Monday, August 31, 2015

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Spitbucket--Part One

Oliver Sacks died over the weekend, and I suddenly remembered that a few years ago I wrote a parody of his fascinating works describing the remarkable landscapes of the human brain. I've read nearly all of Sacks' books, and they are travel books of the most human kind, travels through our strange minds. I felt a pang of great sadness upon reading of his death. And when I reread this piece, originally published in April 2012, I found that I actually liked it. Which shows you how perverse and unpredictable human consciousness can be. So, from 2012, my insignificant tribute to Dr. Sacks, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Spitbucket."

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.”


Charlie Olken said...

Yes, a very good one. I don't remember it--probably a winewriter thing, but its full of intelligent smartassery, and the footnotes are great.

It is interesting to me that we now spend more time making fun of Mr. Parker than we do of the Wine Spectator,which itself was the wineworld's favorite punching bag for many years.

William Stephenson said...

The Yoko Ono reference? subtle but accurate for fans of a certain age. That made my morning

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Parker is an easier target because he's an individual. And he's a far more interesting individual than Laube or Shanken or any of the other WS critics. And Wine Spectator has become so incredibly dull that it's hard to use it as a punching bag. It's like slapping around a guy who's comatose. They're less controversial than oatmeal. Kramer reads like the dullest college lecturer who ever lived. So Parker is just simply more fun. It's the current Donald Trump syndrome as well. Not to equate Parker with Trump, but a colorful buffoon is far more interesting than almost anything else. WS has too many colorless buffoons.

Thanks. I reread this piece yesterday and actually laughed twice. I had almost no memory of writing it, or of what it was about. But I sort of like it (high praise from me to myself). Part Two on Thursday.

Martin said...

Read this and then googled and read part two. Maybe I should just put this on a loop, if there's a way of automating comments I would and just say that you are a fecking (which you can say on radio in Ireland) legend, relentlessly funny and nailing or slam dunking it every time and you paid a lovey tribute to Sacks, one of the greatest minds of the last century.

If you slam dunk so often there really should be a pair of sneakers (or trainers as we'd call them in Ireland) with your name. 'Nike Hosemaster' has a ring to it. The perfect shoes for an would be wine writers/bloggers to wear at a wine tasting, allowing one, to paraphrase Yeats, to tread softly on grapes as well as dreams. If you're belittling bloggers, you may as well make some money out of them.
Martin Moran MW

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Not sure how much of a fecking legend I am, but thank you. By the way, can you say cocksecker on the radio in Ireland? Just askin'.

As for Nike HoseMasters, well, I guess that would be cool, though the tongues would have to be forked. Or, as you say in Ireland, fecked.

Bob Henry said...


Charlie Rose on PBS interviewed Dr. Sacks often.

I won't be surprised if tonight's show is a tribute comprising video clips from past interviews.


Nick Harman said...

Colourful buffoons, yes entertaining is seen as being more important than informing. You won't get that well paid gig by being merely knowledgeable. TV demands you be a 'character' which is why a camp ex actor for a while was the UK's favourite wine critic. Print on the other demands you never let the Thesaurus out of your sight.

I don't know how much influence wine writers really have on mass sales, looking about me in Tesco's I suspect most of my fellow wine buyers are choosing on colour, % and price.

Well, I am anyway.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Of course, I view myself as something of a colorless buffoon as well, but I'm not an actual wine critic.

And clearly it's Tesco's wine buyers who have most of the influence--more than any wine critics. But that's on the lower end of the scale, where 90% of the wine sold is located (I made that 90% up, could you tell?). When wine begins to be more expensive, then wine critics have a larger role--Parker has always led that pack, at least in the US. When a bottle of wine costs more, buyers tend to want reassurance. It doesn't just need to taste good, it needs to appear to be worth the extra money. Then "94 points" is validation. At the lower end, "$8.99" is validation.

Nick Harman said...

Yes price is a validator. When one opens a bottle of expensive wine, even if it tastes terrible one is inclined to look the other way and pretend it doesn't.

Lobster costs a lot, but personally I cant be bothered with it, I dont think it delivers anything special

Charlie Olken said...

Now, Nick, there is really only one true lobster, and that comes from Maine, a place north of Boston, and I don't mean that other Boston in East Anglia. A fresh from the ocean Maine lobster, boiled and served with drawn butter is an ethereal dish.

I have noticed a group of restaurants in London called Burger and Lobster. I realize that they don't know anything about burgers, but do they understand lobster?

Martin said...

Ron, you can't say cocksecker on radio in Ireland. Maybe cecksucker but you'd probably draw a blank, as no has ever said it. Forked tongues could be good on Nike Hosemaster. There's probably a spurious athletic advantage to do with aerodynamics the marketing department could come up with.

Nick, who is the camp ex actor? Oz Clarke was an actor but never thought of him as camp. Also having tasted alongside him dozens of times I'd say he's one of the best tasters I've ever met, which I think partly comes down to his memory, which may be to do with acting and learning lines.
Martin Moran

Nick Harman said...

Charlie, I dont disagree that Maine lobster is good, but it also a fair price for what it is, unlike lobster here in the UK which is all too often tasteless cotton wool. I prefer king crab

Burger and Lobster has been massively successful, driven by adoring food bloggers, personally I will never eat in there

Yes Oz, I found him camp although he's not showy camp.He is a bit of a conceited ass though and I am glad he is no longer on telly, of course that doesn't mean I am glad to see Jolly Olly.

I dont go to wine tastings anymore, I am not a wine writer and I find at these things a curious and unpleasant smell exists, mostly I suspect emanating from the wine writers. I find it far from enjoyable despite what people who have never been to one like to fondly think and no matter how much spitting goes on, after a few hours nearly all the people are noticeably drunk, loud and becoming argumentative and that's usually my job.


susan wu said...

Ron, I did not read this piece before but think the beautiful mind of Dr. Sakes' is quite an antithesis of the one/s of a winery. I was at the winery's big event where hundreds of attendees were entertained by live music, sumptuous small bites and unlimited quaffing. I decided to be a smart-ass by bypassing all other wines offered on the list but going straight to the last two. They are the 11' and 12' of the winery's top of the line. I tasted its older vintages before and knew their retail price. When I had a sip of the 11's, I poured it out into the spitbucket; when I sipped the 12's, I repeated the move. At that point, those two wines resting in decanters got my mind racing. The first thought I had was: They are not from recent vintages. My second thought was: They're both bad and dead while the first one is more dead. Third and more striking was: How they dare to serve bad wines to members/friends at such big event. Fourth and most analytical: Look, people are eating and drinking and having fun. They're hammered and who is paying this much attention to wines like I'm.

I had to find a nice way to tell my friends not to drink those two wines. Unfortunately, one of them obviously questioned about my remarks because she came back to me later and told me the wine guy had said "the wine is still sleeping in the bottle" in response to her question of "why is the wine nothing but one-note?". It was more entertaining for me to see how my friend believed the guy's BS.

My personal observation is that being a wine critic, one needs his sensory brain wired sensitively and to be in the upper echelon of acuity scale with the senses of smell and taste. I see it as something born-gifted-that-way and believe Parker is one of them. But how Parker decided to capitalize his gift is another story. Some critics are not gifted but struggle hard to cover themselves up. When they pretend to be who they're not, they inevitably become HoseMaster's lead roles. Cheers, Ron and thanks for honoring Dr. Sakes, a truly remarkable human being.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Susan Darling,
I disagree, Love. I do not think that there are people who born gifted at wine tasting. I've often said that there are no great palates, there are only very experienced palates. It's the gift of paying attention, and caring what you put in your mouth, that makes one a great taster. From there to great critic is still a long way off, and requires great dedication and perspective. Which is why there are so few great wine critics. In fact, the wine people I admire most, whose palates I find brilliant, are not wine critics at all, but valued friends and colleagues who have had a long relationship with great wine. There are also people I know who are unfailingly wrong about wine--they are also useful. A compass needs many points.

I am fond of this piece. I like its tone, and I think it works. Loving wine is something of a brain disease, an inexplicable aberration. Who better than Sacks to explore it? He was a wonderful writer, and changed the way we see our brains. And along the way taught us more compassion for those who are different than we.

Bob Henry said...


You may not be able to say "cocksecker" on the telly or radio in the U.K.

But you can say corksoaker on the telly in the U.S.

To wit:

~~ Bob

Bob Henry said...

Dr. Sacks asked Tim if he "tasted" numbers.

Some folks can "taste" words.

Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Health & Wellness” Section
(February 20, 2012, Page E1ff):

“Blended Senses Stir Up Science;
The search for what triggers synethetes' mixed sensations
may give clues to more harmful disorders."


By Lily Dayton
Times Staff Writer

This is the world of synesthesia, a perceptual phenomenon in which one sense kindles sensation in another. The condition, which is harmless, is caused by increased connectivity between areas of the brain that are normally separated. As a result, when Anders sees a five, the region of her brain that perceives colors is stimulated along with the region that processes numbers.

Other synesthetes see colors when they hear music, taste words before they say them or feel textures on their fingertips when they discern the flavors of particular foods. Virtually any combination between the senses is possible in the 1% to 4% of people who have inherited the condition.

Nick Harman said...

I still wonder if we would have any interest in wine if it didn't get you drunk? Imagine if all the wines in the world tasted just as they do now, and still had vintages etc and price differences accordingly, but somehow the alcohol had been removed.

I think I'd just drink water