easy for you to say

So we're drinking wine with dinner, which is something that everyone should do. Tonight is a Mosel Riesling, which is a surprise, as usually with rain (and generally with dinner) we go red, because red is a better rain-cutter. But it's that kind of night. Yet, this is an "inexpensive" Riesling, which should be (and has been) a warning to us: pretty bottle, potentially nasty juice. (Read here to see what happens when one drinks a liter of cheap German wine. It involves Finnish metal and short skirts.)

There's many a challenge to discovering the world that is German wine. German labels are terrible, for one. Labels are covered with very long words, usually in some terrifying, Teutonic script, with lots of hyphens and little dots over places that aren't usually dotted. What's more, there's usually some 800-year old family crest with dragons or picture of a haunted, crumbling castle that screams "Run!" rather than, "Enjoy me with Thai curry, please." It's too bad. Some weinguts get it and have made changes for the better; many, typically, in the search for simplicity muck it up even more.

Which brings us back to our dinner bottle. It was a nice label, something you'd see out of New Zealand--a lovely image of the Rhein, nice gold touches, the word "Riesling" big and bold. It even smooshed the tongue-twisting "Mosel-Saar-Ruwer" region designation (say MOzel, Zaahr, RUUver) into a fairyland-sounding, "Moselland." But what tickled me the most is the bottle's bold claim of quality (even though this was a 3 Euro wine, at most) with the label Hochgewächs, in bold gold script.

Germans have a word for everything. Really. What do you call a football team that plays kinda shoddy during the regular season but then turns it on for the tournaments? Turniermannschaft. What do you call the rule for making sure if your dog dies you remove it to a safe and sanitary location, approved by the local authorities? Tierkoerperbeseitigungsgesetz. I wish I was joking. Hochgewächs is an unofficial way of saying the wine is of a high caliber, judged by no one else but the winemaker. It's kind of like a sticker with a smiley face, or a thumbs-up. While there's plenty of other official ways to designate vineyard and wine quality, this is one for the guys who make the 3 Euro wine, and want to say, hey. Enjoy it, 'cuz it's a lot better than that 2 Euro swill.

And enjoy it we did. With Thai curry, in fact.


kein Geld, mehr Wein

In our new roles as globetrotting underpaid writers (and in the tradition of worldly writers before us), we've been dabbling in the enjoyment of cheap wine. Baudelaire wasn't talking about a kegger of La Tâche when he scribbled, "Il faut être toujours ivre."

Turns out that the cheapies we used to grab by the six-pack at Trader Joe's--the nameless Côtes du Rhônes, the Sicilian Nero di Troias--seem more abundant and even cheaper here on the "continent." Our favorite bottles need only hitch a ride on the autobahn to get to our local enoteca; eliminating the long boat ride across the Atlantic does wonders for wine selection. Yet if the Euro keeps drubbing the Dollar, we'll be pining for the Trader before too long. (And for jobs that pay the local stronger currency, too. Anyone?)

Our local down-and-out "Extra" is winning the cheap wine provider award, so far. It's a grocery chain a step below Safeway, stocked with wilted cabbage and plenty of frozen pizzas. Their wine shelf, however, reflects the taste of a respectable wino with a eye on his port-de-monaie. We've enjoyed a couple of smoky, plummy bottles of basic Bordeaux and a Rioja Crianza or two--good for rainy spring evenings and the unexpected rainy summer ones, too. A good Tempranillo offers the same tingle as smelling new leather, or biting into a blackberry tart. Sweet and sour, with a little swagger.


the dregs

I will never ask the War-God
At my future feasts to dine.
When he has some drink inside him
He'll to violence incline,
Gatecrash other people's parties,
Break the jugs and spill the wine.
-Aristophanes, "The Acharnians"

Aristophanes, playwright and friend of Plato and Socrates, tells a practical tale of war and peace in "The Acharnians." Witnessing Athens pursue a fruitless conflict against its neighbor, Sparta, inspired him to write this play that calls for "peace in every possible way."

In the play, protagonist Dikaiopolis has had enough of warmongering, famine and death. He makes his own "personal" peace with Sparta, and opens a market, befriending those besieged (and making serious enemies of his own neighbors, who see his peacemaking as anti-Athenian.) In the end, he makes a mockery of the Athenian hawks and their flashy trappings of war while enjoying a Dionysian feast. He is proclaimed, "the champion."

The moral of the story: war is fruitless and only peace fills the belly. But other themes are raised, at least to my attention. Dikaiopolis is fixated on his feast (and thus, fixated on survival); he pushes desperate farmers out of his comforting circle; he hoards his goods. He is mocked for being so pleasure-driven in the midst of mass suffering; how can he celebrate, lo, while others bleed?

And so too might one ask how a creative, conscious person write about the pleasures of wine while the world around appears to be falling to pieces. For one, it's how I fill my belly and keep a roof over my head. Yet the Greek chorus still pesters. I've spent every day the past two weeks trying to milk buoyant, peppy prose out of my ever-parched brain while reading about all this, and this, and this. Some of it is close to me; most of it is thankfully still far away.

The story of wine, at its core, is the story of people. People that till the earth, tend the vines, nurture the wine in stone wombs, often in their own simple homes. As old as civilization, and probably older still. It would be trite to say that winemaking civilized us; but perhaps its discovery too gave us license to do worse, as it allowed us to forget more.

So maybe my frustration is justified when I flip from a story that tallies the dead in southern Lebanon to one that extols the virtues of drinking rosé on a hot night in Manhattan. I like rosé. I hate war and the terrible urge inside all of us to look the other way because what is ugly and cruel and terrible is so much harder to swallow than a picture of pretty people holding glasses of pink wine. Is that callous, or just human?

So here's my challenge. To talk about passion while the world loses its head. To capture beauty, wherever it may be hiding, while all that is ugly finds a welcome stage in too many parts of the world. Good luck, you say. Better start drinking.