The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Romancing the Wine

Posted on | January 26, 2015 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

The hands of Josko Gravner

The hands of Josko Gravner

It’s no secret that I love the wines of Josko Gravner. I find them to be mysterious, wondrous things. They try my skills with words, ultimately showing how badly words will always fail when confronted with an ineffable physical experience. The best analogy I can summon—and it’s an egregious failure—is that they feel like drinking wet, salty, silk velvet, but only if that velvet is shot with stars and imbued with magic.

There is wine, and then there is Gravner, in my opinion. I know I’m not entirely alone in this distinction, but I also realize that I am in the minority. Last week, I had the opportunity to meet Josko, to attend a seminar that was led by Sergio Esposito and featured seven vintages of his Ribolla, and, later, to have dinner with him and his daughter Mateja. I don’t speak Italian; Josko doesn’t speak English. Frankly, just being in his presence and hearing his words as translated by Sergio or Mateja was enough.

Wine is something that we often try to understand by categorizing it, by affixing metaphoric labels, or by describing the way it was made. In this way, the way humans come to hold the mystery of wine in our heads is a lot like the way that astronomers come to hold the secrets of the stars, planets and moons in theirs. It’s an awful lot to ask one small human to hold the entire cosmos in his or her head, but break it down into galaxies, solar systems, and orbits, and we can begin to get a grasp.

A great wine is much like this process. This past week, NY Times wine writer Eric Asimov addressed this question with his post, “The Romance of Wine.” In this piece, he juxtaposes the nitty-gritty queries he receives on a daily basis—when should you drink a 2010 Barolo? What do you pair with spicy food—with the inexpressible experience of drinking wine. Asimov writes:

Great wine by its nature is mysterious, unpredictable and perhaps ultimately unknowable. We understand a lot about it, and yet so much is unresolved. How does a wine express a sense of place, subject to minute differences of terroir? How does it evolve and become complex with time? I embrace these and many other uncertainties, which requires me to give up the illusion of omniscient expertise that is so often conferred to wine writers.

The key word in that passage is “unknowable.” Because wine is a living thing, it changes and it shifts, it morphs and it mellows, it lives and it dies. A supermarket wine may not achieve the Pinocchio apotheosis of being “a real boy!” but drinking a wine like one made by Josko Gravner, or Mascarello, or Biondi-Santi, or Fiorano, or any number of great producers feels like getting to know a person. Like a person, these wines are unpredictable, and like a person, they are ultimately unknowable.

In conversation, Gravner says that he doesn’t understand all the questions about his protocol. He grows great grapes, he puts the grapes in a giant clay jar, he keeps them there. After some time, he removes them and puts them in a big wood vat, he keeps them there, and after more time, he puts them in a bottle. That’s more or less it. What Gravner knows—and what most of us have yet to comprehend—is that the protocol is not the wine. The protocol makes the wine, but the wine itself is mystery.

Appreciate it, and embrace the romance. It’s a very beautiful thing.


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