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The Night Gary Busey Threatened to Break Steve McDonald’s Arm

Posted by on Aug 18, 2018 in Blog, Essays, General Poker, Las Vegas, Personal | 0 comments




A few weeks ago, BARGE was held at Binion’s Casino in Downtown Las Vegas.  This marked my 22nd consecutive year to attend the annual poker and social gathering, which is a week-long festival of fun.  This year might have been the last such event at Binion’s.  We’ll see about that.  However, BARGE is certain to continue being held somewhere in Las Vegas.  Visit for more information.

One of the new faces this year at BARGE was Steve McDonald.  I called and invited Steve to play — and was thrilled when he accepted the invitation.  Steve isn’t that well known in poker, but he certainly should be.  Back in 2002-2004, Steve pretty much held the crumbling old Horseshoe together with a box of band-aids and was certainly responsible for keeping the World Series of Poker above ground while it was sinking.  Others — including me, tournament directors Matt Savage and Jim Miller got much of the credit.  But behind the scenes, Steve was everyone’s anchor.  He did everything, 16 hours a day, and never once complained.

Steve is a schoolteacher now.  He’s doing something really good by trying to help children learn.  I wasn’t surprised to hear that Steve had moved on from the casino business, which can be shallow and frankly, unfulfilling.  In fact, I’m glad Steve is doing what he can to make a difference in the lives of others.  I admire that.

After BARGE wrapped up, Rodney Chen, the event’s official photographer, posted several photos online of those who attended.  That’s when I happened to come across the photo above, showing Steve looking straight into the camera (credit Rodney Chen for the photo).  That’s a look I know all too well.  From the day I first met Steve back in 2002, he hasn’t changed a bit.

Upon reflection, I realized most of those who were at BARGE probably didn’t know who Steve was, nor did they know his whole story.  They unlikely were to know how important Steve was during a critical junction in poker history.  That’s not surprising, really.  Steve never calls attention to himself.

So, please allow me to do the honors.

Seeing the photo of Steve reminds me of one of his funniest stories.  It sure wasn’t funny at the time it happened.  But looking back now, we’ve all enjoyed a chuckle about the incident involving actor Gary Busey playing at a charity event years ago.  I wrote about the crazy episode back in 2013 and posted the story here.  Busey may have been the celebrity at our table, but Steve turned out to be the real star of the show.

Here’s the story of what happened.


Playing Poker with Actor Gary Busey




I’ve met a few celebrities over the years.  Some of them I remember.  Most were forgettable.

But not Gary Busey.  He made an impression.  Quite a lasting impression.

A few years ago, the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas hosted a charity poker tournament.  I was invited to attend and play.  Typically, these lighthearted events consist of a mix of poker insiders and casino high rollers, with a few celebrities sprinkled into the field to keep things fun.  My poker table included none other than actor Gary Busey, who displayed one of the most bizarre episodes of erratic behavior that I’ve ever witnessed by someone famous.

Busey has spent much of his life in front of the cameras.  He’s probably best known for his Oscar-nominated portrayal of one of rock n’ roll’s icons — playing the title character in The Buddy Holly Story.  More recently, Busey has appeared in several big-budget action films, including Under Siege, Lethal Weapon, Point Break, as well as several recurring television roles.  But Busey is just as famous — make that infamous — for the drama in his personal life, which included a death-defying motorcycle crash and several public outbursts fueled by drug and alcohol abuse.  Supposedly, on the night Busey attended the charity poker tournament, he was both “sober” and “born again.”  If that’s true, it made his behavior all the more baffling.

When Busey took a seat next to me, I knew instantly that we’d all be in for quite a show.  Busey didn’t disappoint us.

The first thing we noticed was that Busey had never played No-Limit Texas Hold’em before.  He had no idea about the rules.  Fair enough.  Everyone at the table, especially dealers and staff, were eager to help out our VIP guest.  Fact is, no one wanted to see any of the celebrities eliminated early.  After all, this was intended to be a fun social event.

When Busey was dealt his two cards face down, he had utterly no understanding of the importance of concealing his hand.  So, he’d flash his cards to the rest of the table and talk openly about what he held.  When it became his turn to act, he’d ask, “Now what am I supposed to do?”

This was funny the first few times he did it.  Less so, as the action was incessantly delayed and Busey showed no inclination whatsoever to try and learn the rules.  It was like teaching and then playing poker with a two-year-old.

Totally oblivious to normal poker etiquette when players out the hand talk softly, if they talk at all, Busey behaved like he was the center of attention and total life of the party.  He ignored the other players and the betting action completely — even when someone moved all in, which is normally a tense time at the poker table.  Busey would laugh openly after players took a beat and asked completely irrelevant questions while others were pondering a critical decision.

But what was most peculiar of all was Busey’s seemingly duel personality.  As he became increasingly bored with a game that he neither understood nor had any desire to learn, Busey began exhibiting the characteristics of someone with multiple personality disorder.  Witnessing this human train wreck was like watching master of improvisation, launching into multiple characters in the midst of a showstopping comedy routine.  Only, Busey wasn’t joking.  This wasn’t an act.

At one point, the casual table chatter turned to Busey’s noble recovery from his terrible motorcycle accident years earlier.  That triggered a terribly overlong and out-of-place religious sermon about the power of Jesus at which time he started quoting Bible scripture.  From that moment on, he hollered “Hallelujah!” at the top of his voice every time something at the table pleased him.

Then, a few attractive women in the crowd who were watching the table action managed to catch the actor’s eye.

The hot girls made Busey’s head pinball back and forth between the game and the attraction along the rail.  He rotated between Bible-thumper and a bug-eyed slimeball on the prowl for tail.  Busey would belt out a loud “Praise Jesus!” to the table, then a stray female managed to catch his eye.  Then, he’d flash his pearly-white chompers, whirl around in his chair, and leer forward in order to get a better view of the physical package packed inside a short skirt, and holler out in his most convincing lounge lizard voice, “Hey, hot Mama!”


The rest of the table shifted our eyes and glanced down towards the felt, awkwardly trying to figure out if what we were seeing was real, or not.  And so, between Busey’s awkward Bible study soliloquies on First Corinthians interspersed with shocking speculation about the physical talents of females in our immediate vicinity, the course of events somehow deteriorated from that point onward.

That’s right.  Deteriorated. 


As previously noted, Busey had apparently never played Hold’em before, nor any other flop game which included posting blinds.  After several rounds of play and escalating blind levels, Busey became increasingly annoyed with the notion of posting a blind.  He called it a “stupid rule.”  At one point he became fed up and snapped that he refused to post to post a blind.  Had this been a comedy act, it might have brought a few laughs.  But Busey was dead serious.  Even angry.

Frustrated that he was getting low on chips and posting blinds was mandatory, Busey protested.  He failed to understand why he had to commit chips to the pot without even seeing his cards.  So, Busey stopped the action and instructed the dealer that he didn’t want to be dealt into the next hand.   The dealer looked at Busey with a blank stare.  The action froze.  The dealers did his best to explain to Busey that sitting out wasn’t an option in tournament poker.

“I don’t like that!” Busey said.  “I protest!

The dealer had no idea what to do.  After another minute or so of unprecedented back and forth arguing (this was a charity poker tournament, not usually a scene of conflict), a floor man was finally summoned over to the table.  The floor man politely explained to Busey that posting blinds was a standard tournament procedure.  Again, Busey refused and became even more stubborn.

“I refuse to do that!” he said.  “If I have to do that, then I don’t want to play!”

The dealer, a friend named Steve McDonald, finally got fed up with the nonsense.  By then, he’d had more than enough of Busey’s antics.  So, had everyone else at the table.  McDonald reached across the table and plucked chips from Busey stack in order to post the blind.  Well, that made the actor go ballistic.

Busey snapped his head down like he was possessed.  Next, he slammed his hand down on the dealer’s arm like a claw, locked a death grip on the invader’s wrist, and squeezed hard.

“Don’t touch my chips! Busey screamed.  “You can’t do that!  You can’t touch my chips!”

The entire table was flabbergasted.  No one knew how to react.  We didn’t know whether to roll onto the floor laughing or be horrified.

“Don’t touch my chips!  I’ll break your arm!”

Busey’s arm-wrestled back and forth with McDonald’s wrist for a few seconds before a few stray chips flung into the air and then sprayed all over the table.  It was complete bedlam.

Fortunately, at that very instant, another good-looking girl walked by and probably unknowingly saved the tournament from turning into a scene of total chaos.  Busey became distracted by the new eye candy just long enough to holler out another one of his patented can’t-miss pick-up lines, “Hey, Hot Mama!” while enough chips were dislodged from his stack for the blind.  Then, the cards were dealt.

Are we having fun yet?

Action revolved around the table to the big blind where Busey was so distracted and in such a piss-poor sour mood that he stood up from the table and announced he no longer wanted to play.  With that, Busey threw his remaining chips into the pot without looking at his cards and then stormed out of the room before the flop was dealt out.

Yes, at least Busey made a lasting impression.  That’s when someone at our table used Busey’s own line:




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100 Essential Albums: #94 — Back to Black by Amy Winehouse (2006)

Posted by on Aug 17, 2018 in Blog, Essays, Music and Concert Reviews | 0 comments



I fall in love every day.  Not with people, but with situations.

 — Amy Winehouse


Amy Winehouse’s stratospheric talent as a singer-songwriter-performer was overshadowed by her often scandalous behavior and trainwreck of a personal life, which led to her untimely death at age 27.  Drug abuse had been an ongoing problem for Winehouse, but her official cause of death in 2011 was alcohol poisoning.  Some contend the constant 24/7 paparazzi harassment and tabloid-inflamed tensions really killed her.

The British soul singer was the proverbial candle lit at both ends, burning ever so brightly for too short a time, which extinguished abruptly but not unexpectedly before she achieved what might have been a lengthy and legendary career.

Winehouse had everything going for her, career-wise.  Natural talent.  Charisma.  A distinctive look.  Perhaps most impressive of all — she radiated instantaneous musical adaptability.  Winehouse could sing and perform virtually any style of song and yet make it seem all her own.  She was a master of her craft, melding an all-too-familiar retro-R&B sound combined with an ultramodern and eclectic vocal signature.  Her sense of timing and phrasing was impeccable.  She made singing look and seem easy, because for her — it was easy.  It was living and dealing with her overnight superstardom that turned out to be hard.

The London-born artist, so easily recognizable for her beehive hairdo and evocative eyeliner that spawned a fashion wave of copycats, was often at her best when singing live and even better with the simple strumming accompaniment of an acoustic guitar.  She could command an entire arena packed with 20,000 screaming fans with a whisper but appeared most comfortable when stripped bare of the bright lights with nothing more a poignant song and her lone voice to fill a room.  She personified an “I don’t give a fuck attitude,” a constant strain that’s pervasive throughout all her music, but also revealed inner sensitivity and deep vulnerability that made her someone with whom the audience could identify, and perhaps even see a bit of themselves.  Her best songs were about self-doubt and lost love.

Winehouse was a monstrous talent who, like so many before her, died way too young.  We can only dream what else she might have done had she been with us longer.


Winehouse recorded only two studio albums.  Both are worth a listen.  However, her second album, Back to Black, was a far more mature compilation.  It certainly contains a more diverse collection of styles than her debut.  Frank, released in 2003.  Frank had been a jazz-infused album paying homage to Sinatra, one of Winehouse’s strongest musical influences.  Her follow-up release intended to focus on the distinctive style and unique sound of the famous girl groups of the early 1960’s.  And, she pulled this off magnificently.

Yet, Winehouse never aims for sweet nostalgia on Back to Black.  There are no musty cover ballads in this unique compilation of songs.  Winehouse wrote virtually every note and lyric in the 11-song collection, which clocks in at 35 minutes in duration.  While she may have intended to honor the girl groups she revered, it’s Winehouse herself who ends up as rightful heir to the throne.

Predictably, several hit singles spawned from Back to Black, which instantly reignited her appeal as a popular live act.  Indeed, Winehouse spent most of her seven-year career trapped in the beam of a stage spotlight giving an unrelenting series of live performances, rather than dedicating much time to her craft in the studio.  Although her live act later hatched the release of I Told You I Was Trouble:  Live in London, which came out in 2007, one wishes that instead, she’d spent far more time writing and recording.

Consider this somewhat impromptu vocal demonstration on a British radio program, with only a simple guitar as accompaniment.  Performing “Valerie,” from the previous album, it’s a testament to Winehouse’s innate sense of timing:


Back to Black starts with “Rehab,” an autobiographical tease that’s become her signature song.  Written and performed uptempo as a mockery of her highly-publicized bouts with drug addiction and alcohol abuse, “Rehab” foreshadows the deeply personal angst to come throughout the remainder of the album.

“You Know I’m No Good,” is the album’s second track (listen above).  This 1-2 punch with “Rehab” as the opener works perfectly as Winehouse’s self-confessional.  She acknowledges needing help and expresses doubts about her own self-worth.  The bluesy brass accompaniment and riveting bass lines fit perfectly with Winehouse’s taunting lyric.

Put on a blindfold and listen to “Me and Mr. Jones,” the third track.  Winehouse sounds just like Aretha Franklin in her prime performing a song written as the female answer to Billy Paul’s 1972 classic, “Me and Mrs. Jones.”

Other highlights from Back to Black include the familiar title track and “Tears Dry on Their Own.”  But the highlight may be the self-professed fatalism expressed in “Love is a Losing Game.”

Winehouse made some excellent choices when it came to her music.  Unfortunately, she failed to exercise the same discretion in her personal relationships, which were riddled with negative influences upon her life and career.  Burned out and cynical by the time Back to Black was released to rave critical reviews and massive worldwide acclaim, here’s Winehouse’s video to her deeply introspective song “Love is a Losing Game.”


After her death, record companies were eager to find the “next Amy Winehouse.”  Adele and Duffy are two artists often compared to Winehouse for their distinctive vocal qualities and natural abilities to improve upon familiar sounds.  Numerous popular female singers today cite Winehouse as a profound influence on their music.  Spin magazine noted that Winehouse was the “Nirvana moment” for the next generation of female musicians.

No doubt, Winehouse always insisted on doing things her own way.  Here’s a song rarely covered by other artists, but performed beautifully live in-studio by Winehouse on a BBC broadcast.  She takes The Beatles’ classic “All My Loving,” not exactly the ideal tune for a solo female to cover, and manages to create quite a different interpretation of the familiar ballad.  Give Winehouse’s version of “All My Loving” a listen here:


Note:  This is the latest segment in a series of reviews and retrospectives of my “100 Essential Albums,” which will be posted here regularly on my website over the next year, or so.  Previous selections include:

#100:  Black Moses  — by Isaac Hayes (1971)

#99:  Soul of a Man — by Al Kooper (1995)

#98:  Jagged Little Pill — by Alanis Morissette (1995)

#97:  Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back — by Frank Sinatra (1973)

#96:  The Doors — by The Doors (1967)

#95:  Ellington at Newport — by Duke Ellington (1956)



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Emotional Rescue: Short Takes on Aretha, Catholicism, Casinos, Omarosa, and Other Topics

Posted by on Aug 16, 2018 in Blog, Essays, Personal, Politics, What's Left | 6 comments



Today is Thursday, August 16th, 2018.  The scattershooting begins….



I woke up to the news Aretha Franklin has died.  All her tributes are well deserved and I won’t rehash the outpouring of adoration for this remarkable woman and her immense talent.  In my lifetime there have been only two artists who could take any song and their interpretation was certain to improve upon the original.  Ray Charles was the first.  Aretha Franklin was the second.  That’s it.  Either master of music could turn the most ordinary song into a rousing chorus of mass elation.  Either could take a gospel song, a patriotic anthem, a rock standard — the source didn’t matter — and make it their own sound.

I also can’t resist the temptation to emphasize how Aretha’s passing is yet another blow to real music and genuine talent, which as the years pass seems to be in shorter supply.  Elton John, who has been a vociferous critic of modern recording abominations like Autotune for years, hammered this point in his tweet this morning when he wrote:   “The loss of Aretha Franklin is a blow for everybody who loves real music: Music from the heart, the soul and the Church. Her voice was unique, her piano playing underrated – she was one of my favourite pianists.”

R.I.P. Queen of Soul.



I can’t even fucking comprehend this.

Yesterday, we learned 300 Catholic priests sexually assaulted more than 1,000 children.  But here’s the real shocker — these terrible acts happened in just the state of Pennsylvania!

One state!  Hundreds of religious pedophiles.  A thousand victims.

We can presume that state borders don’t stop pedophilia.  If these horrors are happening in Pennsylvania, one can reasonably suspect there are probably just as many predators and their victims in the other 49 states, and many foreign countries.  In other words, this is likely just scratching the surface.

Something must be done.  Now.  Something should have been done decades ago, but a religious institution that’s been directly responsible for more misery in the world arguably than any other entity remains virtually untouchable.  Where is law enforcement?  Where’s the church’s morality?  Where’s our collective outrage?  These buildings should be shut down and sold off.

Indeed, the hundreds of billions in assets of the Catholic Church, so much of it attained by theft, fear, and deception should be stripped away and distributed to the victims of this awful mind-warping institution.

All organized religions are corals and smokescreens.  It’s time to stand up to our mass ignorance and collective denial.



The casino industry is in trouble.  It’s no longer growing.  The numbers are stagnant, and demographic shifts in coming years will only make problems worse.

Casinos did this entirely to themselves.  Corporate greed.  Over-expansion.  Mass saturation.  Parking fees.  Retail shakedowns.  Absurd resort fees.  Less bang for the gambling buck.  Every gambler knows this.  Every tourist realizes this.

All the major casinos in Las Vegas saw their revenues drop in the first half of the year — this decline despite a so-called “boom economy.”  Earlier this week, Resorts World, the new $4 billion mega-casino that recently opened in New York’s Catskills, reported losing $58 million in its first five months of operation.  The future looks even bleaker since new casinos are scheduled to open and/or expand in nearby states Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

It’s madness.

I never thought I’d write these words but — we have enough casinos already.

Except in Texas, of course, where there should be casinos.  Smart policy would be to close about a third of the casinos in the saturated Northeast and shift them to Texas.  Of course, this won’t happen.  Stupidity is epidemic — in corporate casino culture, in politics, and certainly among fearful little minds.



I don’t have much good to say about the flash-in-the-political-fryer, Omarosa, Donald Trump‘s latest distraction-de-jour.  Yeah, she’s a gold-digging, attention-craving nobody.  She’s probably lied on many occasions.  She’s utterly worthless.

Trouble is, President Orange Idiot hired her.  Multiple times.  He plucked her from obscurity to be on his awful faux-reality show, “The Apprentice,” then after she proved utterly incapable of working with anyone else, next she was brought in personally by Trump to one of the highest-paying adviser positions in the White House.

Yeah, Trump created this beast.  The moron hired her.  The idiot made her relevant, again.  Now, she’s turning on the ringmaster and trying to create her own circus.

Yet another scandal.  The backstabbing couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy.

Go Omarosa.

Please.  Go the fuck away!



Finally, a few shorter more personal thoughts:

— A friend of mine, George Wattman, has become a beekeeper.  A few months ago, he bought some hives and now raises bees.  A big part of his motivation was doing something good for the environment.  Bees are essential to life and our survival.  This is such a good thing.  We need more bees.  We need more people like George.

— I wish more of my friends would run for public office.  Even if it’s just a small position.  I realize politics opens candidates up to scrutiny and criticism.  Many years ago, I ran for a city council seat, and it was one of the most interesting experiences of my life.  It’s probably too late to do anything this year in 2018, but I urge my friends and colleagues to get involved and consider doing more to improve our communities.

— In that vein, it was pleasing to have lunch with my pal Nick Christenson, a few days ago.  During our discussion, Nick informed me he’s volunteered as the chairman of a progressive organization intent on turning out a big vote in Nevada’s congressional district #3.  He’s adamant that this midterm election coming up in November is absolutely critical to our future.  If you are upset by what you’re witnessing on so many levels, be sure and register to vote.  Better yet, get involved.

— If someone were to ask me what’s the best evidence of an open mind and the most reliable indication of being a voice worth listening to, it’s philosophical and moral consistency.  Most social media interaction has become hopelessly siloed to an echo chamber of perpetual self-aggrandizement.  Want to know who to listen to and learn from?  Look for people who occasionally break away from conventional expectation and tribal instincts and defend ideas, people, and principles thought to be outliers.  An open mind is a gift.  A closed mind is a curse.

— Finally, I’m eternally grateful for all the kind thoughts and interactions my posts receive on Facebook.  I wish I could thank each one of you, even those who disagree with many of my ideas.  In fact, pressure testing of ideas is vitally important.  So, I owe many of those who ask questions a debt of gratitude.  All I can say is — thank you.  Please do keep posting comments.


Until next time.  Thanks for reading.



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Ten Splendid Summer Wines for Less than $7

Posted by on Aug 15, 2018 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Travel | 1 comment



Love to drink wine in the summertime?

Yeah, me too!

Trouble is, many wines are a bit too heavy, especially in hotter climates.  For instance, those of us who reside in cities like Las Vegas don’t tend to drink as much red wine as our friends living in more temperate climates — including California and France.  Sure, I do enjoy red wine during the summer on occasion, particularly in the evening.  But my daily summer “go to” wines tend to be cool crisp white varietals.

White wines — including Riesling, Chardonnay, Voigner, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet, and even sweeter dessert wines like Prosecco — are more refreshing to the pallet than red wines.  Perhaps it’s just a matter of personal preference.  Your mileage and tastes may vary.

To me, red wines are ideal for drinking during the cooler fall and colder winter months.  Whites are perfect for late spring and all summer.  I cannot drink much red wine when it’s really hot outside because — red wine is served warmer and I tend to develop what’s called “dry mouth” after drinking multiple glasses.  So, I generally consume white wine far more frequently and in greater quantities.  The alcohol content of whites also tends to be slightly lower than reds.  Fortunately, there are many splendid affordable white wines available in most places which are perfect for a warm summer afternoon.

Before getting to the specific wines I enjoy, first a few remarks about temperature.  It’s absolutely critical to serve these wines chilled.  Nothing kills a refreshingly smooth taste like a temperature about ten degrees too high, which is so common.  Many of us drink wines served either too cold or too warm.  My best advice is to take a bottle from the refrigerator, leave it out for about 5-7 minutes, and then (very important!) pour into a chilled glass.  A minute or two later that’s usually the perfect temperature, and the glass will keep the contents chilled for the duration of consumption.  Serve them cold, and enjoy!

Here’s a list of my top ten summer white wines.  The only requirements were:

[1] I must have consumed at least a case each in order to get a comprehensive profile.

[2] The bottle must cost $6.99, or less.

[3] The wine must be readily available at most national retail outlets.

And now, for my top 10 cheap summer wines countdown:


(10)  Belles Vignes Sauvignon Blanc [France] — This French-made budget beauty was a surprising discovery from Trader’s Joe’s.  Priced at just $4.99, it’s readily available in local markets.  Based on its popularity, evidenced by lots of bottles plucked from the shelves before my arrival (sometimes they sell out), it seems to be catching on as a decent and ridiculously affordable summer crowd pleaser.  Dry and quite tart to the taste, there’s a slight pucker factor.  Reviews generally describe Belles Vignes as “strong and complex, with aromas of white flowers, apricot, honey and exotic fruits.”  The bottle is also indented with the vineyard’s crest.  This looks and tastes far more expensive than it is.  Belles Vignes is a consistent can’t miss wine suitable for just about any occasion.  Found this back in April and dusted through about three cases, so far.  Marieta also enjoyed a sip, or two.


[9]  Lancers Rose[Portugal] — Wine snobs will scoff at this pick.  But then, why would a snob be reading an article about cheap $7 wines?  Lancers is one of the oldest, most popular wines in the world.  It first debuted in 1944, towards the end of World War II, and quickly spread from its native Portugal to the rest of Europe.  Soon, Lancers made it way across the Atlantic and has been available in the United States for more than 50 years.  Lancers is distinctive for a number of reasons, perhaps most notably because of its unusual ceramic red clay bottle, although some more modern vintages are now bottled in a muted glass (I’ve seen both on display recently).  It’s also a sparkling rose — not a white, like most wines on this list.  Lancers has perfected the art of making fun and affordable wine for the entire world.  I enjoyed my first bottle about 30 years ago and it’s just as refreshing and enjoyable today.  Lancers is available just about anywhere, costing $6-9 on average.  I regularly see it priced at $5.99 at Total Wine in Las Vegas.  The only downside to Lancers is — it must be consumed an entire bottle at a time.  After the wine is opened, much like champagne, it doesn’t keep well for the following day due to the pressurized bubbling method.  I’ve never viewed that as a problem.  More of an invitation.  And if you have trouble consuming an entire bottle in on sitting, then please invite me over.  I’ll bring the corkscrew.


[8]  Santa Cristina Pinot Grigio [Italy] — I used to have a strong negative bias towards Italian wines.  In many ways, I still hold this prejudice.  I simply don’t find many Italian wines either worth drinking regularly, nor a good value.  So, it was a pleasant surprise to discover this rare Tuscan-grown white that was a notable exception.  About three years ago, we attended a wine dinner where Santa Cristina was poured.  Something hit me at that moment.  It was perfect for the occasion.  I asked other quests for their impressions and the verdict was unanimous.  Santa Cristina was a shockingly good gem of a surprise, to all of us.  Since then, I’ve noticed this wine all over the retail market map — priced as high as $11 in some places and sold at a Dollar Store in another (yes, seriously — I bought out the entire shelf).  It now seems to have hit a sweet spot of about $5.99 in markets where it’s sold.  Lighty and fruity, this is a cheerful summer wine that stands apart from other Italian whites.  However, I cannot recommend Santa Cristina reds, which I tried as a curiosity.  Stick to the Tuscan whites in summer.  They are a very drinkable bargain.


[7]  Rebuttel Chardonnay [California USA] — If ever there was a cheap-looking bottle that screamed “Don’t Buy This!” the Rebuttel Chardonnay is it.  Non-descript and virtually unknown, it’s a somewhat new palate-pleasing middle-ground of oak, dryness, and fruitiness originating in California’s Lodi region and Central Coast.  White wine aficionados have become widely accustomed to what’s commonly known as “butter bombs,” and I sure love them, too.  This is one of those departure wines which isn’t nearly as robust or oaky.  It’s smooth and light to the taste.  Frankly, I wouldn’t serve this wine if I was trying to create a powerful impression.  Packaging and taste are not mind-blowing.  However, if you enjoy consuming a multitude of signature tastes, this becomes a solid “go to” summer wine that’s good for a crowd.  It’s priced at $5.99.  I predict that in a blind taste test if served to a wide cross-section at a party, if this wine was poured, it would probably be among the most popular.  Nothing too wild here, but just like a Volvo, gets the job done.


[6]  Mbali Chenin Blanc-Viognier [South Africa] — This unusual South African discovery was a recent find at World Market.  I’ve also seen it on sale at Trader Joes.  Priced at $5.49, this is more complex than one would normally find in the “cheap wines” category.  I’m quite partial to the Viognier grape varietal, which originated in Southern France but has since been widely grown throughout California, Australia, and the Western Cape of South Africa, which produces some marvelously drinkable wines.  The trouble is, really exceptional viogniers tend to run a bit on the expensive side.  This is one of those full-bodied whites that drinks in a higher taste class (Cline’s Viognier priced around $12 is the very best, IMHO).  Actually, Mbali is blended with Chenin Blanc, but I don’t perceive much of a drop off in either quality or complexity.   Mbali is one of those wines you probably haven’t heard of yet (it was new to me, also) and see it priced low and assume there must be something wrong with it.  Quite the contrary.  This is very zesty light 13 pct. alcohol summer treat.


[5]  Menage a Trois Chardonnay [California USA] — This is a very popular California favorite with a crisp lemon and lime taste.  Normally, I shy away from catchy names and ornate labels (which hype novelty over quality).  Here’s a rare exception to the general rule to avoid cutesy sexy wines.   All the Menage a Trois wines are quite good and they make a bunch.  They make a dozen reds and six varietals of white.  The chardonnays rank among the best on the market for the money.  Priced as low as $6.99, either the Chardonnay and/or generically-labeled “California White Wine” are quite drinkable.   Their Prosecco is also very tasty if you crave a bit more sweetness and want a little bubbly.  If you venture to step up a little in price, the Gold label Chardonnay is bombshell wine, with 14.8 alc. content.  Aged in classic French oak, it has a long lingering finish that’s very pleasing.  All the Menage a Trois wines are often cited as bargains on most expert wine rankings.  I agree.


[4]  Segura Viudas Cava Brut Rose [Spain] — No summer list would be complete without including at least one sparkling wine (or champagne).  Produced in Torrelavit, Spain, this was a shocking surprise we made this year which drinks as well as any $100 bottle of prized bubbly.  Admittedly, I’m bending the rules just a bit because it’s rarely under $7, but I have seen it on sale.  Listed right now at $7.99 at Costco, this rose-colored delight makes for the perfect toast.  Highly drinkable, tasteful, gorgeous in color, Segura Viudas is far more than just a serviceable palate cleanser.  Instead of pouring the dreadfully awful industrialized sparkling wines we often are forced to choke down at holiday affairs, Segura Viudas should be mass produced and made mandatory as the new rocket fuel for everyone’s 4th of July or New Year’s Eve.  It’s superb.  [Note:  I’ve listed this pick on my favorites list before and received multiple comments from readers who have also enjoyed this selection]


[3]  Emma Reichart Riesling / Emma Reichart Rose Pinot Noir [Germany] — This German varietal was a shocking discovery.  We purchased a Riesling and a Rose from Trader Joes.  They were $4.99 each.  Not expecting much (I don’t like sweet Rhein Valley wines), this wine was a surprising find and one of the best new items on the market.  She makes two wines — a Reisling that’s as good as any bargain wine I’ve tasted.  But real standout was her Rose made from Pinot Noir grapes.  Rose wines can be a crapshoot.  Many are boring.  Emma Reichart’s Rose, however, is the perfect summer pour.  Simply labeled, gorgeous in color, fruity, with a clean aftertaste, Emma Reichart’s wines should explode on the market.  This might already be happening.  After enjoying a few more bottles, we returned to Trader Joes and was surprised to discover they were sold out.  We ordered a case (and a month later, I’m down to just three bottles).  Time to return to Trader Joe’s.  I’ll race you there.  Order this wine (either the Riesling or the Rose)– they’re fabulous.


[2]  Revelation Chardonnay [France] — This wine is the steal of the year.  Priced at just $5.99 and exclusively sold in the U.S. at Trader Joes, it’s, well — a revelation.  Over the years I’ve enjoyed countless bottles of semi-expensive Chardonnays poured at various wine dinners and courses.  This drinks as well as any $50 bottle.  Cool and crisp, it has just the right balance of fruit and acidity.  If I had to pick one bargain wine in the world to serve, for the money right now, Revelation would be it.  Trouble is, it’s becoming much harder to find.  After ordering a case a few months ago, my last few trips there came up empty.  Finding out much about the Revelation label is a task.  I presume it’s a blend of various mass-produced Chard grapes throughout the Bordeaux region of France, bottled, and shipped off to various parts of the world under assorted labels for different suppliers.  But this is pure speculation.  Retailer Trader Joes likely ordered a small initial stock and then saw it fly off the shelf.  I’m hoping to locate more of this wine, drink more, and learn more about why it’s a cut above the rest of the bargains on my list.  Note:  I tried one bottle of the Revelation Cabernet Sauvignon and it was very good.  But the Chardonnay is on a different planet.


So, what’s my Number 1 pick?  I’m going to leave this coveted spot open and let you decide.  Perhaps it’s somewhere on my list and should be ranked higher.  Maybe it’s a wine I haven’t discovered yet.  Perhaps you know something I don’t.  If so, please share!

The sum total of all my TEN NINE wines combined comes to $51.44 (plus tax).



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Airlines and Air Travel Safety: Is it Time for a Take Off?

Posted by on Aug 14, 2018 in Blog, Essays, Travel | 1 comment




Fact:  Air travel has never been safer.

Also a fact:  Air travel has never been more of a hassle.

Are these two statements correlated?  Probably so.

While growing up, I remember a steady stream of news reports about deadly plane crashes and airline hijackings.  Almost every week, it seemed, a plane was crashing somewhere or getting hijacked by terrorists.  These frightening events don’t happen nearly as often anymore, especially here in the United States.  But, many years ago. they were commonplace.

So, what happened?  Why are there fewer plane crashes today despite far more aircraft, flights, and passengers?  Furthermore, why have hijackings virtually been eliminated as a serious threat?

The answer has much do with airport security and the application of comprehensive national safety standards mandated by our federal government.  All luggage gets x-rayed  Every passenger is screened.  Suspicious activity is scrutinized.  While no system is perfect, statistics reveal that airline security personnel do a remarkably good job of making us safer in the skies.  They instill public confidence that we’ll make it to our travel destination in one piece.  More important, because of multiple layers of security, potential terrorists and hijackers have become deterred from doing crazy things to an airplane and passengers who fly.

Airline security continues to evolve.  It is a continuous work in progress.  It’s also widely inconsistent.  Some passengers go through what amounts to a strip search.  Other, far luckier passengers, skip screening checkpoints entirely (pre-screening).  At some airports, we must remove our shoes.  At other airports, it’s unnecessary.  Some checkpoints mandate removing electronic devices from our carry-ons, including laptops.  Others disregard the procedure entirely.  Going through a TSA screening has become like a game of travel roulette.  You could be padded down and questioned.  You might also skip through and get on to your gate in seconds, without delay.  Perhaps this randomness is entirely by design.  Terrorists never can be sure when or where they might be detained and questioned.  That’s probably a good thing.

Nonetheless, just how much security is too much security is an ongoing debate.  Trouble is, once security measures have been implemented in any sector (airports, government buildings, stadiums), they rarely get reduced or downsized.  We get stuck with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), gauntlets of barricades, obsessive enforcement of no parking zones, and a loss of civil liberties — forever.  We seem increasingly willing to surrender our individual rights and personal comforts at an alarming pace in the name of “security.”

Indeed, in our security-conscious society so often stoked by fear, it’s hard to win public support for any measures reducing security.  No politician wants to be the deciding vote on a proposal that could make flying less safe.  No corporate executive is willing to be the voice complaining about the preposterous waste involved in frisking tens of millions of passengers each year. So, we put up with an archaic system implanted with delay and disruption.

Things could get even worse.

Last week, some clown in Seattle seized a 75-seat passenger jet and took the plane for a personal joyride.  He later crashed, killing himself in the reckless accident.  But the daring theft and scary episode could have been far more deadly.  Had the plane thief wanted to do serious damage, he could have killed many innocent people by crashing into a populous area.

In the aftermath of what happened, there are now calls for stricter security measures on airplanes and at airports.  There’s talk of fitting all commercial aircraft with some kind of locking device.  There’s also some debate about screening airport workers more heavily.  Really?  Is this wise?  Do we want to spend hundreds of millions of (additional) dollars retrofitting locks and keys in the cockpits of tens of thousands of passenger aircraft?  Do we really want to blow more tax money or increase ticket prices so we can do deep background checks on every baggage handler who applies for an airline job?  Do we really need more security guards patrolling chain-link fences around runways at 2 am?  Is more security really the wisest appropriation of our limited financial resources?

The Seattle incident was a shocker.  But it was shocking because it happens so rarely.  Can anyone remember the last time someone stole a passenger jet, flew over a large city for a half hour, and then ditched himself in a forest?  How often does something like that happen?  Once every 40 years?  Maybe, never?  Why are we wasting time our discussing doing anything about this very isolated incident?  It makes no sense at all.  Let’s move on, shall we?

Increased screening for people who work at airports sounds like a good idea, right?  Well, no — it isn’t a good idea.  Based on reports of the thief-pilot daredevil, he appeared perfectly normal to everyone.  There was nothing in his background to indicate he’d steal a plane and then crash it.  Had the man been interviewed multiple times and gone through intense scrutiny, there’s little doubt he would have passed the screening with, excuse the expression, flying colors.

Increasing security procedures is a waste of money and personnel.

So far, the Trump Administration hasn’t done much that’s good or wise.  But I will credit them for being on the right track when it comes to downsizing the TSA — particularly at small regional airports which waste vast precious resources for what amounts to virtually no risk whatsoever.  It’s like we’re stationing an army of traffic cops in Nome, Alaska.

The Trump Administration has proposed eliminating the TSA at about 100 smaller regional airports, with few flights.  They argue the costs of x-raying every bag and screening every passenger is both excessive and unnecessary.  [Read:  Trump’s FY 2019 budget will cut funding for the TSA].

I agree.  We don’t need to administer body cavity searches to elderly grandmothers in wheelchairs who are boarding turboprops in Moline.  I propose the following — let’s save ourselves tens of millions of dollars, shift the critical security personnel to much bigger airports where such measures are really needed, and take our chances that grandma won’t blow up the Statue of Liberty.

Even when we do spend lots of money and hire lots of people, security can never be a sure thing.  We must accept some degree of risk in order to live in a free society.  That means accepting a tiny percentage of lapses which, unfortunately, result in tragedy.  We apply this principle to every other facet of our human existence — including driving cars, eating various foods, living near oceans, and walking outdoors when there’s lightning in our area.  We accept the reality that there will be some car crashes, cases of food poisoning, hurricanes, and lightning strikes will occur.  Yes, there’s a small chance you or I might die tomorrow because of an accident, or a freak act of nature.  So too, a few airplanes will occasionally crash.  Crazy people do wild things.

Hey, shit happens.

We’ve certainly come a long way during the last few decades, especially since the tragedy of 9/11.  But we’ve also reached such a level of passive acceptance that now we risk becoming contaminated by such a heightened state of domestic security that we’re no longer free.  Daily life becomes a series of gauntlets and checkpoints.

So, what do you think about airline security?  Do we need more or less?  Should we be cutting back the TSA as the Trump Administration is proposing?  Would you feel safe flying knowing that some flights were not screened by TSA?

Let me know what you think in the “comments” section below or on the regular discussion on Facebook.  CLICK HERE




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