In Vino Veritas...
by Art Busse
The ferry came up to cruising speed and the waters of the San Francisco Bay flew by faster than I would have thought possible. The sun-sparkled crest of each wave blurred into the next, making a soft, smooth and undulating surface out of the chop and disturbance of the bay. This should have been fun, but it was too much like what was happening in my life at the time. Things were going by too fast, carrying me along on a trip that I had had no intention of taking, and what was happening inside was a lot like what was happening outside. The emotions, the memories, the images were speeding up too, finding their own directions, bucking and swerving, threatening to spill out all over the place, all over me.
Hardly a writer of any kind, and certainly not a travel writer, I had pushed the send button on my lap top some months earlier, and made my first submission ever in response to a call from Lonely Planet for their upcoming travel anthology entitled "Tales from Nowhere". A few weeks later I was shocked to find out that it had been accepted. They even paid me for it, making it official - I was now a writer.
I was on the Bay today as part of a one day workshop in travel writing that featured a round trip ferry ride from Larkspur Landing, along the Tiburon Coast, past Angel and then Alcatraz Islands to the historic Ferry Building in San Francisco. The couple sitting next to me as we cast off was from Germany - tourists on vacation. His English was excellent and we spoke freely of many things, including the old brick factory we passed that had been converted into a restaurant which I used to frequent. It was Spanish and featured Flamenco late into the weekend nights. The German told me of his time in Spain and the caves by the water in Andalusia where Flamenco just happens, without staging, without applause, because it's what life calls out for and the Gypsies can't help but respond.
The first wine in the flight was from Spain, a 2005 Pie Franco Verdejo, Blanco Nieva, from the Rueda region. It was the quality of light in it that first spoke to me. There was a clarity, a composure, striking a pure visual note with an internal coherence as if every bit of it had been polished to a glass-like reflectivity. It evoked the divine, but in a contained and pious fashion. Rolling it up the inner surface of the glass produced a coating that stayed and shone and only slowly relaxed back down into the body of wine below. It was quiet, shimmering, monastic. It smelled of fruits and flowers, but lightly and indistinctly, as if carried on still dry air tempered by the heat of the sun. In the mouth it was modest - a young girl just across the threshold of womanhood, with spring still clinging to her clothes. There was also an unmistakable line of intent, of gathering purpose, running through it at a middle depth, the impact of which was cushioned and mellowed by softer, more compassionate strata that seemed to surround it. If a justification was needed to overcome the moral objection to dalliance, this wine provided it, along with a gentle but clear invitation to stay. Neither substantial nor complex enough to stand alone, it was in search of a friend to go hand in hand with through the day; the right bread, cheese, or fruit. A light lunch al fresco was in order, at an old table in a sun filled courtyard, or spread on a cloth in a field of poppies.
Everything was easy at the beginning. We fell into each other as if guided by gravity, each being what the other lacked to be complete, and life was indeed a picnic, at least for a while. That was only three years ago, and although middle aged, we felt young, and the future seemed full of promise. Memories overflowed my mind, pooled in my heart and began to fill my eyes with tears. Just then the workshop leader, stopped by and encouraged me to join the rest of the travel writing group below decks where he would be discussing the day's assignment, a descriptive piece about what we were to find in San Francisco at the Ferry Building. After a moment, I followed him down.
He had been Travel Editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, then founder and editor of Salon.com's Wanderlust travel site, before moving to Lonely Planet. He was also my editor which explained why I was here. We had had a lively and productive series of email exchanges during his editing of my piece. But with me in Mexico and he, who knows where, we had never come face to face. It was time for a little scratch-and-sniff and his workshop seemed the perfect venue for it.
I arrived below decks as his talk was getting underway. He had just gotten to the part about how we were free to write what we wanted, when the boat passed Point San Quentin and the infamous federal prison filled the port windows with its stone walls, watch towers and barbed wire. There it was again - Freedom and Confinement, the very heart of my soon to be published piece, and a contradiction that the piece was supposed to have laid to rest. Mira, my girlfriend, and I had traveled to Tuscany a year and a half ago for Easter at the end of a prolonged Italian winter. Our flagging relationship, the changing of the seasons, the architecture of the Dark ages, and the art of the Renaissance, had all come together in an alchemic chrysalis for three weeks that produced, at its end, an epiphanal transformation complete with its own Ascension. So I wrote about it, and it found its way into print. But the Phoenix that had soared with us on the flight home from Rome a year and a half ago had just crash landed on the tarmac of our third year. I had been thrown free of the wreckage and into this travel writing workshop, shaken-up, and already missing the warmth and color with which Mira's Central European ancestry had imbued my life.
The second wine was from Austria, a 2004 Neckenmarkt Blaufrankisch Classic from Burgenlan. Dusty reds running into browns, a tired regality, a translucence best suited for dusk. It had the look of history. It was an artifact, a trace of what once was full of life now spent. A single swirl of the glass left a coating like antique varnish for the tarnished wine beneath. True to it its color, in the mouth it was smoky, and earthy and light, all surface and bottom with a large evacuated space in between, an empty vaulted chamber in a deserted castle, almost musty with reminiscence. All the action happened on the way in and then was quickly over. A line from an old Sixties song popped into my head; 'We are just a moment's sunlight fading in the grass'. God, this was a sad wine. Maybe the right food, something requiring a historic context to be properly appreciated, like salty nuts or roasted vegetables, would help.
Could it really have ended so soon, and with so little left to show for it? The three years in between our meeting, and the separation currently underway seemed to have disappeared with the slam of a door. How could something so important be reduced to a beginning and an end?
I was glad for the structured camaraderie and shared assignment that this workshop afforded. The glistening bay, the bracing sea breeze, the bright blue sky and the compelling forward momentum of the ferry all conspired to bring my attention back to the day. Immediacy of the senses seemed my best defense against the melancholy hiding in every corner of my mind, and when our leader encouraged us to enliven our pieces with the details of how things tasted, smelled, and looked, I abandoned my natural inclination to write a personal essay and instead choose to stick to something descriptive and specific.
To hell with endings, it was the middle of this day that loomed largest. We were being deposited at one of California's most impressive collections of its famed cuisine. The entire first floor of the Ferry Building had been converted into a huge, multi-stalled, Chez Panisse-quality marketplace, and like the poultry that lined its display cases, we were free to range from one end to the other of this marvel, looking for lunch and the story that might put us on the map. We landed, debarked and quickly launched our inquiries into the mysteries and pleasures of the culinary world.
After a spin around the place I decided on a wine merchant's tasting bar and settled in with my lap top for a trip to three different European countries via their wines. It seemed the perfect way to go on this assignment, but I was soon to learn one of travel writing's most important lessons; it was what one brought to the experience that produced the most compelling writing. My perfectly reasonable plan was set aside by the first taste of wine from foreign soil, as it quietly returned me home to my own memories and emotions.
The third and last wine was Italian, a 2003 Chianti Classico "Argenina", from Podere Il Palazzino, Tuscany. It was dark, dense, noble and vigorous - an integral appearance, a firm identity, with legs it could stand on for decades. It had the enthusiasm and resolve to fight a hundred years war. 'Pay attention, this is serious, don't trifle', this wine seemed to say,' I will have my due'. I put my nose to the glass in an act of deference. Truffles, liver, damp loam, all the processes at work in the earth. The smell of this wine was more than a meal - it was the life in the food being served, the digestive juices that awaited after passing the palate, the return to the earth, the full cycle. But in the mouth - no! no! too soon! - a promise betrayed by impatience. What looked and smelled so mighty, arrived in the mouth with a vacant confusion, as each element went its own way oblivious to the others, while the tannins shouted loudly above them all. A few more seasons might make all the difference, but for now, the disappointment was overwhelming.
It's hard to know, when inside a relationship, what its true potential is. You experience the ways you fit together, and are ecstatic. Then you get ambushed by the ways in which you don't and bridle in disappointment, as if they had no right to be there in the face of so much promise. You wonder - if you give it more time, if you just hang in there a little longer, will the hopes and the fears find a way to balance each other, will the pleasures and irritations begin to feel like the light and dark sides of the same moon? Or will it all just fall apart into pieces on the floor in front of you? There is no way to know... and only one way to find out.
As the ferry plied the waters of the Bay on its return leg north, leaving the multitude of sights, smells and tastes behind, I looked again at the place where I had spent the last thirty years of my life - one of the world's great travel destinations - and had the distinct impression that I was seeing it for the first time. The Bay Bridge, the San Francisco Skyline, Mount Tamalpais, the Oakland and Berkeley Hills - when seen from this new set of angles out here on the Bay, looked different and fresh. It seemed my trip across the Bay had given me a new perspective, and I was grateful. With the help of a little wine from three foreign countries and a purpose in life, if only for a day, I was coming to a better understanding of my condition, as well. The choices facing me were clearer now, and whether I stayed or left, they were mine to make.
As our boat came alongside the island fortress of Alcatraz, the receding tidal waters of the Bay pushed their way around it, racing for the Golden Gate and the open sea beyond. I looked up at the thick walls and barred windows, and some kindred thing within me jumped and shouted in recognition. I'd forgotten that the prison was empty... and that I was free.
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