Sunday, February 05, 2023

The Valuable and Unanticipated Lessons Ballet Taught Me About Wine

Ballet troupe performing at San Francisco's Cathedral of St. Mary
This past week, when the outside world was covered in ice, and we were marooned on our little island, I started going through boxes to purge old belongings. Along the way I ran into all my old ballet notes. Ballet, you ask?

Yes, it seemed that the art department in college was a little short on men for the ballet troupe, so I was “volunteered” by the department head to suit up and hit the barre.

I learned a few things along the way, some of them pertinent to wine appreciation.

– learning the proper way to carry out a port de bras (French: carriage of the arms”), which according to is “in classical ballet, both the general arm movements of a dancer and a designated set of exercises designed to improve the quality of these movements. The port de bras of classical ballet is meant to be a graceful and harmonious accent to the movements of the legs.”

How little we talk about the gracefulness of a wine. But if it is lacking, one notices it without a doubt.

Does wine move? Of course, it moves though us, as we take it in. And therein is where one notes how well a particular wine might carry out its port de bras. Moreover, though is the feeling it leaves with us. It is rough? Is it smooth? Is it caustic? Is it mellow? Is it rich? Is it balanced?

Which leads to the next area –

-starting with plié, where I would strive to find my balance within the positions, this was where I’d struggle at first. Slowing my mind, and letting the intuitive body take over, I eventually could navigate the positions (from 1st to 5th) and move on from Demi plié to Grand plié. I was no Nureyev, mind you, but my body was doing what my mind couldn’t do solely.

Wine, as well, needs body, yes. But it must have an apt pattern in which to assist the wine drinker in navigating the various elements of the wine. Be it a red wine, or a white wine, a sweet wine or a sparkling wine, each one has to have a framework in which the wine can operate from. And crucial to the success of the wine, and the ballet dancer, is balance.

Technique – there are so many correlations between ballet and wine when it comes to technique, that I am almost overwhelmed where to start. And as I usually do, I will start with where I am (or was) weakest.

It seemed I had copious notes in the areas of Battement and Jeté, and all the variations I needed to learn to stay up with my more lithe and elegant female counterparts (or really, superiors). I thought too much, didn’t want to make a mistake, was constantly second guessing myself. Well, when you are beating a leg or taking lunges in the air, all thought stops. One must do, not think. But one must have developed some semblance of technique, so as not to beat one’s leg into numbness or run into a wall (which I did a time or two).

Likewise in wine, many would like to think that the wine just makes itself. After all isn’t that the way of nature? Yes, in many ways it is. But wine has become an objet rare, and in order for it to maintain continuity with regards to its preternaturalness.

– one of the toughest things I struggled with was this. I have unusually tight hamstrings. Going through our warm-up exercises on the barre would help greatly. Heat helps. And repetition also benefits towards a greater flexibility.

So, with wine. If a wine is young and tight and tannic, it can often be unpleasant to enjoy. Appreciation in the abstract is so much easier than in the concrete. But wines to develop and with time they loosen up.

One of the elements in a wine, especially when I was in the wine trade and had to supply restaurants with ready-to-drink wines, was that those wines exhibited a suppleness so that the Saturday night diner could enjoy it with their date or group.

As wine ages, it often loosens up. Sometimes, too much. And we humans can often follow suit. I now know ways to loosen up my hamstrings that I wasn’t able to do as easily 50 years ago.

Aesthetics – when our ballet teacher choreographed a new piece, there was always first, and foremost, the element of aesthetics. It had to be beautiful, it had to be harmonious. It had to be thought provoking. And it had to touch the heart.

Which wine does that? And if, or when, it does, do we not know it to be something extraordinary? Maybe a handful of times in one’s life you might experience this, in art, in love, in life. But also, as in ballet, in wine. I have friend for whom this is a regular occurrence. It’s magical, each and every time. Like it is if you had a lifetime soul mate, deep love, an always and forever person in your life. Ballet, wine, love, they share more commonalities when you examine explore their attributes.

Delicacy and Refinement
– this might be a bit of gilding the lily, but it was something the ballet master drilled into our heads. That Rond de Jambe a Terre or the Developpé might be a somewhat pedestrian move. But with delicacy and refinement, a Giselle is born. I was told to never take anything for granted in the world of movement. Every step, every move should be intentional. And along with that bring with it grace and refinement.

Again, also with wine. At least in the hallowed hallways of the imagination. But really, what is wine without delicacy and refinement. 86% water and 14% alcohol? An inebriating beverage? Something to help you get laid? Something to help you sleep?

If that is what you are looking for, you don’t need to open a bottle of Barolo or Brunello. Go buy a case of light beer or some White Claw.

With wine - and this is not intended to sound snobby - one must expect from wine a transcendent experience - just as one does when one watches Galina Ulanova as the dying swan.



 © written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy

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