Wine with soul

Produttori del Barbaresco “Pora” 1985

I scored a bargain on two bottles of this wine at a local auction about two years ago. My wife and I drank one soon after. We enjoyed it, but it seemed to lack magic, despite the excellent vintage and the producer’s pedigree. Last month, on Christmas night, we made braised veal shanks and sautéed greens and opened the second bottle. Ah! This was what gracefully aged wine should be like. It was swoon-fragrant (wine lives mostly on the nose, not the palate), and more important it smelled unmistakably like its grape, Nebbiolo—too much old wine loses its grape specificity.

The wine was light but deep, accommodating of both drinking and thinking, and it went beautifully with the food. The next day, with fried eggs and salad, it was still sturdy and quite companionable. Now it’s gone, and as with all things great and rare, I don’t think I’d want it again even if I could have it.

Write about wine? For Dionysus’ sake, why? It’s just a drug, for sale at the gas station along with cigarettes and painkillers. What justifies pouring ink after wine?

While planning my debut wine column, such oenological-ontological questionsnot what to write but how and whyhung over my head. Lucky timing: I recently got to pose them to one of the country’s foremost wine writers. Eric Asimov, the wine critic for The New York Times, is interested in the Triangle’s lively, precocious wine culture and visited in December to promote his new book, How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto.

Loving wine is the easy part. I had to ask him what comes after.

“Good questions,” replied Asimov, who has the slight build, enlightened eyes and reserved intensity of a monk. “We think of wine as being somehow intellectual,” a presumption descended from generations of the old wine-collecting aristocracy.

Wine’s place has since changed radically, however, first with the postwar emergence of the middle-class consumer, and again with increased international facility in both winemaking and commerce. Democratization and technology have helped build a brave (and big) new world of wine. As Asimov writes in How to Love Wine, “Right now is the greatest time in history to be a wine drinker.”

It follows that it’s a great time to be a wine writer, too: There’s so much more to keep track of. The old guard’s vins du garde and their musty-cellar prose have met the vanguard: fresher wines, younger adepts and a new broadminded approach exemplified by Asimov, who hails not from the aristocracy but more common rootstock, a family of writers and journalists.

“I come at wine as a consumer,” he says, “from the bottom up rather than the top down.” Asimov’s columns balance a populist, value-conscious avidity with a mature and genuine love of great, often costly wines. He majored in history in college, where he had a memorable one-night stand with (cough) Beringer White Zinfandel (speaking of the bottom up, and bottoms up). His humanities background suits him to “communication, perspective and critical thinking,” Asimov says, but his path to wine writing was gradual, unplanned and indirect.

“With high-speed Internet in most houses now, there is no longer a need for a central authority,” Asimov says. That’s a surprisingly modest disclaimer coming from, well, a central authority, but Asimov, like his book, exudes an approachable air of humility. That humility may be the wine writer’s essential asset; it guides Asimov’s life off the page, too. He is a devoted practitioner of martial arts, which he happened into much as he found his writing niche. At about age 40, seeking a new, less wearing form of exercise, he went to a dojo conveniently near his home and took up Jujitsu. Between sessions, he often watched Aikido classes, and soon his circumstantial curiosity, as with wine, drew him in as a student. He now practices both forms.

“In Aikido,” Asimov says, “there are fewer moves than in Jujitsu. You throw and get thrown; you work and refine. I had no idea how deeply you can go.” Aikido builds much more than fitness and strength. “It starts out that way,” says Asimovwho is not as slight as he looks all in black”but it becomes confidence, discipline and spirituality. And you find community.”

When you go deeply into wine, too, you earn those same rewards. But it was that word “discipline” to which Asimov returned multiple times in conversation, and it’s discipline, above all else, that good winemaking and good wine writing require: care and patience in the practice; clarity, integrity, cheer and grace in the bottle and on the page; and principled resistance to the vagaries and vulgarities of the mass marketplace. But mostlypleasure! Discipline in wine is only a means to that end. Apollo may be welcome, but this is Dionysus’ partyto borrow from Asimov, you throw and get thrown.

What kind of pleasure, though? The wine movie Sideways is full of problems, but perhaps the worst is its romanticizing of the fussy, Merlot-hating wine whiner played by Paul Giamatti, slighting the simpler yet superior philosophy of the character played by Virginia Madsen. In short: “A bottle of wine is alive.” Wine is a character, a living historywhich is why, after all of the apologist’s corks are pulled, wine is indeed worth writing about. It is complex and full of surprises.

If good wine, disciplined wine, is alive, then it therefore has a soul. So this column is called (after a poem by Charles Baudelaire) “The Soul of Wine.” Each month, I will write about at least one wine, sometimes more, that has soul. Usually, that wine will be available here in the Triangle, but sometimes it won’t. In order to honor wine with soul, it will sometimes be necessary to celebrate one that has left the bottle for good and lives on only in the memory of the drinker. So I begin at an ending, and hope for many more beginnings.

This article appeared in print with the headline “It’s alive.”