Monday, January 10, 2005

Horse In My Wine

The words “wine” and “wit” may each begin with the same letter combination, but it doesn’t take long to exhaust reasons to connect the two concepts. Wine writers tend to be a serious bunch, as if the least literary lightness could compromise the ethereal stature of the subject. “Yes, my subject is wine, so my writing must be…grim? It’s not as if a subject so rarified could ever truly be…enjoyed?”

Enter, wit. Enter Jennifer Rosen, whose Waiter, There’s a Horse in My Wine, pops the cork on the notion that wine writing needs to be as dull as that case of merlot your brother-in-law has been aging all these years—next to his furnace. I have been following Rosen’s effervescent wine columns for years; it’s a comfort to finally own a distillation of her wit and wisdom in book form. Horse is the type of literary offering that only improves with age, its scope the stuff of permanence.

Take the concept of global warming, for example. Does it affect wine? You bet. Can you imagine…gulp…next season’s fine English vintages? Start imagining, and imagine as well climactic changes capable of taking that je ne sais quoi out of something expensive and French. Or contemplate—and this is not for naïve eyes—the absolute truism that wine contains alcohol? As Rosen writes, “It’s almost bad taste to admit you’re aware of it, let alone praise it. Yet it’s tremendously responsible for all that’s good in wine.”

The fact is, Rosen is not afraid to step on toes (or to tickle toes, if that’s what delights you). “Beyond the way it makes you happy…beyond the buzz,” she writes, “lie respectable reasons to appreciate alcohol.” Drill beyond Rosen’s first few playful paragraphs and you’ll find the trenchancy you crave in a wine writer. In alcohol’s case, it serves the important functions of transporting odors and flavors. We learn that the Europeans—oh them again—manage to process the wines they drink at lunch without jeopardizing their work output at the office because, having less sun, their wines have lower alcohol content (or will at least until that globe warms.)

Any writer with a reasonable pedigree can be oh-so-clever, but the key to Rosen’s approach to wit, in the largest sense of the term, is her erudition. She covers the world, in time and space, giving us history, science, subjective qualities and taste all in a package that leaves, more than any other oenological analogy, a fine and satisfying finish. Her coverage of wine issues—even controversies—is exhaustive: tannins, the role of oak in wine production, appellations, yeasts, corks and much more.

Speaking of corks, Rosen is not one to accord reverence just for the sake of reverencing. Screw-tops, she writes “preserve, protect and re-seal beautifully.” Even though “the wine elite and the paper-bag set accept them cheerfully,” she stresses, “the mass of uncertain consumers in between…continue to be suspicious.” Her section on the new wine-stopping technologies—Metacorks, Zorks, and the like—is a perfect example of her penchant for digging deeper than most of her ilk, all with a strange supposition that the reader is both contemplative and intelligent. I’ve always felt the writer who meets the reader on a two-way street deserves unambiguous praise; in Rosen’s case, I raise a glass. Waiter, There’s a Horse in My Wine is the kind of rare read that deserves to be bought, kept, gifted, and—yes—ultimately splattered and spotted with the very beverage it exalts. Amazon.com page for this book


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