Terry Theise on "a Fine Kind of Melancholy"

From the wine importer’s crisply written and life-philosophy-framing book Reading Between the Wines, a favorite of mine from last year:

Such wines are not easy to find. We drink them just a few times in our lives. But we never forget them, or the places they lead us to. A few weeks before writing this, I dined with my wife in the Austrian Alps, in a restaurant whose chef worked with wild local herbs. We drank two stunningly brilliant dry Rieslings that buzzed and crackled like neon, and then we drank a '93 Barolo from Bruno Giacosa, a so-so vintage but fully mature. To go from giddy, giggling clarity of those Rieslings into the warm murmuring depths of that Barolo was moving in a way I grope to describe. It was as if the Riesling prepared us somehow, it reassured us that everything was visible, and then that smoky twilight red wine ... like the moment it gets too dark to read, and you get up to turn on the light and see a tiny scythe of moon low on the horizon and you open the window and smell the burning leaves, night is coming on, and there will be dinner and the sweet smells of cooking, and then at last the utter dark, and the heart beating darkly beside you.

I did something I seldom do — got just a bit plastered that evening, for which I blame the altitude, though I knew better. But I wasn't letting a drop of that Barolo go to waste. It stirred the deepest tenderness because it possessed the deepest tenderness. Tenderness is different from affection. Tenderness has a penumbra of sadness, or so I have always felt. Tenderness says there is an irreducible difference separating us, although we might wish to dissolve it. But we can't quite, however close together we draw; it is there as a condition of being. And then we see the sadness that surrounds us, wanting to merge into one another and finding it impossible; and then comes a compassion, it is this way for all of us sad hopeful beings; and then the membrane melts away, even without touching it melts away.

I don't know how it is for other people, but I myself know a wine is great when it makes me sad. Not a bitter, grieving sadness, but the thing the Germans call Weltschmerz, "the pain of the world," a fine kind of melancholy.

I came to reading Theise only last year, but, interestingly, my life overlapped with his wife’s years ago. Odessa Piper founded and ran L'Etoile, a Madison, Wisconsin, farm-to-table all-star years before that became an established phrase. Tamara and I had a special-occasion meal there during our time in Madison (2005-06), living together for the first time just before we got married and really settled into life together. While we were able to venture upstairs for a proper dinner only once, most weekends we would nibble fantastic croissants and sip terrific coffee in the building’s first-floor café, a stop during our morning walk around the Capitol.

Ah, memories of that simple time in our lives... A fine kind of melancholy, indeed.

Asimov: Why Wine

From Eric Asimov’s How to Love Wine, which I quite enjoyed:

To assert that tasting notes amount to an “intellectual dissection” of a wine is to ignore the fact that the more specific the description of flavors and aromas, the less one is actually saying about a wine and what it has to offer. People drink wine for many reasons. It makes them happy, it cheers them up, it is delicious, it makes meals better, it is intoxicating, it enhances friendships, it serves a spiritual purpose, and that is only the beginning. Wine can be transporting. It can, in one glass, embody culture, science, economics, personality, history, and much more. Fine wines stimulate conversation. We may be moved to debate what makes it so fine. But very rarely, if ever, does a true intellectual dissection of wine consist of sticking one’s beak into a glass and reciting the components of a cornucopia. 

How I Drink Red Wine Over Two Evenings

This process has improved my wine-drinking over the past few years, greatly reducing the number of times a wine lost itself or started to smell/taste funky by the second night:

  • Open the bottle.
  • Drink what you’d like.
  • When you’re through for the evening, pump air and wine-spoiling oxygen out of it with a $12 Vacu Vin (here’s a demo on You Tube).
  • Put the bottle in the fridge.
  • The next late afternoon, two to three hours before you’d like a glass of wine, remove the bottle from the fridge and set it on the counter (out of the sun).
  • When it’s wine time, open and enjoy.

If need be, you can sometimes push this to a third night (depends on the wine). The Vacu Vin part is the obvious tip, as we’ve all seen these preservation systems presented in stores. I’ve tried the one where you spray inert gas into the bottle before corking it, but I couldn’t taste much difference the next night. It’s also kind of creepy.

On temperature: I’ve long been a proponent of giving almost all red wines a half-hour chill before drinking, so for me the fridge isn’t a weird place for a Malbec to find itself. (The Wine Merchant in St. Louis, where I bought almost all our wine before moving abroad, advises using the ‘30-Minute Rule’ almost aways: Before opening/drinking, put red wines in the fridge for 30, take whites out for 30.) But the question I had, and which I posed to STLwinegirl Angela Ortmann, was this: Yes, putting the red wine in the fridge overnight would help reduce additional oxidation, but isn’t temperature fluctuation also bad for wine? Would I lose more than I gained? Angela’s answer to me was basically: That’s minor fluctuation. You’d see greater benefits with the fridge-overnight route, since oxidation is the central villain. Containing it means better wine.

Related: A feature I wrote for St. Louis Magazine called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Wine,” which includes nods to both Angela and the Merch. (The PDF version of the article is much prettier to look at.)

Nice Nose

A brief thanks to Santa, who delivered Elin McCoy’s 2005 book The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr., and the Reign of American Taste. It’s not a perfect book, but it offers lots of informative fun if you’re interested in the subject, as I am. In her prologue, McCoy argues that Parker is not only the most power wine critic in the world, but the most powerful critic period.

If a New York film critic pans or praises a film he may influence its reception in that city, but his view won’t have the same effect on moviegoers in Paris or Tokyo, nor will film directors around the world create movies to appeal directly to his taste. But over the past twenty years Parker’s passions and ideas have influenced how wine is made, bought, and sold in virtually every wine-growing and wine-drinking country on earth, and there are winemakers who consciously aim to make a wine that will seduce him.

There are some memorable details (a young, just-married Parker insisting that he and his wife keep their home at 55 degrees, for the good of their 100-bottle collection) and a retelling of the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976. At that famous event – the subject of a recent book – wine merchant Steven Spurrier organized a blind tasting of eight highly regarded French wines alongside twelve bottles from that American state of California. Nine elite French judges couldn’t wait to pounce.

The whites were poured first, then the reds. As the judges swirled, sniffed, sipped, spit, and rated each wine on a scale from 1 to 20, some were quick to pronounce smugly on a wine’s origins. “That is definitely California. It has no nose,” exclaimed one about a wine that turned out to be a 1973 Batard-Montrachet from Burgundy. “Ah, back to France,” sighed gastronome Raymond Oliver, owner of Le Grand V√©four, after a sip of a Napa Valley Chardonnay. The judges’ confusion extended to the reds. One called a Napa Valley Cabernet “certainly a premier grand cru of Bordeaux,” evidence of “the magnificence of France.”

When the results were tallied and announced, several judges behaved badly, refusing to give up their notes, and one even tried to change his numbers before Spurrier whipped away the scorecards.

I by no means guide my bottle buying by Parker, but I did see his name – and praise – attached to two cheap buys recently: a 2005 Di Majo Norante Sangiovese, which I really disliked, and a 2005 Pillar Box Red, which tastes like a steal at $10. The tasting goes on.