by Andrea Frost

Message in a bottle

It’s the lucky ones who find a message in the bottle.

In his essay On Wine and Hashish, Charles Baudelaire writes of an old unknown author who said: “Nothing equals the joy of the man drinking, if not the wine at being drunk.”

Whilst even I struggle to believe that a wine feels actual joy (and I happen to believe every romantic notion about wine writing, including the pleasures of personification), I was reminded of the comment when I had the mixed experience of tasting a 1945 Beaune Grèves Burgundy that was beyond its time. Rather than Baudelaire’s projected joy, I felt a profound and inexplicable sadness that the wine had missed its moment.

We wine people love to ponder this particular quandary. Does a wine really exist if it was made but never drunk? Is a great wine wasted if it never communes with another? And if we draw the cork on a bottle that’s beyond its peak of greatness, is the wine wasted because it was opened too late? Like having a life but not really living it.

Like most of the riddles in wine we can’t prove, we still have extensive views on it. We mistrust those who buy wines for financial gain only, we’re unsympathetic towards those who die with a full cellar and we’re especially impatient with those who deny the pleasure gained from sharing wine with another human.

It would be easy to reduce this to a quarrel about a person’s propensity to share good wine, but I think it – and Baudelaire’s conviction that a wine feels joy at having been drunk – is really about projecting the pleasure that comes from communion in general. About extracting the maximum out of life so that you don’t die with the music still in you, or wine still in your cellar, as it were. In fact, I am sure this is what’s at the heart of it. After all, it was Baudelaire who also wrote the poem Get Drunk:

“One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters;
that’s our one imperative need. So as not to feel Time’s
horrible burden which breaks your shoulders and bows
you down, you must get drunk without cease.
But with what?
With wine, poetry, or virtue
as you choose.
But get drunk.”

Discovering ways to extract the maximum from life has been a great motivator for humans since we realised we even had options on how to live. The canon is riddled with reminders and guidelines on how to commune fully with that which you love in order to live well.

I’m a sucker for the subject and, in many ways, it is why I write about wine. As I have said a thousand times before and will trumpet to anyone who cares to listen, wine is a wonderful landscape to stretch out on and take in the world; an infinite source of love, wonder and lessons for living.

And what a teacher wine is, like a gentle — albeit tipsy — sage, sitting at the edge of the bar to remind us of the important things, right when we need reminding. Like a night out with Dame Judi Dench and Katharine Hepburn nudging us along our journey with gravelly voiced snippets of wit and whimsy. For example, contrary to the messages proclaimed in our youth-obsessed world, wine reminds us that the great things in wine are the older things – vines, wines, places and complexity — and that age is a notion of superiority, not a thing to be hidden. When we find it hard to speak up, wine teaches us through quarrelling, criticism and opinion to find our own voice and to rely on the courage of our convictions. And when progress may be slow in other areas of life, there’s the assurance that comes from the cycles of nature and the budburst at another spring.

But one of my favourite lessons served by wine was in that glass of Burgundy. Here was a wine that had been made with vines grown during the war and by a community recovering from it. It had travelled from Burgundy to London and then on to the Hunter Valley, where it was finally opened. And while it still offered plenty, its beauty was fading and it was beyond its peak.

And while I don’t know if the wine felt joy for having been drunk, I felt a distinct lack of it that we had tasted it too late. What a life it had had! What a journey it had taken! And what a shame that, despite that passage and all those stories and its holding on to beauty for all those years, by the time it was given a voice, it was all a bit late. And while colleagues wrote notes about tertiary characters and Burgundy terroirs, I scribbled something about never wanting to look back on a life and think I’d left things too late. Not gotten drunk enough, as it were.