Part 2 of my Wines of Anger and Joy is posted at Three Quarks Daily.
Jay McInerney, author of novels such as Bright Lights, Big City, is also a wine writer, with a current gig at Town and Country Magazine. In an Eater interview, part of which Eater’s editors helpfully paraphrased, McInerney gets to the heart of something I’ve thought about quite a bit.
Being relatable is key to making a wine column interesting, according to McInerney. Wine writing often falls into two traps: describing the technical — focusing on malolactic fermentation and the like — or describing the horticultural. “It was all about wine smelling like certain flowers, and I knew nothing about horticulture,” McInerney says of the wine writing that inspired him to do better. “I thought it was more instructive to compare wine to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ or a Ferrari than to a certain kind of rose or gardenia.”
McInerney’s experience as a novelist also helps in this respect: “One of the best ways to describe the aesthetic experience of wine is with metaphors and similes,” he adds.
I think this is exactly right. Since the 1980’s when the UC Davis oenology department went all in on finding allegedly objective descriptions for wine via Anne Noble’s aroma wheel, wine writing has been preoccupied with accuracy. Wines are to be described using only descriptors that can be plausibly traced back to chemical compounds in the wine that cause us to smell blackberry, vanilla or earth. That’s all well and good—wine does exhibit aromas best described as resembling other edible or aromatic plants.
But we don’t drink wine to smell blackberries just as we don’t view paintings to experience a shade of blue. A wine leaves an overall aesthetic impression, it evokes feelings, moves us, stimulates the imagination, invokes memories, even makes us think. And different wines have different ways of doing so. If wine writing is to reach a higher level it must capture a broader aesthetic experience.
For me, and apparently for McInerney, music helps capture this broader aesthetic experience that wine makes possible.
The problem is that we, not just wine writers but our audience, get set in our ways and resist change. But more importantly, we are afraid that if metaphor, musical or otherwise, becomes a prominent means of communication we will stumble into a sea of subjectivity losing our grip on the goal of accuracy that the technicians have persuaded us to strive for.
We pay lip service to the idea of wine as bottled poetry but can’t escape the idea of wine as bottled chemistry.
Chemistry is important but if it throttles experience what has been gained?
Italian wine blogger Alfonso Cevola writes:
Red wine. White wine. Rosé wine. Orange wine. Sparkling wine. Dessert wine. There comes a point, when looking at all of this from the sky box of the Hindenburg, when one can see that every one of these wines matter. French wine. Italian wine. German wine. California wine. Texas wine. Virginia wine. Even the ones you don’t prefer.
I’m not sure that all wine matters. Some wine is just a commodity, a means to make money. It might as well be soy beans or corn. Yet, although the bulk wine market is huge it is dominated by a few firms. For the vast majority of wineries in the world every vine has to be carefully tended, every fermentation nurtured like a new born child, every barrel probed and contemplated until it yields some semblance of beauty.
Those wines, all of them, matter because they mattered to someone.
We really should not allow journalists to write philosophy. In the Napa Valley Register their wine columnist Allen Balik pontificates on the nature of greatness in wine. After complaining that the word “great” is overused (no doubt) and much rumination on how greatness can’t be measured or quantified (indeed) he spins out this pearl of wisdom:
True greatness cannot be expressed by a high price tag or a critic’s score but rather must be based on our own experience and impression of what is exhibited in our glass. Personal taste ultimately determines our impression of whether a certain wine is “great” regardless of the opinion of others.
So greatness simply means “what I like”. Talk about overusing a word, if “greatness” means “what I like” we could just get rid of the word “great” and replace it with “yum”.
Among the many meanings of “great” suggested by Merriam Webster are “remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness”, “eminent or distinguished”, “principle or main”, “markedly superior in character or quality”, etc.
Nowhere in MW’s careful specification of uses for “great” does “what I like” appear.
I too would not want to define “greatness” in wine in terms of scores arrived at by a consensus of critics, if only because scores might indicate greatness but don’t tell us what it is about the wine that is great. But at least a wine highly rated by most critics has achieved something “remarkable in magnitude”, distinguished and “markedly superior in quality”. Whether I or anyone else happens to like the wine is immaterial. There are many highly scored wines I find disappointing. But that doesn’t diminish their achievement. My subjective impressions are not the measure of all things.
I recently tried to define greatness in wine as a function of depth, mystery, and resonance, properties which I think are discernible in great wines. Whether that account succeeds or not is not for me to judge but surely we can do better than “what I like”.
Why are otherwise intelligent people attracted to subjectivism like moths to a flame?
Despite the historical importance of blending wine, especially in Bordeaux, and the current popularity of red blends on the supermarket shelves, increasingly among the wine cognoscenti, wines from a single vineyard, a single block, a single clone, even a single barrel are popular. Winemakers today are less inclined to show off their blending expertise and would rather showcase the distinctive characteristics of a single source, especially the vineyard, unsullied by outside influence.
Is this a fad or a more or less permanent trend? It’s hard to say. No doubt the wine world is fraught with style changes—witness the reduced use of oak in Chardonnay or lower alcohol levels in Cabernet in recent years. It may be that we will tire of the whole fascination with the vineyard and return to the idea of the winemaker as the mad mixer of many influences creating a whole larger than the sum of its parts.
But, on the other hand, perhaps what we have discovered is that nature, once set in the proper direction, can produce greater differentiation on its own. Perhaps we get more differences by letting the ensemble of environmental effects take their own course rather than trying to direct them through conscious intent. If so, the current fascination with single vineyard wines will only accelerate.
In the end it’s about creating difference and nature may be more creative than we think.
In most areas of life, mystery is a good thing. Literature, film and science depend on mystery for their very existence. It’s what drives an unfolding plot and the dogged search for an explanation. Religion is loved in part because it lends mystery to life. Yet, when it comes to wine, mystery is something everyone thinks we would be better off without.
Perhaps this zeal to eliminate mystery comes from wine’s position as a cultural symbol of sophistication. Perhaps people feel if they lack wine knowledge they appear unsophisticated so to relieve a sense of collective inadequacy we need to make wine into something ordinary and accessible. But, more likely, wine’s complexity seems like something nearly unmasterable and just too much work. So people involved in the selling of wine try to sell it as something as comprehensible as orange juice or soda.
But this attempt to demystify wine betrays the secret of all motivation–the fun is in the mystery, not the mastery. One of the loveliest facts of life is that the more you learn, the more there is to learn. Learning increases a sense of wonder because it expands the facts on which to build horizons. That is surely true of wine knowledge.
Wine is phantasmagorical, constantly mutating, reacting to geographical and environmental conditions, and changing shape depending on who you are, when you drink, where you drink and with whom. And always with the sense that there is something else there to be uncovered. Demystification means knowing exactly what your getting. Wine is fun because it can never be reduced to a set of fixed characteristics that one could simply know.
All those confusing labels, exotic locales, varying vintages, and proliferating varietals are stage setting for the unexpected and the astonishing. To demystify it is a crime.
Esther Mobley’s paean to aged wines is a wonderful evocation of the joys of finding that gem still going strong after 30 years in the bottle. But that is often a solitary love affair as most wine lovers like their wines young and fresh finding the aromas of old books and dank basements to be off putting if not disgusting.
I share Ms. Mobley’s passion, but even she is puzzled by the lure of old wines as she runs through several possible explanations, all found wanting:
Maybe we project the aura of an aged wine’s rarity, and its often-accompanying expense, onto our sensory perception of it. Precious things taste better than ordinary things. The liking-it stakes are higher.
On the other hand, some of the pleasure may be chemical. As it ages, wine can reveal more umami flavor, that nebulously delicious taste sensation.
But she rightfully rejects these explanations because they fail to acknowledge that love of old wines is more an intellectual pleasure:
That doesn’t satisfy me, though. The joy of aged wine can’t be merely chemical, because I know that it rewards knowledge. This joy began to reveal itself to me only once I began to speak wine’s language of aroma, flavor and structure. In a cruel paradox, the more old wine disappoints me — and boy, does it love to disappoint — the more I’m drawn to it.
For me the attraction is in part sensory. There is a remarkably beautiful, fragile delicacy to well-aged wines that can be achieved only through many years in the bottle. Nothing else you can savor has it. But I agree with Mobley that part of the attraction is intellectual.
Aged wines reveal in a particularly evocative way that wine is a living organism in vital communication with its environment, undergoing mysterious transformations that can neither be predicted nor explained. And to sense that flicker of life amidst decay, to find an organism clinging to life suffering the travails of time—that is a classic and very human story. Wine has that uncanny resonance with human endeavor, a capacity for allegorical correlation that in part explains its allure for those of us who feel at home amidst musty books and dank basements