“The Spirit of Place”


In his book, The Accidental Connoisseur, Lawrence Osborne takes the reader on a trek through the discovery of wine. British-born Osborne, who is a novelist but also has written for the New York Times, writes of his experiences learning about living out the discovery of the spiritual essence and evolution of American wine terroir and tastes. I picked this book up on a whim. It’s sat around my house, and until recently I only breached the first chapter or so. But I, too, have a desire to “know more” about the subtleties and beauty of the ancient drink, and thought his travelogue (of sorts) would be a good introduction.

I haven’t been disappointed. I’ve savored the book, reading a chapter here, a chapter there, and have let myself ponder the things this excellent writer says. His language, like his subject, is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. This is especially true in his chapter, “The Spirit of Place.” Here, Osborne speaks of the essayist, Gerald Asher, and his response to a question that torments wine connoisseurs of all ages, and for all ages: What is the best wine you’ve ever had? It would be equivalent, in many respects, to asking my favorite question of chefs: What would you choose for your last meal on earth? You put this person who has made wine — or food, respectively — their lives in a position to narrow down all the tastes and flavors of their entire career, into one or two selections. 

Cruel. But we who are uneducated in such things often want a “fast fix,” a suggestion that, if we are ever in a position to experience, we could say, “Oh yes! This is Gerald Asher’s ‘favorite’ wine of all times,” or “Oh, Anthony Bourdain would have this as his last meal …” Somehow, we glean off of them bits and pieces that we ourselves are sadly absent from. 

Asher, however, threw out the next few lines. I think they are beautiful — and true:

“But most memorable of my life? Were it not that people casually met might assume I was making fun of them, I would in fact explain that it was, and still remains, unidentified. I drank it at a mouton inn near the Simplon pass in the early summer of either 1962 or 63.” Osbourne goes on to explain that, at the time, Asher was a young man visiting Europe wineries for a London importer he worked for. Asher goes on to explain the nuances of the experience, the taste of the wine, the amused look on the server’s face when he asked what it was, and she replied, “vino rosa” (red wine). In all his years of traveling and tasting wine, he never found anything like it again. Then, he said this:

But the pleasure in any wine is subjective: we each bring something to what is there in the glass and interpret the result differently.” Osbourne interprets Asher thus: “Asher seems to be suggesting that place itself is twofold: on the one hand, it is terroir; on the other, it is what is going on around you as you are drinking. The first is geological, the second psychological. And taste was presumably a high-wire act balancing itself precariously between the two (p. 91).”

I had a similar experience when we were in China. Bruce, the kids and I were invited by Chinese national Byron (who happened to be the kids’ administrator over their school) to visit the Great Wall, with him as tour guide. He brought with him his beautiful wife Sue and his nephew, Ray, neither of whom spoke much English. I was beyond stoked. This man had lived in the shadow of The Wall his entire life. He had visited several times, hiking many miles. He was kind — his English excellent. I knew the day would be memorable.

On the way to the wall, we stopped by a restaurant of which I cannot remember its name. It was a family-owned place, situated about an hour from the Wall. It was in the middle of a tourist town, laid dormant for the winter. We appeared to be one of only two or three guest groups there that day. 

We were lead upstairs to a huge round table. Marissa and Wesley informed us we’d be having “dishes,” a traditional form of Chinese eating where things are served “family style” from a huge lazy susan that continually turned, and was replenished as dishes wore thin. There were dishes I cannot name to this day. Byron explained that much of what we ate that day was gathered locally, and only available near this village. Things were well spiced, most stir fried and retained their crunch. The fish was like butter, melting in your mouth. The vegetable were foreign and exotic and were some of the best I’d ever had. We sat, eating, laughing, conversing … crossing language barriers and cultural stumbling blocks like old friends, they helping us navigate not only the culinary experience, but helping us better understand the beautiful Chinese people. 

To this day, it was perhaps one of the best meals I ever had. And like Asher, I wonder. Was it the true geography of the dinner table that day? Or was it “everything else”? I believe my experience that day was the “high-wire act,” balanced between actual good taste (which the food was) and the entire experience of being a world away, enjoying good food, and good company, and once-in-a-lifetime ambiance. 

The spirit of place. It’s true in our day to day lives, too. Certain places — certain meals or drinks — ring out to us. I believe, as I get older, it becomes more difficult for me to separate what my senses experience and what my mind frames it all in. And this evolving ,epiphanous state of being helps me deal with the ups and downs of life more serenely. 

I received disappointing and discouraging news today. I had a choice. Do I process it as a life-altering event, or do I process it as “another thing”? Here, in the peace of my home, surrounding by loving family and supportive friends, is it really “that big of a deal”? Will I remember today with heartbreak, or will I remember today as “the day that took me to what was next”? It’s my choice. 

This will probably not be an end, as it feels right now. Rather, when I look back and attempt to categories the “best” and “worse” from my life, it might not even make the cut. Why? Because the surrounding geography has little to do with the psychology that tells me this is not a defining moment. It does not tell me what I am or what I am not. I am atop the high wire, balancing it all out. Wine, food, disappointment — it’s all subjective. It’s all under my interpretation. 

The spirit of this place I call home reminds me to breathe deep. So, I will.


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