Alice de Galzain | 6 March 2017.
Three years ago, since I was a literature student in Paris, I did what 99% of students do at the beginning of summer: start looking for a summer job. And for various inexplicable reasons, I decided that I would try my luck and leave my resume at a very fancy restaurant next to my house. The restaurant was Enrico Bernardo’s Il Vino and that job became the most memorable work experience of my life. From the very first day, I was able to learn that liking wine is very different from knowing about it. Yet, apart from that youthful realisation, I was taken aback by how my world – the world of literature, language, and words – surprisingly connected with the world of wine. The poetic nature of wine tasting opened so many unforeseen parallels that the associations between the literary world and somellerie just started to multiply.
I could not have hoped for a better way to enter the world of wine tasting, nor for a better guide to that universe. Enrico won the price of Best Sommelier in the World in Athens at age 27, thus becoming the youngest world champion sommelier. Virtuoso and passionate, he decided to put his experience of wine tasting within everyone’s reach by creating a unique formula for his Parisian restaurant. A certain degree of disorientation appears as a necessary condition in order to stress one’s sensorial acuity; indeed, customers have been daily presented with a peculiarly elliptic menu, so that the whole gastronomic experience is served as the best of surprises. Drinking out of black glasses, customers have been invited to relive the process of blind tasting, stressing the magical power of bodily sensations in the intellectual process of interpreting a wine.
Marcel Proust once wrote that “an hour is not just an hour; it is a vessel of perfumes, sounds, plans and atmospheres”. There is indeed a sensorial richness to every minute of our lives: memory is closely related to senses, for it is through them that moments stick in our minds, waiting to be remembered. In his Search for Lost Time (1913-1927), Proust disclosed the secrets of human reminiscence as he plunged his readers into the meanders of memory. Yet what is most striking in Proust’s work is the revelation of the involuntary nature of sensorial reminiscence: the magic of an immediate form of memory. Crumbs of a madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea is indeed all it takes for Proust’s narrator to time-travel back to his most intimate childhood memories of his days in Combray (1913). Highlighting the power of involuntary memory, Proust transformed our conception of it by acknowledging the sensorial quintessence of the act of remembering:
“when nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste still remain for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, on the ruin of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory.” (Proust, 49-50)
Time and smell are very closely related: of all the physical sensations one can feel, olfaction is the most powerful vector of involuntary reminiscence. “Smell has a special capacity to trigger memories – especially emotionally charged memories – because of the direct connections olfaction has with parts of the limbic system involved in generating emotion and memory”, writes critic Barry C. Smith. In the same way as every instant of our day is intimately embedded in a certain smell, a certain perfume can take us back to earlier years in an instant. That is why, of all the steps of wine-tasting, Enrico’s favorite is smelling the bouquet: “the bouquet of a wine invites us to travel in time; it takes us back to the kitchen where our mother used to cook for us when we were young, or to relive that nice walk we took with our grandfather a few years before, through the woods, on a summer day…” (Bernardo)
The sommelier who scrutinises the glass of wine in front of him is not a mere observer. He is an interpreter, for he has to understand what that particular wine is trying to tell him: “we have to allow wine to lead us through the depths of our olfactory memory. Then, the paths of wine-tasting and philosophy will become intermingled, leading us to the most emotional and poetic encounter.” (Bernardo)
Alice is currently doing her Master’s at the University of Edinburgh. Specialised in United States’ Literature, she has studied in many different countries and is now looking forward to her academic year in Edinburgh. There, she will be able to research on some of her favourite topics: abolitionist literature, late 19th-century women’s writings.
Article edited by Bradley Copper.
Bernardo’s words are taken from spoken conversations with the author.
Smith, Barry C.. “Proust, the Madeleine and Memory.” Memory in the Twenty-First Century: New Critical Perspectives from the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences, Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016, pp. 38-41.
Proust, Marcel. Finding Time Again. Penguin Classics, 2003.
Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time: Volume 1, The Way by Swann’s. Penguin Books, 2002.
Forbes’ Enrico Bernardo: https://www.forbes.com/forbes/welcome/?toURL=https://www.forbes.com/sites/auctionforecast/2017/02/23/the-art-of-wine-9-things-learned-from-a-conversation-with-world-champion-sommelier-enrico-bernardo/&refURL=&referrer=#607c05452e43
Proust by Charlieck: https://the-curious-kitchen.com/2014/07/30/memories-and-petite-madeleines/cq5dam-web_-1280-1280/#main
Wine Tasting, by Enrico Bernardo: http://www.enricobernardo.com/