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 recently at dinner with friends. After pairing the appetizers with a refreshing bottle of Gruner Veltliner, we poured an expressive, balanced 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 $6 supermarket special. When I was asked to comment on 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 civilization 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 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.
This piece raises some interesting questions and sheds light on a tricky dilemma: How do we embrace our desire for good wine and all its life-affirming benefits–aesthetic pleasure, intoxication and the mental state of “in vino veritas”— without reaching the “point of no return” (sloppy drinking, a deadened palate and a toxin-laden body)?
At the risk of seeming glib, it depends on who you ask. Friedrich Nietzsche will respond differently than Betty Ford. A wine-drinking urban professional from San Francisco will certainly a have different opinion than one from Salt Lake City. The French and Italians, who have cultures where wine is connected to food, will approach the dilemma differently than someone from the UK, where it is not uncommon to drink oneself insensible. According to recent global statistics, even men and women seem to differ in terms of wine consumption and behavior.
Is there any conventional wisdom or objective truth that can help us resolve this “paradox”, as you call it? Personally, I am not aware of any obvious solutions. As you well know, Greek civilization during Plato and Aristotle advocated “moderation”. Intoxication was celebrated, drunkenness was shunned. But this is a mere historical reality, not a solution. In fact, the Romans seemed to have abandoned the virtue of temperance when it came to drinking wine. At some point, excessive drinking became the norm in Roman society and both soldiers and citizens were drinking over a liter a day. But, of course, these Romans were not concerned about subtle aromas and flavors or preserving Socratic virtues. They were either on the lash or paying tribute to Bacchus.
Perhaps the best person to consult about this whole matter is Thomas Jefferson. Here was a Renaissance man of the highest order with extraordinary achievements in every imaginable realm–politics, law, diplomacy, architecture, music, architecture, and philosophy–who famously spent more than 10 percent of his income on wine and lived to the age of 83. Clearly, America’s most distinguished oenophile knew a thing or two about “disciplining the alcoholic haze” and a virtuous life. But what was Jefferson’s secret? Maybe the producers of Chateau Haut-Brion have a clue.