Once again we find ourselves sailing down the tracks towards glory! Join me as we try out some interesting new ideas with thes horrible, 4-wheeled death machines!
Thanks to the BEST colorizer around: Mrs. Kruggsmash! A HUGE thanks to all of my patrons, without whom I would not be doing these videos right now! And of course, special thanks to the creators of this beautiful, complex madness: Tarn & Zach Adams: http://bay12games.com/dwarves/ And of course, Thank you for watching, m'bastard. I couldn't do it without you.
This article is adapted from the February 26, 2022, edition of Gastro Obscura's Favorite Things newsletter. You can sign up here.
Last summer, I went to an upscale wine bar in the East Village, Manhattan. The waiter informed me that the menu’s theme that week was “unusual wines.”
My mind immediately went to a rare type of wine I’d become interested in. Excited, I asked if they had any made with grapes native to the Americas. The waiter gave me a quizzical look. “No,” he replied.
The problem was not that American wines are too common. Sure, there are wineries in California and Virginia and New Jersey. But almost all of them grow grapes imported from Europe.
In fact, just six grapes—cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and riesling—absolutely dominate winemaking, especially upscale wine. These so-called noble grapes all come from France or Germany.
I find this incredibly frustrating! Hundreds of books purport to explore the wide world of wine, and billions of dollars have been invested in viticulture. And yet, while I’ve yet to find hard data, it seems clear that the dominance of noble grapes has only increased in past decades.
Compared to modern beer culture, in which brewers are reviving old styles and inventing new ones, trying every possible ingredient from coffee to key lime, winemakers seem stuck in a dead end. It’s cripplingly conservative, bizarrely boring.
Select winemakers have championed other varieties, leading some in the industry to classify 12 additional grape varieties as “noble,” for a total of 18. But even that extra dozen are European. American grapes remain largely abandoned, their flavor potential unexplored.
Luckily, a few American winemakers are exploring this flavor frontier that I so desperately want to experience.
A Museum Designer Starts a Winery
To learn more about native American grapes, I spoke with Jerry Eisterhold, whose winery, Terra Vox, is the only one I know of in the United States that uses no vitis vinifera (the European species that includes all the noble grapes).
Located in Missouri, which was once a cradle of American viticulture, the vineyard is instead wholly devoted to making wine from native grapes.
Q: We’re talking today because you make wine with grapes from North America. Why is that unusual?
One reason is there's no brand recognition, and no one knows how to do it. So it's really inefficient from a business perspective.
The other is that wine culture is dominated by vinifera, and wine culture in the middle of the U.S. is kind of dominated by the French hybrids.
Many wines were developed in the 19th century. But with Prohibition, all of that exploration was just blown away.
There was kind of a process of cultural dominance. As people on the East Coast migrated westward, they carried with them the stuff that they were familiar with and planted that in their backyards and vineyards. No one was prompted to sort of go beyond the usual norm.
Q: Grapes from the Americas are consistently described as having a “foxy” flavor. What’s the deal with that?
I had always assumed the foxiness meant a sort of a wet dog aroma and flavor that you really don't want to put in your mouth, and everyone assumes that's what American grapes are.
I came across a book by this guy named T.V. Munson, where he had been identifying all the [species] of grapes on the planet. Of which one is vinifera; one is [American] labrusca, which includes Concord, Welch's, Manischewitz. It’s labrusca that has that foxiness.
But that's just one of many types of native wine he identified or developed, and many of the others grow in the Midwest. So that was the curiosity for me. What do these grapes have to say?
So there's a little bit of kind of an underdog, missionary trope going on [at Terra Vox]. I’m trying to show people that there's a lot more potential to these American grapes.
Q: How did you start making wine with American grapes?
My day job, I design museums. So I spend a lot of time doing research and in archives. And growing up on the Gasconade River, upriver from Hermann, Missouri, making wine is kind of mandatory.
In a used bookstore, I found that book by Thomas Vonne Munson. It’s called Foundations of American Grape Culture. In it, he identified not only different genuses of grapes, but hundreds of varieties that he had created [with American grapes or hybrids], many of which had commercial success way back when.
So I started tracking down the stuff. It took about a dozen years to track down some 60 of them. And then you have to try to figure out how to grow them. And that took about a dozen years. And then you figure out which of them will make a decent wine. And frankly, some of them do not.
Q: You alluded to the fact that working with native grapes is not a smart business move?
There's one variety that we got 100 cuttings of from a vineyard. And from those 100 cuttings, I got a single vine. That tells you they don't propagate very easily.
[These varieties] do all sorts of weird things that are just non-standard. And the conversation you have with the grapevine, it's not very immediate feedback. You try something, see what the results are, try it again next year, try something else next year.
We also really have to sell the idea of diversity [in wine] and exploring that diversity and getting people curious about this stuff, because no one's going into a restaurant and [asking for these wines].
Q: You talk about the winery like a living museum.
Yeah. It has to have that mission. If I had a board with a quarterly report, this would never fly. We need to get [financially] sustainable at some point. But we want to educate, to make things of quality that will represent these grapes.
Which is why, frankly, we started with 60 [grapes] and we're down to 40. We've been pretty rigorous about not putting things out there that we wouldn't actually want to put in our mouths.
Where to Try It
The majority of wine made with America’s native grapes is cheap, syrupy stuff that’s not intended for careful drinking. But several wineries offer you the chance to explore the frontier of American wines.
1) Terra Vox, Missouri
Eisterhold’s vineyard has a tasting room at the Green Dirt Farm Creamery in Weston, Missouri. It also offers curbside pickup and ships to most states in the U.S. I'm intrigued by the Cloeta, whose flavor Eisterhold describes as "a chocolatey, coffee-flavored thing."
2) Skeleton Root, Ohio
This winery in Cincinnati—another forgotten cradle of American wine—is where I had my first sip, or flight, rather, of wine made with native grapes. When you visit the vibe-y tasting room, ask for wines made with native grapes, because they also make wines with their European cousins. (Try pairing the Pét-Nat with pub fare.) The winery also ships across the United States.
Elden Ring is a terrible, ugly, weird, unpleasant, wonderful, sublime, addictive game, and I am not very good at it and I love it.
If you need a capsule review from me, that’s it.
My PS5 died on me in the middle of playing Horizon Forbidden West. This was a very good game and I loved it a lot, and I was literally in the middle of tweeting how I loved it a whole lot when the console shit the bed and bricked itself. I have heard stories of HFW bricking other consoles, some fixable, some not, though I assume it’s less the game and more that the console has some problems. My problem with those problems is, I’m just out of fucking warranty, which means Sony is like, “lol, pay us $199 to fix it, you dickhead,” and so now I’m very salty at them because they have little interest in supporting the console. (I’m paying it, of course, because I am just that dickhead. But I shouldn’t have to. I’m going to yell at my credit card company to see if they can help me, but who knows.)
I’d been hearing how fucking hard this game was, and I am the farthest thing these days from a GIT GUD gamer. I maybe could’ve been once, but my video game reflexes have turned to sponge cake, and the best I can do is button-mash wildly until a goal is achieved. I have withered.
As such, I committed, ha ha, I will never play this very mean game.
But all these people were like NO NO IT’S GREAT AND BEAUTIFUL and I was like, ha ha, not today, Satan, but I was bored and it did look pretty and some friends convinced me to try it on Xbox. So, apparently yes, today, Satan.
So, as a person very new to the Souls-like games, let me share with you my experience and my tips for this game, none of which will be revelatory or interesting to actual gamers, who are free to log off now and go do something better with their time.
My first realization with this game is it doesn’t hate you, it doesn’t love you, it actually doesn’t care about you at all. Meaning, it exists separate from you and your interests in it, or your interactions with it.
What I mean is this: it’s going to tell you almost nothing about how to play it. What clues it gives are tantalizingly spare. You are a baby in this world. You don’t know shit and your parents are gone and the only elder you have is Elden Ring, and Elden Ring doesn’t have time to show you how to walk or eat, you shitty fucking baby. Elden Ring has things to do, and hand-holding your way through its ugly-beautiful world and its Byzantine rules is not anywhere on that list.
I’ve been playing for… I dunno, fifteen, twenty hours at least, and I still don’t know what the fuck is actually going on. Not in the story. Not in the stats. Not with half the items. Here is what I do in the game, and this constitutes a tip in the sense that I am alerting to you that this play-style works and can actually be quite rewarding:
I began life as the Prisoner, who enters the game with what I believe is some kind of IRON BEDPAN SUBMERSIBLE helmet on their head. This character is ugly because I could not not create a hideously ugly character, a character who looks like some grungy dirt-farmer stitched from naughahyde. (Here I note this article: Elden Ring’s character creator fails Black players.) I have a stick that shoots slow magic swords at people. I have an estoc thrusting blade.
I run around. Aimlessly.
I kill the things I am able to kill, I run from the things I am unable to kill, at least in theory. Just as often, I am killed by fucking rats, or I manage to kill some pumpkin-headed hell-boss without thinking. You can count on no outcome.
I collect shit everywhere I go. I have zero idea what this shit actually is, or does, for the most part. YOU HAVE COLLECTED A FOUL EMBERSEED. YOU HAVE (1) GNARLED CRAB PHALLUS. YOU PICK UP THE CORRUPTED SHARDSCROLL OF BEARSCAT ACADEMY. I try to learn what these things do, and that only becomes more inscrutable. THE SHARDSCROLL MUST BE TURNED INTO THE BLIND KLEPTOCRAT ON THE RUINS OF DREAD JAPERY AND THEN FROM HIM YOU CAN BUY VENOMOUS TAINTFLOWERS WHICH ARE USED TO UPGRADE THE ASTROLOGER’S METEOR CODPIECE. I decide I don’t know what any of this means, so I continue on.
I get on my horse. I love my horse.
I ride to the furthest flung locales of the map.
I fight. I win. I fight. I die. I go back and recollect my runes. I die again recollecting my runes but at least I recollected them, so I can grab them again without dying the next time. Witness me.
I am killing zombie coal-miners and a giant fucking hell bear falls on my head.
I enter a cave and rats chase me into a chamber with a chest but then the floor collapses and this time, I fall onto a fucking hell bear’s head.
When I fight, I have the grace and aplomb of one of those magical dung beetles you have to kill in the game. I watch some videos and other players are elegantly side-stepping monstrous boss attacks. Meanwhile, I’m over here somersaulting into the wall like a mule-kicked fourth-grader; trapped there, I am given a broadsword colonic and hurriedly guzzle potions so I don’t expire three seconds into the fight. I swing a variety of bladed instruments and I run around and it feels like I’m trying to do parkour with a dump truck.
I find scenes of staggering beauty and brain-curdling ruin.
I love my spirit wolves.
I have killed almost no bosses. The ones I have killed are probably mini-bosses. I tried to kill Margit or Magrit a few times, and I got him about halfway down and haven’t gone back. I will. But I don’t have to yet. I’ve gotten distracted and am happy about the distraction. There are no real side missions, so I make my own, and my side missions are nearly always: “I dunno, let’s ride that way, and see what’s in that ruined tower.”
Everything is ruined and in ruins. The world is ruined. The enemies are ruined. You are ruined. You use runes found in ruins. It’s a thing.
The enemy AI is boldfacedly plain. Sometimes a dude will talk ten feet and turn around and walk back the other ten feet. They’re not even on looping paths like in Horizon, they’re just… set pieces, wobbling about.
Sometimes bosses randomly happen to you. You run into a clearing and next thing you know, you’re fighting some dude made of wolves and roots and his guts are hanging out and he beats you with his own whirling bowels and his name is like, BORGRAL THE MISBEGOTTEN, PRINCE OF WOLFROOT, KEEPER OF THE SACRED BOWELS. (There’s probably a story there, but the game won’t tell it to you.) You die fighting him, choked by coils of sentient intestine.
I’ve begun really putting my juice into magic, because magic seems like, well, magic. Instead of running up and bluntly headbutting wolves, I can sit back at a distance and pick them off. Most fights seem inelegant up close, which probably mirrors how real fights actually go — two dudes in metal suits clonking each other with more metal. Each fight seems to be its own little puzzle box, and if you want the runes inside that box, you must figure out how to open it.
You can do this, too. You don’t have to GIT GUD or even BE GUD ALREADY, you can just enter the game and fumble around like a dipshit and die a lot and get a tiny bit better every session and learn one small thing here and there, and you find eventually without even realizing it that you’re not dying as often. And that maybe you understand something today you didn’t yesterday. And just as you come to understand something, just as you know which direction the pain is coming from and you know to block it, the game sweeps your leg like Johnny Fucking Lawrence and you fall to the mat again.
Yet despite all this I am surprisingly zen about it all. I expected to hate it. I expected to throw my controller against the wall and break it into a thousand shards. Maybe because I can tell the game doesn’t think about me at all and never ever will, so I don’t have any investment in whether or not it pleases me. Maybe it’s because at this moment in time, in history, I’m not looking for the comfort of Animal Crossing but the soul-flensing punishment of a game whose kink is killing me over and over and over again. Maybe I’m angry enough at the world around me that in that anger, Elden Ring is a game that still looks like peace, like escape. I don’t know why any of this works. I should on paper hate the game, and the game just doesn’t give a fuck whether I like it or not. It’s not going to show me the way. It’s not going to explain itself. Like life, it is boldly unfuckwithable. I play it. I die. I don’t mind. It is what it is. It’s a terrible game. It’s brilliant. I don’t recommend it. Except when I do.