Monday, April 2, 2012

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Spit Bucket

The brain of a wine connoisseur is not particularly complicated. It works the same as any other person’s brain only much slower. What is seen as contemplation, the thoughtful gaze of a wine expert as he sniffs, the eyes gazing into an unknowable distance as he tastes, the slow, measured writing of his tasting notes, is actually a sign that his brain is working more slowly than most. We are on DSL, the wine connoisseur is on Dial-Up. Neuroscience is only now beginning to understand why.

In the Fall of 2009, I received a letter from a renowned wine critic. It was almost unreadable, in the manner of wine blogs.[i] That is, it was dull and plodding, and overflowed with vestigial adjectives that made little sense in the context. For example, what did “hedonistic” have to do with “Merlot?” Or “unctuous” with “Jancis’ piehole?” It was apparent that the author of the letter, I’ll call him “Tim Foyer,”[ii] was desperately in need of help. I agreed to meet with him.

Tim had the haggard and world-weary look I associate with wine experts. Liver disease had given him a lovely yellow glow that kept away moths. When he smiled, his teeth were stained like he’d grown up chewing betel nuts[iii] and just this morning he had decided, like James Brown, that “Papua Got a Brand New Bag” of them. He was distracted, and I alertly noticed that, instead of pulling out his chair when we sat down, he pulled out his penis, twirling it around like a lasso, and then fell squarely on his buttocks. I was to learn later that this was a greeting favored at meetings of Master Sommeliers, though Tim wasn’t an M.S. and it was strictly a symptom of his illness.

I was to continue to meet with Tim to try and diagnose his condition over the next few months. During that time, I learned how his condition had slowly developed over the years; so slowly, in fact, that he didn’t really notice any changes in his behavior himself until the fateful day he mistook his wife for a spit bucket. It was that episode that finally sent him searching for help.

Tim had started his career as a sports writer, but drifted into wine.[iv] Through hard work and passion, he was soon one of wine’s most influential critics. A great review from Foyer was certain to sell hundreds of cases of wine. Wineries both courted him and feared him, but he had the sort of disposition that could handle the notoriety.[v] Yet he was starting to change, he told me, change he only now sees in hindsight.

It began with numbers. Tim often tasted a hundred or more wines in a day. He had trained his palate to work with his brain in an efficient manner, and he could quickly write descriptive, if unnecessarily florid, paragraphs about every wine he tasted. And then one day he couldn’t.

One day he put a particularly expensive bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in his mouth and a number appeared, “96.” He couldn’t taste anything. Not cassis, not olive, not black cherry, not plum… His brain insisted on a number. Tim tried another Napa Cabernet, from a less prestigious winery. Slowly, remember he is a wine connoisseur, the number “93” was the result. He had no idea what the wine tasted like, it could have been Italian wine, or, God Forbid, Lake County wine, for all he knew. All that registered from the interaction of the wine on his tongue was “93.” He wrote it down. He would manufacture a description later.[vi]

For many decades now, wine publications have used numbers to convey the quality of wine. Could this be masking some kind of brain parasite spread at industry events? Perhaps as part of its reproductive cycle, the parasite alters the brain chemistry of the critic, rendering him unable to experience wine as normal people experience it, that is, with pleasure and without passing numerical judgment. Were all wine critics brain injured? Many wine lovers would say yes, and most winemakers as well.[vii]

I decided to first investigate whether Tim “tasted” numbers on other occasions. I asked him to lunch. I had him order a bottle of wine, which took him a very long time considering the fact that we were in a Vietnamese restaurant where the wine list was 90% Gruner Veltliner, which left only 10% wines made from actual wine grapes. When the wine arrived, I had Tim taste it. I asked him to describe the wine to me, its smell, its flavor, its texture. All he could say was, “88.” So the jerk ordered an 88 point wine that set me back $75. At that point I was sure his condition required Electro-shock Therapy, applied to his favorite lasso.

When our food arrived, I asked Tim to describe the flavors. He was quite articulate, describing his Clay Pot Catfish as tasting of “lemon grass, Thai chili, and a fellow bottom feeder.” He could describe the flavors of each dish, and he also commented on how my cologne smelled like “RuPaul’s gaff.” Yet the wine was a simple “88.”

It was obvious that something was going wrong in Tim’s brain. And that he didn’t know that much about wine. 88?


[i] I wrote about wine bloggers previously in “The People Who Mistake Typing with Writing—Brain Damage or Cry for Help?”
[ii] Wordplay is an important tell when diagnosing raving idiots. What’s a synonym for “foyer?”  Yes, you’re on the right track, but the critic is not Jim Vestibule.
[iii] Not to be confused with Yoko Ono, who grew up chewing, well, you get the idea…
[iv] There are many drifters in the wine business. Most reputable wine writers acknowledge this and often put the wines they review in brown paper bags, the drifter’s trademark.
[v] Like many actors, sports figures and elected officials, other occupations loaded with people on Dial-Up.
[vi] It turns out to be common practice among wine critics to simply make a list of numbers for wines and then write some kind of imaginary description later. No one reads the descriptions anyway, sort of like footnotes, so this isn’t seen as disingenuous.
[vii] Though winemakers themselves often suffer from a different kind of parasite, which the French call “sommeliers.”


Dave Larsen said...

Ron, This story is your funniest yet. I laughed all the way through. The clinical tone and use of footnotes are a nice touch. Thanks for getting my week off on the right foot. I'm going to pass it along to my 3 Twitter followers.

Ron Washam, HMW said...


I was thumbing through Oliver Sacks' works the other day, and the title of this post jumped into my twisted mind, so I sat down and decided to write, in his sort of clinical voice, a piece to go with the title. It just sort of went the way it wanted to. The hard part was figuring out how to do footnotes in the blogger format. Footnotes be comedy!

Thanks for the Tweet. Perhaps now I'll have 11 readers of my piece rather than my usual 8.

BTW, I drank one of your '09 Ciel du Cheval reds the other night. Fabulous! Very seductive and powerful. A bit tight, I'm sure, and I should have waited a few more months, but so it goes. It was delicious. Your funniest red wine yet!

Dave Larsen said...

Funny wine? A dubious distinction, but maybe we've created a new wine niche.

Samantha Dugan said...

I've met plenty of those brain parasites and always at an industry event. I suspect they are brought in on the shoes of some other parasite, like the ones that get into those events with BS affiliations and credentials. Easy enough to spot most of them, they are often in stilt like shoes, smell of Hawaiian Tropic or Vanilla Ginger Cookie and they use words like "bitey" and "sour".

Marcia Macomber said...

#6 checking in, sir!

Blog post: 92! That's all that comes to mind. No words, no comments on specific passages, clauses or those cute footnotes. Just the number. Nice.

Marcia Macomber said...

Isn't that also a title to a long-lost Alfred Hitchcock movie? :-)

Thomas said...

OMG! My skin has turned yellow.

Mockingbird said...

[iii] - ah, Betel and Beatles' nuts.... cute

Ron Washam, HMW said...


Why can't a great wine be funny? It makes one smile, so it's at least amusing. Your wine definitely made me smile. On the flip side, I try to make people drunk with laughter. So I can take advantage of them.

My Gorgeous Samantha,

"Bitey" is one of those words that always drove me nuts too. I think most of the pretenders these days at big wine tastings sport wine blog business cards. And the people who throw those big events always, always promise wineries that participate a large turnout. So it is in their best interest to just allow anyone in who even knows how to work a corkscrew. That has never changed.

The brain parasite is strictly a theory, but I believe it has merit. And they all come from stinking cats.

Marcia Darling,

Where the hell have you been? No matter, just welcome back.

92? Man, you are a tough critic. That's barely worth considering. I'm betting you gave 19 other blogs 100 point scores.

Hitchcock made a long lost film about tasting through three vintages of Bordeaux. It was called "Vertigo Tasting."



Could be scurvy. If the word "Sunkist" appears on your chest, get medical attention.


T'ain't nuttin'

Mockingbird said...

Ahh.... the mysterious taint. It's where the scrotum ends and the anus ain't....

David Vergari said...

I've discovered a sure-fire way to get rid of Brain-Parasites. It's easy, 'cause they're a buncha clones...simply ask 'em to show their belly-buttons and they run for the exits. Why? Clones don't have belly-buttons, that's why.

[written en route to rehab]

PaulG said...

Shouldn't Tim's last name be Pescato? Or it should be Jim Foyer. And where is the wife in all this? Now it's becoming quite clear why you failed to make yesterday's list of the TOP 9 BLOGGERS IN THE UNIVERSE.

Puff Daddy said...

I have to take exception to the 90% Gruner comment. The restaurnt in question has 10Cremants on the list, although only god and Andy Blue know why.

And on a semi-serious note, Slanted Door and its offshoots in the City do have some pretty good Riesling, thank heavens.

As for the score for this entry, two stars, but with the possibility of improving with age. The finish is a little bit bitey at present.

Ron Washam, HMW said...


I have a more elegant solution to brain parasites. Any that want to live in mine will surely starve.


Yes, yet another jackass with self-esteem issues publishing a list of Important Wine Bloggers. Do I hear the relentless yapping of an attention-seeking Poodle? Though I may have to do the HoseMaster's List of Influential Bloggers very soon. Volunteers?

Puff Daddy,

God and Andy Blue are two different beings? Not in his world.

As for the finish, it arrives Thursday, and it is extree bitier.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of bitier, I bet TW wasn't expecting that today's puff piece on Deborah Harkness would take a hard left turn into a vampire-penis discussion, courtesy of the lovely Sam.

I had to check myself - I thought I was reading the comments section at the HoseMaster.

But enough about some other site's posts. As for the obligatory scoring, I give this post a 914,839+. I'll make up some notes later.


Ron Washam, HMW said...


I can't say I have ever read Deborah Harkness' blog. But as a former recipient, albeit four years ago, of Mr. Wark's PR talents, I'm sure she is getting a lot of bites today, most aimed at her neck.

Thanks for using the Million Point Scale. I haven't brought it back for quite a while now. It's about due.

Dean Tudor said...

Ron, for the past several years, all I have been thinking about are numbers, like 38-18-34, stuff like that.

My readers (and they are legion) have been after me to "cut to the chase". They don't give a rat's ass about words: "just give me a number so that I can enter it into my database" or whatever.

Up here in Canada, where everything is bought and re-sold by a government monopoly, it is a crapshoot. Stock exists for about a week. Life is too short. "Give me a number, I'll start at the top."

Product will never come this way again once it is sold out. A top selling chardonnay in Ontario was sold recently for $14.95 a bottle -- the government brought in 798 cases for 7 million people. Everybody i knew just wanted a number, a ticket for a lineup or dry cleaning.

Your blog is (averaged) about a 94. You hit 98 with this entry.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Dean,

Yeah, I think of those same numbers, 38-24-36, but then I remember that other damn number 4 1/2. Measuring from the 'tain't.

98! Wow, I'm impressed with myself. But, if I'm not mistaken, that's in Canadian numbers, which translate to 78 in USA numbers. About right for my crap.

Thomas said...

No, no, Canadian numbers are a simple inversion: 98 = 89.

$14.95 = $59.41
(was that a Kistler Chardonnay, Dean? You got a deal, even if the inversion is a backward inversion.)

Samantha Dugan said...


Best part of that whole exchange with Tom was his telling me that reading the book might clear up any misconceptions I had about a working vampire penis....okay dude, all over that.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I must have a Canadian vampire penis. It likes the reverse of sucking.

Dean Tudor said...

It's better to give than to receive.