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A Wine Tasting at the End of the World

How three months on ice changed one wine lover’s view of the world

David W. Brown By May 5, 2022
ship sailing into icebergs shaped like wines
Illustration by Chris Gash

The RV Araon was one small ship of many docked in Lyttelton Harbor on the morning of January 3, 2022, its sunset-orange hull cast into relief against a cobalt New Zealand sky. From stem to stern and keel to masthead, the ship’s crew crawled about with welding torches, tools, and paintbrushes in preparation for a long voyage ahead.

We would soon set sail for Antarctica, where we would explore Thwaites Glacier, an unstable part of the continent whose collapse will one day rapidly raise global sea levels. Scientists call it the “Doomsday Glacier.”

I was there to research my next book, part of an expedition led by the South Korean government. But because space on $100,000 per-day expeditions is too precious to waste on writers, I was officially with the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, and one-half of a two-man team from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Our project, led by geophysicist Dr. Jamin Greenbaum, was to take readings of water temperatures, salinity, and currents beneath the glacier to better understand how the ocean is eating Antarctica from below. 

I was also there as a smuggler.

Deep in my duffel bag were two bottles of wine. Before boarding, I had spent two weeks quarantined in a New Zealand hotel, conspiring with The Drop to drink wine in Antarctica and to write about it. I would do so no matter the cost.

Alcohol in Antarctica

Antarctica is not known for its wine, but it does exist. Of the 40 or so permanent research stations on the continent, Dumont d’Urville Station, the French base, is known for having the best chef and deepest cellar. In 2019, I was embedded with the Australian Antarctic Division at Casey Station on the eastern edge of the continent. Alcohol was a straightforward affair: You ordered it from a wholesaler, and it was delivered by a resupply ship mid-way through the field season. The Australians also operated a small brewery there using water from glaciers thousands of years old. How very cold was the beer from Newcomb Bay Brewery, how welcome and revered were its brewmasters!

The Australians have since banned Antarctic homebrewing, citing, anemically, the unique environment. Too many people, it seems, were having fun.

But that was a problem for the Australians. My immediate concern was the Araon, the boat I now called home. My research revealed that the American vessel, the Palmer — also set to explore Thwaites — is a dry ship. If the same were true for South Korean ships, it was on me to make the Araon a wet one.

Ship life is not known for spacious accommodations; you will come to know your fellow shipmates too well. We had no internet access, no phone service, no messaging apps, no FaceTime. Spiritually and practically, we found in Antarctica only what we carried, and like a bottle of fine wine, all changes emerged from within. 

Shipboard life was organized around meals and science operations, the latter hindered by the volatile wind and weather of the Amundsen Sea at Thwaites, making it perhaps the most difficult place to explore in the world. Meals, however, were served with Swiss watch precision. Every day at 07:00, 11:00, and 17:00, cooks set out authentic South Korean cuisine from a well-stocked kitchen, buffet style.

Lacking any experience with Korean fare, I never quite got a handle on what to expect. The inventive chef and his heroic team rarely served the same thing twice, and I would bite into something expecting it to be warm and spicy only to find it cold and sweet. I went for it with gusto, let come what may. Which meant I once accidentally ate an entire farm’s worth of chicken feet, to my lasting regret.

My first Friday in the dinner queue, I shared eye contact with a sociable Korean of about 50 who wore large, round eyeglasses and casualwear. Ernie had been to Antarctica many times, he explained, and knew it sometimes took months for passengers from different countries to intermingle. He was going to change that. At the buffet line, he explained each item on offer, its Korean name, and how to eat it.

Later, Ernie also introduced me to “soju,” a clear spirit, and “maekju,” beer, and how pouring one into the other yields “somaek.” He taught me several toasts of increasing boisterousness, though I promptly forgot the Korean words, my brain as clouded as the gloomy Amundsen Sea outside. My favorite that I recall translated as, “Empty cup!” followed by a vigorous clanking of said cups, and an immediate draining of their contents.

He later taught me what it’s like to wake up with a terrible headache on a South Korean icebreaker boat bound for the worst place in the world. I wasn’t alone in my depleted state, and the next day the kitchen served what I think was “haejangguk” — a dish that reminded me of yakamein, a New Orleans hangover soup.

The Araon, I learned the hard way, is not a dry ship.

Author David W. Brown stands in front of the RV Araon.

Author David W. Brown stands in front of the RV Araon. Photo courtesy of David W. Brown.

The purest ice

By the time I returned to civilization, I’d had Korean Budweiser, and emptied innumerable cans of Cass, a popular, unassuming beer in Korea. I enjoyed craft beers squirreled away by the American scientists present, and an enormous bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon, which did not survive a single night once opened.

One night, one of the helicopter pilots dropped chunks of pristine ice he had chipped earlier that day from the Doomsday Glacier into my cup and filled it with Shackleton whisky, a stunningly smooth and light-bodied blended scotch inspired by Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famed British expeditioner. On his third expedition, Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was crushed and trapped by the same sort of pack ice we would face. Fifteen months later, he led his crew back to civilization without losing a single man. The customary toast to Shackleton, I learned, is, “To the boss!” 

All the booze balanced out to two drinks per week. It did not include wine until a week after we set sail when I bumped into Ernie on a stairwell. My room was on deck three, but he was adamant I join him on the second. I wasn’t sure if it was a language barrier — no, I am on the third floor, I assured him. But he led me down a maze of corridors until we arrived at the sickbay, and I realized that Ernie was the ship’s doctor. He beckoned me into an exam room.

It takes a special type of person to be a doctor in Antarctica. The weather and temperature on the ice make everything psychologically more difficult. Extreme cold-weather gear is heavy, and the bulky gloves render the wearer’s hands useless for anything that requires fine motor skills. On the sea and on the ice, there is nothing in every direction but a heaving ocean or infinite stretches of rolling white, and the mind recoils regularly at one’s insignificance. Most of what you do in Antarctica is manual, industrial labor: moving heavy crates from one place to another, unpacking them, doing whatever task is necessary, repacking the crates, and moving them around again. 

To be a surgeon requires a coolness otherwise reserved for astronauts and fighter pilots. Equipment is minimal. Like everyone else on the ice, a physician has to draw on all his ingenuity. Unlike everyone else, that resourcefulness might mean the difference between an expedition going forward in triumph, or turning back in tragedy.

And when the local liquor store is nine thousand miles away, a wine-loving doctor must improvise.

I noticed three things in the sickbay exam room: containers of cooked rice, a cloud of flies, and large, empty water bottles lining the walls. Ernie then slid from beneath an exam table a large, blue, plastic bin — the sort with flap lids usually used to store filing folders. He opened it. Within the bin: a thick liquid the color and texture of oatmeal, slowly churning. The liquid was alive.

It was fermenting.

Ernie explained that, in his youth, a master winemaker taught him the traditional way of making Korean rice wine. Natural yeasts, rough wheat, water, and excess pots of rice taken from the kitchen late each night fed his makeshift winery. He asked me to keep it to myself. He would surprise the ship on the Lunar New Year — but worried about what might happen when we hit deep waters. A violently rocking ship could disrupt the fermentation.

He was right about the violent seas. Weather and waves beset the ship immediately after departure. We rolled 20 degrees in either direction, nonstop, 24 hours a day, for almost two weeks. The rocking wasn’t rhythmic. You never got used to it, and the result wasn’t nausea so much as a hollowing out of your humanity. 

On January 23, after we had crossed onto the continental shelf, we sailed in calmer, shallower seas. To celebrate, I opened my first bottle of wine.

I noticed three things in the sickbay exam room: containers of cooked rice, a cloud of flies, and large, empty water bottles lining the walls. Ernie then slid from beneath an exam table a large, blue, plastic bin — the sort with flap lids usually used to store filing folders. He opened it. Within the bin: a thick liquid the color and texture of oatmeal, slowly churning. The liquid was alive.

Uncorked

My day began early. I stood alone on the ship’s forecastle surrounded on every side by icebergs a hundred feet high and nine times as deep, a grim, moody sky overhead. The ship’s crew was searching for a way into Thwaites Glacier. The ice of the Amundsen Sea was denser than usual, and icebergs closer together. The ship had no choice but to creep through a labyrinth of imposing icebergs. 

The common conception of an iceberg is a pointy crystal mountain jutting from the water, with two-thirds of it below. From our vantage, each looked like The Wall in Game of Thrones: tall cliff faces miles in each direction.

That eerie day we saw countless penguins and giant, slug-like seals. In the distance, we spotted the first whale of the voyage, a spout of water blasting from the sea. We saw three whales that day.

By evening, the ship had sailed into a dead end. The ice was packed, impenetrable, and even if we pushed through, we might not have had a way to get out. The sun slightly lower in the sky, I brought out for new friends who’d joined me five tin cups from the galley, and a 2020 bottle of Pegasus Bay Aria Riesling. I had chosen the bottle for two reasons: 1. I wanted a Riesling, and 2. I was limited to shops that delivered to New Zealand’s mandatory quarantine facility. It was a good choice.

I had intended to do a proper tasting with the other four scientists on deck. The bottle was chilled but we were freezing, and though I half-heartedly jotted down a few notes — medium-dry, much sweeter than I expected because it was late picked, nicely balanced with high acidity, notes of lemon pie, and green apple. The nose hit me as though fired from a cannon. Its utter desolation means there are no smells in Antarctica, making it perhaps the best place on Earth to open a bottle of wine. The bottle belonged to the moment, and we drained it easily and with great joy. 

author holding a wine he smuggled to Antarctica

One of the smuggled wines. Photo courtesy of David W. Brown.

Days later, when the boat was as close at it would get to Thwaites Glacier, we made use of the Araon’s two helicopters. Though the weather conspired regularly to keep the aircraft grounded, the British and Korean scientists established an ice camp on nearby Dotson Glacier, and build a hot-water drill to bore a hole through the ice and measure the temperatures of the Amundsen and find microbial life beneath Antarctica. Dr. Jamin Greenbaum and I flew into the heart of Thwaites, and from a helicopter hovering close to the glacier, threw torpedo-like sensors into cracks in the ice, measuring the flow of hot ocean water beneath the ice. Jamin is a pioneer of such daring fieldwork.

To celebrate the successful flight, I opened a 2019 bottle of Caravan Petite Sirah from Australia. I had not smuggled this one on board. That one was still squirreled away. This was a birthday gift. Upon pouring it into my little tin cup that evening, I was overcome on the nose by black fruits and pepper. Blackberries and blueberries followed on the palate.

It is sometimes hard to appreciate the full fragrance of wines, even in perfect conditions with the finest stemware. I now know this is through no fault of the wine itself. If wine is the pinnacle of civilization, ironically it is a civilization that mutes its fullest expression. Here, although a bottle of cheap red wine, Antarctic conditions in ways elevated the Petite Sirah to parity with the best Napa Valley has to offer.

The best wine of all

In late February, science operations concluded. On the final night before departure, I still had that second bottle I had smuggled onto the ship: a 2018 Wolf Blass Gold Label Regional Reserve Shiraz. One thing I didn’t have, however, was the Korean rice wine Ernie had made. Lunar New Year came and went with only beer to celebrate. He later lamented to me that the outbound journey and the violent South Pacific had yielded substandard wine. He was still working on it.

On February 28, after I survived sea sickness that left me longing to fling my body into the ocean, we had one final celebration. That afternoon, I gave Ernie the Shiraz. He deserved it. The ice is an unforgiving place, and he worked tirelessly to keep us on two feet. He’d treated dozens of patients with musculoskeletal injuries, lacerations, abrasions, and motion sickness, myself among the latter.

That evening, Ernie walked up and set before me an ice-filled cup. He poured into it what I recognized immediately as his Korean rice wine. I brought the drink to my lips.

It was lovely: a stunning pearl in appearance, light and pleasingly acidic. Delighted, Ernie presented it that night at the ship-wide going away party. Faster than most, his wine didn’t last long, for good reason. Everyone wanted a taste.

icebergs in Antarctica

Up close, icebergs look more like walls than the popular idea of the tip. Photo courtesy of David W. Brown.

Disembarking the next day, I experienced a storm of emotions and anxiety. I booked the most expensive hotel room I could reasonably expense, and one minute after locking the door, ordered an obscenely large cheeseburger from room service. But somehow it was all wrong. The comfort food brought me no comfort at all.

After months utterly removed from the world back home, and after having gone through something so affecting — this incursion into the wilderness with strangers who became lifelong friends — the loneliness of the hotel room made me feel only sad, and alien. Things I thought months earlier that were necessary elements of modern life — the creature comforts, the glass screens with to-the-second headlines and manicured social media — felt frivolous now, hollow, foolish. Even my understanding of what a pronounced intensity of a wine’s aroma could really mean — it was all different now.

The world was the same but I was not. That evening, I would have given anything to stand on that deck, see that first whale, trudge through the ice, and refill my cup.