Myth Cycle of the Grape
Understand the earth first,” writes Judy Beardsall ’69 in her book Sniffing the Cork, “then the glass.”
To hear Beardsall talk is to be drawn in by her passionate interest and faith in the magic of wine. From her first job in a Manhattan wine shop, she has risen to become a renowned wine authority and trusted consultant to some of the world’s most selective wine investors, collectors and, yes, drinkers. She describes herself professionally as “a cross between an investment banker and a curator,” with wine as the currency or work of art; clients turn to her for advice on what to buy, when and where, what to hold or sell, what to add to a cellar.
But, far from being just a businesswoman, Beardsall is also a believer in and student of the philosophy of wine, its singular gift for evoking the land, sky, sun and craft by which it was created. The natural elements of a wine’s background are collected under the French term terroir (literally “soil,” but oenologically the vine’s environment from planting to harvest). Appreciating terroir, says Beardsall, is key to appreciating what’s in one’s glass.
“If you don’t, you’re not making the connection between what’s in the glass and where it came from,” she says. “You’re not thinking back far enough—to the source: the cryptic, Joseph Campbell-like myth cycle of a vine reaching into the earth and pulling up nutrients and water, and producing a grape that is then harvested. Being aware of where a wine came from paints a picture in your mind.
Wine-inspired pictures and associations, she says, are part of the emotional and primal response to wine, and the fun, personal nature of the wine experience. Any wine drinker’s reaction is valid— “Evolve your own wine-tasting vocabulary and use it!”—and she includes some of her favorites in Sniffing the Cork: a friend who described a white wine as “smelling like Sophia Loren after a brisk jog”; a writer who likened a 1959 Chateau Latour to “Jane Russell—mean, moody and magnificent”; a client who sipped a new wine and said, “It’s like looking through a veil.”
Beardsall says she would rather let wine speak to her than talk about it—though she enjoys talking about what it says to her: “Wine is a living liquid. It can inspire feelings and emotions and ideas that you might not have tapped. There’s something magical and inexplicable that it brings to the experience of living life.”
She was first inspired to love wine, she says, by 19th-century English novels she read in her teens and at SLC, and their descriptions of wine being brought up from cellars and opened for meals. “In England there were always two people you trusted: your doctor and your wine merchant,” she says. “Your health and your pleasure.”
She wrote Sniffing the Cork, along with C.B. deSwaan, for a U.S audience. “Nobody had talked to Americans about wine,” says Beardsall. “Because of our political/legal situation, and maybe our Puritan background, we’re the only country in the world with warning labels on bottles of wine. Anywhere else in the world, wine is a God-given part of the meal.
“It’s healthier than Coca-Cola. But it’s perceived as elitist. People will drink beer till they’re drunk, or whiskey till they drive into a lamppost, but they won’t drink wine.
Sniffing the Cork is a layman’s catalog of wine knowledge, everything from “What Makes a Great Wine Shop,” to tips for using all the senses with wine, to tours of wine-making regions in Europe, the Americas and Oceania. We learn that sniffing a cork is an affectation, revealing nothing about a wine; but swirling wine in a glass is not. And while green bottles protect red wine from light, it shouldn’t be poured into green glasses—or any other hue, for that matter: wine should be always poured into clear, colorless glasses so its own color can be seen.
Now spending much of the year in Tuscany, Beardsall is also producing her own wine, Cinnamasta. The first vintage, entirely pre-sold, was bottled this past June.
— James S. Bourne