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Bottled Poetry: Writing About Wine

Editor’s Note: This past May I had the pleasure of teaching a Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class in Provence for The Writer’s Workshop. During the class, the students experienced the magic of Provence: wonderful restaurants like Maison Drouot in St. Remy de Provence , fabulous wineries like Domaine de la Mourchon and fascinating historic sites like the St. Paul de Mausole mental hospital where Vincent Van Gogh painted The Starry Night. I’ll be sharing the stories they wrote over the next few weeks, exploring the beauty, history, food and wine culture of this amazing place.  I’ll be teaching a similar course in Rioja, Spain this spring (May 21-27):

By Stephanie Baird

It is said that “wine is bottled poetry.”    No doubt wine speaks to me, as it has been my profession for almost twenty years.  But I have always wanted to find the ‘poetry’ angle and learn how better to share my journey into wine in a written form.   So I signed up for a writing course in the south of France that included some with professional writing credentials, of which I had none. What is the worse that could happen?  I would be surrounded by a valley awash in great wine, in which to find comfort if my writing didn’t pass muster.

After whizzing past acres of leafy green grapevines and family-owned wineries,  I arrived by taxi in Vaison-La-Romaine, an ancient Roman town situated high above France’s Rhone valley, It was the end of May with blue sky.

I was escorted to my hotel room up a winding and uneven set of old stairs. The proprietor opened the door and I stood there in shock.  It was a small room, but that is expected in Europe, especially in a 17th century inn.  What I didn’t expect was no bathroom.  A comforting explanation spewed forth – private facilities reserved for me only were down the hall and around the corner. “Yippee” I thought to myself.  I felt short-changed and wanted the ear of the course instructor.  I felt an immediate need for a bottle of wine to adjust my attitude.

I accepted the situation.  I didn’t sign up for a four-star hotel, I signed up for a writing experience. This would be my writing garret.

Class began the next day inside a small, cool room resembling a stone-walled wine cave, where I felt right at home.  The instructor led short lectures, spelled out the dos and don’ts, and reviewed enlightening writing examples.   He relayed the structure for travel and wine writing, similar to structuring the communication of wine tasting.  Seemed logical enough.

We had not yet accomplished a full day of instruction when we were asked to present an article idea.  Let’s just say I didn’t exactly earn high praise for what I wanted to write about.  It went over as well as serving a spoiled wine to dinner guests.  I obviously had not yet found poetry outside the bottle. My desire to skip out of class and recover my ego through a glass of Provençal rosé at an outdoor café was tempting.

Thankfully, our instructor allowed time to explore the area in search of story ideas, which included a winery visit.  It was day three when we boarded a small coach near a Roman Bridge down the hill and headed to the nearby town of Seguret.  We climbed a mourchon (little hill), winding and rising on a narrow paved road above the valley.  We arrived at a small wine estate appropriately named Domaine de Mourchon, greeted by a burly man and the ubiquitous winery dog.  At last, I was in my comfort zone.  I was confident I wouldn’t flunk this part of class.

The tall gentleman was winery manager Hugo Levingston who greeted us with a commanding voice under a shaded canopy.  He was anxious to show off his vines as he pointed to the hill across the way and shouted “Let’s go, we must start in the vineyard.”  He took off fast up a narrow, rocky dirt path. At the top of the hill I fell immediately in love with the knotty old Grenache vines and sweeping view across Rhone valley.

Here our group of 12 was standing in a 70-year-old vineyard on top of blue-gray limestone known as marme.  My wine textbooks came alive in front of me.  Levingston described it as the “garden” of the winery, which was full of lush green foliage and tight fruit buds all under the control of Mother Nature.  He proudly reviewed the geeky but important parts of the vineyard – organic farming, sustainable practices, and tender loving care of the aging vines.  He explained the beauty of small berries from these old vines, offering more concentrated fruit than younger vines.  He got down and dirty with a large chunk of earth in his hands and bragged about the soil’s ability to drain water yet retain just the right amount for the vine, as he poked at the clay structure underneath the crumbly top.  My terror of writing had been supplanted by the terroir of wine.

Fine winemakers strive to craft a wine that captures the true essence of their unique terroir that cannot be replicated elsewhere. In the same vein, good writers strive to weave a unique story of interest to the reader, which by law, should be not replicated elsewhere. Could I succeed at combining both concepts?  Or was I more seduced by wine than by words?

From the arid hilltop vineyard we moved to the “kitchen, all under the control of man,” declared Levingston, waving his hands in the air.  He ran through the winemaking technicalities, which I have studied in detail more than I care to remember.  But I was held captive none the less by his simple explanations of what he deemed “the easy part.”  Fellow classmates tuned in with keen interest to tidbits many were hearing for the first time.  They were wine novices to my writing novice status.

At last, the tasting room where “garden + kitchen” finally met our taste buds.  Maybe the inspiration for the right words awaited me here.  Walter McKinlay (owner) took over from Levingston.  Soon fresh white, rosé and red wine started splashing in our glasses and the wine tasting ritual began – swirl, sniff, sip and spit.

I was seduced by rising aromas and flavors of peaches, nectarines, salinity, minerals, strawberries, black berries, licorice, black pepper, oak and spice, as we tasted through seven hand-crafted wines.  I favored the Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which ironically was the first wine in which I professionally found “poetry in the bottle.”

Mourchon’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2013 spoke to me immediately.  It was at once powerful yet supple.  Alluring flavors of red cherries and currants sprinkled with peppery notes danced across my tongue.  A long and enticing finish offered hints of tobacco. The words began to flow. My knowledge of wine was shaping into poetry.

I left the winery enveloped in the comfort of wine and also of words. Poetry was in reach – inside and outside the bottle. It just required patience, acceptance of the class feedback and the willingness to begin again.

Let’s be clear, I didn’t come here in search of descriptors like cat’s pee, blood, rusty nails or manure, those are already taken.  I came for journalistic guidance as I expand my journey into wine to include writing about my travels and wine discoveries, and little touch of poetry along the way.

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