Humanity, community, and brotherhood comprise the marvelous virtues of the wine world—from its makers, visitors, friends, and, of course, drinkers. This first-rate collection toasts the warmth and wonders of this large, extended family in stories told by travelers who are wine novices and experts alike. Raise a glass to Dionysus, the god of wine, on the Greek island of Santorini; bring your Parisian, wine-connoisseur fiancé home to meet your Southern beer-drinking family; and enjoy a festive late night in Chile, where wine sampling offers a tasty collision of cultures. Wine, as these acclaimed writers discover, provides a universal medium for bringing people together. As contributor Karen MacNeil writes, “What I didn’t know then was that this deep-seated sense of hospitality, generosity, excitement, and community is at the very core of he wine buisnes around the world.”
Noteable authors: Tony Aspler, Jim Harrison, Simon Loftus, Kermit Lynch, Peter Mayle, and Emile Peynaud.
by Anthony Dias Blue
Wine is a great adventure, even if you never leave the comfort of your favorite armchair. You don’t need a tourist visa or a matching set of luggage to discover the world of wine, although having a decent atlas and a good wine merchant within driving distance wouldn’t hurt.
Wine is a passport to the world. Since I was eleven years old (yes, I started early), when my father took me to Burgundy, I have used wine as a window onto places, cultures, and times in my life. On that first trip to France my dad let me taste some top Burgundies out of the barrel. That sensory impression has stayed with me my whole life. All my impressions—the taste of the French food I’d never experienced before, the ripe, earthy smell of the air in the wine caves, the sight of the famous vineyards, the emotion of being in such a special place—flood my memory even today when I taste fine Burgundy.
Getting to know wine is getting to know the world. More than just a complex and delicious drink, wine is history, geography, the very soil from which the grapes are grown. It opens us to life on a deeper level and it enriches and enhances our days.
Thom Elkjer’s compendium of fascinating and addictively readable tales brings together a wide array of wine experiences, and suggests that wine is perhaps the closest thing the planet has to an elixir of life. As Jim Harrison so matter-of-factly puts it in his moving reflection on the nature of wine: “The simple act of opening a bottle of wine has brought more happiness to the human race than all the collective governments in the history of earth.” I say amen to that.
This is the best kind of travel book—one in which we learn from those who have been there before us. We visit wine’s sacred sites, such as the mountaintop on the island of Santorini, where Stephen Yafa relates the ancient Greek legend of wine’s divine origin. We are initiated into its rituals of power and privilege: Peter Mayle takes us to the Hospices de Beaune auction, where great Burgundies flow like lemonade at a Sunday picnic, and Tony Aspler brings us a coveted invitation to dinner at Bordeaux’s Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.
But, as we discover along the way, wine also inhabits places entirely unexpected. Thom Elkjer reveals the charm of wine country nestled in the desert near Tucson, Arizona. Robert Holmes describes his photography assignment at a kosher winery in Israel. Tim Russo finds political symbolism in a glass of wine in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.
We also see wine from all its social angles. I wonder which wine tasted sweeter on their respective palates: the house wine of Domaine de la Romanéle-Conti served to the exhausted grape-pickers in Michael Blumer’s harvest story, or the jug wines that Laura Higgins’s shotgun-toting Georgia redneck relatives sampled under the tutelage of her sophisticated Parisian fiancé? I couldn’t hazard a guess.
The point is that the geography of wine is as much an emotional landscape as it is a physical terrain. The writers in this volume not only take us around the globe, they also explore the subtle complexities of our innermost responses to wine, the psychic terroir, as it were. Witness Jim Harrison breaking out his best remaining bottle of Margaux as he contemplates the near death and miraculous recovery of his beloved English setter, Tess. And sometimes—can it be?—we may even tire of too much wine and, like Richard Sterling, slip off into a Chinatown honky-tonk for a soul-cleansing gin and tonic.
Whatever stage you’re at in your appreciation of wine—rank novice or auction-house maven—you’ll find bottles to savor, ideas to contemplate, and stories to retell in Adventures in Wine.
Introduction by Anthony Dias Blue
PART ONE: ESSENCE OF WINE COUNTRY
Sipping with the Gods — Stephen Yafa
In the Valley of the Beautiful Women — Michelle Richmond
Arriving at Wine — Karen Macneil
The Angle and the Voice — Steve Edmunds
A Harvest in Alsace — Mike Steinberger
Exhilarating Virtues of Wine — Emile Peynaud
The Passing of Butterflies — Heidi Haughy Cusick
Etymology of a Wine Lover — Jan Morris
Remembrance of Wines Past — Gerald Asher
PART TWO: SOME THINGS TO DO
Cellar Man — Christopher Weir
How to Conquer a Wine List — Kit Snedaker
Among Flying Corks — Peter Mayle
Wine and Blood in Puligny-Montrachet — Simon Loftus
Catching Dinner — Deanne Musolf Crouch
Wine Fiascos — David Darlington
The Wine Label — Tony Aspler
A Tale of Two Meals — Kermit Lynch
When in Romanée… — Bob Blumer (aka the surreal gourmet)
Drinking an 1806 Château Lafite — Robert Daley
PART THREE: GOING YOUR OWN WAY
A Vineyard of His Own — Michael Penhallow
Red Wines and Rednecks — Laura Higgins
Sometimes a Man Just Needs a Drink — Richard Sterling
Wine Wild West — Thom Elkjer
Foreign Exchange — Michael Durphy
The Biggest Bread in Sancerre — Antonia Allegra
The Impossible Port — Tim Patterson
Wood Nymphs and Viagra — Erika Trafton
Chewing on Chile — Alan Goldfarb
Scents and Sensibility — Gilian Handelman
PART FOUR: IN THE SHADOWS
Strictly Kosher — Robert Holmes
The Test — Lisa Shara Hall
Braving Barolo — David Downie
Wine Country at the Crossroads — Tim Russo
Republic of Georgia
PART FIVE: THE LAST WORD Wine — Jim Harrison
Index of Contributors
by Michael Durphy
What do you give to a wine country that has everything?
The problem began when I forgot to leave the Chardonnay for the Contessa. Or rather, I didn’t forget, exactly. After all, you can’t really forget you’re transporting a bottle of wine when your luggage consists of a day pack the size of a briefcase. But my friends expected me to leave it behind, and I didn’t know what to tell them. I didn’t actually have to tell them anything just then because they’d left the day before—three rather substantial middle-aged ladies, two awkwardly growing children, and an impossible amount of baggage somehow arranged in a car about the size of a large bathtub—to drive from Florence to the Milan airport.
Being left behind, my job was to tidy up our rented rooms in the Contessa’s palazzo, clean out the leftovers in the fridge (Florentine cooking is great, especially when you do it yourself), and pack for a cycling trip to Siena. Part of tidying up was to leave the bottle of wine, decorated with a bow, to indicate our appreciation. Except that because of some recurring problems with the “renovated” plumbing my appreciation was not what it might have been.
It only makes sense to take wine from California to Italy when you make it yourself, and we thought this Alexander Valley Chardonnay, from Cadd Ranch, had turned out rather well. My friends had suggested I bring it along, anticipating the egotistical pleasure of thanking our Contessa by pointing out that we were no ordinary American tourists. But now I looked at the wine, thought about the plumbing, and it occurred to me that the Contessa probably had more than enough wine already. Wouldn’t a bottle of California Chardonnay be much better appreciated by some winemaker along my route?
I had seen many signs for “vendita diretta” during my bike trips into the hills around Florence in the previous week, so I knew I’d have no trouble finding a likely candidate for my well-traveled bottle. No one I’d talked to in Tuscany seemed to have much interest in white wine. Still, I had fantasies that such an exotic bottle would be welcomed somewhere. I imagined myself communicating, maybe even conversing if I could assemble enough Italian and he enough English; casually mentioning that I was from California; that, oh yes, I made wine too, and that I just happened to have a bottle of it with me; and would he please honor me by accepting it in appreciation for the excellent wines I was tasting? From a backyard producer of wines of extremely limited distribution, I would rise to membership in the international fraternity of the winemaking elite. I imagined him opening the bottle, doubtfully of course, at a dinner party of local winemakers. They would all exclaim, stunned (or at least mildly surprised) at what a pleasing wine those crazy Californians could produce. I would be the Lone Ranger, doing my good deed and moving on. “Who was that masked man?”
I didn’t have a particular route in mind; I vaguely thought I’d take my bike on the train as far as Poggibonsi, ride up to San Gimignano, and then take some of the back roads from there to Siena. But after I was thrown off the train (no bikes), I had to get serious about planning. There is a good network of secondary roads running through Chianti Classico south from Florence. But my eye went straight to SS 222, the Chiantigiana, through the heart of Chianti to Greve and Panzano, and then on to Radda and Castellina. These were all towns whose names I recognized from wine labels, and I was sure I’d find just the winery I was looking for.
Heading south from Florence is a long climb. The road plays roller coaster along the ridges, past the Ugolino golf course (something I didn’t expect to see in the Tuscan countryside) and the brown and beat-up soccer stadium. It was Saturday, and I was being passed by small, fast cars with numbers taped to their sides and by clots of cyclists in heavy lycra on wispy bikes. By midday the bottle was getting heavier in my pack.
I hadn’t yet found an open winery—signs were hanging out but the doors were bolted. In the small towns all the shops were closed. This was puzzling. I knew the Italians kept rather fanciful hours, but wineries closed on a Saturday? I had read that Greve had a well-known market in the piazza on Saturdays, but when I coasted through town in the late April heat the piazza was nearly deserted: just a few German tourists sitting around in the shade. I checked out the charmless Amerigo Vespucci monument, filled my water bottles, and found a gelateria.
Climbing the hill south from Greve I passed Querciabella, a prosperous-looking winery with a beautiful view: closed. Was I doomed to travel forever through the land of the closed wineries? Onward, and my weary legs began to feel as if they were carting a case of wine through the Alps. Near the crest I stopped at the junction heading off to Panzano, a mile west. The view was picture-book Tuscan, the walled town hazily crowning a small hill. In a last burst of optimism I pulled out my map to see if I might have time for a side trip. Fontodi was there, and I admired their wines.
A couple in a small red car pulled up and got out to stretch and enjoy the view. They were from Florence, out soaking in the warm spring weather. Wasn’t it wonderful that, since everything was closed because of the holiday, the countryside was so quiet. Holiday? Didn’t I know? Liberation Day, of course. They were congenial, but seemed surprised and aloof at my obliviousness to one of their most significant national holidays, apparently a combination of Fourth of July and Memorial Day. There was an awkward silence while they drank some bottled water. He must have noticed the way I was slumped over my bike, because he suddenly smiled and said “coraggio.” Then they got back in their car and waved as they set off for Radda.
I reluctantly decided no to Panzano, and followed them toward Radda. At least I had my answer. Bad luck to be cycling through Chianti looking for wine tasting on Liberation Day. Bad luck to be carrying a bottle of wine on my back for thirty miles. But I had some downhill ahead of me through the cooling air, the scenery unfolded from vineyard to olive grove to wooded hillside, and I could make it to Radda by evening.
After yet one more climb to yet one more fortified hilltop, I wobbled into Radda just in time to confirm that the little winery shops in the center of town were no exception. I was imagining carrying my homeless wine all the way to Siena. Perhaps I’d surprise some attractive stranger with a gift while strolling Il Campo. More likely I’d find a seatmate on the train to Milan tomorrow who was willing to take this poor Chardonnay home.
In the meantime I needed to find lodging. I went back out the town gates and down the road toward Castellina. There were a few houses along the road and some signs out advertising “camera” and “zimmer.” I wheeled slowly down the drive toward voices coming from behind a house built in the modern rustic style. Two women stood in a vegetable patch talking animatedly. When they saw me one of them waved and walked up toward me. The Signora was wiry and vivacious, with striking dark features, and, yes, she did have a room available. When she found out I was from California she told me, in Italian, about her daughter in Seattle. I tried to tell her, in Italian, about my winetasting frustrations. But she herself made wine; would I like to try some?
Her casual generosity caught me off guard, and my paltry Italian completely failed me for a moment. My little speech coyly mentioning my own winemaking skills had flown from my brain, but I reached into my pack, and, among the spare shoes and clean pants, found what I was looking for. My “grazie” must have come out just as I held my overheated Chardonnay out to her, and it was her turn to be surprised. She looked at me with puzzlement and a hint of suspicion. Then her eyes turned to the handwritten label and she broke into a grin. “You too?” she said. I laughed with her out of unexpected kinship, and out of relief. I held my bottle out again, she took it, and we impulsively shook hands. My problem was solved.
She brought a bottle of her wine to my room as I settled in. She’d bottled her dark red wine in a Ricasoli white wine bottle, label intact. I found myself wondering whether she’d poured the original wine down the drain in order to free up the bottle; she didn’t seem the white wine type. I could just see my Chardonnay going into tomorrow’s ribollita. She wanted to talk about travel and the United States, but I could understand only a tenth of what she was saying. Finally I tried to ask her where she got her grapes. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “around here”&$151;it was clear that for her, wine was something to be drunk and not discussed too much. I was not keeping up my end of the conversation, and so we thanked one another again and she went back upstairs to her family.
After my shower I took my hostess’s wine to the deck looking out over the valley. I poured a little into the glass and swirled it in the pale golden light. Finally I was drinking a Chianti at the winery—from a backyard producer of wines of extremely limited distribution. The evening birdsong came up as I sipped my glass of cherries and dust. In a few minutes I would walk back into town for dinner, but right now the warm, dusky air was enough. It turned out that I was already a member of an international fraternity in which my presumption, my grandiosity, was irrelevant. How earthy, how satisfying, how Italian.
Michael Durphy practices psychiatry and winemaking in San Anselmo, California. If his profession and avocation haven’t taught him humility, travel certainly has. When he’s not involved in one of these activities, he enjoys early music and late-season backpacking in the Sierra Nevada.
Thom Elkjer is the wine editor for Wine Country Living magazine (formerly Appellation). He has contributed to Wine Spectator in the U.S. and WINE magazine in London, and appears in Travelers’ Tales volumes on Paris, Italy, Ireland, food, humor, and spirituality. He has also published a mystery titled Hook, Line and Murder and is the author of Fodor’s Escape to the California Wine Country. He lives in San Rafael, CA.