Wine as Life Shared

red wine magicWine is DEFINITELY alive. Each glass speaks to me, and sings from the lips of a large tulip shaped vessel like Pavarotti from the Met. Each bottle tells a story from beginning to end. Wine shared with friends connects us through its life given between our sipping smiles.

I started drinking wine in my twenties, back in the 1980’s. I did it out of curiosity. I also had a house-mate who enjoyed wine and wanted to explore further, and a colleague at work who was an avid wine drinker.

My house-mate and I went to the local liquor store and bought a few cheap bottles of red to try. The taste didn’t appeal to me at first. It tasted sour. Apparently I was drinking poor quality wine. I also soon learned that wine’s quality is not necessarily related to its price.

bottles of red wineBack then Australian wines were becoming widely recognized. California was the hot spot for great wine, but it was already overpriced. On the recommendation of my colleague, I bought a bottle of Australian Shiraz for about $8. I was blown away by the first sip.

red wine in glassesIt tasted fruity and voluptuous, with a velvety texture. It was thick, almost viscous, with a huge, fruit bomb flavor. I didn’t need to ask the reason for sniffing the wine or swirling it around in one’s mouth. The wine encouraged admiration from every angle. I’ve never forgotten that experience. Beginning with that bottle I formed a connection with an ancient and living tradition.

A few months later I heard about the closing of a large warehouse of wine. I was still a novice, so I didn’t feel comfortable buying too much. Plus I couldn’t afford much more than a case. I picked out a variety of things, mostly based on price. Everything was about half off, so I could buy a few things which had been out of my range before.

chateau montrose labelI decided to try a bottle of Bordeaux, a Chateau Montrose, Grand Cru Classé, from the Sainte Estephe area. (Check out this map. Ste. Esteph is in dark purple, next to the Gironde River) It was about $15, down from $30. Today, a similar vintage Montrose (5 years old) would cost $150. The name sounded familiar, and I knew by then that the Grand Cru Classé was near top quality Bordeaux wine.

I had studied French in high school and college. And I had biked through France, spending a fair amount of time in Bordeaux and Burgundy, the two great wine regions of the country.

red wine loveBordeaux is the original region of masterful wines in the world. They refined the art of making red wine. But it was the British who spurred the world to appreciate great, aged wine. They collected it and cellared it and cultivated the popularity of drinking imported wine. Otherwise the French would have just kept quiet and drunk it all themselves.

I saved that bottle for a few years. I didn’t have a cellar to keep it cool, so I couldn’t hold it too long. A special occasion arose to open it. My group house, which had been together for 4 years, was breaking up. The owner was selling the property. The four of us went out to a fine restaurant to celebrate a last meal together. I took the Chateau Montrose we had it with dinner.

I remember ordering a fillet mignon for dinner. I still believe it is the perfect compliment to a great French red wine. Yes, I said the food compliments the wine, not the other way around.

redwineglow.jpgMy first sip of the wine melted me. My friends thought I had fainted. It was perfect, at least from the view of my experience. The flavor was complex and subtle, just like the French culture. The mix of grapes, traditional in Bordeaux, formed a unique whole, like a great perfume. It lingered long and evenly on my tongue, opening up as it slid down my throat. It was dry enough to balance the food, certainly much dryer and more subtle than the Shiraz which had started me on this adventure a few years back.

The occasion of celebrating with good friends, coupled with delicious food, added to the experience of drinking that great wine. I found out later that Chateaux Montrose is one of the most respectable wines of the Bordeaux region. The convergence of all that history marked that night as one of the most memorable in my life.

My Blog Birthday

Witch Hazel with SnowI turned one year old a few days ago. Aren’t you impressed with my strong verbal skills at such a tender age?! In fact, I came out of the blog womb jabbering.

In my first few days of life, I mused on the nature of Compulsive Behavior. Believe it or not, I’ve finally learned how to deal with that problem. Soften into it, smile and be gentle with yourself. The beginning of change is acceptance. If my tendency toward compulsion helped produce this year old blog, then it was worth it. Writing and reading here has been incredibly healing for me. Even if most of what I write has no greater import than that, I sense that it’s value has been appreciated by you.

One of my very first posts was about the Comfort of Friends. I’ve formed many friendships here in the blogosphere. Some have faded, but few have been completely lost. All have been valuable to me. There have been many discussions among bloggers on the nature of blog friendships. They are so tenuous, veiled, ghostly. Yet they can offer some of the deepest healing. Perhaps it’s because people can offer gentle compassion from the safe distance of electronic communication. One blogger friend, Betty, is a good friend in real life, and our real friendship is tempered by our gentle support of each other through our blog comments.

I mused on the Myth of Tomorrow, the strange wisdom of which I often need to remind myself. The quote I listed from the Gospel of St. Thomas resonates deeply as I reflect on how much I’ve shared and learned of myself in the past year.

In the past weeks, I’ve enjoyed the citrine blossoms of the late Winter flowering Witch Hazel bush which lights the way to longer days and dreamy ways. One of my first poems written for this blog features those flowers, also shown in the photo above.

Spring Light

My eyes drift to the garden,
Lifted by soft citrine light
Toward the Witch Hazel’s
Glow, lonely and bright.
Fed by waning day’s lazy rays,
Among burnt brown and grays
This courageous bush
Harassed by Frost
Beacons by it’s spry gleam
Giving patient solace to
Weary Winter’s dream.

Here’s to being a blog year old, and to another fruitful year in this rich and satisfying medium. And here’s to the dozens of friendships I’ve formed through this blog. And finally, here’s to the thrill of freedom and the right to free speech and free thought. Use it or lose it. Blog on. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. I’ve been spending time with an Albanian friend who grew up under communism.

Dreaming Big; the Perfect Conductor

rainbowI’m still pinching myself. I’m sure I’ll wake up and find it was all a dream. In all my 17 years as principal clarinetist of the Columbus Symphony, I’ve never been this optimistic about my career.

Four years ago I was chosen to be on the search committee to choose a new music director of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. The music director is much more than a conductor, especially in the US. He not only shapes the musical product of the orchestra, but fashions the image of the organization to draw financial support. The music director IS the organization to the public eye. Big shoes.

Oddly enough orchestral musicians have not traditionally been asked to help choose the MD (music director). We are obvious choices, considering our experience and skill in the orchestra, and since it’s our jobs which are at stake. Who better to choose our musical soul mate than us? But we are perfectionists. Our relationship with the MD is intimate, and the glamor sometimes wears off. Hirokami even joked about it, saying “I hope the honeymoon lasts”. Something tells me it will last this time.

The search had been rocky, with some candidates popular among the elite supporters of symphony and not the orchestra. The point was to choose someone who could flourish both on and off the podium. We were all worried that a universally loved candidate would not appear.

The very last candidate was Junichi Hirokami. He is Japanese, 4′2″ in height, and spoke broken English. But the musicians loved him. His natural ability with musical phrasing, rhythm and style elicited our best playing. His charisma was infectious. My friends who attended that first weekend raved about him. So after only two “dates” with him, we used our newly acquired clout to recommend him the sole candidate.

As a committee member, I felt the responsibility of my position in shaping the future of the orchestra. There were some contentious meetings where reasonable doubts were raised about Hirokami’s ability to raise money and commune with needed donors. I wondered myself. He had never run an American orchestra. But he promised full attention to anything necessary for us to succeed and flourish. He really, really loved us as an orchestra and desired to take us to the next level. I believed him. So did most of the orchestra.

In response to the non-musician committee members doubts about his ability to flourish off the podium, I used a business model to clarify my point. I asked them which is more important in the long run: a great marketer or a great product? Ultimately, the quality of the product is what sells it. My arguments, along with the excitment of the other musicians on the committee must have had an effect. They chose to take a chance and agreed to hire him. I was elated, but uneasy.

The negotiations took several months. The musicians became apprehensive, perhaps a lover’s fear of being jilted. Understandably we were nervous that our dream would pop. Hirokami was slated to appear in February, and only two weeks before his engagement it became official. Finally. He was to be our next music director. We were relieved. But I still didn’t exhale.

In the first rehearsal his familiar, friendly way of leading continued from the two “dates” we had with him before “marrying” him. In fact, he was almost too friendly. He kept saying, “Just relax and trust yourselves.” Why? Now that he was our boss, shouldn’t he criticize us more to improve the product? His tempos were relaxed. Perhaps too relaxed. Where was the excitement? Uh-Oh! Were we merely drunk with love on the first two dates? Was I the nervous bride with cold feet?

A press conference was held after the rehearsal to splash the news of his arrival around town. President Bush happened to be in town, so the press crowd for us was bare minimum. Lucky for us. In responding to the first question asked of him by a reporter, Hirokami became confused and had trouble understanding. My spirit sank. This wasn’t looking good.

Thankfully he perked up soon after and gave an impressive interview to Barbara Zuck stating clear goals for the orchestra. At the many hobnobbing parties held through the week, he was direct about asking for money. He began to fashion an iconography, using a green handkerchief to symbolize peaceful world relations. He hailed the American principal of “freedom” as the reason for his being hired and emphasized the value of international connections. He was building bridges artfully and skillfully. His wife and daughter were a big hit. His charm and charisma reached beyond his differences. This relieved me, but I was still apprehensive about the musical product.

Friday night arrived. I showed up early to work on reeds and warm up thoroughly. I wanted to play my best, especially since the we in the orchestra had chosen him. Junichi Hirokami walked out on stage. The musicians all stood in the traditional respect for the conductor. The maestro was dwarfed among the towering American bodies. He stepped onto the podium, and after acknowledging the audience, he smiled at us. He lifted his baton and gave the downbeat.

The first piece was Dvorak’s Carneval Overture. Though the tempo matched what he had rehearsed, the spirit was fresh. Maestro Hirokami exuded control and confidence far beyond his diminutive stature. He was larger than life. He knew exactly what he was doing. The orchestra played buoyantly, as someone who jovially laughs in celebration of great fortune. Music was encouraged and allowed to flow from us. Our desire to play well rose up to meet the maestro’s geniality. The audience seemed to agree, judging by the enthusiasm of their cheers.

After the concert, I remembered a question Maestro Hirokami had asked us rhetorically; “Why isn’t your orchestra more famous?” Now, rather than doubting him, I was thinking, “Why not?”

Pinching myself never felt so good.