The Fifth Element #28

Home Entertainment 2004 West in San Francisco might have been called off last November, but I wasn't about to let that stop me from taking a trip to visit the wine country—except that the wine country in question turned out to be the wine country of Southern New England.

Way back during the Climatic Optimum, the Vikings came to America. The Climatic Optimum was a period of warmer weather that lasted approximately from the eighth through the 14th centuries AD. Warmer temperatures caused the crop surpluses and population growth that led to the breakout of the Norse from their home region. In addition to sacking monasteries in Britain and enslaving the Slavs, the Norse colonized Greenland and, around the year 1000, settled in America. (The Climatic Optimum is the single most salient fact suggesting that healthy skepticism is the best response to what in my opinion is some of the junk science surrounding greenhouse gases and global warming.)

The Vikings called the North American area they explored Vinland (pronounced "Winland"), because they found grapes growing there—at least in places. Without question, there was a Viking settlement at L'Anse-aux-Meadows in Newfoundland. There is also geological evidence that the Vikings got at least as far south as Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.

Chances are Newfoundland was too cold for grapes to grow, even during the Climatic Optimum. However, the southern reaches of Narragansett Bay, and the north and south shores of Long Island Sound, are several degrees of latitude south of the Burgundy wine region of France. The coastal regions of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Southeastern Massachusetts all qualify as good candidates for the historical Vinland. Not surprisingly, over the past decade, there has been a veritable renaissance in winemaking in the area.

Stonington Vineyards is located in green and gently rolling farm country between Long Island Sound and the Mystic River. Since 1987, the winery has specialized in European-style wines, especially barrel-fermented Chardonnays. I stopped by on a weekday afternoon for the 2pm winery tour, and afterward visited the tasting room.

The 2002 Chardonnay I tasted was definitely a French-style wine: crisp, clean, almost flinty, but with homey notes of baked apples and vanilla—altogether, quite different from California or Australian Chardonnays. At $17 it was good value for the money, and they do ship to most US states. You'll be glad to know that Stonington Vineyards supports both the Salt Marsh Opera Company and the Chorus of Westerly.

Do It Yourself
But be assured that this little road trip did have on the itinerary a destination more substantially connected to sound and music. In addition to its eponymous Vineyards, Stonington, Connecticut, is home to the world's largest harpsichord firm, Zuckermann Harpsichords Inc..

The factor that led Zuckermann to its position of market preeminence is, in one word, kits. From the outset (in the 1950s), Zuckermann offered a variety of early keyboard instruments (virginals and clavichords, as well as harpsichords) as do-it-yourself kits. (They also sell fully assembled instruments.) The kit option allowed amateur musicians to acquire an instrument for the absolute minimum expense. It also meant that Zuckermann had to gear up to produce the inner workings of harpsichords on a scale much larger than called for by just one builder. They now supply components to other builders around the world.

The kits themselves are offered in various stages of completion. I would characterize the effort required as progressing from the daunting to the heroic. The "easy" kits require you to build and install the action (and string and voice the instrument), while the least-complete kits require you to start by building the entire case, then fitting the soundboard.

That said, all the major sawing has been done, so assembly is just a matter of some trimming and lots of very patient, very careful fitting. If you've always wanted an early keyboard instrument and can devote the time to it, perhaps building a Zuckermann kit will turn out to be not only rewarding, but also attitude-adjusting! (People kept asking when I was going to write about a kit. See? I just did!)

My tour guide at Zuckermann was general manager Steve Salvatore. The workshops are engrossing. As one of my favorite authors wrote, work fascinates me—I could watch it for hours. The workshops smell great, with all the fresh, clean fragrances of planed wood, paints, shellac, adhesives, varnish for gilding, and so on. The completed instruments are objects of art. Steve was kind enough to play a little Bach for me. You may not live within driving distance of Zuckermann Harpsichords, but I would be very surprised if you do not live within driving distance of some sort of business dedicated to the art and craft of musical instruments—anything from a piano rebuilder to a bagpipe maker to a guitar shop. Why not look one up and arrange a visit? (Especially if you're in a rut of visiting—or even haunting—hi-fi salons. Get out of that rut. Now.) In my experience, most workshops welcome visitors, as long as you're respectful of their time and keep your hands to yourself. And the experience of hearing instruments up close is a wonderful way to calibrate your ears.

Trust Me: Just Buy It, Part I
While we're on the subject of harpsichords and such: in Stereophile's November 2004 issue, Robert Levine gave a glowing endorsement to the CD version of mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's program of Handel arias (Avie 0030). "If you need proof that Handel was a great dramatist with a special gift for communicating emotion, all while listening to sublime sounds, this CD is a must." I am pleased to report that the SACD version is phenomenal.

Hunt Lieberson's voice takes second place to no one's when it comes to creamy richness; comparisons to von Stade and te Kanawa are not out of line at all. But LHL is not just another pretty voice. She sings with a penetratingly intense intelligence. Her dramatic characterizations verge on channeling. Indeed, in a couple of the photos in the generous trilingual booklet, her aspect does eerily resemble 1920s radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (footnote 1). But I'm sure it's just the lighting.

Footnote 1: Trivia bit: One of the late actor Anthony Quinn's (The Guns of Navarrone, etc.) first professional engagements was, as a 14-year-old, playing sax in Sister Aimee's warmup band.