There is a very old tradition, now nearly forgotten, that I recently indulged.
In the interest of science, I tested a theory: The baptism of wine.
I was reminded of the theory when I bought and read a delightful little book by Ben Schott: “Schott’s Food & Drink Miscellany.”
Schott notes this archaic French tradition and illustrates it with a quote from Hillaire Belloc. I suppose, as with many such traditions, one could trace the roots of the practice back to some odd Roman rite.
Oh, those wacky Romans.
Here’s the theory: You’ve got red wine. Want to make it better? Baptize it.
Sprinkle a drop or two of water into the first glass poured out of a bottle of red. Only that first glass. The wine in the glass, and in the glasses thereafter, until the bottle is empty, is all the better for it.
In theory, a fine wine will be rendered supernacular by the event, i.e. a wine so incredibly good that every last drop is drained from the glass. In theory, an average wine will be transformed by its baptism into something noticeably above average —terroir and skill enhanced by a blessing.
I’m just the guy to test the theory. I was trained early in the ways of the skeptical investigator. My predecessors — much more competent than I — were hardheaded pragmatists. They believed you define a problem, you establish a goal and devise a method of moving toward the goal that is, at all times, subject to change as it is shaped by the emerging realities of the situation.
Perfect plan for a scientist … like me.
So, I decide to approach the baptismal theory via classic scientific method. I create my hypothesis, then devise my test.
My hypothesis: Despite the lovely allusion and its deep roots in Western civilization, the baptism does not improve the wine. I figure this is a pretty safe bet. I like science, I dislike failure.
My method: Baptize bottles of red wine on five consecutive nights — each bottle in the $12-$20 price range — and determine through the application of my superb tasting skills if the quality is amped up to the $30-$40 range.
First on the docket, a Penfold’s medium-grade Australian shiraz.
I pop the cork, pour a measure, hit it with two drops of water, let it oxygenate a bit, then sip.
Alas, no transformation. Nothing supernacular. It’s still a medium-grade Australian shiraz.
Not to say I don’t drink every last drop. You can’t let the stuff sit around, after all.
Next night, I baptize a medium-grade Napa blend — a Coppola claret. I sprinkle, I drink. Nice stuff, at the price.
Kathy drinks a bit of the Coppola, but I finish the rest. I drink three glasses with dinner, in the company of a mess of powerful chile verde enchiladas, topped with a fried egg. The yolk runs into the chile and the resulting combination is spectacular. The wine: still average. And it definitely doesn’t go with chile.
The third night I decide to conduct a more formal baptism. I’m not well acquainted with the actual ceremony, but I’ve seen photographs.
Kathy is off doing something musical so I lower the lights, pop the iPod earphones in and dial to a bunch of monks singing Josquin’s “O virgo virginu.” The haunting music sets the mood. Nobody’s going to convince me the grand tradition of the castrati died out three centuries ago. They may not snip orphans like they did in the old days, but they’re finding these semi-guys somewhere. Perhaps in West Hollywood.
I do a few elegant and esoteric hand movements above the cup as I sprinkle the droplets into a glass of Maleson bordeaux. Make no mistake, this is end of the trail as far as palatable bordeaux is concerned, but it is a 2001. If anything can show the effect of a sturdy baptism, this is the stuff.
The first glass is mighty good, all things considered. But improved significantly over what I’ve experienced of the Malesan in the past?
The other five glasses are about the same. I wake the next morning with a tongue that feels and tastes like an unlaundered wool sock.
The next night, it’s a bottle of pinot noir, from the Russian River Valley. I drink it with a thyme-stung chicken dish in which thighs are browned then braised in a mix that starts with pancetta and a mirepoix and is bulked up with a smidge of tomato paste, stock and vegetables — carrots, pearl onions, garlic, bits of potato, peas, olives.
The wine is OK. And it stays OK despite the addition of the droplets. I drink it all. Waste not, want not.
One last try on night five: A Qupé syrah — a very nice California take on one of my fave varietals. I fetch two bottles, same year. I expand my method, responding to the shifting character of the examination.
I will open both bottles, baptize one, not the other. This will provide me a solid base for comparison. Kathy is gone again, so I am left alone with science, in pursuit of truth.
Again, I try music: Mozart’s “Agnus Dei.” I’d light incense but Kathy has allergy problems.
The last thing I remember, after three glasses of the baptized Qupé, and three glasses of the unbaptized Qupé is that I could discern no difference. In anything.
I also remember that I cried as I watched a cell phone ad on TV. I know for a fact I lost one of my shoes because my left foot nearly froze when I locked myself out on the deck.
But, one suffers for science. I’ve proven, to my satisfaction, that the French are halfwits, prone to all sorts of nonsense, ready to believe just about anything as long as it satisfies their ego needs.
Just like the rest of us.
And there is a bonus: Science is full of surprises — offshoots of a primary investigation often bear unexpected fruit. A delightful aspect of my research is the verification of a venerable standard, also repeated in Schott’s book.
I prove conclusively that Thomas Nash’s list of types of wine, created back in the 16th century, is right on the money.
The source of Nash’s list is a Talmudic parable in which Satan offers to help Noah plant his vines. Satan slaughters a lamb, a lion, a monkey and a pig, then pours their blood on the vines. The message: with one glass of wine, you are mild, like a lamb. With two glasses, you are like a lion, prideful. After a third glass you are chattering like a caged, neurotic monkey (some, with less tolerance than others, might go so far as to fling their feces through the bars of the cage). After a fourth glass, you are wallowing in your own wastes, like a pig. And enjoying it.
According to Nash, imbibe enough and you ensure entry into eight stages.
There is Ape drunk, where you get loud, wahoo without reason and sing off key.
You are likely after that to be Major Lion drunk — bold, argumentative, aggressive, king of all you survey.
How about Fox drunk, where you become crafty as all get-out?
Or Sheep drunk? Plenty smart, cocksure actually, but mysteriously unable to express your superiority outside of a plaintive bleat or two?
Then there is Maudlin drunk, where you radiate love of your fellow man, overflowing with magnificent, expansive feeling.
Slug down some more and you are Goat drunk, up on the hooves in pursuit of amour (but unable to do anything about it in the unlikely event your search succeeds).
Feel a bit tired, somewhat sluggish, more than a bit queasy? You are Swine drunk, and ready to drive the porcelain Cadillac.
And, finally, overdo it big time and you are Martin drunk — where you drink yourself sober again.
I’ve reviewed my notes; I guarantee the accuracy of Nash’s types.
And I can verify the wisdom in an admonition to seek the Epicurean mean — to eat and drink moderately. Baptize the wine if you must, knowing now this is a bogus idea. But don’t drink the whole darned bottle of wine after the ceremony. And eat something when you drink.
Cook with wine too, the baptized and the heathen alike.
I have a bottle of Vaqueyras and I intend to use a third of it to produce a sauce to go with some elk tournedos (fancy talk for backstrap, or tenderloin), halving what would ordinarily be a standard, filet-size cut..
I propose to do something unspeakable to the meat, in a sacrifice to the sauce. I’ll take the tournedos and pound them out between sheets of waxed paper until they are about a quarter-inch thick. Then (purists, cover your eyes) I am going to season them with a bit of salt and fresh-ground black pepper and dust them lightly with seasoned flour. I’ll brown them off in a mix of oil and butter over medium-high heat, about a minute on each side, then remove them to a heated plate.
Into the pan go a bit more olive oil and butter and some minced shallot. A minute or so later I’ll deglaze with a hefty measure of the wine, scraping the pan, allowing the alcohol to evaporate. I’ll toss in some finely minced garlic and some thyme. In too will go sauteed, sliced mushrooms — a mix of crimini and a couple types of rehydrated dried wild mushroom. The water from the rehydrated mushrooms goes in, absent sediment. I’ll hit it with some beef stock and a wad of demi-glace.
As the sauce reduces, I’ll check the seasoning and adjust if necessary, taking care to go easy on the salt — as a reduction nears completion, any salt in the mix is concentrated. At the very last moment, I’ll plop in a knob of butter and swirl it as the pan is removed from the heat. I’ll amalgamate a teaspoon or so of coarse mustard into the sauce at the last moment (perhaps homemade, as I am working to develop my own blend). Will I add a splash of heavy cream at the last moment? I don’t know.
The meat rests and is ready for its warm and tasty blanket.
The remaining wine will accompany the dish perfectly.
No need for baptism.
But, you know, I bet a baptism would work on a Mouton Rothschild.
Anyone out there want to subsidize a bit of science?
I’ll hire castrati to sing at dinner.