A place at the table
Is wine a condiment, side dish, main course, or something else?


Still-life, Pieter Claesz. 1641. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Wine has been an integral if not always necessary element of many of the world’s cuisines for a very long time now. Those intrepid proto-vintners of the Caucasus, the Georgians, assert that they’re working on their 8000th vintage (give or take a kveveri or two), a claim which places the origin of winemaking back to the early-neolithic.  Evidence exists that the Chinese were in the game as far back as 3000 BCE, a millennium or so earlier than the first documented fermentations in the Nile Delta.  Wine was a ritual beverage at the courts of the great cereal empires of the ancient Near East for ages before being banished — or driven underground — by the Islamic conquest.

We know about the Greeks and Romans, of course, because they are the direct antecedents of modern Western wine culture,  but it’s worth noting that classical-era wine practices differ markedly from our own. Wine was almost never drunk neat but was always mixed with water and generally consumed after, rather than before or during, meals at male-only drinking parties called symposia.  The sterner sort of Roman husband thought it improper for his wife to drink wine at all.

If we define cuisine as a more or less durable socially-constructed schema for preparing and consuming  food, the places to which we assign various consumables assume importance.  Some examples (drawn from our own culture) might be (i) that the sweet course marks the end of the meal (we call it dessert); (ii) that a salad may be positioned as a first course and thereby function as an appetizer, or make its appearance after the main course as a kind of palate-cleanser; (iii) that a proper  main course requires a starch, a vegetable, and a protein source (or at least 2 out of 3).

You might jump up a level and observe that behind these conventions are some important prior assumptions, namely that the cuisine in question has such things as appetizers, main courses, palate-cleansers, and desserts.**  Like a language, a cuisine has a grammar that may fun to bend and even occasionally break, but which from day to day enjoys the status of a familiar and stable convention. It seems fair, then, to ask where wine fits into all this.  What is its place in at the contemporary table?

I know at least one person – onetime director of beverage programs for a notable Boston restaurant group – who maintains that wine isn’t something to be considered out of the context of a meal.  In his view wine’s sole reason for being is to busy itself with underscoring impressions made by food.  In other words, wine’s proper role is similar to that played by what we usually refer to as a condiment.

There’s merit in this, I think, especially in the notion that it’s wine’s job to offer interludes of refreshment and variety to a meal. One of the reasons it’s possible to reduce wine to this subsidiary role is that in the 21st century wine is no longer thought to make either a significant contribution to nutrition or to aid in digestion, as had been the case for pretty much from the beginning.  Stripped of these employments wine should be a less formidable player at the table than formerly.  But is it fair to demote it to the level of tartar sauce and wasabi paste?

An alternative approach is championed by my old friend the Burgundy expert. His idea is that wine is really a thing apart, something whose various features are best appreciated when considered on their own.  In this view, food is a kind of distraction that may be tolerated when the wine in question isn’t anything very special but not when something truly fine is in the glass.   It’s a more radical way of thinking than the condiment idea since it seems to want to divorce wine from the table entirely. But in the way it hearkens back to the post-prandial symposia of the classical world, it’s got conservative cred, too.

Put to it, I’d have to check the box marked “none of the above.”  I’m not happy seeing wine raised to a status that distances it from the table, which I see as its natural habitat.  Nor do I think we can relegate it to the wholly subservient role of the condiment, even if it performs some of the same duty.  My inclination is to see it as one more element of a meal — almost as if it were another ingredient, dish, or course.  Yes, wine offers counterpoint and I expect it to play nicely with whatever else is on the plate, but not in a way that’s essentially different from the way all the components in a thoughtfully-prepared meal interact.

I haven’t polled anyone on it, but I would wager that this is the way many chefs see it, even if they don’t articulate it.  Given technology (the Coravin) that makes it economically viable to offer diners small individual pours, how long will it be before we’ll hear a server say something like The pork loin is served with roasted new potatoes, a concasse of fresh native tomatoes and a three-ounce pour of Langhe nebbiolo ?



-Stephen Meuse               

** For more on cuisine as code see British sociologist Mary Douglas’s brilliant Deciphering a Meal.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at tableintime@icloud.com

Tedium in the Vineyard
The tale of the attack on the World’s Greatest Vineyard doesn't require the World's Greatest Editor - a merely competent one would do

Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of a Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine
By Maximillian Potter
Grand Central Publishing

We know from prison movies that inmates who really ought to be spending their time hatching plots to amend their lives are more likely to use their enforced leisure to meditate new and better crimes.  So it was with Jacques Soltys, aged 57, a second-generation French citizen of Polish descent and career lowlife who, jailed for nine years after conviction for a botched kidnapping scheme, decided that he had aimed rather too low in seizing the aristocratic wife of a well-to-do Bordeaux winemaker and holding her, unsuccessfully, for ransom. How much cleverer – and more remunerative – to take hostage vines planted in the most famous and cherished vineyard in all of France and reap a million euro payday for not poisoning every last one of them?

It’s a bit hard to communicate to those who aren’t lovers of red Burgundy the reverence, even awe, in which Romanée-Conti, the vineyard that was Soltys’s target, is held.  A bit less than 2 hectares (about 4 acres) in area, it annually produces a few thousand cases of some of the most sought-after wine in the world.  Prices in the Boston area for the current release start at around $5,000 per bottle but some vintages sell for much more. The Domaine de la Romanée-Conti owns this vineyard outright and portions of other grand cru vineyards nearby.  If you were looking to shake down people who could afford to pay you real money, you could scarcely do better than this, and Soltys, once released, lost little time in putting his plan into action.

In the fall of 2010 he surreptitiously dug and carefully camouflaged an underground workroom for himself in the forested land at the edge of the famed vineyard in the tiny village of Vosne-Romanée. In a series of nighttime sallies from it Soltys drilled small holes in the trunks of a few vines and inserted a length of black wire. The maneuver wouldn’t kill a vine, but it would be enough to show his intended victim, Aubert de Villaine, the universally respected director of the Domaine and, according to the author one of the richest men in France, that he meant business. “If I can drill your vines without your knowing it, I can poison them at will” was the unsubtle threat.  To call the scheme harebrained is to insult the intellectual abilities of rabbits.

Romanée-ContiWhen the police finally nab Soltys (spoiler false alarm: I’m not giving the details) and the story surfaces, Vanity Fair dispatches veteran journalist Maximillian Potter, then editor of a Denver magazine and now senior media advisor to Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, to Burgundy to cover it. His 6000 word report appeared in the magazine’s May 2011 issue under the title “The Assassin in the Vineyard.”  “Shadows in the Vineyard” is based on that article, but stretching the story out to book length only makes the original — and the editing at Vanity Fair — look brilliant by comparison.

Potter’s effort for the magazine is a tightly-written and engaging story that hits all the right notes with just the right amount of force and sustain — a bit of the history of Burgundy and the development of its vineyards under centuries of monastic custodianship; a peek at the chain of ownership of the property from the time of the cunning, duplicitous Prince de Conti, confidante of Louis XV, to the present day — but Potter’s extended treatment of the l’affair Soltys in “Shadows” doesn’t move at the clip or exhibit the brio of the magazine piece.

Part of the problem is that a precisely-timed, impeccably-executed gambit of the sort we know from heist films like Rififi, or Ocean’s Eleven isn’t remotely within reach of the schlubby Soltys, who hasn’t a shred of charisma and elicits neither our sympathy nor grudging admiration for a clever guy breaking bad. Nor is there much here that you could call suspense. But there’s more wrong than this. The history is potted, the material on the background of de Villaine drawn-out and almost embarrassingly obsequious (he is incessantly referred to as “The Grand Monsieur”), and the lengthy excursus into the 18th century intrigues of the Prince de Conti feels like filler.  Add to this some mangled translation of French (one howler has Napoleon leading the armies of the restored Bourbon monarchy) and prose that seems aimed at young adults, and you have a bit of a slog.

There is an element in this otherwise unsatisfying book that sticks with you: the dread that somewhere out there a mind far more clever and well-capitalized than that of Jacques Soltys may be meditating using his crime as a template in a venture that has more of a chance of succeeding.

“It never ceased to amaze him,” Potter says of Soltys, “that so much value was just left there unprotected.”

This article was originally published in the Boston Globe on July 29, 2014

Stephen Meuse can be reached at tableintime@icloud.com

When wine doesn’t rhyme
What do Limericks and appellations have in common?

I like wine that’s Italian and red.
“I shall have a Barolo,” I said.
But I had to think twice
When they told me the price.
Now I favor barbera instead. 

The cute verse is from the site OEDILF.com where an editorial team and a host of contributors are compiling a complete English dictionary with each word defined within a Limerick. Hundreds, possibly thousands of words are already treated there in this way.  Start browsing and you’ll find it very hard to pull yourself away.  Some are awfully clever; some just ordinary. The effort is almost heroic — in a Quixotic sort of way.

Limericks earn their living by providing a form into which we pour words.  Like its low-rent sibling, the knock, knock joke, the scheme is nothing if not predictable. Once we hear the tuh tuh TUMP-itty TUMP-itty TUMP we  know what’s coming.  The expectation that the five lines of verse, once underway, will tumpitty-tump their way to a conclusion is part of the pleasure the Limerick provides.  Alter the familiar meter, add or subtract a line, fail to adhere to the rhyme scheme and you risk losing your audience.  ”Hey,” someone will say, “that’s no Limerick.” Read More →


Not as advertised
Is deceit, deception, and mendacity in wine's DNA?


Two nights last week we returned to a familiar theme and played the game I call Three Bottle Monte at the tasting table in the wine shop where I work.  The bottles and their labels are on display, but their contents have been poured into three identical decanters. The challenge is to taste the wine from each decanter and match it with the bottle it came from.

Most people are not winners, of course, but that doesn’t seem to dampen enthusiasm. During some down time I started thinking about why I named the game after a notorious scam played on city streets all over the world by shady characters and their partners in crime (called shills) who pose as ordinary schnooks absorbed in the game that are from time to time seen to win (the better to attract more schnooks). The thought occurred to me that maybe Three Bottle Monte is a too-close-for-comfort metaphor for the deceptive practices that dog the wine trade and have from the beginning.

Wine was one of the very first goods that were widely traded across and along the shores of what the ancient world called the Great Sea and we call the Mediterranean.  Along with olive oil and grain vast amounts of wine made their way from one port city to another on small ships that feared to venture into blue water and instead hugged the shorelines. The carriers for this cargo in the days before the rise of Rome and well before the Greeks learned to sail were the intrepid Phoenicians, who, with little of value to trade themselves (the exception was the famed luxury textile known as Tyrian purple the dyes for which were a closely-guarded secret), enriched themselves by trading the goods of others; buying low, selling high, and monopolizing the sea lanes. Read More →

Dirt is the new fruit
What's behind our fascination with soils?

Early in his career Robert Mondavi recognized that he could differentiate his California-made wine from those made in Europe by emphasizing the inherently fruity character of the former. In comparative tastings he habitually badgered guests into conceding that while European wine was often good California wines were “just a bit fruitier” and therefore just a bit better.  The reasoning followed this line: because it is made from fruit, wine’s most perfect expression one that most resembles fruit. In his winemaking Mondavi favored an approach that pushed fruit to the fore.

His reasoning and winemaking practice seemed sound enough at the time, so long as one didn’t examine the logic behind either too closely. Why exactly did something that started as fruit have to retain its fruity character in the finished product?  Aged Gouda starts out as fresh milk, but a slice of this hard, waxy, dark orange cheese bears so little resemblance to what was squeezed from the udder of a cow you’d never connect the two without being told they’re related.  Would we take seriously a person who claimed that cheese should only be made in ways that preserve the taste of fresh milk?  Should vodka taste like a potato? Read More →