Wine in paradise

Wine and ophthalmology have a lot in common

Leigh Spielberg

Posted: Thursday, December 5, 2019

Illustration by Eoin Coveney

What is the #1 red grape variety in Italy, as measured by total wine production?” I asked, as the nine other members took their seats, pen and paper in one hand and a Chianti in the other.
The first Friday of the month had finally arrived, and for us, that means: Wine Club. The 10 of us were enjoying the bright, warm, long evenings typical of Belgium’s summer.
Yes, I know, Belgium is well-known as a beer country, from common pints like Stella Artois to alcoholic powerhouses like Duvel and on to the trappists like Chimay and the nearly-impossible-to-get-your-hands-on, medal-winning Westvleteren.
But for wine-lovers, Belgium is paradise. Although very little wine is produced here, it is a huge importer with a long history of wine knowledge and excellent connections to the best vineyards worldwide. Belgium was the first international market for French wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux. Its per-capita consumption of Champagne is the highest in the world. And because it isn’t a producer itself, we are not beholden to wines from a specific country or region. Belgian importers have their pick of the lot.
So, there we were, in David Van Grembergen’s back yard. Just like a subspecialty day within a big conference, each Wine Club meeting has a particular theme. Tonight’s was “Italian reds”. The four possible answers for the #1 red grape variety were Montepulciano, Sangiovese, Negroamaro and Primitivo. It was my quiz, so I knew the answer, and it was fun to see my fellow club-members trying to figure out the right answer based on what they had read and drunk over the past few years.
Wine, like uveitis, seems unknowable until you really get into it. Like many people, I found the sheer volume of information regarding wine to be overwhelming. Even just the terminology can be intimidating, involving so many countries, regions, climates, terroirs, growers, vintages, grape varieties and blends, not to mention ageing and food pairing.
And then comes the subjective information. There is a lot of objective information to be had, but once the wine is poured and consumed, we all seem to step into a realm of individual interpretation and idiosyncratic discussion.
But, at a certain point, I figured that if other people could come to know wine, and enjoy it more because of this knowledge, why couldn’t I? And so I recently set out to get to know wine. It was during a water break, halfway through my tennis lesson, that my instructor said: “After this lesson, I’m off to the wine shop to prepare for tonight. I’m hosting this month’s wine club meeting and I have some wines to buy and material to study.”
“Tell me more,” I said.
I realised then and there that wine was something that could be learned and studied, just like ophthalmology, just like retinal surgery. It was something that could be read about, discussed, and experienced. There are objective facts, like which grapes are used to make Brunello di Montalcino, and what causes a retinal detachment. And then there are subjective, debatable aspects, like whether a big Brunello is better than a bold Bordeaux blend, or which multifocal IOL might be best suited for a particular patient.
I also realised that it would take time and dedication to develop the knowledge necessary to make it all worthwhile. Just drinking it wouldn’t be enough. Reading and talking about it would be necessary. It would have to become a certain state of mind. No problem, I thought. Isn’t this how we all learned how to become ophthalmologists? By reading, observing and trying for ourselves.
In both ophthalmology and wine, knowledge and surgical skills can be supplemented by listening to lectures and taste-test videos online. I have watched literally hundreds of surgical videos about everything from how best to save a lost capsulorhexis to how best to peel a tricky diabetic membrane. Needless to say, the internet is full of great videos made by wine professionals on how to taste, differentiate and, most importantly, enjoy wine.
And so, the 10 of us in our Wine Club take our hobby (semi-)seriously: we purchase, prepare, plan and PowerPoint our way to proficiency in Pinotage, Pinot Noir and Primitivo.
Of course, wine-tasting will always remain a hobby for me, rather than a full-time job. Few people will be coming to me for wine advice, and no one will ever pay me for a second opinion on what to serve with dinner. But I know that it will become, just like photography, skiing, writing, reading, parenting and, yes, ophthalmology, a lifelong passion from which I will always derive a great deal of satisfaction.
The quiz was finishing up, the sun was going down and Galileo’s great quote came to mind: Wine is sunlight, held together by water.
Dr Leigh Spielberg is a vitreoretinal and cataract surgeon at Ghent University, Belgium

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