While it may have come as something of a shock to many people when Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, it certainly wasn’t a surprise to those of us who have followed Dylan’s brilliant wine writing over the years. At least it wasn’t as much of a surprise as the announcement that Pete Rose had won the Nobel Peace Prize, or that Julian Assange won Miss Teen USA. Won her in a 'Trump-for-President' raffle.
Long a wine aficionado, Dylan has written several books about wine, including the seminal Bordeaux ’61 Revisited. In his writing, he brings a unique sensibility to wine, blending the sensibility of a poet with the palate of a Master of Wine. Or, more accurately, vice-versa. Dylan manages in his work to do what all the great wine writers of the past have done, that is, make wine approachable to the everyday wine drinker by using language to make it utterly incomprehensible. Or as Dylan so perfectly puts it, “When you got no wine, you got no wine to lose.” Indeed.
Dylan fell in love with wine in the turbulent 1960s. There wasn’t much great wine imported into his home state of Minnesota, but what he could get his hands on inspired him. One of his greatest hits was a paean to his favorite white wine of the era, “Tangled up in Blue Nun.” Wine had captured his soul, or, as Dylan writes, “Wine had captured my soul, not that I was using it much, I was mostly just drunk. That’s when you meet your soul, reflected in porcelain.” Oh, he is truly a great poet.
Many, if not all of you, are unfamiliar with Dylan’s brilliant, often mystical, often whimsical, wine writing. I’ve sifted through most of his work, much of it published recently in World of Fine Wine under the pseudonym “Blind-Tasting Willie McTell.” It can be argued that just his wine writing alone qualifies him to win a Nobel Prize, though it’s probably not good enough to win a Roederer Wine Writing Award. I mean, let’s be real.
Dylan on Châteauneuf-du-Pape (1985)
“How many Rhônes must a man chug down before you call him a cab? Yes, and how many grapes will it take in the blend before you flip off the lab? Yes, and how many stones can there be in the row before you’re just full of schist? The answer, my friend, is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The answer is Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”
When Dylan published this scathing review of the Grenache-based wines of the Southern Rhône, it was seen as too harsh. Producers in the region objected to Dylan’s criticism, but Dylan replied to their complaints with the simple phrase, “Yes, and how many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?”
“Two,” responded the literal French, and that was that.
Dylan on Natural Wines (2002)
“Come gather ‘round people wherever you’re born and admit that your soils are sadly forlorn, and accept that you need some cow shit in cow horn. If your wine to you is worth savin’ then you better stop sprayin’ or you may as well be shooting porn. For the wines, they are a’changin. Start reading your Steiner to clean up your land, and don’t criticize what you don’t understand. It’s non-intervention that the critics command. For the wines, they are a’changin’”
Many wine writers claim to be the champion of Natural Wine, but it was this impassioned plea from Bob Dylan that brought biodynamics to the forefront of winemaking. Dylan was the first to promote the wines of Nicolas Joly, saying, “he put the ‘cool’ in Coulée de Serrant.” He was also a fan of Rudolf Steiner, saying, “‘Pretty Woman’ is just an amazing piece of work.” Dylan may have confused Steiner with Roy Orbison, which was common in those days, as both appeared regularly at the Grand Ole Opry. Steiner, for a short time, was married to Minnie Pearl, believing she was a small nacreous substance that promoted root growth. Dylan may have been on something at the time, not just Columbia records, but something definitely Columbian.
Dylan on White Burgundy (2004)
“Le Montrachet, le across my big brass bed. Le Montrachet, le across my big brass bed. Stay Montrachet, stay with your man awhile. Why wait any longer for the one you love, when it’s standing in front of you. Bâtard Montrachet, lay across my big brass bed. Bâtard Montrachet, let me see you make him smile. Why wait any longer for the world to begin? You can have Grand Cru and eat it, too. Clos de Lambrays, bray across my brig brass bread.”
Many wine authorities believe that with this passage, Dylan revived interest in Chardonnay singlehandedly. A tribute to the great white wines from Burgundy, Dylan ends the paragraph with a swipe at overrated Pinot Noir in the guise of Clos de Lambrays, making nonsense of the final sentence, and in the process, elevating the status of Chardonnay. This is the sort of inspired wine writing that brings poetry and insight to an otherwise dull subject. I think it was Clive Coates MW who said of Dylan, “Everything I know about Burgundy, I learned from Dylan.” Which explains a lot. And it was Dylan who said of Clive Coates MW, “I have porkpie hats that old, but no coats.”
Bob Dylan has influenced generations of winemakers and wine writers. His timeless and often senseless prose can be seen today in the works of Terry Theise and David Schildknecht, both of whom, like Dylan, also play the mouth organ—though both say those videos were doctored. And it was Dylan who predicted the catastrophe of climate change and how it would affect the great vineyards of France in his classic essay about hail, “Oh, it’s a hard. It’s a hard. It’s a hard. It’s a hard. It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” The Nobels may have claimed Dylan as their own this year, but it’s clear that his heart belongs to wine.
As always, Dylan said it best himself when he wrote, “You don’t need a weatherman to know the wine biz blows.”
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