I had no idea Surrealist painter Salvatore Dali wrote a book about wine. As you might imagine it was—different. The prose was written by his editor and other figures in the wine world, but Dali contributed the ideas and, of course, the art.
Of the more than 140 illustrations by the artist, most are reprinted sketches and details from earlier paintings; of the original pieces made for the book, most were produced by slightly altering the work of other artists, adding touches like the aforementioned torso drawers and penis-wine bottle spout, which were appended to a traditional nude by Bouguereau, a 19th-century French Academy painter. But hidden within this oddity is a revolutionary system for thinking about wine that foreshadows our current move away from bloodless ratings, as well as a critical renaissance for an artist who spent nearly 40 years of his prolific career as a has-been.
Although the discussion of wine regions is “mostly forgettable”:
It’s the second section, “Ten Gala Wines,” that hits the home run, blowing minds in the way Dalí masterpieces like “The Persistence of Memory” do. Writer Louis Orizet (a viticulturist and politician in Beaujolais), with help from Georges Duboeuf (a driving force behind the marketing campaign for Beaujolais Nouveau), sets out to explode wine criticism by categorizing wines by their emotional resonance, rather than prosaic features like geography or varietal….
The text divides the wines of the world into sections like “Wines of Light,” “Wines of Purple” and “Wines of Generosity,” using diverse metrics like production method, weight and color to find emotional kinships, resulting in eccentric groupings (Madeira, California, Roussillon in “Wines of Generosity”; Beaujolais, Hermitage, Bandol in “Wines of Purple”) that are obtuse even while they make perfect instinctive sense.
He also calls to task writers who attempt to quantify the intensely personal experience of taste, asking, “What bearings should we use to further our knowledge when so many flatterers are set against so many critics? How shall we find our way through the quarrels between those who prefer young wines and those who defend older vintages?”
It is interesting to see how a person of such imagination and vision understood wine. We certainly need a new way of talking about wine, one that precisely describes the objective components but also captures the impact wine has on the imagination and emotions. Perhaps wine writing should not be left entirely to the wine writers. Yet most wines are not produced to resonate emotionally. Generic industrial wines don’t exactly conjure nuanced sentiment or quivering palpitations of the heart.
Does a renewal of wine writing await a revolution in winemaking.