A wine nerd weaves through the realms of high poetry, family banter, and memorable evenings spent in the company of a fine grape
Nine hundred years ago, a Persian mathematician wrote what is arguably the most famous verse on wine.
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou...
I recite this verse to my father. We are sitting together drinking, as it happens, a glass of chilled white wine. My dad is 87 and the only things that interest him these days are words and poetry. He quotes entire verses from memory and can connect words to legend and history effortlessly.
While eating a Godiva chocolate, for instance, he tells me about Lady Godiva, who rode naked on a horse to save some serfs. I didn’t believe him till I looked it up. When I told him that I was taking him to Vivanta by Taj, Bengaluru, he said: “Vivanta means life. Anything with viva means life."
My dad belongs to a generation that loves poetry. He enjoys good wine and beer too. So every Wednesday, at 11am, I go to my parents’ apartment to visit my dad and talk about poetry. We sit in his tiny garden surrounded by flowering plants where butterflies—tailed Jays, Emigrants, Danaid Eggflies, and Yellow Pansies—come to play. We have a drink and talk about Shelley, his favourite poet, or Keats, or Emerson. Today, we are reading Khayyam.
I don’t know how to appreciate poetry. I confess this shamefacedly because I see how much joy it gives my dad. Reading verse with him is a way for me to learn about metre, rhythm and nuance.
Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears To-day of past Regrets and Future Fears— To-morrow?—Why, To-morrow I may be Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n Thousand Years.
“You are reading it wrong," says my dad. “You are pausing at the wrong moment. Try to read it slowly. Enjoy the cadence. Poetry conveys before it communicates. You cannot analyse it. You just feel it."
“But what does this mean?" I ask.
He smiles. “The poet is linking himself with his past: 7,000 years. Asking you to give up regret or fear. And live for the present."
We take a sip of Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc. I read further.
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go, Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!
“Same idea," says my dad. “Cash implies concrete benefits. He says to enjoy the moment and forget about the past or future. There is an element of mystery to poetry. Things are only half-revealed."
Ernest Hemingway alluded to this in his “iceberg theory" of writing, where only the tip of the iceberg was revealed, leaving the reader to imagine what was underneath. But he wrote prose: easier to grasp in our fast-paced lives, predicated on productivity and popularity (Facebook likes, Instagram followers).
Certain things lend themselves to savouring: arranging flowers, wearing a silk sari, getting a massage, looking at a rainbow, and, yes, reading poetry with a parent over a glass of wine. These cannot be hurried. They lend themselves to leisure and languor. The warmth of the sun on my back, the chilled glass and the wrinkled hand of a beloved dad. Hey, it has a certain cadence, doesn’t it?
No wonder poetry in much of the ancient world was fuelled by wine.
I came to wine late, and perhaps, as a result, I can afford good wine. I also try to keep the pretentiousness that surrounds this fabled liquid, first produced in Armenia or Georgia, and popularized by the Romans, at a distance. I drink it in Bengaluru.
I could make a case, and you could argue with me, that the most lively wine scene in India is in Bengaluru. Sure, Delhi has the big spenders and the big importers, such as Aman Dhall of Brindco, who brings winemakers on multi-city trips to India. Recently, he brought Anna Abbona of Marchesi di Barolo on a four-city tour, but more about that later. A few months ago, Brindco hosted a Penfolds tasting at the Ritz-Carlton. It included some excellent “Bins", as they are called—not the legendary Bin 60A, but for those of us sitting far away from Australia, good enough.
Mumbai, too, has its clubs and importers, such as Sanjay Menon of Sansula, who was part of Decanter magazine’s power list in 2009, and Vishal Kadakia, whose firm, Wine Park, sells a number of delicious wines, including a haunting 2014 Honig Cabernet Sauvignon.
In Bengaluru, there are many clubs just for wine and whisky. Two bear mention: the Bangalore Wine Club (BWC), for its size and longevity, and The Wine Connoisseurs (TWC), because it is—quite simply—the best wine club in this country.
For non-drinkers such as my husband, wine talk can get tedious. As a result, people who love and want to learn about wine (such as me) are forced to dial back their passion in most social gatherings, because, after all, where will you find people with whom you can blather on about wine varietals for hours? I discovered that I could do this at TWC.
The club meets once a month over dinner. Each member is supposed to bring a bottle and talk about the wine. Others interject with nuggets of information. By the end of the evening, you learn a lot, and, if you aren’t too drunk, you actually remember it.
My favourite part of TWC is the themed dinners. Last year, we did a “first growths" dinner where we tasted the five premier cru wines in succession: Chateau Latour, Lafite, Mouton-Rothschild, Margaux and Haut-Brion. We ended the dinner with a divine Yqem, which, while not a first growth, is arguably better. We put pen to paper, tasting and describing which wines we liked and why. Was the Margaux better than the Lafite? Why? These were the questions we had to discuss.
Bengalureans drink a lot of wine, as members of the BWC can attest. Last year, we had a Russian gentleman from Riedel show us how the same wine tasted different in differently shaped glasses. We swirled and sipped, and went from being sceptics to believers.
To paraphrase the great food writer, A.J. Leibling, you need to have a good appetite to be a good food writer. Similarly, in order to be a knowledgeable wine drinker, you need to drink a lot of wine. For our annual general meeting this April, I am considering distributing leaflets of wine poems. Khayyam will certainly feature.
Omar Khayyam was a polymath whose interests included astronomy, mathematics, philosophy and poetry. The golden age of Persian poetry included many greats. My favourite is Attar or Farīd ud-Dīn Attar, commonly known as Attar of Nishapur, and I came to know him through my interest in birds.
“Appa, there is this poet called Attar who wrote a poem called The Conference Of The Birds," I tell my dad. “In it, he says that birds come together to find their leader. The hoopoe (Upupa epops) is considered the wisest of them all and suggests that they search for the Simurgh, a mythological bird, who, as it happens, looks like the annapakshi motif in Kanjeevaram saris."
My dad listens patiently to my long explanation. “Look up a poem called The Parliament Of Fowls," he says. “It has the earliest reference to Valentine’s Day."
I do. It is by Geoffrey Chaucer. A long poem. My dad tells me he hasn’t read it. He also says Chaucer’s other works were “almost pornography" for the time. “The Miller’s Tale is a poem about a man who has an affair with another man’s wife and is branded in his bum," says my dad, shocking me with his precise, if bawdy, explanation.
Persian poets—Rumi, Saadi Shirazi, Attar, Hafez, Avicenna and Khayyam—were the opposite of bawdy. Their poetry was exaggeratedly floral and filled with lovelorn pathos. In Ode 44, Hafez wrote far more sensuous, indeed naughty, verses about wine, women and song. But Khayyam is better known in the West. He composed verses called rubai in quatrains: four lines set to the rhythm of aaba. Like the Japanese haiku, the rubaiyat, or collection of rubai, were all about succinctness, spontaneity and wit, according to the Princeton Encyclopaedia Of Poetry And Poetics. The rhythm was inspired by the exuberant shouts of playing children.
The Rubáiyát Of Omar Khayyám would have sunk into anonymity in his native Iran—and Khayyam, one suspects, would have been fine with that—were it not for a rich, eccentric Englishman named Edward FitzGerald who loosely, and, some would say, inaccurately, translated the Persian quatrain verses into English. The Rubáiyát Of Omar Khayyám was first published in the same year that another eccentric English naturalist published his magnum opus about the origin of species: 1859.
In short order, the Rubáiyát became a poetry sensation all over Europe. Bred on Shelley, Keats and Tennyson, Europeans found the imagery and soul of the Rubáiyát sensationally new. People memorized the verses in their entirety. Khayyam appeared on toothpaste advertisements, usually lounging on a seat, but always holding a glass of wine.
Why do we drink wine? For some, it is social. For others, it is a route to sophistication. For yet others, it is a way to access a culture and its history. Drinking a Nebbiolo or a Rioja is a good way to learn about Italy or Spain. For me, drinking wine is a way of taming my most elusive and primal sense of all: the sense of smell. I would like to be one of those people like Rajat Parr, a Kolkata-born boy who lives in the US and is one of the most respected sommeliers in the world. Listen to the Guild of Sommeliers Wine podcast and you’ll see what I mean. Some episodes feature male and female sommeliers who taste a wine blind and then identify the type of grape, region, and, heck, vintage, just through smell and taste. In fact, one of the world’s most respected wine tasters, Katsuyuki Tanaka, happens to be a teetotaller. He tastes and spits it out.
Indians, even those who are making great inroads in the world of wine, like travelling winemaker Nayan Gowda, are latecomers to the party. No matter how hard we drink or how much we know, it is hard for Indians to equal the ease of the French, Italian or other cultures that have been drinking wine for centuries. It is sort of like listening to an American talk about yoga. Us Indians may not be able to do a head-stand but hey, we own the form and the language. It is authentic for us to talk about pavana muktasana but try saying Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou without breaking a sweat.
If your goal is to improve your wine palate, there is no better way to do this than to articulate: to use your words. Any fool can drink. Any inept novice can swirl the wine glass gravely, smell, sip and nod like an expert. But to talk about each wine that you drink forces you to put scent into words—always hard to do, and especially hard with multilayered aroma experiences like wine, cognac or perfume. Are you really smelling hints of liquorice in the wine? What does stone fruit smell like? And how can I recognize the smell of berries when I have grown up in south India without smelling a single berry during childhood? This exercise forces you to pause as you smell the wine and figure out what you are smelling. Simply calling out words for what you smell is a start even if it sounds foolish. Pineapple, lemons, vanilla, liquorice, citrus, stone...these are the smells that imbue a wine. They are, like much of poetry, mere suggestions, but, boy, what a glorious whole they become.
Ancient Indians drank wine—copious quantities, in fact. They revelled and revered Soma, which some say is a hallucinogenic mushroom. And they wrote wonderful poetry. A towering poetic work is Anandavardhana’s Dhvanyāloka, a ninth century treatise on poetics. Dhvani means resonance, suggestion, hint. According to Anandavardhana, and his acolyte Abhinavagupta, both Kashmiri, dhvani infuses the best poetry. A hint here, a shadow there, a taste of a suggestion. Just like the best wine.
So I sit alone in a darkened room in the long shadows of the evenfall. Before me is a glass of a wine that I am blind-tasting for the first time. I have asked my husband to pour me a glass without telling me the name of the bottle. I would like to at least figure out the varietal or the region. My friend, hotelier Priya Paul, once took me to a Delhi party where a waiter handed her a glass of red wine. She took a sip and said, “It drinks like a Tuscan wine." And sure enough, it was a Chianti.
I sit in my bedroom with the poems of Khayyam by my side, a glass of wine placed in front, and an Abraham and Thakore scarf covering my eyes. Playing on YouTube is playwright Ben Jonson’s ode to wine, “Drink to me only with thine eyes," which inspired Rabindranath Tagore to compose his version, “Katobar bhebechhinu apano bhuli." I like singer Swagatalakshmi Dasgupta’s version of both the English and Bengali versions because I like the fact that she owns up to her region with a giant red bindi while singing a quintessentially English wine song.
I take a sip and begin reciting—not poetry, but words describing what I am drinking: medium body, vanilla, stone fruit, berries, a hint of something smelling bad, yeasty, like yogurt. Is it a Pinot Noir? From Willamette Valley?
As it turns out, it is not. I have a long way to go to improve my sense of smell. I might as well read poetry in the interim.
Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why: Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.
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