I read recently about a dangerous animal quest. Two friends, a writer and a biologist, spend several grueling months trekking into the Himalayas to catch a glimpse of one of the world’s most elusive animals: the snow leopard. According to the author the “near mythic” snow leopard has the power to “watch its watchers while remining nearly invisible.”
Andrew Jefford reminds me of the snow leopard. He is both in the wine industry and not in—a veiled observer watching when no one knows he is.
Jefford is the greatest living wine writer in my opinion.
Reading his new book Drinking with the Valkyries (Académie du Vin Library 2022), I had the feeling that I was being swept up in some sort of hypnotic waltz, carried along on his rhythmic sentences. Languorously slow one minute. Screeching to a halt the next.
But more than a writer, Jefford may well be the most profound wine thinker. At a time when so much wine writing has all the intellectual gravitas of a 5th grade essay about one’s summer vacation, Jefford roars out of the starting gate with ideas, challenges, inklings, controversies, worries. His intellect becomes a splinter in your finger, not easily ignored.
None of this is to say that Jefford is smug. He isn’t. And he doesn’t show off either. Unlike some British wine writers, he does not continually remind you that he went to Oxford or Cambridge (he went to the University of Reading, a public university in Reading, England), and unlike us American wine writers, he isn’t tempted to write chirpy Ten Best lists (Ten Best Toothpastes for Red Wine Stained Teeth!).
Above all, you can tell he loves wine. Here he is in an essay in Drinking with the Valkyries called “In Praise of Young Wine”:
I love youth in wine, and everything that goes with it: the energy, the excitement, the flesh, the vivacity, the extravagance. Texture in wine is a particular delight. The profoundest pleasures in red wine are derived from tannins, assuming that those tannins are the consequence of a season spent ripening in the summer sunshine, and drawn unhurriedly and unfrenziedly from the slow bath of vinification. I love to feel them on teeth and tongue, giving the fruit a dignity it can acquire in no other way, and somehow evoking (both by texture and by strangeness in flavour) the natural milieu in which vines find themselves. Who doesn’t like to be gripped, to be seized, to be clenced in this way? Who doesn’t enjoy being invaded by a young wine, and having your head turned, your horizons altered, your composure rattled?
Some might find Jefford’s descriptions occasionally a bit over-the-top.
I don’t. In his writing, I see the work of a searching mind trying as hard as it can to describe the essentially indescribable. (I invite you to write 500 words about the next wine you taste).
I asked Jefford about the idea of thinking about wine vs writing about it. He described his “dissident streak” saying, “Well, that famous Socratic phrase ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ has always meant a lot to me. In personal terms, too, I have always had a lot of trouble accepting what people say without somehow questioning it in my own mind…”
All of us who love wine can be thankful for Jefford’s questioning. And I, for one, am toasting to “trouble.”
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