Is Wine Bottled Poetry? A Poet Responds

You've probably heard of Robert Louis Stevenson's quote that "wine is bottled poetry." You've probably also heard of California's Ridge Vineyards. Well, I'm here to bring both together.

Ever really think about what that quote from Stevenson means? I started to, but it hurt my head. Luckily, I know Christopher Watkins. He's not only a poet and a musician, but is also in charge of retail sales and hospitality at Ridge, and hosts their most excellent and original resource for all things fermented and grape-related, 4488: A Ridge Blog.

Christopher shared his thoughts about wine and poetry and, additionally, reveals who is "the true poet of wine," one worthy of a bottle of 1997 Monte Bello.

"Wine is bottled poetry" is a famous quote from Robert Louis Stevenson. But what do you as a poet see as the relationship between wine and poetry?

To be perfectly frank, I am by and large not a fan of the quote. While the intention may seem clear at first read, I think the metaphor loses focus upon closer inspection. For example, consider the word "bottled." A quick look through a thesaurus will make clear the concern: Most understandings of "bottled" will equate it to everything from preserved, plugged, and protected, to trapped, quelled, and occluded. So was Stevenson suggesting that wine is poetry, trapped? Not likely, of course, but this is the problem with sloppy writing: it is easy to misread. And consider another alternate read: what does wine still in the bottle offer? Promise? Perhaps. Anticipation? Ok. A sense of possession? Maybe. In the end, and at best, something to look forward to, but not yet unloosed—the narrative untold, the experiential not yet experienced. So is this what we're to understand of poetry? That poetry is feeling, still unfelt? Again, not likely the author's intention, but again, a muddy metaphor.

Yet here's a read that I can find intriguing, one I equate to the notion of "conception" in jazz and "terroir" in wine. It is the notion that a finished creation is the resulting record of all that was brought to bear on the work's developmental trajectory. For the jazz musician, it is everything from the first instrument to the last teacher, the first performance to the last record, the scales chosen, the tempos called off, the breaths short or long, the time in three or four. And for a wine, it is the land and those who walk it, the grapes and those who pick them, the sizes of the tanks and the fractions of the press, degree days accumulated, cover crops planted. And is a wine in bottle not the final point along the journey, the encapsulating moment that contains all that came before? And is not a finished poem but the same? Is it not the alpha and omega of the poet's conception? The vessel which contains all the poet brought to bear?

So is wine bottled poetry? Not a question I can answer, as I find the framing unclear. But is a bottle of wine similar to a poem in some fashion? Yes. Terroir is the conception of a wine; a poet the terroir of the poem.

Let's say I just opened a bottle of 1997 Ridge Monte Bello. I'm kicking back with a glass, seated in my comfiest chair, and looking for something to read while I enjoy my wine. What is a volume of poetry or a poem that would be an appropriate accompaniment, and why?

The poems of Li Po, ideally as translated by David Hinton. Li Po is to me without question our true poet of wine; no other quite captures with such ardently melancholic ritualism the fragile beauty and perilous appeal of the sensorial world, no other understands so well the consoling metaphor that wine offers, no other mendicant at the altar of both the word and the world so bittersweetly reconciles the earthen and the saintly. In the arms of the soil, he scales to the heavens, and we, his readers, are delivered.

To wash and rinse our souls of their age-old sorrows,

We drained a hundred jugs of wine.

A splendid night it was . . . .

In the clear moonlight we were loath to go to bed,

But at last drunkenness overtook us;

And we laid ourselves down on the empty mountain,

The earth for pillow, and the great heaven for coverlet.