"Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance." - Benjamin Franklin
How often does an email subject line lift your heart? This one worked magic on me: “You are invited. Come to one, come to all.” Opening the note, I discovered an invitation to five Saturday afternoon drop-in wine and cheese rendezvous at the sender’s house (one each month!) until summer.
Because I knew the host, a dear friend, had recently suffered his younger brother’s unexpected death, because I knew his wife had battled an ugly health set back and because I knew their family life, like mine, hurtled along at breakneck speed while trying to keep necks unbroken and computers from crashing in the ice of winter, this generous offer made me smile at my screen, just when I should have been attending to, well, the usual.
So I dropped everything and added each of those dates to the bedrock of my sanity: our online family calendar. February 7, March 7, April 4, May 2, June 6.
Slowing time (along with un-furrowing my brow) is a daily goal these days, as drips drop from barren tree branches. Slowing Time is also the title of a new book by warm-hearted, winter-loving writer Barbara Mahany, whose inspirational collection of lyrical essays I highly recommend.
Barbara doesn’t drink much wine. Her words, though, work the same magic on my spirit as the soft pop of a cork in the company of friends. They have a way of helping me focus on two of life’s pillars. Slowing. Time. Slowing time.
That’s exactly what occurred last Saturday, when our wine and cheese host threw open his door, hustled us into his living room and settled us in front of his fireplace. After warming up our frozen fingers, we headed to the stately dining room table, laden with five unopened bottles of wine and several platters of cheese and goodies. There, our friend was waiting. He passed his hand over the bottles, like a magician, before grasping one, lifting it up and conferring, through a mutual nodding of heads, with his wife. Then, he opened that bottle. Just for us.
It was a California mostly Cabernet, from poetically named Gemstone Vineyard, a very small, very special place, we were told, that makes the most delicious wine and that our hosts had visited, on the advice of a friend, during a restorative trip last fall to Napa Valley. Without further ado our host uncorked the bottle and grabbed the stem of a sparkling wine glass. As I watched, he poured that red thread from the bottle so it burbled softly, the musical sound of escape at last. I greedily anticipated the familiar smell, the taste on my tongue, like a spring thaw.
Let’s just say the clear, full fruit flavor of the Gemstone Estate 2012 danced in my mouth; especially because those Cabernet Sauvignon tannins were so silky they made the fruit last a long time. And I didn’t even notice the oak, but it was surely there and well controlled, too. Oh happy day.
I don’t know much about Napa Valley Cabs (other than that the ones I’ve tried have been generally too powerful or too expensive for my taste and budget). To be totally truthful, dear wine friends, I had decided I didn’t much like Napa Valley Cabs. That Gemstone, though, made me want to learn more. So back at my desk the next day, I perused Gemstone’s website and soon realized why that lovely wine spoke to me. It’s the red thread of Bordeaux. Excitedly, I began to unspool the trail from Gemstone Vineyard’s website to the site of its Napa Valley-based consulting winemaker, Philippe Melka, and then all the way back to a memorable lesson from my year in wine at the University of Bordeaux.
It was a damp January Monday, the first day after our winter holiday. The morning started slowly, with a technical classroom lecture covering the best geological characteristics for each kind of grape vine grown in the Bordeaux region. After ninety minutes, we donned our coats and moved down to the state-of-the art basement tasting room; the heart of our University’s sleek new Department of Wine and Wine Science building. There, I always sat next to Margaret, one of the five American women in our mostly French class of 40. Margaret’s French husband was part of an old Bordeaux wine merchant family. In other words, she knew her stuff. So when she perked up, as a courtly monsieur in tweed stepped behind the lectern to guide our tasting that day, I perked up, too.
That monsieur, I soon learned, was a famous winemaker named Jean-Claude Berrouet. I don’t care much about the famous part. In fact, I recall drinking in his words even more than the wines we tasted. And now, as I search for Mr. Berrouet’s photocopied handout among the reams of wine-stained class notes dropped pell-mell into a cardboard box next to my desk – where I’m afraid they’ve been accumulating dust since my family returned to our Midwestern home after a year in Bordeaux – I wonder what his lesson will teach me today, through the lens of time and memory.
I finally locate his handout in the pile and read the faded print thoughtfully, slowly savoring the evocative phrases sprinkled among the factual information. In the space at the end of the last sheet, I’d managed to jot down some of his reflections between my hurried swirling and spitting that January morning. Two strings of words especially speak to me now; strong red threads of reason in the hyped-up world of fine wine where (I’ve since observed) novices often call themselves experts and money often speaks louder than poetry.
First I read this: “Beautiful wines are made to tell the story of their land.” I remember tasting those stories with Mr. Berrouet that day, through great wines spooling from his winemaking roots in the tiny, vine-swathed lands called Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, about an hour’s drive from the city of Bordeaux. He began making wine there in 1964, working for another wine upstart, an open-minded newcomer to the region named Christian Moueix who shook up that world of gentlemen farmers for good. Together, they built a legendary wine portfolio based on hard work, business acumen, science and poetry.
Some may thrill to the fact that Mr. Berrouet was the head winemaker for Château Pétrus and Napa Valley’s Dominus winery, among many others. But since I’m not among the one percent who can afford those wines, I’m fine just thrilling to the poetry, I think, as I return to the words on his handout. Next, my eyes fall on this paragraph: “There is no definitive truth in wine. So let’s discover wine together, without preconceived ideas, for what it is.”
Now those are some mighty, modest words.
It’s taken the wisdom of friends, the passage of time and the red thread of Bordeaux to open my eyes to preconceived notions I hold about lots of things in life, including Napa Valley Cabernet. As I return to the website of Philippe Melka, Gemstone’s winemaker, my eyes open wide. I see he began his winemaking career in the land of Saint-Emilion before traveling across the Atlantic and over America to the land of Napa Valley.
In fact, Mr. Melka – now a well-known wine consultant himself with his own vineyards – began his journey working for Mr. Berrouet, the wine poet, in France and then in California. And so I follow the red thread from the old world to the new as I read these words on Mr. Melka’s website, the very words I tasted in Gemstone’s wine: “A grape must tell the story of its native soil.”
Since Gemstone has such a small production, I won’t be drinking that yummy wine again until our friend brings up another bottle from his cellar (and I know he will); or I trek to Napa Valley (already on my family calendar); or I join the winery’s annual allocation list which, with college tuition upon my family, probably isn’t likely to happen right away.
I’m deeply grateful, though.
For wise friends who make time to commune, for winemakers who take time to perfect their poetry, for the red thread that grows stronger with time and for the power of wine to slow time. As my teenagers would say: Preach.
Wine friends: Instead of my weekly wine pick, I urge you instead to watch this short film about wine; a poetic story called Fil Rouge (Red Thread), written and produced by Luc Plissonneau, who first opened my eyes to the beauty of Bordeaux’s red thread.