Excerpt from 'The Wine Lover's Daughter'
The Wine Lover's Daughter
By Anne Fadiman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
All rights reserved.
My father was a lousy driver and a two-finger typist, but he could open a wine bottle as deftly as any swain ever undressed his lover. Nearly every evening of my childhood, I watched him cut the capsule — the foil sleeve that sheathes the bottleneck — with a sharp knife. Then he plunged the bore of a butterfly corkscrew into the exact center of the cork, twirled the handle, and, after the brass levers rose like two supplicant arms, pushed them down and gently twisted out the cork. Its pop was satisfying but restrained, not the fustian whoop of a champagne cork but a well-bred thwick. He once said that the cork was one of three inventions that had proved unequivocally beneficial to the human race. (The others were the wheel and Kleenex.)
If the wine was old, he poured it into a crystal decanter, slowing at the finish to make sure the sediment stayed in the bottle. If it was young, he set the bottle in a napkin-swathed silver cradle to "breathe": one of several words, along with "nose" and "legs" and "full-bodied," that made wine sound more like a person than a thing. Our food was served — looking back, I can hardly believe I once accepted this as a matter of course — by a uniformed cook who ate alone in the kitchen and was summoned by an electric bell screwed to the underside of the dinner table just above my mother's right knee. But my father always poured the wine himself. The glasses were clear and thin-stemmed, their bowls round and generous for reds, narrow and upright for whites. (Had he lived long enough to see Sideways, he would immediately have recognized that the wine-snob hero was seriously depressed: only thoughts of suicide could drive someone to drink a Cheval Blanc '61 from a Styrofoam cup.) He swirled the wine, sniffed it, sipped it, swished it, and, ecstatically narrowing his eyes, swallowed it — a swallow that, as he put it, led "a triple life: one in the mouth, another in the course of slipping down the gullet, still another, a beautiful ghost, the moment afterward."
My father, Clifton Fadiman, was a writer, and that erotically charged description is from a 1957 essay called "Brief History of a Love Affair." When I was ten or so, I spotted the title in the table of contents in one of his books, eagerly flipped to page 133, and was grievously disappointed to discover, in the fourth paragraph, that the lover in question was not a woman but a liquid.
That essay contained a number of words (including "sybaritic," "connubial," and "consummation") whose meanings I didn't know but that I enjoyed attempting to puzzle out. Ours was a word-oriented family. My father once wrote a children's book, based on bedtime stories he'd told my brother and me, about Wally the Wordworm, a small, hungry, bibliophilic invertebrate in a red baseball cap who, unsatisfied by the "short, flat, bare, dull, poor, thin" words he found in picture books, blissfully ate his way through a dictionary from "abracadabra" to "zymurgy." Along with Wally, my brother and I were fed a steady diet of polysyllables, of which wine provided some of the best-tasting. For instance: Rehoboam, Methuselah, Balthazar, and Nebuchadnezzar (giant wine bottles with, respectively, six, eight, sixteen, and twenty times the standard capacity) and Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese (three incrementally recherché German dessert wines made from ripe, very ripe, and very very ripe grapes). By the sixth grade, I would have recognized the names of all four Premier Cru Bordeaux — Château Latour, Château Margaux, Château Haut-Brion, and Château Lafite Rothschild — plus Château Mouton Rothschild, which wouldn't be elevated from second- to first-growth status until I was twenty. Plus some of the Grand Cru Burgundies: Chambertin, Montrachet, La Tâche, Grands Échézeaux, Romanée-Conti. Plus twenty or thirty other oenological terms, including Madeira, Marsala, Riesling, Rhône, Sauternes, sherry, port, claret, vermouth, aperitif, bouquet, phylloxera, pourriture noble, vin ordinaire, doux, sec, demi-sec, and pétillant. Some were murky but recognizable, like unmet second cousins whose names I'd overheard at the dinner table. Others were so familiar that I felt I'd always known them, just as I'd always known that white wines were really yellow and red wines were really maroon (though I couldn't have told you the first thing about rosés, which my father considered sissyish and never served). I knew that the great years — rather, the Great Years, since the phrase sounded so magnificent that I mentally capitalized it — were mostly odd numbers. I could have recited several: '29, '45, '49, '59.
My father wasn't exactly Jack Hemingway, who drank Château Margaux with his wife on the night his daughter Margot was conceived (she changed her name to Margaux after she heard the story), or Robert Lescher, my first literary agent, who once dipped his finger in a glass of Château d'Yquem '29, a Great Year from the greatest of all Sauternes, and placed a drop on the tongue of his six-week-old daughter (she smiled). However, starting when my brother and I were about ten, he regularly offered us watered wine, or, rather, wined water. I hated it but assumed that puberty would grant me a taste for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, along with a taste for French kissing and all the other things that ten-year-olds found disgusting but adults reportedly enjoyed. It was a foregone conclusion that I would love wine some day. I wouldn't be my father's daughter if I didn't.CHAPTER 2
I never heard my father describe a wine as frisky or foxy or shy or insouciant, or say it had an oaky nose or a flinty finish or notes of pomegranate or the slightest soupçon of chanterelle. He didn't call Burgundy a Pindaric dithyramb (like George Meredith) or remark that drinking Dom Pérignon '53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit was simply not done (like James Bond). He made fun of the kind of snob who claimed he could discern, from a few bravura sips, which side of the hill the grapes had grown on. He frowned on patrons of expensive restaurants who sent bottles back to the kitchen just to prove they were somebodies. He wrote about wine, judged wine contests, supplied introductions to wine catalogs, invested in a wine-importing firm, and owned a first edition of the Encyclopædia of Wines and Spirits (a volume that has since passed to me, along with the rest of his wine library) inscribed by its author, Alexis Lichine, to "Kip, whose knowledge of the contents of this book is greater than its 730 pages." Nonetheless, he claimed he was not a bona fide connoisseur, merely a wine lover.
Because my father was unambiguously heterosexual, the object of his affections was invariably feminine. She might be "a country-wench Rhône, surrendering at once its all"; she might be a Chassagne-Montrachet '45, of which he drank an entire bottle, accompanied by two cans of unheated Vienna sausages, when he "ravished" the kitchen at 3:00 a.m. after writing for most of the night. The amorous vocabulary wasn't a metaphor. Aside from books, he loved nothing — and no one — longer, more ardently, or more faithfully than he loved wine.
These were some of his reasons.
Wine provided sensory pleasures equaled only by sex.
Wine was complex. "Water and milk," he wrote, "may be excellent drinks, but their charms are repetitive. God granted them swallowability, and rested."
Wine was various, both in its chemistry (alcoholic content, sugar, iron, tannins) and in its moods (champagne for celebration, port for consolation).
Wine was companionable. "A bottle of wine begs to be shared," he wrote. "I have never met a miserly wine lover."
Wine was hierarchical. One of my father's favorite adjectives — whether applied to wines, cheeses, or minds — was "first-rate," with the unspoken implication that below it, tier upon tier upon tier, were arrayed the second-rate, the third-rate, and the tenth-rate. There were no visible rankings on the labels of American wines, which were based on grape varieties, but a French bottle proclaimed its contents' social station, from the blue-blooded Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (which included Grand Cru and Premier Cru), through Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure, all the way down to the humble Vin de Pays and the still humbler Vin de Table. Although he disliked wine snobs, my father harbored an even keener dislike for what he called "wine sans-culottes." (He assumed his readers would know that a sans-culotte was a lower-class republican in the French Revolution. Politically speaking, he supported the revolutionaries; culturally speaking, he was aligned with those who got their heads chopped off.) A wine sans-culotte was opposed to pecking orders and thus rejected the fact that some wines were better than others in favor of the dangerous fallacy that a good wine was whatever wine you liked.
Wine was a subject — what Arnold Toynbee called "an intelligible field of study." If you had a first-rate mind, you could learn how wine was made, how to distinguish one wine from another, how to pronounce their names, and ten thousand other little pieces of knowledge that fitted together to form an aesthetically pleasing whole. The very act of drinking wine was an intellectual exercise. "I know no other liquid," wrote my father, "that, placed in the mouth, forces one to think."
Wine was not vulgar. My father believed that many aspects of contemporary American life were vulgar, including bubblegum; waitresses who used "au jus" as a noun instead of a prepositional phrase; self-help books, which, because they bore no relation to real books and every relation to deodorants and laxatives, should, in his opinion, be called "word products"; off-rhymes in advertising jingles ("time" with "fine," "new gasoline" with "Sky Chief Supreme"); the stealth invasion of spoken English by spurious vowels ("nucular," "athaletic"); lunch counters, which he thought resembled pig troughs; television, which he thought should be abolished by constitutional amendment; and dips, about which he wrote, "I must leave to others the rapt pleasure of inserting an oil-exudant potato chip into an unidentifiable viscous mass, enriched by detached pieces of other guests' oil-exudant potato chips, and then extracting and devouring the now highly socialized tidbit." A glass of wine — unless it was a tenth-rate rosé imbibed by a sans-culotte — was as far from a dip as it was possible for a foodstuff to be.
Wine was both civilized and civilizing. "Civilization" was the 101st and final word of the subtitle of The Joys of Wine, a book my father compiled in 1975 with his friend Sam Aaron, a wine merchant he'd met four decades earlier when both of them were wandering around a Fifty-Seventh Street delicatessen, Diogenes-like, in search of a ripe Brie. The Joys of Wine, a Nebuchadnezzar-sized volume stuffed with Picasso etchings and Punch cartoons and color photographs of architecturally distinguished châteaux, was so lavish as to be almost pornographic. (Like Playboy, it even had gatefolds: maps of vineyards and reproductions of notable labels.) My father wrote in Joys that "to take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of the river of human history," a pronouncement I found a tad grandiloquent but whose sincerity I did not doubt. He really believed that when he swallowed a great wine, he incorporated Western culture: an entire world of history, literature, art, and religion, straight down the esophagus. Just as walking into Chartres Cathedral or standing on Westminster Bridge brought tears to his eyes, so did the thought of what a commanding officer in Napoleon's army told his soldiers, along with an order to present arms, as they passed the vineyard of Clos de Vougeot, a great Burgundy: "My children, it is to protect these beauties that you go to fight."CHAPTER 3
When I was in the fifth grade, one of the many inappropriate books I took down from the shelves of my parents' seven-thousand-volume library was Someone Like You, a collection of very grown-up, very creepy stories by Roald Dahl. There was the one about the man who liked to chop off people's fingers. There was the one about the wife who clubbed her faithless husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then roasted the murder weapon and served it to the police detectives for dinner. But my favorite was "Taste," a story about a father, a daughter, and a bottle of wine. ("Taste" was also my father's favorite. He included it in Dionysus, a wine-themed anthology he edited that year, and also, later on, in The Joys of Wine. I have since learned that Dahl was a wine collector himself who once poured cheap wine into fancy bottles, served them to his unsuspecting guests, listened to them gush, and then revealed that they'd been snookered.)
The father in the story is a stockbroker named Mike Schofield, an amiable parvenu who, wishing to be a man of culture, has become a collector of books, paintings, and wine. The daughter is a virginal eighteen-year-old named Louise. The scene is a small dinner party at the Schofield residence whose guest of honor is Richard Pratt, a pompous epicure with "a pendulous, permanently open taster's lip, shaped to receive the rim of a glass." Pratt bets his host that he can identify the wine served with the roast beef — a Bordeaux from a vineyard so obscure that Schofield is certain that no one, not even the world's greatest connoisseur, could possibly recognize it.
The stakes are set. If Pratt loses the wager, he will forfeit both his houses. If he wins, Schofield will give him Louise's hand in marriage.
I remember thinking: Hey, you can't do that! I also remember asking myself if my father would ever make that bet, and confidently answering: Never. He would no sooner have treated his daughter so carelessly than he would have written a word product. His parental style was attentive, inventive, and performative. He worked at home, both in Connecticut, where we lived until I was eight, and in Los Angeles, where we moved to be closer to relatives and because my mother imagined, incorrectly, that California would transform my brother Kim and me from nerds with perpetually runny noses into tall, tan, healthy in- crowders who knew how to surf. My father was therefore available around the clock (except in the early morning, since he had the circadian rhythm of an opossum). When he read to us, he equipped the characters with Southern drawls, Scottish burrs, Irish brogues, and French warbles. He entertained us with stories not only about Wally the Wordworm but also about Miniature the Rabbit and his nemesis, Wolfenstein, a wolf whose sneak attacks were repeatedly thwarted by the fact that he had swallowed a Steinway piano, which gave away his location by tinkling. He even let us set up a Ping-Pong table in his study so we could play while he was "working."
Pratt spends an entire page just smelling the claret and taking the first swallow. Then, inch by agonizing inch, he homes in on his target. Saint- Émilion or Graves? Too light. Obviously a Médoc. Margaux? Insufficiently powerful bouquet. Pauillac? Insufficiently pithy flavor. Obviously a Saint- Julien. First or second growth? Neither. Lacks the necessary radiance. Third growth? Perhaps, but more likely a fourth. Château Beychevelle? Getting close. Château Talbot? Too slow to deliver its fruit. By process of elimination: Château Branaire-Ducru. And the year ... 1934.
"Come on, Daddy," says Louise eagerly, picturing the houses her family is about to win. "Turn it round and let's have a peek."
It is, of course, a Château Branaire-Ducru '34.
At that terrible moment, a uniformed maid brings Pratt — the lout! the cheat! the fiend! — the horn-rimmed spectacles he left in his host's study before dinner, right next to the spot where the wine had been placed to breathe.
When I read the story of this wager, I did not know that whenever my father was invited to dinner by his elder brother, the butler would choose a bottle from the well-stocked cellar and bring it to the table, wrapped in a white linen cloth. The wine would be poured. Each brother would swirl his glass, then sip it, then talk about it, then sip it again, then finally guess the wine. One of them would usually nail it. To the best of my knowledge, Château Branaire-Ducru was never served, no one ever cheated, and the only stake was pride.
Excerpted from The Wine Lover's Daughter by Anne Fadiman. Copyright © 2017 Anne Fadiman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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