no. 57: the sound of bells
Hullo to readers old and new!
I haven’t written about wine here before, and I don’t intend to do so frequently, but this issue is about wine.
Mostly, this newsletter is about the culture and business of food. It’s supported by readers like you, and if you enjoy it, I hope you’ll subscribe.
Not long after I began to study wine in earnest, I asked a wine retailer how he selected wines to sell. He replied, “sometimes, when I taste a wine, I hear a bell. If I hear a bell, I’ll think about selling that wine.” I knew exactly what he meant.
A few years before that conversation, I tasted a wine from Daniel Vollenweider, a winemaker in the Mosel. At that point, most of what I drank was Mosel Riesling. I was in Singapore, Mosel Riesling was the wine for the weather, my friend had a cellar full of it, and we had no idea how lucky we were. So this bottle from Vollenweider, the 2001 Wolfer Goldgrube Kabinett,1 was one bottle of Riesling among many. And yet, I heard a bell.2
“Sometimes, when I taste a wine, I hear a bell” is still the most essential and consistent rubric I know for engaging with wine, because unlike every professional course of wine training I know of, it embraces the ineffability of what happens every time we taste.
You can describe a wine, and many people do this at greater length than I might wish. If you enjoy a wine, you can attribute your preference to some of its sensory characteristics, and this is much of what people who sell wine do today (with varying degrees of harm to their integrity). But even if we assume that we can truly use language to communicate with one another about taste, speaking about wine this way can’t fully capture the experience of forming a preference, of liking something, of being heartstruck.
It’s also axiomatic that wine is about romance; that part of its appeal is its mystery, its quality of remoteness from everyday life. And that Vollenweider Riesling was certainly bottled romance.
In 1997,3 with no prior connection to wine other than enjoying it, and no connection to the Mosel other than having drunk its wines, Daniel Vollenweider moved there from Switzerland, to become a winemaker. There, he bought a hectare of vines in the Wolfer Goldgrube, a vineyard so steep and forbidding it had all but been abandoned. It was ignored by serious winemakers as unworkable, and hence forgotten by the contemporary wine world – until this novice winzer decided to make it his life’s work to restore the vineyard and give the site voice. 2001 was his third vintage.
Wine does not, so far as science can measure, acquire or transmit the characteristics of the soil in which the grapes are grown. It’s even harder to measure what a winemaker adds to a wine through personal history, care, or force of will. To say that you can taste the story or the soil in a wine is pure romance – it lacks any basis in fact. So it must have been something else I tasted in that bottle, something other than the romance.
Legend has it that Weingut Vollenweider came about because Daniel tasted a bottle of Mosel Riesling of sufficient intensity and loveliness to change the course of his life. But it is fact that the Wolfer Goldgrube was an obscure name in obscure books 25 years ago, and is now known to wine geeks around the world because of this one possessed Schweizer. Romance can transubstantiate as fact.
Daniel Vollenweider passed away last Friday at the age of 52. I regret I didn’t know him well enough to call him a friend (I don’t agree with the contemporary American usage), so I’m not best placed to tell you about Daniel the person – for that, I suggest this tribute from Stephen Bitterolf, his US importer.
I think, since I didn’t keep notes at the time.
I don’t literally experience this feeling as the sound of a bell, though I think Peter, the retailer who told me this, actually does. But the experience is equivalent.
Give or take a year.