The Sunday Magazine: Argentinian Malbec Wine

Location, location, location is a widely known axiom in real estate. It also applies to wine making as well. For great wines to be made it requires a combination of the right amount of sunshine, the right temperature range, and the right kind of soil. These considerations are all combined in a single concept called terroir. Terroir loosely translates to “sense of place”. When the term was first coined I suspected that it was more a marketing ploy by France and California to continue to promote the idea that they were the premiere wine growing regions in the world. It wouldn’t be until the early Naughts that I actually came to believe in the concept and it wasn’t a French or California wine that convinced me it was one from Argentina.

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Malbec grapes on the vine in Mendoza

The malbec grape was a widely used blending grape for the French and California red wines. It was primarily used to soften some of the rougher edges a particular vintage might produce. By itself malbec was never considered to be a wine on its own because it just didn’t have enough character. In France after a particular rough winter in 1956 where most of the malbec vines were lost vintners gravitated to other varietals when replanting like cabernet franc. In California the opposite happened as it wasn’t until the mid-1990’s that malbec began to be produced in significant quantities for use as a blending grape.

I remember going to my favorite wine store in Boston and being offered this new wine from Argentina. i freely admit I’m a wine snob and so I expected this new wine from Argentina to be uninspiring. Except when I took my first sip the incredible texture and flavor made me reassess my thoughts on Argentinian wine making. When I asked what the wine was I was told it was Terrazas de los Andes Malbec. I was flummoxed; not only Argentinian but a flaccid tasting grape like malbec. How could this be? The answer was in the name of the wine I had tasted.

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Nicolas Catena Zapata

The introduction of the malbec grape came from French agronomist Miguel Pouget who brought some cuttings with him to Argentina in the mid-18th century. It wouldn’t be until 1994 when winemaker Nicolas Catena Zapata would decide to plant malbec grapes in the high-altitude of the Andes Mountains that these spectacular wines would be cultivated. His Bodega Catena vineyard is the result.

The region in the Andes known for this is called Mendoza. The vineyards that are in the region all exist from altitudes of 3,000-5,000 feet above sea level. The soil is also very flinty as you might expect from being on the side of a mountain range. You would also expect that being on the side of a mountain at altitude the grapes are exposed to a greater and more intense amount of sunlight. All of this is probably true and together they transform the malbec grape grown in Mendoza into one of the best red wines in the world. Terroir indeed.

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The malbec wine imported to the US is uniformly good and unlike most other big red wines is drinkable right away without further aging. These malbecs don’t have a lot of the tannins and harshness that require some mellowing by aging in the bottle. This quality makes them very accessible. What even makes them more accessible is the best malbecs are still available at less than $20 a bottle, often less than $15 a bottle. Compared to their French and California counterparts which are over a $100 a bottle these are fabulous bargains.

Malbecs go with any kind of meat dishes or robust tomato-based dishes. Whatever you would pair a cabernet sauvignon or Bordeaux with a malbec will serve just as well. The best vineyards are Terrazas de los Andes, Bodega Catena, Trapiche, Layer Cake, and Cigar Box. So far I can say there hasn’t been a poor vintage yet produced which is another oddity as the terroir seems to be remarkably stable in the conditions for the grapes to grow.

If you’re looking for a great red wine that doesn’t cost a lot heading into the fall and winter you just need to head to the Argentina aisle in your local wine store and say “Malbec please.”

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Thor Goddess of Thunder

Spending this weekend at the 2014 New York Comic-Con I realize how far things have come since I attended my first con back in 1973.  Back then it was more about comics than popular media although Star Trek original series episodes were often the entertainment in the early days. Things would continue to grow over the years until by the early 1980’s the San Diego Comic-Con had grown in size to become the biggest con in the country. Throughout those early days I can tell you there was one very common aspect to all of them, very few women. This year as I walk around the convention hall there are lots of women. Some of this is due to the expansion of Comic-Con to cover a wider swathe of pop culture as it is more than just comic books. Even with that as a disclaimer over the last couple of years there have been a lot of female characters added into the mainstream superhero comics.

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The biggest indicator of this change is the recent change in gender of Thor. For those not up on your comic book mythology Thor has been the embodiment of the Norse God of Thunder son to the ruler Odin. Thor has a hammer called Mjolnir which only he can wield and which only he can pick up, because he is worthy. The new story line outlined in the latest issue of the comic is the male Thor has lost the ability to pick up Mjolnir. Part of the mystery to be resolved over the next few issues is why this happened. What has changed is a woman walks forward and picks up Mjolnir which makes her Thor Goddess of Thunder. Her face is shrouded and the other mystery to be resolved is her identity. Along with a female Thor, Odin’s wife Freyja has been ruling over the Norse Gods recently and seems reluctant to let go the reins of power. The women are taking charge in Asgard, the Norse Gods home.

This is a big event within comic book mythology and it has much to do with the changing demographics of who is reading. In the third quarter of 2013 young women aged 17-33 purchasing comic books increased by 20%. They are drawn to the books which show women superheroes. They eventually may show up at a con dressed as their favorite superhero which represents their ability to find fun in imagining themselves saving the world.

The trend isn’t going away as Wolverine of X-Men is being killed off in the comic books and the new version will be his genetically engineered daughter X-23 who will be the new lead in her own series of books.

I am looking forward to reading the adventures of Thor Goddess of Thunder, and X-23, and hopefully many more female heroes over the next years because there is nothing like a woman who can be as tough as she needs to be.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: David Fincher

Back in 1989 before MTV became an entertainment network and still showed music videos there were two videos which were some of my favorites to watch that year. Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer and Aerosmith’s Janie’s Got a Gun both were directed by the same person. I was reminded of those videos after seeing that director’s latest feature film. The director is David Fincher and his latest film is Gone Girl.

Gone Girl is a movie based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay. It is a story of married couple Nick and Amy Dunne. Amy goes missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. The movie explores both of their very different journeys. I was thinking about those early videos by Mr. Fincher because I can see The Boys of Summer as Nick’s theme and Janie’s Got a Gun as Amy’s theme.  

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Rosamund Pike and David Fincher on set at Gone Girl

Mr. Fincher has become one of our best movie directors over the twenty five years between those videos and Gone Girl. He has a reputation as a perfectionist asking his actors to do many more takes than usual looking for the perfect nuance. It is a process which has led to the creation of singular set pieces in his movies. The final act in Se7en, the reveal of the twist in Fight Club, Lisbeth’s revenge in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the scene in the bar where Mark Zuckerberg buys into the world of big business in The Social Network. Every one of those scenes requires the actor to show you layers underneath the obvious playing out on screen. That Mr. Fincher is able to do that makes his dedication worth it. Gone Girl is a movie where nothing that you see on the surface is real and Ben Affleck as Nick and Rosamund Pike as Amy are asked to give some of the most layered performances they have ever given. I think Mr. Fincher is responsible for that especially when it comes to Ms. Pike who has never given a performance like this in her career.

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Ben Affleck (l.) and David Fincher on set at Gone Girl

If there is a frequent criticism of Mr. Fincher it is that his characters come off as cold or unfeeling but I think that, again, is a surface judgment. These characters are alight with banked emotions which are kept hidden. In my opinion Mr. Fincher is as close as we have to a modern Hitchcock. Even in true stories like Zodiac or The Social Network where going into the movie I know the story he still manages to involve me within the story and make me see what I know in a different way.

It is very early to be making movie award predictions but Gone Girl is an example of Mr. Fincher synthesizing everything he has learned over the last twenty-five years into something I hope is at the very least recognized with a directorial nomination come Academy Award time.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Saturday Night Live

By the time this publishes tonight I will be sitting in front of my television set watching the opening show of the fortieth season of Saturday Night Live (SNL). I have been thinking that watching SNL has been a fixture in my life from my teen years right through to my AARP card carrying years. The cast members have seemed to evolve and change along with me. There is always some part of a given show which makes me laugh. That SNL is still standing is testament to one man Executive Producer Lorne Michaels.

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When I talk about the importance of clear creative direction in perfumery it is no different in the visual arts. If there is not a clear vision on top the effort is doomed to failure or ennui leading to boredom, and cancellation on television. Mr. Michaels has continued to refresh the cast over forty years adding in fresh faces and arguably being the biggest star making show of the past forty years. Just think about the movies you love and chances are an SNL alumni has something to do with many of them. That is also some of the joy of watching SNL as you see a comedic performer grow from unknown to superstar.

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Lorne Michaels

The other thing I take great joy from watching is taking on the catchphrases into my own daily life. “Candygram!” when I’m trying to be deceptive. “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” when talking about something obvious. Although when using it in a meeting of young scientists who were not born when SNL premiered I had to explain it and simultaneously feel my age. When we go shopping my wife rolls her eyes every time I pick up the package of meat substitute Seitan and channel the Church Lady. My all-time favorite line came from Billy Crystal’s impersonation of Fernando Lamas, “It is better to look good than to feel good” I was also a big fan of “You look mahvelous.” I could go on but you get the idea.

So as I get set to sit down and watch Chris Pratt host tonight’s episode I wonder who from this cast will be the next big star and what line will become the next part of my lexicon. I’ll know very soon.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Punk Rock Revisionist History

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Back in the late 1970’s I was into punk rock. I can confidently say that most of my contemporaries did not share my enthusiasm for the genre of music. Whenever it was in the cassette player it was greeted with cries of, “Turn that crap/noise/insanity off!” Let me say there was little affection for the likes of The Ramones, The Clash, Sex Pistols, Gen X, or Iggy Pop by many. So why oh why have advertisers turned to that music to promote products?

The first instance of this was the 2005 Diet Pepsi commercial where the cans in the refrigerator were dancing to The Ramones 1976 song Blitzkrieg Bop. Blitzkrieg Bop is one of the seminal punk rock songs by The Ramones and I can say for sure that it never got any significant airplay on any American radio station at the time. In hindsight it has been picked as one of the 100 greatest songs of all time by Rolling Stone. The fact that the commercial came out four years after Joey Ramone’s death just seemed worse to me.

The next instance was also in 2005 as Royal Caribbean Cruise Line began using Iggy Pop’s paean to heroin use, drinking, and overdosing addicts, “Lust for Life”. Again this was a song that never made any kind of impact when it was released and had little airplay. I wonder who the advertising agency is appealing to. Cleaned up addicts looking for vacation ideas? Or is it much, much, much, more cynical? Are they trying to appeal to middle aged people who wish they had the courage to push boundaries when they were younger and now look back in time and see what they were missing?

There have been more examples as when Wendy’s used Violent Femmes “Blister in the Sun”, a song about masturbation, to sell their new fish sandwich in 2007. AARP, yes AARP, used the chorus of The Buzzcocks “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” to sell the idea that life begins at 50. Cadillac used The Pogues “Sunnyside of the Street” and counted on the fact that the title words were the only thing people would clearly hear from Shane McGowan’s slurred vocals and glide over the first line containing the lyrics about a “heart full of hate and a lust for vomit.”. All of these felt to me cynical as hell but there is a new recent example which just dives under my skin and rasps against my nerves.

In the new Acura commercial promoting their new 2015 TLX mid-size sedan they have chosen the Sid Vicious cover of the Frank Sinatra classic “My Way”. This song was recorded just as The Sex Pistols had imploded and was to be included on the soundtrack to the documentary film “The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle”. If somebody asked me to pick one song to explain punk rock in the 1970’s this would be the one. It starts with Sid singing the first verse in a mocking parody of Ol’ Blue Eyes including limp wristed effete arm moves and raised eye brows. As the second verse begins snarling guitars take over from the piano and you can hear the snarl on Sid’s face in the lyrics as he completely takes this song apart. Sid’s anarchic version was a gigantic middle finger to everything about music at the time and that doing it My Way meant destroying everything else. This is what Acura is using to advertise their new family friendly sedan. The commercial is supposed to come off like the design team at Acura is doing things their way but really do they think this drab semi luxury sedan is something different than the million other sedans from every other car company? Nope I think they want to convince my generation that punk rock rebellion now includes a four door sedan.

For anyone under the impression that drinking a Diet Pepsi and a Wendy’s Frosty on a Royal Caribbean Cruise on an AARP discount where your Cadillac and Acura are parked back at the lot makes you a rebel or a punk; you’re not. You’re just the victim of a mid-life crisis in musical form.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Joan Rivers

As the celebrities I have grown up with begin to pass away I find that each one hits me with a different level of impact. Once it happens I am often surprised at which ones I subconsciously feel the most. This week was one of those surprises to me when the news of comedienne Joan Rivers passing away at 81 was reported. I felt the news right in the pit of my stomach as my eyes teared up. Why did this hit me? I think it is because I admired her make no apologies, take no prisoners approach to life. I have a bit of that attitude as well and I think it was nice to see someone succeed to her level while not being afraid of confrontation.

I first became aware of Joan Rivers as Johnny Carson’s frequent guest host throughout the 1970’s. She would be named permanent guest host in 1983. She was the perfect contrast to Johnny’s style as interviewer and it was always a refreshing change when she was in charge. The other part of this was female comedians were pretty much unheard of and her success would inspire almost every successful comedienne you currently know. It was assumed by many when Johnny left Joan would eventually be the host. It didn’t work out that way as she tried to start a late night franchise on the fledgling FOX Network in 1986 called The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. In what she would describe in later years as one of her biggest mistakes she didn’t tell Johnny she was doing this. When he found out he banned her from The Tonight Show and that ban was upheld by Jay Leno throughout his time as host. The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers was cancelled after two years on the air after she refused to allow her husband Edgar to be replaced as producer. This humiliation would lead to Edgar committing suicide and Joan disappeared for a while. By 1989 she returned with a daytime show The Joan Rivers Show which ran for five years.

Joan-Rivers-Red-CarpetJoan Rivers and her daughter Melissa at the 2007 Academy Awards

It was on that show where she began to comment on red carpet fashion and it would lead to her covering the red carpet arrivals for the Golden Globes and Academy Awards in 1994 for E! Joan Rivers may be one of the most influential fashion people ever because of this. As she asked star after star “Who are you wearing?” I imagine many viewers were hearing fashion names like Carolina Herrera or Vera Wang for the very first time. This was in stark contrast to runway fashion as here were real live women, albeit Hollywood stars, wearing haute couture. In my opinion it made high fashion more accessible to everyone and it was in no small part to Joan Rivers’ way of presenting the fashion in a positive way. Twenty years later every red carpet is covered extensively by multiple networks and fashion designers become household names because of this exposure. Every one of them should say a prayer of thanks to Joan Rivers for starting this.

I never met Joan Rivers but we did stand next to each other during a Tory Burch fashion show at New York Fashion Week a few years ago. I was impressed at how engaged she was with the fashion as it was presented and it was that passion that allowed her to make those red carpet appearances so influential.

It was only appropriate that her last televised appearance was the next day post-mortem of the red carpets for the Emmy Awards and MTV Video Music Awards. Two days before her ill-fated operation. I like that my last memories of her is in full on red carpet mode leaving us laughing until the very end. Every time I watch an awards show I will miss her; but mostly I will miss her unapologetic way of living life and leaving us with a laugh.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Twelfth Doctor Who

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Television series re-invent themselves all of the time as cast members come and go. If the writing staff is clever and the casting is well done the best shows never miss a beat. As a plus it often allows for greater latitude in storytelling as the new character can often add a different viewpoint. Of course if the writers aren’t clever and the casting is lazy this can lead to the fairly rapid cancellation of a show. One show which actually thrives on the turnover of main characters is the sci-fi series Doctor Who.

Doctor Who has been around since 1963 and it follows the travels of the last Time Lord called The Doctor and a Companion who becomes the surrogate for the audience as this Earthling has to try and keep up with the Doctor. Doctor Who had a rebirth in 2005 as writer Russell T. Davies convinced the BBC it was time to give Doctor Who another chance to be discovered by a new generation. Which it has. His first Doctor was actor Christopher Eccleston. When the Doctor “dies” he regenerates with a new body and face but retains all of his memories. At the end of the first season Mr. Eccleston regenerated into The Doctor played by David Tennant and then five years on he would regenerate into actor Matt Smith who would play the role for three years. All three of these Doctors were young and of a like age to their Companions so there was a bit of romantic tension. The latest incarnation of the Doctor is a very interesting choice by the writers to go in a different direction.

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Peter Capaldi as Doctor Who

Actor Peter Capaldi is the twelfth Doctor Who and is a bit of a throwback to the earliest versions who were played by older men. This sets up a very different relationship with the current Companion, Clara. It is a bit of a reversal of roles as the young woman is helping the older visaged Doctor. One thing the writers seem to be exploring with this Doctor is the idea of whether what he does is considered “good”. The Doctor saves the universe and Earth many times but there is a cost to this, usually the masterminds behind it. This Doctor seems to be a little more concerned with what he does is “good”. Mr. Capaldi is giving this Doctor a world-weary character that is very different from what has come, especially with the recent three Doctors. Looking around on the forums it seems the initial reception is decidedly mixed. There are people, like me, who are digging the ambiguity. The detractors are missing the lively energy of the Doctor as portrayed by Mr. Tennant and Mr. Smith. These writers have been so successful that they definitely have the opportunity to develop an entirely different Doctor and I think the fans will allow for them to do that.

I am fascinated to see how this all turns out from a Doctor Who perspective and from whether a fan base will go for a Doctor very different from what has recently come. For now, I really look forward to the rest of this new season to see what the answers are.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Fantasy Football

For the next ten days I will be consumed with football players and how many points they can score for me. No I haven’t won the lottery and purchased a National Football League team. I am just one of an estimated 40 million fans who play fantasy football.

Fantasy football is a game where you build a team of current players by drafting them from a pool of all players. Each owner in the fantasy league builds a team this way. Each week throughout the season you match your team of players against another owner’s team of players. All of the stats those players accumulate on that specific weekend count toward that week’s score. Whoever has the most points after the last game has been played has won the match. I have been doing this for fifteen years and it has dramatically changed the way I watch football on Sunday. It has also been embraced by the NFL as according to Forbes the fantasy football market provided $11 billion in revenue in 2012. That is more than the $10 billion made from traditional things like jersey sales and such. This disparity can only have gotten bigger.

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Jamaal Charles the consensus No. 1 pick

One of the reasons for the support from the NFL is it encourages fans to watch games not involving their home, or favorite, team. Most players I play with will have a couple players from their favorite team but you usually can’t, and don’t want to, fill your team up with players from one team. I know on Sunday I watch the Dolphins play but for the rest of the day I am paying attention to the games that not only have my players in them but also the games which have the players my opponent is using. Television ratings for the NFL have continued to rise every year and I believe fantasy football fuels some of this. I have purchased NFL Sunday Ticket just so I can watch any game I want to; i.e. the game with my players in it.

These next few days are arguably the most fun as I connect with the other owners in an online draft room and start picking players. I play in seven leagues all of which I have participated in from 3-15 years. I have had good years and won championships and bad years. 2013 was a bad year for me as I did uniformly bad across all of my leagues. My strategy has always been to target a few key players that I try to draft on most of my teams. Last year all of those players got injured or did not produce high enough point totals. Which means I will be drafting highly in most of my leagues allowing me to potentially turn things around.

Instead of assessing the latest from Guerlain, Comme des Garcons, and Chanel. I’ll be deciding between Charles, McCoy and Forte to spend my draft pick on. For the next ten days those are the most important names to me.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Semicolon Project

There are many things I like about Facebook. One of the more interesting things about Facebook is when there are events which seem to cause large amounts of the people who I share Facebook with to gather around. This past week of August 2014 there were two things which dominated my Facebook News Feed.

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Robin Williams

One was the tragic suicide of actor Robin Williams. As I write this there has still been no concrete reason for his desperate act, and there may never be one. Facebook was full of clips from his stand-up comedy specials and movies. He had a habit of playing roles which had more than a bit of shadow to them. These characters all managed to quell those darker impulses and learn to live with them.  As I saw these clips throughout the week I am reminded we all carry our shadows. When they start to speak too strongly to us we need to ask for help. More about that in a second.

The second thing in my Facebook News Feed was the videos of people participating in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. This started a couple of weeks ago with a few people posting a video of themselves dumping a bucket of ice water over their heads. The way this works is the person in the video challenges three other people to either dump a bucket of ice water over their heads or donate $100 to the ALS Foundation. Hopefully do both. Somewhere over the last two weeks this crossed over to celebrities and it seemed to particularly peak this week as I seemed to wake up every morning to a new batch. Early in the week it was the late-night talk shows, in the middle of the week it was sports teams, and towards the end of the week it was the head of every big tech company. The videos got more elaborate especially when the likes of Bill Gates engineers a complicated contraption to dump the water over his head. (There is a Windows joke in there somewhere) The ALS foundation has received over $4million in donations over the past two weeks, three times more than they raised at the same time last year.

All of this is great for raising awareness of ALS and helping the patient community but I worry about something as narcissistic as filming yourself starts to lose the message at some point. The money raised is great but does it have a real lasting effect? I like my Facebook campaigns to be a little more subtle.

This brings me to The Semicolon Project which I also became aware of through Facebook. A very old friend who I connected with again on Facebook posted a picture of a semicolon tattoo she got. I asked about it and she sent me the link to The Semicolon Project. As you can see in the picture below it started on April 16, 2013.

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This was also a simple organic campaign to raise awareness and the pictures posted were incredibly powerful. More than a few of them had the semicolon over cutting scars on their wrist. What is fantastic is this has turned into a full-fledged organization to support those suffering from mental health issues. On April 16 this year there was another day of semicolons posted on the internet. I suspect every April 16 from now on will be the day to show off your semicolon. The power of people who have suffered showing these simple, elegant statements to those who are currently suffering is way more relevant to me. As Robin Williams’ suicide shows the decision to choose a semicolon over a period is extremely difficult. I am very happy The Semicolon Project exists so that those who suffer from mental health issues can find help and then share the ability to overcome with a simple piece of punctuation. I hope this grows into an annual celebration of finding the strength within to continue with life.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Living the Country Life

I am a city mouse. I’ve lived in cities for the great majority of my life. Mrs. Colognoisseur is a country mouse. When I describe us I often say we are a reverse “Green Acres” Mrs. C is Oliver and I am Lisa. When I changed jobs to move down to the Washington DC area we have ended up living the country life in Poolesville, MD. After three years I have become surprised at how much I have enjoyed it.

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Poolesville is right in the middle of the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve. This was an initiative where 93,000 acres of the county was protected from development and encouraged to become working agricultural businesses. The effect is, thirty years later, we live in the middle of a flourishing farming community. From May through early November the local farms are our produce section. We go from vegetable farm to fruit farm and buy what is in season. While we aren’t interested in tilling the soil ourselves this allows me to see the change in harvest as the calendar moves on. As I have started to get a handle on when things will be ready I find myself looking forward to the crop of beets as much as I look forward to the seasonal lattes at Starbucks. I have truly come to dislike having to go back to the grocery store for the winter months.

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Besides the farms there is the town of Poolesville itself which is the smallest place I have ever lived. The population is just around 5,000 people. It is very interesting to live in a place where the guys who run Poolesville Hardware know who we are and what we need, often before we do. There is a town green which has events on a near weekly basis. It brings the town out to spend some time together. I have always heard about this concept of a “sense of community” but living in the city that get buried under the hardness of the urban landscape. In Poolesville it is a reality and it is something many feel is worth the effort to maintain.

Like all small communities there are some changes coming Poolesville’s way. Poolesville High School has been the #1 high school in the state for many years and is annually ranked in the top 100 high schools in the entire country, #47 for 2014. This has made Poolesville a desirable location for parents who want their children to go to a good school. This is where the foresight of the Agricultural Reserve runs head-on into upper middle class values. There are few areas which can be subdivided into the prototypical Mc Mansion but there are some and they have grown steadily. This is changing the socio-economic makeup of town and it is unclear how that will impact the town. A couple of signs is the arrival of two national chain stores which will directly compete with existing family-run stores. As I hear many of the older residents say their goal is to “Keep Poolesville, Poolesville.” So far that task has been easy but it might become more difficult over time.

It has turned out that Poolesville has been more interesting than my inner Lisa was worried it would be. I haven't been longing for Fifth Avenue that much. To be honest I’ve found out there is a little more Oliver in me than I suspected. So far the country life has agreed with me.

Mark Behnke