by Clare Tooley MW

Wine Hands

“Take my hand, tenez, trust me, leap, I won’t let go.” A favourite memory in rain-soaked Chablis, flood waters rising, taking a supplier’s outstretched hand as his courtyard began to run fast with river water.

There is beauty in wine hands.

The deeply stained palms and fingertips of winemakers at harvest, inked by the grapes’ own unique biometry, fit to make a skilled tattooist weep. The sweat-stuck dusty palms of the men and women who stoop to take handfuls of dirt on their land, letting it sift through their fingers, checking content, before brushing and wiping it away, satisfied. The sticky, pricked fingers of vine walkers who select berries from bunches, bringing them to their mouths to check for dimples and ripeness. The winemakers with a soft touch and stippled thumbs releasing the stream from pipettes plunged deep into barrel.

I have watched these hands, and in the small scars and callouses have caught a glimpse of their prior movement over earth, leaves, stems, skins, hoses, and valves. Theirs is a journey of a million touches from the vine to the moment of this serving. Theirs is a sleight of dexterous hands, making wines with textures that summon context, wines that touch the drinker yet appear in finished form to be the least touched by humans.

I, too, have wine hands, though clumsier and less beautiful than those I admire the most. With wine blotched fingers, I have moved from barrel to barrel, my frozen toes lost to Burgundian cellar floors. Glass in hand, I have crossed dance floors, dining rooms and outdoor terraces. With painted nails I have poured for the camera. I have let my hand hover over the rack in a wine cage, lingering a while in indecision. I have pulled so many corks, traced embossed labels, run my fingers over engraved bottles and cut them many times on rogue capsules and broken glass stems. More loyal than my senses, my hands have forced me to write more truthfully about the wines I taste and the hands that make them.

There is guidance in wine hands.

Most itch to show and tell and share and serve. As if the figurative wine bug were in fact an affliction of the hands, demanding symbolic handholding of the next host to pass onto and through. Many have held my wine hand and I am imbued by their mentorship. Safe hands, those that show the quiet, intentional acknowledgement that wine requires navigation and that theirs are happy to steer. Safe too are the familial hands, or otherwise, into whom estates, land and businesses are placed. They are surety not just of knowledge and traditions but of the continuation of the fundamentally fragile. Only those with the strongest grip would plant vines on today’s planet, ham-fisted and shackled as it is by climate change.

There is chiromancy in wine hands.

Wine storytelling is at its most compelling in dancing hands, the ones we all use to extol the virtue of a particularly pleasing wine. The hands that lift a little higher from the table, a little more freely, do so precisely in line with the receding level of wine in the glass. If there were genies in our bottles, they would be at their most liberated in those moments, released through the fingertips, interpretive, messaging fellowship. They would surely swarm above the candles in the high ceilings of the Clos de Vougeot, a murmuration accompanied by song.

Other hands are more precise, less playful, yet of equal charm. They quieten the wine babble. They level the landscape of an industry pockmarked with lost translations. These hands convey universal truths, understood immediately by all; they remember our primal, more inclusive history. They are the ones that hold a rosé to the light to catch and share its blue, gold, and purple bruised hues, thus rendering it more than just another pink. They are the cellarmasters in a cold barrel room that cradle the glass to cajole aromas from a frigid pour.

Paul Pontallier’s hands used to draw the details of a Margaux vintage in the air to his nodding audience, as precisely as an architect. Pascal Marchand and Francisco Baettig transcribed by hand what they sought in shape; one a Domaine de la Vougeraie Bonnes Mares, the other a Las Pizzaras Chardonnay. On two different continents, in two different decades, I scribbled down their exact words in notebooks long since lost to packing boxes and indecipherable spider scrawl. Yet I can still see their hands as they used the air as a canvas, creating the shape of wine, invisible yet indelible; the Burgundy an infinite ripple, rounded in an arc, the Chilean a sharp vertical downswing of an open palm like the beginnings of a priest’s benediction. I witnessed more blessings in Bérénice Lurton’s fingers as they brushed the dried flower petals and seed heads collected for biodynamic tisanes in her drying room attic. Shafts of sunlight on herb boxes, her hand hovering over them. Hers resembled a divining motion, a soft pinching of the pressure point between elegy and energy, conjuring strange life from dead material.

I miss that electric charge.

The touch of wine seems particularly important today, perhaps because of its astounding absence in parts of our current wine life. The manual labour of wine continues in the planting, pruning, and harvesting. The cellar hands continue their pumpovers, cleaning, barrel rolling and riddling. The wine buyer continues to swirl and lift glass to nose and mouth while the drinker continues to fill and clasp the glass. Yet I dearly miss the handshake of welcome and agreement. I miss the hands raised to clink a toast across a bar or crowded dinner table. I miss the fleeting perception of the smooth hand of deft servers, masters in the art of invisibility, refilling my glass at an indoor table. I miss the steady hands of the bar staff collecting the empties at closing time. I miss wine hands breaking bread together. May we know all those hands again.

Photo by Maja Petric and Unsplash

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