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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: WINE Drinking in Europe

Vinestories
Kab

In a simple chemical process, bacteria digest the grapes sugars, creating alcohol as a byproduct. The final transformation is more complex: a simple meal, a moment of simple pleasure, in vino veritas. What is the truth in wine? From wine, we find friendship, happiness, and intimacy. But, from wine, do we not also find sadness, heartbreak, and treachery?

We were sitting on a blanket in a meadow. The evening air was cool. It was still a few hours before sunset. From where Laura and I sat, we had a clear view of the beautiful turquoise waters of Lake Brienz, just north of the high mountain peaks in Switzerland. We had a bottle of wine that a friend had given to us. It was from his private vineyard located on the north shore of Lake Geneva. The bottle had no label. All we knew was that it was a red and from a "good" year.
We had bought a baguette, cheese, sliced ham, and a box of chocolate cookies from a store in Luzern. We had taken the train that afternoon to Brienz, and found, using directions from our generous friend, this wonderful spot with the most beautiful view imaginable.

To the South, the Alps dominated the sky. Lower rugged mountains stood just next to the lake. They seemed to rise straight up and loom over it. Still, they were small compared to the snow-topped peaks of the Jungfrau towering behind them. Narrow waterfalls created white vertical lines on the rocky and jagged sides of the shear cliffs of the Brienzerberg, Bramisegg, and Giessbach. The water from the waterfalls, easily over a hundred feet high, crashed onto the rocks near the base of the cliffs, not far from the edge of the lake. In this storybook setting, I sat with a beautiful woman, a simple picnic meal, and a mysterious bottle of wine.

In my business, the business of academia and research, I need to travel. In the process, I get to know some amazingly interesting people. My friend with the small winery north of Lake Geneva owns a small technology company. I occasionally buy instruments from him. He has a PhD from ETH, in Zurich. ETH is the university where famous students such as Albert Einstein and John von Neumann were educated.

Oxford
I remember there was a small meeting I once attended in Oxford, England. A physicist whom I had known for many years had organized it. I really didn’t know much about him beyond our work. At this meeting, however, I learned that he came from "family" and had a small castle in Yorkshire. For him, being a physicist was a passion, not an occupation. He didn’t need an occupation.

He had organized a "little" banquet for the meeting. The meeting did not take place right in Oxford, but in a smaller village called Abingdon. He had arranged for buses to take us to Oxford University. After a short tour through campus, we ended up at an old library. In the library, they served champagne and appetizers. I felt like I was in one of those old English Gentleman’s clubs, although nobody broke out any cigars. The champagne was, well, champagne; bubbly stuff with the faint taste of dry white wine. I can’t be apologetic. I have never understood champagne.

After having champagne in the library we were escorted though campus some more, this time to a dining hall. The room was large enough for about fifty people. Paintings of various professors or administrators from the past hung on the wood paneled walls. There were long, old looking wooden tables and benches stretching lengthwise across the room. Our group only took one of the tables. On it was scattered an assortment of wines. Some of the bottles had labels, some didn’t. Our host explained in a little speech that he had raided the family wine cellar. He really didn’t know what was in the bottles, but he knew some were reds and some were whites. He couldn’t guarantee that all the wine would even be drinkable.

I drank all red that night. I usually do. It was clear to my senses that those were expensive wines. We tried one with some label we could hardly read. It was a French 1961 something. Another one we tried had no label and the level of the wine before we opened the bottle was very low. Apparently, this indicated great age. I thought it indicated a leaky bottle. But it tasted very good.

Although I could taste the differences in these wines, I didn’t detect certain flavors or scents some of my colleagues were mentioning. In the very old bottle, the others would speak about truffles, blackberries, and other such things. I found it tasted good but the flavors were rather dull to me. It was not strong in alcohol, I guess supporting the argument that the low level of the wine was due to slow release of the alcohol over many decades. I did find it had a smooth character. It made me think of cotton candy. It goes into your mouth and just melts away.

Something very unusual happened that evening. I no longer perceived those colleagues as just other people who did similar work. They became sort of my professional family. Now every time we see each other at some meeting or conference, we make it a point to have a drink together or spend a few minutes chatting about life, other than work.
That evening always makes me think of Plato’s Symposium. I can’t say exactly why. Perhaps it is because the group I sat with was all men and we spent the evening sort of praising each other’s work, as well as that of some who weren’t there. I think about the final speech by Alcibiades. He quoted the then and now famous proverb in his "praise" of Socrates, "in vino veritas". The treachery of love could only be spoken when his tongue was loosened by his drunkenness. We all know this kind of truth, whether we experience it directly or not. We all know the fear of losing love. It is interesting that there seems to be a common thread between wine and treachery in love. It was this kind of treachery, after all, that changed world history.

Heidelberg
The closest I came to such treachery was at a meeting in Germany. Most meetings I attend by myself. Laura comes with me when she can, but her work schedule doesn’t always fit with my travel schedule. This was one of those meetings where I went by myself.

For scientific meetings, the hosts like to arrange for banquets that highlight the local culture and cuisine. After long hours spent listening to and giving lectures, the banquet naturally becomes the high point. People can finally relax after intense work and long hours.

At a conference in Darmstadt, Germany, the chairperson arranged for a banquet in the famous Heidelberg castle. This was a big conference and it took many buses to haul all of us over to Heidelberg. When we arrived, we wandered around the grounds of the castle for about an hour. The old castle is famous for being in ruin, which seems odd at first, but makes for a wonderful view of the various parts of a castle you might never otherwise see. While there isn’t much to see at this castle the views over the Neckar River and down into the Rhine Valley are spectacular.

The conference took over the Great Terrace and they served wine and champagne. They roped off a large area of the Terrace for the delegates only. Other tourists found the party more interesting than some of the castle sites and for a while a small crowd formed by the rope to watch physicists getting drunk.

It was here that I met Camila. She was a professor at a university in Argentina. She was intelligent, beautiful, witty, and for whatever reason, chose to flirt with me. Perhaps it was the mood created by the beautiful setting. Maybe some particular chemistry was common to the two of us. Anyhow, we started talking and joking and before I knew it, we had spent the entire evening together.

I drank white that day, as did Camila. It was clearly a very German white. It was not sweet, but very dry. It was a very good wine. It had a very crisp solid character to it. I could well imagine the grapes growing on the cool southern slopes overlooking the wide Rhine. The vines are planted in long rows vertically on the hills. The moist morning air filters up the hills gently refreshing the old Rieslings. In the afternoon, the sun, never getting very high in the sky at this latitude, slowly warms the slopes.

As we stood on the Great Terrace, we looked over the old city of Heidelberg and to the side of the hill across the Neckar. On the steep slopes of the hill, we could clearly see patches of vineyards. The rows of grape vines seemed to be planted on the most inaccessible and steepest parts of the hill. We talked about what it must be like to spend a lifetime tending the vines and picking the grapes on those slopes. Clearly, they would have to be attended to entirely by hand. It seemed to me like a hard life, yet some romantic yearning deep inside of my soul thought it was the kind of hard life worth living.

The banquet took place in the castle banquet hall. It was a buffet dinner; an assortment of local German dishes that were very good. We each drank a red wine with dinner. It was French, but I don’t recall what it was. It tasted okay, but not as good as the white we had earlier.

I can assure you that I behaved myself that evening. It wasn’t easy. Camila was, I believe, more than willing to have become more intimate with me. However, I could never have lived with that kind of guilt. I am not capable of such treachery. I have seen other colleagues at these meetings clearly involving themselves in relationships outside of their marriages. How can they be guiltless about their behavior? I have never understood.
I told Laura about that evening when I returned home. She was amused.

What is most striking about wine, I came to realize after this banquet, is the versatility of the grape. A plant that originated somewhere in Eastern Europe, it has been cultivated throughout the world. How different, I wonder, is the wine we drink from the wine that Plato, Julius Caesar, or Pontius Pilate drank in a time when wine was one of the most celebrated of foods?

CERN
Some meetings can take on a very intimate atmosphere. One very small meeting at CERN was one of these. I didn’t know any of the people organizing the meeting and knew only one other person who was attending, but by the end of the week I had made a dozen new friends. This particular meeting wasn’t really a physics meeting, so in many ways it was more relaxed for me. I gave an invited talk and then sat quietly and listened to a series of interesting but not particularly technically challenging talks. Still it was a very productive and useful meeting. I learned new things because I was exposed to topics I really hadn’t studied before.

Prior to going to this meeting, a colleague of mine asked if I would deliver a couple bottles of wine to some friends of his at CERN. This was well before the days of strict airport security and I was able to carry on three bottles of wine without anyone thinking they might be something other than wine.

I learned that a good way to make new friends is to deliver wine from another friend. Their gratitude extended well beyond any of my expectations. They took me out for dinner and for lunch. These were people I had never met and yet treated me like an old friend.

Lunch at CERN is an unusual experience for an American. I had a nice red burgundy with my ham sandwich. I got a couple funny looks, I think. I don’t know why.

The banquet for this meeting was one of the most memorable I have attended. They gave each of us a map to follow that took us through the Swiss countryside along winding roads, past deep gully’s, and around steep hills. We ended up in a small sleepy village. It was dark and there were no streetlights.

We couldn’t find the restaurant. Nothing in the village even looked like a restaurant. There were no signs and no parking lots. There were just a few dozen houses and nobody looked to be home. Laura and I studied the map and convinced ourselves we were at the right place, but we didn’t know which building was the restaurant. So, we waited.
After about fifteen minutes the host of the meeting arrived and walked up to a large house. He just opened the door and went inside. After a few minutes someone opened the window shutters, some lights came on and the place almost started to look a little like it could be a restaurant.

Inside it still looked like just a house. There were long wooden tables set up inside the large front room. The host explained to me that this was going to be a traditional Swiss meal. They began with bread, cheeses and meats, and wine of course. The wine was a light white wine, made from Chasselas grapes and was what the host called Fendant. It tasted good and it left a pleasant aftertaste. Some wines leave a sort of bitter or chalky aftertaste that I don’t like. This wine, even though it was light, lingered nicely, leaving just a mild fruity taste in the mouth. They served cheeses that were all new for me. They were excellent, but I didn’t know what I was eating.

With the meal, they served a more traditional red wine. I think it was a Cote du Rhone or something similar. It was a perfect match to the strange assortment of food that was brought before us; not too sweet, a good deep red with strong fruity character, with a noticeable bite from the alcohol.

This meal in the Swiss countryside went on for hours. The restaurant was apparently ours for the evening. They kept food on the tables and they kept the drinks full. A few people did get a little drunk, but I didn’t overindulge. I tried a little bit of everything and still got very full. I was driving and so I drank more water than wine.

After the banquet, I drove slowly back to our hotel, taking in the night in the Swiss countryside. It was very dark and I didn’t see much else than just the road in my lights. I was relishing the moment, allowing the evening with these new friends to linger in my mind. This is something that I do when drinking a wine I really like. I will sip a small amount and then let it linger in my mouth. Even after I swallow, I don’t drink again for a moment, but let the flavors slowly fade one at a time.

Although these little stories focus on my experiences at scientific meetings, I do have other little wine stories. For instance, there is the time I attended a party in Chicago, right on the lake. We drank a fine assortment of domestic wines (translation: California stuff) and watched fireworks over the lake. I once attended a friends wedding that took place at a vineyard on Long Island. We walked around the vineyard while drinking some of the finer of their wines.
All of these experiences have one thing in common. For a few hours, I was able to live in a timeless moment with people that I liked or came to like. We shared not just our lives for the moment but touched each other’s souls, becoming forever linked by that common experience. Wine is always there. As it bound together in a timeless moment the twelve disciples, so it binds us inextricably in ways we barely fathom.

Tsukuba
I cannot talk about these various wine experiences without telling you about a wonderful moment in Japan. I was invited to give a talk at a conference being held in Tsukuba, a small city about forty minutes east of Tokyo, and known as the Japanese City of Science. It was on this trip that I came to appreciate sake, or rice wine.

Now technically, I believe, rice wine isn’t wine. After all the word, wine is derived from the Latin vinum and the Greek oinos (the source for oenology). Clearly, given those cultures the word was meant to describe the fermented liquid of grapes. I never appreciated, until this trip to Japan, how much variety there could be in something as seemingly characterless as rice wine. After all, rice is just a starchy grain on which you put lots of gravy.

I was wrong about rice wine. It is not simple stuff. This I learned when a good friend took me out with his family for a meal of shabu-shabu. This was one of those unusual and intimate moments in my life. My host had arranged for my invitation. He is a physicist at the Japanese laboratory known as KEK. There is no English translation for those three letters. They are really just the first three phonetic sounds of the long Japanese phrase that translates into English as the Japanese High Energy Accelerator Research Organization. I always found this a rather interesting piece of trivia. By the way, if you are ever in Tsukuba, the locals don’t call the laboratory KEK. I learned this the hard way when I was met with blank stares when I tried to ask a bus driver if he was going to "kay eee kay". Fortunately the place is full of well-educated people who are very friendly and happy to act as translators.

My host invited me to his home, a very unusual thing, and he and his family took me out for dinner. I had no idea where they were going to take me. He was very secretive about his plans.

After he picked me up at the hotel, he brought me to his home. His wife had prepared tea and fresh fruit. His son was my server and his daughter made me some origami gifts. We talked about his home, about his children’s schooling, and then he had his son and daughter perform on their violins for me. They each played a little solo piece. Then they played something together. They were extremely talented and I could see his wife and he were very proud of them. Then I was greatly surprised when my host got out his own violin and he and his two kids played as a trio. It was a wonderful moment. I felt privileged for the incredible intimacy. I never expected to learn about the private life of my colleague.

We then went out to eat at a shabu-shabu restaurant. I have never seen such a place anywhere else. The restaurant was a complex of buildings set within carefully tended traditional gardens. There was a main building, so to speak, but this was only where you checked in and then paid the bill afterwards. We walked through the beautiful gardens on a winding path to a small building. The woman escorting us was dressed in a traditional kimono. Inside the little building was a long table with two iron pots of water set over hot coals. Another woman, who would be our server, also dressed in a traditional kimono, bowed to us as we went in and sat at the table.

The table wasn’t what we in the West would take to be a table. It looked like the traditional low table at which one sat with legs crossed into a knot. When I saw it, I became very nervous, since my legs are not agreeable to such a position. Fortunately, there was a hidden dropped floor beneath it. I guess the modern Japanese like to stretch out their legs if they can.

Once we were comfortable, they began preparing for the meal. Another woman brought sushi and sake while we waited for the water to boil. They served the sake cold. She placed a little bottle on the table and my host filled the little cups. Then he raised his cup, gave the traditional cheer, "kampai", drank the sake in one gulp, but he didn’t swallow. He seemed to swirl the liquid in his mouth for a moment, then he swallowed. He sat back, closed his eyes for a moment and breathed in gently. He declared that the sake was excellent and his wife filled his cup again.

Having carefully observed all of this I decided it must be the right way to drink sake and I did the same. I raised my cup, exclaimed "kampai", although somewhat meekly, gulped down the entire cup, swirled the liquid in my mouth, swallowed, and then I leaned back and closed my eyes. It seemed as if a wave of liquid ice was washing over my mouth, nose, and throat. Then slowly strange tastes began to appear in the back of my mouth. A slight sweetness came at first. It was sweet in the way grass or clover might be sweet. Then there was a faint hint of peach flavors, but it lasted only briefly. Then a series of grain and earthy flavors quickly followed. The alcohol was strong and overpowered most of the flavors, but there was freshness to the flavors, as in the freshness of a cool spring morning. I had always sipped sake before this and when you sip it, you don’t experience it in this way. I have since tasted other grades of sake and found there are complex variations.

Once the water was boiled a woman brought in a plate covered in neatly arranged thin slices of beef. These slices were deeply marbled, half fat and half meat. Following my hosts example I took a piece of the beef with a pair of serving chopsticks, dipped it into the water, and swished it around. It cooked almost instantly. I cooked a few slices like this, piling them up on a little plate. Then with my own chopsticks, I ate the meat, which was delicious. Once all the beef was cooked we put vegetables and Udon noodle into the water, which was really now a beef broth. The resulting soup had a rich flavor.

When the meal was finished, they served a sweet plum wine and fruit. The plum wine was far too sweet for me, and unlike the sake, left a bitter aftertaste. I ended up just eating the fruit.

In Japan, people go out drinking after work and can get very drunk. In such an atmosphere, they exercise the unique freedom to say anything they want. No mention is ever made of what took place. That isn’t to say the boss doesn’t notice. One must still be careful not to insult the boss. You could say that in Japan there is truth in wine. This truth isn’t much different from the truth of Alcibiades, in that only in their drunkenness can such truths be spoken.

A picnic in Brienz
In Switzerland, in the summer, the sun does not set until very late in the evening. Laura and I had spent the evening just sitting on a blanket, talking, eating, and drinking that mysterious wine.

That bottle of wine was the perfect match for our little picnic meal. It was not a heavy wine, but very light, very Swiss. It had a refreshing fruitiness to it and was not too strong in alcohol. We finished off the entire bottle. Then we watched the sun set over the mountains. We became drunk in the moment, but not from the wine.
The next day we took the train from Luzern to Lausanne. As the train rode along the northern shore of Lake Geneva, we saw vineyard after vineyard, stretching over the gentle slopes along the lake. We mused that perhaps one of those stretches of vines belonged to our friend.

In Lausanne, we transferred over to the TGV and went on to Paris.
In Paris, we drank in a different kind of wine. On the Isle de la Cite’ is the little cathedral, Sainte-Chapelle. There we drank in wine made from the enigmatic and ethereal photon. The little cathedral is an astonishing place. An impressive human achievement, the walls appear covered by more stained glass than stone. Light filters in from all directions, soaking the room in color. Here you do not just drink in the light but become a part of it. You feel for a brief moment that perhaps you can understand that abstruse idea, immortality. It was as intoxicating as the strongest Mouton or d’Yquem.

As we left Sainte-Chapelle I thought about that famous Last Supper where they shared wine and bread with a soon to be crucified young man. Did he know and understand the importance of wine? Did he know when he shared that last meal with his disciples the impact it would have on human history? Clearly, if it had been just the "Last Meeting", or the "Last Breakfast", it would not have been as significant a moment. No, I think, remembering the sunlight that filtered through the great rose window, he knew that sharing that wine at that moment did more than bind him with his disciples. He knew that along with the treachery of love that was soon to follow that it would bind all of them to all of us, in one way or another.

I see in wine not truth, to be honest. Truth lies in nature and our ability to see truth lies in our ability to see nature objectively.
I also do not see treachery in wine. Treachery lies in people and is in the nature of us.
In wine is history. Whether or not events written by men are truth, they influence people in profound ways. People who understand the power of symbols know how powerful wine is in metaphor.
In wine, I see love. I see the hard work and care of the men and women tending the vines, crushing the grapes, and fermenting the juice.
In wine, I see friendship. I see people sitting at a table eating a simple meal, laughing, singing, and living life as it should be lived.
In wine, I see intimacy. I see Laura’s dark eyes that I could spend a lifetime drinking in.
You may contact me through this email,

© Kab March April 2009
kab.sbli@gmail.com.

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