Symposium – to drink together

Have you ever participated in a symposium? It is usually some kind of conference, with presentations and discussions to share new knowledge and experiences. Often used in the academic world, but also in relation to business and organisational events.

Do you think about wine when you hear the word symposium? Not so? Although perhaps not that strange, as we nowadays seem to have forgotten the original meaning of a symposium.

We will have to travel back to the ancient Greek world, to the time of Plato around 400 BC, to find the explanation. Symposium, it means to “drink together”. And what the old Greeks drank, that was wine. A lot of wine.

The host, or should we call him the Master of ceremonies, decided the rules of drinking. The Greeks mixed their wine with water, and how much water, that was the decision of Mr. Master of ceremonies. The dinner was already completed before the symposium, so I guess there was not much of food. On the other hand, there was plenty of wine. So much wine that, even if it was weak and blended, the guests after a night’s symposium were helplessly drunk.
So the stories tell us.

One of the duties of Mr Master of ceremonies was to keep the conversation going. Plato thought that the particpants alternately should talk and listen and thus entertain themselves. However, the participation of entertaining girls, dancing and playing flute, seems to have been just as usual. The symposium, in ancient Greece, was a gathering for the men.

One of the most delightful pleasures for us wine lovers is to gather and taste the wine together.  To discuss and listen to the talk about the wine and around the wine. To share memories and plans and anything else. So why do we not call our gatherings for symposium? Is it for the use in the academic world or have we just forgotten the original meaning?

Isn’t it time to reclaim the word symposium to the world of wine? To summon a symposium when we want to have some lovely grapes in our glasses. When we want to taste and discuss and learn about wine together. The best of pleasures.

The wines of history – 1976

I am really fascinated by wine and history. It may be thousands of years back or just some decades, it does not matter. History gives perspectives. Histories bring the wine to life. History is histories about wine and the characters of wine.

On top of the pile of wine books right now is George Taber’s “Judgment of Paris; California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine”. It is the second time I read the book and it is just as interesting now as it was the first time, perhaps even more. So much information and historical details, so many small stories within the history. So captivating. It is hard to stop reading.

Taber was the only journalist present at the historical blind tasting in Paris, where the Californian wines beat the French. This is his story about the tasting, but also the story about the people behind the wines. Taber puts The Paris Judgment in an historical perspective by letting us follow him on a time journey before and after the tasting.

We get to follow Steven Spurrier who arranged the tasting together with his collegue Patricia Gallagher. We get the details of how the wines were chosen, about the tasting and the effects of it. (And the story was not as in the movie Bottle shock. The movie may be a light entertainment, but it is not an historical document. Read the book!)

The part of the book I appreciate mostly, is the one telling the background of the Californian winning wines. It is the stories about the different winemakers and the winery owners. But it is also the story about the pioneering spirit of Napa Valley, about helping hands between wineries and about the desire to experiment, renew and improve the winemaking methods. “What is good for Napa and California, that is also good for my wine and my success.” That was the attitude during a time when people not regarded the Californian wines very highly, not even in the US, and when consumers were led to the French shelves in the wine stores.

The 24 of May in 1976, a beautiful sunny day in Paris, history was written. California brings home the victory for the white Chardonnay wines, as well as for the red ones made of Cabernet Sauvignon. The tasting confirmed what few knew, something that almost had been a secret reserved for the most knowledegable. The fact that California could make great wines. That knowledge was from this date spread over the world.

This day also became a milestone in the development of the New World. If California can, we can. That was the conclusion. And France was shaken. Those who embraced the result, travelled to California to experience and learn from their winemakers.

Quite recently I had the opportunity to taste the winning white wine from Chateau Montelena. Then it was the 1973 vintage. Now 2009. 

It was a winner today, just as it was back in 1976. Elegant, austere, fresh fruitiness with notes of lemon. On the palate almost fullbodied, a lovely buttery character with fruit, exotic notes and lemon. Very well balanced and concentrated. Lingering in the mouth for a very long time. Delightful, lovely, wonderfully tasty.

In 1973 it was Jim Barrett who, together with his winemaker Mike Grgich (now Grgich Hills Estate) were the men behind the winning wine. Today it is Jim’s son Bo Barrett who is main responsible for the winemaking.

If you get the chance to taste a Montelena; take it, enjoy it and feel the history of wine.

Addition March 2013: The news has reached us that Jim Barrett died on March 14, aged 86. Chateau Montelena will remain in ownership of the Barrett family, now with Bo Barrett as CEO.

Wine at University

Autumn is here and as usual a lot of activities. To my great joy, it seems that the calendar will be crowded with wine related events. 

A wine class at University, that was not what I thought would be included just ten days ago. I had applied in spring, but got a negative reply in July. Then, suddenly an e-mail which offered me to join the class. Several excuses apparently. And I was happy.

So now I will approach wine from a new perspective, the academic. The history of wine is appears first on the syllabus. A subject which really interests me. Hugh Johnson’s great book about the story of wine has previously been my major source. Now new books/articles will get me deeper into the subject. Great!

The first day was fun and busy. I never thought I would be tasting and making wine in a Swedish University. But now I have done it! Wine from already prepared grape must, but still wine. In January we will know the outcome – will it be drinkable?