Today we remember Jim Harrison, author, poet, and bon vivant. Jim was a friend of Kermit’s in addition to sharing an appreciation for fine wines such as Domaine Tempier and Domaine La Tour Vieille. He was also an occasional contributor to our newsletter—his essay below was first published in March 2007.
Please join us in raising a glass to Jim tonight as we celebrate the passion and insight he brought to our world.
1937 – 2016
The Spirit of Wine
by Jim Harrison
I have long since publicly admitted that I seek spirituality through food and wine. In France, Italy, and Spain, I seem more drawn to markets and cafés than to churches and museums. Too many portraits of bleeding Jesus and his lachrymose Momma make me thirsty. The Lord himself said on the cross, “I thirst” and since our world itself has become a ubiquitous and prolonged crucifixion it is altogether logical that we are thirsty.
Yesterday afternoon I was far up a canyon near the Mexican border trying to shoot a few doves to roast when I came upon a calf who was willing to be petted, perhaps because she had no previous contact with brutish humans. While scratching her pretty ears I segued to a tangled group of emotions toward wine. Why does Bordeaux make me feel Catholic, crisp and confident, an illusion indeed; while Burgundy causes an itchy, sexy, somnolent mood? With my day-to-day Côtes du Rhône I am a working writer with vaguely elevated thoughts of my responsibilities, but also with my mind’s eye on a plumpish waitress at a local Mexican restaurant.
Heading back down the canyon with the calf following me, I recalled some splendid wines I had drunk at a private home in Malibu during my manic days in Hollywood. The collector’s house red was a 1961 Lafite, a pleasant substitute for a pre-dinner martini. I was in the kitchen one evening preparing dinner and drinking a bottle of Romanée-Conti from the fifties when a fashion model asked, “How can you drink that shit. It makes me dizzy.” She properly mistook me for a servant and asked for a “Jack and coke” (Jack Daniels and Coca-Cola), surely an inscrutable drink, but then so is taste in general. On Friday nights in college two of my best friends would drink an entire case of beer apiece and didn’t seem to mind the ensuing vomiting. I was the driver and of limited means so my weekend binge only meant a seventy-cent bottle of Gallo Burgundy. Both of these friends, of course, are now dead and I’m still on the lid of earth rather than under, and drinking wine daily.
During a general state of rebellion in my early teens I went to the Baptist church though our family was Congregationalist, a kind of lower-case Episcopalian. I told my dad who was an agriculturalist that the Baptists claimed that in biblical days the wine was simple grape juice. He said, “Bullpoop,” adding that they had been making true wine in the Middle East for four thousand years, and that non-drinkers liked to spread lies about alcohol. He said that when St. Paul maintained, “A little wine for thy stomach’s infirmities,” he was talking about actual wine, not grape juice. Since then it has occurred to me that if Christianity offered a six-ounce glass of solid French red for Communion, churches would be happier and consequently more spiritual places.
In the early seventies during a hokum banquet in Ireland I drank several goblets of mead and was ill for a week with ravaged intestines. The physical mischief caused by bad forms of alcohol is infinite. I have posited the idea, perhaps fact, that heavy beer drinkers must find a type of sexual release in their relentless peeing. One warm day in my favorite saloon in a village near my former cabin in the Upper Peninsula, an old man drank thirty-eight bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon. This is clearly too much, and he just as clearly endangered his body during his dozens of walks to the toilet. This amount comprises twenty-eight pounds of liquids which cannot be retained indefinitely by the human body, thus the walks to the toilet were a necessary peril. Another friend in the area, a huge mixed-blood Chippewa, wasn’t feeling well drinking two fifths of whiskey a day and under my wise counsel reduced it to a single fifth. Last summer in Montana I advised an unruly friend that after a hot day of fishing a quintuple martini might be unwise as the alcohol will shoot through the dehydrated body and land on the brain pan like an ICBM. In the remoter areas of the country my advice is sought whereas on our two dream coasts everyone is smart, albeit petulant, and I am considered a bumpkin. Also a slow study. It took me three years of hard work and unfathomable will power to make a bottle of wine last an hour. Sipping seemed quite unnatural to a mouth disposed toward gulping.
In a lifetime of thousands of visits to country taverns, I have noticed that beer drinking causes fist-fights and wife beating. A French theologian, Michel Braudeau, has suggested that heavy beer drinking cleared the moral way for Germany to begin World War I and World War II. Beer drinking is at the root of the lugubrious sentimentality that makes murder for an idea logical. Conversely, drinking nothing at all is equally dangerous. Try to imagine Washington D.C.’s infamous Beltway as a moral Berlin Wall within which low-rent chiselers concoct wars and other forms of our future suffering. I recently read that there are sixty lobbyists per member of Congress. Think if liquor and beer were forbidden within the Beltway and each day the lobbyists gave each member of Congress a good bottle of French wine. Grace would return quickly to our bruised Republic. I would also like to remind those teetotaler fundamentalist titans, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who are so enamored of political power, that the Catholic Church has maintained its political power nearly two thousand years no doubt because the leaders drink wine. I well remember a group of bulbous priests at a Roman trattoria quite literally pouring down wine. I asked the waiter what they were celebrating and he said enviously that they did it every day. They were drinking Antinori Vipera which is scarcely cheap plonk. Come to think of it, I would gladly contribute to a church that offered a full glass of Côtes du Rhône for Communion.
At a wonderful local Mexican restaurant called Las Vigas, I often begin a meal with a shot of Herradura tequila, a Pacifico beer, and an ample bowl of chicharrones which, of course, are deep-fried intestines, after which I have a plate of machaca and beans (Mexican reconstituted dried beef laden with chiles). I hosted a feast for twenty-five friends last April in this restaurant which included a whole wild pig spit-roasted, giant Guaymas shrimp (eight to a pound), and platters of machaca, Herradura and Pacifico. Wine simply isn’t appropriate for these flavors. We also had a couple of divine mariachi singers who had a dulcet effect on the crowd, singing their melancholy plaints about love and death which neutralized any strident effects of the beer.
Curiously, New York City is the only place on earth where I feel an urgent need for a vodka martini, actually a raving desire. A day of back-to-back insignificant meetings and the sight of thousands of nitwits milling around talking on their cell phones deeply enervates me. My soul becomes splenetic and I need to Taser myself before a pre-dinner nap. A bar next to my hotel on Irving Place is kind enough to serve me a martini for only thirteen dollars, a price at which you can buy four in Montana. In New York City, however, you can hear expensively dressed career people talking about themselves at a speed that will remind you of the old Alvin the Chipmunk phonograph records. You leave the bar in a hurry, thinking that Castro had some good ideas, and take a snooze after planning the evening’s wines.
Life is rarely instructive. One of the wisest and best writers I know, Peter Matthiessen who loves good wine, once said, “I have never learned from experience.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Anyway, a Hollywood studio had put me up in the Hôtel Plaza Athénée for a significant meeting about the fate of a hundred-million-dollar movie. I was stressed and jet-lagged over the nastiness of the business world which is as morally compromised as the literary world, and went into the hotel bar for a double shot of V.O. Canadian whiskey which was forty-two dollars, a tad stiff price-wise. I’m not comfortable in the Plaza Athénée in Paris or The Ritz in my collection of fifty-dollar sport coats. I’ve been easygoing about taking friends out for a seven-hundred-dollar meal but it would be unthinkable to spend that much on an article of clothing. I said to the Plaza Athénée barman, “Are you f—–g kidding” and he poured me a four-dollar glass of Côtes du Rhône saying that it was the solution to all the problems in life.
I rarely feel spiritual in New York or Paris except when I’ve stopped at the old church across the side street from Les Deux Magots on St. Germain and lit candles for the liver of my friend, the renowned gourmand Gerard Oberlé, who caught hepatitis in Egypt and couldn’t drink wine for two years. His suffering was incalculable and on several occasions I lit five bucks’ worth of candles which brought about his recovery.
The other day on a very warm border winter afternoon, I was sitting on the patio with my wife Linda, sharing a bottle of delightful Bouzeron. We were watching a rare pair of hepatic tanagers at the feeder. These birds evidently don’t get hepatitis. It was all very pleasant and I recalled again a passage from the journal of a Kentucky schizophrenic who had escaped from an asylum. He wrote, “Birds are holes in heaven through which a man may pass.” I had this little epiphany that wine could do the same thing if properly used. We all have learned, sometimes painfully, that more is not necessarily better than less. When Baudelaire wrote in his famed “Enivrez-Vous,” “Be always drunk on wine or poetry or virtue,” he likely didn’t mean commode-hugging drunk. Wine can offer oxygen to the spirit, I thought, getting off my deck chair and going into the kitchen to cook some elk steak and dietetic potatoes fried in duck fat, and not incidentally opening a bottle of Domaine Tempier Bandol because I had read a secret bible in France that said to drink red after dark to fight off the night in our souls.