Growth in the Harmony of Taste
Growth in the Harmony of Taste — a talk with Leonid Gelibterman
Interview by Elena Malikova
Most likely everyone in Moscow professionally involved in the art of wine making and haute cuisine knows Leonid Gelibterman. He is one of those people who actively contributes to building bridges between cultures, because what can be more exciting (but at the same time more banal) in another culture than its culinary traditions?
Leonid Gelibterman’s public education campaign is very important in forming the taste of the new generation of young businesspeople, and the fame of his lectures on high cuisine spread far beyond the walls of the universities and academies where he holds them. A researcher by nature, he never stops looking for new knowledge, new tastes. Today, we’re happy to introduce Mr. Gelibterman to our readers.
— One wine specialist once stated that there comes a period in the history of humankind when the liquids we consume must increase in both quality and concentration. In this sense, wine can be considered a revelation if you drink it correctly, as this process is then accompanied by the creation of more deeply structured wines. What are your thoughts on this?
— When I was young I read a lot of books on yoga, and there I found one truth: the human body requires as much liquid as possible. I consider water to be a substance very misunderstood by many people. Perhaps there are some individuals who are closer to an understanding of water than others, but most people don’t think about this idea at all. They just consume it without thinking. This is very disappointing, because water is the very basis of our body. It is a superb storage vessel of information. Water is something that can raise a person up to a certain level, or kill you. We often totally underestimate the influence and place of water in our lives, to say nothing about its high quality.
— Do you think our ancestors created beverages for an ecstatic experience, or for some other purposes?
— I tend to stick to a pretty simple explanation. In old times, everything was first and foremost justified by mere global survival. A particular tribe had to survive in a particular climate, and that’s how taboos emerged, be them on food or the time of meal. Everything was designed to maximize the survival of an individual or their tribe. So they naturally gravitated towards the food and drinks that helped them achieve this objective, or at least not cause them any harm. After this point the question changed entirely. Once a person is full and safe, they can focus more on the beauty of things, but when they’re hungry, they can’t afford to waste time on aesthetics. At least, only a very limited number of people could. In their majority, these people were quite strong-willed.
— So that means people brewed fermented drinks to survive and improve the quality of their lives.
— In ancient times, wine was used as an excellent antiseptic. Wine therapy was born a long time ago, and wine itself was used as liquid currency. Wine was a symbol of particular social classes, and served as a measure of the cultural level of a nation. If you remember, the Romans used to say: «We are a cultured nation, we drink watered wine, while the Scythians and Gauls are savages who drink their wine neat.» For many artists and poets, wine has also been a vital source of inspiration. Wine has served many purposes, and those certainly include both ecstatic and aesthetic experiences.
— How easy is it for a person who knows little to nothing about wine culture and the aesthetics of its consumption to understand the wine they drink?
— There’s nothing predestined or predetermined in the character of wine enthusiasts. If someone, due to whatever circumstances, never had a chance to taste good wines, original foods or high cuisine, it doesn’t mean they can never develop their skills in this sphere. I don’t see anything predetermined at all.
Plus, a lot of people who did have these opportunities aren’t necessarily talented individuals, and they don’t draw any reasonable conclusions from their consumption habits. We have all known people who, despite all outward signs of being wealthy, behave oddly when it comes to wine or food. On the other hand, sometimes when a person gets a chance to touch this world, they develop a tremendous interest in it. In other cases, life restricts someone to a certain level for a period of time, where they can’t try different things and find out what’s really good. Then suddenly they see a window, and a lot of them are happy to look through it, coming to develop an interest in what they see and a need to become part of this world.
— So what you’re saying is that selectivity as a sophisticated feature of the human character depends on the level of their consciousness.
— Absolutely. It’s a well-known fact that the tasting abilities of a person depend on the amount of taste buds per square millimeter of tongue. The majority of people have an average amount. But here’s where the interesting part starts: let’s assume that I have an above average number of taste buds, and I can taste certain things better than other people. If I don’t train this ability, a person with an average number of taste receptors who is dedicated to enhancing their taste and aroma perception, will naturally be more skilled in this sphere.
I think that just like for a lot of other things, first comes motivation, then hard work, then results and their maintenance. You might be a genius taster, but it’s possible you’ll never know as much. Even Robert Parker discovered his tasting abilities by chance. The stronger a person’s interest is in life in all of its aspects, and the more he or she is eager to develop this interest, the more chances they have to open new worlds.
— How are you able to maintain your level, your structure, your active and forward-thinking position in life?
— It’s all thanks to my ancestors, who passed down the excellent health I have that helps me manage pressures. The second key is being in a state of mind where life is actually interesting. You organize everything so you don’t have time for any kinds of stupid nonsense. The third is when your work environment corresponds with your views. Then comes your home, with its atmosphere for work and relaxation, where nobody can bother you with anything insignificant. And, of course, there’s doing what you really love. This is when a weird little thing called harmony pops up, when you are in balance with yourself and the world around you.
— How does your knowledge of water, wine, food and the consumption culture of different countries help you in reaching this harmony?
— This is a very important thing in business and in networking, because it helps you find a common tongue with people from different backgrounds. The fastest, shortest and clearest way to connect with a person from another culture is through shared food and drink. Once you show that you know a lot about what is normal to eat and drink in another country, you are immediately introduced to the rank of «peer,» and conversations go more smoothly. That’s the very basis of it all, a harmony both inside yourself and in the outside world. The outside world means the people closest to you both at work and at home, but for me it also means the wider world, beyond the borders of my home country, where other people live, with their own understanding of life, culture and traditions. If you understand all of this, that is harmony as well.
— Jean-Marc Karen, a famous French wine critic, has claimed that only 30% of all wines are worth tasting. I get the impression that structured, individual wines capable of having a positive impact on the human body, are very few.
— You’ve got a point there. Here one has to understand who is making these wines in the first place. Who is capable of making a wine that has additional effects? I believe that some people can do it on purpose, while some do it without even thinking, just with their sincere, positive energy. But how can someone find a wine like this? After all, none of us are alike and can taste the same wine differently. I don’t believe there is one universal approach. There isn’t any one single product suitable for everyone. In fact, lack of information prevents people from drawing the right conclusions. I think that wine with additional effects can only be made by a certain kind of person with a specific aura and energy.
— Can any kind of grape be used to make this wine?
— Any. I went to Galicia recently, where I tried types of grapes with 200-300 years of history. I tried the wine they turned into and saw the people who made it. Their energy is so vibrant! The first thing they did was pour out some wine underneath a vine. Why? That’s just the tradition. And I thought: «Why are they bringing me out to the middle of this vineyard and making me taste wine like I’m some soldier in a field?» And then they told me the vine was 150 years old, and they bring all the most important and respected people here. All that respect just for an old vine!
Are people like this even capable of making something not amazing? No, they aren’t. Might the taste of this wine be not particularly appealing for some people? Yes. Will a consumer always find wine we consider great, to be interesting? No, they won’t. Will it be full of positive energy and good for the body? Of course, that is possible. I saw there people who are in love with their local grapes, who put so much of their energy into their vines. It’s no wonder the wine they produce is so incredible. I’ll never give priority to just one particular sort. The grape is a divine plant!
There are some types of grape that have spread all over the world, so it’s difficult for them to be the best of the best. That is why I love autochthonous grape varieties, which have been preserved on a small territory and retain their originality. Very few people know about them, but on the other hand — they live their own life and make the people around them happy. It’s harder for more famous types of grapes, because everyone loves them and tries to make wine from them. This ultimately damages the image and energy of the wine.
— Do you think autochthonous grapes can absorb through their roots the genetic memory of the culture and nations that have lived on the ground where they grow?
— I do believe plants have memories, especially grapes. But absorbing memories, the salt of the Earth from the soil, is just metaphysics. But I agree that they are just like water, and can contain and save information. When I visited Easter Island, where there is no free water, except for volcanic lakes, I felt this very strongly.
— That’s why drinking wine from autochthonous grape varieties is good for human health.
— That is certainly interesting. It’s a whole other world, full of new tastes and sensations! I love discovering these things. I adore other people who do it too, because it’s so much easier to just walk the well-known path: take the grapes that are easiest to understand, and make wine for the masses. But these people instead try to hold onto their roots, which can be very difficult.
— Is there any difference between drinking wine from local grapes in their native area, or outside of it? What would that type of wine be like?
— By all means, you should try to drink wine for the first time right on the spot to create that special emotional atmosphere. The following sad story often happens with autochthonous wines. When you try it first in its country of origin, and then at home, you notice the sensation is totally different, including your emotional state. Here it was probably the person who did something incorrectly, either with the wrong food or wrong emotional state. It’s very important to create a special atmosphere and make sure the surrounding conditions are right. If that doesn’t work, that means you’re making the mistake for the first time.
— If you had to choose between drinking normal wine every day, or preparing yourself, including financially, and buying very good wine, what would be your choice and why?
— That depends. I can say for myself that I’m quite a spoiled person, and I like looking for things I find truly interesting and original. There are so many drinks in the world, why should I limit myself to just three or five of them? You must search around, taste things and find out if you like them or not. In this sense, I’m an experimenter. I like the thought that wine should be drunk while eating. The difference between a European and a Russian here is that in Russia people match food to wine, while there they match wine to food. There’s a huge difference between these two approaches. To me food is the base element, and you have to choose the wine to match it so you don’t end up just eating and leaving.
— What do you think about just drinking plain wine? Just wine and water?
— I taste a lot professionally. And when I do, water serves a purely utilitarian purpose for me. Also here I can say that I love olive oil. Give me some wine, good bread and olive oil, and just leave me be for two or three days. I’ll be completely happy!
— Does this have to be a special kind of wine?
— No. It can be a simple wine, one that might get called «fair.»
— Chilean, for instance.
— It can be, but not just any of them. Otherwise, that would mean a carte blanche. The place of origin and grape variety don’t so much matter, the most important thing is that the wine was made with honor.
— What is the role of independent specialists in the wine industry? Isn’t it an issue that many wine critics, sommeliers, and tasters depend on wine corporations?
— I don’t believe in independence. I understand this idea as «earnestly objective.» It might be the case that you’re not affiliated with any corporation and don’t depend on one, but when you stand in the way of a company, they may try to buy or compromise you.
If you are very strong… Like Robert Parker, for example. Everyone knows that he never accepts bribes. But Parker ended up becoming a dragon himself! Do you remember the movie «To Kill a Dragon»? The commercial success or failure of a business can depend on his words. That’s why I’m always for maximum objectivity.
— Is self-understanding possible through food and drink?
— It is. Because it can help a person reach a certain state of tranquility and spiritual balance. Only then can you have an honest conversation with yourself.