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Drink a Poem: On Chardonnay, Pinot, and Poetry

04/02/2015 05:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

Not long ago I was with a friend in Napa, and we were doing what most people in Napa do--drink wine. But, we had also been doing what very few people in Napa (or anywhere else) do on a regular basis--talk about poetry. My friend works in the tech sector and responds to poetry much like the way one might react to a strange magician from a distant country--with both suspicion and confusion.

Perhaps it is the way poetry is taught in high school and college, but I am always fascinated by how people see poetry as something overly intellectual and intentionally theoretical and abstract; as something (unlike wine) not to be enjoyed. In order to help drive home a point I had been making about poetry being visceral, instinctual, and pleasurable, I said to him after he had just finished a glass of Cabernet he clearly loved, "You know what you just did? You drank a poem."

As most people do, he dismissed me, and even I pretty much forgot about our conversation until a few days later when I was reading wine reviews and realized that poetry and wine have much more in common than merely being reliable tools of seduction.

For example, both poetry and wine share an interesting relationship between makers, audiences, and critics. You can think of a winemaker as a kind of poet and wine as his poem. The winemaker labors over the wine, blending this and that, tinkering for days, trying to find the perfect balance between pleasure and structure, in much the same way a poet agonizes over her poem. The winery, of course, functions a lot like a publisher, packaging the art and making it available to the public. Coincidentally, in both cases, there are often issues of class, taste, and sophistication that can get in the way of both consumption and enjoyment. And, perhaps not surprisingly, for both poetry and wine, there is a real tension between the tastes and preferences of audiences and the tastes and preferences of critics. What critics and makers tend to love is not always what audiences tend to love.

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The unexpected symmetry of wine and poetry was swirling around in the empty carafe of my mind when I received an invitation to a rather remarkable wine tasting event in San Francisco sponsored by In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB), a non-profit devoted to promoting "dialogue around the meaning and relevance of balance in California pinot noir and chardonnay." Substitute the word "poetry" for everything after "in" and you've just described the mission of most poetry professors and small publishers. Turns out, IPOB is more poetic than it imagined. Following in the footsteps of many poets before it, the group has authored and posted an actual "manifesto."

The truth is the IPOB folks probably had me at "dialogue," but the manifesto sealed the deal. I was in.

I should say at this point that I am by no means a wine professional. I do drink a lot of wine, I've been interviewed about a wine called "Sexual Chocolate," and I've even had a wine paired with my poems, but I don't write about wine that often, and I don't know that when drinking wine that I regularly detect "slate" or "forest floor." So, when I arrived at the Metreon in downtown San Francisco and saw that the event seemed to be made up entirely of wine pros, hipsters, and women with cool boots, I was tempted to turn around and head to Super Duper. But, then I realized that how I was feeling around somms and their ilk was probably a lot like how others feel at their first (or second) (or twentieth) poetry reading. So, I decided to go to my comfort zone and "read" the wines the way I tell my students to read a poem--draw on everything you know and pay attention to what you think and feel. It turned out to be a fruitful approach.

That was a little joke, but I'm not joking about how much fun it was to read these wines through the lens of poetry. From this perspective, the most interesting wine at the event was the selection from Littorai. Ted Lemon and his Burgundian approach to winemaking are legendary in these parts, and for good reason. Each bottle from Littorai excelled in a distinct way that was easy to discern but is hard to describe. Fruity without being cloying, light without being thin, these wines have a lot going on in them and yet are surprisingly delicate. I found both the Littorai whites and reds utterly elegant. The most pleasing of the bunch was the 2013 Thieriot Vineyard Chardonnay. It tasted like flowers and oak and spice were holding hands in the sunny hammock of my mouth. A lovely mix of richness & subtlety. My favorite red was the 2013 Les Larmes pinot, also from Anderson Valley. Cherry red and refined as a smart rhyme. The aromas are jammy and bacon-y, and everything feels seamless from the very first taste to the extra-long finish in which I tasted 1) berries; 2) berries; and 3) some more berries. Often with mediocre pinot, the wines trail off at the end, but with every Littorai pinot, the wine held its note like a champion soprano, revealing more and more with each passing second. In the case of the Les Larmes this is largely a result of its artful structure, which is a blend of various pinot grapes, making it both structured and smooth (not unlike a great poem).

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As I was walking around the room, checking out the labels on the bottles and reading the tasting notes, I began to feel as though I was in a library or a bookstore--each bottle a book spine, each tasting note a blurb. Before I knew it, I was thinking of a glass of wine as a poem that had been written in red or white, with me as one of many potential readers.

One way people talk about wine is to compare the taste profile to something recognizable like melon tobacco; so I started trying to think of poet correlatives for each wine. In the case of Littorai, I was reminded of Jane Hirshfield and W. S. Merwin. Like the wines, the work of both poets is restrained and refined. Littorai, Hirshfield, and Merwin please immediately, but they bear going back to again and again.

While I was not surprised that Littorai dazzled, I was surprised that Red Car did. Every wine from Red Car was delicious, unusually delicious. It is not a winery I know much about, but it is one I look forward to getting to know better. I was especially drawn to the 2012 Ritchie Vineyard chardonnay & 2012 Hagan Vineyard Pinot. The Hagan vineyard is planted near the top of a ridge facing the Pacific. The grapes must love the view because the wine was crazy happy; it beamed with joy.

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Fruit is the language of wine; it is how wine expresses itself. What I loved about Red Car is that all of their wines had something to say. They communicated in a voice unlike any other. Nothing strained; nothing was overdone. It was like a symphony hitting all the right notes at once. If these wines were a poet, they might be Terrance Hayes or Simone Muench--brilliant examples of high form marrying high fun.

My favorite winery from top to bottom was probably Calera. The wines are approachable and, perhaps best of all, affordable. Wine, like poetry, can suffer from pretension; which is why it is important on all levels to be accessible. At $20, the 2013 Central Coast Chardonnay is one of the best deals around. Imagine drinking layers of velvet, oak, honey, and ripe fruit. All together. It's dreamy. The James Wright of California chardonnay. In my opinion, both the '13 Central Coast pinot and the 2012 Ryan Vineyard pinot out-performed for their price point. They were as good as wines costing twice that much. The Central Coast pinot is one of the best pinots under $30 I've ever had. Calera also brought what was for me the best wine of the day--a 2003 (yes you read that right) Reed Vineyard Pinot Noir. You don't normally think of pinot gaining that much from the cellar, but an extra 10 years ironed everything out. If something can be smoother and more complex at the same time, it was. The only way I can describe it is like imbibing dusty fruity vanilla cola silk from heaven. It was like drinking a Shakespeare sonnet.

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Other standouts for me included:

  • Hirsch Reserve Estate Pinot Noir (2012): Wow! This rivaled the '03 Calera for the best pinot I had all day. Big fruit but amazingly structured. Silky. Smart. Maybe the smartest pinot I sampled; the Wallace Stevens of California pinot.

  • Cobb "Diane Cobb: Coastlands Vineyard Pinot Noir (2012). Cobb makes some spectacular wines, and of that spectacularness, this was my favorite. Powerful but graceful, supple but rich. Cabernet lovers who want to branch out into pinot will love this wine. The Gerard Manley Hopkins of Sonoma Coast pinot. Like this poem, the wine is heavenly.

  • Flowers "Camp Meeting Ridge" Estate Chardonnay (2012). Oak drives the bus of this wine but it doesn't exceed the speed limit. Lush and creamy with a backbone like a 20-foot driveshaft. It made me think of Mary Ruefle and Natalie Diaz

  • Hanzell Vineyard's Sonoma Valley Pinot and Chardonnay (2012) were also show stealers. Along with those from Littorai, the Hanzell wines are among the most ageable chardonnay and pinot in California. The white was brisk peach, lean and clean with a scent like white flowers; the red was a coil of ruby, taught and dense like hard cherry candy. You could drink these now (ideally with seafood or lamb) or cellar them for 10-15 years and see how they develop. For their current accomplishment and long-term promise, I'm thinking Elizabeth Bishop & Eduardo Corral.

  • Failla was responsible for my favorite lineup of chardonnays. A trifecta of fruity treasure--the Sonoma Coast, the "Estate Vineyard," (Fort Ross-Seaview), and the "Haynes Vineyard" (Coombsville), all 2013. All three are stunning, but the most gripping was the Sonoma Coast. Beautifully balanced with just the right amounts of acid and oak, I wanted to keep drinking and drinking and drinking. The Sonoma Coast = John Donne; the Haynes = Langston Hughes; and the Estate = Emily Dickinson.

Other wineries I lingered at a little too long included Mount Eden, Lioco, Wind Gap, and Au Bon Climat, but to the credit of IPOB and the wineries, I had no disappointing wines and no disappointing experiences. Thirty-three wineries were represented, and not one of them delivered a less-than-stellar product. Their excellence is a tribute to California and Sonoma in particular.

I came away from the tasting thinking more about balance (both in wine and in poetry) and wondering how the world of poetry would be different if it were more like the world of wine. It is an interesting idea and one I think I will explore in more depth in my next installment.