The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Brideshead Revisited, Revisited

Posted on | December 18, 2009 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

I like to believe that I live a romantic life, but the naked white-light truth is that I do not. The first time I got drunk on wine I was fifteen and I was with my friend Kim Danforth in her log-cabin mansion in Vermont. I’d never been drunk before, and the whole Danforth clan saw this as a dire situation they needed to remedy. Her parents went out for the evening, leaving us a couple of bottles of red wine with which to entertain ourselves. The evening began with Kim and me playing Cardinal Puff and ended with us singing along loudly to Gilda Radner’s album Live from New York and my vomiting spectacularly all over the Danforth’s oriental carpet.

It was not pretty; it did not foster in me an appreciation of wine; it was brutal; it was a very good time; but it was not in the least bit romantic.

Which is why I like to pretend that I actually got to know wine like Charles Ryder, a character in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted, got to know wine, because it is the very pinnacle of romance, and romance is more or less the point of this novel. I imagine that like Charles I had serendipitously made fast friends with a member of the fading aristocracy, that like he I am folded into that family as gently as egg-whites, that I am invited to a great stony mansion capped with a dome designed by Inigo Jones, that I am given free rein to plunder a wine cellar; and that I am clever enough to liken a bottle of wine to prophets, pearls or unicorns. (To my credit, I did once tell Sergio that a wine he’d given me reminded me of a really, really smart beauty contestant; he replied that he was pretty sure I was talking about myself.)

I’ve quoted below the scene from Brideshead Revisited that I wish I had lived. In it, Charles is drinking with Sebastian Flyte at Brideshead, the Flyte’s ancestral mansion. They are enjoying the estate’s wine cellar with the rapacity of Visigoths. They are having a simply fabulous time. I want to be them—and that is, of course, the beauty of literature: we read and we are transported. We too gather the tatty glamour of dusky aristocracy. We too discover anew. We too become young again. We too can live beautiful, if evanescent, lives.

And we too can open a bottle and feel free to call that wine a meadow, a leprechaun, a gazelle. We can, and when we do, we can let loose the romantic within.

One day we went down to the cellars with Wilcox and saw the empty bays which had once held a vast store of wine; one transept only was used now; there the bins were well stocked, some of them with vintages fifty years old.

“There’s been nothing added since his Lordship went abroad,” said Wilcox. “A lot of the old wine wants drinking up. We ought to have laid down the eighteens and twenties. I’ve had several letters about it from the wine merchants, but her Ladyship says to ask Lord Brideshead, and he says to ask his Lordship, and his Lordship says to ask the lawyers. That’s how we get low. There’s enough here for ten years at the rate it’s going, but how shall we be then?”

Wilcox welcomed our interest; we had bottles brought up from every bin, and it was during those tranquil evenings with Sebastian that I first made a serious acquaintance with wine and sowed the seed of that rich harvest which was to be my stay in many barren years. We would sit, he and I, in the Painted Parlour with three bottles open on the table and three glasses before each of us; Sebastian had found a book on wine-tasting, and we followed its instructions in detail. We warmed the glass slightly at a candle, filled a third of it, swirled the wine round, nursed it in our hands, held it to the light, breathed it, sipped it, filled our mouths with it and rolled it over the tongue, ringing it on the palate like a coin on a counter, tilted our heads back and let it trickle down the throat. Then we talked of it and nibbled Bath Oliver biscuits, and passed on to another wine; then back to the first, then on to another, until all three were in circulation and the order of glasses got confused, and we fell out over which was which, and we passed the glasses to and fro between us until there were six glasses, some of them with mixed wines in them which we had filled from the wrong bottle, till we were obliged to start again with three clean glasses each, and the bottles were empty and our praise of them wilder and more exotic.

“It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle.”

“Like a leprechaun.”

“Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.”

“Like a flute by still water.”

“And this is a wise old wine.”

“A prophet in a cave.”

“And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck.”

“Like a swan.”

“Like the last unicorn.”

And we would leave the golden candlelight of the dining-room for the starlight outside and sit on the edge of the fountain, cooling our hands in the water and listening drunkenly to its splash and gurgle over the rocks.

“Ought we to be drunk every night?” Sebastian asked one morning.

“Yes, I think so.”

“I think so too.”


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