​December is upon us and with it, the rocky calendar of the year is careening to a halt. Thank the gods for that. Calendar 2017 brought huge changes for the Peña-Gaiser clan. After 32 years in San Francisco, we returned home to New Mexico to be near family and to also enjoy a more than slightly reduced cost of living. Needless to say, the move has been a monumental change for the three of us and we’re still trying to find our respective grooves. With that, in keeping with holiday posts from the last several years, I’ve assembled a list of potential holiday gifts for friends, family, and erstwhile conspirators. All are guaranteed to please. As I’ve mentioned many times before, it’s imperative that you give yourself something nice for the holidays. After all, how can you possibly expect anyone to have a clue as to what you really want? Know that I’ve already taken my own advice—and it’s listed below.  

*Disclaimer: rumors aside, the photograph above is not of my new living room. Alas. 

Wildwood Spirits Co.

Before getting started, pour yourself a stiff drink. A Negroni or Martini is the appropriate prescription for the holiday chaos–and there’s no better gin or vodka than from Erik Liedholm’s Wildwood Spirits. Liedholm, an advanced sommelier based in the Seattle area, is the corporate wine director for John Howie restaurants in Bellevue. He’s also the mind behind the Wildwood Spirits Co., producing outstanding spirits from local ingredients—a farm-to-still concept, if you will.

Several years ago Erik literally had 15,000 pounds of Washington wheat, gin apples, and Douglas fir shipped from Ballard back to Michigan State University, his alma mater, to gain needed knowledge and experience. There he worked with Master Distiller Kris Burlund to learn the art and craft of distillation.

Today Liedholm produces two bottlings at Wildwood; a vodka called Stark Vatten (Swedish for “strong water”) made from Washington heirloom variety red winter wheat and pure, filtered water; and Kur gin with notes of classic juniper, citrus, Douglas fir, and Braeburn apples. Kur has quickly become my new favorite gin. I compare it to the Rieslings of Dr. F. Weins-Prüm in the Mosel; effusively perfumed, elegant, and subtly textured. It makes a sublime Martini or adds a floral lift and shimmering texture to a Negroni. 

The Holiday Book Bag

The Art of Movement; NYC Dance Project, by Ken Browar and Deborah Ory  

​This is my favorite book of the year. I wrote about Ken Browar and Deborah Ory in a recent post. Their NYC Dance Project features stunning photographs of the world’s top dancers. Every time I open the book, I’m awestruck at the beauty and athleticism of these great dancers not to mention the amazing photography. I also feel a profound appreciation for the years—even decades–of long, intense training that goes into the career of a professional dancer. I often tell people that there is no way to “hack” being a professional taster. Add professional dancing to that list. Highly recommended. 

Artemis, by Andy Weir

​I read Andy Weir’s The Martian in almost ​one sitting a couple of years ago. Weir’s new novel, Artemis, is easily as good as his previous effort. The book is set on the moon years into the future after a permanent base has been established. Like The Martian, Weir formats Artemis into shorter chapters that move at a fast clip. The dialogue is witty and profane, the predicaments improbable, and the characters complex if not flawed. A perfect airplane book.

A Really Big Lunch: the Roving Gourmand on Food and Life, by Jim Harrison

Last year novelist Jim Harrison passed away at the age of 76. Harrison was Rabelais incarnate, possessing an enormous appetite for food, drink, hunting, fishing, and the outdoors. I first came across his work years ago in the form of short missives written for Kermit Lynch mailers. A Really Big Lunch is a collection of essays on food and drink that includes some of the Lynch snippets. Of special note is the chapter offering a detailed account of a lunch in France that featured 37 courses over 11 hours. In another chapter, Harrison bemoans his frequent attacks of gout, visits to doctors, and having to cut back from two bottles of red wine a day to just one. Ah, the pity. Curiously, white wine wasn’t serious wine to Harrison. A bottle of white was something to casually share with a mate in a boat while out fishing on quiet waters. Red wine was true wine and none better than Bandol of which two bottles seemed to be Harrison’s required daily ration. Reading A Really Big Lunch is to marvel at Harrison’s intellect and wit with outrageously funny quips pinging here and there throughout like a pinball machine on tilt. 

Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World, by Timothy Ferriss

Uber podcaster and blogger Tim Ferriss is back with another great book that gets a holiday recommendation. Faced with a personal/work catharsis this past year, Ferriss reached out for life advice from dozens of people who have been subjects of his podcast; literally the who’s who of finance, fitness, and practically every other walk of life. He posed 11 questions to them including the following: 

  1. What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
  2. What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months?
  3. How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite” failure? (this is my favorite)
  4. What is the best, most worthwhile investment you’ve ever made?
  5. What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world.” What advice should they ignore?

Most responded and some that did took the time to write thoughtful and wisdom-filled advice. Tribe of Mentors also contains hundreds of quotes from a wide range of sources. One of my favorites appears in the first few pages: “Pain is never out of season if you go shopping for it.” As with all other Ferriss books, this is a really good read. 

The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer, by Renée Fleming

Renée Fleming is one of the top operatic sopranos of the last 25-plus years. After reading her book, The Inner Voice, I’ll double down on my comment above about not being able to “hack” certain professions. Hacking opera singing at the highest level is frankly impossible because of the learning curve, inherent complexity, and required duration of time and experience–not to mention having a great voice and brilliant musicality.

In The Inner Voice, Fleming details her storied career from early experiences singing in church choirs and high school musicals to performing on the world’s top operatic stages with the greatest conductors and singers. The book is beautifully written and I highly recommend it to anyone taking the Master’s exam. Why? Because it’s often said that the exam is the most monumentally difficult thing in the world. After reading The Inner Voice, I’ve decided that’s far from true. In reading the book, one quickly discovers that establishing and maintaining a career as a top opera singer is far more difficult than any sommelier exam or competition could ever be.

The Art of Flavor: Practices and Principles for Creating Delicious Food, by Daniel Patterson and Mandy Aftel

Daniel Patterson of San Francisco restaurants Coi and Alta needs no introduction in the echelon of top American chefs. Berkeley-based Mandy Aftel* is one of the world’s top perfumers, known for her layered, beautifully complex scents crafted from all natural ingredients. Combine their extraordinary talents and you have the makings of a unique book—and a great read. The Art of Flavor is part cookbook, part alchemy. It breaks down the major aromatic and flavor components in food with cultural and historical backgrounds, all with the intent of explaining why the best combinations work. To read The Art of Flavor is to gain delicious insight into how the best recipes are constructed—and why they work so well.

*More from Mandy Aftel below

​The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman

​In The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman travels the globe and documents how certain birds rival primates and even humans in their intelligence and problem solving capabilities. I marveled at learning how the New Caledonia Crow—at the top of the Corvid family—can create “tools” on the fly (pun intended) in order to solve a complex, multi-stage problem to gain access to a food source. 

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman

No other top fiction writer of our time has drawn upon the power of ancient myth more than Neil Gaiman. In Norse Mythology, Gaiman reworks the timeless stories of Odin, Loki, and more with his usual polished storytelling and charm. And who knew that there was a Viking ship made from fingernails and toenails taken from the dead? I read Gaiman’s book in two quick sittings—and then immediately read it again. Highly recommended.

The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher’s Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything, by Marcello Gleiser
Brazilian-born Marcelo Gleiser is a world-renowned theoretical physicist and professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He’s written and published over 100 scientific papers and 5 popular science books that have been translated into over 15 languages. He’s also the co-founder of the Science and Culture blog 13.7, hosted by NPR. Gleiser is endlessly fascinated with the big questions of existence: the universe, matter, life—and fly-fishing. A Simple Beauty of the Unexpected is part popular science, part memoir. In it pages Gleiser uses fly-fishing to, as he puts it, “find a conduit to the outer world of natural phenomena and the inner world of the self.” Simple Beauty is well-written, thought provoking, and a fun read. 
Aftelier Perfumes
As mentioned above, Mandy Aftel is one of the world’s top perfumers, crafting scents from all natural ingredients. Aftel’s website (https://www.aftelier.com) contains a trove of information on scent as well a current listing of over 20 perfumes she personally created. The perfumes range in style from Soliflore (single flower) to Oriental to Woods and more. Each perfume can be purchased in various quantities including tiny .25 ml samples. These tiny vials served as inspiration for this year’s Christmas gift for my wife Carla, who is a fan and devotee of perfumes and essential oils. Recently I ordered samples of a dozen different Aftel perfumes with the idea of having her try them over a period of time and then choosing a favorite.

The first six samples arrived last week. As Carla and I went through them, my reaction to each was a simple and hushed “wow.” Like great wines—especially Rieslings and Burgundies–each of the perfumes, though utterly different in character, impressed with its purity and complexity. Equally as impressive was Aftel’s deft blending of seemingly unrelated aromatics to create contrast and a top-middle-bottom balance in each perfume (think floral, fruit, and truffle-earth notes in a White Burgundy or Rheingau Grosses Gewächs Riesling). The list of Aftel perfumes with thoughtfully written descriptions for each can be found at the following page:

Audioengine B2 Wireless Speaker
I own two pairs of Audioengine speakers. In fact, I’m listening to a pair of the larger desktop A5+’s as I write this. But I’d always wanted a good wireless speaker for the living room/dining room as playing tunes during cocktail hour and dinner is a longtime tradition in our household. Enter the B2, Audioengine’s wireless speaker. Like all Audioengine speakers, the B2 is solidly constructed from excellent materials and attractively designed. When mine was delivered, I set it up and was playing music through it in less than five minutes. The Bluetooth wireless function is outstanding. I can easily stream music to the speaker from my phone from the next room. The B2 also has an auxiliary connection for any iPods, iPads, or other music source. As for sound, the B2 has a built in amplifier and produces a very natural, dynamic sound with good bass and smooth, natural mid-and high ranges; it work well for most styles of music.