Epiphany is a wonderful word: lots of syllables and an almost lyrical sound to it. It also benefits from a certain air of mystery, its definition being a little inscrutable. It is one of those words that I use but I don’t precisely know the meaning of….kind of like terroir…or umami.
The other great thing about the word epiphany is that refuses to be transformed into a verb. We bastardize most nouns into verbs by adding “ize” to the end of them, making up words like “incentivize” (instead of “motivate”), or “televise” (instead of “broadcast”)….or bastardize. Epiphany stubbornly resists all attempts to legitimize (there it is again) this form of verbing, or being “denominalized” as this phenomenon is known to grammarians. “Epiphanize” is, thankfully, not a real word. Nor can one “epiph”. These have yet to become neologisms. (That’s right… look it up!)
But epiphany is more than just a cool word. Epiphanies are unusual things, rare events that are profound and transformational. Epiphanies change us; they take us across a Rubicon to a place we had not been before. I had two such epiphanies on the same evening over a decade ago. One of those epiphanies would forever change how I thought about wine. The occasion was my birthday; Allison and I were dating and for my present she took me up to Whistler Mountain for the weekend. She arranged dinner at a beautiful restaurant, taking care of all the details, right down to the bottle of Champagne waiting on the table as we arrived. As we finished our appetizers the waiter came by and began to open and decant the bottle of wine Allison had brought to the restaurant, the wine that was about to become the source for one of the two epiphanies that I would have on this very special evening. The wine was the 1982 Chateau Haut Brion, a wine I had been privileged to drink three times before, my all-time favourite wine, the reference point by which I judge all others.
Haut Brion is sublime and 1982 was an outstanding vintage. I knew I was in for a real treat, and I was thrilled at the prospect of being able to taste this amazing wine once again. I can still remember picking up its ethereal bouquet as it left the bottle and travelled the inch or two to the decanter waiting beneath. Allison and I sat there and just nosed this wine, taking in its incredible aromas for several minutes before we took that first glorious sip. And that is when it began to happen, as I tasted this wine and felt its perfect balance, and its unreal complexity, I knew that something extraordinary was happening. I was beginning my epiphany, and by the time we finished that bottle, my understanding and appreciation of wine would be forever changed.
I already knew a lot about Haut Brion. My three previous experiences with this wine informed me it was the most elegant of the First Growths, with the most intoxicating fragrance of any wine I had ever known. I knew Haut Brion had been bought by American financier Clarence Dillon in 1935 and that he poured money into the then rather neglected estate, transforming it into one of the most hallowed in the world today. Haut Brion remains in the Dillon family to this day with his grandson, Prince Robert of Luxembourg now managing it. Winemaking has been in the hands of three generations of the Delmas family with George Delmas as the winemaker until 1960 when his son Jean Bernard took over. (How would you like your first attempt at winemaking to be the 1961 Chateau Haut Brion? Talk about not having to recover from a good start!) Jean Bernard Delmas was particularly proud of his 1982 vintage, comparing it to his father’s legendary 1959. In 2003 Jean Bernard turned over the reins to his son Jean-Phillipe, who continues the Delmas’ tradition of crafting vinous masterpieces. I also knew that Haut Brion had the most Merlot of any First Growth, most vintages containing about 40%, around twice as much as the other Firsts. This, no doubt, has contributed to its elegance and early approachability relative to its brethren. I also knew that Haut Brion was famed as the first wine to ever have been “reviewed” (if you can call it that) by author and wine aficionado Samuel Pepys, who in 1663 wrote “I drank a sort of French wine called Ho-Bryan that hath a good and most perticular taste I never met with.” (Spelling errors Pepys, not mine.) I knew that Haut Brion is in Pessac Leognan, the only First Growth outside the Medoc, and is now surrounded by the suburban sprawl of the city of Bordeaux.
However epiphanies are not about knowledge. Knowledge is that wonderful set of facts residing in our brains that we add to with our learning and gradually deplete as our memories fade. No, epiphanies give us something more important than knowledge; they bring us sudden moments of clear and lucid understanding. Knowledge is about comprehension, and is demonstrated by the retrieval of facts from our “knowledge base”, or what we know. Computers have knowledge, they can retrieve facts, lots of them, and incredibly rapidly. But understanding is a uniquely human capacity. It arises because humans have empathy, the ability to identify with another’s situation or feelings. Epiphanies are sudden, broad leaps in our understanding, in our identification with a subject, our “getting it” as opposed to merely knowing more about it.
As Allison and I looked at, smelled and tasted this wonderful elixir and took in the constantly changing, impossibly complex bouquet and aromas, and as we felt the incredibly seductive mouthfeel that only a perfectly balanced wine can offer, and as we savoured the finish that somehow managed to delight our senses for minutes after the wine had left our mouths, I had my first epiphany of the night. Through this extraordinary vinous experience my total understanding of wine had changed. I crossed the Rubicon from knowing about great wines to understanding greatness in wine. Then and there, at that magical dinner, I got it. I got what all of the fuss was about, why wineries stay in families for generations, why people will spend seemingly silly amounts of money to have it, why, like no other beverage, it can transform the dinner table, and why books and blogs are written about it. The 1982 Chateau Haut Brion gave me the understanding that wine is important, that creating excellence in wine is very important, and that it is not a frivolous indulgence of the wealthy or the intemperate, but that it is a part of culture within human beings. I had known how humans had made wine, but now I understood how wine made us human.
And as I felt the rapture of that beautiful evening and savoured the last sips of my Haut Brion, my second epiphany of the night suddenly hit me: that the woman I was looking at across the table at and sharing this magical wine with, was the most beautiful woman in the world, the woman who I would marry, the love of my life, my fellow Advineturer, the one who makes my ordinary life extraordinary.