Tuesday, June 28, 2011
On travel and wine
My last night in Rome I sat with friends, ordering dinner along the banks of the Tiber River. Giovanni, my host, ordered a ribolla and, when I asked him about it, he told me that it was about 80% ribolla grape and 10 or 20% chardonnay. I was impressed that he had this information on the tip of his tongue so I asked how he knew so much. "Did you study about wine?" I asked him.
And Giovanni turned to me in that charming way of his and said, "I never study the great pleasures of life." We both laughed and we both knew what he meant.
But, despite what Giovanni says, I took a wine class last week. WINE 101. Wines from the Piedmonte region of Italy. I headed off to my local wine store, Red, White, and Bubbly (highly recommnended) where I walked into a room of about eight people and was given a seat with ten glasses in front of me. Tyrone, our local West Indian sommalier, was pouring.
It occurred to me from the start that I might be in trouble. For years I thought I should quit drinking. Give up wine. Probably I drink a little too much, like it more than I should. So I tried. I made one or two efforts and then realized it was pointless. As the Italians, or is it the French say, a day without wine is like a day without sun. I found that if I drink in moderation I'm fine. But the ten glasses before me, even just for a tasting, seemed daunting.
Still I couldn't agree more with that old saying. The truth is I love the taste of a great rose, a buttery chardonnay, a berry-on-the-nose pinot noir. I really don't know how to talk about wine that much and I'm not sure I care. But what fascinates me, as it does with literature, is landscape.
Terroir. Specific wines come from specific regions. The rain, the soil, the sun. It changes the whole thing. Similarly I have found with stories. The narratives that came out of the island country of Greece are not the same as came from the sweeps of Russia, the expanse of America, the tiny, tidy island life of England. The same with wine. What grows one way in volcani Sicily won't be the same wine on the North Fork of Long Island.
I guess what draws me to wine is somewhat what has drawn me to journeys. Maps. Terrain. So giving up wine would be the equivalent of giving up stories. And that would be the equivalent of giving up on journeys. And it is so intertwined I can no longer tell the one from the other. Nor do I particularly want to.
So I am not really going to learn more about wine per se. I am really going to learn about geography. What makes one region produce something different from another? And what exactly are all those different kinds of grapes?
In fact the class did not disappoint. I knew I'd come to the right place when our teacher, Tyrone, told us that every bottle of wine contains a story. When you open it, you can tell if it was hot or dry that summer. If it rained a lot. You can smell the earth from which that wine grew. A bottle of wine is a time capsule. It contains our past.
I graduated from Wine 101 and staggered in to the night with my fellow classmates. I learned that wines can smell like diesel, barnyard, cat piss, and pencil shavings. And then there are the hints of bitter apple, berry, mushroom, bacon? Beyond the story in the bottle, each sip requires a lot of imagination.
I don't plan to study the great pleasures of life. But it can't hurt to understand a little more. So now each sip is a small journey to another place, another time. Each sip, even on my terrace or local bistro, takes me away.