Thunder mountain

11 November 2017

Image result for atlas of true names

[Ok. A month ago, I tried to write a short joke post about a wine list that was entirely Thunder Mountain Chardonnay. Then I tried to write a more thoughtful introduction to it, which is below. Then everything got out of hand. The introduction is still down there, being swiftly overtaken by events. The link to the list in progress is at the bottom.]

This is a long version of an idea that I thought was simple, and that’s grown out of two things: a premier cru vineyard in Chablis called Montée de Tonnerre, and a project from two German cartographers called Atlas of True Names. (That’s a detail from their map of the U.S. Northeast above.)

There’s a habit among some wine folks, usually young men, either playful or obnoxious probably depending on how you look at it, of calling that vineyard above “Thunder Mountain”—I first learned about it a little after I’d started studying for a first sommelier certification. (Really, montée refers to the Roman road that climbed up the hill from Auxerre to link it to the towns of Tonnere, so it’d more properly be something like “Rising Thunder”—but “Rising Thunder” is not a Disneyland ride.)

And it’s Thunder Mountain for all of the reasons you can probably imagine: as an in-joke and a tribal marker, a way to signal you’re not taking any of this too seriously, a way to feel ownership over a dense & complicated system of signs you’re trying to memorize, a mnenomic device, a way to make wine feel less intimidating, a way to feel like you belong, or wine belongs to you.

Years even before that, back when I was teaching language & reading about it much more often, I came across the Atlas of True Names, which had two go-rounds on the internet in 2008 & 2013 (first release, then U.S. version). It’s a charming project by two Tolkein nerds (though not without its issues) that literalizes place names around the world by following their etymologies (etymology itself meaning true name). You can tell the basic thought was to make the known world seem like the map on the flyleaf of a Lord of the Rings book—Town of the Defender of Men, City by the Mountain of Mountains, Land of the War; the Sahara Desert becomes The Tawny Oneand everything else is a bonus. Follow the link above if you want to see how complicated this simple impulse becomes if you look at it closely enough, but—that’s the notion.

So: on the one hand, demystify; on the other, remystify. One of the reasons normal people find long wine lists intimidating & dense (I’ve had them literally thrown at me) is because they’re written using the technical vocabulary of multiple languages. Saint-Aubin 1er Cru Derrière Chez Edouard becomes a lot simpler if it’s parsed as vines in the village of Saint-Aubin behind Ed’s house, rated pretty good. German wine labels notoriously go from impossible to programmatic as soon as you learn that every particle is doing a specific job. (Niedermenniger Herrenberg Riesling Spätlese Feinherb AP4 = one of four bottlings from different casks  of late-harvest slightly-sweet riesling from the Herrenberg vineyard in the village of Niedermennig).

The literal wine list below could be just that, an educational gloss. (Of, I should mention, a real wine listsome of you will be able to guess which one.) But instead (Wait—someone in my living room just asked—why are you doing this?) it’s attempt to have it both ways, to recapture the feeling the first time you realize this exotic French wine you’re holding & struggling to understand is, in one way, just a Thunder Mountain Chardonnay, and that the things that can seem pretentious or fancy (premier cru vineyards in Burgundy) are often prosaic placenames rooted in the concrete & everyday. The result, with luck, is a wine list whose references feel both accessible & strange.

[Go to the list.]



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