Wine in verse (a micro-podcast): translation and reading of Pascoli’s “To Ciapin”

From the department of “vinum daemonum”

Earlier this week, the adage that poetry is the Devil’s wine popped into mind because of a translation of a famous Italian poem from the late 19th century.

Here’s my translation and reading of “A Ciapin” (“To Ciapin”) by Giovanni Pascoli, originally published in 1899.

The Giuseppe (Pinotto) Galliano in the first and last stanzas is the colonial-era soldier for whom the liqueur is named.

The translation, including notes on some of the Ethiopian terms, follows the podcast.

Thanks for listening! It’s such a powerful poem. There’s so much to say about it. But for now, let’s let the words suffice.

“To Ciapin”

An ode by Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912).

Originally published in 1899; reprinted in the anthology “Odi e Inni” in 1906.

Not a drop has been shared from that pure
vintage you stored in the cellar below
three years ago, for when Pinotto*
arrives on leave.

that vintage flowed from the oak
on the hill, I believe; it despised the soil;
because no other had so much of your iron,
ironclad Piedmont;

like Abba Garima’s red tide,**
that vintage simmered as it was
shaken by a gloomy pulse under
the first moon of March;

and now it’s kept in a sturdy bottle,
a silent but strong heart that holds back
yesterday’s wrath and the long, dreary
thought of revenge:

Trusty Ciapin, let that vintage shudder
in the darkened bottles marked
with cautious wax! Leave it be and let
that Barbera age!

Do not drink the wine of the hero who seeks
in his drink oblivion for his heart and
trembling legs! He lives: There he is, wandering
alone among the ambas.***

Save the wine of the hero, silent
but alive. Unknown constellations
watch him, as do the lions’ broad eyes
between the acacias

Save the wine of the hero who wants
what he wants, who remains at the post
where he will return like the sun, determined
and happy, when…

Save what he keeps still in his heart
when our morsels are like dogs
to the savage ghebbì**** and our honor
is like a servant…

Save your vermilion Barbera
for a day, not far off, when
all wrapped in his flag
Galliano returns.

* Giuseppe Galliano. Pinotto is a diminutive of Giuseppe.

** Abba Garima was one of the “Nine Saints” who helped to bring Christianity to Ethiopia in the 5th century. He and the other saints supposedly crossed the Red Sea from Asia (the Middle East) to Africa.

*** An amba is an distinctive Ethiopian landform, not unlike a mesa.

**** A ghebbi is a royal fortress-city.

Houston Wine Almanac: a new blog devoted to our city’s vibrant wine scene

From the department of “as if I didn’t already have enough to blog about”…

Above: Pascal Prunier-Bonheur Coteaux Bourguignon Le P’tit Bonheur by the glass last night at Brennan’s in Houston, one of the city’s top wine destinations. Note the vintage. Utterly delicious.

Week before last, Brennan’s affable wine director Marcus Gausepohl lamented the fact that Houston lacks a blog devoted to its wine community.

With the shuttering of the Houston Press weekly rag in November last year and the scant however noble ink devoted by the Houston Chronicle to sports writer Dale Robertson’s Herculean wine coverage in America’s fourth largest metropolis, the city needs imho a wider-reaching portal devoted to its wine scene.

And so today, I launched Houston Wine Almanac.

Its mission is to provide regularly updated coverage of the Houston wine scene. It’s intended as an editorial-free space where all community members are invited and encouraged to share information and news.

Publicists, please send me any and all press releases you care to share.

Sommeliers, please feel free to dispatch any info you’d like to disgorge.

Bloggers, please shoot me your link in case I haven’t already added you to the Houston wine resources widget.

And just to get the party started on the right note, here’s an awesome song, below, written and performed by Pappas Bros. Steakhouse sommelier Steven McDonald.

Until today, it lived only through a link on his Facebook. Today, it belongs to the world!

Click here to visit the newly launched blog Houston Wine Almanac.

Poetry is the Devil’s Wine: origin and meaning of the expression

In the 1980s, my high school’s literary magazine was called “The Devil’s Wine,” a reference to the ill-attributed and much misunderstood but often repeated proverb: poetry is the Devil’s wine.

Most dime-store quotation aggregate websites ascribe the quote to St. Augustine. So does the editor of “a compendium of… dark verse,” Tom Piccirilli.

In fact, St. Augustine did not conceive the axiom. Nor did Francis Bacon. But the origin story leads us back to the English critical theorist and scientist (above).

In his essay “Of Truth,” Bacon wrote: “One of the fathers [of the Church], in great severity, called poesy vinum daemonum, because it filleth the imagination; and yet it is but with the shadow of a lie.”

The word vinum means wine in Latin. The word daemonum id the plural genitive of daemon meaning demon (not devil).

A more apt translation from Bacon’s Latin would be the wine of demons.

Over time, some of Bacon’s editors have translated it as devils’ wine (note the English possessive/genitive plural), in other words, the wine of devils (and not Devil’s wine with capital d and singular genitive). I believe this is where the now colloquial expression was born.

Another important distinction: for Bacon, poesy, not poetry, is the wine of demons.

The term poesy, more akin to the Greek poiesis than the contemporary English poetry or poem, denotes not just poetry or poem but rather the art of composing poetry or a poem.

It’s a fine point, I concede. But there is a subtle difference that’s important here: in the context of Bacon’s essay, he’s arguing that literary artifice, the art of creating poetry, can obscure or bend the truth (read the essay here; it’s great, btw).

In his quote of the Church father, he’s probably blending — most scholars agree — a line from St. Augustine and a line from St. Jerome.

In the Confessions, St. Augustine wrote: “vinum erroris ab ebriis doctoribus propinatum” (“the wine of error poured for [me and my fellows] by drunken teachers”).

Like Bacon, who was inspired by him, he was discussing the ways words — literary artifice — can eclipse truth.

In one of his epistles to Pope Damasus I, St. Jerone wrote that “daemonum cibus est carmina poetarum” (“the poets’ verses are the food of demons”).

I haven’t been able to track down the original letter (yet). But I believe that St. Jerome is apologizing to the Pope for his use of a parable (literary artifice) to illustrate one of Christ’s teachings (according to descriptions of the letter, it describes and recounts the Parable of the Prodigal Son).

So the next time someone misattributes this erroneous quote, please correct them and tell them to pair the wine of error with the food of demons.

Thanks for reading.

Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Authenticity in the bottom of the bottle: the new wave of ancestral method Lambrusco

One of the more memorable tastings from my Vinitaly this year was with Alessandro Medici (above), the current generation of the Medici Ermete winemaking legacy.

If you follow Italian wine in the U.S. (and especially if you like Lambrusco), you probably already know his family’s wines. Medici Ermete is one of the Lambrusco powerhouses and its wines are nearly ubiquitous in the states.

But the twenty-something Alessandro wasn’t interested in showing me the estate’s popular Concerto, its best-selling wine. Instead, he wanted to pour me a wine that he has created and launched this year: Phermento, an ancestral-method Labmrusco di Sorbara.

Most Lambrusco (like Prosecco) is made using the Martinotti method (sometimes referred to, however erroneously, as the Charmat method). A still “base” wine is produced. The wine is then transferred to pressurized tank. A sweetener and yeast are added to provoke a second fermentation. The resulting CO2 is captured and contained by the sealed vat. The sediment (from the dead yeast) is separated from the wine using a temperature control system. And then the wine is bottled.

Some Lambrusco is made using the classic method (also known as the traditional method or Champagne method, although it’s illegal in Europe to call it the Champagne method except for when used in Champagne). A sweetener and yeast are added to the base wine in bottle. The bottle is sealed. A second fermentation occurs. The CO2 is trapped in the bottle. The wines are “aged on their lees” (the dead yeast) for shorter or longer periods depending on the producer. The sediment is disgorged by storing the wines upside down at a 45° angle, thus causing the solids to be concentrated in the bottle’s neck. The sediment is generally removed by freezing the neck and then allowing the pressure of the CO2 to expel it from the wine once the seal is removed (although there are other ways to disgorge the wine).

But more and more Lambrusco producers are using the ancestral method to make their wines these days. And Alessandro’s is the first to be released commercially by his family’s estate.

The ancestral method is as simple as it is challenging.

A base wine is produced and then a sweetener is added at bottling. Although not everyone in the wine world agrees on what exactly “ancestral method” denotes, most Prosecco and Lambrusco producers concur that the addition of the sweetener at bottling distinguishes the method from pétillant-naturel wines (known in the vernacular as “pét nat”) because the latter is bottled before fermentation is completed. In other words, pétillant-naturel wines only undergo one fermentation while ancestral method wines go through two.

Ancestral method wines like Alessandro’s are not disgorged. You can see the sediment in the bottom of the bottle above.

It’s challenging to make wines like this because, as many winemakers have told me, you have to get the amount of sweetener just right to obtain a dry wine. Too much sweetener will lead to unwanted residual sugar and an off-dry as opposed to dry wine.

I enjoyed Alessandro’s Phermento a lot: fresh and clean on the nose, with delicious primary grape flavors and some berry fruit — just right for a wine like this.

But it also struck me that this new entry from a winery like his family’s marks a new wave of commodification of what was once a wholly rural tradition.

Sometimes these wines are called rimosso, a term you could translate as re-animated or revived (not removed or repressed, as the term is sometimes translated depending on the context). They are reminiscent of the days when most country-dwelling Emilians grew their own Lambrusco and made their own wines (before the EU reforms that enticed them to grub up their vines). Grandpa or dad (and yes, it was the patriarch who made the wine, not the matriarch) would add a handful of sugar to the bottle to attenuate Lambrusco’s bitter character (most people don’t realize that Lambrusco is a highly tannic grape). I remember drinking wines like that in the early 1990s when I spent time in the countryside outside of Reggio Emilia.

Today, winemakers like Alessandro are trying to appeal to a revived interest in ancestral method and pétillant-naturel wines among young American (and to some extent Italian) consumers. Beyond the fact that it makes for a good conversation starter, the rimosso wines seem to convey a richer sense of authenticity.

Are they more authentic than Martinotti-method Lambruscos? Do they taste better? They certainly cost more because they are more costly to make.

I’m confident that Alessandro is going to hit a long ball with this wine. At the fair in April he told me he was heading to New York for an exclusive launch of the new label. The wine is delicious, the packaging is fantastic (he tracked down an elusive local artist to create it), and Alessandro has all the right energy to make this label a genuine success.

But would grandpa recognize a wine in a clear bottle, with an artist’s label, and a sensational name like Phermento (a hypercorrective paronomasia playing on ferment fermentation)? I don’t think so. But then again I remember people, inspired by California’s new cuisine, putting boiled corn kernels into their salads in Italy in the late 1980s. Grandpa looked over and said, “in my day, that’s what we fed to the chickens.”

In other Lambrusco news…

I’m dying to read Alice Feiring’s article on Lambrusco in the current issue of The World of Fine Wine.

Have a sparkling weekend, everyone! Thanks for being here.

Is the “best white wine in the world” Italian? Maybe not but Lugana delivers a world-class label…

When the press release reached my inbox earlier this year, its author’s claim seemed like a bit of stretch: “Montonale Lugana Orestilla named best white wine in the world by Decanter” (translation from the Italian mine).

In fact, the 2015 vintage of the wine, rated a 95 out of 100 points by the editors, had been awarded the “best single-variety white wine” prize by the magazine’s 2017 tasting panel.

The 2016, also a winner of the masthead’s gold medal, scored a whopping 96 points (besting the previous vintage by a point) with the magazine’s 2018 tasting panel.

I had to pull some serious strings at Vinitaly this year to taste the 2016. Even though I had asked the winery’s publicist to make me an appointment at its stand at the fair, the team member flat out refused to pour me the wine when I showed up at the agreed-on time. It took a call to the owner himself to open that bottle (I know a guy…).

And it was worth it… If ever there were a white that embodied the notion of “unbearable lightness,” this would be it: the wine’s intense, rich flavor and texture was buoyed by its remarkable freshness and its glowing white fruit and white flowers. And underlying the fruit, a vein (as the Italians would say) of delicate nuttiness played its savor character in counterpoint to the elegant, juicy sweetness. What a wine!

It was also impressive inasmuch as Lugana, beyond the Brescia-Verona axis, is rarely considered a contender for best in show. Part of my curiosity about the above-mentioned (and overblown) release stemmed from the fact that you never see Lugana and its local variety Turbiana called out like this (by the way, many today believe that Turbiana is genetically synonymous with Verdicchio and not Trebbiano as the linguistic affinity would suggest).

If this wine is any indication of the appellation’s potential (and surely it is), we should all be looking more carefully at Lugana as one of the spiritual homes for great white wine from Italy.

Is the “best white wine in the world” Italian? Probably not. But man, Italy’s ability to deliver world-class whites seems only to expand.