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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?

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