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.