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Wine and the rheumatologist: required reading

Sep 10, 2015 3:00 am

Wine is bottled poetry.
--Robert Louis Stevenson

Wine is funny as a social mixer. It seems to segregate people into camps.

There are those who are ‘enthusiasts’ (and I know many of them) who too often display wine geek behavior, such as stuffing their nose in a glass for 15 minutes or using maddening language, which I have heard the venerable wine writer Matt Kramer (my personal wine guru I have never met) describe as “piffle”. Piffle includes banter such as “I am getting whiff of wet dog, or maybe lingonberries in this glass”.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who are intimidated, if not frightened, by wine and its culture. It’s no wonder, of course, given the rituals that too often abound about the beverage. But there should be no fear, for after all, it’s just fermented grapes juice, isn’t it?

For the connoisseur, there are challenges: remembering so much technical data, ranging from the grape to its method of production, an eternity of vintages and microclimates. Then there are “points”: “You know I only drink 90 and above” or something else equally ridiculous.

For the novice there is the intimidation: their astral selves are saying, ”What are these people talking about? Creamy boysenberry, plum skin and cassis? Should I care if it's 90 points?” Ultimately, the novice concludes: I think I’ll either just shut up or stick to beer.

OK, now what does this have to do with rheumatology? Well, Chris Ritchlin is not only a fine rheumatologist, a noted clinician investigator and a teacher, but also a good friend with whom I have shared many interesting bottles and dinners. Last February, he sent me something that changed my wine life in a fundamental way. It’s a book by Terry Theise called Reading Between the Wines by University of California Press. I was so blown away by this book that I have now sent it to several friends (like a wine chain letter).

By now, I hope I have your attention and that you are dying to hear what its secrets behold for me to give it so much hype. Admittedly, the book is somewhat rambling, and does not reveal the ultimate secret of wine or offer a new biomarker to identify the ‘best wines’. What it does tell the reader is far more important.

Theise does not attempt to dumb down wine but rather asserts that wine is highly complex, often defying objective description. Most importantly, he says in those moments when we all are enjoying a glass immensely, we recognize it’s not the acid, or the sugar or the lactic acid, it’s the intuition grasped by our soul that we are communing with something of value. Above all, it has made me ask one fundamental question each time I have a glass: does this wine make me happy? The answer, I think, comes more from our soul than the individual parts which make up the wine. Hearing an authority like Theise, a noted expert and importer, affirm this is both reassuring and refreshing.

OK, I will not be writing book reviews for The New York Times given how I've conveyed the meaning and content of this book, but I can tell you this: it has changed my wine drinking life, and that part of me is pretty important. 

In the end this story is about rheumatology because, after all, Chris Ritchlin gave me the book. All of my wine geek friends who have read it also have loved it. Enthusiast or novice, I will give you the “wink wink” and tell you: read it now!  More importantly, since I am looking for converts to my wine religion, read it and it will soothe your anxieties and excite you to worship the grape like us.

Please send me your wine stories, or I'm happy to call so you can tell me about it. Comment below, or please reach out to me at I'd love to hear your thoughts. 

The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose related to this subject
Leonard Calabrese
(16 Posts)

Dr. Leonard H. Calabrese is Vice Chairmanof the Department of Rheumatic and Immunologic Disease and Head of the Section of Clinical Immunology at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Dr. Calabrese holds the RJ Fasenmyer Chair of Clinical Immunology and is Professor of Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine. He has authored over 300 published peer-reviewed articles, book chapters and research abstracts. Follow him on Twitter: @LCalabreseDO

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