Wine Labels; or, The History of a Wine Tasting

translated by Erika Mihálycsa

Illustrations by Marla Johnson. Typography by Jen Rickard Blair.

Rendez-vousYao Ming Winery

White cuvée

A gift from heaven after all those swills not worth calling by the name whose only proper use is for flushing the toilet, and whose empty bottles are, even after three thorough rinsings, redolent of the breath of orally unfaithful women. A galoptious gift from heaven to the wanderer floundering up and down the immense wastes of sand. When opened, its scent will spread like the gospels. We feel instantly transported to sun-glazed slopes. Sage, milkweed, sweet william, dandelion, and, beneath a far-off tree, black mulberry fermenting. Its taste speaks of great depths laden with secrets. To be consumed in the evening after long years of abstinence; you should not be suprised if it calls for continuing.  


UnioDr. Zergefalvy Vineyards


We can notice already at the first swirl that it is dominated by the terroir, by the soil’s full-bodied presence. And that incomparable and yet vaguely familiar aroma which, taken into the mouth, has the effect of titillating, huskily whispered mots d’oreille: even the one who has heroically resisted for hours will succumb. We should not be alarmed if the flavor is reminiscent of rotten meat: it is but the play of surfaces. There are such who are seduced by a phrase like “O thou lily-velvety ecstasy of touch!”; and there are such that get excited by “slimy slut.” The word bouquet filling the whole mouth cavity is no longer a taste, but a trace engraved in the palate. It comes alive as the initials of one’s name tattooed inside the navel: every sigh the trumpeting-out of the true name. And what is the true name but the design of the universe? Liquid meat falling into the darkness of tenderest marble jaws. The vibration intensifying to a quake, which succeeds the fall, merges into the soft flaking off of plaster, and the other way ’round. But many would hear in it the prolonged coda of tempestuous symphonies rather. That is, one hears something that has long ceased to be sound. Artistic transformation with bloodcurdling velleity. The screw-topped bottle indicates that it is intended for regular, frequent consumption.


AnnunciationProf. Rudy Mahler Cellars


The fundamental question of oenologists: Am I qualified to experience everything that I experience? Yes, comes the prompt self-answer, although with an ever-so-slight tinge of voiding, due perhaps to the waning lees in the prolonged sur lie aging. But the image slowly perfecting under our gaze dispels all doubt: waterless ice and steamless vapor, such things can only exist in words. Its color remains an unbroken mirror even after shaking. The miracle of the giant tree germinating from such a tiny seed is only truly assessed if we climb up to the very top of that fir tree. The first impact: oh, but this cannot be true! But the next moment space opens up, like darkness being penetrated by light. And there we stand facing another question: Does there only exist what is true? This question addresses us as directly as a phone call from the desired woman whispering into our ears through the microphone that she is expecting a baby by us. To be served as apéritif only.


Mare TranquillitatisChateau Mao Ce-tung

Pinot gris

Aroma of dust settling on sandal fringes on early-morning walks in the summer, mixed with a small quantity of raisined happiness. On blind tasting it is always served in the first round, for reasons easy to understand. This vintage is exceptional since it is probably the last in which the residual sweetness of happiness can still be established. What will the leftover sugar metamorphose into? Taken in the mouth, we only find unenjoyably traceable, that is, untraceably enjoyable, fast transformations. Stored in the vignette’s cellars found on the slope known by the name Mary’s Bubbies, it is best to taste on the spot: due to the spores of fungi borne in the air, its acids taste rambunctiously serene.


MenzognaSt. Agatha Cellars

White cuvée

With an intensity that seems repeatable but is in reality unrepeatable, in it a flower blossoms, and, by the time it comes to bloom, it has already withered. To long for one flavor only and taste another, this is all there is to remember. A slight imbalance of harmony, ever so slight, like the fabled mixed metaphor in Shakespeare’s unwritten sonnet: “To quench my thirst wi’ bite of other mouth.” Held up to the light, the shades hovering on the surface induce in us the loose fancy condition, more efficiently than castor oil. Its twilit depth is ghosted by light-delineated despair. Taken into the mouth, it surprises us with its unprecedented structure, the quaint cadence of exquisite sentences. Antique complexity. The one-time and eternal sense of “Yours only,” “only for you,” “never before,” etc., blends with inanities. Long, bitter-sharp aftertaste of tobacco and alcohol. Perhaps it would need a few more months to settle, and in the passion sedimented to slush the pure and self-conscious scream of despair could radiate. But it will probably not keep that long.


DoubtVignette Jean-Paul Beaujardin


Tart tonality reminiscent of the sulfurous bouquet of rows, tiny black lightnings of flavor, a tannic effusion that burns like pain or like the happiness of yesteryear. In the under-tongue darkness a desperate quest pushes on: what provokes this stalky acidic tsunami? It is stupefying and uncanny, like the suspicion born in the maternity ward: this child does not resemble me! Acidity so aggressive that every draught threatens to burn the mouth cavity, like the voiced consonants of names uttered with great difficulty: Adam, Attila, Edgar, Gordon, Gustave. The terroir of rocks cooled out, covered by thin soil, has never been felt so intensively yet. It is dangerous to face when alone. Although one can only overcome it alone.


DolourChateau Isaac
Grünstein & Sons

Chardonnay barrique

Pangs of medium intensity, outward austerity combined with startling oakiness. Mouthfeel of delicately veined tanned leather with a nearly imperceptible tinge of sweetness on the palate. The first draught is followed by the usual types of nostalgia that arise just as whimsically as the appetites of pregnant women. “If you tremble for strawberry ice with gherkins, it’s going to be a boy; if you crave marrow soup with whipped cream, it’s going to be a girl.” But this has hardly any prophetic value at all: everything speaks solely about the past. As the saying goes, “Wine is the coming-into-being of the past.” And just as the hardest part of pregnancy comes when the amniotic fluid is released, here, too, the bottom of the bottle is the densest. In flows a power of immense potential in place of the last draught, juicy while lacking all juice, knocking out while lacking alcohol altogether. To conceal another pain with the bottled pain of time.


LoveCount Attila Weisenbach Cellars

Rosé Cuvée

Made predominantly (95 percent) of varieties of daydreaming, in small part (5 percent) of varieties of bodily secretions; changing color. At present it is in that rare state when the proportion has reversed: 5 percent daydreams, 95 percent bodily secretions. Will the proportion alter to 96:4 the next instant? Nay, nay, nay. In the wake of a cataclysmic but in every other respect latent transformation, starting from this point both daydreams and bodily secretions will decrease. Going rancid is foreseeable, followed by the state of jellification, to be closed off by the rapid process of desiccation. It is at this stage that the winery’s proprietor organizes, on the Belvedere situated on Morrow slope, the program known as Danach: from a height of fifty meters the unopened bordeaux bottles land on the tarmac.


OblivionFendant du Cavalier Li Yu-Lai

Red cuvée

Its aging potential is decisive in every sense. Its angular acidity that begets suicidal drives will in time appear like outlook, with flashes of lightning from sky-purple dreams underneath. But it may happen that we never reach that stage: the predominance of dolent minerality might blow the fuse. Morning aroma and mouth-feel distinct from evening ones. Especially shattering in moments of solitude; in such moments it is to be avoided. Bouquet of tears at their fully ripened stage. It is slightly doubtful whether the cover of spicy exuberance that feels as bitter as gall, shielded by strong acidic tannins, can be torn up. It needs airing on account of the burning concentration of alcohol in the memories gleaned berry by berry. Hush, hush, away! Good wine is a live being you can talk with. But let’s not go into details. Yesterday keeps haunting with a slovenly paddling not unlike the noise of blowing a nose. Let’s open a bright new future with a bottled past! 

Translations from the Hungarian
By Erika Mihálycsa

Marla Johnson is WLT’s book review editor. Jen Rickard Blair is WLT’s digital media editor.

Editorial note: Mihálycsa’s translation of Láng’s essay “Ping-pong; or, Writing Together” is in the January 2015 print issue.

Zsolt Láng (b. 1958) is one of today’s most original and critically acclaimed writers of Hungarian prose. His eleven volumes of short fiction, criticism, and the tetralogy entitled Bestiarium Transylvaniae have long propelled him into the forefront of Hungarian postmodern writing. For more of his writing in WLT, see the September 2015 issue for another recipe, “Summer Husband Gâteau with Caramel Cream Filling,” and the January 2015 issue for the essay “Ping-Pong; or, Writing Together.” He is based in Transylvania, Romania.

A lecturer in the Department of English at Babes-University, Cluj, Romania, Erika Mihálycsa has translated William H. Gass, Jeanette Winterson, Julian Barnes, George Orwell, and others into Hungarian and regularly contributes to several literary publications. Two of her translations into English were among WLT’s 2015 Pushcart nominations.