by Clare Tooley MW

The Light At Daybreak

I had begun to think I would never write anything again. No harm done other than to my inner peace. My word inertia has felt a little like chronic jetlag, out of sorts, disconnected, unhappily uneasy. It all changed when I sat in front of a flight of Rieslings and Pinot Noirs in Wiesbaden at the IMW Symposium and started tasting. The wines provided not just a journey through those most nuanced of grape expressions, but returned me, unexpectedly, to the Damascene moment experienced years ago when an extra heart pulse of wonder jolted the system and offered a glimpse of possibilities concealed in the mundanity of a simple glass of wine poured, static on a tabletop.

Not all wine offers that visceral potential as you taste. But those that do, unfurl like The Knoll Riesling from the Finger Lakes Lahoma Vineyards did over the course of the tasting. If you are lucky, some also offer a heady glimpse of ambition, inspiring, glinting as did the ambré hue of the Hokkaido Japanese Pinot Noir which was laced with the umami of meat broth, ‘lisse’ textured and lithe, with an acidity profile akin to stardust offering pinpricks of light throughout the palate. Eyre’s youthful Pinot manifested a still nascent shape, a circular ball yet with no surface, immense flavor yet still as inconsequentially feather-weighted as the light at daybreak.

For years I have found clarity and calm in the repetition and flow of writing tens of thousands of wine notes. It seems nothing focuses my mind as efficiently as tasting. Imperfect, often stumped for words, left wanting, yet always my happiest place of silent self-expression. A wine’s architecture can conjure writing that spills and settles into a dense bulb-like paragraph on the paper. However, to reengage with writing, to regain solid ground, I clearly had to retrace my steps, back into more familiar territory.

My road back to Damascus started as a walk along a cobbled street at midnight in lamplit Beaune a few days before the tasting. I remembered many previous late-night steps there, post dinners rounded always by thé verveine, the subtle tisane perfume always a fitting book-end to the more fragrant Pinots served at the table, and an attempt to ensure I always woke the following morning fully remembering them. The road culminated in a regimented tasting hall complete with serried ranks of polished stemware and arcs of wine to be discovered. Surprising perhaps that in such a formal setting, I found my flow. Yet I remember now how fully immersive those final hours of the MW exams really were. They were a time of privileged surrender to the contents of several wine glasses and an open invitation to write. Looking back, those final six hours and 45 minutes were perhaps the happiest and most privileged hours of my life.

Yet at the very moment I, selfishly, began to feel less fragmented and started to write again in the Symposium Hall, I also stood with hundreds of others to mark our reverence and sorrow at the news from the Ukraine delivered with stoic grace by Svitlana Tsybak. No words can really contain the sheer misery of war in our time, in our Europe, in our wine world. Never has my wine writing felt so shallow in comparison to true journalism. The documentation of the poisoning of vineyards, the shattering of buildings, the dispersal of lives and desecration of people of wine, our people, is of paramount importance. Those are the words we need to find and write down.

Just hours later I tasted a 1945 vintage Riesling, a war wine made presumably by tired grieving women. It was a wine of immense sorrow. A wine now celebrated but born into a place where the concept of joy had been erased. I imagine those women struggled to find any words at all as they stripped the vines, bringing grapes to quiet cellars, their hearts crushed. If we gave them words now and retold their stories, could we in some way make amends, give peace while reinforcing the one lesson worth learning; that war is the saddest thing known to woman and man. And what of the war we are waging on our planet, so articulately expressed in multiple panels during the Symposium? Our changing climate provides data that quietens most of us, fearing as we do the dreadful loss of identity it inevitably implies. We are facing wine dementia on a global scale. Wake up, Clare. It is more important than ever to write, question, focus, message, repeat, refine, and refuse to sit static and silent. There is power only in a collective conscience, and only if it is documented and disseminated.

But there is hope always. I listened to the scientists who are looking beyond the horizon, who are prioritising resilience to benefit longevity. I listened to powerful women talk of Black Joy and an Indian female revolution. I listened to viticulturalists who feed soul to their soils and speak with utmost conviction and authority on their patchwork pieces of land that teem with life-enhancing microbes they cannot see. I listened to winemakers with opinions to match the towering scope of their imagination. If they have the courage to manifest such glorious flavours as roasted pink grapefruit in the future of that coiled The Knoll Riesling, we must have the grace to validate such audacity and inspire future drinkers by writing about it.

With such endeavors, there are reams to write. We turn to wine for a myriad of reasons – in communion, both sacrosanct and social, in celebration, to mark wars and to make peace. Some of us use it as the vehicle to write. It is a relief, often, from the chaos of our existence, an elixir that shrinks the big picture to colour the tiny pixelations of our personal pods. Never, however, it seems to me, has wine writing offered such an opportunity to expand our minds, if the words we use are powerful enough. The whole universe is indeed to be found in a glass of wine; may we find the words to do it justice.

Photo by Tim Hüfner on Unsplash

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