Thursday, September 3, 2015

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

Oliver Sacks died last 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."

Imagine wine critic Tim Foyer’s predicament. He now tastes wine as numbers. Once upon a time he drank wine for the pleasure it gave him, as it gives most humans pleasure.[i] After that, Tim became a critic for a major wine publication where his reviews had the capacity to make or break a winery. His palate was viewed by many consumers as skilled at detecting nuance and quality in wine.[ii] Now a neurological imbalance had Tim’s brain generating only numbers when he tasted wine. He wasn’t enjoying the wines at all. Which might be fine when you consider that a wine critic’s job is to ensure that others get less enjoyment out of wine.[iii] However, Tim’s job was at risk should consumers discover his puzzling brain malfunctions.

His newly developed disability had affected Tim in other ways as well. He seemed depressed, and not just from ingesting all of that alcohol.[iv] Tim’s self-perception revolved around his wine tasting abilities and the power he had in the wine business. He felt that slipping away, though, from what I could gather, it had been slipping away long before his recent taste problems had arisen. A new generation of wine consumers, from the so-called Millennial Generation, were getting their wine advice from other sources and ignoring the “wisdom” of the establishment wine critics. Foyer’s scores were having less and less effect. And his wasn’t the only opinion that had lost influence. Impotence was rampant among wine critics, which may have been age-related but was most likely caused by infrequent use.[v]

Tim worked for several years at his wine critic position while suffering from his very unusual affliction. He was experienced enough though, and well-versed enough in his chosen wine regions, that he could taste a wine, write down the number that instantly appeared in his mind, and then fabricate a tasting note. No one questioned his authority, or even bothered to read his tasting notes. In fact, it might take but thirty minutes of reading wine tasting notes for the average person to suffer some sort of brain damage.[vi] But Tim’s condition started to worsen.

Tim’s brain began to muddle everything to do with wine. At an important blind tasting of Sonoma County Pinot Noir, Tim tried to remove the corks with his publisher’s suspenders. An embarrassing moment ensued when Tim said to his boss, whose pants[vii] had puddled on the floor, “I can’t kiss it now, I’m trying to open these damned wines.” No matter how many times he was shown, he couldn’t recognize a corkscrew. He was certain it was Eric Asimov. An understandable mistake, but it won’t help you get the corks out of the bottles.

Mishaps with wine happened on a daily basis, but only with wine and wine paraphernalia. It was as though everything to do with wine for this major wine critic was a hopeless confusion. Yet, remarkably, he continued to rate wines with such conviction that no one suspected his brain disease. Consumers continued purchasing expensive wines unaware that they were following the advice of someone brain-damaged. Perhaps this is not so astonishing, as that has almost always been the case in the wine business.

The deal breaker came when Tim visited a winery with his lovely wife. He knew that he wouldn’t have to open any wine bottles himself, though he’d invited Eric Asimov along just in case, and that he wouldn’t have to do much more than taste a few wines, nod his head knowingly, pretend to write tasting notes in his journal, and spit. He usually spat anyway, and always pretended to write down tasting notes—he’d done that for twenty years. His host served him a glass of his finest Cabernet, hoping to impress the important wine critic. Tim savored the wine, swishing it about in his mouth, he thought only the number 91, and then he quickly and efficiently spit the wine all over his wife. He was certain she was a spit bucket, though she bears only a passing resemblance to one.

His wife, an innocent victim of his delusions, was astonished, but not more so than the winery owner when Tim said, “Hey, I’ve got Eric Asimov in my pants if you want to talk to him.”

Though I worked with Tim for many months, and ran many brain scans,[viii] I have never been able to pinpoint the cause of Tim’s problem. Perhaps it’s psychological, his desire to finally leave wine criticism before he becomes entirely irrelevant. Or maybe my hunch about a parasite is correct and his brain has been hijacked by a one-celled animal, similar to what happens to women who are groupies for serial killers. At this point, we don’t know. There are mysteries to the human mind that may never be solved.

Wine critics may just be one of them.

[i] It was Ben Franklin who said, “Wine is proof that God loves us, and really hates Mormons.” Which is miraculously prescient considering there were no Mormons at the time.
[ii] An opinion not shared by winemakers, unless they received a score of 95 or higher.
[iii] Numerical scores are seen by the critics who use them as “necessary and consumer friendly,” yet their sole purpose is to sell subscriptions and dictate consumer tastes. Which everyone managed to do for hundreds of years before numerical ratings.
[iv] Alcohol is a serious depressant, equivalent to thinking about Rick Santorum as President.
[v] See my article, “Soft or Firm? A Wine Writer’s Answer is ‘Yes’”
[vi] In a famous case, a man read an entire issue of  “Wine Advocate” in one sitting and subsequently believed he was a spice rack with balls. While ostensibly sad, he did spruce up the kitchen.
[vii] Originally made for Ringling Brothers
[viii] They all revealed Nothing.


Eric V. Orange said...

Drive by.


Don Clemens said...

Glad you revisited this post, Ron. As I have only discovered you a couple of years ago, I missed this one. I love the twisted paths you take!

Charlie Olken said...

This is brilliant writing. As you yourself has said upon occasion, sometimes the best pieces get the fewest comments.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

At some point in the past year or so I turned the corner on caring about how many comments a piece receives. It used to bother me if I didn't get at least 15. Now I'm content with whatever happens. The Riedel thing, of course, broke all my records, so it's nice to know people are still out there reading. But I didn't expect a lot of response to a rerun of an Oliver Sacks parody, and few responses is like getting an extra day off.

This is the very rare piece I've written that I kind of like. It's silly, it's filled with stupid jokes, but it has a point to make, and I think I got the tone of Sacks' voice about right. Every once in a while, I please myself.

OK, don't take that the wrong way...