category Archives: Food

Headhunter Carignane 2012

IMG_0359I think the delight is in finding something no one seems to have found. It’s so hard to do that anymore, whether you’re trying to or not. One of the constant disappointments of the new world we live in, online and off, is how little unexplored territory remains. This isn’t just the romance of being the first one down the unknown river, although there is that. It’s wanting some privacy, places and things that aren’t poked and prodded until they’ve lost their shape, nor beset by noise. I’m writing a biography of a musician who has just published her own memoirs. It’s an enjoyable project and I’m seeing and saying things that I don’t think have been said about or by her, but part of me just wants to leave her alone. Facticity is our abiding condition, or factitiousness. I’m not sure.

On Friday, we were on our way up to Virginia to visit my wife’s family and stopped to get coffee in Richmond at a pleasant place my wife knows, not far off the interstate. It’s also a little grocery store—the kind, my wife points out, downtown Durham sorely needs—and they sell wine. We wanted to show up at the folks’ place with a bottle or two. Nothing fancy, just wine we could drink with dinner (which turned out to be steak and lobster, yikes). I picked out a wine from southern France whose producer I didn’t recognize. Part of the fun of traveling is that I find wines by importers whose wines don’t find their way to North Carolina, so there are hundreds of bottles I’ve never seen before. In our good but somewhat insular market, I see the same wines over and over again. The Roussillon was $12. I remember nothing else about it.

Then I passed the closeout bin and saw, amid the junky prosecco (prosecco being, in my opinion, pretty much inherently junky), a bottle with a funny-looking label bearing the name “Headhunter.” In our peculiar marketing era, a name like that (and a funny-looking label) can belong to a tiny handmade thing or to a mass-produced, assembly-line product, with equal likelihood, because we’re running out of names as surely as we’re running out of unexplored territory. Hence the spate of horrendous band names in recent years, even (or especially) around here: I Was Totally Destroying It, Hammer No More The Fingers; I’ll stop there. (Actually, I won’t: we had a recent nano-dustup in Durham when a restaurateur announced that his new place would be called “Hattie Mae Called Me Captain.” People objected because Hattie Mae was apparently the black housekeeper or nanny who fed the white restaurateur scrambled-egg-and-jelly sandwiches when he was a tyke, but hardly anyone objected on the grounds that it was a terrible, terrible, unsightly, ungainly name no matter its provenance. He withdrew it, as he should have. Had he just called it Hattie Mae’s, or even Hattie’s, and kept his mouth shut about it, probably no one would have complained. But an ugly, pretentious name like that demanded an explanation, and it was the ugliness and its explanation that got his fingers hammered.)

I looked at the back of the bottle, where the real information is, and discovered that Headhunter was very much a tiny handmade thing. “100% Whole Cluster Old-Vine Carignane from Mendocino,” it says. “65 Cases Produced.” And not much else. Reading that, and “Alc. 13.0% by vol.,” I was sold. All of the above is code for: small-production wine, probably made by young people, using a light hand in the cellar. This description fits what Jon Bonne, the San Francisco wine writer, has called “the New California Wine,” and although there is plenty to quibble with, ideologically speaking, in what that term represents, there is mostly a lot to like and support. The wine, after closeout discounting, was $16. Sold.

You can look up whole-cluster and Carignane if you want to. I can even try to describe the Headhunter, but what could really be stupider than tasting notes? My sister-in-law did not like this wine at all. My sister-in-law doesn’t drink much wine and knows very little about it. When I told her there were 65 cases of Headhunter Carignane 2012, she asked me if that was a lot or a little. If you give the wine (not that you’re likely ever to find it) to someone who doesn’t drink much wine, be prepared for that person to dislike it. It isn’t oaky, or big and blowsy, or usual in any way. I’m not even sure I can say I liked it, although I drank it happily. The wine appeared to be more than merely unfiltered. Instead of a bunch of sediment at the bottom, it had tiny little particles floating all in it, which did not affect its drinkability (and also a lot of sediment at the bottom). It was not “green,” as is often said of “hipster” wine. It was very grapey, sort of foot-stomped and backyardy, in a way that made me want to drink it in a Berkeley backyard at about four in the afternoon. I believed the “old-vine” claim, because there was something about it that struck me as, how do I put this, mature meets immature: young winemakers making an early-career wine out of old fruit.

Well, what could be more pleasurable than turning out to be right? I discovered that Headhunter Carignane 2012, which we drank most of, was the very first vintage produced by a husband and wife team in northern California, and that the reason it was in a Richmond, Virginia wine shop despite having yielded just 65 cases is that the couple comes from Virginia. This made me very happy. I was also happy to discover that their other wine, an Albarino, was produced in a similarly tiny quantity. I was happy to learn that I was drinking the first vintage they ever made, out of the last bottle in a closeout bin in their home state—something far from home and also close to home, and about to vanish. It was the last of its kind, and here I am the first to say something about it. I’m so glad that I get to do this.

I’m looking forward to the next wines these people produce, although I am unlikely ever to see them. I doubt it’s sold in North Carolina. It will never make its way into the wine column I write for a mostly unread magazine in a small enclave of the state. But I’m so happy for the winemakers, and for me. And I find that even though I opened this bottle five days ago and there’s still a little wine left in it (that is too oxidized to drink by now), I can’t abide the idea of getting rid of the bottle. We drove it home from Virginia and it’s sitting on the kitchen counter, like a lucky charm.

Some Thoughts on Durham Co-op Market

In 2011, I interviewed a number of people involved in the efforts to open what was then known as Durham Central Market. The name reflected the organizers’ essential mission: to open a grocery in downtown Durham, which had none. The words “food desert” were often used in these interviews. A few of the board members lived in Old North Durham, so the impetus for the market was appealingly personal as well as public.

The interviews were conducted as part of an article I wrote for the Independent Weekly about the market, which was then in what was described to me as its fourth year of planning and development. The market board had an option to buy a parcel of land at Mangum and Broadway, and a goal to build the market on that land. The estimated cost of the project was $4.2 million.

That seemed like an awful lot of money to raise for a co-op startup, but I was inclined to be optimistic. I really wanted a grocery store I could walk to, and I live just three blocks from the location at Mangum and Broadway. I like co-ops generally, if they’re run well. I was a regular at Wheatsville in Austin when I lived there, and I tried my best to shop at the Durham Co-op (“The People’s Intergalactic Food Conspiracy”–apparently that was its actual registered name), even in its dying days, when the shelves were mostly empty and the produce largely rancid. A fair portion of the Durham Central Market organizers was composed of refugees from the doomed co-op.

I must say that I found the interviews tough to come away from with optimism. I got many vague answers, sometimes defensive ones, to very specific questions–none of which were especially pointed or doubtful–and evasive responses to my questions about fundraising and budgets. One of the board members (since departed) spoke at length about the “Slow Money” movement and a book on the subject. There was lots of theory, but indeterminate practice.

I was perplexed by the market’s proposed owner/investor system, which seemed–as I believe Ross Grady put it–“passive-aggressive.” It may be the way all co-ops work, but it seemed needlessly complicated, hard to wrap one’s brain around, and it had what struck me as unwieldy mechanisms for investment and return. I got the vague sense that the board was half hoping that Weaver Street Market would open a Durham branch and make all of their efforts unnecessary. Weaver Street was “what we want to be when we grow up,” project manager Don Moffitt told me. I thought, but didn’t ask, “Why don’t you want to be Durham Central Market when you grow up?”

I asked whether it was realistic to expect to raise $4.2 million for a co-op market–Weaver Street had launched on just $300,000-$400,000 in the late 1980s (yes, I know, inflation, economy collapse; but still)–and was told that it was realistic, especially if an angel donor would pony up an originating (and large) chunk of the money. That seemed like pie-in-the-sky thinking to me, but Don Moffitt and the three board members I interviewed sounded confident about someone swooping in and dropping a big check on the project. I asked if the board had looked into existing structures in and around Central Park (which was the specific part of downtown where they wanted to locate the market), rather than building new construction. I was told that they’d looked at every space in the area, and that none of them were suitable. They were also adamant that the location on Mangum, across from what is now Saltbox, was the right one. They’d hired a marketing consultant to evaluate the site and were convinced of its worthiness.

At the time of my interviews with the board and Moffitt, early in 2011, DCM had less than $500,000 in hand. The market was just about to have a fundraising “pep rally.” (The article I wrote was published to coincide with it.) The goal was to raise $1.5 million through an “owner investment campaign.” The timetable for the campaign was only about a month–another unrealistic goal, I thought, as was the projected opening date of August 2012; but, again, I wanted to be optimistic. These people’s hearts were, and are, always in the right place. Re-reading the article I wrote with four years of hindsight, I can practically hear the words coming out through clenched teeth as I try to spin the story positively (which my editor encouraged me to do). I wanted to buy in, despite my misgivings. Self-interest was operating along with my local-business commitments, since I really wanted that market near my house and had already become an owner via a $140 household buy-in.

But I wasn’t surprised that nothing much happened after that. The owner investment campaign didn’t yield much, no angel donor materialized, and the board let the option on the land at Mangum and Broadway lapse. A year after the original story ran, I contacted the board and did a few follow-up interviews for a potential update story for the Independent. The only news of note was that the board had started exploring sites outside of downtown, including up in North Durham. So I didn’t write a story. There was really nothing to report except bad news–which I found quite dismaying. The whole point of the market, as far as I was concerned, was that it was going to be downtown. Otherwise, to me it was just a pet project of people who just wanted another Weaver Street Market. Much as I like the idea of keeping the money in the local economy, I already do the vast majority of my grocery shopping at the Farmers Market (which is not as overpriced as some people misjudge it to be), and I can go to King’s Red & White for the rest if I want to. The market was going to put an anchor downtown, make the area more livable, and issue a strong statement about urban life.

I stopped paying much attention after that attempt to write a follow-up story. It seemed to me that the board wasn’t all that devoted to its efforts. They had been generally lax about responding to interview requests, not very forthcoming with information, and unskilled at marketing themselves or keeping their efforts on the general radar. When I heard that the Self-Help Ventures Fund had finally stepped in and offered to build the co-op a building–virtually right on the site of the old co-op, an old-hat-new-hat outcome–I wasn’t surprised, although I was also not excited. The name changed, subtly but importantly, from Durham Central Market to Durham Co-op Market. Gone was the notion that the market was centrally located, despite what some of its apologists say.

One of the quotes I really wanted to use in my 2011 story, but decided out of decorum not to, came from Lex Alexander, who knows from the grocery business. Lex was pessimistic about Durham Central Market, and had told them so, but quipped, “Maybe people are finally fed up with Whole Foods.” The co-op is only a mile from Whole Foods, which offers far more goods and at similar prices, and not really in the direction of downtown. It mostly serves Lakewood and Morehead Hill, along with Trinity Park and Forest Hills–neighborhoods that generally don’t need another market, can only dubiously be called “diverse” (as the Independent’s recent article does), and certainly aren’t in a “food desert.” Whole Foods is quite convenient, as is the massive Harris Teeter that opened in the mean time. It may no longer matter that people are fed up with Whole Foods, if they actually are.

There’s a hideous new prefab apartment complex on the other side of the freeway overpass from the co-op, and the souped-up University Apartments in the other direction. I lived in the latter for three years when it was still the funky, wonderful “old girl,” as its superintendent called it, that was home to a diverse population. We all got evacuated when the place was sold and gussied up, and now it’s a place for Duke kids (I guess) who have a co-op nearby. It seems appropriate that both University Apartments and the old co-op have been reconstituted right on site, at higher prices–the co-op is not cheap. Same same but different, as they say.

The co-op never claimed it would be cheap, of course–it’s a mistaken notion that food cost is a draw of co-ops, especially in the modern, corporate co-op model. They sell local-economy spending opportunity, which is significant, and lifestyle choice, which isn’t. The products are largely the same as you’ll find in most other co-ops, and the perfectly pleasant space feels more or less identical to co-ops I’ve been in in Carrboro, Hillsborough, Burlington and elsewhere–again, the modern, corporate co-op model at work. I’m glad the co-op finally opened, and I’m sure I’ll shop there some, but there’s no avoiding the fact that it abandoned its founding mission and that downtown Durham still doesn’t have a place where you can buy a gallon of milk or a bag of rice.