International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: WINE
Drinking in Europe
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,
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
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.
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
didnt 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 didnt 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 Gentlemans clubs, although nobody
broke out any cigars. The champagne was, well, champagne; bubbly stuff
with the faint taste of dry white wine. I cant 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 didnt. Our host
explained in a little speech that he had raided the family wine cellar.
He really didnt know what was in the bottles, but he knew some
were reds and some were whites. He couldnt 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 didnt
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 Platos Symposium. I cant
say exactly why. Perhaps it is because the group I sat with was all
men and we spent the evening sort of praising each others work,
as well as that of some who werent 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.
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 doesnt 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 isnt much to see at this
castle the views over the Neckar River and down into the Rhine Valley
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 dont 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 wasnt
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
Some meetings can take on a very intimate atmosphere. One very small
meeting at CERN was one of these. I didnt 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 wasnt 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 hadnt
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 dont 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 gullys, and around
steep hills. We ended up in a small sleepy village. It was dark and
there were no streetlights.
We couldnt 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 didnt
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 dont 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 dont
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 others 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.
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 isnt 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 dont
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 childrens
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 wasnt 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 didnt
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 dont 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 isnt
to say the boss doesnt notice. One must still be careful not to
insult the boss. You could say that in Japan there is truth in wine.
This truth isnt 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 dYquem.
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 Lauras dark eyes that I could spend
a lifetime drinking in.
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© Kab March April 2009
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