Meditation and Contemplation

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness …

When John Keats wrote these opening lines of “Endymion,” he was thinking of the Platonic and transcendental beauty of nature, not a bottle of wine, though he wrote some fine, brief descriptions of wine here and there in his body of work, notably in the second stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale,” where he calls for “a draught of vintage! that hath been/Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth…” Later in this stanza, he calls again, ecstatically: “O for a beaker full of the warm South,/Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,/With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,/And the purple-stained mouth …” I taught this poem for years in the second semester of English Literature survey, and every time I read those lines, I thought, “Damnit! I want some of that wine!”

Unfortunately, unlike the endlessly melodic and unchanging song of the nightingale — “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” — a bottle of wine is not immortal, though some wines are capable of aging into mature beauty. In fact, Keats hits on both of the themes that have dominated the world’s wine industry since the ancient times of the wine-loving Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, and that is that some wines are intended to cool their heels “a long age in the deep-delved earth” until they attain a plateau of subtlety and nuance, while other wines, “with beaded bubbles winking at the brim,/And purple-stained mouth,” something like 95 percent of all wine produced in the world, are meant for more or less immediate consumption. In the wine-reviewing business, we don’t often have the opportunity to try those lovely, old, fully developed wines — and we are jealous of those who do — because our focus is on wines in current release, which we taste too young and have to evaluate more in terms of potential — “Best from 2016 or ’17 through 2025 or ’27” — than for their ability to deliver pleasure in the present. The truth, though, is that nowadays many winemakers are producing wines, particularly reds of course, intended to be drinkable soon after release as well as 15 or 20 or more years later.

Paradoxically, and perhaps perversely, the wine that inspired this post was not a fine old vintage — though I’ll get to a few of those in a different post soon — but a just released cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley, a region widely and justly acclaimed as having one of the best climates and geographies for the grape. The wine is the St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley, a blend of 87 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot, 2 percent petit verdot and 1 percent cabernet franc that aged 19 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels. Winemaker is Danielle Cyrot. A portion of the grapes for Oroppas ’08 came from the valley floor, in Rutherford, but the majority derived from higher altitudes in Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Mount Veeder.

The color is pure intense dark red-ruby, while the bouquet presages the perfect balance and harmony that characterize the wine; no edges here, no risks, just the sheer beauty of a wine that’s so totally poised and integrated. Aromas of licorice, lavender and potpourri, warm and slightly roasted and meaty black currants, black cherries and a touch of wilder mulberry are permeated by hints of cedar and thyme, graphite and bittersweet chocolate. Yes, there are tannins and they grow more powerful or at least evident over 20 or 30 minutes, but they’re tannins of the finely milled, minutely sifted variety, sleek and suave as the oak influence on the wine is sleek and suave and almost invisible. Who said that oak should be like the Holy Spirit, everywhere present but nowhere visible? Why, that was me! And so it is here! I mean, the wine soaked up that oak and turned it into another dimension. This cabernet sauvignon is, in other words, an absolutely lovely, pure and intense expression of the grape, delivering the immediate gratification that’s so important for consumers in these times yet possessing enough backbone and grip and earthy minerality — and nothing overdone, nothing too ripe or opulent — to allow the finish its quiet and slightly demanding moments of dignity and austerity. 14.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $55.

Why did this wine inspire the post you’re reading now?

To corral another poet to my purpose, Wallace Stevens, in “Sunday Morning,” one of the greatest poems written in the 20th Century, said “Death is the mother of beauty.” Though that sentence sounds like a grim sentence indeed, Stevens means that beauty is born of its inherently fragile and inevitably ephemeral character. We value beauty all the higher because its very nature embodies its impermanence, its decline and final dissolution. Keats’ nightingale is not immortal in the individual bird; they all die, but the identical song lives on in each generation of nightingales. The greatest wines ever made — Margaux 1900, Mouton-Rothschild ’29, Cheval Blanc ’47, Petrus ’49, Lafite ’59, Latour ’82 — however extravagantly lauded and loved will soon be gone from this ever-changing earth, faded, weakened, cracking up, fled, departed. That G. Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1998 that you’ve been holding onto like Silas Marner his hoard of gold (a wine that shook me to the core when I tasted it from barrel in December 1999, as it happens on my birthday); drink it, my friend, because it will soon go the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon. That last bottle of Heitz Martha’s Vineyard ’74 in your cellar, you lucky bastard (depending on its condition, of course)? Gather your loved ones, roast a chicken, sit down together and eat and drink. It will not last much longer nor was it meant to.

St. Clement Oroppas 2008 is an absolutely gorgeous wine, fine and beautiful in every small detail and broad stroke, and when we drank it, we felt privileged. I would love to try the wine again in 10 years. It is not immortal, nor does it stand among the greatest cabernet wines ever produced. It was made for pleasure, both now and through the next decade, and that is a goal and accomplishment not to be disparaged, and a great deal of its pleasure lies in what Keats, so wise for one so young — he was 25 when he died of tuberculosis in Rome in 1821 — wrote about in another poem, “Ode on Melancholy.” Melancholy, he wrote, “dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die;/And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu…” Dissolution and decay dwell with the beauty of great wines, and tasting them, drinking that lambent, plangent liquor, we feel the death inside them and the beauty, and we are made glad.

Image of John Keats from Bettmann/Corbis; image of dusty old wine bottles from The St. Clement Oroppas 2008 was a sample for review.

The Wine Bloggers’ Conference that I attended last month in Portland was my first. Will I attend next year’s conference in Penticton, British Columbia? My feelings are ambivalent, but today I want to put forth the argument that I should be the keynote speaker for WBC13, in which case, of course, I would certainly participate.

(And a brief aside to the WBC organizers: There cannot be two keynote speakers at an event, as there were, so to speak, this year. The keynote speech is the grand introduction to or the grand climax of a conference or convention. All speeches that occur before or after the keynote speech are simply speeches and ought to be billed in some other fashion.)

Why should I be the keynote speaker for WBC13?

First, because I’m an active blogger who tries righteously to post four or five times a week, though I don’t always attain that goal. In 2011, I posted 196 times, which equals one post every 1.8 days. Keynote speakers for previous Wine Blogger Conferences included Eric Asimov and Jancis Robinson, both estimable writers and judges of wine, and, I’ll admit, far more famous than I am, but hardly active bloggers. This year’s relevant keynote speech was given by Randall Grahm, controversial and outspoken owner and winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyards. (The irrelevant “other” keynote speaker was Rex Pickett — you remember Sideways — whose event I skipped and later was congratulated for doing so by many of my wine blogging colleagues.) Grahm’s talk was entertaining, funny, informative, personal and, finally, just profound enough for the audience to take something important away with them. In other words, exactly what a keynote speech should be, and I applauded along with the rest of the room. (Here’s a link to the speech.)

The problem is that Grahm posts to his blog, Been Doon So Long, so infrequently that last year he entered only six posts; I know, he’s busy running a winery and making wine, but my point is that as keynote speaker for WBC13, I would share with my audience the similar blogging experiences of finding time to deal with the wine samples, finding time to taste the wine, finding time to write and post, finding time to walk the dogs and exercise and run errands and make a living outside of blogging and haul all those bottles out to the street for the garbage truck and not feel guilty for not posting often enough.

Second, I bring to wine blogging a history that’s almost unique in our little kingdom. What I mean is that I started writing about wine in 1984, before some wine bloggers or other participants in WBC12 — as several sweetly reminded me — were born, as in “Wow, you started writing about wine before I was born!” I wrote a weekly print column for 20 years, one that was distributed to newspapers around by country by the Scripps-Howard newswire. When the column ended (not my choice), I launched in December 2004 a magazine-format website,; my blog,, came in December 2006, and for a while I ran both the website and the blog, but that was a hell of a lot of work, so I dissolved the website in April 2008.

Based on my 28 years experience as a journalist, wine writer, freelance writer and blogger, what would I tell my audience at WBC13?

<>I would say, Revel in the spontaneous and improvisatory nature of blogging, but at the same time remember that professionalism counts. Good spelling, grammar, punctuation, word order, sentence structure mark the difference between the serious writer — or the writer who can be taken seriously — and the hit-and-miss amateur.

<>I would say, Don’t merely be a wine-blogger, but be a person who writes about wine on a blog. Not many degrees may separate those concepts, but they are significant indicators of intention and accomplishment.

<>I would say, O.K., however spontaneous or improvisatory you want to be, because after all this is the Internet and that, you may say, is the whole point, and all questions of grammar, spelling and so on aside, be accurate — in terms of history, geography, tradition, names, brands, grapes, personalities — get it right. Write, for example, that Chablis is made from sauvignon blanc grapes or that Santa Ynez is near Santa Cruz, and it will be difficult for you to be taken seriously as a wine writer, either by readers or wineries.

<>I would say, Be skeptical. Once your blog achieves some healthy measure of readership or reputation, you’ll be inundated by information and narratives designed to persuade you to like a product, to mention a product, to trade a link for your (free) content. Ignore them all except the ones that politely say something like, “We’d like you to try our wine. If you have any feedback, we’d appreciate it.” Remember that even the text on the back label of a bottle of wine is a form of marketing, so why would you quote such a thing in your review? Sure, it’s exciting to get the attention of wineries, importers and PR and marketing agencies, and while it’s necessary (and sometimes a pleasure) to work with them, remember that they’re all trying to sell you something.

<>I would say, Be critical, by which I don’t mean negative but discriminating, thoughtful, disinterested, judicial — all of these qualities based on knowledge, experience and extensive tasting — but when it’s necessary to be negative in tone and judgment, be that too. “Life Is Too Short to Drink Bad Wine” goes the placard we see in many retail stores, but my motto is “Life Is Too Short for My Readers to Drink Bad Wine,” so when I get a bad one, I tell them about it. It’s fine to be enthusiastic, but temper your enthusiasm with taste and tact.

<>Finally, I would conclude my keynote address for WBC13 with a recitation of Fredric’s Three Rules for Blogging and Life, and I would ask the assembled bloggers, writers, journalists and others in the trade to repeat after me, like a gospel call and response:

1. Be honest!
Be honest!!
2. Be fair!
Be fair!!
(General hilarity, applause, cheers and acclaim.)

We all know what wine is, right, wine is … Well, perhaps the whole topic bears some thought and scrutiny. Here are five definitions, ranging from simple to complicated, rather like the order of wines at a tasting.

I. Wine is a beverage made by fermenting fruit through the action of yeast so that the natural sugars are converted to alcohol, which becomes an inextricable component of the beverage, and carbon dioxide, which is allowed to escape, except in the second fermentation of Champagne and other sparkling products. Wine can be made from any fruit (or vegetable, for that matter) whose sugar content is sufficient to result in alcohol — apples, pears, peaches, various berries — though the dominant or most important form of fruit turned into wine, both in economic and cultural terms, is grapes. As an alcoholic beverage, wine is intoxicating and inebriating; it gets you drunk, and the more you drink, the drunker and more impaired you become.

That was straightforward enough, but let’s take a different tack:

II. Anthropologically and historically or seen as a function of commerce, the production of wine ensures that a valuable crop, in which a farmer has invested time, effort and money, does not go bad and become useless. Crates of picked grapes become compromised after a week or so; once you buy grapes at the grocery store, they need to be eaten within a week. Turned into wine, however, grapes, in their new form, last longer and are easier to transport. Even in its simplest more immediate form, wine offers more longevity than the fruit from which it is made. Wine also commands a higher price than its constituent fruit. This modality holds true in the example of distilled spirits (though they are not, strictly speaking, our topic), which can be seen as agents for prolonging the production of the harvests of corn, rye, wheat and potatoes beyond the pleasurable but limited functions of the breakfast and dinner table. Again, the economic factor is crucial; a bottle of Scotch commands a far higher price than a box of Wheaties, a comparison that somewhat stretches the point, but you see what I mean.

All right, let’s look at wine and its symbolic relationship to the grapes from which it is made:

III. Not intending to do violence to T.S. Eliot’s notion of the adequacy of narrative and metaphoric forms in the expression of action and feeling — which he writes about in his radical essay on Hamlet, published in 1919 — but I’ll borrow his concept and assert that wine is the “objective correlative” of the grape. That is, wine, especially at its greatest, is the perfect vehicle to fulfill the highest level of a grape’s possible achievement. In this perception, wine conveys a sense of inevitability that other beverages or agricultural products rarely contrive. One does not drink beer, for example, even in its best or most powerful manifestations, and think, “Ah, yes, this is the apotheosis of cereal grains.” The grape, however, is never far from one’s thoughts in the swirling, sniffing and sipping of a glass of wine, nor is the notion, depending on the quality and complexity of the wine, of the place where the grapes were grown and the wine was made. Which leads us to:

IV. A glass of wine, perhaps the one you’re holding in your hand now, serves — let me say should serve — as an emblem of a piece of earth, a stretch of vineyard, a swath of sky, a defined region where its grapes were nurtured and harvested. That sentence summarizes the notion of terroir, the French idea that wine is influenced by and reflects the nature of the vineyard where the grapes were grown. Factors in terroir include the character of the soil and sub-soil, the specific climate in all its nuances and broad strokes, the lie of the land and its direction and exposure to the sun and its drainage. (A few winemakers in California try to assert that terroir includes whatever processes occur in the winery as well as the agency of the winemaker him- or herself. Any thoughtful person will see that this caprice is nonsense; too often the winemaker interferes with a wine and negates the effect of terroir.) The concept of terroir and the belief that a drinker can smell or taste or somehow sense the presence of the vineyard in a wine is controversial. As an ideal, one would want every wine to express its terroir; how a wine would do such a thing remains nebulous, unless the taster possessed years of experience and could tell the difference between, say, Burgundy’s Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses and Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes, vineyards that occupy sites a few yards from each other. We’re approaching a digression here, however, so let’s extend the definition of wine as follows:

V. As a cultural artifact, wine represents an aspirational signifier that no other product of the farm or orchard could hope to emulate. Wine is not “necessary,” just as a car is not a necessity; one could walk or ride a bicycle, as in many societies people do, and food is perfectly palatable without wine. The automobile, however, though merely a mechanical contraption fashioned from steel, plastic and rubber surrounding an internal combustion engine, represents myriad rungs on the ladder of accomplishment, self-image and status, and wine, while we say it’s just a beverage, betokens similar ambitions and yearnings in the realms of knowledge, style, sophistication and prestige. The almost reckless surge of the newly wealthy in Asia, and particularly China, to buy top French Bordeaux and Burgundy wines is motivated by exactly these values.

In 1997, a demographic survey of the readers of the newspaper where I worked full-time revealed that among the local followers of my national weekly wine column the largest group consisted of professional young black women. Initially, I was surprised, but it didn’t take much thought to figure out why this was the case. Wine — in the choosing, serving and matching with food — marks a path toward social acceptability, refinement and savoir faire, whether one is having friends over for a party or dinner or is selecting wine to go with a meal in a restaurant. Few responses are more empowering than the enthusiastic “Excellent choice!” from the waiter when you have selected your bottle of wine from the list. Knowledge of wine and the ability to determine quality and value are ways of completing one’s education in life and joining the ranks of real adults. That was then, and only 15 years later I would say that the attitude among Millennials regarding food and wine is probably more casual, if not effortless, though there is a degree to which wine still represents the pursuit of a paradigm. The ideal for the 22 to 35-year-old cohort, however, tends to be well-made inexpensive yet authentic products (under about $30) that come with interesting back-stories and preferably originate from small, organically-run family estates, and it doesn’t hurt if the wines display off-beat or “fun” labels; in other words, not their parents’ wines.

Images: three wines glasses from; loading wine casks onto cart from; Italian vineyard from; friends drinking wine from

In the New York Times recently, dance critic Gia Kourlas wrote of a young ballet dancer that “[her] lifts were daring, twisty things without being crass.” In what manner could a dancer’s movements be crass, since ballet we think of as the epitome of elegance and grace? By being overstated or emphatic or by being extended beyond the logical necessity of the physical or narrative arc; by calling attention to themselves at the expense of the entire range of motion and delivery; by sentimentalizing or sensationalizing the aura of the dance through slickness and complacency and ego.

These characteristics of what might comprise crassness in ballet amount to a definition of vulgarity, and they can be applied to a multitude of materials, objects and concepts other than dance. The Chrysler Building, for example, is elegant and graceful; a 10,000-square-foot imitation of a Loire Valley chateau plunked down on a small lot in an old suburban neighborhood is vulgar. Mad Men, for all its soap opera drama, is elegantly and cogently written and presented; the so-called “reality shows,” the Jersey Shores and American Idols and the Kardashians and endless knock-offs, take vulgarity to steroidal impact. Among recent movies, Winter’s Bone, for instance, stands out for the elegance and economy of its story-telling, its sense of truth-in-narrative and acting; all the latest revved-up, computer-generated, violent and witless comic book and super-hero films and the obscene amounts of money that go into the production and marketing of these spectacular behemoths represent a peak moment in the vulgarity of American movie-making and culture .

And wine?

Yes, wine can also be vulgar, by which I mean a wine whose treatment sensationalizes a grape’s aspects instead of allowing them a natural and authentic expression; a wine whose inherent character is obliterated by the ego of its winemaker and manipulator; a wine whose making bends it out of proportion to its — to borrow from the first paragraph — logical necessity, range and delivery.

A zinfandel or cabernet sauvignon or syrah/shiraz wine whose super-ripe grapes and high alcohol content, say, 15.5 or 16 percent, manifest themselves as cloying, jammy sweetness and a hot, unbalanced finish — to which we could add bouquet-and-flavor trashing toasty new oak — is decidedly an example of vulgarity. A chardonnay, pumped up like a be-drugged athlete with barrel fermentation, aging in high-toast barrels and malolactic fermentation so that it turns out tasting like pineapple custard, roasted marshmallows, guava cream and marzipan — quoting the approving descriptions in a well-known wine publication — is another example of the vulgarization of an unsuspecting grape that can’t fight back.

Uncomplicated grapes whose primary purpose is to provide diversion and delight — thinking of Austria’s gruner veltliner — are vulgarized, let’s say it, perverted by a similar process and sold for $50 and $60 and $75 a bottle. You would think that European winemakers might know better than to throw an avalanche of new oak at a basically decent charming wine in an attempt to elicit a measure of specious “greatness” from it; all that effort produces is an imitation of bad California chardonnay.

Give me, then, a wine that’s spare and elegant and lithe; a wine whose well-considered time in oak, if it even needs such treatment, provides support and suppleness and shades of nuance; a wine that honors the nature and potential of the grape or grapes from which it was made and, if possible, the place where those grapes grew; a wine that is not burdened and overwhelmed by inessential technical prowess; give me, above all, delight and daring, confidence and authenticity with a little risk and individuality, like that ballerina who knows the steps and the movements, all the classical requirements, by heart yet invests her performance with added spirit, those “twisty things” that lift her into otherworldly beauty.

Ballerina image from; Kim Kardashian image from

Perhaps Americans who care about wine romanticize the notion of a European wine culture. You know what I mean, the image we carry around in our imaginations that depicts a long table set outside under ancient olive trees — this would be in Provence, of course, or Tuscany — with three or four generations of the family partaking of utterly fresh and simple yet wonderful food while sipping from glasses of a tasty unpretentious local wine. The kids get a little wine diluted with water in their glasses, and the teenagers are allowed one glass and no monkey business, thank you very much! See, these people know that learning about drinking starts at the family table, with Grandma and Grandpa looking on benevolently as the youngsters are gradually initiated into the knowledge that so many Americans can’t comprehend: That wine is part of life and is inextricable from the enjoyment of food. Gosh, wouldn’t we like to be in that movie!

Because the truth is somewhat different. In Great Britain laws governing the consumption of alcohol have become draconian. Germans are turning away from wine and drinking more beer. The French — sacre bleu, the French! — have become almost hysterically puritanical about alcohol consumption, though now that their non-drinking prez has been booted out perhaps the atmosphere may lighten up a bit. In any case, America traditionally looks to Europe for its lessons about food and wine and life the way that an ingenue looks to a wiser, more sophisticated older man for instruction in love. Oops, not anymore! That’s a different motif from a different time and a different movie!

So, to the question “Could America become a country with a genuine wine culture, in the sense that wine is accepted as a foregone part of household and family existence, that wine is a natural accompaniment to food and belongs on the table, that wine, moderately consumed, is an enjoyable, even celebratory aspect of life,” I have to answer — “I think not.”

I’ll provide a tiny admittedly isolated though, I think, potent example of why I believe this is so. Here’s the background:

To the east of Memphis lie the smaller towns of Germantown and Colllierville, all these contiguous cities and towns running up against each other, so you could drive on Poplar Avenue from downtown Memphis, on the Mississippi River, east to the Shelby County line and seldom be out of a major shopping area. When I was in college, a drive from the center of Memphis out to Collierville felt like an all-day expedition; now the road is six lanes all the way and in a sense the drive is even more tedious.

Germantown and Collierville began as villages, and they each grew and grew, so that even these suburban towns have their own suburbs and malls and shopping centers and civic plazas. The heart of Collierville, however, is the old town square that retains a bit of original quaintness and a group of 19th and early 20th Century houses that surround it. Like many old villages that expanded into the era of urbanization and its growing pains, Collierville tries to hold on to its heritage, especially through an annual town fair that celebrates its history and its present.

Here’s the point of this preamble, quoting from a recent story about the Collierville town fair in Memphis’ daily newspaper, The Commercial Appealr: “It’s just part of Collierville. It is family-friendly, you know there isn’t alcohol served, and Collierville is all about family,” said Twentieth Century Club president Karen Ray. (Serendipitously, the article was written by reporter Chelsea Boozer.)

Anyway, there you have it: “Family-friendly” and alcoholic beverages are antithetical. The town of Collierville and its fair are “all about family,” and family values and alcohol don’t mix. (Though a good name for a cocktail would be “Family Values.” I’ll let you contemporary mixologists work on that.)

Now you may be saying, “FK, don’t get hysterical. This is one comment from one person.”

And while you would be right, I cannot help thinking that the statement epitomizes the attitude of a great deal of America’s conservative population regarding alcoholic beverages, whether we talk about beer, wine or spirits. The case doesn’t merely reflect a lack of sophistication; it’s more a matter of real apprehension about alcohol in its old-fashioned guise of Demon Rum. In truth, alcohol has been more and more demonized lately, not only in this country but, as we have seen, in Europe, the great home of vineyards, winemaking and food and wine culture. I would never downplay the real harm that excessive alcohol consumption can result in nor the devastation visited on some families and society generally by alcoholism; the physical, emotional and financial losses are tremendous. Alcoholic beverages, however, are designed to give pleasure, and used legitimately and with common sense they indeed impart a great deal of pleasure, yes, occasionally of a heady, giddy sort, to our lives. Americans, though, have historically fostered a love-hate relationship with alcoholic beverages, viewing their manifold pleasures as well as their deleterious effects with equal suspicion. Never will the dual nature of this contingency be resolved, because these suspicions, anxieties and alarms have been hard-wired into the consciousness of certain portions of the population for generations.

I wish American families could take as their models the Reagan family on the CBS dramatic series Blue Bloods — re-signed for a third year — in which three generations of New York police officers, centered around the police commissioner portrayed by Tom Selleck and including his long-retired father and his two sons, one a beat policeman and the other a detective (a daughter is an assistant district attorney), along with spouses and children, gather for family dinners at least twice during each broadcast. And there on the table always stands a bottle of wine, and there on the table stand wine glasses from which the adults sip throughout the meal and pause to refill those glasses. No one ever mentions the wine because there’s no need to; wine goes with food and is obviously a natural part of their daily life. It’s so damned refreshing!

Some of my readers may say, “Oh sure, and the Reagans are Irish Catholic, and we all know about them.” All right, then, perhaps it’s time that a whole lot of Americans should learn a lesson from these very loving and family-oriented Irish Catholics.

Al fresco dining image by Alexandra Rowley for Collierville town square image from Blue Bloods image from

The image of the wine life that magazines, television and film offers is beautiful, leisurely, well-mannered and expensive. Whether the winery setting is a gauzy little chateau in the Loire Valley, an ancient villa in Provence, a fairy tale castle in Rheingau or Mosel, an 18th Century farmstead in Tuscany, a venerable hacienda in Argentina, a sleek contemporary (self-sustaining) structure in the Napa Valley, the narrative devolves on family history, endless afternoons of fine old wines and meals served al fresco overlooking green and golden acres of rolling vineyards, of rows of barrels resting majestically and mystically in dim cellars amid the pungency of young wine and wood, of horses and rose gardens, art collections and hunting trophies, all embraced by the traditional diurnal round of farming, growing, harvesting and winemaking that results in the essence of earth and grape translated into a few rare and costly bottles.

As you’re sipping your wine today, however, be it something fresh and frothy or something aged and hallowed, be it on the patio or porch, at a picnic or gathered round the dinner table, don’t forget, this Labor Day holiday, the day-laborers, the migrant workers, the men and women (and in some countries the children) who actually dig and fence and erect the poles and wires and trellises for the vineyards, who prune and trim, who pick the grapes, passing through the rows of vines under the sun, sometimes on slopes so steep that neither tractors nor horses can manage the grade. Harvest is commencing in many wine regions of the Northern Hemisphere, so, for example, in Germany the Polish laborers are out in force, just as thousands of Mexicans will be filling their baskets and bins with California’s bounty.

Without the immense physical efforts of these minimum-wage workers, who do not inhabit the glamorous realms of their employers nor drink their storied products, you would not be enjoying a glass of wine today.

In the New York Times (sort of) recently, classical music reporter and reviewer Zachary Woolfe explored the notion of what it means when an opera singer or classical music performer has charisma, prominently using the example of Maria Callas. “Charismatic performers,” Woolfe writes, “are those whom you simply can’t look away from. Their charisma is an almost physical presence, a spark that powers even the most unassuming musical passage.” He continues: “To experience a charismatic performance is to feel elevated, simultaneously dazed and focused, galvanized and enlarged. It is to surrender to something raw and elemental, to feel happy but also unsatisfied.” Unsatisfied may seem a strange factor in our reaction to the presence of charisma, but that feeling arises from a sense of incomprehension, because while we can describe charisma its source remains mysterious and, I suspect, because a charismatic performance must end, never to be repeated in the same way.

The notion of charisma extends to other sorts of performers — rock singers, actors — to other sorts of celebrities and public figures and occasionally to politicians. I covered a booksigning event for Bill Clinton when his memoir came out, and you could feel the charisma, the power or magnetism when he came into the store; he glowed; just standing there, talking to people, shaking hands, signing books, he was stunning.

Of course not all opera singers or pianists or presidents are blessed with charisma; it’s a rare phenomenon. A violinist, say, can be technically superb, gifted with expressiveness and interpretive genius yet not possess charisma; a statesman can be wise, diplomatic and daring, yet not embody an ounce of charisma. All reports tend to agree that Liszt had charisma, while Chopin did not. A person can be great at what he does or just great without charisma; that’s an extra, the transcendent yet forcefully felt presence that lifts an experience of a person or that person’s art into a realm that seems not of this world.

And can wine have charisma?

If you are fortunate enough to have spent time tasting a wide variety of wines, you have probably come across one that wasn’t just excellent or exceptional, that didn’t just display impressive and impeccable character, it floored you, changed your mind about how greatness in wine should be defined. It was a wine that because of its tremendous sense of presence and tone, its incredible quality of potency and power (and ultimate elegance), struck you almost as otherworldly. All sorts of wines can compel one to exclaim “holy shit!”; a wine with charisma engenders a holy whisper.

For a wine to effect us with its charismatic nature, that is to say, for a wine to exhibit the character of true greatness, it must originate in the very best grapes grown in the very best mature vineyards that are the most appropriate in terms of soil, drainage, exposure and climate — terroir! — for those grapes. The grapes, after their seasons of thoughtful care in the vineyard — and, one hopes, perfect seasons of weather, cold and heat and rain, for an exceptional vintage — must have been harvested at the optimum moment so that all the chemical components that reside in the skins, the pulp and juice, the sugars and acids and myriad trace elements are poised in platonic harmony. These are the grapes that strike farmers and winemakers with awe at the potential they hold. (We know, of course, that ripeness and how it is defined and how it is measured constitute one of the great controversies in 21st Century winemaking.)

In the winery or garage or cellar, the grapes must be handled extremely carefully, by which I mean that every effort must be made to allow the grapes to express themselves and their origins with minimum intervention by human beings and not to destroy their potential through the ego of the winemaker or producer. How easy for a winemaker to say, “I’m going to shape the wine to my ends,” when in truth the wine shapes itself and expresses its purity and intensity but with sensitive and intelligent nurturing in the cellar. (Wine does not literally “make itself” as people often assert.)

Above all, these are the wines that, because of the perfect confluence of all the requisite factors that make a wine great, feel as if they exude more presence, more character, more resonance and vibrancy at a level that other wines could not possibly attain. These wines practically hum in the glass, and they fill the mouth almost beyond our ability to understand, though we do comprehend the enormous pleasure they impart, pleasure, it must be said, that may often be founded on or must accommodate to fathomless tannins, austerity and a sense of aloofness. At the same time, charismatic wines tend to exhibit exquisite balance from the beginnings to the ends of their trajectories, balance being a relative and shifting ideal as a wine develops in the bottle.

So, here then are 20 wines that in my experience projected charisma. Chronologically, they span 70 years, from a red Bordeaux from 1937 to an Argentine malbec from vintage 2007; in terms of my on-going education, they cover a period from 1984, the year that my newspaper wine column was launched, to eight months ago on New Year’s Eve 2010, with LL and me at home nibbling osetra caviar and sipping one of France’s greatest Champagnes. I spent a day going through old — ancient , it seems — wine notes, but what’s interesting is that when I started contemplating this post, I knew what most of the wines were that I wanted to include; that’s how persistent they have been in my memory.

1. Simi Pinot Noir 1974, Alexander Valley (purchased at a local store, tasted at home March 1984 and still one of the greatest pinots I ever encountered)

2. Chateau Latour 1982, Pauillac (tasted at a trade event in Memphis sometime in 1985; tasted again in New York, October 1991).

3. Chateau St. Jean Late Harvest Johannesburg Riesling 1978, Belle Terre Vineyard, Alexander Valley (tasted in John Grisanti’s cellar, some time in 1989)

4. Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon 1980, Napa Valley (purchased at Sherry-Lehmann in NYC, for $20.50[!]; consumed with Easter dinner in Memphis, April 1986)

5. Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1977, Alexander Valley (at a tasting in Memphis of Silver Oak cabernets, sometime in 1986)

6. Grivelet Clos Vougeot 1971 (at John Grisanti’s restaurant, sometime in 1987)

7. Chateau Haut-Brion 1937, Graves (at a tasting with collectors in Memphis in 1987; this 50-year-old wine was, incredibly and from a dismal decade in Bordeaux, even better than the fabulous ’59 and ’66)

8. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru 1983 (tasted in New York, October 1991)

9. Gaja Barbaresco 1955 (made by Angelo Gaja’s father, tasted in New York, October 1991)

10. Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 1998, Clare Valley, Australia (tasted at the property, October 1998)

11. Domaine G. Roumier Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses Premier Cru 1998 (barrel sample at the property, December 1999, on my birthday)

12. Chateau Petrus 1998, Pomerol (barrel sample at the property, December 1999)

13. Sineann Reed and Reynolds Vineyard Pinot Noir 2000, Oregon (tasted in Oregon, August 2002)

14. Domaine Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2001 (tasted in New York, June 2004)

15. Tres Sabores Zinfandel 2003, Rutherford, Napa Valley (tasted in New York, March 2006)

16. Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Brut 1996 (tasted in New York, September 2006)

17. Phifer Pavit Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley (sample for review, tasted at home October 2008)

18 & 19. Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Malbec 2007, Mendoza, & Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Mendoza (tasted at the property — the chardonnay with lunch — October 2010)

20. Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998 (purchased locally and consumed on New Year’s Eve 2010)

Wait, wait, wait, I just remembered — one more: 21. Paul Jaboulet Aine Hermitage La Chapelle 1949, one of a case of bottles mainly of Bordeaux and Burgundy from the 1950s and 60s that I received for cataloging a private wine cellar in 1988. I invited five or six people to join me at a local restaurant sometime that Fall to taste — nay, drink — all of the wines, and they were truly memorable, I mean the whole evening was a superb education and an orgy of great food and wine, but the Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 1949, at 39 years old, was certainly among the very best and most extraordinary wines I have tasted in my life.

But wait, again, wait ….. no, we’ll save that wine for another day.

Thursday in The New York Times, James R. Oestreich, reviewing a performance of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Fischer, wrote, “The orchestra played well, with a full-bodied sound and yet a transparency that helped clarify lines in the occasionally dense counterpoint.”

Reading that tremendously sympathetic assessment, I couldn’t help thinking that Oestreich might have been describing the attributes of a great wine. What we desire, even yearn for, in the experience of a wine is the impeccable and risk-taking balance that sets in finely-tuned equilibrium qualities of intensity and full-bodiedness, of density and concentration with transparency of effort and effect, with lines of character cleanly and persistently etched and clarified. In the same way that a particular theme or motif is threaded through the melodic narrative and harmonic architecture of a string quartet or a concerto or symphony, certain qualities and elements weave through a great wine: a touch, say, of smoky black cherry and rhubarb in a pinot noir or hint of lilac and black olive in a merlot or thread of ginger and quince in a chardonnay that remains consistent from first sniff through the last savoring of the finish, at some points (or counterpoints) more revealed than at others.

Like the complicated “up-and-down” score of an orchestral work, on which each measure relegates some portion of melody and harmony to different instruments — here the violins and violas, the flutes and oboes with tremors from the string basses and tympani, there all the strings, the clarinets, the trumpets and trombones and horns, the full complement of percussion — just so a great wine offers depth and breadth of character that opens the dimensions of tannin, acidity, minerality and oak (if that’s part of the package), inextricably bolstering and permeating the details of fruit, spice, flowers and all the other flourishes that make a wine irresistible.

Oestreich’s point about transparency is as important for wine as for music. However deep and profound a wine might be in its structure and potential, it will possess a sense of immediacy, a completely bearable lightness of being that expresses the essence of its grapes, its vineyard and its little patch of geography, the fundamental imperative of its existence.

Must all wines embody this theoretically parallel nature with musical composition and performance? No, of course not. The tasty Argentine malbec you had with a burger last night, the pert and sassy sauvignon blanc from New Zealand that you quaffed with fish tacos, the robust primitivo you knocked back with barbecue ribs at a family picnic; in their simplicity and directness and one hopes authenticity, these wines were exactly what you needed at the moment. After all, even Bach, Beethoven and Brahms had whimsical impulses. We expect more from certain other wines, however, whether posited in terms of cost or place or property or winemaker — or (most desirable) all four — and when such wines deliver the goods from top to bottom and meet all expectations, then they provide the complete allure and gratification of which a great wine is capable in full symphonic regalia.

Many issues confront writers about and consumers of fine wine at this point in space and time, shifting entities worthy of debate themselves. The very concept of writing about wine and the differences among writing, criticizing and reviewing are subjects of a great deal of discussion on the world’s wine blogs, along with the efficacy or necessity of various rating systems. The newest buzz topic of “natural wine” — even attempts simply to categorize or define it –generates clouds of sound and fury that seem to have obscured such previous bones of contention as terroir and biodynamic philosophies. People who write about California’s wineries and wines expend generations of electronic capital on the matters of high alcohol and the overuse of oak barrels. In the rarefied echelons, auction houses, wine collectors and their attorneys are atwitter about what appears to be a proliferation of fake prestigious bottles that are apparently strewn about the landscape like squalid pretenders to the throne.

And then there are the millions of consumers who, far from these controversies and disputes, just want a decent glass of wine with their dinners.

I thought about these themes recently when I was down in Vicksburg, Miss., for my grandson’s second birthday party. The historic river-town, the upside-down apex of the Mississippi Delta, is a four-hour drive from Memphis if you take I-55 to Jackson and turn west. My son told me that he would be cooking hamburgers, hot dogs and sausages on the grill outside, and I told him that I would bring some red wine fit to accompany such hearty, smoky, meaty fare. I rummaged through the wine rack and chose six bottles, two each of some pretty damned big cabernets, merlots and syrahs. As it happened, I misread the audience.

People assembled for the party that afternoon — neighbors, friends, the parents of my grandson’s daycare compadres — good, kind folk who have been helpful and generous to my son and his little family since they moved to Vicksburg about 18 months ago. I was introduced, inevitably, as a wine expert who had brought special wines to the party, but when I offered my wares, the questions repeatedly put to me were these: “Do you have anything sweet?” and “Do you have anything that’s not too heavy?”

Stop, readers, before you say, “Oh, those kinds of people.” Those kinds of people comprise most of the wine consumers in America, and I promise you that they’re completely unconcerned about notions of place and terroir, of natural wines versus manipulated wines, of auctions and ratings and in what forests deep in France’s heartland the mighty oaks grew that provided the wood for the barrels that aged whatever wine you and I might be having with dinner tonight. No, those kinds of people desire a wine that’s not substantial, not shaped by oak or laden with tannin, not complicated or multi-dimensional, but rather a wine that’s pleasant, easy to drink, flavorful and, yes, it’s true in many cases, a little sweet. A friendly electrician at the newspaper where I used to work told me once that nothing in the world made him happier than going home to a plate of spaghetti and meatballs and a glass of port, and he didn’t mean a glass of port after dinner, he meant with the spaghetti, and who was I to say “Gack!” (I assume he meant a glass of non-vintage ruby port, not, you know, Taylor-Fladgate ’66.)

It’s a commonplace saying of the wine industry and wine commentary that what we call “fine wine” — intended for cellaring and aging –occupies about five percent of the wine made in the world, while the other 95 percent consists of everyday wine meant for fairly immediate consumption. In terms of writing about wine, of course, that five percent has traditionally received about 95 percent of the attention, though the proliferation of blogs dedicated to inexpensive wine may have changed that estimate to some degree. Of course fine wine is far more interesting to taste and write about than everyday wine, just as Philip Roth is more interesting to read and write about than Nora Roberts (though as a model of industry she should be an inspiration to us all). Everyday wine, however, is important enough as a huge market for American consumers that as a product it should be better than just serviceable.

I certainly understand the desire to own a winery that produces, say, a thousand cases of exceptional cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir that commands a dear price and garners glowing reviews and awards. How many people do such wines affect, however? Perhaps a few hundred collectors and restaurants in New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas. Isn’t it a nobler endeavor to produce 100,000 cases of a well-made, dependable, delicious wine that costs $12 a bottle and that will bring pleasure to millions of people in their homes and favorite bistros? I recently interviewed the wine manager for a small, well-run restaurant in Memphis who said that he can’t offer Napa Valley wines by the glass or bottle for a reasonable price, even though he would like to. The reason? “They’re not good enough,” he said. That’s an assessment borne out by my experience, though I would expand the criticism to California as a whole. Generally speaking, wines in the $10 to $15-a-bottle range are better from Spain, Italy and Argentina (not so much Australia anymore) than from West Coast producers.

There’s not a thing wrong with making simple, decent, palatable wines that display enough personality that one would want to drink another glass and buy another bottle. And of course there’s nothing wrong with making superbly nuanced, elegant, deeply layered and profound wines for those who can afford them. I think, though, that a great segment of the wine consuming audience — an audience that wants good wine, not plonk, not dreck — exists only at the margins of the wine industry’s consciousness, like my son’s neighbors down in Vicksburg. They tried the full-bodied, tannic wines I poured for them, were polite about them, and then went looking for the beer.

(Readers, this is the 600th post on BTYH.)

I had not seen 1001 Wines You Must Taste Before You Die (Universe Publishing, $36.95), even though the book was released in 2008, but happening upon it in a local bookstore, I picked it up and was intrigued. My thought, of course, was, “How many of these wines have I tasted?”

One does tire of the 1001 … Before You Die phenomenon, which seems to proliferate with the speedy generation of the sappy Chicken Soup for the Soul books and the endless Blankety-Blank for Dummies series. What I’m waiting for is the snappy 1001 Ways to Die, surely a definitive wrap-up to the concept.

Anyway, I bought the compact but hefty tome, brought it home and began to go through it methodically, marking the wines I have experienced with little yellow sticky-note things. Soon the book absolutely bristled with little yellow sticky-note things, like a pale spiky punk hair-do. And yet when I counted the little yellow sticky-note things, they totaled only 232. Sacre bleu! 232! A mere 23 percent! What have I been doing for the past 25 years?

The book’s essential wines, the ones we must taste before we shuffle off this mortal coil, were chosen by a panel of 43 experts, 25 of whom are British, so it’s easy to understand the book’s bias in favor of French wines, with which the British have a relationship going back 800 years and more. In fact, of the 1001 wines mentioned, 323 are French, and of those 104 are from Bordeaux. Not that that’s a bad thing, and I would say that the French wines are certainly balanced by worthy, interesting, intriguing and obscure picks from other parts of the world. If only because the book inspires curiosity and the desire to seek out new and unknown wines, we must count it a (rather intimidating) success.

Here’s the scheme: The book is divided into these sections — Sparkling wines, White wines, Red wines (by far the biggest segment) and Fortified wines. The order within each section is alphabetical. The entry includes some historical detail and a description of the recommended wine, which is always, where appropriate (that is, not a nonvintage product), vintage specific. In other words, the expert doesn’t say, “You must taste Chateau Leoville-Las Cases or Stefano Inama Vulcaia Fume Sauvignon Blanc before you die,” but Leoville-Las Cases 1996 or Stefano Inama Vulcaia Fume Sauvignon Blanc 2001. This method works with a wine like the Leonetti Cellars Merlot 2005, which is available all over the Internet from about $70 to $90, but not so well with, say, the Domaine Hubert de Montille Volnay Les Taillepieds Premier Cru 1985, which I have to say, we should all taste before we die, but good luck with that unless you find some at auction and possess the fiduciary prowess to purchase it.

Certainly a wine like Chateau Mouton-Rothschild is a necessity for anyone with pretensions to a well-rounded palate and historical perspective, but the vintage recommended in the book for Mouton is 1945. Now Mouton-Rothschild 1945 stands loftily among the greatest wines made in the 20th Century, and it should be obvious that, 65 years later, the supply is dwindling. In 2006, a case of Mouton ’45 sold at Christie’s in Beverley Hills for an insane $290,000; you see individual bottles priced from $5,000 to $12,000. So, ideally, in the best of all possible worlds, yes, we would taste Mouton 1945 before we die — and the CVNE Corona Reserva Blanco Semi Dulce 1939 and other old wines — but our chances of doing so are about as remote as Lady Gaga singing Tosca at La Scala.

What’s interesting about the book, though, is that not all the selections are esoteric, expensive or unattainable. There are, for example, two of my favorite inexpensive red wines from Spain, Castaño’s Hecula Monastrell 2004 from Yecla and Borsao’s Tres Picos Garnacha 2005 from Campo de Borja. Must we taste them before we die? I don’t know about that, but they’re damned fine, completely accessible wines that you can buy for 10 or 11 smackers. You would want more recent vintages, of course.

And then there are the book’s provocative eccentricities. Mateus? Blue Nun? Surely the title of that book would be Wines I Would Rather Die 1001 Deaths Before I Tasted. Mateus is described as “one of the few truly global wine brands,” while Blue Nun is called “a triumph of marketing and rebranding.” Aren’t those precisely the reasons why thoughtful consumers don’t drink some products?

So, about my 232 wines, you could say that I cheated in some instances, but I will justify my claims. For example, I have not tasted Domaine Jean Grivot Richebourg Grand Cru 2002, the vintage recommended in the book, but I did taste the 1998, from the barrel, in Grivot’s dim cellar, my toes numb with the chill on a blustery, rainy December afternoon. I have not tasted Chateau Haut-Brion 1989, but i have tasted Haut-Brion 1975, ’67, ’66, ’64, ’62, ’60, ’59, ’57, ’55 and ’37. I have not tasted Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow 1978 (and where the hell would you find it now?), but I did taste Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace 1977 “First Pick” and Red Rock Terrace ’77 “Second Pick,” Volcanic Hill 1979 “First Pick” and Volcanic Hill ’70 “Second Pick,” and the Three Vineyard Blend 1981 and ’84, with Al Brounstein, sitting at a picnic table on the property. My point, Readers, is that you take your cred where you can, and add up the score later.

On the other hand, I was surprised, if not downright pleased, at how many of the wines I had tasted in the specified vintages. Salon 1996? But of course, my dears. Chateau Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 1982? It goes without saying. Penfolds Bin 95 Grange 1971 (or Grange Hermitage as the wine was known originally)? Not only 1971 but every vintage going back to 1955. And so on, blah blah blah, that’s all fine, but the humbling factor remains the 769 recommended wines I have not tasted, tons of fascinating wines from Italy, Spain, Australia, South Africa, Portugal. Time’s a-wastin’. I had better get busy.

And I’ll conclude with a dozen perhaps slightly eccentric recommendations of my own, wines that I believe deserve attention, for the book’s next edition (without specific vintages):

Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley.
Tres Sabores Perspective Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, Napa Valley.
Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, Los Carneros, Napa Valley.
Robert Sinskey Vandal Vineyard Pinot Noir, Los Carneos, Napa Valley.
Porter Bass Zinfandel, Russian River Valley.
Tenuta di Valgiano, Colline Lucchesi Rosso.
Reale Andrea Borgo di Gete, Colli di Salerno.
Albet i Noya Lignum Red, Penedes.
Domaine Beauthorey Bella Parra, Pic Saint-Loup, Languedoc.
Champagne David Léclapart Cuvée L’Apôtre. (A vintage blanc de blancs that sees oak.)
Champagne David Léclapart Cuvée L’Amateur. (A vintage blanc de blancs sans oak.)
Peter Jakob Kühn Oestrich Doosberg Riesling, Rheingau.

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