Rome. July. Swelter. Godfather of the Bad Hair Day, ruination of all clothing, even linen. The Italians are the undisputed masters of linen, and you know why: it’s the only fabric with a snowball’s chance in hell of breathing in this weather. Pliny the Elder claims in his Naturae Historia that the ability of flax to be spun into linen cloth was discovered by the mythological character Arachne. Pliny, as I have learned, does not care for fact-checking, though, being Italian, he does seem to get his T’s crossed and I’s dotted on the subject of winemaking.
In my craft lecture for the UW poetry group, I’ve been asked to touch on Pliny, in the spirit of the presiding genuis of Keats who haunts the program: notions of Truth and Beauty and how they play out in an “encyclopedia” full of “facts,” some of which are documentably facts and some of which are… well… not – but may possess a strange poetic beauty of their own. I find myself with a dissertation on the history of natural history that pits Pliny against Ovid’s Orpheus, the Golden Voice, Ultrapoet, Uberbard, the Greco-Roman rock star. In the tacky webs of taxonomy and the growing divergence of myth from science over the centuries, I’ve concluded that Ovid’s Metamorphoses (fable! Myth! Poetry!) outstrip Pliny’s encyclopedia – in terms of their ability to articulate scientific truth, mind you – like a Ferrari with the pedal to the floor against a pea-green Plymouth Duster.
Anyway, we’re on this Baroque church deathmarch, and I’m walking next to Richard Kenney, and talking about wine. My husband’s visiting. The night before, for our anniversary, we’d treated ourselves, despite cost and season, to a bottle of Brunello de Montalcino, a luxury we never afford ourselves at home. Kenney’s eyes pop in a way that makes me assume he doesn’t either. I’m going on about how it had tasted, like saddle leather and tobacco, dried cherry, vanilla, roses. “I don’t understand,” I say, “how it is that wine has the ability to transform itself into anything. It can taste like anything on earth, except maybe grapes. There is something mystical to me about that.”
“Well, you really are Ovid’s girl, aren’t you?” Rick laughs.
I’d never thought about it like that, but yes, this is why I love wine. It is its metamorphic ability, its transformative power, a natural magic its ventriloquism, its essential poetry. The way it can mimic, hit at, suggest, almost any flavor you can think of. It’s bottled metaphor.
Italian wines hold a special fascination for me, because they seem more local, more specific, more tied to place and personal experience than wines from just about anywhere else I know of. Italy is the largest (in volume), and one of the oldest, winemaking regions on earth. They grow something like 800 grape cultivars, and you will never see most of them unless you stumble into the random village where they happen to be cultivated. In California we import a decent number of Chiantis, and it’s not uncommon to see a varietal Sangiovese, a Rosso di Montalcino, a Valpolicella, Barbera or Pinot Grigio even in a supermarket. But there are wines so obscure and so specific to their locality – sour-cherry Umbrian Ciliegiolos, pepper and rosepetal Ruchés from Piedmont, Neapolitan Lacryma Christi, beeswax and sea-breeze whites grown only in the Cinque Terre – that they give the French notion of terroir an entirely new layer. Wines that make you come to them. Wines that lash themselves so tightly to the circumstances of their creation and your experience of them that they become metaphoric in the literal sense of transporting.
After the Brunello conversation I wanted to bring something special to the next cocktail hour, and asked a knowledgeable enoteca man for his most smashing, miraculous Brunello. He chided me in English that you don’t drink Brunello in heat like this. “I know, I know,” I said. “It’s winter wine. I know that. It’s a gift. Tell you what – send me off with a nice white too, something for drinking tonight.”
He smiled. “Well if you want something as heavy as Brunello but something like you’ve never tasted before – you want this.” He handed me a bottle of something deep and dark and purple, something light wouldn’t get through. A Lagrein, a small-production varietal in the part-German Alto Adige region, hard to find, he said, even in Rome. The label bore a single word: Porphyr. It was perfect: we’d been marveling at the porphyry in the church mosaics, their intense color, somewhere between jasper and oxidized blood.
My memory of that wine is of an instant of sheer happiness. I recall dust and violet and dried blueberry and fig, and that – especially, perhaps, for a bunch of writers – there was something about it that was like consuming ink. People tasted it and broke into smiles. It was like nothing I’d ever tasted. It was gorgeous. The wine is indeed a hard one to come by, with two places in the US that sell it. I sometimes think of splurging and ordering from a place in New York City, but I’ve always been afraid that, separated from its little moment, it would disappoint, that the magic would be gone.
Then a few nights ago I was in a local restaurant that keeps a surprisingly eclectic and thoughtful selection of Italian wines. Most are expensive and only available by the bottle, but on this night the server mentioned that their by-the-glass special was a Ribolla Gialla, an acidic golden Friulian wine I’d come to know as a common offering in cafes and pizzerias around central Rome.
I took a sip, and I swear to you I tasted it – I mean I tasted the afternoon heat draining upward from the basalt cobblestones of the Campo De’ Fiori, I tasted the sound of gulls crying, I tasted bronze and exhaust and travertine and still air and the glowering gaze of Giordano Bruno precisely as I had experienced them drinking a glass of this same wine at an outdoor café on a hot afternoon when I felt spent and sad and unable to articulate any of it and stared at the point of my pen on my notebook until I couldn’t any more. The wine said it for me anyway, so I ordered another glass and watched the swifts circle. Drinking a metaphor as a metaphor for drinking in an experience. Who says what goes around doesn’t come around?