Wine

Here we are again in the dog days of August. California and Portugal burning up, widlfires raging.

California makes the news, Portugal doesn’t. Although firefighters have died here too, most recently a twenty-two year old girl, a brave young lady who got burnt to death—nine of her colleagues were wounded.

It was in the last days of August that Arwa took the New York subway and staged a terror attack. This is the way I described it in Atmos Fear.

As the train left Canal Street, Arwa silently recited the fifty-sixth sura, which speaks of The Inevitable, following her instructions to the letter.

When the Event inevitable cometh to pass…

When she finished the twelfth verse, leading her to the gardens of bliss, exactly thirty seconds had gone by, and she twisted the stroller’s lever, pushing it fully down. The lowest section of the baby carriage was filled with sulfuric acid, and the lever’s action opened a hatch above it from which the deadly pellets began to fall. As they landed in the liquid, the hydrogen cyanide gas shot up the side rails of the stroller and hissed out into the subway car through carefully machined diffusers drilled into the handles.

The rest of the news remains desperate: images of Syrian kids writhing on the ground, twisted in the grip of poisonous chemicals—in this bizarre YouTube war, no one’s sure whether the footage is real. Medecins Sans Frontieres thinks it is. I do too.

The U.S. on one side, Russia and China on the other. And Syria burning up faster than a California wildfire. There’s only so much misery you can handle.

So I decided to write about wine. Peter Wibaux is described in the author notes as someone who enjoys good wine. So let’s put our money where our mouth is.

One of the early passages in The India Road, which in the final version of the book moved to page 194, reads:

Don Gonzaga’s party was becoming increasingly intoxicated, and the Spanish noblemens’ attention was rapidly shifting from the exploration of the Indies to exploring the charms of the serving wenches. Someone was reciting an old Castilian poem to the tempranillo grape, extolling the virtues of the Ribera del Duero.

Ally fallaría ommes las bonas cardeniellas
e las otras mejores que son las tempraniellas
las blancas aflonsinas que tornan amariellas
las alfonsinas negras que son cardeniellas.

As the priest sipped his red wine and listened to his Spanish hosts declaiming odes to the tinto fino, he knew there was another reason for his presence in Salamanca this evening. If the Pope’s line did not move west, the road to India would pass through Spanish waters.

It gives me hope for my forthcoming writing that a good many passages of The India Road were moved to very different parts of the book and still worked, albeit with minor changes. To a smaller extent, similar things happened in Atmos Fear. Ideally, for my next book, called ‘The Hourglass’, most of the sequencing will be fine as I write.

I couldn’t remember where I sourced the quatrain (in Portuguese or Spanish it would be called a ‘quadra’), but Dr. Google quickly found it for me. The site I linked for the poem sells Kosher wine, of all things, but provides a nice overview of the Tempranillo grape. In Spain, the vernacular for Tempranillo is Tinto Fino, and in Portugal it is Aragonés, i.e. the cultivar from Aragon.

A Kosher wine requires full oversight by a Rabbi, to ensure for instance there is no contact with grain, and different countries are jumping into that market and providing religious certification for wines.

Certain animals such as chickens drew the short straw for the human palate, and became a consumer favorite. In the process, they assured their survival as a species.  A bit like Robert Johnson, who allegedly sold his soul to the devil so he could play guitar—Keith Richards says that when he listened to Johnson’s records as a teenager, he thought there were two guys playing.

Partly that’s because Johnson was a finger picker, and used his thumb to thump out the bass while he played lead licks on the treble strings.

The most famous canine tippler was the cartoon dog Snowy, known in the original Belgian as Milou.

The most famous canine tippler was the cartoon dog Snowy, known in the original Belgian as Milou.

Until I was fifteen, I had only ever drunk wine from Portugal; that’s the trouble with wine producing countries—more than for anything else, the local product has the monopoly. That’s not to say you won’t find foreign wine in upmarket stores, or in swank restaurants, but it’s not easy. Even in these globalized times, you’ll be hard pressed (sorry) to find wine in Spain, Italy, or Portugal that isn’t native.

And let’s not even mention France, where wines from elsewhere are tantamount to lèse majesté. Some years ago in Zeeland a French guy I know was absolutely horrified when the Dutchman next to him proposed a bottle of Australian red.

But from Argentinian Malbecs to South African Pinotage, traveling has definitely increased my awareness of the good wines made worldwide. Like chicken, grapes have emerged as the fermentable fruit of choice. I’m wondering why that should be. What made the vine so special that it gained a spectacular advantage over its fellows?

Figs, peaches, a host of berries, plums, pears, anything with sugar is a candidate for fermentation, so why did the grape win?

Perhaps one of the clues lies in early domestication. The vine was domesticated between six and eight thousand years ago, harking on pre-history, In those days, the hunter-gatherer was rapidly losing ground to the farmer. Plants that were easy to grow, tasty, and quick to pick would find favor will early man—and woman.

The original strains came from the Near East, from places such as Phoenicia. Different varietals emerged, bred for resistance, taste, durability…

But wine itself, like penicillin, will have been an accidental discovery. It’s not dificult to picture that grapes stored in a barrel or a basement might have begun to ferment, particularly in circumstances where animals, plants, and humans shared the home convivially.

Imagine the first person who tasted what seemed to be a putrid liquid, full of decaying skins and pips. Quite a surprise to find that not only was the taste agreeable, but there was that extra bonus. Don’t forget that well into the early XXth century, bottles of port or brandy carried medicinal health advice, extolling the virtues of the contents as a cordial for the frail and sickly.

Or perhaps the first to taste fermented grape juice was in fact a dog. The friendly hound was domesticated anywhere between sixteen and thirty-two thousand years ago, as a recent piece in Nature suggests. Whoever that first libator (my new word for the summer) was, he started a trend.

Descriptions of wine border on the totally ludicrous, a demented hunt for nouns and adjectives that capture the essence of the potion. Peach nose, wet dog, soil. Animal fur.

…a wine for true connoisseurs…a huge perfume of camphor, charcoal, graphite, blackberries, cassis, raspberries, and a liquor of rocks-like component…

The above and other gems here.

A decade ago in Seattle we ran out of whatever we were drinking. The waiter embarked on a lavish description of what he was sampling that fall. After listening to a list of fruit longer than a supermarket aisle, I had to tell him that what we were really after was something with grapes in it, preferably fermented.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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