Tuesday, May 9, 2017

“Why, Sometimes I’ve Believed in as Many as Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast” 
 {a tasting note gone awry}

A surprise.  Then a reminder.  Then a memory.   One of my favorite things to do is paw through a wine list to find the hidden treasures as if all the lines in an open book are covered with bands of black silk ribbon over the ink, but every now and then there is an opening between the ribbons, held in place by a seamstress' pins.  Words are revealed and make a strange haiku: opal, dream, seashell, kiss.  Wines are revealed in the same way, calling forth sentiments of nostalgia, or hope, or infatuation.  These are wines that are known, sometimes intimately, that have changed the course of a life, that have inspired, or that are tantalizing as they are admired and curious because they are unknown, never before experienced, and the hope for connection, understanding, or a lightening bolt to the heart is strong.

At a table in the back room of a cozy wine bar in a warren of London {Noble Rot}, such a wine peaked through those blinds of ribbon, eyeing me with both recollection and a promise.  A first mentor's bottle of wine that had inspired me so many years ago, that challenged me, that beguiled.  A wine always full of questions, never answers, and mystery, a leap of faith.  But not only exotic, portending travels to exotic lands.  Also homespun, full of comfort, an elegant rusticity, like a fulfilling meal made from almost nothing in the larder or garden and served in a white chipped bowl on a well-worn oil cloth marked by a pattern of floating lemons and lemon leaves on a trellis, an absurd and delightful design.  A pasta with a sauce made from a clutch of flat parsley pulled from a sleeping winter garden and a tin of anchovies, somewhere an echo of preserved lemon, creating layers of salt, fruit, and oil.

I believe wine is a story.  There is a physical, sensory narrative arc that follows a beginning, middle, and end.  There is also the story of the place, the micro~climate, the culture, the plants, the winegrowers themselves.  Herein lies plenty of drama, intrigue, romance.  There is the story each of us creates when we partake of a wine that speaks to us, layers of narrative folded between the places the wine takes us in memory, present, and imagination.   This is why wine can be powerful like a book is powerful, or a painting, an opera, or a film.  This is why a wine list can be electric rather than just an obvious way of providing clear information.  If life is a story: messy, unruly, joyful, poignant, and sometimes downright melancholy, wine, a living and mercurial form, can be the same.
There were seven us at the table: a writer, an importer, five winegrowers, all tired and hungry after a long two days of a vibrant wine fair full of sweet comraderie and regard.  I ordered the Antece from 2003 grown and picked by the generous man Bruno di Conciliis who was the first to take the time to teach me something about how to make wine.  I remember well him sitting at our own table on the first day of March, snow thick on our Vermont ground.   He patiently tasted two bottles presented him, my first ever essays into wine, one made from California Barbera from some unknown source of fruit bought through one of our purveyors for our restaurant, the other a Nebbiolo shipped all the way from Italy, also peddled through the same produce vendor, a chain of supply feeding a healthy market of home winemakers.  Most likely the only Nebbiolo or Barbera I'll ever have an opportunity to make.  The wines were made in a claw~footed tub, the largest space we had in our small house, and also the warmest.  Bruno treated both homely efforts with the utmost respect and with all seriousness as he gave me a constructive critique, as if I were a fledgling art student.  Even if there was nothing else, I will forever be indebted to him for this alone.  But there are countless other moments of artless generosity that he has given me, through conversation, demonstration, and the complex instruction of his own wines.  I don't know if he will ever quite know the extent to which he profoundly effected the course of this particular life.

The cork was difficult and when the waiter tried to maneuver it out of the narrow glass neck, it broke.  The last bottle in the cellar, so it was decanted to remove any unexpected shards.  It was everything I had remembered when I first tasted this wine, maybe ten years ago?  But more mature, deeply amber,  the romantic spices, oil and salt and citrus ground closer to the earth, reminiscent of coffee and caramel, the oxidative style calling forth the chimera of a hundred year old fino sherry.

I wonder what I was doing in the summer and autumn of 2003 when this wine was grown then picked?  A hot, torturous summer in Europe, only slightly cooler in the fall.  Growing wine was nowhere on my horizon.  I can't imagine what my aspirations were at that time.  I know I was writing, tasting wine, studying wine, always assembling my wine list for the restaurant, a wine list that I hoped would excite someone else perusing it like I do so many other wine lists which have drawn me in.  I know in 2003 I was certainly eating, cooking, thinking constantly about travel, pining for return to Italy.  I have documentation of these things.  I think I painted a picture, a reproduction of a still life of peonies and a love letter, one late autumn night.  Did I think I might try my hand at being a lady painter?  Did I still want to be a writer?  Had I started to think what it might be like to sit for a Master of Wine?  The things we remember; the things we forget.

I like considering the cross~sections of Time, where we mark our own stories with another’s.  I believe the experience of a wine can encourage forays down such richly decorated rabbit holes, like the Antece, on this one night in London has done for me.  Where were the paths trod long before they were connected and joined or only crossed?  I like drawing the map after the fact.  What are the coordinates between me and the birth of the 2003 Antece in the volcanic soils of the south of Italy and this moment fourteen years later drinking a last and broken bottle at a table in London?

There are too many stops and coincidences, occurences that lead me to a belief in fate.  But I have two distinct memories that come easily to the surface and will forever be a part of my story of Antece.  In both, it is springtime, south of Naples.  We are with Bruno in a small hillside vineyard planted to Fiano, in the morning, facing away from the sea.  The vines are planted in a field of silvered green oats that almost reach the young arms of the vines.  We pick wild asparagus at the edges of the vineyard, on the edge of forest.  Later the asparagus will be made into an omelet.  Later we will realize the car is stuck in the mud at the foot of the vineyard.

In the other memory, Caleb and I are on the outskirts of Bruno's town, sent to see the ancient ruins of Paestum that define this part of the world.  We are in a meadow of red spring poppies and yellow flowers that I do not know.  Five sandstone temples are ghosts of the urban center that once was.  I can imagine the voices of market-sellers shouting, the sound of horses’ hooves or carriage wheels on stone, a perfume of roasting pork.  But such excursions are drowned out by the oddity of the present-day silence in the meadow.  The other visitors don't speak.  It is the most natural and wild formal ruin I've had the opportunity, the luxury, to stand in, the scent of salt, wild flowers and sun on the air.  The bones of the temples in this roofless cathedral weigh us down with each exhale and the immense history of it all and then exalt us with each intake of breath and the delicacy of the future.  There is nothing else possible but to be silent.

It is in the flash of a few moments at the table in the restaurant that this complete process occurs.  The finding of the wine on the list, the story of it we share together at the table, the tiny interior cinema of a sea~green hillside in the Cilento or the yellowed pumice of a Doric column, that moment of the ordering and opening, each of our seven individual experiences of it~some told, some unspoken~ my own burrow of associations and images.  This is the beauty and heartbreak of wine, these particular wines that a person who lives and works with wine will always remember, wines that even the casual taster will be struck by if they stop for a moment to notice, the transport backward and forward, all of our courses altered in some way by the experience and how it resonates within us, soothes us, or shakes us.  We are changed, even if we don't know it, our cells and synapses fire beneath the surface rerouting our personal maps.  If we take the time to consider, we may understand how we are moved, even just the fact that we are moved, even if we can't fully piece together our response in that moment. 

Our complex bodies and brains tied together by these unquantifiable emotions will shift and dodge us in new directions.  The catalyst~a wine, a food~sustenance sprung from the earth, from the farthest reaches of history, is ephemeral, a small moment, perhaps only the evolution of an evening.  Then it is gone.  It is not stagnant.  Even if we return to the same wine from the same vintage, it will never be the same because it is a living organism that is in constant flux.  As are we.  Yet, it will always contain the network of images or memories already associated with that bottle.  This is why I so strongly believe wine is wondrous, why a wine list might be considered a work of art.  They both have the ability to craft a new memory on top of others, sewn into the tapestry of our thinking, breathing selves that creates our individual history and connects it like a silken spiderweb to the ground we walk on, the sky at which we gaze, and the innumerable people and places to which we become tethered and can effect the outcomes of this little thing we call our lives.

I haven’t had a chance to see or speak to Bruno in several years.  The sad fact of living thousands of miles away and having rigorous schedules of farming and traveling.  Every time I want to write him to tell him what is happening in our fields or in the cellar, the little triumphs and the hard-felt travesties, I put it off because I want to have the time to write something of substance, something real, and time has become this commodity that I feel I don’t have.  The last time we spoke, we were in a bar in New York before a wine dinner.  I had brought samples of our second vintage in mason jars in a bag slung over my shoulder.  The evening was not long enough. 

This is in a way that letter to Bruno, a tasting note gone awry about a wine that caught my attention, and continues to catch my attention, will always catch my attention, this evocation a way to thank him, to tell him that I know he is there always, a guide and a friend, and how much the presence is felt.  The gift of an unexpected morning in a flat in London, the unraveling of wine, a storyLike Alice, in Wonderland, I chased the thread all morning down one of those baroque rabbit holes until it brought me up here, to a place of gratitude and humility before the power of friendship, imagination, love, before the power of wine.  To be reminded that, in spite of everything else, this is the joy of where we are now, the map being drawn in this moment, being happily caught between earth and sky.   

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