Drinking with George Washington

Last night I attended the annual Spirit of Mount Vernon dinner at George Washington’s estate, just south of D.C. There was a lot of booze (it was, after all, cosponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council). But because every distiller and distributor wanted to show off their wares, the shelves were crammed with everything from Pearl Vodka and Svedka to Macallan and Glenmorangie. It was similar to the end scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. You had to choose wisely, which I’m not so sure I did when I first sampled a Godiva chocolate-infused vodka on the rocks. It was pretty good, actually, but I wouldn’t try to take it out of that stone temple, that’s for sure. (For more on the dinner and the impact of the free trade vote on the spirits industry, click here.)

Blowing Up Milano?

Don’t get nervous, I’m not talking about Alyssa Milano. Rather, I am referring to the restaurant in Georgetown, supposed target of the Iranians who were after the Saudi ambassador, who frequented the place along with all the other beautiful people. You can read more at TWS.

Assuming this is the case (some say the whole restaurant angle was fictional in the plotting), we should consider two points: (1) What is it about places with mediocre food that nonetheless become celebrity magnets? (2) Remember those Alyssa Milano Teen Steam exercise videos? They had the feel of a cheap ’80s porno without the porno. Or so I’ve been told.

Friendly’s Ice Cream, 1935-2011

They had the Jim Dandy. The Fishamajig. It was one of the first places I spotted a “sandwich melt” on the menu. It was (at least the location nearest me in New Jersey) a greasy-spoon joint, but you didn’t mind. You went there with family and classmates, and fond memories were created. Like the time two uncles took me and my sister there and only one of them paid the bill. For years he’d say, “Remember the time we went to Friendly’s and your Uncle X didn’t offer to pay?” And he’d say it with a smile. But as reported last week, Friendly’s Ice Cream has filed for Chapter 11. You can find my restaurant obituary here.

Must See TV

DIRECTV is airing a new ad touting its multiroom viewing technology, in which two robots are battling each other in different rooms of a house. The homeowner pauses the action as he walks from one room to another. The voiceover says, “With DIRECTV, you can start watching in one room, pause, and continue in another room.”
Is this really necessary? In 2011? We’re on the verge of a double-dip recession and the commercial focuses on a guy who has a television in the kitchen, the living/dining room, and the bedroom. Sure I know people who have this many TVs (not me) but more to the point: The man paused the action on his bedroom television in order to get something to drink. This took maybe three minutes. Could he really not wait three minutes? His televisions are on in three different rooms and he has to keep watching the fight scene as he goes from bedroom to living/dining room to kitchen and back. This guy really couldn’t wait? Is he that impatient? And what about his wife in bed? She’s got to watch the fight sequence start and stop numerous times as her husband moves from place to place. Why not have a commercial where he keeps watching on TVs in the hallway, the bathroom, the pantry, and the staircase?

What does this commercial say about our attention spans?

Is Your Job ‘Mission Critical’?

If you’re a regular listener to WTOP, you are no doubt familiar with those government-related commercials involving “mission critical” tasks related to “federal IT” through “cloud-computing solutions” while defending against “malware.” What’s going on here and what is it that these people do? My friend Buck works in “investor relations,” meaning what? The comedian Larry Miller says he is clueless about hedgefunds, even after his hedgefund friend explains to him what he does. This got me thinking of Mitt Romney and his private equity experience at Bain Capital and Bain and Company, which turned into this week’s Casual column in The Weekly Standard.

Not knowing what a person actually does for a living also reminded me of the scene in Goodfellas when Karen asks Henry what exactly he does (after being led into the Copa). “I’m in construction,” Henry tells Karen, who says his hands “don’t feel like construction.” Henry clarifies, “I’m a union delegate.”

‘Leonard Bernstein!’

Somehow I missed that R.E.M. broke up. Or maybe I just forgot. Or maybe it would’ve been a bigger deal had this happened 15 years ago. According to the Wall Street Journal‘s “Sentiment Tracker,” 10 percent of online comments were in favor of the breakup, 23 percent were opposed to it, and 67 percent were neutral (from a total of 14,788 posts). Some of the comments (not available online) were reprinted, such as:

“R.E.M. called it quits? My 13-year-old self is crying over the nostalgia.”

“I loved R.E.M. all the way to the very end. And by the very end I mean 1986.”

“Bye, R.E.M. Sad day. Still, anyone who links to ‘Everybody Hurts’ to express their feelings should be subjected to serious eye-rolling.”


Business Schemes

Also at TWS I note the apparent suicide of infomercialist Don Lapre. There was something about him that reminded me of a young Joe Pesci. In any event, while surfing for news of Lapre, I stumbled across donlapre.com. It’s pretty sad stuff.

But what I forgot to mention was the time I attended a job interview that turned out to be a recruitment-sales pitch for the multilevel marketing firm Equinox. It was the summer of 1995 and I was jobless. The ad targeted recent college graduates and mentioned a sizable salary. This particular branch of Equinox was out in Reston, Virginia. I remember the younger employees in suits eating McDonald’s at their desks while CNBC was airing on the television. The whole thing was a sham.

The Equinox spokesman explained after some time that they sold water filters, and we would do the same. Sure it would cost us initially in the purchase of various products and seminar fees, but we’d make it all up in sales—and by our getting more recruits.

As Inc. explained,

Distributors, who were recruited through newspaper ads and by word of mouth, were promised incomes upwards of $3,000 a month. However, that promise included some fine print: according to regulators, fledgling distributors were expected to purchase $5,000 worth of Equinox products to “buy in” as managers — the level at which they could begin to earn commissions on sales made by distributors whom they recruited, also known as their downline…. But the Equinox system was soon creating many disenchanted distributors, who later contended in court that they were snookered by false claims and high-pressure salesmanship into investing in the company’s products and training seminars…. From 1995 to 1998 more than 80% of them earned less than $1,000 a year, and fewer than 2% of them earned more than $20,000, according to FTC figures. Even some of the seemingly successful distributors sometimes sank deep into the red.

This pyramid scheme led to the downfall of its founder, Bill Gouldd. And Equinox would be dissolved in 2001 following a $40 million settlement with these distributors.

Leaving the recruiting session that hot summer day in 1995, I remember thinking this wasn’t for me and that something seemed off about the operation. But I still wonder how many of the other attendees ended up buying all those water filters.

And Now, the Champagne Harvest Report…

When I received the email earlier this week with the subject headline “DEUTZ 2011 HARVEST REPORT,” I couldn’t help but be reminded of the orange crop report from Trading Places. And while the price of orange juice has a bigger impact on the economy, the results of the Champagne harvest aren’t exactly trivial—last year close to 14 million bottles of bubbly were shipped to the United States alone. When the recession hit in 2008-09, more than a billion bottles were collecting dust in warehouses. So how was this past season’s yield?

“Atypical” is how the Comite Champagne describes it. According to the report from Deutz, one of my favorite makers,

Late in May 2011, when flowering took place, the vine cycle was ahead of its normal state by about three weeks. At that point it looked as if we would be harvesting around the second half of August.

Then June and July were quite damp and cool: rain and occasional hail compensating for the overall water deficit. This enabled the plants to continue their growth, following nature’s whims. It also provoked sporadic patches of grey rot.

This dangerous trend was happily reversed by vastly improved weather in early August, which saw the sun shine again, bringing more seasonal temperatures.

The alternating weather pattern resulted in fruit set being irregular. Later on, the incidence of colour change in the grape bunches was therefore variable to the point where, on a single vine, some bunches coloured up rapidly whilst others remained green. Others were affected by grey rot which, fortunately, rarely got to the inner part of the bunches….

Despite careful management of spraying to protect the vines, which had resulted in them being in better-than-average shape prior to harvest, this was going to be a tricky one. Not only did the heat wave cause some of the pickers to suffer at the beginning, but the discrepancies in maturity levels between different plots, and even between individual vines, caused even more headaches!

Hence, until September 3rd, pickers were constantly moved from one plot to another with precise instructions and tasks. Secateurs had to be used with care and precision, almost like a surgeon’s scalpel, particularly in plots of Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir affected by botrytis.

All these efforts were rewarded by the following results: average acid levels were maintained at 8.2 grams, and potential alcohol averaged 9.6°.

What this means, I suspect, is that 2011 will not have the makings of a classic vintage year. Oh well.

There are worse things the region has experienced, aside from heavy rains, droughts, frost, and a recession. When I visited Champagne in 2008, a winemaker pointed out on a map how the entire region was ripped apart during the First World War. I then asked him about the devastation from the German invasion in 1940. He replied, “Not much, really. It all happened so fast.”

Christie to Run for President…

…is something a lot of people have been hoping for for quite some time. And maybe he will. Or maybe he won’t. Either way it’s driven me to pen this parody over at Weekly Standard. (Seriously, as a native New Jerseyan, I’d be a little disappointed if Christie did leave the state without having changed the license plate motto of “Garden State” to “Diner State.” After all, when you think of New Jersey, do gardens come to mind? The first thing that comes to my mind is corned beef hash and eggs from the Crystal Diner in Toms River.)