I’m guessing Jim Harrison would have gotten pretty bored with me pretty fast. The best tributes to this monumental human, who died March 26, describe his appetites, his grand, voracious gulps of life, food, the wild, the quiet, the women, the excess. Anyone who spends time in Harrison’s literary company has fantasized about spending time in his physical presence. But few among us could have kept up.

Jim Harrison would have drunk you under the table, just as he would have everythinged you under the table. He was as well-read and lih-trary as they come, worldly, with famous friends. But he was also ready/willing/able to crawl in the dirt, walk 30 miles without stopping, shoot what needed to be shot. Bawdy and rough, sensitive and enchanted. Three-dimensional.

Harrison: an author. Writing was his livelihood. He wrote searching, riveting, formally impeccable but emotionally naked poetry. He wrote blisteringly funny, rambunctiously insightful, self-absorbed and selfless nonfiction. He wrote short stories and long stories, and screenplays. “Legends of the Fall,” “Letters to Yesenin,” “Dalva,” “A Good Day to Die,” the essay collections “Just Before Dark” and “The Raw and the Cooked.” One masterpiece after another, tonally distinct though always recognizable as his.

But I won’t call him a writer. I won’t call him anything other than a human, because Harrison didn’t, as far as I could tell, write about things – not in the usual way that usual people do. Like they’re trying to say something, sell something. Harrison just lived, intensely, and his writing emerged to reflect and refract that life as it unfurled.

Like all great writers, whatever Harrison was writing was a guidebook. He’d seen something unvarnished, he’d felt something indelible, he had it. And he kept it, and it sustained him, and he passed it on. To help. He helped me.

This is about wine. Harrison drank a lot of it, and especially once he started to make some money from his writing – there were many years when he hadn’t, and his life from early on was filled with so many profound sorrows that poverty wasn’t the worst or second-worst of them – he drank well.

He drank well means he drank wines of high pedigree. He loved France: Bordeaux, Bandol, Burgundy turn up most frequently in his writing. (In one essay he dismisses German wines; no one’s perfect). But he drank well, too, in that he knew how to drink them.

His guidebooks instruct: Drink with food you have cooked (and even better, killed), drink after robust physical activity, drink alone as often as you drink with others, drink tearing into it, drink with gratitude, drink with attention or drink in oblivion but do neither moderately.

Harrison’s writing portrayed American men, and sometimes American women, not being so careful. Legendary falls. His fictional characters fail to break out of their own self-contained boxes and help anyone else. But they try, and through their failures they expand. They are courageous, and they are contemplative. They don’t hold back, they don’t oppress, they don’t strive.

This is how to drink wine, and it’s how to learn about wine. But so few of us approach it in this way. We’re scared, pretentious, ego-addled, so we beat our wine into submission. We’re swayed by marketeers, seeking a luxury lifestyle or hobby or object of infantile intellectualism. Whether we consider ourself a “wine expert” or “not a wine expert,” we have been hoodwinked into giving credence and value to expertise. We refuse to feel wine as the universe unfolding in real time, with us, ourselves, in its wake, in it.

Harrison’s essays on Zen (he was a lifelong practitioner) are some of my favorites of his works. I’ve never seen him write about quantum theory, but it took reading Harrison for me to feel the weight of the quantum revolution’s revelations. Part of which: the observer always affects what is being observed because she is not distinct from what is being observed.

This is a truth we don’t, in our ordinary sleepwalking state, acknowledge or live. Instead we keep everything separate: me over here, you over there. Me … drink … wine. Subject, verb, object. Harrison drank wine in undiagrammable sentences: one gulp, the wine and the drinker, going down together.

If you do read Harrison enough, you wear a WWJHD bracelet at all times. And you start to feel nauseated amid so much falsity and gimmickry, much of it your own. Every time I encounter some hotshot sommelier (or myself) spouting off about terroir, viticultural details, fermentation vessels, I want to puke. Every time I meet a rich guy (or myself) looking to pad his cellar with a trophy bottle, I want to puke. Why can’t we just take it in? Jim Harrison just took it in.

Just drink it. Just attend. Don’t fabricate ideas around it. Drink. Breathe in, breathe out. Again. Breathe in, breathe out. The universe is unfolding. Your body carries you through it. You have been given a gift. What are you feeling? Where are you? Seize this. Drink more. Harrison showed me that I can’t learn about wine by studying wine; I must come at it sideways. I must recognize myself as a human being, account for my entire life, and watch that life, at every moment, come into being. If there’s a bottle (or eight) of wine around, that’s part of my life.

When I start my wine school, Harrison will be on the syllabus throughout. Not any of his writing that includes wine; I’ll leave that to the philosophy and psychology departments. No, but Harrison on cooking poultry thighs, Harrison on Peter Matthiessen, Harrison on the Utah desert or Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – that’s some great wine education, right there.

Wine 101’s final project: Buy one bottle of Nuits-St-George and one bottle of Bandol, set aside a night when you can be by yourself, and with care and attention and good humor, get totally effing drunk. Take it from the master.

Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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