The Wine Drinker

This is the Dead Letter Office of my wine writing. These stories ended up not fitting on our company's Facebook page (Piedmont Wine Imports) or website,, for reasons that I think are clear once you scroll through a few posts. Less professional musings, impressions that ultimately never got past the rough prototype stage. Um... enjoy!

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Value of Meat: A Eulogy to Lunch and Dinner

On a small NC farm, one wine buyer attempts to answer his own questions about the validity of a cornerstone of agriculture, primal urges, and the perfect wine match for an ancient foodstuff.

Or, if you’d prefer a higher-minded, dry title:

Wine with Goat: Ethics, ritual and an Ancient Dinner Combination

Goats have been with us for a long time. Maybe too long for their own good. The goats we gathered to butcher on a sunny Monday in Cedar Grove, NC would have been well-served to possess a more keenly honed instinct for self-preservation. Because the blunt fact is we are one of their major predators, wolves in thrift-store clothing, and yet they remain very cozy with us. When we gathered around Lunch and Dinner (their fates had been decided from the get-go), even when we held them down for their final moments before the blood-letting, they seemed completely trusting. The feeling at this point was intense and in some ways terrifying: a rush of adrenaline born of the act of killing a trusting, domesticated young goat.

Lunch and Dinner were kids from a father and his daughter, male goats no good for breeding, visibly slightly inbred in an unfortunately very cute way. They were completely useless male goats taking up space and munching valuable grass in the female-dominated world of a small goat dairy. Why was I a part of this remote and primal agricultural ritual? Most literally because over brunch (not a goat) I had expressed to John, one of the farm’s human residents, fondness for a fried baby goat dish I’d consumed in a small restaurant on a mountainside in Alto Adige. As a former vegetarian John had little experience with consuming goat, but he reasoned the meat of his two newborn victims would be best if slaughtered and consumed by a group of friends with a keen interest in the species.

So a kitchen-table story about a memorable meal got me an invite, but why did I wish to attend the bloody event? I’m an uneasy meat eater. I tell people who ask (and some that don’t) that I object to agribusiness, not traditional farming on a human scale. So my stated position boils down to (or slowly braises and falls off the bone of) not objecting to the use of animals for food, just possessing a disgust for factory farming, the overuse of meat in the standard U.S. diet, and outrage at the environmental impact of industrial farming and the collusion of our government through massive subsidies that drop meat prices to ridiculously low levels that cause correctly farmed and healthful meat options to seem expensive. So that’s the party line in a sentence. There’s one little stumbling block to this PC mantra. If killing ain’t wrong, why do I look away from it? I often speak with derision of the boneless/skinless crowd, buying cellophaned meat that with just a little squinting and denial resembles particularly tasty textured tofu. And if I believe that over-consumption comes from forgetting that (most of) your McNuggets were cut out of a bird, why do I always let someone else do the cutting? Unlike some perfectly sane individuals, I’m not in the least bit squeamish. In fact, I’m more than a little curious about the process of taking apart an animal for useable (and really other than the bile sack, they’re all useable) parts. There’s a little voice in my head, an uncomfortably Dennis Kucinich-like voice that speaks up from a podium on the far-left of the stage and reminds me that some of my tangled intellect strongly believes deliberately killing for any reason is wrong. Does my pacifism extend across the boundaries between species?

Apparently not.

Maybe meat has lost its gravity for many consumers. There is a cost: the life of sentient and in these cases perfectly happy animals, and that cost remains even if the animals have been raised right. My accomplices for a day of butchering were friends, and people with thoughts dotted along the spectrum relatively close to where mine lie regarding meat consumption. I think we mostly needed each other’s presence to make sure Lunch and Dinner would not be granted a stay of execution. Because it was the killing I worried about for days in advance, not the sight of blood. And it was a hyper-real blur of blood and twitching, nervous energy sending my heart into overdrive. Reverent quiet punctured by moments of grim dark humor. Cleaning the animals, like the killing, was done carefully, lovingly, and quickly in the stainless-steel and tile of Mimi’s ceramics studio. Mimi is the other owner of the Lazy Sunday Ranch, which she is quick to point out is not so much a place as it is a state of mind. The Lazy Sunday Ranch can follow you anywhere you go. . . .

Cleaning the animals was completely fascinating, and in some aspects beautiful. I left the studio in need of a beer, but more or less reassured that when practiced in a pure form I have no beef (ouch) with one of the cornerstones of agriculture. Taking life to renew life, and frankly to make room for next year’s baby goats. We planned a small party for the following Monday, as John said, a Memorial Day memorial to young Lunch and Dinner.

Pairing wine with goat should be easy. Both the vine and the goat came in from the wild and joined us millennia ago, becoming staples of agriculture across a wide swath of Europe, Asia and Africa for many societies with distinct culinary traditions. This was a great shot at tasting my theory about the ease of pairing local food and wine. Basically I preach that a culture’s food and wine grow up in symbiosis. Over the centuries grape growers have eaten the cuisine of their lands and slowly shaped wines that pair well with the foods regularly at their table. I’ve never met a winemaker who wasn’t an enthusiastic eater; generally they are people who care greatly about every aspect of what’s on the menu, and are often particularly fervent on the topic of preserving distinct and delicious agricultural products of their homeland. Since goats have been present in significant numbers in most of the regions that nurtured vitis vinifera into its wonderful practically innumerable present day varieties, finding the suitable wine for goat cooked in ancient ways (for our Memorial Day guests, the Lazy Sunday Ranch presents Lunch roasted on a spit and Dinner cooked in a clay pot placed on hot coals) should be no sweat. Also adding to my confidence were the guests and sundry bringers of wine: several fancy cooks, a couple of shifty coworkers from my wine store and other assorted friends with a keen interest in quality food and inebriation. So how did the respective wines do? Embarrassingly, the bottle of 2005 Bisci Verdicchio di Matelica that I brought was probably the worst match. Plenty of citric acid made it refreshing while sitting in the shade watching the goat go round, but the angular fruit and overall lightness of the white was not at all right with the meaty smoky flavors emanating from the spit. A bottle 2005 Domaine Moltes Pinot Blanc from Pfaffenheim, Alsace was also a great thirst-quencher, and its more substantial texture kept the wine from being overwhelmed by our tender goat-roti. The match of the evening was 2006 Gaia 14-18 rosé from Greece, a dark, juicy cherry-scented wine that through extended skin contact (14-18 hours, in fact) is closer in color to eastern French Gamay than to the pink wines of Provence. It quenched, it married well to wood smoke, it just worked in every intangible and important way. A bottle of 1999 Chateau Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape also fared will with goat two ways, even though it was blacker and denser than I’d expected. The goat reminded me that Beaucastel is ultimately a wine for rustic food, super when left in the culinary context of its native Rhone. Expensive wine isn’t always best with small plates of fussed over posh fare.

As days pass and memories of murder and memorial weave their way into my workaday routine, I become aware of my acceptance of this ritual, and now hold a belief based on slightly more evidence that goats killed in this historically typical way are not wasted to satisfy purely gluttonous urges. I would do this again. One day I may even limit my meat consumption to these sorts of events, returning the slain animal to its place as a highlight of life’s important celebrations. As a person that earns a living through tasting, buying and selling wine I also try to keep the beverage that pays my bills anchored to this context, as a natural, living food product best served with Lunch and Dinner. Taken away from the table, wine becomes empty inebriation. After these two happy, informative days in Cedar Grove, there is renewed strength to my belief that we consume the karma surrounding the animals we eat, good or bad.


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