The Vintners of Our Dissed Content
It all began, as these small odysseys often do, with a misunderstanding. In this case, the issue was entirely my own, and the fact that it persisted for nearly 40 years is not only embarrassing but rather damning to any gustatory gravitas I might’ve claimed.
It went like this: I was strolling through our namesake Williams-Sonoma when I chanced upon a jar of mulling spices. To my untrained eye, it looked like someone had swept their porch and put the results in a jar. I might have figured Williams-Sonoma would try to peddle this kind of foodie chicanery but still, I had to know what made their $25 jar of dirt and twigs superior to others. As I asked the clerk, her eyes narrowed and her brows rose as high as the end of her sentence. “They’re mulling spices, you know, for mulled wine?”
Wait a minute. I had always thought it was pronounced, “mold wine” and made from mold, not dirt and twigs. Like, for the better part of 40 years, I had confused the “spiced seasonal beverage” with what I assumed was the juice of a spore. Given my delicate palate, naturally, I never imbibed the spore juice when offered. Nor did it ever occur to me that making wine from mold was just stupid. My rationale was (and still is) that humans will make booze out of anything that can ferment. I’ve drunk apple and elderberry wine and have heard tales of prison “pruno” made from everything from orange soda to sauerkraut. I’ve found recipes online for mushroom wine, so why put it past some vintner to slide further down the food chain to mold spores?
Of all the species in the world, we’re the most likely to be sent home from the Animal Kingdom in a cab. There are a variety of reasons for this (we have cabs) but it’s mostly due to our historic inclination for booze. And if we run out, we know how to make more out of damn near anything.
We could be generous and pretend our ancestors developed fermentation as a means of preservation with the happy (and happy-inducing) byproduct of alcohol being more incidental than intentional. We could also pretend the only reason to have sex is to make babies. If our ancestors felt that way, however, most of us wouldn’t be here.
Anthropologists have long conjectured that alcohol was discovered when one of our forebears witnessed some quadruped noshing on rotted fruit (fermentation au natural) and wobbling away with a giddy gait. A similar origin myth recounts the discovery of coffee: A goat herder watched a stray from his trip enjoying a personal disco moment after nibbling some coffee beans from the tree. What this tells me is that “animal testing” came long before Big Pharma, though they certainly pushed it down the road to Hell.
When it comes to controlled substances, I’ve always done my own testing, if not out of moral conviction then because it stops my hands from shaking long enough to type one of these pieces. Seeing as I’m a full-time writer, my ability to type is an
important part of my skill set, like thinking, which, like any machine, runs better when well lubricated, right? This is why I’m grateful I’m on “The List.” It’s something of a media profession accolade, like winning a National Newspaper Association Award but inherently more useful.
The List is a directory of accredited members of the media who are known to write about wine and spirits. Publicists use this list when doling out samples on behalf of their booze clients. It’s a peculiar phenomenon – gallons of wine pour in and a trickle of words comes out. And sometimes they make sense.
I first witnessed the power of The List while visiting Christopher “Sommelier to the Stars” Sawyer in Petaluma, CA. When a UPS guy came to his door with a dolly stacked high with wine cases Sawyer all but sighed as he rose to sign for the shipment. His cellar already looked like the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with crates of wine piled high and ominous. Did he really need more wine? Perhaps not, but his friends need him to need more wine because he frequently has us over to help with his storage woes.
I did the math: if a man were to continuously drink one glass of wine after another, it would take him three years to make an appreciable dent in Sawyer’s cellar. And that man would be dead.
Of course, the purpose of The List is not to kill imaginary people in hypothetical scenarios (which sounds like a prospective sequel to Inception) but to help the publicists transubstantiate wine into ink or its contemporary equivalent – pixels today, perhaps brain waves tomorrow. This is where I’ve actually witnessed one of the “Miracles of Chris.” Sawyer actually writes about the wine he receives. And often starts taking notes the moment the cork is popped. I don’t. I take terrible notes. I can’t read my own handwriting. I stand a better shot at getting a prescription filled from one of my own notes than decrypting it myself. It only gets worse the further into the bottle I get. By the time the bottle is done, so am I. This is why my published wine reviews have always been purposely vague: “The Sonoma Brut was a fine curtain opener – a spiny, mean little thing with an acid tongue that suggested a smack on the lips from a femme fatale’s kid sister--haughty, brash and delightfully immature.”
A publicist has yet to send me mulled wine. Nor, I suspect, will Williams-Sonoma send me a jar of dirt to mull my own. Instead, I figured I’d save the $25 and Google a recipe. Interestingly, “mold wine” autocorrects to “mulled wine.” Google must have been expecting me.
One of the results is the Old Hamlet Wine & Spice Company in Bury St. Edmonds in the county of Suffolk, near the southeast of England. It dawned on me that the wine and spice company might be having a bit of fun with its name. First off, Hamlet, at least Shakespeare’s Hamlet, never lived to become “Old Hamlet” and secondly, you’d never want Hamlet, young or old, near your wine since poison tends to end up in it when he’s around.
I dug deeper into the Google rabbit hole and found that several years ago, the Cambridge University Press published scholar Paul A. Cantor’s Shakespeare: Hamlet in which he recounts the misguided efforts of composer Ambroise Thomas to spruce up his operatic version with a raucous wine drinking scene and a song to go with it. The 19th French adaptation included a bit wherein Hamlet throws a wine party when the Players arrive in Denmark and “celebrates [wine’s] enchanting power to bring balm and oblivion to his heart,” according to Cantor. The scholar rightly suggests this is quite out of character for the Melancholy Dane (though it would prop up a sluggish second act, which is usually when people drift back to the lobby for wine).
Perhaps more galling was the happy ending, which completely sidestepped all the poisoned wine. In a version of Thomas’ reconception, Hamlet and Laertes patch up their differences, Gertrude gets “thee to a nunnery” and the Ghost returns to appoint Hamlet king. A quick running through of Claudius with a blade and – tada! – everyone lives happily ever after, if they’re not already dead, which is nearly the entire supporting cast. This also means that a lot of perfectly good, poisoned wine went to waste.
Though Shakespeare referenced wine frequently in his work, he only used the word “mulled” once so far as I can tell. In this case, it meant “insipid, flat” and was uttered by a character simply known as “First Servingman” in Coriolanus: “Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy; mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible...”
If I were ever to review mulled wine, I’d simply quote the above, then pour another glass and lay down on the couch to await what dreams may come.
Daedalus Howell is the author of the award-winning collection of columns I Heart Sonoma: How to Live & Drink in Wine Country.
From the 2012 Winter issue of SONOMA