Though I knew my family was in the wine business and that my father went about trying to sell it, it wasn’t until I went with my dad and a restaurant friend of his down a steep flight of stairs to the restaurant wine room when I was seven years old that I began to understand the relationship between food and wine, and the way they help each other to completeness. Many years later, as an adult, devoting his life to the business of taking care of people through wine and hospitality, I came to regard this relationship of wine to food in great restaurants to be connected in wonderfully complicated ways. Wine and food – all hospitality, in fact – exist on strands of an encompassing web.
When the chef pulls on the Normandy strand there is a sympathetic movement on the strand that is cow in meadow – amazing dairy; the Ligurian strand dances with the seafood of the Amalfi coast and plucks too the strand that supports light white wines that express the briny sea through a prism of fresh fruit and acidity. There are family-history strands, three-Michelin-star strands, the food-of-the-chef’s-childhood strands, peanut shells-on-the-ground threads, the natural-bounty-near-the-restaurant strands, and the typical-grape-of-the-region strands. The great chef cannot separate the amazing food she cooks from her life experience, and our dinner would be bereft without her ability to bring to bear her intricate, complicated, and deeply personal roots to her oven and stove. No matter how great the individual dish, how close to perfection her braised leek or spherified olive, there must be a twanging of the web that is the inevitable and heightening connection between wine and food; the perfect pairing that transforms ingredient into meal.
There is always that wonderful moment of anticipation when you’re seated at a nicely appointed table waiting for what you ordered to be set in front of you. Your salivary glands rain in rhythm to the wafting aromas from the kitchen, the stomach’s staccato sets a bass note to the pupils’ trebly dilation. You hear the kitchen door swinging open, and the primal and primordial jangling deep in the blood summons you back to that first fire. The plate is set down and you eat first with your eyes. You marvel at the geometry of the plate, the juxtaposition of protein to sides, the vertiginous height of stacked components, the Kandinsky-like slashes of sauce. You sense, too, the complicated aromas of the dish. Each element of the plate works in concert with the others, sending roasted and sautéed and baked and pan-fried esters to mingle above the table like invisible and fragrant doppelgangers. When you finally raise fork to mouth and taste what you have seen and smelled, it is as if a complicated set of tumblers has clicked over to Open and the pathway from anticipation to realization, hope to fulfillment is revealed and well-lighted.
The same sense of anticipation and the same expense of sensory energy obtains to the drinking of wine, especially releases from new places. The winemaker, if she is to be successful, has labored over fermentations – as the doctor over a difficult pregnancy – lost sleep over the evolving balance of wood and acid and fruit and tannin, and made immutable press decisions, cajoling fruit into a shape that is both revelatory and delicious. The cork pops, the ears prick, the salivary glands – as with food – begin to work; the wine is poured, and its color judged. You drop your nose into the glass and the thousand different aromas tickle memory centers; you take a sip, swirl, and slurp, letting all parts of your mouth record the sensations; high acid gets the mouth watering even more, lots of tannin dries the mouth out. Tasting wine is an active and physical sport. We only taste five things – each can play a role in a complex wine – but we smell hundreds more. The myriad fruit and oak flavors, then, are purloined olfactory notes that only seem to come from the tongue.
The range of flavors and aromas in successive vintages of wine from the same grapes and vineyards is narrow. If we resist unnecessary manipulation in the winery (which is easier the older one gets) Cabernet Sauvignon tastes and smells like Cab and Cabernet Franc tastes of a day-old fire on the beach that had been fanned with the leaves of sage and bay. In the fine-tuning of a wine’s texture, a winemaker finds the most creative purchase, and in the perception of astringency and galloping acidity, the mouth plays its more important role. I choose to work with the grapes I do because they transform into wines that provide immense complexity, richness, and joy. I try to shepherd fruit from the vineyard through the winery and into my customer’s mouths in as inevitable and pure a way as possible. I could add a lot of new oak to create flavor and texture; I could use enzymes in the fermentation bins to extract as much tannin as possible and pick at very high sugar levels to create huge amounts of alcohol which leads to its own kind of oleaginous and blunt mouthfeel. I could do those things and provide wines that many people like. I don’t do those things because the wines don’t taste good, they are not appropriate representations of the best possible from my growing area, and they are boring as fuck.
The sating of Hunger and Thirst is only part of the gustatory reward though. There is another – perhaps deeper – accrual at work here; will the chef and winemaker have envisioned something new? From materials that have never been seen before or – more likely – some finished product re-imagined from ingredients and methods that are generally at hand for all who work in these fields – will you find yourself on wonderfully shifting sands of esthetic expectation? Not all making is an act of creation. Most of making is putting foreordained tabs into all-too-familiar slots. In the end, the things exist but do so without soul. One can argue that creation does not confer an inherently more worthy quality to the thing made than the making itself does, yet many of us are especially hungry for and receptive to those novel things that spring from a well of fire and possibility and force us to contend with heretofore unseen implications and conclusions. When the chef brings out a dish that makes you rethink the it-ness of the ingredients and that tastes of the First Chicken or Oyster or Pig, you receive the dual gifts of deliciousness and revelation. If the winemaker finds the true essence of a grape, illuminates the true enlivening organoleptic qualities of that “now-seen” variety for the first time, (even if just for a moment), your life has changed. You have sloughed off an old, chapped skin and in its place is a bright, new, and pliable one off which reflects the promethean fire stoked by those creating craftspeople.
The genius of the best wine and food is the seemingly effortless way in which complicated and disparate ingredients harmonize a series of notes into an irreducible and unrepeatable song. No matter how many components are in the dish or how many different grape varieties are in a blend, there is an ineluctable integration between them that borders on the transcendental. The finest chefs and winemakers have a connection to interior genius. If the root of ecstasy means being outside oneself, then soul means the opposite. To be connected to esthetic desire is to be interwoven so intimately with the object that there are no individual margins. The doing and the being are the same. Stephen Curry with a jump shot, Albert Adria with that famously re-imagined spherified olive, Jean-Bernard Delmas with Haut-Brion, seem nearly fated to their tasks, so perfectly are their actions integrated with their personae. Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” touches obliquely on this relationship. This transmogrification of complexity to unadorned truth is exceedingly difficult to achieve. The warping and wefting of everyday elements into a sublime and perfect whole are what separate good from god-like.
What is needed to perceive this holism? Does one need to be a supertaster (one with more tastebuds than the average person) or have extensive experience smelling and imbibing every permutation of herb and spice? While experience helps, as does a good memory, I’d argue the most important quality is one which serves a person well in all aspects of her life – willingness. To clear one’s mind of associations and meet the new drink or food or experience naked, alone, and unencumbered – even naïve, perhaps, is to risk, certainly. Like Howard Carter, the archeologist who discovered King Tut’s tomb, who exclaimed – when he breached the last wall and shined his light upon the uncountable treasure – “I see wonderful things;” it is also to be rewarded.
The answer to the question of what makes a life well-lived has as many variations as people asking it. Most of us can agree that doing as little harm as possible to people and the world is part of the proper response; taking care of the ones we love, seeking to get the most of our abilities, is perhaps appropriate as well. Then, some have been wrecked by traumatic beginnings who seek only to find comfort in the nihilistic and vengeful damage they can do. If the quality-of-life question is a garment, mine is made of broadcloth fashioned out of progress, movement, and evolution. For me, it is crucial to greedily seek liminal spaces (which are only moments in time). At the threshold – the dividing line, the pregnant now – is where transformation occurs. There is nothing to be gained by familiar comforts – the junk food of daily existence. One can’t really suck the marrow out of a never-profligate life. The quest for change is scary and exhausting. It requires a great deal of effort just to push the wheels out of the rut, let alone get them moving toward something brighter and truer. The scary and necessary part is what happens when momentum becomes your enthusiastic co-conspirator. In an ordinary life the days spool out without much amplitude. Sure, there are accidents and pain and moments of tenderness and joy, but they all seem to meld together – unremarked and unremarkable – into a featureless carpet that rolls out to cushion your step. If you could live consciously with the knowledge that oblivion may be a single step away and that all the experiences that you’ve not had, all the sensibleness with which you have led your life up to now, had prevented you from deeply experiencing, you’d hope that you would make the next step a little out of plumb.
I think everyone can sense transformation, if only out of the corner of the eye – new things a-dawning. It is elusive to be sure, and powerful. There really is no going back once you have traveled to a certain point. The old life doesn’t fit anymore, and the uncanniness of the new shape can be too hard to acclimatize. You can ask yourself whether you have the courage to be and do something truer to yourself. But it isn’t facing down a fear that is necessary, I don’t think. Instead, the rip of the chrysalis and the burgeoning of the new self comes when the desperate clawing for a little joy dislodges the heavy stone that is all the unrequited moments and the ever-shallowing wellspring of life. A giant FUCK YOU as you push the stone aside is what transcendence sounds like.