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.