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?
TO BE CONTINUED
TO BE CONTINUED
[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.”