Noah’s premier crû
In world's first-ever vintage, creation gets a do-over.

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Russell Crowe in a still from the new film Noah, based on the biblical flood story.

The Georgians – and here I refer to those denizens of the Caucasus Mountains rather than the inhabitants of the sprawling suburbs of Atlanta — claim to be on vintage no. 8000, or thereabouts. If true, their boast sets the origin of wine culture deep into the era we call the neolithic and makes wine older than cities, writing, and metallurgy.

It’s amazing all right, but not quite as amazing as it would have appeared to a pious Anglican of the 17th century who, on the basis of a chronology worked out by Bishop James Ussher, was convinced that the creation of the world had taken place as recently as October of the year 4004 BCE.  Under Ussher’s scheme, wine would be even older than the earth.

Okay, so the bishop of Armagh was way off. But even if we just stick to what the Bible has to say on the subject, wine appears as one of man’s early and  important achievements.  In the well-known story of the great flood that appears in Genesis chapters 6-9 we’re told that the first thing the patriarch Noah did after emerging from the ark with his family was to plant a vineyard.

We can skip over the question of where Noah got the plant material to establish his new property, since it’s clear that getting too literal isn’t likely to lead anywhere. The more interesting question goes something like this: why would a man who had just come through this epic, traumatic ordeal choose as his first post-diluvian project one that requires daunting amounts of labor and offers no immediate reward? After what he’d seen, what assurance did Noah have that God’s wrath wouldn’t be visited on the world again, perhaps this time wiping out all life, no exceptions granted?

We get the answer a little later in the narrative:  And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth. And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. The rainbow was Noah’s guarantee that his labor wouldn’t be in vain.

Some theologians see the Noah story as the original creation story (Adam and Eve and all that) recast in terms of de-creation and re-creation. Viewed this way, Noah’s vineyard is a kind of Garden of Eden do-over. And if the site of the world’s fresh start is a vineyard, is it any wonder that what naturally issues from it – namely, wine –  should thereafter play a leading role in Jewish and Christian scriptures, ritual, and symbolism?

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A lightning-round recap:  Moses encourages the people in their Exodus wanderings by reminding them that the promised land not only flows with milk and honey, but is rich in vineyards. The scouts Joshua and Caleb, sent on a mission to reconnoiter the unmapped area, return with a giant cluster of grapes as proof that the land overflows with wine. The unmistakeable message: the whole territory is Edenic.

Jesus describes himself as the true vine and his disciples as laborers in his vineyard.  At the Last Supper he tells them to drink wine in commemoration of his redemptive death.  The mass — Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox — cannot be celebrated without the fermented juice of the grape.  Four cups of wine drunk at the Passover seder represent release of the Jewish people from their four periods of exile. How will we know when the millennial kingdom that both Jews and Christians anticipate has come? Because in that day “new wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills” and “every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree.”

In the northern hemisphere, Easter and Passover come around each year just as vines are emerging from their annual slumber, and showing the first promising signs of a harvest to come. It’s a time when the world seems to be starting fresh, and there’s a sense of futurity in the newness of it all. In New England, more dramatically than elsewhere, April brings a kind of Noah moment for each of us as we contemplate a vegetative world that had been de-created by winter newly restored to verdant life.

Not all of us can share Noah’s joy in planting and tending a vineyard of our own, but we can each enjoy the scent of paradise that still clings to wine – even after 8000 vintages.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at sm@tableintime.com  [follow_me]

Art, wine, and authority
Who decides what wine is and ought to be?

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 2.51.08 PMIt seems laughable now, but in European theaters it was once common practice for the impresario to hire applauders for opening night. Claques, as they were called in France, were brought in to give it up enthusiastically for the playwright and cast at the end of the debut performance with a view to ensuring a long run. I don’t think we do this anymore — hey, it could be the entertainment business’s best-kept secret for all I know — but I have to admit that there have been nights at Symphony Hall when thunderous applause has convinced me that the performance I had just witnessed must have been truly extraordinary.  While I enjoy classical music, I’m no Jeremy Eichler.  If the audience is on its feet shouting bravos, it must have been great, right?

Yes, it’s hard to remain calm when all around you are losing their heads, but it’s equally hard to refrain from being swept up in the enthusiasm of a cheering crowd. I was giving this some thought recently as I pondered how it is that wine has changed so much in the decades since I first became an enthusiast. When I came, in the standard for really fine wine could be found in just three places: Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne. There wasn’t much French wine from other regions, or much Italian wine, available in Boston well into the 1970’s and even the ’80′s.

Together these three regions provided the models for how proper, status-conferring wine was supposed to be made. In 1976, California pushed France to the wall in the tasting event that’s become known as The Judgment of Paris, with the result that the standing of American wine was enhanced.  But making room for one more deity on wine’s version of Mt. Olympus didn’t really involve a revolution. Napa Valley was admitted to the Pantheon. But no one was questioning whether there should be a Pantheon. Read More →

We prize it in peanut butter
Is consistency something wine should strive for - and if so, how?

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It was American essayist-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson who first suggested that the mentality that rates order, uniformity, and predictability too highly is not to be trusted.  ”A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds” is how he memorably put it.

It’s true that a world where everything happens in just the same way every time would soon become unbearably tedious, but no less true that a world where everything is fresh each day would be an uncomfortable place to live. Routines swaddle us sweetly in the familiar but also turn us into sleepwalkers. We talk incessantly about what’s new, but cling tenaciously to tradition and habit.  In the end is there any real difference between being in a groove and being in a rut?

We’re all a just little schizophrenic on this point, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise when we see the same sort of bi-polarity manifest itself in the world of wine: on the one hand a quiet, steady commitment to wine that is as consistent as possible from place to place and year to year; on the other joy in the spontaneous variability that springs endlessly from nature.

The poles in this case are Bordeaux and Burgundy, two wine regions that established themselves early in the Christian era but which gave birth to two radically divergent views of what wine should be. Read More →

Lingovino Monday
The Wine Vocabulist explains off-farm inputs; micro-oxygenation; yield; sulfur/sulfides/sulfites; extraction; the cement egg

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An 18th century French prime minister once described the proper way to engage with wine this way: First one looks at the wine, then one smells the wine, then one talks about the wine. Whether he may have advanced so far as to actually taste the wine is not known, but there’s nothing to beat this oft-quoted bon mot as a way of introducing the importance of being able to talk a good game – winewise, I mean.

Like the fashion world it mimics, the world of wine likes to move a little faster than most of us can comfortably keep up with, thus the need for the occasional touch-up and top-up of our wine vocabulary. What follows are six terms, some new and some old, you really ought to be familiar with even if you don’t plan on crossing swords with a Master Sommelier anytime soon.

Off-farm inputs.  The wine world is struggling manfully to come to grips with what we mean when we talk about natural or authentic wine.  Those dedicated to the concept seem agreed on one point: that such wine should be made with minimum recourse to anything but fruit – whenever conditions allow.  Things like fertilizers, fungicides, sulfur (an anti-microbial agent; see below), tartaric acid (depresses pH) , cane or beet sugar (raises potential alcohol) have few obvious qualities in common – except that they are all things that a farmer has to buy, i.e. they’re not the outcome of agriculture, but of some industrial process.  To capture them all in a meaningful way, the phrase off-farm inputs has been coined – and it’s quite a useful one I think, except that it is easily confused with off-putting farmers, which is another thing entirely. Read More →

Balm for the old wound
Our culinary culture's ravenous need to know

The chattering classes of the the food and wine world find plenty to argue about, but I think its safe to say that there is today near-universal agreement on one point: we all want to know where the things we eat and drink come from, how they were made, and by whom.

Indeed, it’s our appetite for such information that has launched a thousand blogs, magazines, cookbooks, memoirs, profiles, and travel guides.  Need-to-know fever has had a remarkable impact on restaurant service, too.  Woe to the waiter who knoweth not the breed of pig whence came the pork chop or who cannot trippingly recite its genealogy, yea even unto the tenth generation.

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We’ve all been the victim of the too-informed young server and its easy to poke fun at the randier manifestations of this phenomenon, but the truth is that our hunger for ever more detailed information about each thing we ingest defines contemporary culinary culture. Compared with the see-no-evil approach that characterized the 20th century, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. Read More →