Fruit of the vine

From the ages of 19 to 21 years old, following a year spent in Paris -and how everyone should live in Paris when they are 18 years old, the only age at which you believe you know everything- I lived in Burgundy. My home was the red-roofed medieval village of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, a place so outrageously beautiful and so suspiciously idyllic that you never can quite completely believe it to be real. These three years were spent training for the priesthood and while that particular dream was never to be fulfilled, I left with a love for French and France that ultimately ended up with me becoming a scholar specializing in French literature and cultural history. The photograph below shows Flavigny, a charming place nestled on a hill, and the building on the very left of the photograph (with a grey bell tower whose persistent bell woke me up every day at 6am, with the decadent later time of 6:30am on Sundays) is the seminary in which I spent those two years. From my bedroom window I could look down on the thirteenth-century Porte du Val gateway, visible in the photograph, built to keep out the English, and from the bottom of the seminary garden was a vista overlooking the valley of Alesia, where Julius Caesar finally defeated the Gauls and captured Vercingetorix in 52BC. I count myself fortunate to have spent my salad days in such a salubrious environment.

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Courtesy of JohnVenice, Flickr

The one thing that always reminded me of being transplanted in an exotic place, like Ruth’s alien corn, was seeing grapes growing everywhere in the surrounding region, and even in our very garden. Coming from savagely beautiful rural climes of the north-west of England, this seemed to be intoxicating to me, providing many sudden moments of awareness of being a stranger in a strange land. While grapes produce a range of products including ethanol and grape juice, it is virtually impossible to think of this fruit without the mental association of wine. My love affair with wine began, fittingly, in Burgundy. Until then, wine had been something I tolerated when offered, my teenaged beverage of choice being sweet cider. Then, one rare free day, a fellow French seminarian who had a car offered to take three of us to Nuit-Saint-Georges, one of the premier vineyards in the world. We ventured to a small, ancient holding  for a free tasting and found ourselves the only ones there. The proprietor was on duty and seemed bemused at the sight of four earnest young men dressed in black cassocks who wanted to sample some of his produce. I don’t know whether he was a believer or was sympathetic to the Church, or quite simply divined that we didn’t get many treats in our austere lives, but this fellow decided to let us liberally sample some of the most expensive vintages that were obviously usually earmarked for richer customers, the bottles being priced at eye-watering prices. He spoke of each one in the respectful hushed tones we normally reserved for church and from the first mouthful of the first vintage he offered us, I had an oenophilic epiphany. I finally got it. I knew at last why wine was an integral part of the fabric of human history and I knew a Rubicon had been crossed and I would never turn back. Another memorable epiphany for me occurred in my 2009 trip to Portugal. I tried a 1952 white Dalva port, below, at Vinologia, a port bar in Porto run by a Frenchman, that I felt I had been born to taste. I went back to enjoy it by itself before the end of my visit.

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Wine-making has been taking place for at least 8,000 years and there is something mysterious about the fermentation of the fruit to make a drink that can have such potent effects. The fact that this drink can transform our mood and have quantifiable physical effects on us explains its prominent role in many religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity. Wine is mentioned no fewer than 155 times in the Old Testament. Indeed, Psalm 103 praises God for facets of His creation, including “Et vinum laetificat cor hominis”: and the wine gladdening the human heart. At the heart of Catholicism, there is the liturgy, that feeling of the pulse of the divine enacted out countless times all over the planet every day, in which wine plays a central role and perhaps a more visually striking one than the Host, the bread, since it resembles blood, a fact that has not been lost on poets throughout the centuries. In Charles Baudelaire’s semi-blasphemous “Hymne à la Beauté” (Hymn to Beauty), the first stanza makes a comparison between being bewitched by beauty and being under the influence of wine:

Viens-tu du ciel profond ou sors-tu de l’abîme,
O Beauté? ton regard, infernal et divin,
Verse confusément le bienfait et le crime,
Et l’on peut pour cela te comparer au vin.

Do you come from Heaven or rise from the abyss,
Beauty? Your gaze, divine and infernal,
Pours out confusedly benevolence and crime,
And one may for that, compare you to wine.

Baudelaire, whose poetic manipulation of the French language achieved things with it and for it that were unthinkable until that point, daringly rhymes “divin” and “au vin”, but really the simile is not at all sacrilegious because the transformation of mood heralded by wine is also mirrored in the process of viticulture itself, where very inviting looking fruit metamorphoses into an incredible drink, a veritable secular transsubstantiation.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Wine growing also brings to mind human labour and the many people involved in its culture and production. My favourite image in this respect is the month of September in the fifteenth-century Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, above, which depicts peasants busily tending vines. One indolent figure is contentedly and greedily devouring grapes while his pregnant wife momentarily pauses from her toil. There is a particular timeless resonance about the societal inequalities that have many working hard for the enjoyment of a few, made more raw and poignant when it comes to a product that is a byword for merriment, feasting, and conviviality. Whether purposeful or not in the medieval illumination, the cold, menacing, and impersonal walls of the castle loom over the human, hard-working, and diverse characters in the vines. John Steinbeck picks up this trope in the title to his 1939 masterpiece about the Dust Bowl, The Grapes of Wrath. In this connection, there is a very fitting singular irony in the invention of the printing press. Gutenberg’s press was directly modelled on the screw wine presses of the Rhine Valley. The printing press would directly spawn revolt, change, and revolution, an unintended consequence of wine-making indeed.

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Today’s cufflinks are fashioned out of sterling silver by the Californian artist Harold Clifton Fithian (1905-1972). They date from the 1950s and display an astonishing level of detail and craftsmanship as shown in the ornate sides, below.

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Fithian led a somewhat lively and varied life, trying his hand at acting and music as well as jewellery. These links are much more elaborate than other examples of his work, and they are definitely made by his hands rather than by an apprentice. They are a very striking pair. The choice of grape motif interests me very much. Fithian had an acute sense of social justice, having a completely non-segregated studio and training apprentices from all races, something that was all too rare in the 1940s and 1950s. He also was very closely involved in helping to organize strikes and action among farm workers against unjust working conditions, including, significantly, those working in the wine industry. The grape then remains, above all, a potent symbol of transformation, be it social, socially, or spiritually.

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