Terry Theise on "a Fine Kind of Melancholy"

From the wine importer’s crisply written and life-philosophy-framing book Reading Between the Wines, a favorite of mine from last year:

Such wines are not easy to find. We drink them just a few times in our lives. But we never forget them, or the places they lead us to. A few weeks before writing this, I dined with my wife in the Austrian Alps, in a restaurant whose chef worked with wild local herbs. We drank two stunningly brilliant dry Rieslings that buzzed and crackled like neon, and then we drank a ’93 Barolo from Bruno Giacosa, a so-so vintage but fully mature. To go from giddy, giggling clarity of those Rieslings into the warm murmuring depths of that Barolo was moving in a way I grope to describe. It was as if the Riesling prepared us somehow, it reassured us that everything was visible, and then that smoky twilight red wine … like the moment it gets too dark to read, and you get up to turn on the light and see a tiny scythe of moon low on the horizon and you open the window and smell the burning leaves, night is coming on, and there will be dinner and the sweet smells of cooking, and then at last the utter dark, and the heart beating darkly beside you.

I did something I seldom do — got just a bit plastered that evening, for which I blame the altitude, though I knew better. But I wasn’t letting a drop of that Barolo go to waste. It stirred the deepest tenderness because it possessed the deepest tenderness. Tenderness is different from affection. Tenderness has a penumbra of sadness, or so I have always felt. Tenderness says there is an irreducible difference separating us, although we might wish to dissolve it. But we can’t quite, however close together we draw; it is there as a condition of being. And then we see the sadness that surrounds us, wanting to merge into one another and finding it impossible; and then comes a compassion, it is this way for all of us sad hopeful beings; and then the membrane melts away, even without touching it melts away.

I don’t know how it is for other people, but I myself know a wine is great when it makes me sad. Not a bitter, grieving sadness, but the thing the Germans call Weltschmerz, “the pain of the world,” a fine kind of melancholy.

I came to reading Theise only last year, but, interestingly, my life overlapped with his wife’s years ago. Odessa Piper founded and ran L’Etoile, a Madison, Wisconsin, farm-to-table all-star years before that became an established phrase. Tamara and I had a special-occasion meal there during our time in Madison (2005–06), living together for the first time just before we got married and really settled into life together. While we were able to venture upstairs for a proper dinner only once, most weekends we would nibble fantastic croissants and sip terrific coffee in the building’s first-floor café, a stop during our morning walk around the Capitol.

Ah, memories of that simple time in our lives… A fine kind of melancholy, indeed.

Stephen Schenkenberg @schenkenberg