Terry Theise and the Soul of Wine

person thinkingI think the best books I’ve read about wine are the two by wine importer Terry Theise. Reading Between the Wines is a thoroughly enjoyable account of his life in wine and a passionate defense of artisanality. But it’s his most recent book What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime that really gets my philosophical juices flowing.

Long celebrated for his portfolio of mostly German and Austrian wines as well as grower Champagne, in these two books he articulates a sophisticated philosophy of wine and introduces a badly needed corrective to our fatally crabbed and often vulgar approach to wine.

But like any work of philosophy, this book raises profound questions. Here a few quotes that I think raise the most important questions we need to answer.

Great wine can induce reverie; I imagine most of us would concur. But the cultivation of reverie is also the best approach to understanding fine wine.

What is it about us and what is it about wine that induces a dream-like state? There is something about certain perceptions that move the mind, that set the mind in motion, and take us to another plane. What is it about taste that enables reverie and why does wine’s capacity to induce reverie help us understand fine wine?

If wine had turned out to be merely sensual I think for me its joys would have been transitory. I’d have done the “wine thing” for a certain number of years and gone on to something else. What continued to drive me, and what drives many of us, is curiosity, pleasure in surprise, and those elusive, incandescent moments of meaning—the sense that some truth, normally obscure, was being revealed.

How can a beverage reveal truths? What kind of truth is this and how would we know we have it?

About particular wines there are certain questions we should pose according to Theise:

Is it charming, imperious, hyperactive, pensive? What sort of texture does it offer? Is it crisp or creamy, nubby or sumptuous? Is it contemplative, energetic, clever, profound? I feel it terribly sad that such language is often debased as inauthentic because it tells us much more about a wine than the prevailing geek-speak.

How could a beverage have personality characteristics? What licenses such a judgment? And why is important that we attribute personality characteristics to wine?

Some wines such as a wine called Souches Meres…are so haunting and stirring that they bypass our entire analytical faculty and fill us with image and feeling.

How does wine stimulate the imagination? We know that painting and literature provoke thought and mental imagery. But wine doesn’t really depict anything; it does not form an image. How is taste connected to the imagination?

My own palate, such as it is, does well at interpreting how a wine behaves, the kind of temperament it seems to have, the shape and torque of its motion and ways its various acts are organized—”acts” in the sense of dramatic arcs such as exposition, development, denouement.

Wine does change as it moves on the palate. But how can those changes acquire a narrative arc. It seems we come back to the same question—how does wine stimulate the imagination and why is it important that it does so?

When a fragrance is evocative yet indistinct—when it doesn’t specify its cognate (such as lemons or peaches or salami or whatever)—it seems to bypass the analytical faculty and go straight to your imagination and from there you climb about the fugue state directly to your soul…

In terms of wine we seem to infer the presence of soul when a wine is redolent, when it has atmospheres of nonwine things, when it echoes, peals, plays overtones. And again in terms of wine qua wine we usually sense the presence of soul in wines with a lot of tertiary elements—that is, things other than the clear flavors of grapes. That’s natural; soul is usually more inferential than literal….

Drinking a very old wine can be a soulful experience—and at least for me—it is almost always an experience of love, gratefulness, and sadness. Soul indeed seems in some way to adhere to sadness. Not that it is sad, but it rides on the back of sadness like a little kid on his Dad’s shoulders….

Wine, I find, can offer soulful moments …but it is also a vector to mystical (or peak) experience.

So we arrive at the ultimate question. For Theise wine has the kind of meaning we reserve for the most profound works of art, speaking to our deepest values and most profound commitments.

There are really three general questions that must be answered:

Why does wine move the mind and the heart? And how does it do so; what are the mechanisms through which wine moves us? Which leads me to a third question: Why do so few people in the wine world acknowledge wine’s power to move us? Are these dimensions discussed in the Master of Wine program or in WSET classes? At UC Davis in the oenology program? The answer to that would be no. Why not?

I have some thoughts on these matters. To be continued.

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