The Accidental Connoisseur
An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine World
By Lawrence Osborne
North Point Press Copyright © 2004 Lawrence Osborne
All rights reserved.
A Road to Sassoferrato
* * *
All of life is a dispute over taste and tasting.
The mansion of Antonio Terni sits among his family's craggy mulberry trees a few miles inland from the resort of Sirolo. A narrow track sweeps up through rows of Montepulciano vines, past the barns of the fattoria and smoothed cypresses to the old silkworm farm shrouded by walls and trees that give the house the atmosphere of a minister's villa or a high-class retreat for recovering alcoholics. Seas of vines prevent any interference from the outside world and make Le Terrazze seem farther from the Adriatic than it actually is. But it was raining and a storm battered Ancona, obscuring the weird sugarloaf mountain which gives Terni's wine its ancient Greek name: Conero.
As I rang the bell a huge German shepherd appeared on the far side of the electronically controlled gates. It watched me fumble with the buzzer and for a moment I wondered if I was really at the right house after all. Terni's famous wine estate is so locally renowned that all one has to do is follow the Le Terrazze signs from the road. Even in Sirolo there are signs for Le Terrazze everywhere, for it is perhaps the most noted domain in the Marches, a jewel in the crown of modern Italian wines whose bottles regularly score well in the Italian comestibles magazine Gambero Rosso.
As the yellow eyes of Terni's shepherd glared through the gate, his master's voice came over the speaker: Entra! The gates began to open. A loping, gangling figure suddenly appeared in worn corduroys and genteel elbow patches, dragging the beast away to a high-security cage on the other side of the gravel courtyard and then offering an aristocratic hand by way of assurance. He wore a gaudy Bob Dylan T-shirt under his corduroy blazer — Terni is rather known for his wild pop-culture enthusiasms.
"Lost?" he said.
He shook a little water from his hair and shivered. "Let me lock up the Baskerville hound here and we'll drink inside." Terni has a subtle, carefully cloaked stutter.
The palatial house has been owned by the Ternis since 1884. They are a Jewish family and had been forced to leave the property in 1938. They had gone to make wine in Argentina during the war and only returned after Mussolini had been safely meat-hooked. Born on the Argentine pampas, Antonio had inherited a vast estate once devoted to silk and walnuts. He had once been a nuclear engineer: one of the multitude of young postwar engineers who had been seduced by Bob Dylan and presumably turned off from a technological career when he returned to the land in 1980. Sugar beets, sunflowers, and grain, however, had not appealed to him either. You can't put your own label on a sugar beet.
Terni's salon is a temple to esoteric pursuits. On the coffee table stood high piles of books containing the word "Zen." Il Vero Zen, by Taisen Deshimaru; Philip Toshio Sudo's Zen guitar; La Zen del Juggling, La Via dello Zen, and so on. On one pile lay a triangular green plectrum evidently paired with the Stratocaster guitar standing in a corner. A music stand bore the opened score of "This Wheel's on Fire," which the wine master had clearly been practicing. There were also family heirlooms and a delicate scent of the past: the ghostly figure of a painted hussar, family silver, Chinese vases, elaborate armoires, and a huge portrait on one wall of a dour sixteenth-century noblewoman in a ruff. I had come to talk to Terni about his wine — about wine in general — but it now seemed probable that our conversation would take off in different directions, especially since one of his best-known wines was named Visions of Johanna after the Bob Dylan song. Terni, in fact, is obsessed with Bob Dylan. For half the year he trails around the globe following his idol and forgetting completely the rigorous demands of enology. He is not one of those men who thinks that there is nothing in life but doing what you do well. Perhaps it was only natural, then, that he should make a Bob Dylan wine.
"A B-Bob Dylan wine?"
Terni reappeared with his arms full of bottles, though not with a bottle of the rare and expensive Visions of Johanna, which is almost impossible to find, even in Terni's own cellar. Only three hundred cases of it were ever made and in only one year, 1997.
"Does Bob Dylan like wine?" I asked.
"No idea. But what's wrong with a Bob Dylan wine? Oh, I like that idea. If only I could make a Bob Dylan wine."
Perhaps, I thought, you have made a Bob Dylan wine. One of the bottles had a bright psychedelic label bearing fractal curves and the ominous name Chaos. A wine called Chaos? The others, however, were more soberly conventional: Conero Rosso, a Chardonnay called Le Cave, and Sassi Neri, Terni's flagship Montepulciano.
Terni has a gleeful, mad-scientist aura. He hates wine snobs and wine bores; in fact, he seems to hate almost everything about the wine business except wine itself. I explained to him my current preoccupation with questions of taste.
"Taste ..." He pawed his chin and looked at me. "Tilting at windmills, eh?"
Terni could see that I was eyeing the Chaos label in alarm, so he decided to explain it all to me. It was a little joke. Being a nuclear engineer, he is up on chaos theory, and wine, according to him, has quite a bit of chaos theory in it.
Every natural phenomenon, he began, is unpredictable, variable, and therefore indescribable. Somewhat like the weather. Wine contains two thousand different elements which are combined and recombined every time someone makes a bottle.
"I could name fifteen of them off the top of my head. A good wine maker could name about twenty-five."
"So that's why taste is so complicated?"
"How do I know? But most likely, yes. Taste is chaotic too."
Any of these two thousand elements can interfere with any of the others, leading to wine's potentially chaotic unpredictability. Turquoise, rose, and violet shapes collided and merged on the Chaos label. Did these suggest in some way a mixture of Montepulciano, Syrah, and Merlot designed for the American market? Whatever the fractal shapes mean, Terni finds it amusing that the same adjectives keep popping up in the world's hundreds of wine guides. "Red fruit," for example.
Terni's eyes opened wide as he began to twist the corkscrew into the first bottle of Chaos. For a moment I thought he was going to throttle it into submission.
"Guess what? Grapes are a red fruit, so every wine tastes a bit like red fruit. And then what about tobacco?" His gray beard suddenly turned into a manic grin. "Don't you love the term 'tobacco'? Ah, wine writers!"
He held up the neck of the opened bottle and made me sniff it.
"Smell any red fruit or t-tobacco?"
"Both," I said.
"That's because I decided to make a wine they'd like."
Chaos tumbled into my glass. I still wanted to know if this was a Bob Dylan wine. It was plummy, smooth, plushly clean.
Terni makes two distinct styles of wines. One is "international" (the Chaos), and the other is a "terroir wine." It seemed likely that sooner or later a quest for the meaning of taste would have to grapple with these two opposing principles. The wine world never ceased talking about them. Could Terni define them for me?
"Terroir?" he groaned. "It's sort of like the word 'community.' We believe in terroir, but we're getting sick of the word itself."
Enologist Alain Carbonneau of Montpellier's Institut Supérieur de la Vigne et du Vin gives us a definition:
The word "terroir" has a special power over both wine professionals and the general wine-drinking public. As such, it requires a precise definition. Examination of a French dictionary will yield the following: Terroir (from terre or land): Land as considered from an agricultural standpoint. Territory used by a village or rural community for growing crops. Goût de terroir: the aromas and tastes specific to wines of a given area. The etymology of the word terroir is not all that clear, since its origins in popular language are complex and in all likelihood rather recent ... Terroir depends on the ecological, geological and pedological characteristics of the site. We can thus define "terroir" as the interaction of climate, grape variety and the soil.
Terroir is a wine's certificate of authenticity, its link to the deepest sense of place.
We drank the Chaos as rain began misting over the windows. I dared to offer a comment on the wine: it wasn't, I said meekly, very Zen. It was rather like a Chevrolet sedan. It was smooth as long as you were driving in a straight line — but it was a nice ride. Perhaps it was like fake Zen.
All of this provoked an exasperated but sweet expression.
"Oh, wine isn't a mystical experience as far as I'm concerned." His eyes narrowed. "But in a way, you're right about Chaos here. It's a smooth ride, a nice drink."
"Not very chaotic."
He laughed. "No, not very chaotic."
Was it a charming slice of the not very chaotic International Style?
"I'm not sure I would say that!"
I asked him what the International Style was.
"I suppose," he said, "it's the opposite of terroir. It's like airport architecture: a sort of nowhereness. But airports can be pleasurable."
"Is that a bad thing?"
"That depends. Maybe we should have airports that look like country cottages. But with wine, it's tricky. Is a wine good if it doesn't express terroir? Almost everyone today would say no. But at the same time not that many people are making true terroir wines. It's a tiny minority. So why is that?"
"So," I persisted, "a man of taste must learn how to detect terroir in any given wine."
"Some would say so. They'd say taste is terroir."
"What would you say?"
"I'd say terroir is a complicated notion."
The day before, I had trawled through an old bookstore in Ancona and asked the owner if he had any books on wine. He came out with a tiny thing called Sopra il detto del Galileo by one Count Lorenzo Magalotti. Count Magalotti (1637-1712) was a Florentine aristocrat and aesthete who became intrigued by Galileo's assertion that "wine is a compound of light and humor." In trying to explain this cryptic observation, Magalotti came up with some pretty cryptic observations of his own. One of them was that what sparkled in wine was "powdered light."
"Light and humor?" Terni smiled. A delicious conceit. "But of course," he added, "what Galileo means by umore is moisture. That is, the characteristic moisture of a given land."
And of course, I thought, there was the medieval notion of humor as a disposition of mind, a temperament. What a shame that that useful sense has disappeared from our language. One could talk of the humor of a wine.
Magalotti also theorized that light poured into grapes and shattered inside them to form a kind of powder. These powders were released when fermentation occurred, eventually making themselves felt "upon the tongue and palate by the charming prickle of their many corners and twists."
It was a beautiful explanation. And probably not much more mystical than many explanations of terroir.
"I'd say," Terni observed, "that what we're drinking here is not a terroir wine. But it's still good. It's just doing something else."
The wine seemed to me tasty, but without a definable character. I drank half the glass and looked up at a painting on the facing wall, a kind of composite portrait of famous figures, among whom I instantly recognized Henry VIII, Che Guevara, and Errol Flynn, not to mention Merlin. I was suddenly curious to try his other wine, the wine with the terroir. What would its humor taste like?
Meanwhile, Terni took another stab at the vexing issue of internationalism.
"It's easy to sneer at it. But look at music. Do we all sit around listening to Italian folk music in order to be authentic? God no. We listen to Bob Dylan. I globetrot in order to follow Dylan around. Dylan is both American and universal at the same time."
He served two wines called Sassi Neri and the Conero Rosso — the terroir wines. Immediately, I sensed that they exposed the other half of his character, the mysterious half.
The Terni family has deep roots in the Conero, deeper perhaps than a mere century of interrupted habitation would suggest. Antonio's father was something of an amateur archaeologist and a fervent local archivist. He wrote four exquisite monographs on the ancient pievi or primitive churches that dot the strange mountain and the coves in the area. He also wrote about Greek artifacts found on the Ancona coast, such as hauls of drinking cups. Thus, while one of Terni fils's keen eyes is on the fluctuations of the International Style, another is on the looming cliffs just beyond the mists, the unique earth which gives Conero Rosso its gritty individual warp, its umore.
"I don't mean to sound cynical," he said as he tipped the Conero sideways for a moment and eyed the tint. "But I do hate all this pseudo- intellectual mental masturbation about wine. I make two wines: one for Americans and one for myself. They're both fine."
Gambero Rosso's 2002 Vini d'Italia, which rates all Italian wines by assigning them a number of symbolic glasses from zero to three, gives the '97 Chaos a score of three glasses, its rare top accolade. "II Chaos," it notes, "è di colore cupo e impenetrabile," before listing its flavors of tar, cocoa, vanilla, and the inevitable red fruit, in this case blackberry.
The Conero Rosso gets only one glass in Gambero Rosso, but it had an earthy scent, a keen feel on the tongue. It tasted of stones. Can wine taste of stones? I asked him.
"Well, that's funny. Because my most terroir wine is called Black Stones, Sassi Neri. Our land is full of stones."
Sassi Neri is named after the huge pebbles which fall into the sea near Sirolo. At first these are as white and glossy as dinosaur eggs; with time, however, mussels swarm over them and they become black, so much so that the beach is known as Spiaggia di Sassi Neri.
As he opened it, the wine had a whiff of salt. The sea invades everything around Conero, laying its iodine on the Montepulciano grapes of the region. Terni's father, too, was obsessed with Monte Conero, believing that places have spirits and that Conero had a spirit that suffused its wines. A fanciful notion, but then again, I had supposedly just tasted stones in some grape juice, had I not?
So, I said, getting back to our previous ruminations on terroir, was there really a war between the International Style and terroir?
"Isn't that the whole dilemma of the modern world right now?"
"Some would say it's all down to the influence of America. America as the enemy of terroir."
Terni frowned. "I will only say that Americans like too much in the glass. There's always too much going on. Other than that, if we're living on Planet America, that's not necessarily the fault of Americans."
Terni then cracked open a bottle of a wine which he still makes in Argentina, a Malbec called Vina Hormigas from Altos Los Hormigas. Surprisingly, it seemed to represent yet another side of Terni himself — but which side? For just as there was a technological and a money-lusting side to him, there was also a nuclear engineer side, a Zen side, a Bob Dylan side, and now a South American nostalgia side. "Ah, Argentina!" was all he said, gazing through the window. But as we drank it, I had an inexplicable intuition that it was not very Argentine. It tasted like the Chaos — pleasant but nondescript.
What I was beginning to think, in my inebriated state, was that wine was a bit Jekyll and Hyde. For some reason I thought that Terni would understand this. Wine was profound, contemplative; and then again it could just as easily be commercial, crass, and soulless. What I really wanted to ask him was whether he thought wine was becoming more and more debased the more it became a commodity defined by mass tastes. But instead, leaping out of this stream of murky thought like a desperate trout, I asked him if he knew a good hotel in Sirolo. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Accidental Connoisseur by Lawrence Osborne. Copyright © 2004 Lawrence Osborne. Excerpted by permission of North Point Press.
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