Wednesday, November 28, 2018

What Makes A Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime Via the Ridiculous

With apologies to Mr. Theise. I just couldn't help myself...

I shop at a small farmers’ market in my town. Small because all the farmers are dwarves, many of them elderly, which is no surprise, really, because, as the great philosopher B.F. Skinner said, “Old hobbits die hard.” When I eat a peach from the small farmers’ market, I don’t just think, hey, this peach tastes sweet and sun-drenched, I think, hey, this peach was grown and harvested by Frodo. It’s not just a peach then. It’s something more. Have you met any hobbits? They have stubby, hirsute little hands, and are poorly groomed. I have to overcome a bit of revulsion to even eat the peach. Peaches look like fuzzy testicles anyway.

I come to wine in the same way. When I taste a wine, I want the wine to remind me of the person who made it, and I want to be reminded of all the ways I’m superior to that winemaker. I want to feel a twinge of disgust. I need to feel that I’m smarter, more literate, and capable of comprehending qualities of the wine that he cannot. He’s only a winemaker, after all, not a frustrated prose monkey. Those are the wines that are worth drinking. Wines that give us a sense of our own brilliance. Wines that challenge us but never come out on top. Wines that are like “Teen Week” on “Jeopardy.”

Where do we find wines that speak to us in this way? In the course of reading my book, you’ll discover that the wines that talk to me are remarkably similar to the powerful wine critics that talk to me. They’re all old and white. Though that’s where the similarity ends because the wines I like are honest and authentic. Have you ever wondered what it might be like if wines scored humans? Wines speak to us after all, although many have impenetrable accents, or a lisp (I think of Mencia, which I can barely understand). What if one day the honest, authentic wines that are the great wines of the world decided to score wine critics? I don’t care what numbers these wines might assign. Let’s not get crazy and stop making any sense. What I’m getting at is, would wines be more sympathetic to us than we are to them? Would wines overlook our myriad faults? Would wines judge us by our color, or our aroma? Would the wines be able to determine our quality with but a few moments spent in our company? Would I spend a lifetime having a score the same as James Suckling’s? I’ve known despair, but that result might do me in. Yet, where wines would be compassionate, we think little about rating a truly transcendent Nigl Grüner Veltliner the same as a manufactured manipulated Lodi Zinfandel. And in so doing, we lose our soul.

There’s a Zen koan that reads, “Whoever discovered pants, it wasn’t a snake.” In other words, hold my hand. In other words, baby, kiss me.

If we agree that a wine can have a soul, do we then agree that all wines have a soul? We’re taught that all men have souls, except for Dick Cheney and Joe Wagner. But does that necessarily translate to wine? I would argue that it does not. And, anyway, what do we mean when we say a wine has a soul? Beats me. I’m no snake in pants. I’m just happy to see you.

Let me tell you a story. When my wife and I were first dating we lived in different states. I was in New Jersey and she was in denial. She also wasn’t my wife yet, which seems contradictory until you realize I’m talking about the past, and, so you know, I’m always talking about the past. When we managed to be together, we always drank Champagne. Not just any Champagne, but the kind with little, tiny bubbles. We often didn’t finish the bottle because my wife doesn’t really like Champagne, but, then, as now, I was pretty much into my own head and didn’t really notice. In the days that followed our farewells, I would drink the rest of the Champagne. I’d long for my wife, who wasn’t my wife, who wasn’t even there, and who wasn’t really bubbly, and, in those moments, the emptiness of the tiny bubbles reminded me of the emptiness of existence. The Champagne, in other words, had soul. For what is a soul but a reminder that our time here is finite, that soon our bubbles will burst? Our mousse is cooked. Or, as the great and powerful Oprah might say, “Our veuves are clicquoted.”

Soul is elusive, like the point of all this. I’m one of those people who tends to like natural wines. I like that I can picture an organically cultivated vineyard where the grapes originate. I like that the wines have been made with a light touch, like making a soufflé instead of a fruitcake. Truly, no one wants a fruitcake made by a fruitcake. But, as much as I might find a natural wine delicious, even honest, that isn’t really soul. Soul is slippery. If you drop it, just pray you’re not in prison. We mistake a lot of things for soul, like Drake. But it’s when you find the soul in wine that you know wine is finally becoming part of you, that’s it’s not just an identity you’ve put on like an old, oxidized tastevin to impress the kind of people you wish were dead, mostly.

We don’t just drink wine, we engage wine in a conversation. Turns out, a lot of wines are stupid. In fact, it seems to me, most wines are dumb as Brix. Most wines aren’t worth talking to, like Master Sommeliers. They don’t make any sense. Port is one of those wines that I can’t talk to, that never makes any sense to me. It’s as if it’s speaking in tongs. But the soulful wines we learn to talk to over the course of our wine-loving lives. Who are you? What have you come here to tell me? Don’t blame the dog, I know that was you. A wine with soul engages you, it has something to say to you; it asks you out on a date then sticks you with the check. It tries to seduce you, whispers sweet nothings in your ear until suddenly you realize it’s left a stain on your pants. It flatters you, tells you that you’re the most wine-knowledgeable person it has ever met. When I converse with wine, I hear that a lot.

What makes a wine worth drinking? Something of a stupid question, isn’t it? Drinking wine is about pleasure. If a wine gives you pleasure, then it’s worth drinking, right? No. Don’t be a dunce. If you think that’s really the answer, why did you buy my book? There are no simple answers when it comes to wine. Something of the opposite is what’s actually true. What makes a wine worth drinking is the denial of pleasure, what philosophers call anhedonia, and Louis Jordan called, “Caldonia.” What makes a wine worth drinking isn’t pleasure, it’s how much time you spend overthinking it, how much time you spend wondering if the wine is honest and authentic, how you deal with the question of whether you know enough about wine to even begin to have a conversation with a great bottle of wine or if the wine is just plain smarter than you. The point of my book is that what makes a wine worth drinking isn’t pleasure. What makes a wine worth drinking is how it shows you your own shortcomings and personal failures. After all, that’s what drives us to drink.


Dean Tudor said...


PS: Ten minutes ago I just finished reviewing (annotating) the book for a holiday gift book column..maybe I should also attach your work as an excerpt?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thank you! That's high praise coming from the likes of you. I admire Theise's talent, and have been wanting to write a parody of him for years, and his latest book, which I quite like, finally pushed me to sit down and have fun with him. I do love parody because when I write it, I have to pay attention to what the writer I'm lampooning is actually doing and saying. Theise made me laugh the entire book, but never at his punchlines.

Of course, I'd be honored to have you link to my parody in your holiday gift book column. That should sell some books!

Jim Caudill said...

Old Hobbits Die Hard...brilliant. This is one of your best efforts.

Tom In Real Life said...

Port... tongs. Proving once again that, when making a metaphor, you are undeterred by distance. Another gem Ron.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Big Jim,
Parody is about mocking, but it also has to have punchlines or it's just mimicry and doesn't work. I tried to channel Theise and then let the jokes show up. My twisted mind finds them endlessly. As I've often said, you should see what I left out.

Thanks for the kind words, Jim. It was fun to see you in SF, no matter how briefly. Have a great Christmas season!

Yeah, that's such a stupid joke, I love it. Thanks for being a reliable common tater! Enjoy your holidays.

Robin Eitland said...

Brilliant indeed.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Very kind. Thanks for stopping by and dropping a comment. I'll have it here waiting when you want to take it back...

Happy Holidays!

Unknown said...

Jeesssusss.. if that book is as bad as that... that kind of gibberish would give Hunter Thompson and Robin Williams a run for their hackdom..

Unknown said...

Wow, I haven't even read Terry's book and I'm still convulsed in laughter. Ron, you've outdone yourself and perhaps even Terry! What a Holiday delight! (George R)

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Theise is a very talented writer. He is the rare wine writer who is a writer first and a wine expert second. I read the book and enjoyed it, but he has a hilarious tendency to get completely lost in the spiritual aspect of wine. Honestly, I can't think of another writer who could even get away with all the hooey and make it so entertaining.

Parody only works if the person you're spoofing has a distinctive voice. This was a hard piece to write, really. It's nonsense mixed with whimsy mixed with criticism and satire done in someone else's voice (though I wouldn't say I nailed his voice). But it's the hard pieces that give me the most satisfaction.

Thanks for being such a loyal common tater, David. Have a great Christmas!

It's a book worth reading. I just hope when you finally do read it, you can't keep the HoseMaster's voice out of your head.

Have a great holiday season, George!

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
When I, finally, grow up, I want to be like Mr. Theise...or You!
Sending a million tiny kisses

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,
Oh, don't grow up, Love. Hardly worth it. Stay the Peter Pan that you are. Or, since you're in the wine biz, maybe Pieropan makes more sense. You're so soave.

Always nicer around here when you show up!

I love you!

PaulG said...

I’m about halfway thru the book and can’t decide if it’s brilliant or b.s. – or maybe brilliant b.s. But you nailed it my friend! A whine with soul. Cheers!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Wow, a common tater from the prehistoric HoseMaster days! Great to see you here!

I finished the book and still have no idea what it was about. Wine. Ghosts. Soul. Honest. Authentic. "Cork Dork" for aesthetes. It seems to be cobbled together from a bunch of different articles Theise had written for publications like World of Fine Wine, a veritable Roget's Thesaurus of wine blather, and others. So it's wine book cioppino.

However, Theise can write circles around the vast majority of wine writers these days. Very few, and I mean five or six at most, have any writing chops at all. So reading Theise is a joy for a guy like me. He walks up to the line of unbearably pretentious, then walks it back. That's hard to do.

The title kills me. Notice it doesn't have a question mark. So it's not "What Makes A Wine Worth Drinking?" No, it's an instruction manual. This is what makes a wine worth drinking. It's like Asimov's "How to Love Wine." Frankly, if you don't know how to love wine, or what makes a wine worth drinking, you're something of an imbecile, and probably an MS. (Ah, the gratuitous cheap shot--'tis the season!)

Have a great holiday, Paul! Hope our paths cross again soon.

kleigh said...

Seriously, next time I see you I am going to kiss you on the face, so get ready for it. Laughter is everything to me and this installment had me belly-aching. Thanks, man.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Making people laugh is what I intend, and kisses are usually welcome as a reward. "Next time" you see me? If you've seen me before, must have been from behind.

Happy Holidays!

Mike Dunne said...

With the rest of us, Theise will love it. Aside from that, are you aware that your straight-forward responses to comments from common-taters are wonderfully enlightening and instructive?

Ron Washam said...

I received a very funny and kind note from Terry Theise this morning. He seems grateful to have been "hosed" (as the kids say). He's a funny guy, so I'm not surprised that he appreciated my foolishness.

I try to be myself in my comments, not the HoseMaster. Also, I respond in a way that will remind me of what I was thinking when I wrote a piece so that if I look at it five years from now, I'll remember my motivation for the piece. As for instructive, I think writing satire is strange, and that maybe folks who like what I do will find my mental processes interesting. And if they don't. so what? It's my damn blog.

Merry Christmas to you and your lovely bride!

Tom Heller said...

All Somms should be required to read Confessions of Felix Krull Confidence Man, by Thomas Mann. It explains all

Stephen Skelton MW said...

When I read your writing I want to break free from my writing style (already fairly anarchic) and take off all my clothes and just do the Hosemaster stream of consciousness stuff. Dare I?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I'd be happy if they were simply required to read.

Happy Damn Holidays!

Dare you take off your clothes, or dare you write stream of consciousness? I don't write in the nude myself, though if I did, I'd write in shorthand.

Always nice to see a distinguished MW type around here, Stephen. Slumming, I presume. But thank you for being a common tater! And, yes, you should definitely shake off the shackles and write whatever your anarchic mind instructs you to write. The wine business needs more anarchy and fewer rules. I don't think of my style as stream of consciousness, though. I'd call it more like a steaming pile of consciousness.

Happy Holidays!

Winodennis said...

It helps to have drunk too much wine in order to read the book or the parody -- or maybe that's the point. On the other hand, how could one drink too much wine? Maybe that's the point...

Ron Washam, HMW said...


I know it helps to drink too much wine to write this crapola. That's all I know.

Merry Christmas!

Marcia Macomber said...

I've had this tab open in my browser for at least a week (so weak, I know)! It's fabulous. (So glad I finally got to read it.) Love the zingers, as always.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Marcia Love,
Thank you. I had a tab open in my browser once, but it was under my trenchcoat in the park.

Always a joy to hear from you, Love. Have the happiest of holiday seasons!