Levine reception blends wine and friendship

Philip Levine, one of Fresno State’s most treasured professors of English and poetry, returned briefly from retirement over the weekend to celebrate the love of wine.

He was here at the Smittcamp Alumni House where a special wine bearing his name was released. He signed a limited number of bottles of Picaresque to sell at $50 each.

“The wine came out better than I thought it would,” Levine said. “I think it’s a terrific wine. I was hopeful, and it came out pretty much how I wanted.”

But even at the age of 84, the 18th Poet Laureate of the United States was not finished at the weekend’s end.

His bags are packed and they will accompany him east, back to Brooklyn to visit family, friends and to speak to like-minded lovers of the English language.

There is a lot on Levine’s mind.

He is revising his talk, titled “My Lost Poets,” a lecture that recalled the early days of his long career in poetry, and those who he calls his mentors. He recited the lecture to the U.S. Library of Congress, closing out the 2011-2012 Poetry and Literature Center’s literary season.

He plans on having the lecture revised for publication. He is searching for publishers, and has two offers to consider.

Levine is also working on a new book of poems, though he isn’t quite sure what to name it. Yet.

And just as he puts his soul into the poems he creates, Levine did not take the crafting of his wine lightly, for wine has been a part of his life for more than 50 years.

“I really started drinking wine when I came to California, and I was 29 years old,” he said.

Levine first came to California on a scholarship from Stanford. Yvor Winters, Levine’s mentor, introduced him to California wine, which he immediately loved.

“For the first time, I started drinking decent wine,” Levine said. “I hardly had any wine at all before then.”

Levine was approached by the Fresno State wine department, which wanted to create a wine blend in his honor.

Accompanied by his wife Fran, he went to the winery and tasted over 20 types of wine, spending an hour trying many different blends.

He settled on one.

It’s Picaresque, a dark, red wine, made from a blend of 40 percent Barbera, 20 percent Syrah and 20 percent Sangiovese.

The blend was somewhat unorthodox, said Joseph Joralemon, sales and market student assistant at Fresno State Winery, who spoke during the reception. But he was surprised by the result.

“It actually turned out to be very, very well balanced,” he said.

John Giannini, Fresno State winemaker and lecturer, oversaw the entire wine blending process.

“When we put the blend together, it turned out to be a very nice wine,” Giannini said while he stood at the podium. “It’s very easy to drink; very nice cherry and blueberry fruit, with acidic balance, but with a little bit of tannin which will help this wine age for a certain period of time.”

Levine chose the wine’s label, which was designed by a student from professor Rebecca Barnes’ graphic design class.

Shae Sarraf created the label as part of her final project at Fresno State. She graduated in May 2012 with a degree in graphic design.

Sarraf told the audience at the alumni house that her inspiration came from Levine’s poetry, which often revolves around nature.  She decided to base the label on an animal.

She chose the crow, due to the bird’s noted intelligence, rogue-like nature and that “they’re always up to no good.”

“I think the crow really comes across as that rogue-like character for the wine label,” she said.

When Levine took the podium he held out a bottle of Picaresque that was branded with his signature in gold ink. The color was symbolic; as he held the bottle he said to the audience, when he was a younger man, his mother once told him “may all your poems be gold.”

Levine said that he was happy to be given the opportunity to craft his very own wine.

“It was great fun for me to do this,” he said, “to get involved with John Giannini and just go over there and see how wines were made here in Fresno.”

His return to the campus helped him recall fond memories of his 34-year career as a professor of English and poetry.

“My career at Fresno State was longer than what it should have been, and, in some ways, shorter than what I wanted,” he said.

“In the end it was fun and it was worth it.”

Peter Everwine, a fellow poet and retired Fresno State professor and close friend to the Levine’s, was quick to make jokes and send the audience into strong laughter, but ended his speech with some words from the heart.

With his right arm reaching forward, pointing toward his friend, and with his hand clutching a nearly empty glass of wine, Everwine said, “may your glass always have a good wine, may your glass always be half full, and may you drink it in a circle of friends and those who love you. Cheers.”

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