Meditation and Contemplation

My constant reader and responder-to-posts Thomas Pellechia, author of the blog vinofictions, had a reasonable point when he said to me, in an email, after I described, on Oct. 23, a $45 bottle of Elodian Pinot Noir that I sampled with a plate of cheese toast:

The post popped a thought into my head. I wondered first whether this was a bottle that you were sent or that you bought for at-home dining.

The reason I wondered: if wine writers are trying to reach the general audience and not the geek, your cheese toast with a $45 Pinot Noir might seem rather extravagant (to the audience). If that is the case, then I further wonder what exactly are we saying to the general audience that likely can’t afford a $45 wine just to have each night with dinner, let alone with toast!

Well, ahem, I suppose (I answered) that part of it has to do with the element of surprise, of extravagance, even of theater, in the sense that I don’t mind if people think, “That F.K., what a goof-ball, opened a $45 pinot noir with his cheese toast!” Yeah, I’ll do pretty much anything, verbally and conceptually, for a laugh, for a bit of attention, to keep — and this is the motivation — people coming back to BTYH.

Of course most of the wine I write about comes to me as samples, so, perhaps unfairly, I do have the ability to snatch a $45 wine from the rack to open with my cheese toast or roast chicken or whatever. Such wines exist, and I don’t think they should be ignored just because they’re expensive.

I also provide reviews of inexpensive wines, as in the Wine of the Week (rarely over $20) and in, for example, the post called “12 Under $20: White” that went up on Nov. 8. It’s probably not a good idea to try to be all things to all people, or the general all-purpose wine-writer and reviewer, but there it is.

Just to make amends, however, yesterday I made some cheese toast for my lunch, and before I reached for a wine to open, I thought, “Careful now, let’s be fair to The Readers.” So I opened a bottle of Redtree Pinot Noir 2008, California, which cost me — yes, my own hard-earned cash –the princely sum of $9. And you know what? Not only was it a pleasant and drinkable little wine, it actually displayed hints of real pinot noir character, in the form of smoky black cherry scents and flavors, plums with a hint of cola, subtle touches of spicy cranberry and rhubarb and a bit of clean earthiness; it even offers some pinot noir satiny sleekness for texture. The alcohol level — 12.5 percent — makes no demands. I rate the Redtree Pinot Noir ’08, a product of Cecchetti Wine Co., Very Good. At about $9, it represents Good Value, though you see it around the country as low as $6.50.

See, I’m not always “Mr. Forty-Five-Dollar Man.”

I don’t mean that the Two Angels Divinity 2006, High Valley, is an “anti-Wine of the Week” — those do occur — but that because its production was limited to 500 cases, I couldn’t, in good conscience, make it an official Wine of the Week. I try to be nice that way and not, you know, piss off My Readers.

The Two Angels Divinity 06 is a Rhone-style blend of 52 percent syrah, 22 percent grenache, 20 percent mourvedre, all traditional grapes in France’s southern Rhone Valley, with the additional fillip of 6 percent petite sirah. I wanted to feature this wine today not only for its delectable qualities but for the part that texture plays in its compelling character.

First come aromas of lavender and licorice and leather, with hints of some beefy element, and then spiced and macerated black currants, blackberries and plums. Then — we’re still at the nose — dusty potpourri, damp slate, dried porcini, something rooty and brambly. There’s plenty here to entice and beguile. In the mouth: Black and blue fruit flavors — there’s a hint of blueberry — cushioned by moderately chewy tannins and suave oak in a package that’s more drinkable than austere. The oak regimen was a reasonable 10 months in French (70%) and American (30%) barrels, only 35 percent of which were new, so the oak component is balanced and does not deliver the toastiness and overt spiciness that can come when new wood dominates.

What I really want to mention, though, is this wine’s texture, that is, how it feels in the mouth, on the tongue and palate. It’s easy for reviewers to toss off “dense and chewy texture” — and I am guilty too — rather than explain, or try to explain, how the wine actually feels. In this case, therefore, in terms of weight, the wine is neither heavy nor obvious; its size and substance do not demand attention — it helps that the alcohol content is “only” 14.1 percent — and there’s even something fleet or deft about the texture. This quality is aided, no doubt, by the brisk acidity that lends the wine liveliness and elan. To further note, however, there’s a quality to the texture that you feel as if you could roll on your tongue, an amalgam of powdery elements as if ground in a mortar, an alchemical transubstantiation of crushed gravel, exotic barks and dried flowers into form, dimension and body. Zowie!

It will be no surprise that I thought that the Two Angels Divinity 2006 was a terrific wine. It would be great with grilled red meat, game birds — think quail or pheasant — or pork chops. We drank it with cold leftover pizza and chocolate cake, but that’s another story. Excellent. About $25 and Worth a Search.

High Valley, by the way — you expect Barbara Stanwyck to come riding down the valley to stirring music — was approved as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 2005. It’s in the eastern part of Lake County, just north of Napa County, and encompasses about 15,000 acres, of which some 700 are planted to vines. These are high-elevation vineyards, extending up the hillsides to 3,000 feet. Probably the most familiar producer in High Valley is Shannon Ridge, and indeed, the grapes for Divinity 06 come from the Shannon Ridge Vineyards.

When producers send their wine children out into the world, how do they anticipate that people who purchase the wines will drink them? Sipped as an aperitif? (“No, no,” sobs the winemaker, “it’s too good for that!”) Consumed with an inappropriate dish? (“No, no,” sobs the winemaker, “not the chili-mac!”) Splashed into a plastic cup at a tail-gate party? (“No, no,” sobs the winemaker, “at least use a water-glass!”)

Above all, what amount of time do they intend for us to spend with a bottle of wine?

If you have been at the wine-writing game for a while, you have doubtless attended trade tastings where dozens, if not hundreds, of writers, retailers, restaurant wine managers and such flit from table to table sampling dozens, if not hundreds, of wines and spending about two minutes, tops, with each one. Now that’s the way we pros assess wines! Truly, though, one skill that writers and other wine-tasters must acquire is the ability to make these lightning (and enlightening) judgments; star-power tends to make itself known immediately. Sometime in the Fall of 2003, I was in New York to attend a mammoth tasting of the 2000 vintage from Bordeaux, an event conducted in a circus-like atmosphere of competition that amounted to desperation. It was like running a gantlet where people not only hit you but spit red wine on you. Fun! And even amid the many great wines on display that hectic, arduous afternoon, when I took one sniff and one sip of Chateau Pavie, it felt as if the heavens had opened and the secrets of gravity were revealed. (I guess Einstein already did that, but you know what I mean.) That’s the stunning effect of perfection, instantly perceived.

But wouldn’t it have been better to have a whole bottle of Ch. Pavie 2000 at dinner — yeah, right — and taste it throughout an evolution of an hour or so?

This theme arose last night during an autumnal meal of braised pork shank (with porcini mushrooms and prosciutto), sauteed potatoes and green beans with apples. LL and I shared duties: I did the pork shanks, which turned out to be fairly labor-intensive for a weeknight, and she did the potatoes and beans. Whatever the work involved, the shanks turned out to be a terrific dish, and the dinner altogether was filling and warming on a chilly evening

I took the opportunity to open three cabernet-based wines from California. I have been working for weeks — it feels like months — on a post called “Old School California Cabernets,” about, well, I think it’s up to 30 now, current releases of cabernets from wineries founded in 1980 or before. That’s enough examples that I may have to break the post into two parts so it won’t be too long and unwieldy. Anyway, this trio, one from Napa Valley and two from Alexander Valley — prices ranged from about $45 to $65 — felt bruisingly unfathomable when first encountered, but since we sat at dinner for more than an hour and went back to each wine many times, we had a chance to see how they evolved as they loosened and unfolded in the glass.

One of the Alexander Valley examples I summarily dismissed as “too typical, too much oak, too toasty.” Half an hour to 45 minutes later, however, the wine, while retaining an almost crisp oak character and formidable tannin, had opened beautifully, showing ravishing floral and spicy aspects and intense, ripe black fruit, all wound in vivid acidity. I went back to the wines the next morning and in terms of tannin, they were still hard as nails.

I wonder, though, if consumers who bought these wines and sat down to dinner with them would react the same way, or would they say something like, “Wow, pretty darn tannic,” and go about the business of eating and drinking and then in a few minutes say, “O.K., that’s smoothing out nicely,” and just leave it at that. I mean, it’s my chosen task to be an explicator of wine, just as when I taught English in college it was my task to explicate, say, a poem by Robert Frost — and when you think about it, both woods and wine can be “lovely, dark and deep” — but most wine-drinkers, I think, don’t conceive of wine as a beverage to be explicated, just consumed and enjoyed.

Would their enjoyment be greater if they paid more attention? It’s difficult to say. I spent 20 years writing about art and reviewing exhibitions for the newspaper where I worked, and I feel certain that my experience at an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan is not the same as the experience of the thousands of people who traipse dutifully through the galleries. There are many levels of discernment and pleasure, in art or music or literature or wine. Knowledge and experience expand our range of discernment and pleasure, but such procedures are neither within the ken nor the desire of everyone.

Still, I would encourage my readers to spend more time with and expend a little more attention on the next bottle of wine they open. Give it a chance to open up and express its character and individuality, if it’s the sort of wine that manifests character and individuality. Not all wines do, nor is that their purpose. On the other hand, if you spend some time savoring a $12 cabernet and it turns out to have a surprising amount of nuance and dimension, then you have profited in pleasure and wisdom, and the wine has been allowed to do its job.

Q. You are on record as despising Twitter, Facebook and other social-networking devices, yet you recently signed up for Twitter. Que pasa?

A. I signed on to Twitter because everyone said that I should use it as a marketing tool to bring traffic to this blog. More traffic may lead to more advertising. No, wait, make that some advertising, any advertising, at least something more than Google ads, which I assume that everyone regards as annoying to the point of invisibility. Those Google ads net me all of $100 annually. Whoa, bring up that Wells-Fargo armored truck now!

Q. And has Twitter brought you more traffic?

A. Not noticeably. Of course I only have 34 followers, so I guess it will take time, you know, slowly building the Irresistible Momentum of a Force of Nature.

Q. We notice that you aren’t following anyone on Twitter. Pour quoi?

A. I tried that for a few weeks, but found the suffocating inanity intolerable. It’s amazing what intelligent, college-educated people will reveal about themselves or the trivialities they so breathlessly report. It’s like reading a Freudian treatise on the madness of crowds via telegraph.

Q. On another subject, do you accept wine samples for review?

A. Let me say this about that. The whole reviewing apparatus — wine, books, music CDs (what’s left of them), household products — depends on review samples. Rare is the publication or writer who possesses the fiduciary prowess to afford paying for the items he or she reviews. Probably 80 percent of he wines I review come as samples from wineries, producers, importers and wholesalers; some of these are sent with prior notice, some I solicit, to fit into a particular theme or post, but most just arrive at the door. Another 10 percent I encounter at trade tastings or similar events, and the remaining five percent I buy.

Q. That being the case, would you state your policy about accepting samples and reviewing the wines for this blog?

A. Of course I will. Let’s practice full disclosure. As I said in the previous entry, yes, I accept wine samples for review, but I accept them on no assumption on the part of whoever sent the sample that I will give a positive review or even any review at all. While it gives me great joy to recommend wines to my readers and share my enthusiasm with them, I am obligated, both by conscience and professional considerations, to dole out negative notices when necessary. I also reserve the right to make fun of, parody or downright deride — without being a total asshole — press releases that are badly written, deficient, vain, pompous and utterly fantastical. You would be amazed how many press releases embody all of those fatal flaws.

Q. On another subject entirely, is it true that when you were a child in Rochester N.Y., you and your older brother were a Cossack-dancing team and you performed on local television?

A. Yes.

Cool question mark image from Cossack-dancing kid from Koeppel Family Archives.

The Memphis Farmers Market closes at the end of October. It’s fascinating to observe, over six months, how the produce changes as Spring turns into Summer and Summer into Fall. Yesterday, one of the biggest purveyors of tomatoes had none, and peas and beans are almost gone, but all of a sudden turnips and kale and bushels of colorful peppers, hot or sweet, are all over the place.

The very cute apple is one of a wide bowlful of apples and pears we bought yesterday. I’ll probably make a clafouti with the pears, and depending on how tart the apples are, well, I don’t know, maybe just eat them. One of the gratifying points about buying fruit at the MFM is that it isn’t all perfect, gussied-up and polished the way fruit is at the supermarket, as if apples and pears and peaches had gone through some mutating perfection process, so they gleam under the lights as if they were starlets on the red carpet. No, these apples and pears bear the marks of variation and individuality; no Stepford Fruit here.

We couldn’t resist buying bags of peppers. At one stand, they were two for a dollar, at another stand, three for a dollar, so we loaded up. Some of the smaller peppers and those baby eggplant (trimmed and broiled with olive oil, salt and pepper) you see in the image went on the pizza I made last night, along with an onion, and tomatoes and a passel of basil and some feta cheese, all from the MFM. The peppers also look really pretty in this bowl, sitting on the counter. I’ll use more in salads this week, and surely some will find their way into a pasta dish of LL’s invention.

I’ll admit that some Saturday mornings, I think, “Oh rats, do we have to drive downtown again this week?” Once we get there, however, it’s always fun browsing the stands, seeing friends, as we inevitably do, and buying produce, meat and seafood — driven up from the Gulf of Mexico the previous night — with the prospect of great meals to come. The fact that at the end of this month the MFM will close until next April is a sign that the growing season, with its waves of successive fruit and vegetables, is also at a close, and that the bounty of the last harvests will be followed by Winter’s dearth.

All the instruments agreed that yesterday afternoon in Memphis was hot as blazes and ridden with shirt-soaking humidity. Nonetheless, we sat out on the screened porch about 5:30 with a bottle of white wine, invitingly sheathed in beaded condensation, and a bowl of our favorite little Tuscan crackers, LL to finish that morning’s Times, and me to continue reading a biography of Frank O’Hara, and saying to LL about every three minutes, “Whoa, it must have been so much fun to live in New York in the ’50s!”

Now unless you are the sort of person endowed with the fiduciary prowess to say something like, “Let’s sit outside this afternoon. I’ll grab a bottle of Lynch Bages Blanc” — a wine I will admit not tasting for a decade or so — then you, like I, would bring something more modest to the table, in this case a bottle of El Coto Rioja Blanco 2008. This is not a great wine, and I think that anyone sipping from a glass of it would feel the same. It’s made from viura grapes, and not meaning to cast aspersions, this is a grape simply incapable of greatness. You could throw a lot of French oak at it, as some misguided producers are doing with the unsuspecting grüner veltliner grape in Austria, and the result would not be a great wine but merely an over-oaked, ponderous wine.

El Coto Rioja Blanco 2008 is, however, thoroughly enjoyable. Made completely in stainless steel, it’s taut and stony, moderately spicy in its general citrus-like nature, dry and crisp and with an almost haunting floral aspect. Fulfilling its purpose as a screened porch, late Summer afternoon, aperitif quaffer, it rates Good+, and there’s not a damned thing wrong with that. About $10, and appropriate for poolside, picnics, patios and such. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.

Later for dinner, though, needing more character and presence, I opened the Sequoia Grove Chardonnay 2007, Carneros, Napa Valley. Here’s a chardonnay perfectly suited to our palates. Given a cool fermentation in stainless steel, the wine is transferred to French oak barrels, of which only 35 percent are new; the wine does not go through the malolactic process — in which sharp apple-like (“malic”) acid is transformed to smooth milk-like (“lactic”) acid — the result being a chardonnay that tastes like the grape, is lively and vibrant, and receives subtle and supple support from wood. The Sequoia Grove Chardonnay 2007 is bright and bold, with a lovely shape and texture, a sort of lushness permeated by crispness thing, as if you were biting into a peach and an apple at the same time. Classic flavors of pineapple and grapefruit reveal nuances of cloves and roasted hazelnuts, while the finish is sleek, resonant and slightly floral. Drink now through 2011 or ’12 (well-stored). Excellent. About $28.

My point, lecteurs, semblables et freres, is not that one wine is better or worse than another wine but that a wine makes its place with a sense of purpose as well as accommodation. There’s room for compromise between the positions that (A.) you can drink any wine any time with any food you want to and that (B.) each wine created on God’s Green Earth matches with one exact and Platonic food or dish and no other. What’s important is a sense of proportion. When we look at a Dutch still-life painting — this is Breakfast Still Life with Blackberry Pie (1631) by Willem Claesz Heda — the glasses of wine depicted therein embody an astounding sense of authority and deliberation. This ideal, we think, this bride of quietness, is the only possible wine that could have found a place in this setting, among these glowing foods and burnished plates and utensils and glittering fabrics, and I defy you not to wish that you were there, in that painting, so you could try that wine, which would surely offer a form of transcendence.

We do not, however, as much as we might wish, live inside a Dutch still life painting, and in this imperfect world all we can hope for is a modicum of poise, the reasonableness to make choices based on our preferences and experiences, two qualities that feed from and strengthen each other. Are there truly no wrongs choices in choosing wine? Of course there are, but even wrong choices broaden our experience and help lead us to the right ones. Just don’t expect too much of wine — it’s only a beverage — but let it speak to you itself of its own virtues and let it find its own place.

“Breakfast Still Life with Blackberry Pie” hangs in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.

What more could you ask for at 5:30 in the evening when it’s not yet really twilight and rain is beginning to fall on the roof of the screened porch than a martini, a bowl of little Tuscan crackers and the July/August issue of Poetry magazine? The martini is composed of 1 and 1/2 jiggers of Hendricks gin and about 1/3 of a jigger of Noilly Prat vermouth and, as you can see, a real lemon twist, not one of those thick, clunky strips of lemon rind with the pith that they give you in bars when you ask for a cocktail with a twist.

The title of this post is the opening line of “Endymion,” a long mythological poem that John Keats wrote from April to December 1817, when he was 21 and 22 years old. It’s a nice sentiment: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” (He wrote “for ever.”) It’s not true, though, is it? The martini gets consumed and the crackers eaten. The writers whose poems and prose are featured in the current issue of Poetry will largely be forgotten, and the magazine will crumble to dust or be nibbled on by insects that enjoy the delicacy of dry paper. The blue Japanese bowl that holds the crackers? Who knows what will happen to it in the years and decades to come? Slipped from unsteady fingers to shatter on the travertine? Sold at an estate sale to adorn other lives and households?

No, Keats wised up quickly, and in April and May of 1819, the “Great Year” of his achievement, he wrote in “Ode on Melancholy” about “Beauty that must die;/And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu.” You see, “Veil’d Melancholy” is the twin of Beauty, because Beauty embodies the seeds of its own impermanence and decay; as Wallace Stevens expressed the concept more succinctly in the 20th Century: “Death is the mother of beauty.” Keats concludes the three-stanza poem with an interesting botanical metaphor; only the person “whose strenuous tongue/Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine” will perceive the true glory and necessity of Melancholy. That image, which encompasses the tension of the grape skin, the muscular push of the tongue against it and the quenching splash of the juice, has always appealed to me for its sense of striving and pleasure and refreshment.

Keats was fond of vinous metaphors. The whole second stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale,” written in May 1819, consists of an extended description of a glass of wine (sorry, my blog program would not reproduce the stanza indentations):

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green.
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim …

Every time I taught this poem in the second semester of English survey, I would think, “Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth … a beaker full of the warm South … beaded bubbles winking at the brim … Man, I want a glass of that stuff right now!”

Keats knew, though, that however much pleasure wine confers, its intoxicating character is not the road to transcendence. If he merges with the nightingale, a symbol of immortality, he will “Not [be] charioted by Bacchus and his pards.” (In classical myth, Bacchus, the god of wine, was led in a chariot drawn by a team of leopards.) Keats knew that wine has limitations, chief among them being that, like Pleasure and Beauty, it is ephemeral; wine fades, falters, goes bad. This can happen overnight, or it can take decades, but happen it must.

We read all the time the phrase: “Wine is a living thing.” Friends, wine is not a living thing. A bottle of wine is mostly water with some portion of alcohol, say, 12 to 14 percent, and infinitesimally minute quantities of about 400 trace elements that lend wine its actual character. The fact that a few wines are intended to and in fact do develop and mature as they “age in the deep-delved earth” doesn’t make these wines “living things.” We’re talking about natural chemical processes, the sometimes slow interactions of oxygen with elements in the wine’s chemical composition. If you leave your hedge clippers out in the yard and it rains (especially if you leave them out in the yard for, oh, three weeks), the blades will rust. There’s an example of a natural transformative chemical process, but no one goes around asserting that his hedge clippers are a living thing. If wine were “a living thing” — notice that no one says, “Wine is alive” — it would probably contain, um, things that we wouldn’t want to drink.

What I’m saying is that we don’t have to subscribe to the (fairly harmless but annoying) myth that wine is a living thing in order to understand how glorious wine can be; wine’s potential nobility and power do not depend on that. Still, part of the greatness of a great wine lies in our knowledge that its power, its character, its awesome pleasure-giving capabilities are peculiarly finite. To taste a great wine is to anticipate its demise; that acknowledgment contributes to our understanding and appreciation. It’s the factor that makes being charioted by Bacchus and his pards a matter of such mixed joy and melancholy.

The sketch of John Keats was done by his friend Charles Brown on the Isle of Wight in July 1819, in the midst of the nine months during which Keats wrote his finest poems. National Portrait Gallery, London. Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne,” 1620-23, hangs in the National Gallery, London.

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