Light and Holy Drinks

After twelve happy years in Oxford, the happy year I spent in Cambridge was a far greater culture shock than (several years later) coming to Minnesota. The first thing I learned was that in Cambridge, it is not polite to be rude to people. If you say, “I read your book; what a lot of rot,” they think you mean it, acute sense of humor failure occurs, and you will have offended against the precept that “a gentleman is one who never gives offense unintentionally.”

But there is something about Cambridge books I never entirely understood: It is the emblem that the grandest offerings from Cambridge University Press bear upon their title page. Nobody has ever satisfactorily explained to me why scholars consulting The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire or an edition of Epistulae ad Familiares should encounter—up front, close and personal—an oval embracing an etching of the upper half of a naked woman displaying, for universal cynosure, what the novelist Thackeray refers to as “famous frontal development.”

For the learned, Cambridge University Press provides a cryptic clue. Around the oval run the words “Hinc Lucem Et Pocula Sacra,” which my third-year Latin class would render rightly as “Light and Holy Drinks From Here.” If this is an allusion to the excellence of Cambridge college port, I could not possibly disagree; port is one of the more splendid of the superficial similarities between the two ancient English seats of learning. But I fear it is a reference to the famous frontal development. The literal translation of alma mater is, after all, wet nurse; an alumnus is one who has imbibed in the way that nature intended from a lady not his natural mother. (Thackeray indeed was a Cambridge alumnus.) The holy drinks may be on the university, but they are strictly nonalcoholic. Pity. Who wants learning when there is a possibility of port?

Port rhymes with thought. Unlike the great wines of Bordeaux, port does not absolutely demand that you switch your mind on while drinking it, but, like an intelligent woman, it does furnish substantially more pleasure if you give it your thoughtful attention. Thought requires information. The best place I know to find out painlessly about the finer points of wine is Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine. A magnificent new edition, just out, is a must this Christmas for the oenophile who has everything. From the rosé-tinted pages of front matter to the tables at the end (did you know that Kyrgyzstan produces 951,000 U.S. gallons of wine a year? Rather a lot for a mostly Muslim land), this is a riot of delicious information. You can savor swift pen portraits of famous connoisseurs, such as Robert M. Parker Jr., whose system of scoring wines numerically has been “easily and delightedly grasped by Americans familiar with high school grades,” and Hugh Johnson. You can grieve over phylloxera, wonder at the possible taste of the Roman wine coolers described by Pliny, or come to grips with the difference between Ruby and Tawny, Vintage and Late Bottled Vintage port.

And while you are about it, sip a glass of Fonseca ten-year-old Tawny Port, available hereabouts for a little over $30 (about half the price of The Oxford Companion to Wine). Tawny port lacks the rich, oily glory of vintage port, but it lacks also the rich, oily price. It needs none of the TLC, cellaring, or meticulous decanting without which vintage port—the product of a single outstanding year, long-matured in dusty bottles—is simply wasted. Tawny port has aged in wood but does not taste of it. The color is comparatively light; there is a whiff of grappa in the nose followed by fruity sweetness. On the palate there is warmth, a good grip, and a lingering pleasantness. Go on, have a second glass.

It would be genial to savor this port after dinner. Or, let us be honest, to keep it behind the filing cabinet for those long, cold Minnesota Saturdays when inspiration is frozen, when you stare, snow-blind, at a blank computer screen wondering how best to use the next precious moments of research time, when even the title page of The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire has ceased to please. Put it on a billboard: Fonseca, freeing the ice floes of the scholarly imagination since 1822. Hinc vere lucem et pocula sacra.