Wine is really difficult to enjoy because its virtues demand opposing, incompatible mental states. Wine tastes good and produces the mild buzz that has a magical influence on conversation, but experiencing these virtues simultaneously requires an iron will or the body mass of a defensive tackle.
I was reminded of the paradoxical nature of wine last weekend at dinner with friends. After pairing the appetizers with a refreshing bottle of Gruner Veltliner, we poured a smooth, balanced 2001 Planeta Syrah from Sicily. It was unusual enough to fascinate and tasty enough to crave so by the time we opened one of my favorites, an Antica Cabernet from Antinori’s Napa project, I was close to that tipping point where flavors merge into grapey in-distinction and texture acquires the glassy uniformity of water. About half-way through that bottle I might just as well have been drinking a $3 supermarket special. When my friend Glenn asked me to break down the wine, all I could do was mutter something about evanescent aromas and emerging fruit.
Enjoying wine to its fullest means balancing on the knife-edge of sufficient alcohol to stimulate the imagination without subverting the ability to discern subtle flavors and textures. The pleasures of being caught up in conversation can quickly send you over that edge.
Did you know that the fate of Western Civilization has long rested on striking that balance? The ancient Greeks got this whole mess rolling by launching symposia where the finest minds in Athens would swill wine cut with water and chat about the Good, the True, and the Beautiful while sampling the charms of young boys. Philosophy’s founder and moral conscience, Socrates, generated some of his most important ideas while under the influence of both.
In Plato’s dialogue, The Symposium, Socrates is depicted as a formidable drinker who disarms the arguments of opponents while outlasting them well into the wee hours. Apparently, Socrates’ key character trait was his ability to drink while maintaining his capacity for razor-sharp casuistry. Had Socrates not been able to hold his liquor who knows—he might have mistaken the seductive words of his fellow symposiasts for genuine wisdom, and we might now be electing poets to high office instead of the “practical men” bent on transforming earth into a scalding, toxic inferno.
At any rate, a love of wine belongs in a life well lived because such affection demands that we acquire the ability to drink while disciplining the alcoholic haze. For 2500 years we have missed the point of the Socratic virtues. Courage in the face of death and an uncompromising commitment to truth are all well and good. But they can be instantly subverted by a little sloppy drinking.
Houses of the holy where the Masters of the Universe learn their trade—schools of business, law schools and policy institutes, not to mention the Ivy League—should be adding wine tasting to their curricula. An obsession with notes of sweaty saddles, pencil shavings, and cigar box will do more for clear thinking than the mighty tomes squatting on library shelves.