From the archives … My Problems with White Wine

by Jim Harrison

MAY WE POLITICIZE WINE? I will if I wish. This is a free country though it is quickly becoming less so. I have noted, for instance, that the Bay Area has become fatally infected with the disease of sincerity. Last early December in San Francisco I naively looked for a bar where I might enjoy a glass of wine and a cigarette. Instead I sat in the park across from the Huntington Hotel without wine, smoking an American Spirit and welcoming the frowns of a passel of dweebs doing Tai Chi. They birdlike lifted their legs as if afflicted with farting fits. When I lived briefly in San Francisco in 1958 it was an active seaport full of jubilance, music, merriment, and heartiness. The morning I left town on my recent trip I heard of a local campaign against the evils of butter.

All of which is to say that you can’t talk about wine without the context in which it exists, like life herself. Even in non-Marxian economic terms it is far more difficult to find a favorable white wine at a decent price than a red. Is it partly because the aforementioned sincere people who drink only white wine have driven the price up or because they are dumb enough to drink any swill if it doesn’t own life’s most vital color, the color of our blood?

We certainly don’t celebrate the Eucharist with white wine. Christ couldn’t have spent thirty days in the wilderness alone fueled by white blood. The great north from which I emerge demands a sanguine liquid. White snow calls out for red wine, not the white spritzers of lisping socialites, the same people who shun chicken thighs in favor of characterless breasts and ban smoking in taverns. In these woeful days it is easy indeed to become fatigued with white people, white houses, white rental cars.

That said, let’s be fair. The heart still cries out for a truly drinkable white under 20 bucks. I’ve tried dozens and dozens. I need white wine when I eat fish and shellfish. Of late several have been acceptable if not noteworthy: Château de Lascaux, Reuilly, a Les Carrons Pouilly-Fuissé and an Ermitage du Pic Saint Loup kept me alive until I could get my main course and restorative red.

Whenever I have wine or food problems I consult Mario Batali in New York, or Gerard Oberle in Burgundy, France, but my most reliable trump card is Peter Lewis in Seattle, whom I consider to have the most wide-ranging and educated palate in North America. In recent correspondence Lewis said common “white wines tend to the flaccid. The ‘international style’ in which they’re made these days emphasize the exotic: the overly floral, tropical phenolic profile coupled to heavy-handed oak treatment strip the fruit of its delicacy; whereas the truly exotic, as in Viognier from Château Grillet or Lys de Volan, combines true power with all femininity of peach fuzz and honeysuckle (the seductive quality of the minute hairs on the back of a woman’s thigh in high summer). There!

But isn’t life a struggle to gather the funds to cover one’s vices? For 30 years since I first had a glass I’ve had an affection for Meursault, even lesser vintages than those of Henry Boillot. I’ve drunk Meursault when the weather was a tad chilly, say in the early spring with a simple sauté of sweetbreads, fresh morels, and a few wild leeks. To be sure my single eye flickers to the red sitting on the sideboard in readiness for the substantial main course. I wouldn’t drink the Meursault alone unless it was over 90 degrees and I was sitting with a French vixen in a shaded courtyard in Beaune and she demanded the wine. Any fool except maybe a congressman loves Chassagne-Montrachet. I could drink three bottles of Didier Dagueneau’s Sauvignon Blanc with a gross of oysters in Concale if there were an available bed three feet away for my nap. The bed would be on a pier and the great French singer Esther Lammandier would croon a medieval ditty.

I see that women and food rather than government can help me abolish my prejudices, also an extremely fat wallet. Once before giving a poetry reading I was handed a glass of cheapish California Chardonnay and I said, “This might be good on pancakes if you were in the wilderness.” I actually chewed on the tip of a cigar to cleanse my mouth.

I admit I love Domaine Tempier rosé, which is about $25, and find Château La Roque Rosé at $12 a more acceptable deal in this twist world of color and flavor compromise. I drink the latter because my wife and daughters drink it so it’s right there within reach, an important qualification. I just recalled that on a warmish day last year I also liked a Côtes du Rhône blanc from Sang des Cailloux with barbecued rabbit (a basting sauce of butter, garlic, lemon, tarragon, and dry vermouth).

White wine is Apollonian, the wine of polite and dulcet discourse, frippish gossip, banal phone calls, Aunt Ethel’s quiche, a wine for those busy discussing closure, healing, the role of the caretaker, the evils of butter, the wine of the sincerity monolithic. It occasionally, of course, rises to greatness, and you may have some if you’ve been economically diligent or are an heir of some sort. I’m sure that even the cheaper varieties have brought thousands of soccer moms sanity-healing sex fantasies.

We drink with with our entire beings, not just our mouths and gullets. Temperaments vary. My mother used to torture me with the question “What if everyone were like you?” I have it on good authority that both Dionysus and Beethoven drank only red wine while Bill Gates and a hundred thousand proctologists stick to the white. Peter Lewis added in a letter that we’re not crazy about white wine because we don’t get crazy after drinking it, because we tend not to break into song or quote García Lorca after drinking it, because white wine doesn’t make us laugh loudly, because it fatigues us and doesn’t promote unbridled lust, because it pairs less well with the beloved roasted game birds whose organs we love to suck and whose bones we love to gnaw.

Yes, we’re fortunate that everyone isn’t like me. I recall Faulkner saying, “between scotch and nothing I’ll take scotch.” Meursault isn’t the color of blood but it’s the color of sunlight, a large item in itself.

[From the August 2002 Newsletter]

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by Jim Harrison


One Comment

  1. Martin Steinley says:

    Thank you, Kermit. I could read Jim Harrison all day, every day. His writing talents were at least as big as his appetite and thirst.

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