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Friday, August 31, 2012

Reflections in a wine glass

This isn't so much about wine as using wine as an object for concentration, meditation and the act of drinking wine as a movement toward being present.

I'm not the enthusiast I once was, but I enjoy sipping quietly and as mentioned earlier, I also enjoy the conviviality of sipping with friends, a good meal and conversation. This time, the focus will be on what happens when there is just a bottle, a glass, and one person.

Years ago, a friend of mine gave the best advice for approaching wine I'd yet heard. A new person to wine came up to a friend of mine who was volunteering as my assistant at a large tasting. The person asked my friend what he should be tasting. My pal replied, " you tell me". The other person had heard all about the resonances of hazelnut and tints of cherry and gunpowder... Sure, we describe the spectrum of flavors and sensations by analogy, but sometimes our palates aren't broad enough to describe it all and frankly, the description is not the thing or the event or the sensation. It is this last point that provides the starting point here.

Before cracking a bottle for general consumption, I have the role of taster at Graziella's. In most instances, the wines have been fantastic, but I've had to pour a few out, too. Others have been really good, but some bottles more than others. We drank, at different times, the Babaresco above. Across the board, it was one of the best Italian reds I've ever had. But the last bottle seemed better than the other two. Why?

I wondered if I enjoyed it more or found more to it because it was the last one. On the other hand, it garnered some fine comments, so it might well have been a better bottle than the others. I'm not going into too much detail about it, other than to say it was dense with a range of colors, an almost velvet texture and exceptional nose, neither overtly florid nor overwhelmingly jammy as some can be.

What I have in mind is the quality of attention that I have to pay to the process. The attention is pointed outward to the sight, sound and scent of what's in the glass. Those parts of me sharpen and isolate qualities that I later verbalize, removing me from the immediate experience. Therefore, I tend to just be more aware and write, speak later. In the moment, whatever happens happens.

But the most salient thing is that there is no taster at a certain point. There is only taste. Or smell. Or sight. The labels and critique come later when communication has to come into play. Then the words and descriptions come back. So how to determine the drinkability after the fact?

It doesn't take long, for one thing. Sustained awareness requires practice. Attention to the moment is a learned skill. We need it more than we realize and it's not part of our lives often enough. In one sense, it's silly that we come alive over a sip of some liquid, but that's just it; in that moment, we sense there is more going on than mere consumption. If we bring this same awareness to our internal landscape or mindscape, we have the opportunity of the possibility of being fully present.

This Pomerol was out of the world. How do I know this? How does one determine the fineness or lack thereof of anything or any thing? Our encounters with phenomena are formed by our histories of comparison, emotional content, our histories, memories, such that we are constantly engaged in comparing, measuring one thing against another, one person against another. "I like this, I don't like that". We are rarely or barely capable of encountering and accepting a thing or a fellow human on their own merits, without judgement, without criticism. For food and drink, this may be necessary; I've poured out wines because they had turned very far into tannic wastes of steely liquid with the slight vestige of flavor reduced to something like wine, but closer to paint thinner. No point in poisoning people.

I've served wines past their primes, though, because they're not bad. Maybe not necessarily good, but not bad, because this is an education in what wine is about. We learn that a once great bottle can still be okay after decades and paired with the right food, serves as a supporting character in the dinner play that night. We know when we've encountered something of quality, though, because we cease to be in its presence without effort.

Intentionally tasting is still an act with effort. It becomes less so and can still be executed with less effort, but when we stumble across something truly great, in any phenomenon - be it art, architecture, literature or wine, even - we become subsumed in it and give ourselves over to the situation at hand. Oftentimes this is with joy, but if we're lucky, with awe. No, I have never had an awesome wine, in that sense. No wine has affected me like St. Lorenz in Nuremberg or the Himalayas, but I've had a few that have added a kind of happiness to a moment, and that is something.

The last lesson we can take away from this is that wine is ephemeral, like all other things in the world. What makes it a bit more precious is that it exists to be experienced most intimately; we have to take it in, we have to consume it. And then, it's gone! But the lingering gift is the fading flavor and the memories that have been created from being awake and aware for however long that moment lasted.

This last lesson can be applied to every part of our lives. Can we bring that same quality of attention and awareness to our jobs, our relationships, our times when we are most alone? Sounds easy, doesn't it? I highly recommend trying it. See how long you can be aware, being attentive to an object and then to yourself and finding out where awareness has passed into fantasy or daydreaming. How long before we're back looking over a shopping list in our mind and paying no attention to the breath that sustains us moment by moment. Yes, there is a time for shopping lists, but before long the few moments that the shopping list requires have turned into minutes and hours of imagery, memory, and a phantasmagoria of thoughts, judgements and rabbit holes of association. Where are we, then?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Fall is in the air

The past few weeks have been busy, fun and now and again, tranquil. Harvard Medical School (HMS) is wonderful and I look forward to collaborating with and supporting my colleagues with some degree of aplomb, precision or at least, competence, in the coming months. Graziella continues to be a great hostess and support, herself. Her house is a perfect place for meditation and gentling, to borrow a word Robert Fripp seems fond of.

Inasmuch as I'm enjoying this phase of my life, there is a ripple of some excited sensation running under the surface of the day. It may just be a kind of energetic store that will channel into other outlets; I seem to have a good bit of vigor that I'm not certain what the origin is. I believe it is in large part owing to the more regular routine of quietude and trying to be more present/open to presence than anything else. There isn't so much questioning of "what next" and more of a settled sense of direction in the short term balanced by a set of longer term initiatives and the eventual return to India for a longer stay. This latter may take several months of preparation and saving and perhaps as much as two years before attempting to smoothly wind down operations here in the states.

This latter may surprise people who think I was just going to turn around and split after a few months, but there are mitigating factors. One, is that if I want to set longer term roots down overseas, this is going to require some degree of deliberation and project development from my side. Two, I have a couple of projects I want to see through here, including a suite of drawings and paintings. No specific subject, per se, but I suspect themes will arise unbidden or rise freely of their own causes and conditions. Three, a friend of mine is back from Taiwan from studying with one of the great IMA teachers of our time; I'm feeling a need to return to that field of study strongly. Four, and not to be taken lightly, is that I don't want to leave HMS hanging. There are some really exciting projects and I want to see those up and running with a process established to provide smooth transition from one stage to another. Moreover, the caliber of people involved is so high, I'd be an idiot to leave after only a few months.

So what of India? I'm planning a return in December for a three week trip. Not very much, but I want to see everyone I can, check up on the LBWF and the kids and refresh/renew.

Life, of course, can shift and change rules from any number of directions. Again, the point is to be aware and observe without attachment or judgement. It's not constant or consistent, even, but it happens. Another unbidden, if cultivated phenomenon. Art and meditation are two sides of the same process. As Kumar Frantzis pointed out some years ago: one works outside in, the other works inside out.

Some pics along the way.
The fountain at Brattle and Sparks Streets.
House next door.
The Charles River en route to evening's rest.
Armenian church in Cambridge.
Reminders of mass insanity. May there be peace.
Peace, indeed.


Friday, August 10, 2012

Hopefully, someone, somewhere will catch that reference. In the meantime, the bad bottles have grown less and the damn good all the more.

Something to bear in mind is that while you can drink wine all by itself, I can't stress enough how much better it is with food.

And the food doesn't have to be fancy. This is not the meal that was paired with the following bottles, but it gives an idea of how dining al fresco is a genuine joy. Good conversation, open air and fruit and cheese don't disappoint.

That said, these were matched with a ginger salmon, fresh corn and veggies grilled to perfection and before anyone can retort: yep, red wine. Trust me, this was a good marriage.

I'm not a huge fan of Chiantis, but I've been surprised at how long they live and how subtle the flavors of older ones can be. The Brolio at 16 was ready to be drunk. It had a nice understated pepper tone and a bit of a tannic bite, but it was light enough to not overpower the food. The Le Volte Barolo was a stunner at a year younger and there is one bottle left as I write this.

So what's the deal of pairing red wine with fish? One, there was no chilled white around and two, I go by other details. In this case, salmon is a pretty big fish when it comes to flavor. This was either mitigated or enhanced by the ginger that was rubbed into the fish. Plus, we had tri-colored rotini in a lighter arrabbiata sauce. Somewhere between the spice of the pasta and the zing of the ginger, a red (or two) made sense.

The second bottle, had more heft and was more solid and bold in flavor. The earlier La Volte had been fine, also from the same year ('97, I think); however, this married the meal well.

The following night, we cracked these two:

The Barbaresco and the Rossi di Montalcino were both fine, but my heart was won by the former. Redolent with plum and hints of chocolate, I was ready for a nap. The Ucceliera was good, but I preferred the Moccagni. As for the Ucceliera, it too was flavorful, but struck me as one-note, perhaps fading from it long years in the bottle. I'm not complaining.
There is certainly more to follow, but I'll call it a night. Well, almost.
I've returned to Harvard and have landed at the Medical School and have to say, my new colleagues are outstanding. My former colleagues are as well, but it is time to make new memories.
We had an all-staff retreat where some participated in simulations at the Gilbert Museum of Medicine and Medical Innovation. Dr. Jim Gordon, not to be confused with a city police commissioner of the same name, walked us through the simulation and Phillip Johnson got us over to the Bullfinch Building for a look at the ether dome and how it got its name.
Here are three of those remarkably medically adept colleagues consulting with Dr. Gordon over a simulated patient (though, when you come around the corner and his eyes are blinking and you see the chest rising and falling, a double-take is certainly likely).

The Ether Dome, perhaps the alternate title for a Mad Max movie:

The lecture hall:

Looking south to Boston:

Looking north to Cambridge:

The Zakim Bridge in the distance:

The Charles River:

A couple of other vantage points.

Dunno. Just like it.

Lastly, I think I'll toast your health:

Akira the Wonder Cat says "cheers!"


Friday, August 3, 2012

Veni, vidi, vino!

Occasionally, you run into an old flame. You chat for a bit, look in her eyes and remember what was. You remember the good times, the pleasant discussion. You remember her perfume, the way she tasted and her legs.

You do your best to put the not so great times out of mind. The tartness, the sharp, the bitter. Of course, it can't be helped; there were times when she was just plain overbearing and overpowering. Times she kissed you and your tongue shriveled. Other times, though, there would be the big build-up and she'd just sit there, faded. What happened? How did she go from being so wonderful, to so, so, so meh?

You had some great times together. Invariably, though, you'd have times when you just wanted to spit her out...

Of course, I'm talking about wine!

In another lifetime, I was a wine consultant and sommelier. I considered seriously enrolling in an enology course, but at the end of the day, the wine muse and I cooled our relationship. Not so long ago, I was chatting with a friend about how he'd get together with some fellow sippers and they'd break open some swell bottles and chat. I used to do that, too. Wine is made for conviviality and camaraderie. But frankly, it can veer to easily into the real pretension and in this case, this buddy of mine was moving close to the edge. I begged off from future involvement.

It isn't unheard of for me to have a glass now and again, but more often these days, I'll go for a beer or two. This is a drink that can be every bit as demanding and rewarding as wine and I believe it provides a better return on your investment. When I see the drips and drabs that populate the bottom of a glass priced at ten bucks, I choke. It's ridiculous to pay the price of a bottle for one stinking glass of what is more often than not, at best, okay.

All of this said, though, the fermented fruit of the grape is never far from my heart. Through good times and bad, she provided solace and compliments and complements, mostly to food, but sometimes just as the right enhancement to a moment. Sometimes a solitary moment of reflection, sometimes in moments of council, sometimes in moments intimate and sweet. So I can't be too brutish or brusque with her.

Sometimes, she comes back in through the front door. Her mouth draws a crooked, wry smile and her eyes dance. "C'mon," she says, "we had some good times." She draws closer and whispers. "The good times were very good."

Recently, she showed up here at Graziella's. She's all over the map. Wearing labels from the sixties to the nineties. She's a little rough in spots, in others simply amazing. She's wearing French and Italian. Right now, there's about a dozen in the rack for her to show me.

The first few turns of the show follow.

First, the good.

I had earlier vintages of Pierre Andre's Clos Vougeot (yes, the "de" is dropped) throughout the eighties and nineties and they didn't disappoint. They didn't wow, either, but by and large, much of what I sampled was really good. Honestly, I had no expectations for this particular bottle. Graziella told me that these wines belonged to her father and had come with her from Italy. Sure, they've bounced around, but I'm less concerned with that than how they've been stored and I tend to not get too excited just because a bottle is old. In fact, I get ready to eat disappointment. In this case, I was very pleasantly surprised.

Man, the Pinot came through with flying colors and while I expected a flat has-been, I got a spry babe with some good years left to her. The problem I have with wines like this is that you really want to gulp them down. I did that once with a Chassagne-Montrachet. I didn't care; that sucker was so good, I'd have downed the whole glass in one gulp. But I exercised a modicum of restraint in that instance. I drank it in three big sips. In this instance, I exercised more than a modicum. Of course, the good thing is that there were only two of us sipping...

The sad.

Seriously, I had no expectations here. The seventies weren't kind to a lot of Bordeaux. Sure, I've had some stellar bottles here and there, but given that it wasn't a decade I'm crazy about where wine is concerned in France and given what Graziella had said about the travels and travails of the inventory, I maintained a cautious optimism. I figured if what poured out was good, then fine (and there are two more bottles, after all); if not, then no biggie.
It wasn't the worst example of a flat, faded red I've had. Couldn't really cook with it, though, so with little ceremony, I dedicated the decanted to the distribution to the sewer system of Belmont.
The freakin' awesome.
I don't think I've ever met a Saint-Estèphe I didn't like and most I've loved. This Cos Labory was a true pleasure; a mix of dense plum favors, hints of chocolate and just a velvety smooth mouthful o' wine. Now what's funny (odd, not ha-ha) is that this chateau's wines are meant to be drunk young. I don't consider 22 young (in wine); but maybe this is testimony to some fine wine-making across the board.

This was quaffed along with some wonderful potatoes au gratin, sautéed greens and crackers and Gorgonzola. Outside in the open air on a deck on a summer's dusk. Truly free of suckitude.

Back to tragedy but you couldn't say it was unexpected.

A sixty-four Montrose on a good day would be a stretch. In my experience, across decades, this year proved execrable and in this bottle was no exception. It wasn't the worst faded fermented fruit juice I've sipped and poured down the drain, but it's up there or down there with the worst. I don't think movement or storage had that much to do with it. I let the sediment settle, decanted accordingly, let it sit for a looooong time and was well aware that my taste buds were going to be a wee disappointed. No matter. It had to be done.
Just to be clear, we're not consuming these at a rate of four bottles a night. For one thing, it's only been a fifty percent save. The losses are expected and I'm no longer of the mind that you need to suck down every dram as it sits before you.
But here's some additional food for thought. I tend to agree with Anthony Burgess's antagonist in "Tremor of Intent" that the idolization of wine is sometimes crass, if not vulgar. That said, winemaking is an art and the results can be stunning and worthy of rhapsody. But these moments are few and far between. That Cassagne-Montrachet was one example, and maybe a '52 Barolo I had 18 years ago was another, but you get the idea. For the most part, though, it's best not to take it too seriously. I've worked with some masterful chefs and while many put their all into what they do, more than a couple have said, "hey, at the end of the day, it's just food."
That belies the experience of the moment, though. A well-made dinner paired with a quality wine is a stage set for a performance or better yet, the instruments and the charts by which the music will be played that can bring something out of people who might otherwise miss the wonder of the moment. Not to wax elegiac - and I'm not, really - but meals are sacraments and communions. This doesn't mean that they're all supposed to be exquisite and expensive; it infers, rather, that we pay attention. First, we pay attention to the meal at hand and recognize at the very least, the labor that went into its preparation and execution. Second, we acknowledge the sense of community that is sharing the meal with spirited converse and perhaps something of a deeper or meaningful nature. Thirdly, we rest and digest; let us absorb the food, the wine, the conversation. Fourth, we can now part company happily and satisfied. Each meal should be reflected on and I think, understood in this context of something sacred/sacramental.
Even if it's just a PB&J sandwich and a glass of milk, it bears reflecting upon what brought this all to us. It's not just the utilitarian nature of food or the idea that at the end of the day, it's "just" food. It's never "just" food. It is sustenance and it's very vivid proof that we don't exist without the substances provided and the connected nature of all events that sustain our becoming in this realm.
One of the beautiful aspects of caring about what we consume, and I don't mean this from a gourmet/gourmand perspective but from a daily encounter with what we consume, is that we become more mindful and less likely to take for granted what it is that we buy at the market. Most certainly, we also become more aware of variations in quality; but rather than these becoming benchmarks for euphoria or disappointment, we come to understand that our enworlded existence is sustained via a complex and wonderful web of interconnections or as Thich Nhat Hanh would say, "interbeing."
I suspect there are plenty of surprises on the way. Because these wines were handed to Graziella from her father, I feel somehow - not bound, exactly - but I guess as a point of friendship to pay respect to that gift. The upshot is that I'll post more as we open eac bottle over the coming weeks. It's entirely possible we might just to have to organize some kind of wine and food party. I'm thinking fundraising or maybe just fun-raising.