Thursday, December 9, 2010

Inky, Wine Raconteur

George W. Vanderbilt,  

The Untold Story of the Early Grape Vintner

When in France, he could be found most days, swirling some aromatic elixir 
around the inside a crystal glass. It wasn't always some huge Bordeaux hoarded for the elite as some might think. He would merely haunt the side streets just off merchants alley where wine and wine grapes flowed into the city on the arms of a capitalist octopus.

Could be how George got his nickname, Inky.

The best wine was almost always destined for the trained, moneyed palate. Inky, of course, could muster the title if he chose to do so. He found it more interesting and more to his liking to blend in with the liquid activity surrounding the local markets. There were treasures waiting to be discovered in some small bistro off the beaten path.Wineries, less well known, often sold their wares without waiting to be discovered, fearing making no sale and being stuck with inventory on into the coming winter.

Inky wandered the streets, speaking fluent French, inquiring of any one who would listen if there might be any unusual vintages for sale in the neighborhood? He was ignored as often as not. 

"Excusez-moi mon bon monsieur, c'est qu'il ya du vin rouge spécial disponible dans le quartier aujourd'hui?" Inky put on his Cheshire Cat smile when asking his question.

"La Bistro is known to put back a few special bottles if you know how to ask,monsieur." The gentleman spoke perfect English recognizing the questioner as a Westerner immediately.

"What would be the secret word if I were to inquire about some stored vintage of a
special note, kind sir?"

"Upon entering the establishment ask for the wine steward's recommendation for the day. When he finishes rattling off some innocuous choices remain silent. Then tell him, ("Sir, I am quite serious about this!") He will smile back at you. You will place 10 francs in his palm casually. The steward is now your friend. Do not abuse his confidence."

"I believe you are having a bit of sport with me, are you not monsieur?"

"Certainement pas, monsieur, si dix francs pour cette information est considérée comme une affaire dans mon pays." He held his right hand out, palm perfectly horizontal prepared to accept Inky's donation for the information.

Inky placed the ten francs politely into the gentleman's palm. It disappeared into his jacket and automatically he tipped his hat toward the American and bid him, “bonsoir”, and walked away.

La Bistro was only a few steps away. Inky walked with great style, carrying himself as if he lived on these streets his entire life. Even those strolling behind him, without ever getting a glimpse of his face would know a raconteur was in the neighborhood. A bon vivant of a special nature. A gentleman who was used to getting what he wanted any day of the week. Naturally, he fit in with the other scoundrels roaming the city, though certainly a cut above the rest.

Inky was a gentleman of extensive substance. He was the youngest son in a family dripping in money and land.

(to be continued...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

GV, American Wine Pioneer

“This is where I will build the largest winery in America.” George V. smiled as he enunciated each word.

“French vineyards will look to America for secrets of the grape in short order. North Carolina will set the trend for the rest of the country. There will never be a better place on the face of the globe for the future of wine.” George smiled continuously as he talked to Jonathan Presley of the Asheville Citizen Times.

Jonathan penned a note under the date on his paper, February 18, 1892. He wrote: George Vanderbilt is a a dreamer in our midst with ideas and an endless stream of money to make it happen.

“Mr Vanderbilt, will the construction of your new estate be designed with wine as the key to a new era of North American superiority?”

“The reason this estate is even being considered is because of the grape growing potential. This estate shall be the centerpiece of America leading the world-wide growth in the wine industry. This is but one of many areas of the country where vineyards will be King. The Vanderbilt name will grace the labels of vintages that rival the great wines of Europe, France most assuredly. Mark your calendar 7 years from now. The World Exposition of 1899 will shock the wine regions of the Planet.”

“Sir your ability to turn the small into the huge profit wise and quality wise is known from sea to sea. Is it your plan to dominate the international wine industry?”

Mr. Vanderbilt reclined into his chair, raised his head slightly, and exhaled a perfect smoke ring  of Cuban tobacco. “Well. Not completely, at least not for a decade or so. Seems fair giving notice Mr. Presley.”

More than a few bottles of French and Italian wine bottle graced the table where the two men sat.  Bordeaux, Borolo, Champagne. All the great names in wine nearly covered the surface. Mr. Vanderbilt waved his hand across the tops of the bottles, slowly moving from one end of the table to the other.

“See anything unusual among these bottles Mr. Presley?”

“Many things Mr. Vanderbilt. This may be as many bottles of wine as I have ever seen assembled in any one location. As to their importance or significance you must be the one to educate me. If you are saying that there is a gap that needs to be filled by your wares..well then I am all ears. Asheville needs more jobs. Merely building your huge estate speaks well for a few years of local employment. The idea that cultivating grapes and brewing wine is a long term venture for Asheville has my complete attention.” Mr Presley touched each of the bottles one by one, from east to west and north to south on the huge table, almost lovingly.

“One hundred and one!” Mr. Presley exclaimed loudly.

“One hundred and two. You were close.” Vanderbilt placed one more bottle in the very front of the other bottles. It was 4 times the size of the others. “This is a jeroboam of Biltmore Estate Wine. Bottled for me in Napa California. It is a medley of fine vintages. Mr. Presley allow me to introduce you to the world’s first Meritage!”

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Truth Behind the Veiled Curtain

A large panel of white marble stood erect. It was 30 feet wide and 7 feet high. There were levered switches of many sizes and shapes. Condensers, gauges and gizmos were scattered across the electrical landscape. If you looked behind the upright panel, you would see hundreds of cables exiting the panel. Each wire disappearing into slots carved in the rock walls, carrying power for use in as particular room in the castle.
The guide said the panel was wired for AC and DC electricity. Imagine more than 100 years ago the flow of electricity was controlled from this very spot here in the basement of America’s largest home. I wonder if George Vanderbilt understood how all of this worked. Was he only a user of new technology and the recipient of its many wonders? Could he possibly have understood how it was all put together and even have repaired the system if the need arose?
I consulted noted librarian and curator, Horace Teameister at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island for his take on this question. Professor Teameister has spent the last 35 years studying the science behind the construction of The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.
Professor Teameister, do you believe that Mr. Vanderbilt was the engineer behind the many technological advances that were incorporated into the systems of the Biltmore castle?”

“Yes, I do believe that. Preconstruction drawings of the electrical systems have hand written notes penned by Mr. Vanderbilt throughout the hundreds of drawings we have cataloged here at Brown University. Some of these notes offer mathematical formulae in his hand that suggest he was much more than just a rich man wanting a castle full of modern devices.”

“Are there any notations that lead the observer to believe that Mr. Vanderbilt required the installation of both AC and DC electrical systems from the inception of the systems design?”

“Yes. On two of the preliminary drawings, there are notations mentioning Nikolai Tesla, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. Mr. Vanderbilt stated that genius has no peer. Then he states that he prefers to error on the side of caution. The installation of an alternating current and a direct current system would allow the home to be used in part as a fully operating laboratory. Therefore neither scientist would be neglected for his part in this wondrous technology.”

“Is it possible to tell if Mr. Vanderbilt leaned toward Tesla’s method or toward the Westinghouse method of providing electricity for the home?”

“Without question using alternating current was his method of choice. He spoke of Tesla as if he were a personal friend. He would make straight pencil lines across access areas for wire crossings. Some of these marks are penciled further by Mr. Vanderbilt which said, “Nikolai, please double check the radiation levels at these crossings. If needed the wiring should be shielded from all combustible areas by using conduit.”

“He signed all of these notes simply George. It was easy to tell that Nikolai would be looking at these notations at a later date and possibly at a different location than where Mr. Vanderbilt was scribbling these notes. The most interesting exchange is this one with the reference to conduit. Tesla had written underneath Mr. Vanderbilt’s notation, what is conduit? Now one could assume that this was a joke on Tesla’s part, or could they? Maybe Mr. Vanderbilt had a much larger part in the electrical design than previously believed? Maybe Mr. Vanderbilt gave Nikolai a little help in alternating current electrical plant design? Maybe some of that design is still in use today in modern electrical stations?”

“Are you saying that you believe that George Vanderbilt was more than just a dreamer with a design for a huge modern castle in the North Carolina Mountains?”

“I’m saying that George was the architect. He not only had an idea. He put most of it on paper before the experts were called in to make it all official. Maybe I should say to make it all look official. When one is able to peruse all of these papers we have in the collection, one begins to believe that George Vanderbilt needed very few people in his life to design anything for him. He already had it in his head. It was only a matter of drawing or describing what it was that he wanted. He worked fast with his hands and with his ideas. Sometimes he would draw with one hand and flamboyantly jester with his other in order to get another idea understood by what ever expert might be on hand at any given time.”

“Have you ever mentioned this to any one before today?”

“I have mentioned it to one or two interested parties. Electrical engineering was not part of their background. You find this intriguing, don’t you Mr. Goldsmith?”

“Intriguing is close. Awe struck would be more appropriate. It is now my belief that Mr. Vanderbilt changed the face of history forever with his apparent endorsement for AC electricity. His endorsement, it seems would have prevented Nikolai Tesla from becoming the secondary figure in history we know he became?"
 (and so it begins.....