When we left off with my interview with Cat Silirie, we were talking about how the language of wine can get in the way of actually communicating about wine, and I’d asked her how this might (or did) ramify on the dining room floor with guests. I swear we’re gonna get to that, but we got sidetracked – as old friends are wont to do – into the more formative matter of how we learned to talk about wine in the first place. And then, kaboom, off we went.
Catherine, for anyone needing a reminder, was until recently the executive Beverage Director for the heterogenous bunch of restaurants under the Barbara Lynch umbrella here in Boston. Her way into wine was, for want of a better word, culturally holistic, and because this was her authenticity, it determined the way she trained her staff(s) to understand wine, serve wine, and talk about wine in uncommon ways. We will, as I said, return to that topic, but first this diversion into the fragrances of first principles.
TERRY: one thing you and I have in common was that our wine frames of reference were formed in Europe, and the first people we talked with about wine were the actual people who made them. For me it was German Riesling growers, and for you I’d always assumed it was the Italians. Is that correct? And if it is, how do you feel your “wine-soul” was formed by that experience? As you know, it’s vitally different than for people who started their wine lives with New World things.
CATHERINE: I love your phrase “wine-soul.” YES! This is exactly how I have always thought of "the place" where I receive wine, the "place" where my response to and development of wine-appreciation lives. For a long time I’ve thought that, as it's said that some people have a "natural ear" for music, or say an ear for languages, I believe there are those of us that have a "natural ear" for wine-appreciation. You see that makes more sense to me than to say that someone has a natural “tongue” or palate.
TERRY: There's a lot of confusion of what a palate is, or should be, or what the word even means.
CATHERINE: I feel very strongly that the literal tongue, yes the organ, has very little to do with one being or becoming a gifted wine taster. But I have to mention, I did win top prize at my 5th grade science fair for my construction project of a giant 800x to scale papier-mâché tongue, diagramming the supposed zones of taste receptors. Ha! How I now see what a young fool I was, willingly believing all that the Time-Life series of science books so boldly stated that salty was to the east although sometimes to the west, sweet was to be found to the north, bitter to the south and so on depending upon which cardinal axis one was sticking one's tongue out at.
TERRY: You’re still sticking your tongue out, o mischievous siren. Were you happy when the whole tongue-map thing was debunked? Not to mention you knew it all along. Was anyone talking about umami back then?
CATHERINE: I actually did not know that sweet/sour/sallty/bitter was 'wrong' (or if it even really is) for a very very very long time after the science fair. And I’m no de-bunker of science, I am trying to show my childhood 'fascination' with flavor hence my attempting giant tongue construction. What I really should have constructed for the science fair was simple olfactory bulb, in which a water balloon could have sufficed. Even a medulla oblongata crafted out of play-dough would have been more sophisticated. Better yet, why why why did not I simply present a tea cup and a madeleine to the panel of judges while reciting my beloved Proust to all assembled, the magic of his prose that so magically illuminates the vast structure of recollection ?
TERRY: I remember that whenever we talked, even if it had been like, weeks since the last time, you were still clawing your way through Swann’s Way or whatever. On the other hand I’ve read War And Peace three times. Must be why we’re such good friends. Still, I do thank you for reassuring me that you weren’t into Proust in the 5th grade. I started to feel inferior; I mean, I didn’t finish Ulysses until some time in middle-school. <wink> Let’s return to the topic, if that doesn’t sound too officious. So,, back to wine souls being formed. Do I hear you starting to say that for you, soul and memory were more important than the “things” you could taste and describe in words?
CATHERINE: My quest on the nature of FLAVOR started early and the very word flavor both in concept and in practice still fascinates me. I need to tell my younger past self, with no illusions, what my current self has firmly learned, via years and years and years of tasting, traveling, cooking, dining, wine-ing, thinking, experiencing, teaching, talking, writing, reflecting and observing: The tongue itself has very little to do with the true act and art of receiving wine!
TERRY: Then what does?
CATHERINE: ALL this belongs to the imagination. I feel so strongly about this that I deliberately never describe a fellow wine taster, no matter how remarkable a wine taster they may be, as having a great palate. I loathe the literalness of that phrase. It's like going back to the folly of creating a giant papier mache tongue. Instead I insist on appreciating their imaginations! And now full circle, Terry in your words, those who are talented wine tasters have deep wine-souls. And to also quote Emile Peynaud: "The talented wine taster is the person who has always enjoyed their senses and has cultivated them for that reason”. For me it is this very combination, the gift of our miraculous senses that we then cultivate with our intention, with our passion, with our deep curiosity, and it is by continuing to cultivate our senses that deepens our wine appreciation. With that in mind, to your question, where was my wine soul formed. The answer is, both France and Italy, each for its own reason and in its own way. France for its distinct geology and the actual 'taste of place" to be found in its wines are what completely caught me and hence my imagination was hooked !!!!! It was also the allure of French culture that also completely caught me, captured my imagination, set me on a course, was THE call to adventure, I heard the call, I heeded the call! Yet it took many years to learn how, when and where I was to then answer the call.
TERRY: I’ve always liked the quote, “Each man has two countries, his own, and France.” I say this as someone who’s spent his life surfing the umlauts in Teutonic places.
CATHERINE: For me, France gave my my mind and my imagination the Wine Archetypes for which to arrange all the incoming information and stimulation. Chablis, Champagne, Cote de Beaune, Cote de Nuits, Loire, Bordeaux, Provence are the the perfect receptor cells for wine memory. French culture and its literature ascribe each terrior with a vivid sense of personality, each with a particular magic! Not to mention all that is French culture: for instance my love of music, Debussy, Faure, Satie, Massenet, Bizet, my love of French art: the painters to the poets, from dada-ists to impressionists, and then especially that of French literature, my beloved Marcel Proust! And it is essential to include the cuisine, the couture, and of course the city of Paris itself, especially as vicariously experienced through the literature of the American expatriates of the 1920's ....ALL this fueled my imagination to want to wed with it, and wine was the magic carpet that flew me to France.
TERRY: I get you, at least I think I do. Wine arises from a culture that also produces music and paintings and novels and poems, and sometimes those connections are really palpable, at least to me, yet sometimes they make no sense at all. I mean, I don’t think the nature of German Riesling aligns to Nietzsche or Richard Strauss, yet to me it does align to the sinuousness and suavity and lyricisms of Fauré and the lucidity of Corot. Maybe the details matter less than to try to see the world of beauty as a network of connected things. Which brings me back to you – and now to Italy, my opera-loving friend.
CATHERINE: Yes on to Italy and while still on topic, I will do a quick full circle here to sew up the above and connect to the next: YES wine arises from a culture, and hence my/our attraction to wines that are from particular cultures.
YET the difference in what I am expressing is that these connections in culture, be they music, art, cuisine, literature, are to me not literal, they are not equations to wine.
They are gestalt. A symphonic whole of potential enjoyment. A collage of impresssions. In other words, I have had a wonderful time in wine appreciation when I let my imagination drink in as many aspects of wine as I can via its culture, and in this Italy has been the ultimate.
TERRY: It’s a somewhat “classical” approach, one might say, quite removed from the obsessive ADHD approach we see so many American wine professionals take. Not all, obviously, but enough to notice how rare your glide-path into wine actually is. Were you swept up with all the fun of Italy?
CATHERINE: Loving and experiencing Italy has not been perfection; its powerful draw has allotted me a full share of pathos and even pain. I’m thinking ofJohn Coltrane & Johnny Hartman "You are too beautiful" with the haunting refrain I am a fool for beauty. In my joy of creating imaginary collages, Italy offers the most colorful, and collage has always charmed my imagination, in its own particularly powerful way, and yes because of its "Italianess."
And yet there is not one single Italy.
Integral to the fascination is the regional study, 21 separate principalities, duchies, city-states, republics and colonies, City State...I like an good old fashioned Grand Duchy hahah.
There’s no real specialized writers ...like the English on France....Italy's simply not as clearly codified as France, which made Italy a call to adventure in another entirely exciting way. Mountains and Hillsides, 1000 grape varieties, geology not as codified , DOC not till 1966 etc.
TERRY: All the cheerful mess that is the Italy that we love, complicatedly.
CATHERINE: You have the French “Art of Living” and the
Italian” La Dolce Vita,” Italy with its opera, its language, its cuisine, its wine. Forever faithful to both, my dual fidelity endures.
TERRY: It’s hard to imagine a film like La Grand Bellezza being made anywhere but Italy.
CATHERINE: There’s an atavism to Italy through ancestry, whose origins have been somewhat mysterious, and OPERA...it has been said that Italy's ancient towns look like stage sets....the country as Grand Opera ...
Oliver Sacks said it perfectly: “Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination”
That’s it for now, faithful readers. Can you even FATHOM where this conversation goes next?