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Back Talk

What exactly is the Wine & Spine Society? Our wine editor finds out when she falls down some stairs and meets a group of wine-loving spine surgeons.

I logged on to Amazon.com not long ago, searching for book titles containing the words back pain. I pulled up 299 possibilities—18 more than I got with that other universal ailment, headache, though 17,381 fewer than I found with sex. In the world of suffering, it seems, not much can trump back pain in popularity, or at least prevalence.

I initiated this search not long after falling down some stairs in my house and herniating four disks in my spine. Four disks! No one, including my doctor, could believe I'd done so much damage. The collective astonishment was so great when I recited this number that I began to take a perverse pride in doing so: "Four! Four herniated disks!"

One of the people I happened to tell was Robert M. Parker, Jr., the famous wine critic, who is also, I discovered, among the legions of back-pain sufferers. Parker is lucky enough to count some of the best back men in the business as his friends. He generously offered to put me in touch with one of them, spine surgeon Hank Dudley. Parker and Dudley had met many years earlier as members of the same Baltimore wine-tasting group. Dudley, Parker told me, was also a member of another tasting group with an improbably catchy name: Wine & Spine.

The Wine & Spine Society was unofficially founded in the mid-1980s by Henry Bohlman, professor of orthopedics at Case Western Reserve's school of medicine, in Cleveland. The earliest members were all Bohlman's students, young men (they all seem to have been men) who, under their beloved mentor's tutelage, came to know almost as much about wines as they did spines. After a long study session at his house, the doctor would descend to his cellar and bring up a few bottles for his students, and of course, treat them to a little lecture on the contents. As Bohlman explained to me, "I tell them that I know they came for a spine fellowship, but they also get an oenology fellowship."

Today Wine & Spine members are scattered across the country but they meet at least once a year, in restaurants all over the world. Dudley volunteered to see if a Wine & Spine dinner might be organized for me in Baltimore. "That way we can have some great wine and food and you can get a whole bunch of professional opinions about your condition," he gallantly offered, adding that I should be sure to bring along my X rays.

Thus a dinner was arranged at a restaurant called Charleston, a local favorite of Parker's and Dudley's. Parker, an honorary Wine & Spine member, offered to bring along an inordinate number of great wines from the Rhône, while the doctors, including Bohlman, promised they'd supply a few as well, including a 1970 Taylor Fladgate port and a 1983 d'Yquem.

I arrived at the restaurant dutifully carrying my large envelope of X rays emblazoned with the words Beth Israel Medical Center—a definite first in all my years of lugging things to restaurants. There were handshakes and introductions all around. Ten doctors (and two of their wives) had flown in from various parts of the country, including John Heller, a spine surgeon from Atlanta, who had actually cut short a medical conference in Monte Carlo to be there.

"Let's have a look at your X rays," prompted Dudley, who'd thoughtfully brought along a portable light box. One after another, the surgeons peered at the film. Bohlman, who counts baseball great Cal Ripken, Jr., among his patients, quickly discounted my four-herniated-disk diagnosis. "One herniated disk and a couple of bulges," he reported (rather dismissively, I thought), adding that even Ripken had never suffered more than a single-disk herniation.

One disk? "How could that be?" I asked, shocked and admittedly a trifle dismayed at the downgrade. "I'd give you a prescription for a membership in a health club," offered Alex Ghanayem, the young chief of spine surgery at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois. "You don't need surgery." The doctors all nodded in agreement: No surgery. Ghanayem took another look at the light box. "How old are you?" He was being polite: My age was printed on the side of the X rays. He nodded at the number. "I'd say you have age-appropriate spine degeneration."

Fortunately this discussion was interrupted by the arrival of the first flight of wines, three extremely rare whites from legendary Rhône producers Chave and Chapoutier. These wines, each made in minute quantities, are some of the overlooked gems of the wine world. They've been called the "Cortons of the Rhône," after the great white Burgundy possessed of a similar richness, concentration and intensity. And they proved the perfect foil to chef Cindy Wolf's beautifully simple tuna tartare.

The next two courses were delectable braised rabbit loin with bacon, and roasted rack of Colorado lamb, accompanied by 10 reds from the Parker collection of Rhônes. These included more legendary names and vintages, notably the stylish 1991 Côte Rôtie from Henri Gallet and the fabulously concentrated yet remarkably polished 1989 La Mouline from Guigal. The latter is considered the greatest single-vineyard wine from the Rhône, if not the world. These two wines, Heller observed, were ones he'd long dreamed of tasting. I was especially happy that Heller's dream had been realized when I learned that his luggage had been lost somewhere between Monte Carlo and Baltimore. Yet out of respect for the occasion and his Wine & Spine fellows, Heller had simply gone straight to Brooks Brothers and bought a blue suit. "I actually have another one just like it at home," he said ruefully, fingering a lapel.

Only the attire was formal at this Wine & Spine dinner. The doctors have too much fun together to stand on ceremony. In fact, they were as a group so amiable and low-key that I found myself forgetting they were among the best back surgeons in the world. Bohlman, however, kept awhirl almost all evening, furiously photographing the wine, the food and his fellow surgeons, with all the dedication and furor of a fashion photographer. (His wife, Amanda, explained that her husband maintains a meticulous record of every dinner; their bookshelves at home are filled with photo albums of Wine & Spine dinners.)

Once the blackberry cobbler and lavender-honey ice cream had been dished out (along with glasses of the '83 d'Yquem), Dudley stood up to announce that I'd been made an honorary member of Wine & Spine. Although I had been downgraded by three herniations and my spine identified as age-deteriorated, it seemed like a small price to pay for such a distinction. On the other hand, hadn't Bohlman said that the true membership criteria were simply "You have to have a spine, and you have to love wine"?

Published January 2001
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