I’ve had a long relationship with wine and beer. Because of radiation treatment for throat cancer, I can no longer taste wine myself. There’s nothing wrong with my sense of smell, what’s happened is that the radiation killed my salivary glands so my l mouth is typically dry. The tannin in red wine, which usually binds with the salivary protein mucin, instead binds to the Lynn protein of my own personal flesh. Tannin extracts water from protein. In a normal mouth, tannin turns saliva into water, which is washed away by the wine, leaving a dry mouth. (Dry wine dries. Get it?) In my mouth, tannin ignites. It attacks the proteins in my tissues and it burns. The acid in white wine is a little less painful, but it isn’t fun either. The red wine that I used to drink now drinks me back.
Last night, I decided to have glass just to acknowledge that one out of one doctors say that I might live through this damn thing. The wine was the beautiful Piazza Della Torre made by the equally beautiful Marilisa Allegrini. The bouquet is a concentrated fruit blast with the unmistakable raisiny intensity of a Ripasso wine. And the first sip! Ah. It’s like inviting that whole orchestra into your mouth to jam. But in this case, the orchestra started stripping the wallpaper of the walls and trashing the room.
Right. The fragile layer of moisture was burned away and the crackling, shrinking, sere sensation of fragile membrane folding and drying and blistering took over. Just enough time to dive for the Ensure to put out the fire.
The villain of course is my old friend tannin, the wonderful phenol that puts the dry in and takes all the other tastes out. But chemistry be damned, what’s happened is that one of my ritual anchors doesn’t hold bottom any more.
My tongue is swollen and I don’t recognize my own voice. I don’t know for sure if I’m free of cancer because the scans show something there-could be malignant, could be scar tissue. I can’t eat regular food, can’t abide wine in my mouth. I’m weak, tired and looking like the guy who could play the role of Death in the annual morality pageant, and I can’t taste a thing.
I love beer, but I need red wine. I explain that a delicious, well-composed beer is a thing of great beauty, maybe even a thing unrivalled in the world of tasting for its sheer ability to deliver the flavor. But when the moment is emotionally important-when it transcends matters of taste or mere sensation, I need the solemnity, the organ-blasting, choir-of-angels effect of a good glass of red. If I hadn’t seen you in while and I bumped into you crossing Rittenhouse Square for instance-there’s no question that we mark the moment with red wine. The funny thing is that the wine for an occasion doesn’t have to be great in itself, it’s really just enough that it be red and decently made and in a glass. Beer is beautiful, but red’s a sacrament.
I’m currently teaching hospitality students in Vietnam a few things about wine. Nobody here has grown up with the romance of wine or its tastes. Even when these students learn to like the taste of wine, they have no idea what wine means to us Westerners. So my approach is a little like a translator’s. Here’s an excerpt from my handout:
“…There’s a lot to know about wine. Wine has taste, wine has aroma. It has value, it has compatibilities; each wine has an agricultural history and particular storage and handling requirements. We can spend a lifetime learning them. But the person who wants to please his guests and maximize his hospitality business needs to know one very important thing: wine has meaning.”
So here I am, talking passionately about wine. I’m smelling to make sure the stuff is good before I pour for the students. I’m telling them about my passion for it and everything it means to some of their potential guests.
And that’s the irony; I’m a deaf musician, a blind photographer. Now you might think that this would leave me depressed or at least sad and we can both be surprised when I tell you that it doesn’t. For one thing, I have wondrous, beautiful beer to console me. (Hey, I could write a book) For another, I remember that I just escaped across a particularly dangerous burning bridge and it seems reasonable that there would be a toll. Wine has done good by me — no complaints. Better yet, it’s even possible that one of these youngsters will leave with a curiosity that grows into an interest that becomes a passion.
Read more of Lynn’s light-hearted take on cancer in: Radiation Days now for sale on Amazon.
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