The Poetry of Wine

Where there is no wine, love perishes. —Euripides

“It’s like having hundreds of little magnetic words on the refrigerator door of your brain, and you can choose whatever you want to make your own poetry of wine.”

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Let’s do it.

The sound of a cork coming out of Champagne: Do you like it with a bawdy bang, gushing its creamy foam, or eased out gently with a whisper, like the sound of woman’s foot slipping from a shoe? An exhale of vapor escapes the bottle like smoke curling from the lips of a noir actress. Put your nose close to the mouth of the glass and draw in its seductive perfume of jasmine, rose, chrysanthemum, of morning-after scent of warm croissant. Now devour with your eyes the shee 24-carat radiance of its pale, golden hue, shimmering–—waiting—for the first touch of your tongue. Lose yourself as hedonistic pleasures explode in your mouth. Suddenly, you’re alert and alive, as you’ve never been, to the cold vibrant liquor and tingling acidity, swooning to sensations flooding you with restrained potency and length. Something brings you back from oblivion, refusing to let go of the moment, as if in a wonderful dream. You want it all: to understand and yet fully surrender at the flash point that culminates in a swallow, an intensity of savor and, finally, your release. All too quickly life comes back on you, yet the taking of this permitted fruit—with its brew of mint, mineral, flint, orgeat, truffles, the musk of earth beneath you—leaves you forever changed.

Bees do it.

Wine isn’t a necessity for life, in the way that, say, water is or food or even sexuality. However, its proven aphrodisiacal benefits lubricate our wheels. In 2009, the Journal of Sexual Medicine published findings conducted by the University of Florence in Italy. (It would be Italian!) The results revealed that women who drank a glass or two of red wine experienced greater levels of desire and overall sexual function than those who preferred other alcoholic drinks or were teetotalers. Do try this at home.

Even oysters down in Oyster Bay do it.

What they don’t do is discuss it. Robert Louis Stevenson is credited with suggesting that “wine is bottled poetry,” and much of what is written and said about wine—the descriptive language and literature it inspires—is an arousal, seducing the reader and eventual consumer. Writers and those who sell wine use words that are sensually evocative: silky, juicy, tight, opulent, grip, penetrating, velvet, fleshy, body, firm, hard, supple, big, sweet, masculine, feminine, legs. A come hither. The pretty tail feathers of the wine business must attract its mates or perish. Some descriptions are decidedly more Daisy Mae (barnyard, dirty, tart, strawberry, forest floor) than Marilyn Monroe (hot, lush, creamy, full. Reportedly, she once bathed in 350 bottles of Champagne. Perhaps bubbles are a girl’s best friend). As a sommelier, selling wine night after night in restaurants, repeating the common descriptions of blackberry, cassis, tropical fruit, rich and bold, ad infinitum, I came to bore myself and customers, too, probably. I invented fun visuals to entice a table as well as describe the wine. Rather than “masculine and elegant,” the Barolo was like “George Clooney with midnight stubble, wearing a tuxedo.” A “powerful, rustic Priorat” might turn into a “brooding Spanish soccer player.” Instead of explaining the “lean, flinty brilliance” of a fine Chablis, I’d describe it as “a glimpse of Gwyneth Paltrow’s gams.”

Marie Antoinette did it.

Karen MacNiel does it. Her book The Wine Bible gets its name more from its shape and heft than for reverential content, as it is an approachable, easy-to-read encyclopedia of regions, families and varietals.  MacNeil makes her love of wine abundantly clear and is among the best of today’s writers at creatively describing them. Jermann’s Vintage Tunina is “a huge, voluptuous riot of juicy flavors, the equivalent of an impressionist painting.” Rostaing’s Côte-Rôties “begin like a whisper, then crash in wave after wave of delicious intensity. Though an oxymoron, it explodes slowly.” J.J. Prum Rieslings are “rarefied and delicate, like crystalline pear drops—mesmerizing in their transparency.” The human neural system is hardwired to grasp perceptions, but the expression, the naming, of those sensations can be challenging. With a little practice and experience, we can train our sensory organs to distinguish between the vast flavors we taste, colors we see, scents and textures we feel on skin, tongue and palate, then pinpoint our notion to file away in our sense memory. One must use it or lose it. As you go through your day, try giving some attention to the fragrances of mown grass and coffee, the butter on your toast, the nuts or chocolate you nibble, the smell of different citruses and fruits, flowers, stones, woods and soils, vegetables and proteins you prepare and how they change as they’re cooked. It’s like having hundreds of little magnetic words on the refrigerator door of your brain, and you can choose whatever you want to make your own poetry of wine.

Sentimental centipedes do it.

Haven’t we all fallen in love with a city, a café, the sea, a desert landscape? With cooking, a piece of music, even a pet? And, more to the point, wine? Something has put us helplessly under a spell, and we’ve been left smitten and yielding to infatuation. It warms the heart, makes us feel schmaltzy and romantic, and if it isn’t present in our life, we turn to art, the great seducer. In any seduction the scene must be set. My true confession: I read wine books and give myself to the rhapsody of food and wine literature by the likes of M.F.K Fisher, Elizabeth David, A.J. Liebling and Jeffrey Steingarten, writers who kindle humanity on a page.  Pick your potion. These are idle tales of slumbering beauty alone on a shelf and must be awakened by our reading.

      Gerald Asher, for many years the wine editor for Gourmet magazine, wrote extensively, quietly and notably. Like a favorite uncle who escorts you on an adventurous trip, Asher tells stories, with his humble touch and shades of Hemingway, that bring you to regions and landscapes, vineyards and cellars, tastings and meals, on crossed paths. In “Malmsey: A Revival” (Crete) he writes:

      Only those familiar with the Mediterranean in winter know how wet, how bone-chilling and how sad it can be. The grower we were to meet had a small café-bar at the village crossroad and would be waiting for us there. Though we were well into November, great bunches of grapes still hung from an almost leafless vine and the rain, collecting on them, dripped with noisy splashes into the puddles below. Inside, three men sat at a plain wooden table, looking, in fact, as if they had been feeling at ease for much of the afternoon. Each held a glass of wine and picked from time to time at a dish of small olives and a bowl of salted chickpeas. Regardless of the rain, they were having a little fête together, protected from unexpected intruders by their watch-donkey.”

From Orvieto: Fair Lily of Umbria:

“The valleys and the hills that surround Orvieto are engaging rather than imposing, their roads shaded by umbrella pines and punctuated by stands of oak, chestnut, and acacia. They look their best when splashed with color in spring and early summer, the hills gaudy with yellow broom, the fields with purple-red clover blossom, and the roadsides with scarlet poppies, blue lupines and a pale wild flower, as fragile as a sweet pea.  At that time of year, too, the village streets, on cool evenings, are intoxicatingly fragrant with old linden trees in bloom.”

      What we’re discussing is beauty and the expression it sparks. Anything goes—whether it’s a Botticelli or a bottle of Valpolicella. The strike of Cupid’s arrow, a solitary walk along a street or lane, the scent of a blossom, a page of Flaubert, the lilt of children playing. Wonder happens when we’re aware of what occurs internally, through the portals of our senses. In The Pleasures of Wine, Asher expresses, in a near devout tone, “If we are in the right key when we receive it, our eyes will shine and we shall radiate pleasure.”

Let’s fall in love.

 “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” —Cole Porter

Story by James Selby

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