Wine and Literature

Last week my wife and I went to the Piedmont region of Italy.  There were several reasons for this trip.  First of all, my wife wanted to see two cousins whom she hadn’t seen in twenty-five years.  The cousins live in Turin, and they are the daughters of my wife’s mother’s sister.  As girls, the three of them used to be very close, but my wife is from Milan and we live in London, so there wasn’t much chance to get together.  I’m glad they did, because it was a very happy reunion.

We also went to visit two wineries, from which my wife’s business buys wine, and, since it is the time of the white truffle festival, we visited a major buyer and seller of Piedmont’s unique and most expensive export: the white truffle.  Last Friday night I had a plate of plain tagliatelle sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and seven grams of truffles.  It was so good that I didn’t mind the price of €45!

But for me, the highlights of the trip were the visits to the wineries, and our exploration of the Barolo family of wines over dinner.  The wineries we visited were Ascheri, a small, family-owned producer of a quarter of a million bottles per year, and Fontana Fredda, a large-scale, multi-brand producer of seven million bottles per year.  At each winery, we were conducted through the winery, and treated to a wine tasting followed by a very pleasant lunch.

As the wine connoisseurs amongst you will know, Piedmont is famous for the wines produced from its nebbiolo grape, and in the countryside, every available hillside is covered with rows of vines.  The vines may all be the nebbiolo grape, but, at this time of year, some of the leaves have turned red or yellow and some are still quite green.  It all depends on the subspecies of the grape and the all-important terroir – that French term which refers to the soil, the landscape and climate, temperature and precipitation profiles, and the exposure to the sun.  The most expensive wine (about €50 retail for a good bottle) is Barolo, but Barolo has several cousins: Berbera, Babaresco, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo – all from 100% nebbiolo grape.  The difference is down to terroir and the wine-making process.  It is not possible, either legally or practically, to produce a Barolo from an estate which produces Barbaresco.  The wines may look and taste slightly similar, but an expert (not I) can immediately tell a Barolo from a Barbaresco.

All of this got me thinking about the similarities between making wine and producing literature.  Of course most literature is simple trash, and most wine is cheap table wine.  In both cases, not much effort is required to produce it.  But the subtleties become apparent as we move up scale.  To produce a good Barolo requires a special terroir.  The production of a good novel requires a well-educated, experienced and imaginative writer.  There is considerable knowledge and expertise required to maintain the vines in a Barolo estate, and to manage the production of the wine.  How should the vines be pruned?  How long shoul the crushed grapes be soaked.  How long the fermaentation?  At what temperature?  How long to age in steel vats, in oak, in the bottle.  There is much that a good writer has to know about language, grammar, plotting, characterisation, setting,  etc.  Another point is  common is how the end product will be received.  One person may find a particular book or a bottle of wine to be excellent.  Someone else may find the book and the bottle not to their liking.  And some of the success (or the lack of it) is down to luck.  Too much rain just before the harvest can spoil a vintage; an initial bad review can spoil the prospects of a good novel.

Finally, in both producing a fine wine and in writing an excellent novel, both art and science  are required.  It has to be said, however, that making a fine wine is becoming steadily more scientific in the sense that causes and their effects are better understood.  It seems to me that the trend may be in the other direction for literature: less traditional and more artistic/innovative.

Your opinions on this subject are welcome!

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