My Grandfather’s Artichoke
Or why swirling wine is essential
“Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke,” Bette Davis snarls as Margot Channing in “All about Eve.” It’s one of cinema’s great bitchy moments.
Surely, as we noted in the December 2014 edition of OWP, we first SEE wine in a glass. But it’s the SWIRL that sets the dancer to dance.
During my starter marriage, and at our starter house with its earth tones, throw pillows, poster art, and parsons’ tables, my grandfather came to Sunday dinner. He encountered an artichoke for the first time, just a bit into his ninth decade.
“What is this thing?” he asked.
Here was a person who was born on a farm in New Jersey about a decade before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. And he remained topside well into the decade after Neil Armstrong put that famous small step on the surface of the moon.
Technically, eating an artichoke that day proved as challenging as calibrating a re-entry vehicle’s descent. What Charlie — that was his name — did next seems, in retrospect, intuitive. He turned the artichoke around and around. “What am I supposed to do with this thing?”
My former wife, the journalist, came to his rescue, pulled a tender outer leaf from his starter course, and dipped it into a mix of butter, garlic and olive oil. He simply took the whole leaf, bit into it, and swallowed it. “Good garlic,” he said. And then he proceeded to turn the artichoke — nay, swirled this odd appetizer in its functional dish around some more.
I recall this event because we regard food and drink often by turning it around, like an idea or proposition; not in our heads, but on the plate or in the stem. Like the dreaded drip of garlic butter and oil onto one’s tie or trousers, swirling wine poses a parallel risk: the SWIRL that goes airborne before it lands where it shouldn’t.
This bit of domestic history aside, swirling the wine is more prone to slapstick than skewering. Like the gargles of Alan Rickman or Paul Giamatti, the SWIRL step in winetasting rites makes The Swirled look pretentious, if not ridiculous.
I offer one caveat: Do not swirl the wine in the stem with the vigor a mixologist applies to shaking a designer cocktail in the hip place of the moment. It has a place and it is not on your lap or tank top or on the furniture. So why bother? After all, Charlie’s most excellent adventure with an artichoke occurred only one time.
Be not intimidated by the SWIRL; rather, consider it a practical and vital step in the apprehension of wine. It has scientific and aesthetic purposes; thus in a way it reflects the vintner’s art as the SWIRL uses chemistry, climatology and physics.
On the website www.telegraph.co.uk, a post called “Why swirling wine in a glass makes it taste better,” the authors point to the physics of “orbital shaking.” While the Hula-Hoop may also represent a form of this motion, the encounter between wine and air creates a vertical force, allowing tannins to soften and aromas increase, especially at the rim and the surfaces just below.
The SWIRL is vital because wine needs air. To enhance its qualities, wine needs room to breathe after its seeming resurrection from the suspended animation of the time in the barrel and bottle. Once in the stem, the wine begins to tell its story, reveal its secrets, and merge history and place with the moment.
The famous opening of Beethoven’s Fifth (750ml?) Symphony would not sound without oxygen; the air vibrates when the C minor chord sets the whole thing in motion with a triplet of a diminished third down to the held tonic: the C-note. The music of wine equally begins when exposed to air. As in a symphony, wine unfolds texturally and over a period of time.
As my grandfather demonstrated, the SWIRL is instinctive, intuitive and marks the wine because it unleashes the potential energy held in the bottle and bruited about by wine merchants and wine writers before the energy becomes kinetic. The famous four-note pattern of the symphony is nothing if not the release of potential energy into explosive kinesis.
Despite the instinctive turns of stemware, there exist certain small principles that keep the SWIRL from becoming a Basil Fawlty sight gag.
Start with the stem. Bubbly wines make their own fizz music and the Champagne flute takes its slim profile from its purpose, matchless pairing of form and function. Uncorked, all of those CO2 bubbles soar up to escape into the air. Few things elicit more pleasure, except for caviar.
Other wine glasses are more bulbous, and if the flute channels the air, the larger stems throw wide open, so to speak, the wine windows.
Consider the Oregon Pinot Noir glass: The flare at the top promotes the oxygen but also bars flying gobs of wine. It’s good practice with one of these glasses — may I suggest starting with water in the glass so mistakes don’t lead to dry cleaning. Approximately 2 ounces of liquid is enough to work with.
In my own practice, I move the glass — holding it from the base or the stem just above it — in small circles on a flat surface — a party-favor tablecloth does not have the body as a rule to neatly accommodate the pressure. I tend to swirl this way throughout the tasting or meal simply to keep the air going. I realize that I do this often without even thinking about the action — sort of like my grandfather’s natural response to the conundrum of an artichoke.
Readers may also practice and prefer to swirl the glass on an angle, holding the stem aloft; this can reassert the visuals the wine offers.
Some sommeliers make a big deal of vigorous motion well above the surface. One writer calls this a faux lasso and terms the effect “obnoxious.” As Queen Gertrude tells Polonius, “More matter, with less art.”
Swirls liberate aroma in the wine to allow its flavor profiles to emerge as alcohol evaporates when it hits the air. The SWIRL is for rosé and white wine as much as for the more densely textured red wines, which have the most dramatic color for swirling. No matter the varietal, the SWIRL contributes to the purpose and value of the winetasting rite.
If you remain skittish about the SWIRL, just recall Charlie’s close encounter with an artichoke. You are never too old to discover something that combines the utility of the sciences with the pleasure of the arts. Ernest Hemingway wrote that memory is hunger. I demur. Memory is thirst. Just ask Charlie, wherever he is, doing some serious orbital shaking.